NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 2)

wrong

Dear Matt,

Here is a crude summary of my feelings about punk.

I spent a long time hating punk entirely on principle, having heard none. I hated it for its attitude — for the notion that striving for excellence was somehow beside the point. I hated it for thinking that three chords were enough. I hated it for killing prog, which is ridiculous because it didn’t.

At the same time, I’ve always had a certain amount of respect for any counterculture. There are echoes of the hippies and glam rockers in punk, and there was a political situation that needed to be shouted at. I didn’t like how punk treated the prog rock “dinosaurs” as establishment symbols with no regard for how transgressive and countercultural those bands were in their own way, but the foundation was solid.

Basically, I’ve always admired punk for being angry about Thatcher — but I’ve always been suspicious of it for being angry about Yes.

I realize that all of this extends from an untenable way of thinking. Because, the punk I’m talking about here is not a version of punk that exists in a meaningful way. It’s a sort of textbook-defined, Platonic ideal ur-punk. (Basically, it’s the Sex Pistols.) As always, the real thing is messier and more complex. “Angry about Thatcher” isn’t a useful epithet when you’re talking about, say, a band from Victoria.

You may be interested to know that this is in fact not the first punk album I’ve heard straight through — it’s the second. The first was London Calling, as orthodox a punk selection as is available. And even that experience confronted me with the vast difference between my imagined punk and real punk.

Here was music with a certain amount of discipline. Restraint, even. The lyrics were thoughtful. The arrangements had been fussed over. Even after four sides of it, I didn’t feel like my precious aesthetic values had been disputed.

So, no. I don’t have a legitimate ideological conflict with punk. A personality clash, maybe. Punk likes to read Marx and get angry. I like to read Shakespeare comedies and chuckle to myself. Punk is freewheeling and likes being in rooms full of shouty people. I am fairly buttoned-up and like being in libraries. Punk thinks that breaking rules is a good idea. I was raised to be suspicious of people like that.

I don’t know if Rob and John Wright are people like that or not. I suspect both of them could have earned a decent crust playing jazz — that most regimented of spontaneous art forms — and I have no doubt that they spent countless hours honing their craft. Rob’s bass playing reminds me of Chris Squire and John Wetton, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that Nomeansno are King Crimson fans.

They also have a song called ‘Big Dick.’

I loved every fucking second of this album.

—Matthew

NoMeansNo: Wrong (pt. 1)

wrong

Dear Matthew:

I promised you that this project would involve you listening to some punk rock. The time has come. But fear not — I’m going to ease you into it. This week, you’ll be listening to NoMeansNo‘s seminal 1989 opus, Wrong.

It’s actually kind of hilarious that I’m using the word ‘ease’ in the same paragraph as NoMeansNo; they’re about the most challenging punk rock band I can think of. They’re mathy and jazzy and even sometimes a little proggy — words that are kind of hilarious to find in the same paragraph as ‘punk rock’ — but they’re also thrashy and angry and they infuse everything they do with an absolutely pitch-black sense of humour. So, the way I see it, they’re built on the bedrock of everything that’s great about punk rock, but they approach it with — well, with an approach to the craft that you’ll find more palatable.

At its core, NoMeansNo is the brothers Rob and John Wright, on bass/vocals and drums respectively. The pair from Victoria, BC, though the band is now based in Vancouver. Over the years, guitar and backup vocal duties have been handled by Andy Kerr (as they are on Wrong), and later by Tom Holliston, but unlike most punk rock, the guitar is mostly just flavour; Rob is definitely the frontman, his basslines always the musical main-mast. Live, the three play side by side on stage — with John facing Rob, so the audience gets a good look at John’s playing.

Here’s another thing about NoMeansNo: they’re old. Like, I’m pretty sure they’re older than my dad. That said, they continue to rock harder than any band of their vintage that you care to name, and they’re still putting out good records; 2006’s All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt is in a dead heat with Wrong for my favourite of theirs. I mean, I guess when you’re a band for 36 years, you get pretty good at playing with each other, but these guys all had the chops from the beginning — and they can still shred every lick just as hard as the day it was recorded. In case I haven’t made myself clear: if you get an opportunity to see them play, take it. I only hope I can rock half that hard when I’m that old.

Wrong itself is interesting for a lot of reasons. For one, the title is probably the clearest example of the ‘(W)right’/’wrong’-based wordplay in which in the band frequently engages. Rob was recovering from vocal chord nodules at the time, so it’s atypical in that it features a lot of vocals from then-guitarist Kerr. It’s also probably the best cross-section of the various things the band is capable of musically. There are short, old-school punk rock rippers like ‘Two Lips, Two Lungs and One Tongue’; sludgy, sprawling epics like the album closer ‘I Am Wrong’; and whatever you’d call the madness that is ‘Big Dick’. Wrong is all over the map, and I love it.

If you can’t get into punk rock, then hey, you can’t get into punk rock. I know it’s not for everyone. But for a man of your particular tastes, this is the best possible gateway drug I can think of. If this doesn’t work, I don’t know if anything will.

— Matt

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 2)

katebush

Dear Matthew:

I thought you told me this album was going to be weird.

OK, I mean, it’s a little out of the ordinary. The second side did get a little out there. (The brief highland dance interlude definitely blindsided me.) And Bush’s voice is certainly not a typical pop star voice. But mostly I was just like, yeah, I could get into this.

As I thought about it, I realized that’s because I already am.

Seinfeld (stay with me on this one) is widely considered to be one of the best, most successful, most groudbreaking television programs of all time. The so-called ‘show about nothing,’ following the often bizarre adventures of four borderline-sociopathic residents of New York City, completely revolutionized the world of primetime TV. But if you were to take the average middle school-aged kid today in 2015 and show them a random episode of Seinfeld, you’d probably get a response along the lines of: “This isn’t funny.” (Or at the very least, that it’s not particularly original.)

Of course, it’s not that Seinfeld isn’t funny. Rather, it’s that Seinfeld was so funny that everything about it has been imitated by its successors to the point that aspects of the show that were once groundbreaking (the unlikable cast, idiosyncratic language, the dissection of the quirks of polite society, etc.) are now a standard part of the genre. Seinfeld changed TV so fundamentally that, to someone with a cultural tabula rasa, its explosive originality is essentially invisible.

This phenomenon crops up in other media all the time. I’m sure this hypothetical middle-schooler would be completely nonplussed by Die Hard, and would tell you that Final Fantasy VII is a category-five cliché storm dressed up to passingly resemble a video game.

I put it to you that Kate Bush is the Seinfeld of female art-pop stars.

Bush has this apparent reputation for weirdness, but taken alongside contemporary acts like Björk, Fever Ray, or even someone like M.I.A., she’s really not as out there as I’ve been lead to believe. But I expect that this is in large part because she was the prototype for this particular type of act. Hell, even Lady Gaga owes some portion of her success to Kate Bush.

This was a fun listen. Plus, I now have some interesting new ideas for future assignments. But that’s all yet to come — I still need to rub your face in some punk rock first.

— Matt

Kate Bush: Hounds of Love (pt. 1)

katebush

Dear Matt:

In honour of this blog having gotten weird already, allow me to introduce you to Kate Bush.

Bush is one of a long line of British artists who constantly gets called “eccentric,” but also periodically enjoys massive mainstream success. (See also, Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Bush’s occasional duet partner Peter Gabriel.)

I’m at a loss to explain why Kate Bush is popular. But, I do feel like I can pin down part of what makes her connect with her most devoted fans: she possesses a seemingly supernatural amount of empathy.

Bush writes deeply personal songs, but they feel like other people’s personal songs. She’s written lyrics from the POV of Houdini’s wife, a man contemplating fatherhood, and a curiously articulate fetus, among others. These ultra-specific psychological portraits can be alienating, before you find your footing.

Maybe you’ll agree with me that pop music is generally contingent on the listener’s sympathy: you’re meant to identify personally with what’s being sung. That’s why there are so goddamn many love songs. But, Kate Bush’s best songs work differently. They can make you feel empathy for a person to whom you are entirely dissimilar — even if, like me, you don’t normally possess much of that.

I think this is probably why Hounds of Love is Bush’s most beloved album. It’s a mix of genuinely personal songs with some semblance of universality (“Running Up That Hill” became Bush’s second-biggest hit) and tracks that entreat you to work past their alienating strangeness and come to an understanding with their protagonist.

This latter approach comes to the fore on the album’s second side. Much like our perpetual favourite reference point, 2112, one side of Hounds of Love is just a bunch of unrelated songs, and the other side is a sprawling conceptual epic. That epic, subtitled “The Ninth Wave,” is as narratively ambiguous as Deltron 3030, but there’s a nominal throughline involving a woman who (nearly?) drowns following a shipwreck.

I adore this side’s first track, “And Dream of Sheep.” It’s based on the ingenious premise (Kate Bush songs often have “premises”) of relating the inner monologue of a personified lighthouse as it falls asleep and inadvertently causes a tragedy. Of all of Kate Bush’s massive, Wes Andersonian cast of eccentrics and quietly tragic figures, this lighthouse may be my favourite.

But, Bush’s all-time greatest feat of empathy lives on side one: “Cloudbusting” is told from the perspective of a child — the son of dissident scientist Wilhelm Reich. The narrator’s inner monologue seems as alienating to an adult listener as it probably should. And yet we feel for him. “I hid my yo-yo in the garden,” he sings to his imprisoned father, “I can’t hide you from the government.”

Sometimes, manipulating symbols doesn’t affect reality at all.

The album’s sound is of its time. It’s got some badly dated synths, and it’s full of that awful 80s drum sound. But, I don’t care. The songs are strong enough to push through that.

I could go on for thousands of words about all of the reasons why I adore this album. But, ultimately, it comes down to this: Hounds of Love is an album full of feelings. In stark opposition to Bush’s image as an alienating, eccentric figure, Hounds reaches out and makes the effort to connect.

I have no idea whether or not it’ll connect with you. I hope so. I hope it knocks that impassive facade of yours clean off. I want to see waterworks, Meuse.

But, either way, this is what all the fuss is about. Now you know.

— Matthew