Archive for August, 2016

My Life as Scored by Bob Mould

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , on August 13, 2016 by Magadh

mould coverBob Mould, Patch the Sky (Merge, 2016)

It goes without saying that, generally speaking, I make no pretense of objectivity, at least when it comes to matters of art. This is true as a general principle, but it applies with particular force when the matter under consideration is the work of Bob Mould. On his new record, Patch the Sky, Mould produces and excellent exemplar of his stock in trade: expansive guitar melodies carried along on a dense, metallic swirl. This is what I want from Bob Mould, although strangely he hasn’t always given it to me.

I can still recall riding home from my local record store (Hot Poop in Walla Walla, Washington) in the summer of 1983 with a copy of Hüsker Dü’s first album, Everything Falls Apart in a bag slung over the handlebars of my ten speed. I remember thinking how different it was from most of the punk records that I was listening to in those days. The guitar sounded thick, not tinny as on so many early punk releases, and Bob Mould’s voice had a note of melancholy that I found gripping. I listened to it again and again, especially “Gravity,” the breakdown section of which still makes the hair rise on the back of my neck.

Metal Circus, released in the fall of that year, moved their game forward considerably. The recording was better, the songs more compact and aggressive. The lyrics had developed too, addressing topics like alcoholism, rape, and political violence at a level above the standard punk polemics, but in a way that was accessible, at least to my adolescent way of thinking.

The next summer the band released Zen Arcade, one of the most complex, inventive, and challenging records that the punk rock underground ever produced. At the time I was not exactly sure what to make of it. It had songs like “Something That I Learned Today” and “Pink Turns to Blue” that seemed to build on the melodic direction of their earlier work. But it also had things like the Hare Krishna chant and “Reoccuring Dreams” that made me think that perhaps they’d taken a little bit too much acid while in the studio (which may not have been too far from the truth).

I got New Day Rising while I was away at camp in Minnesota, about six months after it came out. It was much more coherent and direct than its predecessor. Clearly, Hüsker Dü were moving in a more pop direction, and this caused a lot of debate within the punk scene as to whether that was ok. I was fine with it. Their sound was developing, and the fact of the matter was that they continued to write songs that I found compelling. Well, when I say “they” I really mean Bob Mould. I was just never a fan of Grant Hart’s music. It seemed too reminiscent of the pop music of the 1960s, and to me that was one of the things against which the new music was rebelling. Bob Mould’s songs were expansive and melodic without looking backward, and that was what kept me listening.

If New Day Rising provided the anthemic backdrop to the summer of 1985, that winter’s soundtrack was Flip Your Wig. Hüsker Dü’s music was changing, their lyrics becoming more introspective. I listened to “Green Eyes” a lot (the rare Grant Hart song that I really liked) because it reminded me of a girl I had a crush on. But the song that really stuck with me was “Games,” where Bob Mould struggled to come to terms with what it meant to be prominent, and the meaning of fame more generally. I had never really thought about that before. I always assumed that being famous would be great, and that anybody who complained about it must be some sort of jerk. It had never occurred to me that it might be troubling to have so many strangers care about your opinion, probably since in those days very few people gave a crap about mine. [Not that it’s much different today, I just care about it less…]

Hüsker Dü and I parted ways in 1986. I moved to Nottingham and got very involved in the European crust/d-beat scene. But I did know that the shift to Warner Bros. had caused a lot of turbulence among the band’s existing fan base. As I recall, Bob Mould actually wrote a piece in the January 1986 edition of Maximum Rock n Roll trying to explain and justify the jump to all the people who had followed them in the underground scene. The people that I was hanging around with in those days, mostly anarchists, squatter, hunt saboteurs, and the like, were completely dismissive of this. I too felt kind of betrayed, but I was also suspicious about what the demands of major label production would do to the band’s sound.

When I got back I ran into by best friend Chris, who had loved the band as I did. I asked him about their most recent release, Candy Apple Grey.

“It sucks,” he said, “don’t bother.” And I didn’t. I probably didn’t listen to Candy Apple Grey, or its successor, the diffuse and directionless Warehouse: Songs and Stories, for 15 years. When I finally did I didn’t really like either one. Candy Apple Grey just sounds empty to me, and whether that’s a matter of the producers trying to mute Mould‘s overwhelming guitar tones, or my own residual feelings of betrayal (or some combination of the two) I still don’t have enough personal distance to say. The songs on Warehouse (with one or two exceptions) have always sounded to me like outtakes from the sessions for the previous album.

Nor did I listen to Bob Mould’s first solo release, Workbook, at least not more than a couple of times. At that point I was still morally opposed to solo releases by people who’d been in bands that I loved. To me it smacked of self-indulgence. I did buy (and am still one of the few people to really enjoy) Black Sheets of Rain, after I read a review of it in Rolling Stone that began:

If you thought Bob Mould’s angst-ridden solo debut, Workbook, was a blast of heavy weather, you’ll need a steel umbrella to withstand the torrential distortion and gale-force rage of Black Sheets of Rain. This album contains none of Workbook‘s pensive acoustic eloquence or diligent guitar orchestration. Black Sheets of Rain is nothing more, or less, than a long, loud howl of pain – blinding anger, unremitting loveache, debilitating loneliness – broadcast from power-trio hell.

I think that record only sold about 7000 copies (I bought two). The recording quality was remarkably bad. It sounded like Mould was in one room and the two guys from the Golden Palominos were in another, and they just hadn’t bothered to integrate the tracks. Still, that record spoke (and speaks) to me in a way that Workbook never did. I went and saw him on tour that year. The show was actually a lot better than the record, at least in terms of how it sounded. For an encore he came out alone with his acoustic guitar and played some Hüsker Dü songs (I don’t remember which ones but it was great). Then the rest of the band came back on stage and they played one of the best versions of Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” that I’ve ever heard in my life.

Mould’s next project, Sugar, started out strong for me. Copper Blue was a fabulous record. It was a bit of a change for Mould in the sense that his guitar was slightly more muted and better integrated with the other musicians. It still had the same compelling melodies that had defined his music from the outset and the lyrics were heartfelt and, in the case of “The Slim” unbearably moving. Having said all that, I really didn’t get into either Beaster or File under Easy Listening. It’s not that they were bad records, I just didn’t like the songs.

Then I sort of lost touch again. This was in part due to the fact that the mainline of my tastes runs to things harder and faster. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read few of my posts that I spend my time listening to Skit System, and Disfear, and Martyrdöd and that I generally don’t have a lot of time for things melodic and/or mainstream. I listening to Bob Mould (1996) and The Last Dog and Pony Show (1998) maybe once or twice apiece, but they just didn’t grab me and I consigned Bob Mould to the ranks of artists from whose work my tastes had moved on. This was a sad thing for me. Every now and then I would spin up Metal Circus or  New Day Rising and wish that there was something that tapped whatever it was that I loved about those records for me again. But it didn’t happen.

Then last year I was up late at night and I happened to be watching David Letterman. This in itself was real serendipity, since I haven’t watched a whole episode of that in the better part of a decade. But I was watching and I happened to catch Bob Mould do a couple of songs from what was at that point his most recent album (Beauty and Ruin, 2014). And they were burning. Apparently they were performed at such volume that dust shook down from the rafters. In that moment I thought, “Ok, I’ve gotten enough joy from this guy’s music that I’ll give whatever he puts out at least a chance.

So now we come to his latest release, Patch the Sky. Like his preceding two records (Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin), it’s out on Merge Records, and his association with this label seems to have come about at the same time as the move away from the sort of navel-gazy period that he went through in the oughties. I’ve now gone back and listened to most of those records, and I don’t feel like I missed that much. Patch the Sky, however, rocks quite as hard as his other Merge releases (i.e. hard).

The opening cut on Patch the Sky is the kind of Sugar-esque “Voices in My Head,” pleasing but not mindblowing. But the then Patch finds its stride with the over the top, overdriven melodicism of “The End of Things” (which could perhaps be the theme song for my life right now). “Hold On” is a minor key rocker that wouldn’t have been out of place on Black Sheets of Rain, but is better recorded and mixed than any of the cuts on that record.

“You Say You” features another one of those broad, exuberant melodies that Mould had been churning out for the best part of four decades. “Losing Sleep” pulls things back to a more contemplative place, but maintains the fullness of the albums overall sonic profile with some well-considered chordal additions from bassist Jason Narducy. And perhaps this is moment to say that the players that Mould is now working with are, for my money, the best that he has worked with since the 1980s. Narducey and drummer Jon Wurster seem to have a visceral understanding of what Mould is trying to accomplish and fill out the sound without stepping on it.

“Pray for Rain” is another that evinces Sugar pretty strongly, joyfully spinning through series of dense and beautiful sonic landscapes at foot-tapping tempo. “Lucifer and God” slows things down again but with a spiraling melodic overlay that gives the song a lush, almost intoxicating groove. “Daddy’s Favorite” seriously sounds like it could have been recorded by Ozzy Osbourne, with a wealth of sorts of metallic guitar overlays that give Mould‘s compositions their more hard rocking dimension. “Hands Are Tied” is a straight ahead melodic punk tune that wouldn’t have been out of place on New Day Rising or Flip Your Wig.

An so it goes. The songs change focus and tempo, but the overall content is consistent and the quality is consistently high. Patch the Sky is more than just a suitable companion to Silver Age and Beauty and Ruin. It is, to my ear at least, the place that those discs were going. Bob Mould seems to have rediscovered the muscular melodies that have driven his music since the 1980s, and his latest return to form gives one hope that the well of creativity from which he has for so long drawn has not yet run try.

The End of Capitalism

Posted in Dispatches with tags , , on August 13, 2016 by Magadh

The video below is kind of boring, so those people who come to this site to find information about music and more interesting things might be a bit disappointed. I’m posting this because it pretty much expresses my view about things, in case anyone is interested. Streeck’s book, Buying Time is, so far as I am concerned, the most important analysis of modern conditions available today. You’ll have to judge for yourselves.

Wynonna Earp

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on August 5, 2016 by Magadh

earpAround the middle of May, my friend M. texted me.

“I’m just going to tell you that I am obsessed with Wynonna Earp.”

A lot of my friendship with M. centers on comics, and we had talked about whether we might watch the show in the months before it premiered, if only because it was being heavily advertised in the books we were both reading.

M. thought that the original comic hadn’t been that impressive and so she wasn’t terribly excited for the show. After that we didn’t really talk about it, so I was surprised when I got her text. I know M. well enough to know that if she likes something it’s generally worth checking, so as soon as I got home I fired up Amazon streaming and tucked into the available episodes. I’ll be honest, the opening scene didn’t really grab me. But as the first episode went on I was hooked. I watched the rest of episodes over the course of the next few days I got through the first seven episodes. Then I called M.

“Are you up to date on Wynonna Earp.”

“Yeah. Now I have to wait for the new episode like a peasant.”

True enough, but now we each had something to look forward to on Friday night.

Friday after Friday the show got better and better, and when the credits rolled on Episode 13 M. and I agreed that the people running the show had created a real brilliancy. If only Syfy would have the sense to renew it.

“They’re sending the cast to Comic-Con,” M. assured me. “They wouldn’t be doing that unless they were going to renew it.” I wasn’t sure I entirely shared her confidence, but you couldn’t deny the logic of her position. In the meantime both of us started embracing the world of Wynonna Earp fan culture, especially on Twitter.  I think the first thing that either of us discovered was Oblivious Wynonna (@ObliviousWyn) which is still my favorite of the (many) Twitter feeds out there. As things went on I think we both felt more and more ingrained in the fan community as we (and everyone else) waited to see if Syfy would do the right thing. And, to all of our collective relief, they did.

This is a show that I think more people should be watching. And maybe people who know me will be surprised by this. Well, I thought I might talk about some of the reasons that I love this show, and maybe that will convince some more people to get on the team here.

1. Wynonna. She’s one of those rare figures in modern popular culture: a young woman who takes charge of her own agency. She doesn’t need a father, or a brother, or a boyfriend, or whoever to tell her what to do. She does her best to figure things out and then acts on that basis. Sometimes she makes mistakes. That’s ok. That means she’s human, not that she needs someone else telling her how she should live her life. She has control of her own sexuality as well. If she wants to sleep with Doc, she does. If she wants to sleep with Dolls, she does. And it’s not assumed that she has a capital “R” relationship with either one just because she did. If that happens it will be because both parties want and accept it. And if Wynonna wants to do something else, she will. This doesn’t mean she’s closed off from people. It just means that she wants to do things her way. Society doesn’t like this, from anybody really, but especially not from young women who are supposed to be in need of some sort of guidance and structure. As a character, Wynonna doesn’t give in to that narrative. At all. It’s refreshing.

2. WayHaught. Homosexuality is a thing. It’s normal. People just need to get over it. The community of nerds and scifi fans are no less given to homophobia than anyone else in American society. So it’s pretty cool to see a show in the scifi genre that just assumes this to be the case. The people running the show don’t feel the need to turn it into some kind of tortured passion play. Waverly and Haught are attracted to each other. They’re consenting adults and they act on their attractions. Full stop. There doesn’t need to be anything more to it than that, just two people who love each other. It’s nice to see a show for once treat this topic as if it were a part of normal human experience.

3. Bury the gays. Emily Andras should get the Nobel Peace Prize for the kick to the groin that she dealt this nauseating trope. I’ve got a piece on this topic brewing for Souciant.com, so I’m not going to say too much about it here. But it was nice that Emily Andras has assured the fans that neither Waverly nor Nicole were going to be killed off in the finale. So when Nicole caught a bullet in Episode 13, it was kind of cool in the sense that a) we all knew she was going to get back up, and b) the vast majority of the people watching the show knew that it was essentially a statement that being gay wasn’t going to be a death sentence (as it all too often is elsewhere).

4. The story-telling. In Wynonna Earp the pace of things can seem a little breathless, but that’s because they don’t really spend too much time on back story. They tell you things when they are necessary, but the people running the show see pretty confident in letting the viewers’ imaginations fill in the gaps unless it’s something that absolutely necessary to have nailed down. It’s all too easy for shows like this to get bogged down in the attempt to give the full background of every event. I think that show runners must feel like this makes for nuanced storytelling, but often it just seems to mire the narrative in unnecessary detail. Wynonna Earp preserves a lot of the feel of its comic book origins in the sense that it tells its story in discrete, manageable chunks. Also, they didn’t really bother with monster-of-the-week episodes, by and large anyway. Pretty much everything that happened moved the story forward and that did a lot to keep me feeling like a war rolling along with events.

5. This.

6. The fan community. I absolutely love Wynonna Earp fans. They’re sweet and funny and they are nice to each other. I must be hooked up on about twenty different Twitter feeds, from Wynonna Earp Fans, to Oblivious Wynonna, to Haught’s Handcuffs, to Doc’s Moustache, and many others, and pretty much every day I see something that makes me laugh. I heartily recommend the “Tales of the Black Badge” podcast anyone who wants to dig a little deeper. I guess one thing that I like in particular is that as a group, Wynonna Earp fans are inclusive. I’m a hetero white male. I see myself reflected everywhere in society, and it gets really boring. So it’s nice to be associated with a fan community in which queer friendliness is simply assumed. It’s nice not having to discuss it. And I don’t mean this in the kind of phoney way that a lot of people will say that they’re glad that they don’t have to talk about it because they’re frightened by difference and want to ignore it. I mean it in the sense that it’s just assumed to be a way that people are and it’s embraced by everybody.

I haven’t had many days lately quite as happy as the one when I found out that the show had been renewed. I was driving home from work when M. texted me with the news. She and another friend had been watching the Comic-Con session with the stars of the show on Periscope and let me know in real time. I really should have stopped for a coffee or something on the way home, because I knew that the announcement was happening then and, as it was, a nearly got in a car wreck through sheer joy. They got a ten episode run starting in Spring and I can wait to see what they do for an encore. Until then I’ll be reading Oblivious Wynonna tweets and revelling in the joy of my fellow Earpers.

Review: War on Women

Posted in Reviews with tags , , on August 4, 2016 by Magadh

War on Women s/t Bridge 9 Records

wowI always like seeing women break into the rock and roll boys club. I’ve heard about as many songs about man pain as I can stand at this point. Truth to tell, the thing I always liked about the underground scene was the space that it set up for women to express themselves outside the framework of dude-centered culture. And thus I was so often disappointed when the same old dude-centric tropes seemed always to be reproduced, whatever the rhetoric of inclusion might have suggested.

It’s been my privilege to see a lot of women with powerful souls getting their rock on. I wish everyone could have seen Tam Simpson fronting Sacrilege in their heyday, inscribing the poetry of the apocalypse across their blistering metal swirl. That was brilliant, but it was one woman in a four piece, and if it’s not quite fair to say that that doesn’t count, still it doesn’t seem to quite get to the cultural place of bands like Bikini Kill or Sleater-Kinney in which women were the entire creative force.

Baltimore’s War on Women is a hybrid between these two conditions. Three out of the five members are women, including singer Shawna Potter, guitarist Nancy Hornburg, and bassist Suzanne Werner. But War on Women’s feminism is not so much a matter of having women at the skill positions (although that’s important too) but in their unabashed and unapologetic political stance. From their name, to the cover of their most recent eponymous release (which gets my vote for best of the decade), to their forthright discussions of topics like rape, abortion, and dude culture on the internet, this is a band whose values are front and center, and whose way of expressing them takes no prisoners.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that their message is delivered in a musical voice that would make you sit up and listen even if they didn’t have something important to say. There’s a lot of this disc that sounds like Swiz without the metallic overtones, or a slightly less melodic take on early Dag Nasty. But then there are also plenty of passages that are simple, fist-to-the-jaw punk, and the mixture makes for very interesting listening.

War on Women ticks all the boxes. They’re a punk band that actually has something to say, which is, frankly, all too rare (and not just these days). This is something that underground music (to say nothing of American culture generally) needs more of. War on Women demand to be taken on their own terms and to have their commitments heard and taken seriously. And they rock, which doesn’t hurt at all. They’re on tour in Europe now, and if you live over there, go see them. Yes, you.

For more on War on Women

https://bitchmedia.org/post/meet-baltimore-feminist-hardcore-band-war-on-women

https://waronwomen.bandcamp.com/music

https://www.reverbnation.com/waronwomen

http://www.bridge9.com/waronwomen

Dischord

Posted in Dispatches on August 2, 2016 by Magadh

The-Faith-1980s-hardcore--007

Finally getting around to publishing things here again. Writing for Souciant.com has been sucking up all my time, and then of course there’s my job. Anyway, I have lots of stuff to post up here, which will really get going tomorrow. Until then, I leave you with this…

Dischord Records has now put up (as far as I can tell) all of their releases on Bandcamp. I love this. From Teen Idols, to The Faith, to Scream, to Rites of Spring, and so many more, this music was the soundtrack to my youth. I love putting it on Bandcamp as well. I was never to much about the objects anyway, so digital download is fine with me. Anyway, this is an absolute trove of interesting stuff. Do yourself a favor and check out Fire Party, or SOA, or Egg Hunt, or…well, you get the idea.