Tag Archives: urban frowning

REVIEW – The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’ demo, 2014 (“both dark and breezy”)

21 May

I don’t know much about The Four Disorders, and that’s how they seem to like it. A brief heads-up email arrived about them the other day, but lyrical hints and a single downcast, distracted photo don’t tell me much more than that they’re probably based in Hackney, that they’re a boy/girl duo (Mi-Shan and Joe), and that they’re not big on eye contact.

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

Mi-Shan and Joe of The Four Disorders (photo © The Four Disorders)

There are just two Soundcloud demo tracks so far, both demos. Not quite a secret, not quite a single. There’s a contradictory whiff of reclusive hipster to this (not necessarily a bad thing – I dip into hipsterworld sometimes, and it’s a guilty relief to find someone there who hates self-promotion). What I can glean about The Four Disorders, therefore, comes mostly from their sound, which somehow manages to be both dark and breezy.

Rhythms are closures : minimal drum machine clacks and markers, enough to pump the songs along up-tempo but otherwise just nails holding the box together. Sidelining (or suppressing) the sparse and begrudged clusters of starved, spangly guitar, Mi-Shan offers greyed-out nighthawk pads of budget string-synth. Moods are made or broken on Joe’s upfront bass guitar, which looks and sounds almost as big as he is, whether it’s trudging down the beat with a dour plectrum-hammer or traveling on a supple, pianistic twist of growling melody. Allowing for home-studio roughness, they end up somewhere between Sisters of Mercy (circa the clenched and hooded cynic-rumble of ‘Floodland’) and the brighter, more forgiving dance-pop of Saint Etienne (sprinkling reappropriated, refiltered tints of classic pop sounds over washed-out London suburbs).

Whenever Joe opens his mouth, however, it suddenly turns a bit teenaged-Neil-Tennant. He sings with a similar small-voiced and beady tone – brittle and nasal, watchful and dry. Like Tennant, Joe also wears heartache and reflection as if they were part of the same, wrong jacket; tight and a little irksome. On Cat Lady he sighs, with a hint of exasperation, “I could love you if you drop this nonsense.” Over glum keyboard chords and a chilly, thudding bassline (and with a hint of cocaine weariness), he outlines the stagnant mind games which keep score but eventually lead to nil. “You think you know it all, you think you’ve got my life worked out, you think you see right through me, / but you don’t know me and I don’t want to show you. / You think you’ve got me in a corner, you think you’ve outmanoeuvred me – / but I show you only half the truth / and it cuts me out, it cuts me out…”

With excruciating – and accurate – teenage gawkiness, the song flickers between states and stances. It travels rapidly from poised bleakness (“you think you’re only using me to satisfy you when you need it / I wish that’s all you wanted from me, but I can feel the pain inside you”) to the unwanted sympathy, sincerity and pathos of the schoolyard underdog scratching for love. (“You’re smarter and more popular than me – / it’s true, but I just wish that you could believe it too / and put yourself at ease.”) In its dance of masks and blushes, it feels like a mash-up of Brett Easton Ellis and ‘Waterloo Road’.

That awkwardness, that inability to maintain a fixed pose, seems deliberate: a conscious, complicit songwriter’s choice. On Hell And Hackney, Joe takes on the insubstantiality and self-indulgence of his peers, but even while taking it to task with verbal barbs and jabs, he brings in the rueful tone of the implicated. “Aimlessly we drift, like a frivolous emotion, or a dream that fades into the day / Further round the bend, delirium advances; / we bite the hand that tries to save… / We’re still pretending there’s another life, / parallel and far away.” There’s more fizz to this one, too: counterpointing her blocky keyboards, Mi-Shan fires out digi-gastric hi-NRG gurgles, bell-tones and sub-bass quirks over Joe’s rolling bassline.

Joe, meanwhile, lunges into the malaise to root out the muck, distraction, and confusion. “We’re only alive when we drop out of skies, wash away the compromise, / we’ve nowhere to hide, nothing left inside, forgotten what we’re trying to find… /Sad to say, we wash away the day, / destroying our time. / Cast away, sleepless we lay, /wasting our pride.” As he breaks his own cool surface, skidding vigorously between scold and clarion call, you can almost forgive him for skidding for hideously out-of-tune; especially when he tears a window in the torpid clouds towards the end. “Yes, I know how miserable it seems, / laying blame and thinking of those long-forgotten dreams; / but I hope someday we wake up, laughing at the mire we’ve left behind, / to find it’s not too late.”

Dour tones and duff notes notwithstanding, this has promise: at the very least, I like the idea of a more Gothic spin on Pet Shop Boys. Even if Joe and Mi-Shan still won’t look me in the eye…

The Four Disorders: ‘Cat Lady/Hell And Hackney’
The Four Disorders (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Stream-only demo tracks
Released: 10th April 2014

Get it from:
Stream only on Soundcloud and YouTube.

The Four Disorders online:
Facebook Soundcloud YouTube

REVIEW – Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’ single, 2013 (“cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid”)

14 Feb

Qwestions: 'Humble Pie'

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’

“I’m dry-heaving, saying these words with meaning,” gasps Qwestions. Gut feeling. It’s supposed to be at the heart of hip-hop: but in a music of masks, demands and fly-posted signifiers it often gets pasted over.

Too much. There’s too much to represent – too much history and geography to be spat up like fireworks, too many links and hand-holds to be acknowledged, too many objects to count. No wonder that so many rappers rapidly run down and put up the same touchy, predictable façade. No wonder that they turn into mobile billboards flattened of meaning, riding in identical limousines – overwhelmed; turned into nothing but front; still scared of the moment when everything will be kicked out from under them.

As for Chicago MC Qwestions, his desperate, dazzling raps suggest that he couldn’t fall into this two-dimensional lie even if he wanted to. At 23, standing tall and shaking, he’s a man who flinches from masks and who lives on the outside of his skin: tears, confusion, grand-and-ground-standing and all. He’s everything that hip-hop ought to be in its honesty. Here, perched on a clenching, reluctant beat and hunched underneath Mario Anthony’s chilly stratospheric washes of synth (as cold as a 4am January on the South Side) Qwestions is both cowering and defiant; brave and fucked-up and lucid. It’s said that rappers have to grow up fast. Qwestions reminds us that growing up is actually a constant, painful process.

Humble Pie sounds like a man hitting concrete, but knowing that he has no choice but to get up and run on. While Qwestions kicks off with what sounds like a typical brag (“I am the greatest rapper alive – / am I wasting my time / eating this humble pie with a plastic fork and no knife?”), the rap quickly and deftly folds in on itself. It becomes both critique and confession of Qwestions’ life and work, of the compromises which he has to make both as artist and man. Even the mocking drawl of the chorus spins between multiple and revealing mirrors: a boast of being a cut above, a wry acceptance of holding back, of pretense and the wrestle with ego. “You know, you know, you know, / they won’t love you when you know, / you too dope, too dope, too dope, / so I play my role… / I know it’s moving slow.” Even the pay-off line could be aimed as much at himself as at a foe onstage – “Make sure you eat some humble pie before the show.”

Many of the images in Humble Pie revolve around guts, and around the value and terrors of food: the nutrition of work, the unpalatability of being conscious enough to let the world intrude. In his dedication to honesty, Qwestions dares to sometimes be repulsive; dares to be outright with matters of weakness, helplessness and terror . “Vomit all in my kitchen sink – / the nausea gets critical when I start to think,” he moans at one point. “I let my mind drift then my stomach flips. / I guess it is a curse when you born with gifts.” Later, he shoulders his offstage burdens with a mixture of courage and gripe – “The scene changes, but it’s the same script, / I’m trying to be a good father… / I sacrifice all my happiness for a couple of dollars and some pocket lint.”

Elsewhere he’s stepping up aggressively, unsure whether to ball his fists or spread his hands, but stripping his self-assertion to the bones of desperation in a bid to be understood. “Remember life in the hood – why the fuck you think I’m so cocky? / Why you think I try so hard? / Why you think you can stop me?” Even here – and after all of the moans, acidic spits and fear-belches – it’s hard not to like Qwestions. But then, a rapper who shares so much about the human condition is to be treasured.

You just hope that he’s going to make it through. Sometimes he sighs, half-broken even as he delivers: “Am I wasting my time / investing in all my dreams with no moments to recline?… / I just want to lay up, / sleep and never get up.” Meanwhile a nagging, sneering voice slips through the verses; a spiteful ghost flitting in and out of the gaps in the tower blocks. A voice from the back of his head, overturning his brags and hollowing out his talent as fast as he assert it.. “Your little crude knife… / You’ll never eat.” The guts of belief are laid bare: there’s everything to defend, everything to play for.

Qwestions: ‘Humble Pie’
Ingenious Dreams Media Group (no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only single
Released: 2nd January 2013

Buy it from:
Soundcloud

Qwestions online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter YouTube

REVIEW – Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’ single, 2001 (“counting the change and failing to come up with comforting answers”)

12 Aug

Laughtrack: 'Amusements'

Laughtrack: ‘Amusements’

Amusements is a majestic but famished slink across rain-dirty pavements in the gaudy heart of town: redolent of grime and darkness, and with disturbed puddles wavering neon reflections at you. A techno dub-groove catwalks its way from start to finish, toying with all the time in the world: whether the wire-wool guitars are beating themselves against it or whether the sound is being gulped away to reveal the skeletal machinery of bass and beat prowling onwards. A thin but insistent vocal hangs at the heart of it: “I can’t tell you no lies / We’re moving into a new kind of life – / a strange new world, a comfort zone / where nobody has to be alone.”

It’s a lyric which almost sounds as if it ought to be bobbling along on top of a corporate anthem: but which, in this context, sounds as if it’s shadowing the giant corporate hands which can pat you on the head in one pass and scoop away your world with the next. “Why have you sold the future, why have you sold the past?” questions the chorus. “Is it for our amusements, ‘cos nothing is meant to last?” Someone’s standing on the edge of the kerb, swaying on their heels, counting the change they’ve been returned and failing to come up with comforting answers.

If the original Amusements resembles a rocked-up ‘Mezzanine’, the Severance mix (done with “avant-hardist” MEME) flings the drums into echoing relief and carves the groove into a zombie stomp, Garbage-style. Grating peaks of sub-bass and further sandstorms of psychedelic guitar crackle somewhere between Chapterhouse, Suicide and Levitation – sleekness savaged into life by noise and interference. No words, but an implacable, forceful indifference. The deal’s done – it’s time to bring out the heavy lorries.

Slide round the corner, and things are different. The torch song atmosphere of Left Standing implies Goth-cum-trip-hop, but also a take on Billy Mackenzie at his most open. It’s the brittle piano chording, that cavernous sway of arrangement around the lamp-post glow of a solitary microphone; the hints of theatrics and sincerity interlocking fingers and squeezing for luck… or in desperation. That said, it doesn’t follow the Mackenzie trail entirely. There’s an absence of helium operatics and peacock posturing. Instead, the almost-buried voice of Joe (Laughtrack’s mastermind) catches at the same blend of clenched unfunky indignation as Roland Orzabal at his most vulnerable; and even breaks at the same preacherly point.

This time Joe’s not mourning a way of life, but a person: and although the burden of grief is shared, the empty space that’s been punched into his life is obvious. Joe sounds exhausted and angry as he confesses “I really don’t care for very much these days, / but the living is easy in a pointless way. / You left us standing, and now everything is hard to say…” Thankfully there are compensations, new reconcilations, new solidarities to be found in the face of it: “I tell my friends ‘don’t be so scared’… / You left us standing, and that’s something we’ll always share.”

It’s Laughtrack’s unease – their sense of huge forces and emotions moving behind the immediate business of life – that draws you back to them. This is dark, luxuriant pop to tease apart with the fingertips and pry into; something that suggests stories in the same way as the more oblique moments of no-man or Smog. And Laughtrack’s simple but oddly unsettling name (raising questions every time you consider it) suggests a writer intelligent enough to be aware of the frame surrounding whatever he does.

As Laughtrack roll away off into the night, they’re being quietly trailed by gumshoes who are after some more answers.

Laughtrack: “Amusements”
Contrary Public, CONTPUB001 (no barcode)
CD-only single
Released: 2001

Buy it from:
Best looked for second-hand.

Laughtrack online:
MySpace

REVIEW – Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette, 2000 (“uptight urban fuck-up music”)

14 Jul

Empty Vessels: 'Empty Vessels' (demo cassette, 2000)

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ (demo cassette, 2000)

Perhaps I was spoilt by the absolute flamboyance of David Devant And His Spirit Wife (a band of music-hall performance artists in Britpop camouflage, fronted by another Vessel) but I initially found Empty Vessels a bit underwhelming. Billing themselves as a “breakbeat/guitar soundclash”, I was expecting to be walloped around the head with seething snare cracks, to have my arse booted by kick-drum hits and my ears burned by electric wailings (all in a comfortable metaphorical way, mind). I was expecting festival style-ee-ee expansiveness. A sort of Asian Dub Foundation that had been gutted and stripped out, but were still rustling defiantly.

But Empty Vessels are less of a soundclash than a crowded minibus jammed with noises. They sound as if they do their recording in one of those tiny closets in Islington that estate agents try to flog to people as homes… or maybe in the cupboard of one of those closets. The usual claustrophobia of sped-up drum’n’bass-style breakbeats could only be amplified by these cramped, super lo-fi recordings; all skinny and vertical, never laying out when they can tense up. The sort of music inspired by hunching up and listening to hoarded CDs rather than by losing oneself on a sweaty, body-heavy dancefloor. Beat-science with a home chemistry set…

Nicotine is an unfortunate starter: neurotically trapped rushes of synth bass, shrill Killing An Arab-style guitar licks through budget fuzztones, and some pug-dog yelping courtesy of a bloke who sounds like Steve Harley forcibly bundled into a filing cabinet. Skip it for Chew-Up, a smarter shot in which all the beats are turned up and a careening sub-bass runs away with the foundations. Here the fuzzy shoulderings of guitar are a relief from the needling drums. The voice runs like a mumbling rat, complaining but flicking from rhythm to rhythm, and you find yourself wanting to catch on to what it’s ranting about. Empathising too much with your own sampler, it seems. “Chewing up experience, and chewing up experience… / It’s mine! It’s mine! / I acquire.”

Empty Vessels sound best when they don’t sound in control, when they’re running after their technology like it’s the last bus out of town. Sneering Face is one of those intriguing accidents that happen when you have white guys playing gladiatorial black dance music, desperately and unsuccessfully trying to get around their own whiteness, and ending up somewhere else entirely when they fail, sounding pretty liberated for it. While it starts as a wayward attempt at speed rapping (invaded by psychedelic space guitar echo), Empty Vessels have decided to fuck it all off about two-thirds of the way in and go for the ridiculous. Creaky vocal interjections that belong in Jim Henson’s Creature Workshop (“I – ought to teach them a leh-sson!”), seasick bloots of guitar, falsetto operatics wobbling in the background. The sort of vandalism that suggests they meant to do it from the start.

Uptight urban fuck-up music. Tower-block friendly. Angry summer sounds for days when none of your clothes seem to fit. I can’t say I like this, but it’s successfully sneaked into my curiosity field.

Empty Vessels: ‘Empty Vessels’ demo cassette
self-released (no catalogue number or barcode)
Cassette-only demo
Released: 11th June 2012

Buy it from:
The original cassette is long gone, although it was possibly reissued as a Peoplesound CD single which might be available second-hand. These three tracks have since been resurrected on ‘Empty Vessels 1‘, available from Bandcamp

Empty Vessels online:
Homepage BandcampYouTube

REVIEW – Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’ single, 1999 (“smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling”)

13 Jul

Forty Shades Of Black rear up with the dirty, sticky, galumphing riffs of Belisha – an elephantine math-rock construction with stubble somewhere that’s annoying it. It lumbers around, red-eyed and furious, tearing a few trees up in fits of fiery rage. It also provides a way for the spiky London post-rockers Delicate AWOL to let off steam (Forty Shades Of Black is basically a handy alter-ego for them when they don’t want to sing).

We’ve met Belisha before, on Delicate AWOL’s ‘Random Blinking Lights‘ EP. Put centre-stage, its grind’n’chop, Mogwai-meets-Ruins sardine-can shapes bang aggressively against your eardrums, and look set to dominate. That is, until the band unveil the smudged and ever-so-slightly stifling sound-painted dreams of the other tracks. These reveal themselves gradually, like disintegrating lacework peeling off an old dressmaker’s dummy.

The soft explorations of Sidings are a post-rocker’s picture of a shunting yard being swallowed by the encroaching dark. Intermittent bass throbs mutter alongside shivering guitar. Caroline’s quiet moans float past alongside feathery passes of brushes on drumskins. Notes slide by, softly massive and indifferent – red lanterns looming out of the darkness. Much less of a reverie, Advanced Formula is as fragile and awkwardly stretched as a crane fly. Spidery math-rock chording scratches out a place to sit: an E-Bowed solo paints a long wavering strip of electric-blue Bill Nelson light across the cloud cover, while the shapes give way to a relaxed out-of-synch swing.

I’ve mentioned before how Delicate AWOL seem hung up on disintegration. This time, watching things decay and fall apart seems somehow satisfying – the return of something to its disassociated elements, instead of the fraying of desires. Whichever is your favourite collapse, inside or out, this band can orchestrate both.

Forty Shades Of Black: ‘Belisha’
day Release Records Ltd., DR102 (no barcode)
7-inch vinyl-only single
Released: 1999

Buy it from:
Long-deleted – try to find this second-hand.

Delicate AWOL (Forty Shades Of Black) online:
MySpace

EP reviews – Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’ (“kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett”)

15 Mar
Vex Ruffin: 'Eulogy'

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’

Punk helps you cut loose from your roots. Where you land is your own business. Take lo-fi riser Vex Ruffin, who turns his back on the Californian sunshine of his Chino Hills hometown and dreams himself over the Atlantic to Blighty, to a soggy Stockport or a drizzled Haywards Heath. Once there, he’ll while away the time throwing some deliberately awkward shapes and kicking the bleached ghost of Martin Hannett round a multi-storey car-park.

Back in his real home, Vex is fertile soil with a growing reputation – a onetime Cure fan with a parallel taste for Ruff Riders hip-hop, an anti-technique approach to guitar, and a wide-open yen for discovery and striking scratch-video. Potentially, it’s an interesting combination for creative confusion; especially as he doesn’t appear to be the fringe-dwelling white geek you’d expect, but a bandana-rocking American Asian with a penchant for moody or macabre photocalls (ruling alone on a bench with an intimidating glower, or playing shot-to-death up against a wall). Despite the gangster trimmings, Vex is also an artistic loner, playing with anyone but following no-one, and vocally eschewing scenes.

Strange then, that ‘Eulogy’ should so precisely capture the dank anti-achievement atmosphere of a single scene; English post-punk from the dying days of the 1970s. It’s all there – the rat-scuttle drum-machine sounds and tin-tube vocals; the primitive synth-blipping (from early Mute singles); the street-sweeping snarl-up of half-buried guitar. Even the jittery sheathes of reverb and echo, recalling Hannett’s work with the Invisible Girls and John Cooper Clarke.

Distant and detached, Vex’s voice funnels into the mix as if it’s been blown in with the leaves. The baleful alienation feels like Public Image Ltd. – on Eulogy itself, Vex even declares “I don’t wanna be seen, and isolate myself with your scene…  I don’t want it” in a gruff Jah Wobble growl. But Vex simultaneously goes both further and not so far, archly clipping his thoughts and lyrics down to a bare, bored minimum. On Perfect Congestion he just chants “I don’t want to hear it, I don’t want to hear it.” Even the drumbox blip and cheap synth tang of Secret Weapon (with its hopeful refrain of “You’ll stand, you’ll see”, halfway to a classic cyber-single) sounds like a marching call bleached down nearly to nothing; like five-year-old graffiti traces.

It’s a freebie EP, so perhaps it’s best not to expect the cream. Yet this is bland coming from someone who recently made his name with postcard singles and fired up his restlessness with I’m Creative. OK, the sounds were similar, but this time Vex succumbs to a drizzling disaffection. In Tunnel Vision, Vex toys with a tale of inspiration (“it was late afternoon when I felt the brilliance, and it was truly original,”) but delivers it in a robotic monotone, ending up in a blind-alley moan over a slew of guitar fuzz. For Space Out , he flaunts his Cure fandom in a shambles of punk psychedelia and stair-tumbling drum loops, intoning “I can barely breathe, I need to clear my head, I need to get inspired” in a Peter Sellers joke voice.

I suspect that he’s taking the piss on a grand scale (why call anything ‘Eulogy’ when you sound so fucking bored with it all?) but the joke’s a pretty thin one. There’s something in the tone of this which suggests a smart guy deliberately turning his back. While this leaves a disappointing taste, it’s not quite enough to justify me returning the favour and turning my own: Vex has more in him, but it’s time to start taking some risks.

Vex Ruffin: ‘Eulogy’ EP
Stone’s Throw Recordings (no cat. number)
Free download EP
Released: 9th March 2012

Get it from:
free download from Stone’s Throw Recordings.

Vex Ruffin online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter MySpace Soundcloud Tumblr

Album reviews – The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ (“a couple of junk dogs”)

12 Feb
The Chewers: 'Every Drop Disorganized'

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’

The Chewers thrust their faces, suddenly, out of the forest. They notice your startled expression, but they just cross their eyes at you. They’re not here to entertain you, let alone impress you. They’re sniffing around music, a couple of junk dogs, seeing what they can make of it. There will be bumps and boings: there will be scraps of sudden, enthusiastic remembering. There will be sudden interjections. There will be rather a lot of hammering.

The Chewers are Travis Caffrey and Michael Sadler, a pair of self-confessed West Virginian freaks. Most of what they do involves rudimentary guitar lines which complain like old suspension springs; drums thumped with a bastardized ritual technique; frowning stump-handed bass playing which is too big for the room but too inert to leave it. They sing, after a fashion – usually in a menacing deadpan creak, sometimes in a gruff lobotomized roar. Melodies are torn off, like unwanted paint: they strip everything down to a trapped and surly chug, then filter it through the sound of collapse. Sometimes they leave an electric organ broiling in the corner, add a layer of picked-out piano, or torment a fiddle with skeleton plucks or sawing skids.

These are the kind of tunes that could make a musician forget how to play. Their goofy, deadpan primitivism sounds like drunken mechanics banging rocks together in a Flintstones cartoon; or a couple of bears who’ve set upon and eaten a guy in a one-man-band outfit, then start fumbling at the crumpled instruments to try and get that interesting noise back. We’ve been here before, of course, with The Residents – and a musky, oppressive Residents reek hangs all over The Chewers’ faux-artless art music. At a root level, both bands work with the same kind of sub-technique – deliberately clumsy, deliberately short-sighted, attempting to sneak up on an idiot-savant approach from behind.

Much of The Chewers’ debut album ‘Every Drop Disorganized’ seems to follows a freak-show blueprint. Stirring a greasy canful of satire and nihilism, Travis and Michael are self-confessed cartographers of tiny personal hells. While what can be discerned of their settings, characters and stylings are unmistakeably American, they’re often fairly timeless. They present stark three-line drawings of insanities and self-inflicted rages, or of situations slewing into enmity or a crude revenge. Their Americana is absurd and brutal, part Faulkner and part ‘Gummo’ – the kind of storyscape in which thick-set dungaree’d inbreds drag their own coffins around on leg-chains and where frowning men, preoccupied with guzzling and paranoia, squat guard outside collapsing shacks, broken-down trailers and mouldering gambrel houses.

In fact (as with The Residents), what The Chewers do behind their Muppet voices and smeary, tarry-black humour is less elaborate and even more savage. With American Gothic, there’s some state of aspiration to fall from and some perverse pleasure in the decay. The Chewers, though, deal with lives apparently blunted by ignorance, obsession, violence and inertia from the start. You’re a brute; or a chump; or the target of someone else’s shills and exploitations – and you’re stuck with it. The misanthropic ranting of Human Scum is couched in brown-dwarf rock-and-roll, compressed to a broken stumble of sour fuzz guitar, splattered twang and thunder-drum. “Get your slime out of this house,” one Chewer growls on Get Out Of Town, while half a blues riff tussles with fragments of Dobro slide. “You left many things behind. / None of them was a friend.”

The Chewers clearly enjoy their grim and guttural journey. During breaks in dragging around those hope-coffins, they indulge in short instrumentals, deliberate guitar bungles and instinctual blobs of pick-up-and-play sound-art. The Scooby Doo caveman vocals and berimbau twanging on Who Ra makes that Residents debt even more explicit (it could easily sit alongside the faked rituals and pop-culture gags on ‘Eskimo’). Don’t Go In The Tent offers three minutes of machine pulse, bat-wing bellows-chords and drill-whistles. The Day The Circus Came To Town fools around with Autotune-whooping, kazoos and fiddle scrawls. The Chewers bring an exultation to this part of the work, delighting in the clash of noises.

Much of the music thumbs its nose at American aspiration while revelling in American orneriness and the palpable debris of American life. This makes absolute sense – the other key Chewers influences are those utterly American musicians and songwriters who stick like bones in the throat of their culture. The three Swamp Drag pieces bear the stamp (or stomp) of Tom Waits hobo-music pieces with their wounded marching drum, their dinosaur gronks and busted-suspension riffage, their broken-off stub of tune and the lost, frothing narrator winding his way inwards. Butterknife – with its deadpan sprechstimme and its indistinct, twisting story of marital discontent, murder and kitchen utensils – owes plenty to Frank Zappa .

Two other songs have a fairly explicit Captain Beefheart tang. The evangelism parody of Savior Pill crumbles like ripe old cheese as it lurches along on jazz cymbals and gnarled-up blues: although the lyrics, using the language of oldtime radio hucksters, are more Zappa. “Shouldn’t you have some relief? Call to see if you qualify… / Legs are restless, souls in strife. / Side effects include everlasting life. / Call in ten minutes and you’ll see the light. / Benefits are many, side effects are few – we’ll even throw in a Second Coming.” Beyond its guitar boings and grits-pan clunks, Fire on the Hill stumbles into trek poetry, painting the simple beauty of the outdoors in disconnected swipes and flashes while entwining it with the occult. “Trouble is following me through the long grass… / Voices beside me as I sit near the flames – the horses make noises, they drop through the dark… / Laughing is loud, / the crickets are chirping. / The sky is a dome.”

On the whole, though, Chewers songs are populated by fuck-ups. Convicts stuff their faces; some people fall down wells (where they wait, somewhat indifferently, for rescue), while others wander permanently off the trail. Damaged men sit alone in rooms, propelled into puzzling hallucinations by ringing telephones. The ambitious aren’t spared either. With the grinding punk-slurry riff and monotone delivery of Hollywood Car, Travis and Michael caustically lay waste to dreams of celebrity, reducing them to empty greed. “Rotten soul don’t get old… / Pledge yourself like all the others. / Step over your mom – skin is glossy like a magazine cover… / Smile through your teeth and ignore the poor. / You got your foot in the door. / You’ve had fifteen and you want some more… / Hollywood isn’t a workplace rat-race – / it’s a high-speed chase. / Cut off your nose to spite your face.”

Perhaps where all of this fails a little is in the way The Chewers allow their absurdism thicken into cynicism. Never really presenting their blundering song-characters as anything other than grim entertainment or easy meat, they don’t leave them the option of dignity. There’s rarely any of punk’s indignation; and not even much of Zappa’s frustrated disdain. On Specimen, they play a crude kazoo-laden cha-cha-cha and deliver a one-way story about a man becoming a test animal in a destructive medical experiment. On the strummed, limping lollop of Charlie Chum, they show even less sympathy for their hapless protagonist. “You should have seen this coming” they grunt, as they drawing a muddled, menacing picture of a man who first deceives and then overreaches himself; who “chews his words like cows chew cud… / believes every word he speaks.” Falling foul of the predators, he eventually pays the price – “Charlie Chum has got two hands – / one swats flies, one deals cards. / Deck is cut, game draws blood, / sharks tear Charlie Chum apart.” Travis and Michael, at least, seem to think he had it coming. Despite the murky flourishes, this never rises above the level of chump cartoon, and that’s a shame.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Even at the very least ,the album’s cartoon-noir tone is enjoyable once you’ve attuned yourself to its sinister creep; and one track – an acapella ode to the joy of pancakes – offers some relief. As The Chewers sing, hiccup, belch and gargle their way through a gamut of American musical trademarks (a blues-grind, some close-harmony doo-wop, a prison song, a Spike Jones fusillade of comedy noises) they also recite a series of cheerfully dumb Bubba-isms in a thoughtful Jimmy Dean drawl. “Life without pancakes is hell on earth, / and I don’t mind my massive girth… / The only difference between beast and man / is – an animal can’t make a cake in a pan… / When they find me bloated in the gutter, / they can cover my coffin in syrup and butter.”

Though they top it off with a particularly dopey and violent twist (“The only way I’ll have my fill / is when they make one good enough to kill,”) it’s somehow an affectionate moment: one in which they embrace their all-American idiot as well as laugh at him. At The Chewers’ jokiest moment it all comes together – the stubbornness and rebelliousness that’s as much a part of Americana as is romance or beauty; the love of homemade noise and of squeezing music out from the pips; the thick’n’tasty bozo parade.

The Chewers: ‘Every Drop Disorganized’
The Chewers (self-released, no catalogue number or barcode)
Download-only album
Released: 6th February 2011

Buy it from:
The Chewers homepage.

The Chewers online:
Homepage Facebook Twitter Soundcloud LastFM YouTube

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