[4 April 2002]
It was all Clash over the Echo Lounge’s PA system on a Tuesday night. The debut album before the first band, The Drill Team, came on; Black Market Clash between band sets. This night had a four-band bill, all of whom are trying like hell to find some little Strummer or Jones in them, without having to write simple, hard-punching songs. For two of these bands, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and headlining Girls Against Boys, bass-overkill or bass-deficiency was one path to original feel. For The Drill Team and The Pattern, it was displaying a devotion to certain of their rock ‘n’ roll elders of recent vintage. In order of performance:
The Drill Team
This opening act had two long-haired, T-shirt ‘n’ jeans guys on bass and lead guitar, a girl drummer, and two Moby-pated hard-core guys as singer and rhythm guitarist respectively. Their sound has that same cross-up of intent and confusion—knowing what they’re doing doesn’t explain why they’re doing it, least of all to them. Their bass-dominated grooves were undecided at any speed—for either the grunge floor or the mosh pit or both—producing a twitch that used to be exciting thrash for SST bands of fifteen years ago. One song really got it together as a good set-up for Girls Against Boys, though: shrieking guitar solos deftly clawed out of the power chords, with intricate, hard-moving tempo shifts. Another song had a nice idea for a solo—guitars all bent the same two notes for ninety seconds. A nice drone effect. The singer’s stage patter used to seem cool, too: variations on “thanks a lot,” sometimes amended with “here’s another song.”
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs
This band also paid attention to the follicles. Drummer Brian Chase and guitarist Nick Zimmer both have hair possessed the influence of Lindsay Buckingham. Singer Karen O came on with her Chrissie Hynde bangs brushed down into her eyes. I look for the bassist. No bassist—how ‘bout that. The lights went down, way down, then the YX3 started a slow-menace tempo with a chipped guitar riff. Will it blow out into a fast rave up? Or loud cho forget it, it’s the loud chords. Just like Staind. “Gong ‘em,” I muttered.
Touring behind a five-song CD, the band turned out mostly fast pop-rockers like “Cold Light, Hot Night”, and “I’m Rich”, with its clever arpeggio riff that challenged Zimmer to fill in for the missing bass. His riffs quite aren’t intricate or bludgeoning enough to compensate on their own for lack of a bass guitar. Fortunately, Chase is most impressive—his bass drum provides some body tone under the guitar, plus he seems perfectly happy being impressive, switching from hi-hat to snare and back as deftly as a shell game player.
Their singer provided the evening’s first special effect. She dons a long black and white woolen neckpiece that absorbs just enough perspiration to cling limply, like a freshly-fed constrictor. By song’s end, she dropped the constrictor to the floor just to pick it up again for the next song. Plus a tiny little bit of irresponsibility-cum-danger, as the singer slung a fresh bottle of water over her shoulder the way Sinatra once slung an overcoat over his own shoulder. Water spiraled all over the monitors. No short-outs, but that’s distilled water for you—even safe for electrical parts.
Some people in the audience knew some of the songs, which made the often tepid applause kind of puzzling. By now, the rhythmic cast for the evening was set over several songs: fast-go, sudden-stop beats, under a catchy two-chord hook this time. And a brand new sound effect: either the band planted someone in the club to finish a couple of tunes off with a coach’s whistle, or else high school football stadiums have a new feedback effect to get behind. Straight ahead pounders like “Miles Away” and “Our Time” traded off with funky hard-core guitar riff a la the Minutemen. Unfortunately, there was also yowling a la the Minutemen.
They were all right. Gut reaction, right from my notes: “ALREADY—Strokes impressionists! GOOD! If they keep rocking like this first tune, the singer almost won’t matter.” Strokes comparisons are meant as compliments, only. It’s considered very cool, very anti-backlash, to knock The Strokes or else bands that sound like them. But I really like Is This It, so comparisons to a fine album are not gonna be used as a put-down by me. And though the Pattern were a little rawer, a little less catchy, tunes two, three, four, etc., were fine. To be fair, a friend of mine couldn’t believe the band’s name: “why don’t they just call themselves The Stencils. I mean, as long as they’re gonna be inane, go all the way.”
Girls Against Boys
Industrial rock is all about the process, right? When you drop a coin in a motorized coin bank, all it’s doing is letting the coin ride from the slot on top to the bin below. But the only reason for possessing such a bank is to watch the gears turning, which is the approach to modern rock taken by Girls Against Boys (henceforth GvsB). House of GvsB (Touch And Go, 1994) and the 1998 Geffen release Freakonica focused completely on keeping your attention on the parts, whether produced by Scott McCloud’s guitar, the bass guitars of Eli Janney and Johnny Temple, and Temple’s sampling, rather than the whole. That whole usually included some kind of payoff, like a clever riff, a thoughtful or funny lyric, or maybe just momentum that pounded the plates of your skull together like dishes on a rack. House of GvsB was enjoyable, fascinating, even catchy, with a pulse made of mercury. The hooks and momentum were provided by McCloud’s amusing impersonation of the Psychedelic Furs’ Richard Butler, the lyrics weren’t bad, and Alexis Fleisig’s drumming inspires tabletop drumming. Yet the larger point was never lost—to render the music’s mechanisms as bluntly as possible. They were anything but a blur. More like a vivisection of post-punk. And that’s a compliment.
GvsB are capable of making a big, spooky blur of details as a live band. The stage was flooded with that same radioactive green they used on the cover of Freakonica, a flood that made the band seem even thinner than they already are. Sometimes they recalled the creatures coming out of the spacecraft at the end of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. That is, only black-clad torsos, hands, elbows, and heads stood out to the back of the room. And their live sound is just as mannered and noisy as an American Public Image, Ltd.: bass-drums-guitar are dug two or three layers of processing deeper, into brutal impact. They weren’t cheap with the guitar distortions, either. I loved ‘em all, especially the wah-wah screech of House Of GvsB‘s opener “Super Fire”, and the scratchy little power chords buried deep in “Crash 17 (X-Rated Car)”. There was plenty of that nerve-wracking, fast-go, sudden-stop rhythm. But GvsB goes into flat-out droning often enough that it’s bearable.
Beyond five songs from that House album—their most well-regarded—most of the set was dominated by material from Freakonica and the upcoming release You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See. You didn’t want to turn your back on new songs like “I Keep Pushing”, with its slow-core power. There were a few other great new riffs, even one terrific number with reverbed dual-vocal hooks over the droning double-basses. But most of the new stuff sounded so much like Freakonica that it indicated GvsB really believed in that album. This is admirable, sort of—McCloud and company are ambitious and the barrel-bottomed beats on Freakonica were crafted to rock hard. A song as tough as “One Firecracker” inspires both table-drumming and air-guitar. But over the four-year layoff from the previous album, someone lost something somewhere. Freakonica was a failed competitor for the high-tech pop-rock chart with Garbage’s smash Version 2.0. It was a contest neither side knew they were in: Girl (w/ boys) against boys. Girl (w/ boys) won, ‘cause Shirley Manson could sing.
McCloud now sings—no, vocalizes—like a very clean-living Richard Butler. No matter how much he actually smokes or drinks or has sex, he remains many cigarettes and whisky tumblers away from Butler’s sex-charged growl. As a live band, the intricate double-bass work and endless sound effects make or break the songs, which without hooks or verbal reasons for being left them to register as, ahem, blurs. Just to show us how much the guitar meant in this mix, their tech bent was tellingly pointed up when McCloud asked his guitar monitor to be turned down. From where I sat, it barely stood out to begin with, over the basses and sampling. Then they kicked into another processed guitar drone that wasn’t identified, but might as well have come from Freakonica. A simpler song, like the two-bass funk of “Wilmington” from the House album, would’ve provided a little eye for the storm. Also, if Karen O had drizzled some water in their computer programs, GvsB might’ve given an amazing simulation of reckless adventuring. As it is, the most spontaneous moment happened when a guy at stage front was ejected by the doorman, so drunk that his entire body flopped to the floor like a stalk of fresh-boiled spaghetti. Stood up the same way.
The former hard-core quartet never seems to run out of ways to tease and torture their guitars and samples in ways that suggest medical science as well as art. It makes sense for them to go so very hi-tech, because the samples and the chips are logical steps to take when simple feeling just can’t provide enough fuel for your concept of harsh music. Girls Against Boys are said to evoke pure s-e-x for some. For me they lack a few accoutrements, like a sense of humor. It isn’t enough to torment guitars—they need to kidded too, because this sound is squalling for some further reason to exist. Politics could be that reason; Johnny Temple once wrote an article for the magazine The Nation. The new album’s title—You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See—certainly hints at the possibility. With one winner and one loser album behind them, it’ll be interesting to see if the new songs stand taller.