Monday, November 9, 2009

#48. McLusky - Do Dallas (Too Pure, 2002) and Death From Above 1979 - You're a Woman, I'm a Machine (Last Gang, 2004)

Given that I’ve already spent a post or two decrying the state of rock music – at least on the mainstream side of things – in the 00s I suppose I should articulate what it is I actually look for in a modern rock release. It’s not that all I want is innovation and newness; those are fleeting qualities at best and once the novelty wears off there isn’t as much left as I’d always like to think there is. It’s more that the key thing I’m looking for in what are at their base little more than big, dumb rawk releases is the idea that the band behind them are having fun while playing them. I’m all for bands that take themselves seriously in a lot of cases but if the music you’re making doesn’t exactly merit it, it gets old quickly (hear that Kroeger?) That’s the reason that McLusky Do Dallas and You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine would easily rank as two of my favorite modern rock albums of the decade: both McLusky and DFA79 go out of their way to display how un-seriously they take themselves and just rock out for about 40 minutes without much fanfare at all.

The lack of self-seriousness is more evident on McLusky Do Dallas, if only because the level of tongue-in-cheek lyrics coming out of frontman Andy Falkous’ mouth is probably higher than on any other album this decade. It helps that they’re also fucking hilarious most of the time, and in Falkous’ maniacal shout there’s an added element of humour to some things that would pass by rather innocuously in any other cadence. For instance…

  • ‘I’m fearful of flying/AND FLYING IS FEARFUL OF ME!’
  • ‘The trainers seemed fine/ and the hair was a FUCKING DELIGHT!’
  • ‘My band is better than your band/we’ve got more songs than a song convention, SING IT!’
  • ‘All of your friends are cunts / your mother is a ballpoint pen thief’

OK, so that last one would stand out anywhere, it’s probably the most non-sequitur yet incisive insults outside of a hip hop diss record, but the rest benefit greatly from Falkous going full out on his vocals on key words, making the more innocuous stuff seem so much more hilarious than it should. I mean, try explaining the appeal of the ‘fucking delight’ line from “Collagen Rock” to anyone who hasn’t heard it; the pleasures are all courtesy of Falkous’ delivery as opposed to the lyrics themselves, although he’s got more than a few absolute howlers that aren’t at all cadence-dependant (I’m thinking about something like ‘Fuck this band/’cuz they swear too much’).

I could talk about the lyrical greatness all day, it’s about as quotable and consistently funny as The Big Lebowski or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead though not existential, but without a strong set of songs to back it up I doubt it would hold as dear a place in my heart. Luckily, the rest of McLusky are up to that task, and engineer/producer Steve Albini knows how to make the most of the band’s volatile, noisy pop. I remember a few people comparing this to The Jesus Lizard when it was first released, and while it’s not as indebted to them as some might claim, the band does have quite a few of their hallmarks in place; the shimmering tone that the guitar gets as it moves up the neck, the reliance on the bassist as a key melodic player, the maniacal vocals etc. but it’s not a strict pastiche or rip off so much as it’s what TJL might have sounded like if they were more concerned with hooks than being confrontational. Sure McLusky rate highly on the confrontationalty scale, but it’s less visceral than their assumed influence, and their command of writing a particularly great, catchy chorus to somewhat undercut that factor.

Death from Above 1979 are equally adept at the catchiness, but their MO is otherwise about as far removed from McLusky as two bands within the rather nebulous indie rock descriptor can get. Firstly, given that they’re made up of nothing more than a bassist/synth player and a drummer/singer, the songs they churn out are much less ornate than even the barest of bare bones track on the McLusky album. Secondly, DFA79 are much more inclined towards making something danceable instead of something noisy. There’s plenty of noise to be had on You’re a Woman, I’m a Machine, Jesse Keeler’s bass is distorted to the point of dissonance in some places and Sebastian Grainger’s vocals are more shouts than notes, but more often the album is reliant on the more danceable elements to get itself into the upper tier of songs made in the 00s. It’s probably at once the most readily danceable and most unapproachable thing to come out of the whole dance-punk scene, an odd combination that makes a listen that’s fun, energetic and kind of menacing. It’s a unique combination whose novelty has yet to wear off a full 5 years down the line, at least fro me.

There’s also a secret weapon it has, besides the catchiness and novelty: it’s a sexy, sexy ablum. Not just in terms of its very, very sex-focused lyrics but in terms of its overall sound. It’s all about rhythm, grooves and beats at its heart, but with a touch of confrontational sounds and a huge helping of pop-smarts. I described it succinctly once as being Disco as envisioned by Lightning Bolt and produced by James Murphy, and that still stands as far as I’m concerned. The drumming is tight and heavy on the hi-hats, the basslines aren’t necessarily bouncy but they strike the balance between menacing and melodic – probably the only element it has in common with Do Dallas…this pairing doesn’t make much sense in retrospect – and the synths are used very sparingly but when they get trotted out it’s a treat. The songs are sexy because they move along with a purposeful rhythm and swagger; the words are sexy in a variety of ways from down ‘n’ dirty to restrained and low-key. It’s never sexy in the obvious way, which is part of its charm far as I’m concerned, and it never lets its sense of fun get away from it while it’s laying down the grooves. The contrast between the two ends, the sexy and the noisy, makes for one of the most satisfying dance-punk outings of the decade, and at a scant 35 minutes it never wears out its welcome either.

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