HEY! Get updates to this and the CD and 7" blogs via Twitter: @VinylUnderbite

26 June 2012

Devo - 'Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!' (Warner Bros)

A great detail of the creepy cover art is that the hat of this über-man says "ACTUAL SIZE" on it. I love early Devo. What a brilliant, incredible fucking band, and what makes it even greater is that they're still at it, and have lived their concept to fruition. Ryko put out some CDs called Hardcore Devo back in the 90s, which were culled from sessions and demos recorded before this album - it's some of their most brilliant and fractured music, and I wish a vinyl version existed (update: the first volume came out as a French fanclub release!). Devo is a wolf in sheep's clothing; though they are remembered for their pop success and the quirk/novelty factor, they're truly one a dedicated and furious group of art radicals. The Hardcore stuff really makes that clear as much of it seems sexist and stupid but is really just truly misanthropic. Elements of that certainly remained by the time they made it to the major label here ('Sloppy (I Saw My Baby Gettin')' being one such track, and of course 'Uncontrollable Urge') but there's an undeniable pop fury which strangely presaged edgy new wave music while not having anything to do with that stuff. The discordant basslines and meandering guitar licks are not a million miles away from what Talking Heads were doing at the time, though it's more fragmented; but I think Mothersbaugh's distinctive yelp, surely the most identifiable feature of Devo, is also remniscent of Byrne's. I like Talking Heads but it's silly to compare them, and they don't hold a candle to Devo. This is a work of utter genius, a truly subversive pop record that after 30+ years is still a pretty distinctive vision. Side two opens up with two of Devo's greatest numbers, also showing both of their sides. 'Too Much Paranoias' is a bit of No Wave insanity and then 'Gut Feeling' is a triumphant and powerful ascent through the gates of heavenly melody. Most of the Devo classics are found on this album or the next, save 'Whip It' -- 'Mongoloid', 'Jocko Homo', and 'Come Back Jonee' for example are found here. The cover of 'Satisfaction' is far more than novelty - it follows from the masturbation epic 'Uncontrollable Urge' and reduced the pyrotechnics of rock to latent, broken bursts. Eno produced this record, and it's surprisingly 'rock' - Eno was clearly smart enough to emphasise Devo's best asset, which was their prowess as a musical unit. This actually could sound far more futuristic, but Devo were anything but futurists - it's really about the earth starting to corkscrew backwards, fueled by hatred of man's civilisation.

24 June 2012

Destroyer - 'This Night' (Scratch)

Once again, a great Destroyer album has somewhat forgettable artwork, and lists the track titles right on the front cover. But this is a step forward for sure - a leap to a major indie label (and his home ever since, on Merge, though this LP is actually on Canadian label Scratch) and a leap towards larger production and more expansive songwriting. At two LPs, This Night is just a slight bit too long, but contains some of Dan Bejar's most magnificent performances. One way to read This Night is that Bejar feared this would be his only chance so he tried to make a statement - a great, sprawling double-LP masterpiece-of-intention. Right from the beginning we can hear it - the long, spacious title track seems to pull back the neurotic intensity heard on the last few records in favour of just letting it breathe, man. The production has tons of echo, reverb around his voice, and the dry, scratchy tinniness is nowhere to be found. The electric guitars rage, the keyboards are more atmospheric than lead-based, and Bejar sounds confident throughout. I believe 'Crystal Country' is made great by it's sinewy guitar licks, taking it in a surprising Crazy Horse direction while still giving space to his familiar cadences. 'The Chosen Few' is a frantic, Spanish-influenced acoustic number that's in my Destroyer top 5 -- in fact, I remember when I got my current speakers, I guess 10 years ago, this was on the turntable and 'The Chosen Few' was the first track I listened to through them.  The lyric associations are less rooted in indie culture as on Streethawk, though 'Trembling Peacock' is as autobiographical as we'll ever get from Bejar (more-so than 'Self Portrait with Thing'), and it's touching (and with the same dramatic rushes found on Thief). Everything feels much more sketch-like than we've heard before; the songs have a lazy swing sometimes, and the lyrics feel almost improvised. 'Hey, Snow White' is barely a song compared to the precision shown before, and I find that to be the best and worst thing about This Night. It's great that this record stands out against his others, and I've always liked to view albums as total concepts, moods to stand alone. I don't find myself pulling it out very often, but then again, it's a somewhat demanding listen; the songs are all long and seem to never quite know when to finish. The biggest exception is the closing cut, 'The Night Moves', which feels like a holdover from the Streethawk era with it's direct 4/4 rhythm and wordless chorus, a throwback to the 'You've got the spirit' code of 'The Bad Arts'. Elsewhere, there's goodness everywhere. 'Here Comes the Night' feels written to be a hit, and it's catchy, though never one of the great Destroyer songs for me. Despite the dark artwork and nocturnal lyrics throughout (three songs with 'night' in the title, versis one with 'white' and one with 'light'), I associate this album more with warm summer days, maybe due to the tube-based warmth of the production. After this, Bejar starts to really experiment - Your Blues and Kaputt are total departures, and Trouble in Dreams and overly wordy mess; only Rubies from the later record has the same magic as this one, a 'return to form' for sure, though that's not to say I don't love parts of all of 'em.