Old 97s at the Showbox at the Market, Seattle 01/24/11

Behold: the most recent Old 97s recording for sale.

Some facts of secondary relevance: I’ve only ever seen or heard alt-country labeled bands at shows that are the provenance of guilty, guardedly fearful financial organizations (Son Volt upwards of 3 times during New York’s summer-long outdoor River-to-River festival, popularly known as “The-City-Makes-a-Nearly-Empty,-Painless-Gesture-to-the Sucker-Hopeful-Future-Bourgeois-Paying-the-City’s-Rents Concert Series”), as part of a neighborhood arts organization’s summer to-do (Wilco at Minneapolis’ Walker Art Center), thanks to a gesture of largesse by the caliph of an inland city-state to his teeming, restive plebes (Wilco again, debuting “I am Trying to Break your Heart” at the Taste of Chicago”), and by dint of that careworn, if obfuscative, axiom, “A rising tide lifts all boats” (enjoying the acoustic perfection from where I sat with my back leaned against the back wall of the bandshell during yet another Wilco set.  They were playing for paying ticket-holders at Brooklyn’s McCarren Park Pool that night— this was before the gated-community set, whose fortresses continue to go up in Williamsburg, decided their kids need a place to swim other than the ocean since their money and numbers have ensured Frank Serpico’s services are no longer really required there, prompting the city to decree that the pool would be restored to working order, no longer used as a concert venue).  And, recently, on Monday night I got to see the fantastic Old 97s play at the Showbox at the Market in Seattle through the good graces of Easy Street Records.  This is to say I’ve only ever seen this brainy, frank, hopeful, tender, egalitarian and plain-spoken genre of minstrelsy performed gratis.

But why is that?  Indie rock, I love you and every other over-confident, stars-in-their-eyes, innovative, cock’o the walk flavor of the minute blog sensation youthful bravura tempts into swelling your ranks, but how easy is it to enjoy the shows your stable puts on with all that courtly intrigue and those transactions of cultural capital poisoning the air?  The concert venue is a house of prayer, but you are dividing it into a house of specialized niche musical self-marketing content exchanged so hipsters can get laid!  Galilee’s scene is so over! Why am I swilling my beer money away at your shows?  Alt-country shows— this is where all the other folks in western shirts have been taking their R&R.  I think I’ve found my people.

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Monday’s Old 97s show brought a smile to my face and reminded me of two reasons why I got hooked on seeing live music to begin with.  The first is that hanging out in a room full of people who are just happy to be gathered to hear music- good or bad- is good juju.  Alt-country, country-rock—however you choose to term this stuff, it is blessed with the best crowds.  The second is that there’s something transcendental about being part of that artist-audience circuit when the performers are as happy to be there as the fans are.

Alt-country isn’t a form that requires a constant virtuosity.  It honestly and openly relies on hokey tropes hearkening back to long-quelled booms and forgotten busts when there were such things as cowboys and overnight boom towns.  The only thing this requires is that everyone be in on it.  With a wink and a smile, the Old 97s most certainly are.  This doesn’t rob the act or the genre of authenticity. If, as they say in the academy, I may make an intertextual reference, there are some Silver Jews lyrics that speak better to what I’m trying to get at than I can do myself,:

When you know how I feel I feel better/When you’re 15 you want to look poor./Do unto others, and run like a mother/I don’t want to look poor anymore. -Silver Jews, “Buckingham Rabbit”

No one wants to be the coal miner’s daughter, and most of us probably aren’t.  It’s still good, in the knowledge we’re all, artist and audience alike, getting screwed somehow, to catch the momentary pit stop distraction of our collective candles burning brightest as we make our tumbleweed’s journey to the ignominy of the grave.  It’s also real good to don a western shirt with pearlized buttons and stand in a loud room.

And did I say that alt-country doesn’t require virtuosity?  Perhaps, but please don’t think I malign the headliners of Monday’s show.  The harmony and the sorrow in Monday night’s rendition of “Valentine” brought a genuine tear to my eye, and the twanged-up Dick Dale fury of Ken Bethea’s lead guitar made me happy to be alive.

Igor Listens to Gatekeeper’s Giza

Oxygene in Flatland

Igor sez: “Listen to anything on Waxtrax! instead.”

The other day I sat down before my computer, excited to write about the new Gatekeeper EP, Giza, released this past December 13 on UK’s Merok Records.  What happened instead was that I spent the next few days reveling in Front 242’s back catalog.  How could a thing like that happen?

Well, it’s because Gatekeeper is doing a lite take of an amalgam of artists that includes Front 242, Coil, and My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult.  The difference is that with those other bands you could believe the artists had sacrificed something- or just gladly irreversibly given something- for the realization of an idea.  To wit, at about 07:15 in this interview on Red Bull Music Academy, one of the members of Front 242 rebukes the interviewer’s insinuation that the band was in a privileged position to be making the music they were making with the equipment they were using in the early ’80s by saying, with not a little bit of apparent irritation, “An Emulator is about the price of a car and I decided not to have a car but have a machine.  There are a lot of people who have cars here and would probably be able to buy an Emulator in the same sense.”

Like other musicians in their genre at the time, the expression of their art required something from them above and beyond the time put in.  This was part of the fact that they pushed their art over boundaries, making it both artificially and intrinsically anathema to the mainstream.  Wearing safely established symbolism doesn’t accomplish this same goal.

In the same few minutes of the RBMA interview mentioned above, he goes on to talk about the sense of freedom and opportunity they felt at that time as they were confronted with new synthesizer technology. (This exchange is featured in the first segment of the interview highlights video embedded below)

“…You have a new machine, a new concept, you can start from scratch. This is an opportunity for us. We felt maybe here we have a machine that is going to be able to express something of our culture because this machine is as naked as our musical culture… And so you think, ‘Here I have a chance to create a new aesthetic, to create new concepts, a new vision of music’.”

So, let’s look at Giza.  The opening sound on the Giza EP is a sample of a motorcycle being started.  Does the image of the burly dude on a hog still hold such strange and terrible Hunter S. currency that it’s going to send kids running from the dance floor to Mom’s skirts?  Actually, that’s just what I’m getting at.  On Giza you have several such samples vaguely evocative of “scariness” rooted somewhere in the familiar.  However, without lyrics, an idea, a reason, a drive, a shaking fist or a primal investment on the part of the artists, this isn’t “Do you Fear for Your Child,” this is Adventures in Babysitting.  There is nothing here to push the music on Giza out of the realm of the fear-ish, out of the category of the sinister-y.  This is all just camp once the excitement of being reminded that you really want to listen to Front 242 wears off.   There’s nothing electrically boundary-transgressing enough here to give you the surprising smack of satisfaction you’re looking for when, after your sojourn into the back-catalogs of the dread of the technological police society that Industrial music was a manifestation of, you remember to revisit Gatekeeper.

I like the stuff they seem to be into, but unless they push it their music, rehashed Twitch-era Ministry orchestra hits, Art of Noise et al-type vocal samples, and Front 242 background chanting/crowd noise and all, is just more Burning Man/Vegas revue weekend vacation dance music for deluded, self-assured careerists to use drugs to without making any significant changes in their lives.  At least Enigma was doing this sort of thing at the tail end of when this music was actually being made.

Motorcycles!  Brrrrrmm!!  Hell and stuff!

Texture, prolonged tension, vocal samples, lyrics, message, and still unlike anything I’ve heard before or since.