Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin/Galway, Ireland. 27, history graduate & human rights student
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Dec 11
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Apr 08
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The Knife - ‘Raging Lung’ from Shaking the Habitual

I love this song - it doesn’t sound like it’s 10 minutes long (9:59 to be precise) although that may be because the previous track is nearly 20. The fact that the lyric “What a difference/A little difference would make” comes from Fugazi’s 'Blueprint' on Repeater is pretty cool. Listen to the title track from that album, with its screeching, distorted, hypnotic opener, and it could nearly be something from Shaking the Habitual. Conversely, this song’s propulsive steel drums, offbeat percussion and slightly dubby feel make it seem as if it owes more than just a lyrical debt to Fugazi, and to post-hardcore in general; or it is Fugazi’s musical gymnastics and histrionics re-imagined in the Knife’s own language, perhaps. That extended, bleating hook in the middle, for example, is like the punkest sax solo ever before it degenerates into an ominous, locked-down groove. Even the name of the track makes me think of punk, although that’s probably cos it reminds me of the (female-fronted) hardcore band White Lung.

There’s no doubt Shaking the Habitual is a challenging album, both in its overall length and the length and intensity of some of the tracks. It may bother some looking for the accessible, bite-size yet subversive pop of Silent Shout; in which case they’re in a similar situation to those early Fugazi fans who found their increasingly experimental take on punk hard to relate to. I still like Repeater as an easy balance between styles, and it’s only recently that I’ve been able to get more into of their later albums.   

Yet, personally, I was never that into the purely pop side of The Knife - such as it was - although I could see the appeal; much of this album, however, attracts in the same way I like the more ambient electro of Tim Hecker - a soundscape to get lost in. I like the long, dissonant tracks; if the sheer energy of ‘A Tooth for an Eye’ and ‘Full of Fire’ I still find hard to take, I revel in the noisiness of the klaxonic ‘Networking’, or the Metal Machine Music-like ’Fracking Fuel Injection’. I’ve yet to get a handle on the drift of the album as a whole - I like the idea of the longer ambient pieces functioning as ‘intermissions’ longer than the surrounding songs, purely because it doesn’t seem to make much sense - but with it now on Spotify, I’m using it to jump around between tracks. Sorely tempted to order the 3xLP; that’s a lot of turning over sides, but I suppose there’s an irony in forcing labour for the privilege of listening. 

(Source: Spotify)

the knife fugazi electro punk post-hardcore Shaking The Habitual HFN
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Mar 04
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The chaos of a Tubby mix - the unexpected dropouts and surges and distortions - is indeed analogous to the political chaos outside those studio doors. But the real metaphor embedded in those dubs is embodied by the image of a man locked inside behind a mixing board as the bullets fly outside, his studio a neutral zone where you made your own laws. You can’t unfire a gun. The act of firing it is like a one-take live-in-the-studio recording. You live or die with what you get, and you can’t remix the past. Late at night at Tubby’s, you could imagine a better world, one where you had complete control - a place where even if the bullet had been fired long ago, you had an eternity to decide its trajectory.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever (‘Tubby’s Ghost’)

Another brilliant passage which calls back to this one. My heart sank a little reading it at first, because ‘white American journalist using Jamaican political violence to make philosophical point’ is not usually a good look, but he kinda pulls it off here? This is where I can see the political speechwriter history coming through - maybe if he’d worked for Michael Manley things would have been happier (that’s if you believe in the power of rhetoric to subvert structural politics, which in the post-Obamania age is a tough bet). That’s what I like so much about the book - jumping through history to tell breezy anecdotes can be such a hokey element of these kind of ‘popular’ science/culture books, but he seems to nearly always do it well. Here it’s the story of how Tubby “began the Pro Tooling of the world by turning his tiny studio into a musical instrument”.

The image, however, directly contradicts an even more powerful one from the end of Camus’ 1951 The Rebel, his essay on existentialism, and a humanity torn between warring totalitarianisms:

“Each tells the other he is not God; this is the end of romanticism. At this moment, when each of us must fit an arrow to his bow and enter the lists anew, to reconquer, within history and in spite of it, that which he owns already, the thin yield of his fields, the brief love of this earth, at this moment when at last a man is born, it is time to forsake our age and its adolescent rages. The bow bends; the wood complains. At the moment of supreme tension, there will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free.”

'Complete control' is as the 20th century demonstrated a political impossibility, and dangerous to attempt (the 21st century suggests increasing control by, or of, the individual, depending on one's view of technology; and an accelerating lack of control at the environmental level). But Perfecting Sound Forever is patently not about the ‘end of the romanticism’: it is the continuation of it, such as with the mystique of analogue sound in which Milner indulges fairly heavily, and it is admittedly a rather petit-bourgeois romanticism. We will listen to our sonic experiments encoded onto petroleum and/or transmitted through electricity and plastic, while the world burns and others starve, but we shall be free? Or can we transmute our adolescent rages into art with revolutionary potential, become the arrow of self-determination and not the targeted consumer?

perfecting sound forever politics HFN hitler runoff camus dub
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Feb 03
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Ham Sandwich - ‘OH-OH’ from White Fox (2010)

Someone on my Twitter feed earlier today compared the new My Bloody Valentine to this band, I think as an (in-) joke (they know the band, ‘cos Ireland’s small like that). But the comparison I think kinda works in the other direction, too. ‘Shoegaze-y guitars’ is an over-used term, of course, yet I think it applies here. What I like most about My Bloody Valentine and the sonic influence of shoegaze are not so much the attempts to create Serious Rock Music out of it, but its usefulness in making loud, hazy and beautiful rock/pop (a more prominent example would be Asobi Seksu). I love the way this track just bursts into life, and then adds another layer of colour thirty seconds in (credit I assume goes to the fact that they have two guitarists and make it work).

It’s not as abstract as anything on a My Bloody Valentine album, at least the latest ones, but mbv in particular has some quite obvious poppy flourishes woven into its layers-upon-layers. And Ham Sandwich’s earlier album, Carry the Meek, was even brasher about loading on the guitar and drums - especially the two best singles from it, ‘Sad Songs’ and ‘click… click… BOOM!!!’ (yes, that’s what it’s really called.) White Fox is more musically sophisticated and/or mature, but it doesn’t entirely leave the stratosphere-scraping behind and in many cases enhances it, melodically speaking. The last time I saw the band live it was an acoustic gig in a church, but it still climbed to something like their usual level of energy (in spirit if perhaps not in sound), which in a regular venue peaks with a crescendo of guitar and drum noise accompanied by a brightly illuminated shower of confetti - a milder and more pleasant form of MBV’s infamous ‘holocaust’. It was the loudness of the kickdrum, out of proportion nearly even to the guitars, which drew me to and impressed me most about their live sound initially, and I think that has still carried through till now.

Reading this post recently also brought Ham Sandwich to mind, as a non-US/UK indie band that I don’t think gets enough recognition, either abroad or indeed at home. It’s a difficulty I think is compounded by the fact that they don’t do anything particularly new (or so it seems to me - White Fox is, however, quite a musically creative album) in the way that might attract about other more distinctive bands. They just do what they do really well. Yet with only two albums so far, there’s still room for them to produce their own Loveless (no pressure!). My Bloody Valentine had to relocate from Ireland to the UK to do so, however, and that’s not a route all Irish artists should have to take. There’s enough going on here, in albums like this, for it to be worth them sticking around. I just hope some others listen in, too.

ham sandwich irish pop shoegaze HFN
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Jan 24
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Torres, ‘Mother Earth, Father God’ from Torres (2013)

Still on my initial listens of this album, but oh my, it is so good. Not quite what I was expecting from the preview song, 'Honey', in that the record as a whole rarely reaches the range of volume contained in and suggested by that song (or indeed this one), but it is still one for EMA fans. Likewise, I was disappointed to realise this opening track was not the same as this song by Japanese noise-rock vocal virtuosos Lhasa, but it does share some timbral similarities. Torres is guitar rock stripped back to the bare bones and then built up in layers of embellishment, songwriting tricks and pure ambition. And it works much better than most such attempts do.

Torres also puts me in mind of the undersung Some Bells self-titled album from last year, which really excited me with its range of styles and energy - along with the similar guitar-based solo work of singer Kerrin Pantelakis - until I began to grow a little tired of the starkness of its contrasts and dynamics. It’s still a great record, and I hope to discover it a bit more in my endless quest to find an equal to EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints, but I use it here as a comparison to show what I already think is evidence that Torres will hold up better (and, although also a debut, is a more accomplished record by a fair margin).

Part of it is that while Some Bells is a very blues-inflected record, which weighs heavy on the ears, Torres is a Nashville album - performed by a graduate of a songwriting program at that city’s Belmont University - and, while by no means defined by it, doesn’t escape the primary musical form of that area. The Pitchfork review describes the album’s songs as veering between “rangy indie rock and hushed folk”, but the last may be a misnomer for songs which have, for the most part, a perceptible country lilt. Watch this spellbinding studio performance of one of the album’s purest and best songs, ‘Jealousy & I’, in which a wide-brimmed hat is incidentally worn throughout (also, I haven’t delved much into the lyrics yet, but a line like “would you rather have a stranger in your bed/rather than let someone like me take care of you?” both hits surprisingly hard and seems quintessentially ‘country’).

Torres is a mercurial album: its songs “never insist on their structure, but eventually it becomes clear that they dip and surge at odd, intuitive moments, suggesting a creative songwriting mind”. After the sheer massiveness of ‘Honey’ and the wondrous beauty of ‘Jealousy & I’, the next track ‘November Baby’ starts off in a way that my mind - primed with country associations - registered as somewhat schmaltzy (though the Pitchfork review notes that the “mesmerizing lamp-glow of finger-picked guitar that opens “November Baby” could have shown up on an early Modest Mouse record”, so what do I know?) in the way that it’s not objectionable but you’d wish it was done a little differently, a little more left-of-centre; which is exactly where the song has travelled to a few minutes later. 

'Jealousy & I' features a lyric which on passing sounds like “mine cheese hole” which on paying closer attention is actually revealed as “mine, she's all mine…” the two parts repeated and run into each other so that the pause appears in the wrong place. It's a simple trick, perhaps, but in context it's attention-grabbing and it's one of the many moments on the album which make you sit up and take notice. 'When Winter's Over' contains the only real guitar riff on the whole record, and it stands out all the better for it. 'Chains', a sparse, left-field track even for this album, sounds like elements of an XX song with a Xiu Xiu one (with a raw, performative honesty in place of Jamie Stewarts' almost self-effacing theatricality) in the middle of it - and again, it works. In particular thanks to the extra sibilance of “so soon s-s-soon”, another vocal trick, or the extended “gone”; or the striking lyrics which announce, midway through the album “don’t give up on me just yet”. And as the Pitchfork review notes, the jarring, sudden ending comes as “a rude snip of the tape that startles me even at the tenth hearing” - reminiscent of EMA’s early tape manipulations.

At times, especially in its latter half, the experimentation approaches that of Grimes - the opening of ‘Don’t Run Away Emilie’, which the Nashville Cream review laments changes from “a slightly off-center, dub-like bass line that soon overlaps a simple guitar progression to form an interesting polyrhythmic figure” to something more conventional. Which, in this case, is an almost pitch-perfect copy of Karen O in one of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ slower songs (say, from It’s Blitz) but with a fuller voice and a sepulchral-sounding guitar behind it. If the album has a fault, it is perhaps that it makes too much use of strings as an accompaniment - see the schmaltz comment - but it’s a matter of taste and they do give a useful bit of lift, or even (as in ‘Mother Earth, Father God’) an extra punch. The closing songs (‘Moon & Back’ and finale ‘Waterfall’ are written about particularly well in the Pitchfork review) slink away gently, but not without leaving their own lasting impressions. This is an album that demands repeat listening; it’s sure to be part of my listening for some time yet.

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torres hfn
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Dec 31
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Grimes - ‘Skin’ from Visions

Why I like this album: it’s fun to listen to. Although I started off doubting that fact, considering it ‘too poppy’, it quickly grew on me - mostly as background music via Spotify, something that’s helped cement the oft-quoted if nebulous association between Grimes and internet culture. In fact, the first time I downloaded (bought!) the portable mp3s and went out for a walk with headphones on it took some adjusting  to hear the full bass and the rest of the songs foregrounded, with relatively undivided attention. It might sound like a negative mark against an album to appreciate it through distraction (at least when one’s conception of a ‘work of art’ is a standalone piece or object of reflection, itself a quaint notion in a world of multi-tabbed browsers and live-anything commentary) but I think Visions’ strength is precisely in the way that certain of its disparate elements punch through the virtual fog.

A fog in part created by its own ambient textures, perhaps, or the mechanical impetus of electronic music. Which is another thing, that I started talking about in relation to Burial - I’m not normally very good with beat-driven music. It’s only certain artists that I enjoy - tolerate, even - listening to, and generally I think it’s because I feel there’s something more to them, that makes them more accessible or more interesting (to me). It’s not that I don’t like a good beat in itself, just that it’s still something a little awkward in listening to and talking about it. In that respect a lot of the groundwork has been done by Elite Gymnastics’ RUIN (and before that, Robyn). 

I like the sort of magpie approach to sound taken by both Grimes and Elite Gymnastics, and the fashioning of that into emotionally resonant soundscapes. Though there’s a strong contrast between the two, as well: Grimes’ beats are more languid than EG’s anxious freneticism, and while RUIN overlaid its energetic pop with sombre tones, it’s almost the opposite on Visions where the airy vocals often seem to be undercut by a base sinisterness. Neither is probably a very original approach to electronic music, but it’s the flair with which the combinations are carried out. 

Another comparison-and-contrast which naturally occupies my mind is with my main favourite of last year, EMA. Apart from them both being artistic projects of hugely talented young women, there are probably more differences than similarities. In a way, they’re almost total opposites: EMA looking backwards to the past of guitar-based blues and folk, analogue recording and manipulation; Grimes embracing a digital future of technologised, immaterial sounds and electronic pop. But there’s a common thread of self-production, experimentation and control of process, in an attempt to forge a wholly authentic artistic vision - where ‘authentic’ means nothing more and nothing less than ‘true to self’.

Nothing in Visions is as lyrically visceral as 'Marked', although the subject matter and import of ‘Oblivion’ probably comes close, but issues of sex and physicality are there as well on songs like this one. It sounds to me like ‘Skin’ has at least four different vocal styles running through it, and their audibility and textural qualities convey the multifariousness of human thought and (internal) ‘voice’ (“you act like nothing happened/but it meant the world to me” softly spoken, “you can’t see the wind in the trees” beautifully sung). The dream-like quality of the following album closer, ‘Know The Way’ seems like a commentary on knowledge itself and its eternal evasiveness.

The structure of Visions as an album appeals to me, with an intro (‘Infinite Love Without Fulfilment’ - one of many great titles) and outro which work well both as bookends as and short songs in their own right. ‘Genesis’ and ‘Oblivion’ are the obvious singles, although ‘Be a Body’ and ‘Skin’ are my real favourites. In fact I much prefer the calmer section in the latter half of ‘Colour of Moonlight’, ‘Symphonia X’ and ‘Nightmusic’ to the punchier, more electro first half - but old sensibilities die hard and I’m now starting to get a more natural appreciation for the earlier tracks. ‘Circumambient’ in particular is an intriguing mixture of doom-laden beats and klaxon-like vocals - but to pick individual songs out of the mix is almost to abandon my original experience of the record. Which is to sit back and let it carry on around me.

(Source: Spotify)

HFN 2012 grimes HFN
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Dec 26
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Loma Prieta - ‘Torn Portrait’ from I.V. (2012) 

This Must Be Punk

There’s a very good piece by Lindsay Zoladz published yesterday on Pitchfork, about the year in pop and Grimes, which includes this quote:

"When we’re open to pop being a potential space of freedom, rebellion, and idiosyncrasy, its possibilities start to feel limitless. "A society constructed in the image of punk rock might … essentially become nothing more than a new source of authority," says Trevor Link, who writes a thoughtful Tumblr about the revolutionary potential of pop music. “Whereas a society constructed in the image of pop … might very well be liberating in ways unimaginable within the former paradigm.”

My problem with this is, well, I always feel the need to come to the defence of ‘punk’ when it’s used as a foil or a bogeyman for a utopian vision (in this case literally!) of indie or pop music. Punk is a failure, a flawed ideology - we can do better, with our contemporary sensibilities and access to knowledge. I don’t disagree that there’s a lot we can learn from pop, but there’s still some really vital, electrifying music out there under the rubric of ‘punk’ if your tastes are attuned to it and you know where to look.

Part of the problem I think is that using the term ‘punk’ as an opposite to pop, and referring at least implicitly to its 70s origin and form, in reality makes about as much sense as saying that, currently, punk music is much better than disco. Punk has evolved and split into different genres, and to my mind really very little interesting has happened to it since that hasn’t directly or indirectly involved hardcore. Above all post-hardcore was created, which provides most if not all of the musically creative threads in so-called ‘punk rock’ today.

Punk isn’t just some one-note screaming-at-the-man, any more than in the poptimists’ eyes pop is sugar-coated vacuous screaming-for-the-man. It’s a living, breathing artistic tradition with a trenchant and critical political and cultural philosophy, with many periods of exploration and creativity. It’d be nice to be able to open some more people’s ears to it, too.

Honeywell and abrasive delights

Loma Prieta probably isn’t the best place to start when trying to get someone interested in appreciating modern punk, but I’m including it here because it’s my favourite hardcore record of the year. Actually it’s the only one I spent much time listening to, because I haven’t been keeping up with the genre very well. Partly that’s because there are styles in vogue now that I don’t particularly like; partly because I’m distracted by all the more prominent, potentially punk-in-spirit but not in sound, stuff that gets bandied about from Tim Hecker to Grimes to Woods. But if I hear one or two records like this a year, it’s worth it, and proof that the p-word isn’t dead.

It’s also a factor that this music tends to be more intense than anything designed to be a bit more ‘poppy’, and thus one doesn’t really need to listen to as much of it (though Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 was enough of an aural saturation that I didn’t really need to listen to any new screamo/post-hardcore for much of this year and last year). But putting on this album again recently, I remembered why it is so different. I don’t really go in for very aggressive, hyper-abrasive music, and I’m averse to metal, but there’s a pleasant brain-cleaning quality to this. It’s not without genuine melody either though, which is important.

When I first heard Loma Prieta with their 2008 album Last City, they reminded me of a particularly excellent style of abrasive-yet-emotive hardcore perfected by an early 90s band called Honeywell, who made music so laden with distortion yet so perfectly picked out with feedback that it’s a joy to behold with your ears. Loma Prieta have evolved their style somewhat since to incorporate more recent elements of ‘screamo’, but the 1:31 track above is a good example of that original chaotic perfection. It’s not powerviolence - what I particularly like about it is how it wears itself lightly, without too much intrusions from drums or bass on the overall  sound - which of course gives it a slightly thin and tinny quality, much like the original low-quality 90s hardcore recordings.

Another of my favourite things about the album are the sections where the distortion is blown completely into the red and clipped, disintegrating from guitar fuzz into pure digital distortion - an updating of the old attempts at pushing limits to the current age. It’s not that they’re doing anything particularly new, but in the quality of their musicianship and the intensity with which they play, I feel that Loma Prieta are well ahead of the competition in the modern screamo world. 

Popularity is the only authenticity in pop 

The Pitchfork article also goes on to talk about Carly Rae Jepsen, whom I’ve only heard once, a few weeks ago when the umpteenth online reference to ‘Call Me Maybe’ drove me to type it into Spotify. And the first thing that I noticed is the little graded bar to the right of the song that indicates some sort of popularity was full, or nearly so, for the time I’d seen. The tracks on this Loma Prieta album are all about 30%, which seems pretty decent but it is also a current release (all except the first track, that is, which was at 40% - clearly the rest of the album, starting from this track, puts people off).

The other thing I noticed about ‘Call Me Maybe’ is that it was very identifiably a pop song, in all its instrumentation and affects. No more so, of course, than this is recognisably a screamy-shouty hardcore punk track. Of the two styles, I know which I’d rather listen to - performed well, at least. But in reality I’ve spent most of this year listening to stuff much poppier than this, whether it be quite poppy, electronics-based stuff like Grimes or Elite Gymnastics, or indie-punk with a strong pop flavour like So Cow and Squarehead. I’m excited by this change in my listening, though I’d still like to find another solidly punk game-changer, and there’s a catharsis inherent in this kind of music that is difficult to achieve, or at least qualitatively different, in any other.

So basically I’d like to be a utopian poptimist, but it’s built on a false foundation as far as I’m concerned when it comes to punk. The same personal, enthusiastic language used in pop writing, the identification of music with emotion, can be applied I think to my own relationship with the intense creations of post-hardcore. The ‘popularity of one’ applies across all genres, and I’d like to make the case for listening to this particular one.

(Source: Spotify)

HFN 2012 hardcore loma prieta post-hardcore punk screamo HFN
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Sep 09
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Dan Deacon - ‘Guildford Avenue Bridge’ from America (2012)

I’m really, really liking this album. Musically, the Pitchfork review is pretty spot-on about it. I’m not entirely sure about the straw dichotomy it sets up whereby “apparently, certain folks still can’t reconcile the “contradictions” of an egghead dance-party maniac with an affinity for both systems music and the get-stoopidest jams in history”. That “swathe of his audience” may be made up more of critics looking for a hook to hang a review on than of ordinary punters attending his shows or listening to his music, because from what I’ve seen people easily take it in their stride. Something which might have made a difference, however, with Bromst was the shift from the discrete party/experimental tunes of Spiderman of the Rings (e.g., I got hooked by ‘Crystal Cat’ but ‘Jimmy Joe Roche’ probably became my single favourite track) to a more integrated, and ambitious, mix of the two. Live, and as a single, uninterrupted experience - what the reviewer describes perfectly as “dark communal playfulness” - it worked very well, but it was hard to extract or isolate anything from the totality. Therefore it helps that America splits itself between two opposing poles of poppy, ‘immediate-gratification’ songs and its eponymous suite of more obviously composed work - a handy aid to the listener and the reviewer, even if it might obscure a more integral approach.

America travels a far way even before it gets to the section supposedly inspired by Dan Deacon’s experience of touring across the country, and overall it feels both varied and cohesive - which I guess is the essence of Americanness. Naturally I wondered what it might feel evocative of, in addition to the typical Dan Deacon soaring, personable hyperactivity; but oddly enough, the only differences I noted initially pointed to non-American sources. The piano in this opening track, a prominent feature of his music since Bromst, merge into the icy fuzz for a while and momentarily end up sounding more like the Canadian electro of Tim Hecker from last year (Ravedeath, 1972 or its acoustic accompaniment Dropped Pianos). Both ‘Crash Jam’ and the second part of the ‘America’ suite feature previously unheard choral voices - although perhaps they’re just pitched down a little from his chipmunk trademark? - that strongly reminded me of Northern Ireland artist David Holmes and his pop gem ‘I Heard Wonders’, last heard in the London Olympics opening ceremony. Although in his case as a film soundtrack artist his work easily fits into a Hollywood aesthetic, I still wonder where the exceptionally American sounds come in?

While looking for polling data on the US drone program, I predictably enough came across a  recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, which addition to all the foreign policy questions also had an interesting section on American ‘soft power’ and cultural influence. Along with potentially surprising facts such as that of the European countries surveryed, the French had the most positive attitudes towards Americans, or less surprising ones such as that ‘the American way of doing business’ is least popular amongst Europeans in general, and that everything American is spectacularly unpopular in Pakistan (although in that case, and along with India, it might be wise to factor in the relatively strong influence of British culture), it also remarks:

"Even in many countries where various elements of America’s image are popular, there are concerns about the reach of U.S. influence. Japan is the only country in which a majority (58%) says it is a good thing that American customs and ideas are spreading to their country."

Which (as well as perhaps pointing out the peculiarity of Japanese culture) is a good way of illustrating the gap, or difference, between the appreciation of particular elements of American culture and the attitude to ‘America’, even still just speaking culturally; or the tension between national identity and the boons of globalisation (or American dominance thereof). So much of Irish popular music exists in this strange symbiosis, that a major indie artist naming an album America seems a little redundant. After all, the fact that I’m so eager to listen to it in the first place means half the battle’s already won, right?

Well, that’s not quite the battle that Dan Deacon is fighting, of course. As he explains on the front page of his website:

"I never felt American until I left the United States. In 2007 I went to Europe for the first time to tour in support of Spiderman of the Rings. At the time I, like many other young Americans, didn’t identify as "American." The United States was an evil, Earth-destroying monster of war, corporate greed and bigotry. I had been touring for years in the DIY scene, trying to live apart from consumer culture, feeling detached from what I thought of as the American lifestyle. But when I left for Europe, I was slammed into reality. Never before had I felt so much like an outsider. I was alone in foreign lands with no friends. While it was a beautiful experience and a great tour, I realized that no matter which subculture I chose to identify or what kind of lifestyle I led I would always be American. Nothing could ever change that. As simple as that idea seems, it was a massive shift in consciousness for me."

In a lot of ways that American self-hatred (which is what it is, expressed a little more strongly) is simply the reverse of American self-love, the patriotism that says American truth and goodness and, especially, military power is unquestionably right and superior to, well, anything else (usually unknown and unfamiliar). It actually takes engagement with the outside world, an end to pure insularity, to forge a true appreciation for place and country. I don’t think Dan Deacon is quite there, towards being a world citizen, yet, but he’s definitely moving in the right direction. 

Perhaps that is why my favourite part of the album is the orchestral sequence most clearly associated with transport, in ‘USA III: Rail’, apparently for which “he built a room specifically to record the orchestral track, which has innumerable layers of violin, cello and trombone, overlapping and repeating to reconstruct the rhythm of a train.” It isn’t so much the clunk-clunk-clunk rhythm - that would be too obvious, and perhaps archaic - but rather, as it sounds to me, the repeating pattern of horns as they pass through a station or a crossing, layered on top of each other to infeasible degrees but giving a very human sense of transit, endless journeys overlapping in a node of a grand continental network. Perhaps it sounds that way because rail, if maybe with shorter distances between urban connections, is a very European thing too, that I relate to the place of the rail station in the city. Even if it’s not used as much as it should be, especially in the US - another theory was that the use of horn instruments correlated the prominence of jazz in American popular music with the use of the railways as the main form of transportation.

You can listen to the whole ‘USA’ sequence here. I’m hoping that I discover more through further listens, but for now I know that there are some real moments of beauty on this album - ‘True Thrush’ is indeed Dan Deacon’s “most affecting song so far”, while this opener packs an impressive punch of thrashy, punky energy and 'Lots' creates a good approximation of the epic live sound; and even if ‘Prettyboy’ is “gorgeous, undoubtedly” but “still on the level of really top-shelf video game music”, then that’s quite beautiful enough indeed. America contains multitudes, and brings them all together rather nicely.

149 plays
american exceptionalism dan deacon HFN
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May 08
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The Radiators from Space - ‘Head for the Sun’ from Sound City Beat (2012) - originally by The Movement (1968)

[buy here]

This is the opening track of the Radiators’ new album of covers from Irish ‘beat’ groups, between 1964 and 1971. It’s a really good record, that combines the band’s own versatility and musical strengths with a wide variety of styles from their formative era (being a late-70s punk and post-punk band). Indeed, as singer and guitarist Phil Chevron remarks in the liner notes which give a track-by-track guide to the history, of those bands “who got to cut whole albums and not just a smattering of singles…. [t]heir eclectic impulses are often striking, as they used the album format to commit as much of their musical DNA as possible to vinyl.” Yet in turn the Radiators add their own interpretations of what the music should sound like, often drawing on their, later, punk influences in order to bring out the protean character of the music, or simply to have fun - as in the case of this song: “For no better reason than it seemed to work and that we were big fans of da bruddas back in our garage days, our version channels The Ramones in surfin’ mode…” (which is slightly bizarre in the damp Irish context, as I’ve mentioned before in relation to the Undertones’ similar ‘Here Comes The Summer’, but that’s the genius of cultural influences… they’re not limited to the one situation).

So Sound City Beat isn’t an exactly faithful transcription of past music, and all the better for it (it also means you can dig out the originals on YouTube - full list here - and expect them to be somewhat different). Neither is it a rendering of certain ‘classics’ into a single recognisable style - I can imagine the band had a lot of fun working with the various styles on show here, and at its best it echoes the diversity of their own great eclectic masterpiece, Ghostown. The only song I did know before (admittedly my pre-1970s, or non-punk, musical knowledge is pretty terrible) is one of the best, the inestimable ‘Gloria’. Which I first encountered through the Patti Smith version on Horses, but was originally written by Van Morrison in the band Them, in 1965. I like to think of this as rediscovering an Irish treasure - after having it exported back to you in Americanised form - but the truth is it was a UK hit and a global song, so it’s kinda churlish to be too possessive of something just because the author was from Belfast. There’s something simple and effective but inherently transformative, or adaptable, about the song, that seems to suit its role in both proto-punk and Irish rock:

"it was, as it happens, the first song ever played by the Radiators. Taking our cue from Morrison’s own performances - at the Maritime Hotel, he is said to have stretched the song to fifteen minutes or more on occasion - we found it useful for extended arrangements, especially in venues outside Dublin where the standard thirty minute sets favoured by punk bands would have been profoundly frowned upon."

It’s not all obscurities otherwise, though, at least in terms of authorship - there’s an early Rory Gallagher track from his Taste days, an early Thin Lizzy, and a (literally) lost Horslips debut single. But the real fun is in the miniature Nuggets-like quality of the rest of the album, from excellent band names (Eire Apparent) and predictable song titles (“Yes, I Need Someone”), and sounds expanding to folk and psychedelia, to some thrilling pop hooks. Throughout it’s possible to recognise large elements of the Radiators’ own sound, but depending on the vocals and the style of the cover, it can be sometimes hard to remember that it is all just the one band playing the songs. Or sometimes, bizarrely, to remember that this is music that existed in its own time and place and isn’t totally the reimaginings of contemporary punks - not to deny the adherence in spirit to and difference of the styles used, but hearing this music mostly as a blank slate, the Radiators definitely place their own modern (or at least post-‘77, which is not very new after all) stamp on it. 

For example, the atypical “stone solid Mod groove” of showband The Blue Aces (a central theme of the album’s historical revisionism is the distinction between the popular history of 60s, “in which the conventional wisdom habitually depicts the secular pulpit of Gay Byrne’s television show set against a soundtrack of Showband Scene mania”, and the underground of Beat Clubs - although one of my parents describes it as more of a straightforward rural-urban divide between the showbands and the tennis pavilions) is given a take that “acknowledges its kinship with the spirit of the punk bands of a decade later”; but which sounds to me very much like Rancid’s early 90s album Let’s Go. Of course, some bands are always arch-revivalists, but it’s fascinating to hear everything connected on a long line and collapsed together into one asynchronous celebration of a past. To quote an American band (if only because I can’t think of similar lyrics from an Irish one), Drink deep, it’s just a taste, and it might not come this way again…

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2012 60s 70s NO PAST irish punk radiators HFN
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Apr 12
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Fugazi - ‘Fell, Destroyed’ from Red Medicine (1995)

This is pretty stupid and embarrassing to admit, but I inadvertently bought Red Medicine on vinyl today. I noticed a couple of weeks ago that Tower Records in Dublin had a bunch of Fugazi LPs in stock, one of them being The Argument (which I’d always thought was the only post-Repeater/maybe Steady Diet Fugazi album that I really liked) and which I intended to pick up. And to my intuitive visual mind, two albums with fairly abstract, textured covers look quite alike… so when I came home and unwrapped it, I found I had Red Medicine instead. And I love it!

I’ve previously thought of this era of Fugazi, and this album in particular, as pretty inaccessible, but whether it’s because the LP format breaks it up somewhat, or I’ve finally reached the age of maturity when I reckoned I’d appreciate Fugazi more fully, it’s really clicking with me. The fact that it’s chronologically sited in the period where my favourite noisy, abrasive, emotionally and technically adventurous post-hardcore comes from (‘94-‘95, albeit a little late… but it’s close to halfway between Indian Summer/Hoover and Hot Water Music) makes sense to me, because it’s not like I don’t like noisy, apparently disjointed music - in fact I love it - but I never felt like Fugazi presented itself to me in the right way. Instrument was a help in that respect, but it hadn’t really transferred to proper album listening until now.

I love this song at the end of the first side, a very Slinty-sounding little number that nevertheless adds a few extra layers of space (you can still kinda hear Repeater in this, I think) and twists itself around the lyrics of mental health and medication: it’s time to fake resignment. Except my excitement for this is as genuine as anything can be.

(and there’s a space-jazz dub track called ‘Version’. of course!)

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90s dischord fugazi irony post-hardcore HFN
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