Though Other Animals came out nearly a year and half ago, nothing that’s come out since has touched it in terms of intensity or purity of purpose. The CD’s recent European release on Tsk! Tsk! Records (with remastered sound) offers an opportunity to revisit this absolutely essential recording.
It would be easy to lump in San Francisco’s Erase Errata with the other post-punk revivalists like the Ex-Models and the Liars. Sure, they all reject the verse/chorus structure, and build songs out of repetitive bass lines and unorthodox approaches to the guitar. They reject the usual pop song lyrical subjects of love and self-discovery in favor of topics apparently more socio-politically aware. The guitar work on Other Animals is somewhere between Marc Ribot and the Shaggs, favoring atonal sequences of isolated notes rather than any attempt at chord-making. Like most post-punk bands Erase Errata reject conventional harmony at every level—whether it be between notes or between the yelping, haranguing voices we hear—to assure that nothing soothing or comfortable comes from listening. When effective, this tactic can put a listener out of harmony with herself, which may be a laudable goal, when the band wants make good use of her discomfort. However, more often than not the only agenda appears to be to make you think the band is cool and edgy, that they are “rebels” who reject the mainstream. So the payoff for listening is no more than the hollow ability to proclaim yourself edgy and rebellious too.
But perhaps because the members of Erase Errata are women, we can more easily attribute to them a meaningful political agenda. Their roots are less with the post-punk war-horses like the Gang of Four and Devo, and more with LiLiput, the Swiss feminist band from the early ‘80s. Like LiLiput, Erase Errata makes the form their music takes a political statement in itself. LiLiput drew explicitly on French feminist ideas to create a kind of female music analogous to the female writing theorized by Cixious and Irigaray. In that context, the repetitious, circular nature of the rhythms and the guttural, nearly pre-lingual vocals reflect a conscious attempt to reject the strictures of rational structures, which carries with it the bias of patriarchal society. Erase Errata works in this same vein, sticking it to the man, so to speak, with their cacophonous creations, which are brimful of a liberating musical irrationality. Their “High Society” reveals most explicitly their debt to LiLiput, in the jerky off-kilter rhythm parts and the sinister whining and caterwauling that approaches an Ono-esque intensity. The song concludes by disintegrating, with each instrument and voice apparently pursuing ideas of its own. “Delivery” works on a similar principle, beginning with a creepy soundscape straight out of Gummo that segues into a verse reciting some ambiguous childhood memories against a stilted guitar figure. The whole song seems to come crashing to a chaotic finish, complete with what sounds like a drum set being kicked over, only to begin itself again with the same original frenzy.
But to call this music “irrational” is not to suggest that it is at all clumsy or amateurish. The instrumental prowess impresses in new ways on virtually every track, as each explores new complexities in tempo or in the interplay of individual instruments. “French Canadis” typifies this, mixing in several time signatures, a bleating trumpet and some riffs seemingly sampled from one of those plastic toy guitars that play tinny guitar licks when you press a button on the little fret board. Even the untitled noise suites betray a remarkable amount of precision and control, managing to sound spontaneous without seeming entirely random.
Repeated listening doesn’t make the lyrics especially comprehensible, but it doesn’t matter what they are singing about because the manner in which they sing connotes enough. The overall effect is a rejection of restraint and an expression of outrage that would probably be undermined with any dogmatic lyrical content. What the French feminists argued was that words themselves had become co-opted by a tyrannical patriarchy; thus to free language, one needs to put it to elliptical, oblique, indefinite use. As with the music, their lyrical approach seems to reflect the influence of such ideas. Whether or not this was intended, Erase Errata provide a compelling demonstration of what these principles can produce in practice.