[25 October 2004]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
You’re standing in line outside a club on a crisp autumn night, wondering why the queue isn’t moving any faster. By the time you get within 30 feet of the door, the sound of crowd chatter and DJ music is interrupted by low, guttural bass tones, the incessant kickpedal explosions of a bass drum, and deafening cymbal crashes. After 10 painful minutes of waiting, you finally get into the building; by now, the sound is deafening, the full bass tones bouncing off walls, and but it’s so crowded, you can’t see where the noise is coming from. After carefully winding your way through the mass of humanity, there onstage, you see two sweat-drenched musicians thrashing away with a feral intensity, commanding the attention of every person in the room. One guy is on bass, spewing fast, distorted notes, while the shirtless drummer hammers on his kit and screams into a microphone. The way this duo, the first band on what will be a long, exhausting triple bill, is whipping the kids on the floor into a moshing frenzy, they might as well be the headliners on this night.
Seeing a Death From Above 1979 show is to witness rock music at its most primal. Barely one album into their career, the Toronto pair are already gaining a reputation as one of Canada’s best live bands, and not only is the ferocity of their performances turning heads, so is the actual music. Mention the fact that Death From Above 1979’s music is nothing more than bass and drums, and more likely than not, cynics will quickly spout the usual Spinal Tap jokes. After all, it’s a gimmick that always seems much too minimal to work for a sustained period; sure, the bass/drums thing has succeeded off and on, be it Blur’s popular single “Song 2”, or the likeable Canadian band from the ‘90s, The Inbreds, but unlike other bands who sported stripped down sounds in recent years, like The White Stripes and Morphine, having just a bass player and a drummer in a band just can’t work as well. Can it?
Whether or not a young band can translate such a potent live sound onto CD is always a stiff test, but Death From Above 1979’s debut album, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine succeeds remarkably well. The band, who had to change their name to avoid confusion (not to mention potential legal hassles) with the New York production team DFA, have managed to record an album that offers much more depth from such a simple arrangement than one would expect. The primary reason the album works so well is due in large part to bassist Jesse Keeler; sounding like a coke-fueled Geezer Butler channeling Fugazi, his basslines are especially nimble, his fast-picked notes coming from all over the fretboard, from extremely low, heavily distorted tones, to more mellifluous, upper-register licks, to all-out dissonant screeches. The key factor is that his performance is so versatile, you forget he’s playing bass, his performance boasting the dexterity of an 80s metal virtuoso (Billy Sheehan, eat your heart out), but without all the pretension. Singer/drummer Sebastien Grainger is equally strong, providing muscular punctuation to Keeler’s basslines, but at the same time, adding some variety to the proceedings with deft rhythmic changes, veering from straight-ahead punk, to disco-fused hi-hat workouts, to fabulous conga breakdowns, to the ever-reliable, much-loved cowbell.
As for the songs themselves, they’re surprisingly varied and accessible; fans of punk, metal, and stoner rock will be the first to gravitate toward this album, but there are tracks that have the potential of reaching a much wider audience. One needs to look no further than the explosive single “Romantic Rights” as a song that deserves mainstream recognition. Over Keeler’s catchy, metal-inspired riff, Grainger surprises us all by spouting shamelessly romantic, shockingly monogamous lyrics that dare to spit in the face of the song’s cock-rock strut: “Come on baby/ I love your company/ We could do it and start a family.” “Going Steady” follows, and echoes the previous song’s sentiment, as Grainger pledges, “I will never make you suffer/I will never hurt your mother.” The brooding, contemplative “Black History Month” is even more unexpected, as Grainger eloquently describes a decaying urban community, whose families all move to the suburbs, musing, “Do you remember when this pool was/A great place for waterwings and cannonballs,” adding grimly, “Hold on children/Your best friends’ parents are leaving.”
Still, emo these boys certainly ain’t, as the bottom line with You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine is that it rocks very, very hard, best exemplified by such tracks as “Turn it Out”, “Blood on Our Hands”, and “Little Girl”. The album comes to a terrific climax with a sexually charged trifecta of tunes; after the propulsive “You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine”, the frantic “Pull Out” has Grainger singing, “I love my girl/ I want to get her off,” but the song winds up sounding as hilariously rushed as a nervous teen, right down to the song’s abrupt conclusion. “Sexy Results” gets downright funky, as Grainger sneers come-on lines over a pulsating, midtempo beat, Keeler echoing the vocals with a simpler than usual accompaniment, allowing Grainger’s drums and vocals to dominate.
In a year highlighted by very impressive debuts by Canadian artists, such as Arcade Fire, Junior Boys, and controller.controller, you can now throw Death From Above 1979 onto the pile as well. Libidinous and testosterone-fueled one minute, sensitive and observant the next, and daring to employ a lot more than the usual punk/metal influences, You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine shows that not only do these guys bring the goods live, but they also have proven that this sound is no gimmick. They’re for real.