[29 June 2010]
Sound Affects Editor
In the early 1980s, the college town of Athens, Georgia, became an unlikely hotbed for homegrown American new wave and post-punk. Essentially splitting the difference between the sounds produced by the leading lights of the Athens scene of their day—the B-52s and Pylon—the Method Actors have long been relegated to footnote status, but the release of the compilation album This Is Still It just might change that. There’s a simple reason why: it’s quite simply one of the best compilations devoted to a single ‘80s post-punk band assembled in the past decade.
Mind you, I don’t throw out declarations like this lightly. After much agonizing over crucial questions such as “does this record really deserve a 9?”, I ultimately had to answer “Yes”. Luckily, all I have to do is listen to virtually any random spot on This Is Still It—spanning the group’s limited discography between 1981 and 1982—to quell any lingering doubts that might arise.
Melding the spiky, rough aesthetic of post-punk with herky-jerky new wave neuroticism, This Is Still It is gripping from the get-go. The album opens up with “Do the Method”, an exuberant, driving rocker where the band surges and thrusts amongst jittery vocals, setting the tone for everything afterwards. Throughout the record, bandmates Vic Varney and David Gamble unleash track after track of taut grooves that would make Gang of Four proud. It’s likely that was the intention: in early ‘80s Athens, making music people could dance to was of paramount concern, and Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was one of the town’s essential party records. Also recalling domestic weirdos like Devo, Pere Ubu, and Mission of Burma, the Method Actors make spastic, high-strung dance music that’s loads of fun in spite of its surface abrasiveness. On occasion, the influences are very transparent (“Can’t Act” being especially Devo-derivative), but the sheer force of the group’s performances allows the Method Actors to overcome the comparisons to stake their own claim.
It all seems almost effortless. There are so many moments on This Is Still It worth highlighting: the aforementioned “Do the Method”, the hyperactive anxiety of “Distortion”, the moody hypnotic vibe and howling chorus of “She”, and the insistent beat and needling bassline of “Bleeding”, just to name some of the most exciting. Many of these cuts run past the five-minute mark, but none of the tracks ever feel overlong. Possibly the most stunning thing about This Is Still It is that everything coming through the speakers is the result of two people, yet it sounds like there’s an army charging alongside them. Unsupported by a bassist or a second guitarist, Varney’s guitar-playing is the most effective weapon in the group’s arsenal. Betraying a heavy Andy Gill influence, Varney’s guitar work on songs like “You” veers between cutting through the mix like glass and churning like sputtering machinery. Varney’s style dominates every track, yet it’s deployed in a unique manner every time, making sure the album is never monotonous.
If the Method Actors were so great, why are we only getting a retrospective of the group’s material now? Aside from American post-punk not receiving the reissue consideration its British counterpart gets, the answer lies in the ringing guitar line at the start of “Dancing Underneath” that points the way to the sound another Athens contemporary would later solidify. When the Method Actors were in their prime, R.E.M. was still trying to sort out its stylistic identity. But by the time of its 1982 EP Chronic Town, R.E.M. had staked an important claim for the genre that would supplant new wave and post-punk: alternative rock. It’s not like R.E.M. set out to render the Method Actors irrelevant—R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck contributes enthusiastically to the album’s liner notes. It’s more that by 1982, the beguiling and explicitly rockist sound R.E.M. heralded was a breath of fresh air after years of funky dub punk, mutant disco, and other irreverent post-punk hybrids and deconstructions. Even the Method Actors seemed to chaff at the template they specialized in after a while. The weakest tracks on This Is Still It are songs from the second half, like “Ask Dana” and “Pigeons”, where Varney and Gamble experiment with stretching out beyond the safety net of their tried-and-true dance grooves. Unfortunately, those tracks end up being the sort of bland post-punk gloom that was a dime a dozen at the time. Damned if they did and damned if they didn’t, the Method Actors weren’t innovators; they were just damn good at what they did. But what they specialized in was so heavily of the subcultural zeitgeist that they were discarded by the collective pop music memory once that moment had passed.
Of course it’s now 2010, and the whole post-punk revival trip is still going strong, even though it’s been around for far longer than seems reasonable by this point. But when it comes to the Method Actors, who cares? It’s about time they received some belated recognition. There are countless bands around now that wish they were Gang of Four. After giving This Is Still It a listen, they might have to shift allegiances. I know this might sound crazy, but in my view This Is Still It is chock-full of so much consistently great music that’s it definitely the equal of Entertainment!, and may even be superior. As someone who’s gleefully indulged in his share of post-punk retrospectives in the last few years, I can say this is near the top of the heap.