[24 September 2009]
Guided By Voices, like Times New Viking, are from Ohio. This seems appropriate. They are both known in large part for being exemplars of a militantly lo-fi aesthetic, disregarding slick production values in favour of the sound of pops, hiss, and clicks. Then, as now, the sort of “fidelity above all” ethic ascribed to by many rock and pop bands is still alive and well, and ready to be opposed.
And, just as GBV shared college radio time with similarly minded Sebadoh and Papas Fritas, Times New Viking’s partners “in the red” include Wavves, Nodzz, Psychedelic Horseshit, and other stars of the blogosphere. A record collection to be reckoned with looms large (lyrical, musical, and media references point to psychedelia, krautrock, noise music, and New Zealand indiepop avatar’s Flying Nun Records in Times New Viking’s case—they don’t seem to share GBV’s prog love). There is the same sense of tapping into the same gleeful love of melody and sheer power pop (or the power of pop). For these guys, the spiritual seems to reside in a two-minute burst of fuzzy, exultant, beautiful noise. And they were one of the first newbies to plough the terrain, even revitalising lo-fi label Siltbreeze in the process (where their debut, Dig Yourself, was released).
On this, their fourth album proper, there’s “No Time, No Hope” and “Move to California”, the anthems, which are possible rock ‘n’ roll radio classics in another dimension, while the title track coins a weird take on 1970s funk rock. There’s something personal and crafted in the way it’s transmitted to the listener—recording to tape, selling cassettes with homemade artwork on the cover, background noise and buzz giving off warmth—old school signifiers of rock in the era where Pavement are (justifiably) thought of as a classic rock band. The press release on Matador’s website boasts “25% more fidelity” and, pisstake though it is, you can hear a clear break from predecessor Rip It Off‘s bracing, occasionally obliterating overdriven sound, where the drums often tapped away in the back of a mix dominated by blaring melodic keyboard and guitar. It’s a great record, but it’s as if the band made a pledge to skronk—a collective aesthetic noise decision.
Scaling back from that artistic plateau, certain parts of Born Again Revisited are comparatively clean. Some of the clearest vocals I’ve ever heard from the band are on “These Days”, which is refreshing, though I’m not sure if Beth Murphy’s words are the point. Overall, Jared Phillips’s jagged, garaged-up, Thurston Moore-style guitar is generally sharper, especially on “Martin Luther Day”.
Indeed, a layer of unabashed scree is crucial to Times New Viking’s sound (on this record, “Hustlet Psycho Son” is the best example)—when I saw them play in a tight little venue in Edinburgh, I thought it should and could’ve been noisier. It would have increased the affect, though a fair chunk of the crowd were a bit nonplussed by the band. “OK, pop song…1, 2, 3, 4” was the phrase thrown out from behind singer/drummer Adam Elliott’s basic kit, feedback acted as the between song banter, and the focus was on a kinetic, immediate set. It rocked in a really true and perhaps primitive sense, and “No Sympathy” from this record stuck in this writer’s head, but this primitivism seemed to bemuse the crowd—it was unconventional and didn’t move the unconverted. Part of this is the Pavement ethos: they adopt the same self deprecating pose (following the epic “Move to California”, the aptly named twee fuzz ditty “Take the Piss” closes the album out), understatement, and anti-careerist sense.
As a sidenote, it still surprises me that such a mode and a somewhat abrasive, though pretty consistently melodic sound can come across as alienating or transgressive in a world that bought tons of Nirvana records—including the screechy, Albini analogue-recorded In Utero.
I cannot see Times New Viking going the way of Of Montreal, abandoning lo-fi beginnings to pursue a somewhat retro-inclined-but-pretty-all-encompassing pop sensibility, using as many production tricks as possible and dabbling in commercial R&B as well . There’s a real virtue in simplicity, and the band seem to know this intimately—the right two or three chords buzzing chords, boy/girl vocals, and Cale-style fuzz organ make for heavenly pop hits.
But will they resort to cleaning up their sound like Pollard did, and consistently has done, pretty much since Under the Bushes, Under the Stars? It may be inevitable, and artistic progression will continue on its own trajectory as it always does, for better or worse, learning a sitar or deciding to stumble through a dub reggae experiment. Whatever: it would be a great pity to lose this unique sound to standardised clarity. Nik Cohn wrote about it referring to late 1950s rock and roll, but Times New Viking have the beautiful noise.