Fun With Ugly, Pop Music Edition
This record brings me back to the first time I heard the Flying Lizards album. I know their twisted electro-pop version of “Money” doesn’t really sound very outré now, but back when we first heard it (junior high, 1980 probably) it was the most holy radical I-hate-you noise we had ever heard, me and Jim and Dave all sitting up in Dave’s bedroom with his brother Craig’s albums, trying to figure out whether it was okay to like anti-music music, noise that so hated pop that it recreated pop in its own image. That flat affectless voice, that robotic Euro-crash ticky-tack beat, both deployed in the destruction and homage to one of Motown’s most nihilistic songs—oh, the lovely randomness of it all! It sounded like the no-future we were sure we were going to have. Finally, a group that understood what it was like to be unlikable just like us.
The ugly and rough and “amateurist” in pop is quite important, and pops up just when we need it the most. For every Elvis, there is a Bo Diddley; for every Beach Boys, there is a Standells; for every Chic, there is a Fall; for every Vanilla Ice, there is a Biz Markie. I’d just been reflecting that the whole “neo-garage-rock” revival was actually quite polished pop music most of the time, really tight and shiny and bouncy stuff that would have sounded very commercial back in the days that they would have existed. And now smooth is the new rough, everyone covering Burt songs and Chris Martin being all a fair-global-trade Billy Joel.
So I suppose it was inevitable that we’d get Les Georges Leningrad popping up in our midst sooner or later. Why shouldn’t the next harbingers of the apocalypse be four practical jokesters from Montreal who love the Flying Lizards and the Standells and Tom Waits just as much as they love the B-52’s and the Fall, who employ trombones and accordions alongside some furious new wave guitar work and a knife’s-edge-sharp rhythm section that ends up only playing half the time anyway? Why wouldn’t they be so incredibly avant-garde that they end up sounding kinda dope?
But it’s not exactly likeable music that these anarchists are churning out. My first reaction was “Ew, this is all like, y’know, ugly music!” There is much discord here, many dys-chords in fact, and what appears to be such a healthy contempt for being listenable that it has turned into a fetish. Songs like “Cocktail Vampire” and “Georges V” seem cold-bloodedly calculated to turn off listeners, crashing screaming things with overmodulated vocals and sounds that should not be in songs; the latter with its repeated male-female call-and-screamsponse of “GEORGES FIVE!” is one of the most grating uses of the human voice this year (outside Murphy Lee’s turn on “Shake Ya Tailfeather”, of course). The next time you want to clear the house after the party, feel free to crank up “Prince R.” which will do the trick in under one minute with its science fiction soap opera synth lines and its free-jazz duck-call solo.
The last thing this Montreal massive wants to do is make you like their music. They go to some extremes to ensure this—they cover the Residents’ “Constantinople”; their cover art is even more gruesome than the stuff on the record with the really long name by their homeslices Godspeed! You! Black! Emperor!; their third song is actually titled “Bad Smell”, and it rattles and creaks and dings and clatters and is “sung”, in part, in a heavy Quebeçois accent by a woman named Poney P who can’t really sing at all, “Oooh, bad smell! / It stinks! / So bad! / Oooh! / Cause it’s so far out!” It’s like, “get the point? This music stinks! You don’t like it! We have annoyed you with our anti-music, and therefore we win the contest!” But that’s where the whole thing breaks down, because it is music after all, a thundering beast of a Brix-era Fall cover of a Shaggs tune, with some really quite smashing squonking guitar pain. This isn’t just “screw art, let’s dance”, it’s more like “screw likeability, let’s be loveable”. And it works.
Check out “Un Impermeable (Mouille Des Deux Côtès)” for proof. It’s a chanson sung in French by one of the guys in the group (most of the singing is by the women, and much of it is in Franglish), it’s got woozy trombone and accordion accompaniment, and it’s so slapdash it could be the paint in a tenement stairway. But the tar-pit tempo and the wavering moody voice actually end up working, emphasizing the mood that the group wants . . . and I suspect that this took longer than we might think it did.
The dirty little secret here, of course, is that the members of Les Georges Leningrad know exactly what they’re doing. They might actually be great musicians; “La Chienne” is an amateurish skank-jam at first, cheap drum machine pissing along and changing tempo at random, crummy little Farfisa line to go with a tuned-then-detuned guitar riff, weird unconvincing rants by the singers about fashion that then get interrupted by a couple of torturous shrieks of the title phrase that completely max out the abilities of the microphone. But after you hear it once, you understand just exactly how much hard work went into this, how difficult it is to sound sloppy and still—against all odds—danceable and fun.
The same holds for just about all of this weird angry smiling unpretty record. Every song has hooks galore, but most of them cloak those hooks in so much I-don’t-know-how-to-play-this-damn-instrument-isn’t-that-funny-ism that it takes a while. But this layer is tiny, easily wiped off, and superficial. Once you hear what’s really going on in tracks like “Mysantropic” and “Lollipop Lady”, you drop any defenses you have, and just go with the strained riffs, the shredded vocals, the loveable unlikeability of it all.
Or, in a few words: It ain’t easy being ugly, but it can be very fun.