Music

Gang of Four: Content

Photo: Mike Gullic

Gang of Four's Content is everything you could hope for from a comeback project that taps into nostalgia without simply wallowing in it.


Gang of Four

Content

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2011-01-25
UK Release Date: 2011-01-24
Amazon
iTunes

Gang of Four's place in the rock 'n' roll history books has long been settled, but that hasn't kept the defining post-punk band from trying to add new chapters to a story full of unlikely twists and turns. So the first thing you're likely to wonder about Content, even before whether it's worthy of classic Gang of Four or not, is what its reason for being is: With a legacy that's already set in stone, just why do principals Andy Gill and Jon King keep coming back for more, especially since their landmark albums Entertainment! and Solid Gold don't feel dated 30 years down the line? Indeed, the Go4 back catalog of Marxist-pop anthems are still fresher and harder hitting than the work of so many bands who cribbed from 'em over the past three decades, be it the Red Hot Chili Peppers' aggro funk-rock, Rage Against the Machine's agit-pop, or Franz Ferdinand's post-post-punk.

While one could hardly blame Gill and King if they were indulging their inner capitalists to continue their Sisyphean chase after the fame and fortune that has eluded them, you get the idea that there's something more to Content than just cashing in while they still can. Indeed, the effort and energy Gang of Four channels into its first album in over 15 years suggest that the group is still digging deeper to get at some truth behind the ideologies and social mores they unrelentingly attack. Steadfast but quixotic after all these years, Gill and King have literally put everything they have into their new record, funding the production of the project through online donations from fans in exchange for everything from vials of their blood to a helicopter ride with them en route to Glastonbury. If nothing else, they're keeping up with the times, putting their money where their mouth in a clever, creative way that only disillusioned vets who've been burned by the music industry -- but keep wanting to change it -- can.

And it's clear on Content that time hasn't passed Gill and King by just yet: The new album is anything but your typical vanity reunion effort, but rather an honest-to-goodness comeback that basically reboots the righteous indignation and cutting humor of their late '70s/early '80s heyday for a digital age. While they could probably get by on muscle memory alone, it's evident from the bristling, hard-charging first track "She Said 'You Made a Thing of Me'," that they're not merely going through the motions, as the partners-in-crime apply their acerbic wit and keen intellect to rail against the objectification of women, as King's chorus of "She said you made a thing of me / What I am is what you see" makes obvious. It goes to show again how Gang of Four proves that the most effective pop sloganeering could use an attention-grabbing tune, as the interplay of the chanted vocals and slicing riffs evoke Entertainment!'s "Natural's Not in It" in form and, um, content. In Gang of Four's case, demystifying ideology can also create its own kind of trance.

Much of Content really is everything you could hope for when it comes to a project that taps into nostalgia without simply wallowing in it. As sacrilegious as it may seem to say it, "Who Am I?" brings to mind Go4's funky punky finest like Solid Gold's "Outside the Trains Don't Run on Time" by getting you to think about social contradictions and alienation at the same time you're grooving to its heavy rhythms and chugging guitars. You could probably earn a cultural studies degree from listening to lyrics like "All the shoppers asleep / And the cameras lie / Who can lie / When everything is true?," as a sneering King comes off like Jarvis Cocker imitating him. Likewise, "Never Pay for the Farm" is the kind of social satire you can still only get from Go4, riffing off the steely guitar lines of "I Found That Essential Rare" to offer a searing take on the absurdities of everyday life.

What's more, these songs show that what separates Gang of Four from other politically minded bands is a sincere commitment to what could be that's the soft underbelly of its cynicism, the belief that there's something more to life that makes all the critique worth it. Nowhere is that thesis more poignantly explored than on "I Can't Forget Your Lonely Face", a slowed-down number (at least for Go4) that's sympathetic and almost touching, even as it launches into its own polemic on modern relationships. When King almost croons the title line, Gang of Four shows how romance is actually part and parcel of its angry aesthetic. The allegorical "A Fruitfly in the Beehive" finds Gang of Four smoother and more pensive than ever, though you would hardly say the group is mellowed out, with its bristling, jittery sound just bubbling underneath the surface. Ironically enough, it's this older, wiser, mid-tempo punk that gives the best measure of Gang of Four's vital signs, a twist on a time-tested formula that confirms how a persistent sense of idealism is what long-term struggle should be all about.

But as has often been the case with their restless artistry, Gill and King can push their pop experimentation too far for their own good -- anyone who has heard their inexplicable foray into what they must've thought was radio-friendly punk-soul on 1983's Hard can attest to that. While it's admirable that these old dogs try to learn some new tricks, it's when they get away from what they do best that Content goes astray, particularly on the second half of the album. The overstuffed, over-the-top "I Party All the Time" is almost like a parodic version of a Go4 rager: A little bit bad funk-punk, a little bit obnoxious rap-rock, the piece is a collection of the group's signature moves after they've been recycled and misappropriated by the bands that came after Gang of Four. And when King scoffs "I'm a phony" in the background, the song's too blatant and heavy-handed pointing out the foibles of human behavior. Even more egregious is "It Was Never Going to Turn Out Too Good", which employs vocoder to express the robot-like exploitation of the worker, if you want to take how Gill describes it seriously. Except that it's hard to keep a straight face hearing it, since the bad Auto-Tune-like vocals get in the way of hearing out any profound social statement they're trying to make. While the medium and the message are usually in sync for Gang of Four, they're completely out of whack for once on the track.

Still, you can't help but give Gill and King credit for going all out, not worrying about where the excesses and new gimmicks take them. In the end, Content works because it reminds you why Gang of Four is a group that's revolutionary in all senses of the word, as a band that does things its own way on its own terms, expectations and reputations be damned. That contrarian attitude is something that has stood the test of time and a good enough reason for Gang of Four to continue to exist, whether the book on the band is closed or not.

6

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less
Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less
8

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
3
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image