“Follow us, comrade aviators,” the rhythm-and-punk Gang of Four called out to fellow travelers everywhere on 1980’s Entertainment!: “Swim into the abyss.” Well, OK, not exactly—that wasn’t Go4 speaking; it was the painter-theorist Kasimir Malevich in the barely post-revolution, still civil-war-torn Soviet dis-Union of 1920. But that was the spirit (or one of them) the band’s intoxicatingly serious daredevil music channeled. A nonstop sonic montage juxtaposing dialectical agitprop (“Ideal love a new purchase/A market for the senses”) with jump-cutting, jigsaw abstraction, it merely promised that the world as we knew and (presumably) hated it could, lie by spectacular lie, be dismantled, put to shame, then remade from the ground-zero up. The idea was to overthrow the social system by means of an intractable, (presumably) seductive sound only a relative handful of people even knew or cared about: 20-odd years later, the hardest thing to explain is how coherent and undeniably self-evident that rigorously organized noise seems.
It’s that sound, that promise (cultural workers of the world, um, unite), which the New Jersey band Suran Song in Stag seek to reincarnate. Their valiant, funny, and curiously poignant Cowboys and Indians is a two-disc, 18-tune, 65-minute album that not only includes taut, faithful remakes of Entertainment!‘s “I Found That Essence Rare” and “Natural’s Not in It,” but offers a virtual cover version of that album’s Situationist-inspired, Cowboy-duping-Injun sleeve art itself. Currently a gang of three (besides vocalist-conceptualist Suran Song—the only grrrl among band boys, hence the rather unfortunate moniker—there’s co-conspirator/bassist-guitarist William Weis and drummer Brad Yablonsky), the group has impeccable and wittily inclusive modern-rock references. They also take a ballsy (albeit suicidal) flying fuck at the Pretenders’ untouchable “Tattooed Love Boys,” rescue “My Mother the War” from the genteel dustbin of 10,000 Maniacs, and revamp Duran Duran’s “Friends of Mine” as a Rocky Horror bash for everyone’s favorite closet case (“Marshall Mathers is coming out”—break out the insertable party favors!). Their own “Overman” lifts a riff from Heart’s Jurassic-rock standard “Barracuda” and adds an Oscar-bait sample from Gandhi—a marriage of contradictions made in Brechtian heaven.
The SSIS Web site, where Cowboys and Indians along with the embryonic Shiny Objects and the bare-bones duo Pure Agitator can be conveniently purchased—features a diagram of their portable “Agit-Stage,” a Constructivist-inspired, generator-powered trailer for bringing their “guerrilla shows” to the masses (propaganda-art travels by U-Haul: downscale shades of Medvedkin’s Kino-Train). In performance, Song has been known to mount stilts, but more often, she uses her body as a slide-show screen for projected images. On Cowboys and Indians, her voice performs a similar function. At once fiercely engaged and disembodied, she’s a proper idealist conducting a séance for the ghosts of radical Christmases past. “How do you feel at the end of the day?” she sings in a sentimental old anthem of the Jam’s. “Just like you walked over your own grave.” Listening to the conviction she brings to the Lords of the New Church’s sinister, hokey, and still irresistible “Open Your Eyes,” you can’t help realizing how different the world is now from then—that 1982’s left-wing laundry list in 2001 comes off like nothing so much as Timothy McVeigh’s Top 10 Rationales—without being entirely sure where sincerity leaves off and ye olde world-historic irony begins. (The kazoo horn section is a nice touch either way.)
As Suran Song in Stag’s good fight demands to be measured against the Gang of Four’s paradoxical moment, the one thing that exceeds their grasp is a sense of the social abyss—the pure, nihilist unreason driving capitalism and revolutionary fantasies alike. Though by the second disc of Cowboys and Indians, composed mostly of the band’s own material, Song herself begins to find an insinuating voice that hints at the freedoms and enigmas previously found by Lora Logic, the Au Pairs’ Lesley Woods, and Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall. Closing out with the more-subtle-than-its-title “Brainwash Soda/Guerrilla Pop” and “Velvet Crush,” in which mundane details are rendered as ethereal dreamscapes and vice versa, the band steps out of the long shadow of history and takes a baby step into the unknown.
Cruel Music, cruelmusic.com.
Suran Song in Stag play Arlene Grocery July 6.