The Vexers: self-titled

[10 June 2003]

By Rob Horning

Since the Vexers invite comparisons to a whole host of bands who are often labeled “post-punk”( X, Gang of Four, Wire, etc.), it may be worth considering what that denomination originally signified. In the late ‘70s, when the safe banality of the popular music industry was threatened by politically charged punk music, which embodied the premise that one could supplant culture industry product with something more organic and authentically participatory. Since punk demystified the notion of talent, anyone was authorized to make music. One didn’t have to passively consume pacifying schlock that dictated how one should feel and respond, one could start one’s own band and try to express a radically subjective view of the world. The industry responded by creating new wave, a sanitized version of punk that co-opted some of its superficial elements while removing its liberating implications (the same could be said of today’s pop-punk bands, who perform the same function). Post-punk was a response to this. Bands like Gang of Four or the Fall set out to make music that rejected the conventional constraints and structures so completely that it could not be appropriated, or made mainstream. Thus a typical hallmark was a grating guitar style, which preferred abrasive sonic effects (typically produced my muting the strings, boosting the distortion and flailing away arhythmically) and clumsy, atonal, single string riffs to melody. The assault on staid musical traditions was congruent with the bands’ political agendas, which were overtly critical of the status quo and deeply suspicious accepted commercial practices.

By adopting the conventions of post-punk style while divesting it of its political charge, the Vexers inadvertently mimic the industry’s deracination of punk, obliterating the roots and the context of post-punk, thus contributing to its gradually becoming an empty formalized genre that prescribes conventions rather than defies them. The Vexers’ approach is not dialectical; that is to say they merely echo their inspirations without altering them through synthesis. In this they are like Elastica, another band that paid homage to post-punk without moving that music’s concepts forward. And like Elastica, they make catchy, enticing music that is pleasant and diverting without being especially significant. But then again, most pop music aspires to insignificance, to better correspond to the place music has in many people’s lives.

The opening tracks on The Vexers, “Something Dirty”, “Human Machine”, and “Mutual Masturbation”, rearranges some of the same Wire riffs Elastica favored while injecting similar trilling vocal affectations to produce appealing, albeit disposable, entertainment. Its 10 brief songs (the album is only about 25 minutes long) rush by, culminating with the anthemic “Sick Sick Sick” which spins an aimless Pixies-derived intro into an overdriven celebration of willful perversity. It all seems exciting enough while its playing, but it’s hard to remember the songs when they’re over. Most distinct is Salem 66-ish “The Saint” which dispenses with genre mannerisms, thereby lending some conviction to the self-scrutiny of the lyrics. Here, vocalist Jesse Van Anglen sings in what seems her natural range, a deep, weary alto, which more successfully conveys emotion than her stylized approach elsewhere. If the lyrics rely too heavily on the crutch of curse words to try to convey attitude, at least they don’t do so to the extent of bogus-bluesy would-be badasses the Kills, who frequently lapse into unintended parody through their hyperbolic bluster. Because the Vexers make their profanity seem like an aspect of a youth vernacular rather than some supposed wellspring of challenging and offensive radicalism, it manages not to pander or insult our intelligence.

Though in many ways, the Vexers tread the same musical ground as the much more heralded Yeah Yeahs Yeahs (exuberant female lead singer, blunt arrangements, noisy and chaotic guitar work), they are perhaps easier to like because one can listen to their music without having it filtered through all the hype. Of course, others will find the Vexers more difficult to enjoy for exactly the same reason.

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