By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
I can't hear this music and not think "early-'80s new wave girl-pop style," so I feel that the music is being applied rather than created, as if the sound were in place before anyone actually played it. Whether deliberate or not, there's a distanced effect. Maybe that's felt as some kind of strength, as if it says, "We're not what you see and hear; we're the puppet masters backstage, the ones pulling the strings." (Unexplained sentence fragment in my notebook: "rush of beauty on a whoosh of sound; this one the beauty lives deeper.")
For sure, all performers play with their identities. All human beings play with their identities, sometimes to find ones they like to inhabit, sometimes to find ones that are an interesting alternative to the ones that they normally inhabit. But why do Fabulous Disaster choose one so clearly and nonvirulently not now? Well, maybe for them it's what allows them to ride a whoosh into beauty. In fact, this is my favorite album so far this year. I perceive them at a distance, but I feel the high harmonies and the drum crash just fine. Anything that works.
Fabulous Disaster are just one of a slew of mostly female mostly good mostly retro punk bands I've been enjoying lately. Another is Detroit's Gore Gore Girls, who sound totally ripped and fried, not like go-go girlsat least not like go-gos onstage, though maybe like go-gos after stage, their minds fried and battered. Everything about the Gore Gores' Strange Girls (Get Hip Recordings) is fried. My eardrum got fried listening to them. Everyone seems to be playing Telecasters with the treble on superbright, the woofers and tweeters all torn up, the CD recorded in the girls' lavatory at Detroit's East Central Death and Atomic Warfare High School. The microphone has marbles in it. Occasionally, the girls grow weary of shredding their vocal cords, and come through with sweet, clear harmonies while the electric storm swirls around them. Since the sound is essentially slash-your-face-and-throw-rocks-at-the-window, it all registers as extreme punk; but the musical underpinnings come from several different sources: high-wailing girl group, early-Kinks freneticism, garage rock, rockabilly, girlabilly, rockagirly. And despite all the wind and sleet, there is form and beauty, amidst the gore. The ongoing storm has diminishing returns, howeverwith the needle always in red, a lot of the sound is muffled. But three songs stand out as incredible energy and great songwritingone might compare them to a certain great, long-defunct Detroit band that many groups are compared to but none really sounds like, and indeed the Gore Gore Girls don't have the whole dance-around-and-toss-the-notes-back-and-forth motion of said mythical band; but nonetheless on these three songs guitar-player Amy Surdu proves she's mastered James Williamson's fast guitar vamps and lightning melodies. Damn exciting, for those three songs, and restlessly sweet on many of the others. I'm curious what they'd do with a recording budget.
The Candy Ass Orgy EP is on Rock And Fucking Roll Records, though perhaps this is a Rock And Roll Fucking Record as well, given that the cover has the three Candy Ass women dolled up in fake furs and high heels in a police lineup. The promo page describes them as "tough sluts," which makes them a pleasant relief from all the gangsta bitches and street hoes I've been listening to recently. Like the Fab Disasters, these women have "style" as well as a stylethough with a discrepancy between the two, since the guitarist is playing a Pistols-Buzzcocks buzzsaw while the singer glides by in her limo, polishing her Debbie Harry sheen. It's a fun combination, energetic, spelling NASTY in capital letters, but it doesn't hit me with a lot of emotion. The stylization allows them to play at being shallow while also stepping aside and being . . . whatever you are when you're standing next to shallowness: shallow, maybe?
The Norwegian band Mensen model themselves after '70s bands that began with the letter R, such as the Ramones and Radio Birdman and the Rubettes (Mensen's lineup: Mary Currie, Christine Ford, Lars Fox, Tiny West; promo copy lists no producer, but I suspect Sven "Boethius" Fowley). I haven't decided whether Mensen represent the fecundity or the sterility of reiterating '70s glam-punk. Their CD Delusions of Grandeur (Gearhead) is very good on the many tracks where the melodies are very good, and is entertaining throughout. But even more than on the Fabulous Disaster CD, the music is hamstrung by unrelenting drum oom-whomp and nonstop power chords. In music where the rhythm has no integral relation to the melody, the melody has to be greatly beautiful all on its own to keep things interesting, and greatly beautiful is not a frequent achievement. Bands such as the Ramones were frequently greatly beautiful, but they lived and died on their melodies, and when the melodies weren't compelling, the rest of their music wasn't either. So really I think this power-chord-plus-march-beat template is a dead end unless the melody can have more to do with the bass, drums, and guitar.
Thug Murder: a Japanese punk band. The booklet for their CD, The 13th Round (TKO), translates the lyrics into English. About two-thirds of the way through I realized that the singer was singing in English, actually, and that I wasn't reading a translation but the words themselves. So then I had great fun trying to match up voice and lyric. There was a relationship of some sort, just not the one I'm used to. Maybe this was the singer's punk equivalent to free jazz: You sing not the word itself but a sound that takes into account the word. So you're free of the word but not indifferent to it.
The music is derived from Clash-Pogues-Rancid-Dropkick Murphys. I remember when I first heard The Clash LP in 1978 it sounded like something new in music: more deeply British Isles than any hard rock I had ever heard. It was haunting, yet it hooked right into the march beats that punk was introducing into rock while also hooking into the band's Chuck Berry and New York Dolls rock'n'roll heritage. I'm surprised that so few groups since then have done anything with this type of sound, which the Clash themselves eventually abandoned. Thug Murder have three tracks or so that achieve a bit of Clash beauty, though they don't take it anywhere new, except to give it not only a Clash-like vocal squall but a Japanese accent. They can't sustain the beauty for the length of the CD, though they do sustain the squall.
Of courseobvious pointpunk women back in the day like X-Ray Spex, the Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Raincoats, etc., took the lesson of bands like the Clash and Sex Pistols not to be "sound like the Clash and Pistols" but rather "invent your own sound." The Slits, for instance, at first made me think of escaped madrigal singers from the zoo, and it took me many days to figure out what the hell they were doing and how great they were. Whereas now we have all these non-inventors going back 20, 30 years for their sound, yet sounding good too. There's no law that says they can't sound good. And maybe bands likeespeciallythe Gore Gore Girls imitate an old sound of unruliness and recalcitrance and somehow come up with the energy of that unruliness, even if they do seem to be following punk rules and don't seem to have paid attention to any music from the last 30 years. (But then again, I don't know that my writing has taken in any new styles of rock criticism in the last 30 years. I mean, why should it? Why should I want it to? If someone told me that my rock criticism seemed more like 1971 than 2001, I'd feel complimented.)
It seems to me, though, that the styles that these new retro gals are going back to had never been all that firm and established back in their original day. So the retro bands are not maintaining old ways but rather reasserting ways that never quite happened. Which is to say that they go back to moments of transition that in history had never been the transition to anythingor perhaps had been the transition from lashout to lifestyle. But lifestyle is a disappointing outcome for punk.
In inventing their own music, real post-Pistol punks like the Raincoats inspired thousands of bands to make bohemian music for living your life rather than for changing your lifewhich in the long run led to music that's disappointing in comparison to the promise of punk's early years. So you could say that maybe some retro punk is going back further, back to the promise, and maybe in copying old sounds it is somehow getting that promise into the music. But promise of what? For Fab Disaster it's maybe that hard rock can, for about the sixth or seventh time in its history, re-insert tunefulness and playfulness into itself. (And maybe it can one day come halfway near to the energy and spirit you get every day on Radio Disney.) The Fabs' music contains interesting possibilities. The close harmonies genuinely hit my pleasure button, but close harmonies often shut down a lot of rhythmic and melodic excitement, since the easy way to use them is to sing in unison and stick to the chord. Basically the Fab Dissers get their rhythm by pasting a hard beat underneath. But the song I love the most, "Red Blister," happens to be the one that breaks into vocal interplay, which makes me hope that maybe they could evolve into geniuses like Brian Wilson and figure out how to get the voices to do harmony and rhythm and interplay all at once. But to do so they'd have to stop being true to their punk school and instead take in everything from doo-wop to Destiny's Child, with no guarantee that the results would sound better. Maybe what they do now is what will work best for them, after all.
The Gore Gore Girls seem like the band that actually lives emotionally in the long-lost era of not-there-yet-and-straining-to-break-through. Which is to say that maybe they're real punks. And maybe they could develop their music in unexpected ways, given that they haven't yet integrated their various song styles, unless you count playing everything through ripped speakers as a form of integration. I'm wondering what happens if somehow the James Williamson guitar-chording can connect itself to the various other styles that they heave their noise at: Kinks, Crystals, Sonics, and so forth. And what would be the musical result (or even the social result)? Can unreconstructed retro-punk brats actually move their sub-sub-sub-microworld off its duff?
I'd say that New York band The Color Guard make music for living your life as an ongoing artist or musicianas opposed to music for changing your life. And so naturally enough they seem to draw emotionally on the Raincoats, Au Pairs, Delta 5, and, um, the Raincoats, bands that had helped transform punk from "get pissed destroy" to "work your way onwards."
My main reaction to the Color Guard is that their music sounds like the sort of music that friends of mine would make. In particular, it sounds like the music that my friends in the San Francisco band She Mob would make. More generically, it's Music That People Like Me Would Make (or maybe I should say it's Music That People Who Like Me Would Make, since I'm more like Eminem than like people like me, and I probably wouldn't make music like this)or anyway, it's music that people who get into the same kinds of relationships as I do would make. ("Not My Valentine," the first and best song on the excellently relevant Color Guard EP [Suziblade Music], is about a girl with a boyfriend who won't commit. I wish I'd had this song during my most recent breakup. "I have insecurities too, and I am not afraid of you." My advice: Be afraid!)
The Color Guard have got homestyle guitar dreaminess and also the multi-vocal melodic-harmonic interplay that I was wishing Fab Disaster hadand in fact, they can bear comparison to the Raincoats in both creativity and feeling. That said, they don't have Fab Disaster's urgency or force, and there's an insistent lack of star power that I find annoying, as if they thought having unflamboyant vocals was an achievement (which is another problem with the "people like me" genre). They don't have Fabulous Disaster's immediate beauty, either. They do have non-immediate beauty, at least on the first two of their five tracks, and this beauty is just as beautiful as Fab's, and those two tracks are more musically and emotionally complex than any on these other girl-group CDs. Maybe the other girl groups pose a bit too much, while the Color Guard are too much themselves and don't pose enough, hence have less hunger in their singing. This is just a first EP, though, and who knows what's to come. My advice to them: Be more pretentious next time.
Gearhead, gearheadmagazine.com; Get Hip, gethip.com; Gore Gore Girls, goregoregirls.com; Pink & Black, pinkandblack.com; Rock And Fucking Roll, rafr.com; Suziblade, suziblade.com; TKO, tkorecords.com. The Color Guard play Galapagos August 19 and the Charleston in Williamsburg August 24.