Everybody's acting like I'm fucking crazy or something.

!!! have been around for quite a while now, and though I cared enough when they started to pick up their first EP ("The Dis-ease"/"Funky Branca", on Hopscotch Records), I didn't really follow much of their subsequent career. The first single sounded a lot like what it actually was--the remnants of two bratty teenage hardcore groups from Sacramento (The Yah Mos and The Pope Smashers) attempting to mix their earlier work with a more danceable funk-derived aesthetic. The songs were catchy and fun to listen to, but they were still closer to their chaotic hardcore roots than anything else. A lot has changed in the interim, as I learned when I acquired "Louden Up Now," their most recent full-length, last month. These days, it is the dance-funk sensibility that holds primacy in their sound. However, what separates !!! from countless other dance troupes operating in the music scene today is the fact that !!! avoid becoming reliant on technology to produce their music. Instead of stripping their membership down in order to conform to the industry standard of solitary-genius-with-computer, they've supplemented the standard five-piece rock lineup with horns and an excess of percussion and turned their band into one big floating party. It sounds like one, too; the entire album is a nonstop groove.

But this isn't the kind of shit I usually listen to, at all. So why am I suddenly fascinated with a dance band, and not just any dance band but one that is [gasp] really popular with hipsters?

Believe me, where this development is concerned, I'm just as surprised as anyone. The more I think about it, though, the more I see the logic in it. Though their music might remind the listener of disco at first, upon deeper exploration it's a lot closer to the no wave explorations of James Chance and the Contortions. There is little reliance on programming--in fact, as far as I can tell, there aren't even synthesizers on this album, let alone computer effects. The beat is every bit as monstrous as it is in any dance-oriented music, but with only four of the eight musicians here involved in creating it (and two of those four doubling as the horn section), there needs to be something more to the songs just to keep the rest of the band occupied. Mario Andreoni and Tyler Pope's slashing guitars tend to stick to repeating quickly strummed, staccato chord structures, but the way they intertwine with Justin Van der Volgen's bouncing bass lines creates catchy melodies from minimal building blocks. !!! are doing just as much playing of the spaces between the notes as of the notes themselves.

All of this is interesting enough, but I'd still end up filing this album away after a few listens if it weren't for Nic Offer's vocal work. His fiery, spirited lyrics were one of the most interesting things about The Yah Mos, and though he's grown up a bit and is no longer complaining about fare inspectors and peer pressure, he's still angry with a lot of the bullshit he sees in the world around him. "Bullshit" is an appropriate term, too, because the man has quite the potty mouth. "Pardon My Freedom" has a chorus based around variations on the phrase "Like I give a fuck about that motherfucking shit", and "Hello? Is This Thing On?" ends with over a minute of Offer yelling, "Everybody's acting like I'm fucking crazy or something!" But underneath all the profanity, there are legitimate complaints; "Pardon My Freedom" is actually about the recent trend towards censorship and repression of the arts, while "Shit Schiesse Merde" (the chorus of which is apparently an attempt to offend the sensibilities of French and German people as well as English-speakers) makes derogatory references to the words of George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

I'll admit that there's not much deep thought involved in the lyrics here. I'm sure there are many who will defend the shallowness of the political content here by saying that !!!'s lyrics are slogans shouted over dance music and should be seen as such, and nothing more. However, I think this defense is overly apologetic and misses the point. Complex political lyrics that go into depth and make intelligent points certainly have their place. In fact, they show up quite often in hardcore songs, and work well as a part of that genre. But hardcore is angry and loud, and its performers are often attempting to assert themselves, to make an impact on the world. Hardcore, if I may be permitted a sweeping generalization, is not music for the well-adjusted (I'm well aware of the fact that I'm implicating myself with this statement). Meanwhile, !!! aren't worried about trying to create music that will bring anyone over to their point of view. No right-wingers in the audience are going to be converted after hearing Nic Offer yell "George Bush can suck my fucking dick", but the kids who already agree are going to have a lot of fun singing along with him. That, in the end, is the most important part of all. "Louden Up Now" might be an obvious case of preaching to the choir, but it's also music that makes the choir feel good about getting up and dancing. !!! proclaim their stances and beliefs without shame, and by doing so, remind their listeners that they don't have to prove anything to anyone.


The return of Son Volt.

[I'm going to do something a little different here. All of this is entirely the product of my imagination.]

Graduating in the summer is a fundamentally lonely thing. At least, that's how he felt as he packed up the last of his stuff the morning after his own graduation. He was in a dorm room, but the dorm itself was mostly empty, as it had been for the past month and a half. Lacking half a dozen stray credits, he'd stayed the extra six weeks to finish up and get his degree rather than come back for another full semester in the fall. However, none of his friends had stuck around, and he hadn't met anyone during the summer session to hang around with, so it had been a lonely few weeks.

Of course, he knew part of that had been his own fault, for spending so much time alone in his room, even when there wasn't any studying that he needed to do. But even when he had gone out, the campus had been empty for the most part, making him feel almost like he was trapped in some post-apocalyptic horror film; the last man alive, walking around in the ruins of a civilization that no longer existed.

That feeling went away when he left the campus and drove into the city, a dozen or so miles to the south. He'd been going down there whenever he could afford to, seeing bands play in clubs and hitting up record and book stores at every opportunity. He'd just been down at the record store earlier that week; in fact, it had been the night after his last exam. His parents would be driving into town the next day to witness his graduation and take him out to dinner in some sort of celebration, and he'd felt the need to do something that would make him happy the night before, as any encounter with his parents was bound to be wearing.

He'd never gotten along but so well with his family, but things were getting worse of late. His degree was in creative writing, a subject that he was passionate about, but that his parents saw as a waste of time. He had no idea what he was going to do with the degree, and his post-graduation plans at this point extended no farther than moving back in with his parents and seeing where things went from there. A small part of his mind was drawn towards the romantic idea that he would write a novel while living in his parents' basement and sell it in six months, but the rest of his brain knew that planning for this was not only farfetched but impractical and ultimately dangerous. Besides, he knew for sure that his parents would be expecting to be paid rent as soon as he found a job, and lately his father had even been dropping dark hints about the military. Surviving off of his writing, unless he got extraordinarily lucky, was just not going to be possible.

Sure enough, all of this combined had been enough to make his graduation day quite a chore. He'd had a couple extra days before he had to be out of the dorms, and rather than accept the moving-out help his parents had offered, he'd told them that he had a few things still to take care of around campus, and had sent them on their way. That had been a lie. In reality, his time with them had been enough to make him realize that moving back in with them was going to be brazen hell, and he just wanted to take advantage of his last couple of days without them around. He'd spent most of the time after they left lying in bed, reading books or just staring at the ceiling, until the night before he had to be out when he'd suddenly realized how little time he had left, and had frantically packed almost everything he owned within the span of two hours.

Now, with only hours left until he had to be out of the dorms, he was taking care of the last few things that needed to be done--getting his toothbrush and toothpaste out of the bathroom, stripping the sheets off his bed, unplugging his alarm clock. He carried everything out to the car in three trips, took a last look around the room to make sure he wasn't forgetting anything, and walked out to the car with his backpack and laundry bag, leaving the room's door hanging open.

The record store bag from a few days before sat on his passenger side floorboard. He'd taken most of the stuff he'd bought that day out when he got home, but he'd left one CD in it, awaiting his trip home. It was the newest Son Volt album, "Okemah and the Melody of Riot." He'd loved "Trace" when he first heard it, thought "Straightaways" was decent, and had enjoyed singer/guitarist Jay Farrar's previous band, Uncle Tupelo, but Son Volt's third album, "Wide Swing Tremolo", had been a major letdown, and while Farrar's solo work in recent years wasn't bad, it wasn't anywhere near the sort of thing that Son Volt and Uncle Tupelo had done. He enjoyed Wilco's music, but with Jeff Tweedy and company turning more and more with each album into the American version of Radiohead, they too were no longer filling the hole that Uncle Tupelo's breakup and Son Volt's subsequent straying from their original path had left.

Despite all of that, when he'd read some of the initial reviews of "Okemah and the Melody of Riot", he'd found himself getting his hopes up. And when he found it on sale for $12 at the record store earlier that week, he'd been unable to restrain himself. He knew there was a possibility that it would be a letdown, but if it was anywhere near as good as people were saying, then it would be the perfect music for the drive back to his parents' house, so he'd been saving it for this very moment.

With the car in neutral, he tore off the shrinkwrap, threw it into the now-empty bag on the floorboard, and slid the disc into his car stereo as he turned out of the dorm parking lot. The first song started to play as he drove through campus and the small town that surrounded it. By the time the verse began, he was floored. He'd expected decent, and hoped for good, but this was positively amazing. If the rest of the album could hold up to the first minute, this was going to be the best Son Volt record since "Trace."

He checked the album cover, and saw that the first song was called "Bandages and Scars". The lyrics were hitting quite close to home as he left town and turned onto the two-lane state highway that would eventually bring him to his parents' house.

"Can't taste holy water,
Can't find it in the well,
Been doing a lot of thinking,
Thinking about hell.
Been thinking about the ozone,
Thinking about lead.
Thinking about the future,
And what to do then..."

He knew Farrar was singing about the situation in America these days with politics and the environment, but he couldn't help but hear some of his own dilemma in those words as well. The political connotations struck him as well; he had a couple of friends in the military who were stationed in Iraq, who sent regular bulletins out to their mutual friends through the internet. He couldn't help but worry every time more than a week or so went by without hearing from them, and sometimes he even worried when he did hear from them. He hated that guys he cared about were risking their lives to fight a war that he saw as pointless and against everything America meant to him. His own father seemed completely oblivious to all of this, and kept hinting that the military would be a good career option for him, that guys in the military made good money. He couldn't imagine any career that he would want less.

The next song on the Son Volt record quelled any fears he might have had that the first song would be far better than the rest (which was something he'd always felt about "Straightaways", and its first song, "Caryatid Easy"). "Afterglow 61" made oblique reference to Bob Dylan and had the perfect sound for driving, a mix of country's mournful tones and straight-up rock n' roll power chording. As he drove past small farms and through wooded areas, it was the perfect soundtrack.

In fact, it was a beautiful day, with the sun shining warmly down on the rural areas that this secondary road took him through. There was an interstate highway a few miles to the south of where he was that could take him to the same place a little quicker, but he'd always liked driving this scenic route a bit better, even if he did have to drive a bit slower and stop at the occasional stoplight or railroad crossing. Interstate driving always looked pretty much the same, but this drive showed him a lot of things that were worth looking at.

He wasn't in the greatest of moods, though, on the whole. Listening to Son Volt was pleasant, and with every new song just as good as the one before, he was finding himself falling in love with their new album. But it was also making him feel nostalgic pangs that were almost regretful in nature. He found his thoughts drifting back to his high school days, before he had a driver's license, back when he'd ride his bike through the rural areas surrounding the house where he grew up. Cassettes had been his music medium of choice at the time, and he'd wear headphones connected to the Walkman in his backpack, which would invariably be playing the music of bands like Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Jr, and Uncle Tupelo, bands that he would forever associate with beautiful summer days in the country, but also with feelings of solitude, even loneliness. Despite how little time he'd spent around other people back then, though, he'd always felt this overwhelming sense of possibility, like great things were just around the corner. He remembered just how much writing he'd done back then, keeping his word processor on the kitchen table whenever no one was eating at it, and typing for hours a night, again while listening to his Walkman. He hadn't been that productive since. Where had that optimistic energy and work ethic gone?

As if reading his mind, Jay Farrar sang from his car stereo. "Who makes the minutes move? The post-meridian news. Who? Who else but you?" This was track 6, which a quick glance at the cover revealed was called "Who." Obvious enough, he thought. He also realized by continuing to listen to the words that this song was again about politics, most likely directed at the man he couldn't help but think of as Dubya. He grinned and thought about the fact that so often, when a line from a song jumped out at you and seemed to resonate with you, it turned out that you'd heard it wrong, or that it was buried in the middle of a song that wasn't about what you'd thought the line was saying at all.

Still though, there was a point in his own misinterpretation of Farrar. He could do the work that he wanted to do, if he wanted it badly enough. The motivation he'd felt back then came from the very fact that he'd been trapped in less-than-ideal circumstances. Sadly enough, he realized, finding the things you want in life just makes you lazy more often than not. You take it all for granted, figure you've got all the time you need to do the things you want to do, and then one day time runs out and you haven't done anything. This was a depressing thought, but no less true for all that. He was no longer a kid, and was getting close to his mid-twenties now, but sometimes he felt like he knew less than ever.

Jay Farrar, he thought, had to be in at least his mid-thirties, but there were points where he listened to Farrar's music and felt like the man was just as confused and uncertain as he was. He couldn't decide if this was comforting or frightening. His thoughts drifted as the song "Medication" flowed slowly out of his car's speakers. The previous seven songs on "Okemah and the Melody of Riot" had seemed like a return to the original idea he'd had about what constituted "alt-country", back when he'd only heard the first two Uncle Tupelo albums and was under the impression that it was more indie rock than anything else, and that the country influences were kept to a minimum. This had been the one misgiving he'd had about "Okemah" so far, that Farrar was so into getting back with a band that he'd forgotten about his previous inclinations towards the occasional rootsy, acoustic-based track. "Medication" showed him that this hadn't happened, as it was built on a softly strummed acoustic riff and topped it with what sounded like mandolin, banjo, and acoustic slide. He figured he could open the CD case and figure out for sure, but this seemed like a foolish thing to do while driving. The next song, which had the righteous title "6-String Belief" and the chorus "rock n roll around my head, alive and kicking", went right back to the rocking, but it was good to know that Farrar still had the acoustic hillbilly stylings up his sleeve to pull out on occasion.

In fact, he thought, it seemed like Farrar felt he'd given the acoustic stuff short shrift on the earlier part of the album, because now he was trying to make up for it. "Gramophone" was another partly acoustic track with mandolin floating through it, as well as an organ that gave the song an almost spiritual feel. He nodded his head in time with the song's relaxed tempo as he crossed the county line that meant he was almost halfway there. He didn't look forward to getting home, and even thought he might just drive around the area around where his parents lived for a while when he got there. He wanted to get acquainted with the old back roads that he'd driven on countless bored weekend afternoons during his senior year of high school, and it would offer the perfect opportunity to think about things for a while, as well as to listen to this Son Volt album on repeat a few more times, which he definitely intended to do.

The last song, "World Waits For You," was actually two tracks, he noticed. First, a four-minute regular version, then a two-minute reprise following directly after. He was used to reprises being at the end of albums, but usually they referred back to as song from far earlier in the album, not the one immediately preceding them. He wondered what was going on there. The minimalist main version of the song featured Farrar's voice, a piano, some echoing guitar feedback, and nothing else. Despite the sparse instrumentation, he found that most of Farrar's vocals disappeared into mumbling indistinctions. What stood out for him was the chorus, which was just the title repeated over and over. For perhaps the tenth time while listening to this album, he felt like Farrar was looking through the speakers and singing directly to him. And then the song switched from the regular version to the reprise, which was less like a track change and more like a sudden late entrance by the rest of Son Volt on a final round of the chorus. Lead slide guitar, powerful drumming, and mellotron flourishes built the entire thing to a stirring climax. "There's a message here," he thought. "It's hard to know what to do in the face of all the world's problems. Jay knows this. And he knows he doesn't have all the answers. But he also knows that nothing's gonna get better if we don't try, and if we do make some sort of effort, we just might be able to make some positive change. No matter how slight it turns out to be in the end, it's worth it."

In his head, he knew that all of this applied to himself as well. "I have to deal with moving back in with my parents," he thought. "I'll survive, and if I really try, I could do really well. But it's up to me, and I have to start now."

He smiled slightly and pressed down harder on the gas pedal, as his CD player made the telltale sound it always made when it was starting a CD over.


Welcome back, David.

I was supposed to talk about the Magik Markers today; and have no fear, we'll get to them soon enough. Instead, I want to spend today talking about The Wedding Present. As you may or may not know, they reformed last year, and have recently released "Take Fountain," their first album in nearly a decade. They even did a United States tour earlier this year, which I desperately wanted to catch (as I've always loved The Wedding Present, and thought I'd never have the chance to see them), but circumstances dovetailed in the worst possible way, and I wasn't able to make it. I did pick up their new album just recently, though, and for some reason today is the day that it's chosen to make its presence known in my life.

The story behind The Wedding Present's reformation is probably germane to any review of their new album, so I'll go ahead and tell it, for those who haven't heard. Back in 1996, David Gedge, their founder and sole original member by that point, ended The Wedding Present to start a project with his girlfriend, Sally Murrell. They moved from England to Seattle and made three albums as Cinerama. However, the project ended after their final album, when the relationship between Gedge and Murrell ended. I haven't read anywhere about what Gedge's emotional state was when that happened, but we've all been there and I can't imagine it was good. Either way, at the end of it all, he called up Simon Cleave, who had played lead guitar on the last couple of Wedding Present records as well as in Cinerama, and they reformed The Wedding Present.

In a way, it's a shame Gedge felt the need to do this, but it sure is understandable. Lyrically, The Wedding Present was always a band most concentrated on miscommunication between lovers, disastrous endings to relationships, and painful feelings of unrequited love. Makes sense that this is the project he would return to in the wake of recent events.

My personal favorite Wedding Present album has always been "Seamonsters". This one was produced by Steve Albini, and his production had an interesting effect on their music. They'd always backed David Gedge's inimitable choked-up nasal tenor with fast-paced, nearly hectic jangly melodies, but on "Seamonsters", the difference was that much of the time when Gedge's vocals were building things to an emotional crescendo, the electric guitars would kick in with so much more power and ferocity than they ever had before that it would sound like an airplane taking off. I've mentioned this in this blog many times before, and I'm sure I'll mention it again, but it never seems to become any less true, so fuck it: for me, this is exactly what those heartbreaking moments of emotional intensity feel like. It's the emotional equivalent of a mournful melody that's suddenly almost eclipsed by a wall of furious noise... though not quite; the melody is still there, somehow floating just above the fiery distortion.

I loved the other Wedding Present albums too, don't get me wrong. However, the noise on "Seamonsters" always made it a personal favorite. I liked the way it stood out from the half-dozen or so other albums The Wedding Present had made. You might not always be able to tell the difference between a track from "Tommy" and a track from "Bizarro", but a "Seamonsters" track was always immediately identifiable.

This brings us to "Take Fountain." Just as many true-blue Wedding Present fans were appalled at "Seamonsters" due to the very same differences that lead me to celebrate it, I'm sure that many are appalled at the direction Gedge and Co. have taken here. I, however, love it. The last thing I'd want to see The Wedding Present do upon reformation is return to the same old ground they've covered many times before. If I wanted to hear that, I could get out my copies of their old albums; after all, I have all of them. No, the things I appreciate the most about "Take Fountain" are its obvious differences from their older work. They worked with Steve Fisk on this record, as they did on "Saturnalia," their last album before the breakup. His production is refreshingly clear and open when compared to the claustrophobic wall-of-sound approach that dominated so many of their older albums. But this is far from the only change here.

The album begins with "On Ramp", which is a surprise just by its very existence. It's two minutes of ambient humming, an intro, from a band who has never used an intro before. The Wedding Present have never really made albums that ebbed and flowed or seemed to have much of an internal structure. Previous albums seemed merely to be a collection of songs that were all recorded around the same time, not anything designed to cohere together or make up more than the sum of its parts. That approach worked fine for them when they used it, but it's nice to see a different tack being taken, especially when "On Ramp" flows seamlessly into the first real song on the album, "Interstate 5". This is another first for The Wedding Present, as far as I know--a song that tops 8 minutes in length. One might expect them to falter when moving this far afield from their traditional stomping ground of the 3 minute pop song, but if anything, the opposite is true. This is one of the more powerful songs in their canon, utilizing a new rhythm section to dramatic effect. There is no way one would mistake new drummer Kari Paavola for any of The Wedding Present's previous stickmen: instead of driving the band frenetically on, Paavola lays back and locks down the rhythm of the song with a beat that might remind one of disco were it not for the relentlessly dark and morose direction of the music. The mood develops underneath Gedge's verses, and after delivering a final depressing couplet ("and yes, there was one particular glance that made me afraid/that you were just seeing me as a chance of getting laid"), he bows out as a vocal presence, leaving the music to steadily build power through repetition more reminiscent of Krautrock than anything. The band reaches a crescendo of sorts about 6 minutes in, then drop back as strings, trumpet, congas and even a vibraphone come to the fore, playing a brooding melody that sounds like the score to an old spaghetti western.

Things get a bit more conventionally Wedding Present on the next few songs, as Gedge's typical melodic sense asserts itself. However, things still sound a bit different than they used to on older albums, and I think this is partly due to Steve Fisk's production, but moreso to a changing idea on Gedge's part of what role guitars play in The Wedding Present's sound. After all, Cinerama's music put far less weight on the guitars, and Gedge played in that band for eight years. He seems to have come away from it with less interest in quickly strummed guitar parts, previously a Wedding Present staple. They only tend to show up on choruses here, if at all. Most of the time the guitars stick to single-note arpeggios or ringing chords, which creates internal space and gives the rhythm section room to shine through. This also pushes the vocal melodies and lyrics to the forefront. No longer does one have to struggle to hear what Gedge is singing. It comes through in all of its poignant, heartbreaking glory. This will certainly be beneficial to today's generation of teenage boys, lying alone in dark rooms and weeping along with the records on their stereo (assuming they aren't listening to Brand New instead).

"Take Fountain"'s sense of a continuous flow doesn't break down after the first few songs. There is definitely a progression, as the album goes on, and emotionally speaking, it's a progression straight down. By the third-to-last song, "Larry's", things have gotten quiet and introspective, and "Queen Anne" manages to deepen the morose feelings by bringing back "Interstate 5"'s strings and horns, again creating a spaghetti western feel. Album closer "Perfect Blue" is not as slow as the two songs that precede it, and therefore doesn't sound as sad, but if anything it feels even more desperate. This is Gedge's last chance to try and bring the woman he's been pining away for all album back to him, and he tries his best. I definitely notice a sense of maturity in his lyrics these days--where before, everything was always the woman's fault, it seems that on "Take Fountain" he's a lot more willing to admit the problems in the situation that are his own. "Perfect Blue" is a good example, on which he sings: "I know that I'll never make you sad, but I should warn you/that I just might never let you out of my sight." There doesn't seem to be a great deal of repentance when discussing his own problems, and one can be sure that he therefore has miles to go before he's solved them. He's admitting them more freely now, and that's something, but it doesn't appear to be enough, at least not this time--the wordless string-section crescendo that ends "Perfect Blue", and this entire album, is beautiful, but it's far too mournful to represent anyone's idea of triumph.

The Wedding Present have been performing and recording, off and on, for nigh on 20 years now, and David Gedge is not exactly the "boy wonder" his early press often called him. However, he's still struggling with the same internal demons, and, as with his contemporary Morrissey, one can't help but wonder whether he will always be in their power to some extent. If so, it's truly a shame, but it's also a blessing in a way, because we're getting some amazing records out of the deal. "Take Fountain" is one of the best so far.


Dungen - Ta Det Lugnt

For some debatably perverse reason, I always find myself preferring modern bands attempting to evoke a bygone age over anything from the bygone age they're attempting to evoke. It's a poor example, but my memory returns to a time when I was in high school, and my best friend and I were standing in a record store. He was really into the new Paul Weller single ("Uh Huh Oh Yeh"--for those keeping score, that dates this occurrence to late 1992 or early 1993), but had made himself feel guilty about the prospect of buying the album.

"I feel bad being into this ersatz funk," he complained to me. "I feel like I should put this down and go buy a James Brown record."

I shrugged. "Don't do it, dude. You'll probably end up not liking it as much as you'd like the Paul Weller."

"That's exactly why I feel so bad about it," he said, dejected.

I couldn't adequately form my reasons for disagreeing with him at the time, but these days I'm older and have had more time to think about it, so I know what I'd say to him now. "There's something about the perspective a modern musician has, when looking back on older forms of music and attempting to put their own spin on them," I'd say. "They're able to see everything that was going on at that time in terms of a unified whole that may not have been clear as it was occurring. Then they synthesize it all in their heads, and rather than reiterating the take of one musician or subgenre of the time, they mix together the best elements of it all, add any elements of today's music that they find useful, and come out with something that may scream 'retro' from beginning to end but is in fact different than anything that existed at the time... and sometimes, it's a good bit better."

This is definitely the case with Dungen's most recent album, "Ta Det Lugnt." This album is a masterpiece of psychedelic rock. It may have arrived on the scene 35 years too late to take its place as the definitive album of that genre's heyday, but not only does it trump much of what was actually created at the time, it does so through the use of a perspective that could only have existed at this late date. They mix and match various styles and techniques of the 60s psychedelic sound, creating songs that are at the same time familiar, evocative, and yet not quite like anything you've heard before. The results are delightful enough to seem effortlessly produced, and yet when listened to more closely reveal a painstaking attention to detail that is less surprising once you find out that this entire ensemble is actually the work of only one man, Swedish wunderkind Gustav Ejstes.

A good example of Ejstes's hybrid approach to psychedelia is "Du E For Fen For Mig", the longest song here. It begins with a pleasant, echoing string-quartet melody that soon evolves into an acoustic guitar based passage that sounds like something The Beatles would have come up with around the time of "Revolver". The string section drifts in and out of the mix, blending pleasantly with the airy pop sound of the song. However, this is not all that there is to "Du E For Fen For Mig". Were this nothing more than a sunshine pop song, it'd be good enough to be worthy of praise, but around the time that you'd expect the pop song to end, the bass notes start to get a bit more menacing; then suddenly a squadron of electric guitars in the company of a full drum kit burst onto the scene and launch the entire song into the stratosphere. The final three minutes are full-on freakout, guitar demolition that would have impressed the likes of Jimi Hendrix were he around to hear it. The root pop melody is never lost, though, and instead of seeming like two different sounds, even two different bands, shoehorned into one musical passage (as in lesser hands it could have been), there is no question that this is one song, a unified whole despite the disparity of its parts.

That statement could, in fact, describe this album as a whole. While some sections are so different from others that, taken out of their context on "Ta Det Lugnt" and played back to back, one would be hard pressed to believe that they were by the same band; when they are heard in their proper place on the album they make perfect sense. In fact, when I listen to "Ta Det Lugnt", I often feel like I'm listening to some sort of psych-rock magnum opus; a work that is divided up into movements that are more or less song-length but is nonetheless one solid thing. What kind of thing, you ask? The best disembodied soundtrack to a 60s B-movie that I've ever heard. Seeing Pere Ubu perform live a few months ago as the instrumental score for "X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes" (a famous Roger Corman feature from the mid-60s) was pretty mindblowing, did a lot to make the film even cooler than it already was, and was certainly a once in a lifetime opportunity that I'm incredibly glad I had. But if I could find the movie that I often imagine when I hear this Dungen album, and if I could successfully play this album along with it as a soundtrack, I think it would be even better. Maybe you know the movie I'm talking about: it has period motorcycles carrying tough-looking customers in leather jackets through the desert, and the sort of voluptuously beautiful girls with long straight hair and go-go boots that were everywhere in the 60s (if B-movies are any indication) and have completely disappeared from the modern world (more's the pity), and creepy, secretive Satanic rituals and chase scenes and maybe even some knife fights and ... you get the point.

Getting back to "Ta Det Lugnt", things start out with 20 seconds of unaccompanied drumming, which is aimless at first but definitely indicates that Dungen use the big, loud, unmuffled drums that were popular in the 60s and gave guys like Mitch Mitchell and Ginger Baker such wonderful tone. The aimless rolls soon resolve themselves into a snare-driven buildup that explodes into "Panda", which caught my attention so severely that I played it 5 or 6 times in a row before I ever progressed into the rest of the album. The first two tracks, "Panda" and "Gjort Bort Sig", demonstrate Dungen's standard mode of operation, mixing catchy yet rocking uptempo riffs with a more polished pop sensibility that comes through in their delightful choruses. A particular strength of this album is its fiery lead guitar sound, which is not distorted so much as overdriven, pushed to the limits that the studio recording equipment could handle and then a bit past. This can sound horrible with today's digital recording equipment, but works surprisingly well with the sort of analog, tube-driven stuff that bands used in the 60s, a fact that is not lost on Dungen mastermind Ejstes. His continual pushing of the limits of his recording equipment can create strange sounds the like of which I've never heard before, as on "Gjort Bort Sig", where the echoing chorus vocals fight for auditory supremacy with wildly reverbing lead guitar tracks, or on album closer "Sluta Folja Efter", where mellotron swells run headlong into squeals of feedback from another overdriven guitar as it pauses between notes. You can almost smell the dust cooking on the red-hot vacuum tubes at moments like this.

A lot of the most impressive examples of Dungen's genre-hopping sensibility show up towards the middle of the album, as on the title track, where piano-driven pop verses reminiscent of Badfinger or The Raspberries shift abruptly into the storming acid-rock guitars of the chorus, before the whole thing gives way to a long jazz section that takes up the last half of the song. Here, Ejstes gets to demonstrate the extent of his talent and simultaneously demonstrate his awareness of the debt that psychedelia owes not only to the rock musicians of the 60s but also to the pioneering work of such jazz artists as Albert Ayler and John Coltrane. Breaks like this, which also occur at a couple of other points on the album, also serve to provide brief respite from the sometimes-blistering acid-rock freakouts that occupy the majority of the album, as well as helping to keep said freakouts sounding fresh, instead of all blurring together after a while.

There are just as many songs on "Ta Det Lugnt" that I haven't mentioned as I have, and I'm sure I could find plenty of words with which to extol their virtues as well. However, I think I've made my point quite adequately. For all who still doubt the purpose of in-depth explorations into the worlds of past genres, Dungen is here to demonstrate the legitimate worth achievable through this pursuit, no matter how "retro" it may be.


It's about time I start writing again. So here's a tentative schedule for the week, just to get things jumpstarted.

Tomorrow, by which I mean Tuesday: Dungen, "Ta Det Lugnt", perhaps including a slight detour to mention The Soundtrack of Our Lives' "Origin Part 1."
Wednesday: The Magik Markers, "I Trust My Guitar, Etc.," "Live In Belgium," and the experience of seeing them live.
Thursday: rundown on new CDs I've picked up during the past couple of months. Somewhere between 6 and 12, depending on how long I end up discussing each one.
Friday: piece for Eric's zine about the illusory nature of alarmist rhetoric relating to the "death of the music industry" in such corporate rags as Rolling Stone.

It probably won't go quite like this, but at least it's some sort of outline to try and follow.

Now I should get to bed, so that tomorrow when I'm bored in front of a computer at work, my brain is able to function.


400 Blows review

A shorter version of this may run in some print magazine somewhere someday. I'm not too sure at this point. Either way, I wanted to post something since life has been getting me down too much lately for me to think much about updating. So here's something from a few weeks ago to at least provide the illusion of new content. Hopefully I'll be writing here again regularly soon (though I'm pretty sure I'll never be consistent with updating. I can't make myself do anything I'm not getting paid to do on a consistent basis. Pathetic, I know).

Dropping one of the standard stringed instruments from the typical rock combo seems to be all the rage these days. From bassless garage rock duos and trios like the Black Keys and the Coachwhips to more experimental groups like Hella and Lightning Bolt, it seems like you can’t turn around anymore without running across some hot new act who’ve pared the amount of stringed instruments in their band down from the typical two or three to only one. And I’m sure it’s a matter of personal taste for everyone, but for me, it’s generally the ones that drop the six-string guitars and forge ahead with only a bass who impress me the most. There’s just something about the more rhythm-oriented nature of this particular configuration of instruments that acts as an automatic bullshit reducer, eviscerating all tendencies towards wankery and forcing bands to trim their sound down to the most bare-bones riffing possible.

400 Blows is yet another of these stripped-down ensembles, and with stringed-instrument player Christian Wabschall opting for guitar rather than bass, I went into things expecting holes in the bottom end of their sound instead of solid rhythmic pounding. Well, I don’t know if it’s Wabschall’s amp, or his distortion pedal, or some other component of his equipment that I don’t understand, but the sound he manages to get out of a guitar is easily as thick as what he could get out of a bass, and in fact I’d go so far as to say that this may be the heaviest I’ve ever heard one of these one stringed instrument bands get.

This heaviness is reflected in their singlemindedness of purpose where songwriting is concerned. “Angel’s Trumpets and Devil’s Trombones” is their second album, but there’s no attempt at expansion on their sound, which focuses on propulsive, midtempo proto-metal riffs of the sort that were popular at the dawn of the 1970s. Back when Led Zeppelin were creating the albums that are critically heralded now as the birth of heavy metal, there were a whole bunch of lesser-known bands operating in the same territory, often with far less instrumental skill. This led these groups (Blue Cheer being the most famous, among others such as Cactus, Black Oak Arkansas, and Bloodrock) to avoid instrumental pyrotechnics in favor of finding a groove and sticking with it. They may not have wowed the critics with their guitar heroics, but they sure did rock, and that’s the important thing as far as I’m concerned.

400 Blows seem to agree with me on this one. While vocalist Skot Alexander trades the blues howling of 70s proto-metal boogie bands for a snotty punk-influenced snarl, the music here is all about the rock, in a way that few bands since that era have been. They don’t worry too much about dynamics or tempo changes; the songs chug along at a foot-stomping pace for the most part. When they do decide to break things down, as in the end of “The Secret Life”, it creates a powerful effect as much because of the surprise of the tempo change as from the heaviness of the riff itself. In their quieter moments, which tend to be the only time that the listener can really be certain that Wabschall is indeed playing a guitar and not a bass, 400 Blows can even sound a bit like an emotionally-driven bar rock band like Thin Lizzy or The Faces. However, these moments are brief, and as soon as they can be, they’re back to pounding you over the head.

This is the kind of music that sounds best coming through the speakers of a souped-up muscle car from 35 or so years ago, blasting at top volume as you fly down country roads at speeds considerably higher than the limit. 400 Blows are masters of these kinds of heavy grooves, which mostly exist on records that are now out of print. Next time they come through town, you can expect me to be there. I’ll be the guy up front with long hair, pumping my fist in the air and banging my head.