'Mudbird Shivers' Is the Ex's Propaganda of the Deed
The Ex confer elegance onto a wall of sound that often comes close to the sound of bombing raid alarms and the subsequent bombs themselves.
If Rodney Dangerfield was a folksy jazz inspired world-fusion post-punk band from the Netherlands, he would definitely be The Ex. The Ex get no respect, at least not the kind of adulation they’ve probably earned. They’re like a secret bit of gossip standing out in the open waiting for the kids to discover their obvious quality. Maybe they are too weird, too googly-eyed and enthusiastic about their passions, too dense or too purposefully esoteric. Maybe they don’t get noticed often because they clearly aren’t contentious jerks or dilettantes with attitude problems. They’re just a middle-aged band making very good music and they’ve been doing it for over 30 years.
Unlike the dearly departed Rodney Dangerfield, the Ex don’t have a comparable Caddyshack or a Back to School-like creation in their repertoire. Their finest moment and easiest entry point is a predicament for the uninitiated. Where does one start sifting through that abundant discography? Opinions vary, but there’s a case to be made for a nearly forgotten gem from 1995 called Mudbird Shivers.
There are some great records that demand certain reactions from us; sometimes that reaction may be a Road to Damascus about-face on everything you thought you knew, sometimes instantly recognizing a record that seizes the zeitgeist by the throat, and sometimes more entertainingly, the best reaction of all: shaking your ass like there’s no conceivable tomorrow. All these things are valid indicators of the transcendence of a particular record.
These quite often become “the classics”, whether commercially successful or not (they usually are). These are the records that your music friends will close to universally recommend, albums that end up on musty Best of Ever Lists written by hacks of every stripe. These are litmus test albums, stuff like Blonde on Blonde, Born in the USA, Alien Lanes, OK Computer and 36 Chambers. Undisputed heavyweight champions, records sanctified by company men and iconoclasts alike.
Mudbird Shivers isn’t one of those records, not by any stretch of the imagination. To many it can be considered just another album in an endless pile pumped out by the venerable Dutch “not quite anarchist” collective, the Ex. And to be perfectly frank, it’s probably not even one of the albums true-blue fan-boys of the Ex would tout as an ideal starting point for new fans, or as a record of any particular significance. Which is fine, because the Ex isn’t a band in contention for the heavyweight championship, they’re one of those bands that exist outside of good and evil and do their best work when nobody is cheering.
And yet, Mudbird Shivers is too special to dismiss or forget. Have the Ex made better and more complete albums? Without a doubt! Turn (2004) is their late career classic, an ambitious double LP most bands wouldn’t even attempt. Starters and Alternators (1998) is likewise the Ex at their most mature and refined, smartly kicking the shit out of the State. Their collaborations with outlaw cello maven Tom Cora and the Ethiopian saxophone savant Getachew Merkuria are also required listening, along with the 2000's 1936: Spanish Revolution, Dizzy Spells, Blueprints for a Blackout, and 2011's Joggers and Smoggers. But the fully-formed dissident spirit of the Ex waits patiently in the past, in Murdbird Shivers.
A few words on the Ex. Record review talking points have shackled them with the title of “The Dutch Crass”. They’ve been at this making music thing since 1979, a banner year for nascent punk rock and Iranian revolutions. They’ve been trying to shed their reputation as a bunch of anarchists or purveyors of “anarcho-punk” for most of their career, describing themselves instead as “friends of anarchism”, preferring to not go all in on either the storefront window smashers or as devotees of Proudhon or Bakunin.
Which is not to say the Ex are not a serious band. They most certainly are. Essential to their seriousness is their ability to smirk. Just listen to “The Pie”, their eight-minute song about a sweet potato pie recipe as a metaphor for the perils of globalization… at least that is what I think it is about. For a band that chose its name based on how fast it would take to spray paint on walls (two seconds flat), they’ve matured into elder statesmen of left wing rocking out.
So as is probably apparent, the Ex themselves are not the type of band that could ever realistically contribute something to the canon. Despite their longevity, they have never been spoken of with the reverence of the bands they are so often categorized with in the “You Might Also Enjoy!” style lists; bands like The Fall (forever great), Gang of Four (once great), and Fugazi (great in theory). Those squads pack more of a gravitas punch with “serious” music critics.
The Ex are too weird and difficult to get a soundbyte handle on. They are the “We Are the World” punks and that’s just not very cool. They tour Africa every year and engage in workshops with local musicians and children. They champion a rotating set of collaborators, often willingly taking on the role of glorified backing band for their passion projects with acts as varied as Sonic Youth, the Mekons, and Chumbawamba. They are ostensibly a punk band but rarely manage to play a song that is under five minutes long. They are smiley, friendly, engaging middle-aged folks, former squatters from Amsterdam who took a liking to free jazz and folk and yes, even the unstylish rhythms of “world music”. Take all of that into consideration and it's easy to see why they have no place in your average music critics’ narrative. They aren’t outlaws. They're painters.
As mentioned, their cardinal sin may just be that they have written too many damn songs for most casual spectators (and especially less casual ones) to grapple with. Bands that put out records at this kind of clip need a cult of personality-type figure to keep people interested and engaged. The Ex almost nearly had this with founding member and lead ranter/singer G.W. Sok, but he quietly left the band a few years ago, leaving the Ex even less beholden to a central unifying force. A wild mess, with hundreds of songs strewn about in piles of albums, and picking a defining moment for a band that continually re-defines, itself is a fairly daunting task.
Mudbird Shivers is disguised in the trappings of a standard Ex record, another enthusiastically droning post-punk release with leftist lip service. Some people bought it, critics reviewed it more or less favorably, and then it was gone, forgotten, and the Ex moved on to the next record. This is a band that has mutated and morphed and bellowed their way past easy and cheap classifications for nearly 40 years and this album illustrates that. Maybe it seems like a cop-out. Pick a random record and claim it is the defining moment in a long storied career. Well, not quite. This record is a fork in the road. The production doesn’t approach the sleekness of their more recent offerings, but it's noticeably cleaner and more accessible than the agitprop stomp of their early years. This is not something you have to be a crazy rock 'n' roll snob or punk purist to appreciate.
Key to distinguishing Mudbird Shivers from the dozens of other Ex releases is the one album only guest appearance of Hans Buhrs as a sort of co-lead vocalist, adding a new insane dimension to the already manic bursts of G.W. Sok. Sok is relegated to a complimentary piece, a gamble many bands wouldn’t have attempted and yet it works beautifully.
Sok’s vocal stylings resemble that of a slugger: lacking finesse, slow, sometimes predictable, but capable of brutal force. The question this record posed was: can the Ex without his voice front and center? Yeah, turns out they can. Sok is wonderful and a one of a kind, but the band clearly isn’t doomed without him. Like a basketball team that eschews star power for the cohesion of the sum of its parts, the Ex blast through the songs together, not on any one set of broad shoulders. They are a better band for it, and this egalitarian approach shines brightly indeed on Mudbird Shivers. Everyone gets a chance to go nova.
Mudbird Shivers is a brilliant album, something too easily forgotten if one is away from it for too long. It's the album Natalie Portman should have played for Zach Braff in 2004's Garden State. This is confidence with jarring tempo changes. Nobody makes music quite like the Ex, for better or worse. The songs ramble and rise and fall, propelled by technical aptitude as much as a feral intuition of sound.
“Newsnence” is all sharp guitars and crunchy bass, guided by the insistence of Katherina Bornfeld’s drumming, the slightly loony crooning of Han Burs, and the imminent threat of being harangued by G.W. Sok. It’s not always an easy thing to embrace. The faint of heart may need to pre-game before full immersion. This is music that is distinctly thick and ambiguous, dark but not beholden to pessimism. It's the melody of the whirlwind. That’s why a re-imagining of folk staple “The House Carpenter” doesn’t seem like artifice, only the next logical track on an Ex record. No pigeonholes. They worship many different dark alleyways of sound and fury.
And then there is “Only If You Want 3”. When Buhrs and Sok indulge in duets, Mudbird Shivers really flies. The percussion is ferocious yet skeletal, and Kat Bornfeld also contributes some haunting yodeling/onomatopoeia backing vocals that lend the proceedings a savage layer, made even more dire and vicious by the winning concoction of Buhrs snarls and Sok shouts. It’s not essential to enjoy to the Ex with the enthusiasm of a court scribe. You could just as easily listen to “Only If You Want 3” and concluded that it is a dope and ass-kicking song. You would be right.
To the surprise of probably no one, not all the songs on Mudbird Shivers are perfect, or even “perfect”. But there are no out and out clunkers, and even the filler is close to first-rate. “Hunt Hat” reveals a saxophone that hacks like a machete. “Things That Most People Think” is mostly a speedy bass line and a Nick Cave meets Tom Waits freak-out. “Embarrassment” is ranting in calligraphy, with typical fist-in-the face instrumentation that is impenetrable and abrasive, but hardly gratuitous, or worse, ugly. Beauty and purpose tag along in even the most atonal dissonant contributions. There's too much skill and heart in what they do that they can’t help but confer elegance onto a wall of sound that often comes close to the sound of bombing raid alarms and the subsequent bombs themselves.
“Ret Roper” offers up perhaps Han Buhrs finest moment, though it isn’t even one of the better songs on the record. Forget the ubiquitous Captain Beefheart references (there’s another one!), Buhrs uses his weapon of choice (that weird voice, man!) and channels the pathos of a well-established band commendably. He warbles a tirade in a voice equal parts bluster and brine and at no point did I forget this was an Ex song or attempt to put an asterisk beside it because Sok was just another role-player in this go-round.
Mudbird Shivers is unheralded record, just an italicized line with a date next to it embedded in a sprawling discography. It’s generally considered unimportant, and it’s doubtful that the ever forward thinking members of the Ex have thought about or played these songs in years. But that’s the great thing about music. It doesn’t have to be important to be wonderful. Much like the voice of G.W. Sok, the Ex are a wild and uplifting rant. May that wild rant boom until the very end of the line.
Alex Siquig is a writer living both the dream and the nightmare in Baltimore. He has written for ViceSports, the Classical, Full Stop, and elsewhere. Fine him on Twitter at @thomasawful