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The Disciplines

Virgins of Menace

(Sparkle & Shine; US: 21 Mar 2011; UK: 21 Mar 2011)

Ken Stringfellow is one of those semi-seminal figures that you’ve never, ever heard of. Lead singer of the Disciplines, the Posies, and the reformed Big Star, Stringfellow has a few pretty neat claims to fame. He’s played with R.E.M as part of the touring band, featured on 2002’s Reveal and 2004’s Around the Sun. Meanwhile, “Definite Door”, just one of the twelve perfect pop songs from the Posies’ Frosting on the Beater, was on the soundtrack to The Basketball Diaries, which featured a young Leonardo Di Caprio. And, indeed, he’s managed to play in Big Star, which is interesting considering that almost all of Stringfellow’s music is locked into that band’s orbit. It’s a bit like what happened with Judas Priest, where the band’s biggest fan became a part of the band itself, but that would be like comparing chalk and cheese and attempting to make a tasty sandwich from the former.


Virgins of Menace is all over inside of 34 minutes. In that time, it manages to cover an awful lot of ground—it has aggressive, sloshing garage rock riffs (“Virgins of Menace”, “Strange One”). It has leather-clad psychobilly bleating (“Fate’s a Strong Bitch”, “For You I Walked Over the Line”). And it has the sort of fine-tuned power-pop that we’re more used to finding in Stringfellow’s work with the Posies (“Some Kind of Sickness”, “Take Off That Halo”).


Unfortunately, Virgins of Menace doesn’t really work, and there are two pretty glaringly obvious reasons for this. First of all, it never quite manages to gather up all of those loose ends and turn them into a coherent whole. As a result, it’s highly enjoyable but flagrantly unfocused, and it comes off a bit like a product of the ADHD it name checks in the closing track.


Second, most of the songs here sound like other songs that you already know and like. Even when the Disciplines give up on the gnarlier cuts to play the gleaming guitar pop that Stringfellow does best, they never sound truly at home, never quite carving out a sound of their own. “Virgins of Menace” sounds like the scrappy rushing pop of “Help Yourself” from the Posies’ 1990 breakthrough album Dear 23. The chorus of “Kill the Killjoy” has a lilting organ sound straight off of Beach House’s Teen Dream and a melted vocal harmony that sounds not unlike something from Weezer’s Blue Album. And “Take Off That Halo” sounds a bit like XTC’s “Earn Enough for Us”: an argument about a mere triviality wrapped up as pure pop confection.


Nevertheless, these flaws are endlessly forgivable precisely because those gnarlier tracks are so entertaining, even if they are the weakest things here. It’s also quite hard to argue with some of the influences that the Disciplines are so keen to bring together, even if they do sound almost too much like they’re covering these artists rather than letting themselves be influenced by them. “Fate’s a Strong Bitch” is like a zombie Elvis Presley taking on Morgan Spurlock’s month-long McDonalds challenge. It’s a rambunctious, chunky piece of guitar heroics and, by the end, Stringfellow sounds possessed, corrupted by good old fashion rock ‘n’ roll psychosis as he splutters the song’s title over and over again. “Everything Forever (Pig Wars)” is like Lou Reed drinking from the foundation of youth, or the Dead Weather’s “Cut Like a Buffalo” exported to a grim Norwegian forest, attacked and eventually eaten by wolves.


Virgins of Menace is, then, a happy failure. It’s got nothing on Stringfellow’s best work, but, then again, it doesn’t really need to and it’s not necessarily very helpful to issue such comparisons. There are plenty of pretty choruses here, and “Take Off That Halo” and “Some Kind of Sickness” really are delicious. To be sure, these songs are good, the sort of pop pleasures that we like, but not the sort of pop perfection that we cherish. Indeed, it all seems so, well, expected: The Disciplines are a project rather than a full-fledged band with artistic goals and musical progression that you can trace through the years. While it may well keep us going through 2011, are we really going to remember it in five years time, let alone twenty?

Rating:

Max Feldman is at the very early stages of writing a PhD in philosophy and aesthetics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He has a bachelors degree from Heythrop College (University of London), and masters degrees from Birkbeck College (University of London) and the University of Warwick. He likes internet pictures of perplexed-looking cats, long walks on the beach, and complex, gloomy German philosophy. http://geistbites.wordpress.com


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Virgins of Menace album trailer
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By PopMatters Staff
5 May 2009
Ken Stringfellow is a well-known figure in the world of smart pop music, having worked with the likes of the Posies, R.E.M., the Minus 5, and Big Star. These days he's playing with the Disciplines and their new album Smoking Kills released just last week.
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