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Don Caballero

Gang Banged with a Headache, And Live

(Joyful Noise; US: 27 Nov 2012; UK: 27 Nov 2012)

Pittsburg’s Don Caballero was one of those big honking instrumental rock bands that fell under the title “math rock”. Of course, like most sub-genre titles, math-rock means little. But it does set Don Caballero up to follow a lineage, after the likes of Rodan and Slint, the band they are most often tied to. But, driven by Damon Che’s drumming – Che was the band’s only constant member and the rare drummer that also served as de facto frontman – Don Caballero always seemed bigger, more taut and less brittle than those other bands. Their Touch & Go work, especially For Respect and What Burns Never Returns, is some of the most labyrinthine, powerful rock music made in the last 20 years, and with Che’s powerful drumming and the band’s knack for simultaneously turning on a dime and sounding remarkably cohesive, they’re a band that’s likely to only grow its legend as time passes and more people catch on to what they were doing.


Gang Banged with a Headache, And Live was recorded in 2003, and acts as a self-described “official bootleg” of the band’s live performance. It’s got the impossible task of representing the band’s lineage – impossible because, like the constant shifting of sounds in their music, the band itself could never hold on to members over the years. But it’s also a chance to look back fondly on the band’s heyday and remind us that, in some way, they are still chugging along, albeit with Che as the only original member left.


It’s a perfect document to capture the unbridled energy and power behind those carefully crafted songs, that much is clear from the outset. The album opens with American Don opener “Fire Back About Your Baby’s New Sex”, and the swirling notes tie a tense noose around Che’s drumming and the song, for all its shifting, churns forward with a solid, impossible-to-deny inevitability. It will break open in crashing cymbals and guitar wails. It will sound huge. It will – or rather, most certainly did – ring in the audience’s ears for days after. From there, we shift to “And And And, He Lowered the Twin Down”, from later album World Class Listening Problem (not released until 2006), and you can hear the difference. The song is more overtly punishing, the chords crunching with distortion, as boxy and clobbering as sledgehammers. It may lack the subtlety of the band’s best work, but it’s got all the sheer size we expect.


It jumps all over the band’s discography, going from “Don Caballero 3” off What Burns Never Returns to “Palm Trees in the Fecking Bahamas”, which was eventually on World Class Listening Problem. It’s a convincing display of the band’s breadth of talent. The guitar work can be thick and textured, nuanced and sweet, even funky. Behind it all, Che sounds bigger than his rock-drummer legend. But it’s also Che’s sound here that shows the limitation of these recordings. Don Caballero was so good on record because they mixed well and got Che’s work right up there in the mix. Here, the “official bootleg” quality is hardly bad, but it is limiting. Everything feels at about the same level, guitars and bass, but the drumming feels like its buried way back on the stage, behind all the other sounds. For once, Che doesn’t sound like a leader, and it doesn’t do the record any favors.


As a result, you’re treated to great versions of great Don Caballero songs – though even here the Touch & Go-era stuff sounds better – but there’s a distance between listener and performance. Listening to this, you’ll feel for all the world like the people who were there got their faces melted off. But you’ll also know there’s no danger of that happening to you. Listening to Gang Banged with a Headache, And Live is in one way a reminder of the greatness of a band, and in another a lackluster kind of vicarious listening, in which you don’t feel like you were there so much as you wished you had been, if only to get past the sometimes muddled recording and feel closer to these sounds.

Rating:

Matthew Fiander is a music critic for PopMatters and Prefix Magazine. He also writes fiction and his work has appeared in The Yalobusha Review. He received his M.F.A. in Creative Writing from UNC-Greensboro and currently teaches writing and literature at High Point University in High Point, NC. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattfiander.


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Don Caballero - Fire Back About Your Baby's New Sex (Live)
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2 Oct 2000
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