Sunday, March 07, 2010

Souvenir Parts 3: Guys With Guitars

Continuing a look at the albums that logged the most spins on my stereo over the Aughts.

Fugazi, Red Medicine
XTC, Drums and Wires

As the first few pages were torn off the 2002 calendar, my mood was gradually improving. I'd spent the winter listening to records that were series of bloody gut-punches from start to finish - Big Black, the Jesus Lizard, and especially the Birthday Party's live album. It had helped sooth my uglier moods, but it was a strictly passive activity: I was without a band & living in a one-bedroom where I daren't plug in any instruments for fear of upsetting my alkie wife-beating neighbour. Stuck noodling on an unplugged SG, I at least wanted to play along to tunes that were a little more energetic than "Nick the Stripper". I was neither ambitious nor studious enough to tackle the finger-sports athleticism of the Dillinger Escape Plan, and a workplace feud had put me right off the gentler dexterity of finger-picked folk guitar.

So I settled on Fugazi's "deal-breaker" record, Red Medicine - often derided by the hardcore faithful for not being "punk" enough, yet too wry & recondite for emo fucks clutching copies of Diary to their chests. Which is exactly why I loved it so much: every repeat listen revealed a new harmonic warp or timbral weft, wrapped up with scathingly funny lyrics. Obviously, it was just a lot of fun to pinball around my living room jamming along to "Bed For the Scraping", but it was equally enjoyable to unravel the ambiguous, serpentine melodies of "Fell, Destroyed" or "Long-Distance Runner", or to parse the guitar-tone patchwork of "Latest Disgrace" or "Birthday Pony". It was impossible to tire of this record.

But Red Medicine also boasted a lot of hooks - not something often associated with post-hardcore slash-and-burn. By the early Aughts, there was already a glut of bands who squeezed every last histrionic drop out of the soft-loud dynamic, who screamed like drama queens, and who could purposefully hammer away at root/relative-minor chords. But Fugazi crafted choruses that could be sung, not just shouted; their riffs were armorial & memorable; and there was swing & groove in their rhythms.

This lead to the (incredibly late) realization that, perhaps, nuanced songwriting really mattered. Blisteringly obvious, I know, but remember that I'd preferred Zappa to Zeppelin and Mike Patton to Pavement over the course of my adolescence. During that time, one band that had been just compositionally perverse enough to attract my attention was XTC. I found it hysterical that a hyperactive pop romp like "Scissor Man" was actually about a serial killer, and the staccato clangor of "Paper and Iron (Notes and Coins)" sounded like Fugazi playing at being the Beatles. I'd also never heard low-gain guitar tones that still attacked with such crackle & whizz. Concerned I'd been buying all these distortion pedals for nowt, I became a little obsessed with this production trick, and so my fandom of XTC became slightly self-congratulatory when, of the various low-volume home-recording experiments I'd been conducting, one of my most successful had been in recreating Andy Partridge's guitar tone on the Black Sea record.

(There was also the fact that XTC had written the unequivocably anti-theistic "Dear God", wherein Partridge kept the tone intelligent and didn't resort to pseudo-occult faith-baiting. This song could be a musical madstone for a young atheist living in the dogmatically faithful United States.)

Though Black Sea is arguably my favourite XTC album, it sags in the middle such that I spent calculably more time listening to Drums And Wires. Also, though Drums is far more sapient & eccentric than the forgettable, naive New Wave of the first two records, it's still got the pluck & pathos that disappeared from XTC's music after 1982, as they fossilized into more of a fastidious songwriting workshop than a band. Consequently, Drums was a reasonable blueprint off which to work as I first attempted writing an entire song in a single key, or slowly accepted that repeating a motif more than once didn't automatically make a song "boring."

And to think that the album I listened to most frequently last year was Dopesmoker. I've come a long way, baby.

Next: Going to extremes and retreating.

1 comment:

James said...

Too funny. Good to have you back.