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Wir: Vien (1997) September 24, 2009

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Wir: Vien (1997)

Wir: Vien (1997)

I don’t think I’ve actually listened to this before now, and I’ve had it for about a year. Oops.

The band Wire has gone through a few phases of activity and inactivity. There was the punk era Wire, who released three studio albums and a sort of live album before disappearing around 1980, then the version that reappeared for the mid-’80s to mid-’90s, then the one that reappeared earlier in this decade. For part of the second era, they shortened their name to Wir, to reflect the (temporary) departure of drummer Robert Gotobed. This two-song, 25-minute EP was the last thing they released before hibernating.

“The First Letter” begins with five minutes of ambient noise drone before an aggressive rock song starts grinding in, almost industrial, with Colin Newman’s growled distorted vocals, a busy beat, a rhythmic single note medlody, and other guitar (and possibly synth) lines weaving around. And it goes on. Wire once released an album called The Drill, several songs based on more or less the same base, something Wire calls dugga, a repetitive rhythm. This is somewhat similar, as a core song, with no verse/chorus/bridge variations, plays through but different sounds are added and subtracted and different vocals appear and disappear, the song noisily winding down over the last of its sixteen minutes.

“Sexy and Rich (Janet)” starts with some muttered German and synth whooshes, the former disappearing quickly, the latter building up and layering on more sounds gradually (this is reminding me a little of some of Neu!’s quieter tracks right now). Two minutes in, an electric guitar has appeared and the drums are starting to show up in the mix. Whereas the first track switches abruptly from experimental to rockish, this is a much more gradual transition. By three minutes in, Graham Lewis has begun singing. This is a bit more musical and pleasant than the first track, but it’s still a long way from pop music. Well, pop music from a robot’s nightmare, maybe.

This is quite good, actually. The last couple of albums from Wire’s second phase, Wire’s Manscape and Wir’s The First Letter, never did a lot for me. This has me thinking I should give them another chance. And keep this in rotation, too.

33 1/3: Pink Flag (2009) May 27, 2009

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Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Wilson Neate: Pink Flag

Jeffrey Roesgen’s book on the Pogues (below) shows how good a book about an album can be by doing the unexpected. Wilson Neate shows how good a book about an album can be by writing a conventional work that does everything it needs to.

Pink Flag is Wire’s first album. It was released as part of the first wave of UK punk in 1977, and it’s been a touchstone for a lot of musicians ever since. However, it’s neither typical of UK ’77 punk nor of Wire’s long career, so Neate uses a fair bit of the book to put the band and the album in context. With 21 short, punchy, loud guitar songs on one LP, Pink Flag audibly shares a great deal with several other punk albums of the time, but according to band members and others quoted in the book, Wire was seen as something outside the core punk scene, being a bit older and more self-consciously approaching music as an art project, rejecting conventions of rock and roll that were still largely unchallenged by punk rebellion. At the same time, the loud racket of punk, much of it played by people just learning to play their instruments, was an obvious opportunity for a bunch of art school types who were also just learning to play instruments. They made a lot more sense in the punk context than they would have elsewhere at the time.

I think Neate somewhat overstates the exceptionalist case for Wire and Pink Flag. Few of the bands worth remembering from punk’s first wave adhered to a rigid and rockist punk formula through their careers. After the Sex Pistols, John Lydon went on to the very different Public Image Ltd; Howard Devoto left the Buzzcocks and formed Magazine; the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and others moved away from the core punk sound after an album or two, building on new influences and developing new styles. Wire was hardly the only band of that time to do something recognizable as a punk album and then go off into a dozen different directions. Still, it’s not exaggerating to say that Wire’s members have approached their career over the decades as more of an art project than a rock band, and many of their solo projects make that even more obvious.

Anyway, in addition to providing that context, Neate tells the history of the band and the work they did on the way to recording Pink Flag. He provides a lot of detail on the recording of the album, discussing all the songs individually, and he quotes the band members, the producer, and a number of other musicians along the way. Wire’s members seem to have been quite candid and open in their discussions, and there’s a lot of interesting information here. Other people Neate talked to include Pink Flag producer Mike Thorne, later musicians like Henry Rollins (Black Flag, the Rollins Band), Ian McKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi) and Graham Coxon (Blur), rock writer Jon Savage, and many many others. the book provides a knowledgeable and intelligent look at the band from the inside and the outside.

I read somewhere that there was originally some interest in doing a book on Wire’s third album 154 instead of Pink Flag, but the latter is much more well known in America and is more often mentioned as a key influence. Fortunately, there is another book, Wire: Everybody Loves a History, which also features a lot of input from band members and covers the band and  various side projects up to 1990 or so. It’s out of print and may be hard to find, but it’s worth tracking down. It’d be great to see an updated edition some day. Another writer has recently produced a book on Wire, but from all reports it’s replete with errors and the band doesn’t recommend it.

20 albums that shaped my life February 26, 2009

Posted by sjroby in Canadian content, Life in general, Music.
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Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside (Canadian LP cover)

Inspired by Kevin and Allyn and Geoff:

List the first favorite albums that come to your mind. This is NOT a list of music you feel is of critical importance or value. By noting the ones that come to mind first, you should get a picture of the music that shaped your life in your formative years.

I know I’m going to forget things and want to change things, but here goes. This is in roughly the order I encountered these albums.

1. Electric Light Orchestra: Out of the Blue. One of the first proper albums I ever got, and the first by a band that I was fairly obsessed by for a year or two, getting several more of their albums.It was probably the combination of catchy pop, prog, rock and roll, and the occasional synth that intrigued me.

2. Kate Bush: The Kick Inside. It was a while before I got the album, and not just the 45 of “Wuthering Heights,” but it was the beginning of a lifelong love for the distinctive and groundbreaking music of Kate Bush. It can beautiful, or weird, or both at the same time. There was nothing else like it at the time, and by the end of 1979 this and the next album, very different though it may be, helped set the course for my taste in music.

3. Sex Pistols: Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. I didn’t like the Sex Pistols when I first heard them, being too fond of the over-the-top production of artists like ELO, Queen, and Alan Parsons Project to like anything this raw and harsh. It took the more smoothed-off edges of new wave to lead me into the less compromising punk sound. Once it clicked, I realized it was nothing more or less than rock and roll in its purest form. My favourite punk rock is generally the first wave of late ’70s UK punk, but there are still bands doing fresh new takes on the sound. They’re just not the ones you’ve heard of.

4. David Bowie: Stage. My first Bowie LP. Sort of a stepping stone from the vaguely proggy rock I liked to the stranger end of new wave, this was a concert album from the time of Bowie’s Heroes album. From Station to Station through Scary Monsters is my fave run of Bowie albums, though there’s plenty of great stuff before and after that era. This was probably one of my first Eno-related experiences, too.

5. Gary Numan and Tubeway Army: Replicas. Mixing punk/new wave with synthesizers, alienation, and the science fiction of JG Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Numan created an album that was influential in its own right but also brought to my attention the band he happily admitted was his top influence, Ultravox. Ultravox and its founder, John Foxx, have since eclipsed my interest in Numan to a considerable extent, but this is still a fine album and I might have taken longer to discover Ultravox without it.

6. Brian Eno: Music for Films. Heard it playing in a record store: sparse, eerie instrumental electronic music a million miles away from the usual, more florid electronic music of the time. Plus he got bonus points for working with Roxy Music, David Bowie, Devo, etc etc. I’ve got lots of his albums, love most of them, but this is still my fave.

7. Wire: 154. Former punk band demonstrating just how far this whole new wave/postpunk thing could go. A masterpiece by a great band I’ve already blathered about here.

8. Joy Division: Closer. The first album, Unknown Pleasures, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. This did (and then so did Unknown Pleasures). And from this came New Order and so much more.

9. Killing Joke: Killing Joke. Bought this after reading about them in Creem: too punk for metal fans, too metal for punk fans, but using synthesizers too and ending up in the Billboard disco charts? They’re still around and still confounding expectations, after influencing everyone from Metallica to Ministry to Nine Inch Nails. This album showed a different way to incorporate synths: instead of weird noises, or imitating other instruments, or just layering pretty chords on top of everything, this album had abrasive synth sounds that were as aggressive sounding as the guitars.

10. Siouxsie and the Banshees: Juju. Siouxsie practically invented goth but didn’t let it become a straitjacket. Pounding tribal drums, swirling guitars, melodic basslines, and Siouxsie’s voice… another postpunk classic.

11. Cocteau Twins: Head Over Heels. My first exposure to the 4AD sound dreamy and ethereal but also loud and banging. One of the forerunners to the shoegazer scene.

12. Husker Du: New Day Rising. Punk seemed to have been abandoned by the major labels and headed itself into a dead end of faster harder louder dumber. Husker Du was fast, hard, loud, and smart, and weren’t afraid to slow things down occasionally or use acoustic guitars and piano.

13. The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow. Like REM, another fave, the Smiths were jangly guitar-based rock with melodies to die for, lyrics to ponder, and a frontman who was very much not the usual rock singer.

14. Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy. The Beach Boys playing through a slow motion car crash of guitar feedback, this was a renewal of punk and another of the foundations of shoegazer. Noise = pop.

15. Jr Gone Wild: Less Art, More Pop. Friends of mine release their first LP, a mix of punk, ’60s, country, and other influences, especially Bob Dylan, the Byrds, and possibly Elvis Costello. A friend of mine once heard the critics’ darlings Uncle Tupelo, who are credited with kicking off the No Depression/alt.country scene, and said they were just Jr with all the fun sucked out. He wasn’t entirely wrong, though Uncle Tupelo probably never heard Jr.  think their next two albums are arguably better in many respects, but this is the first time friends of mine put out an actual album. I had a single, a compilation LP with a couple of songs, and a couple of tapes of stuff by some of the guys who later became Jr, but an album… especially one I actually liked… that’s a big deal.

16. My Bloody Valentine: Loveless. The pinnacle of shoegazer, layer upon layer of distorted guitar sound and distant vocals, sounding nothing like rock music as that term is generally understood. There were a lot of great bands in that scene (Ride, Lush, Slowdive, etc), but this is the most important and influential album from that scene. And I love it.

17. Various artists: Pimps, Players, and Private Eyes. Ice-T helped compile this collection of funk and soul songs from blaxploitation movies, which helped reignite my interest in those styles. And not just in the context of blaxploitation.

18. Culture: Two Sevens Clash. This is a roots reggae album from the late 1970s that was reportedly a favourite on the UK punk scene (I read about it in a couple of books on punk). The punk clubs didn’t have enough punk albums to play, so DJ Don Letts introduced the punk scene to reggae — a more hardcore version of the sound than Bob Marley’s. This is heavy on the rasta stuff, but also accessible and catchy, and helped get me more into reggae.

19. Interpol: Turn on the Bright Lights. New but drawing on the likes of Joy Division and other postpunk and pre-grunge alternative bands as influences, this helped revive interesting guitar rock for the 21st century. See also Editors, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, etc.

20. Burial: Burial. Boxcutter’s Oneiric was the first dubstep album I heard, if memory serves, but this one sealed the deal. It may have evolved out of UK scenes I wasn’t familiar with (2-step, garage), but I could hear elements of ambient and dub making something unique, like a soundtrack for a low budget third world Blade Runner. It’s strange, atmospheric, and oddly affecting.

Wire (recycled content!) January 23, 2009

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Object 47

Wire: Object 47

From the LJ, shortly after seeing Wire in October, 2008:

Back in the spring of 1980 I heard a record playing in a record store and really liked it but didn’t have the money to buy a copy. Instead, I remembered the name of the band and album and when I got home I wrote them in a notebook. Months later I bought a copy, and 154 by Wire is still one of my all-time favourite albums. It was their third (and, for a few years, their last) studio album, what at the time seemed to be the peak of a short career that saw them develop from short, fasty, spiky, catchy punk tunes to much more experimental sounds. The band members started a wild variety of solo careers and have reformed Wire every so often for a few more albums, no album ever sounding like the previous one. Their newest album, Object 47, is so named because it’s the 47th release in their discography, but there are dozens more from various band members under their own names and side projects. And I own a lot of them.

And last night, for the first time, I saw Wire live. Not quite the original lineup — one member has been replaced — but the substitute guitarist has a pretty good track record of her own, as a member of the band Laika, among other things. The 21st century Wire has been stripped down to drums, bass, guitars, and not much more, after many years of electronic experimentation. They’re doing a very precise and fast form of punk much of the time, but with a lot more intelligence than the kids less than half their age bring to that sound these days. And a lot of energy, considering the three original members are well into their 50s. It was a great show, with a strong mix of new material and old songs from half a dozen classic albums overhauled to fit in the new sound. Contrary to Laura’s expectations, the audience wasn’t just a lot of 40-somethings looking for some class of 77 punk nostalgia; there were plenty of people in their 20s and 30s there, who may have heard of Wire as an influence on many of the new postpunk revivalist bands, or who know them as the band covered both by REM and Minor Threat. Everyone seemed to be having a great time, and (despite blowing the beginning of one song) I think the band was having a good time as well. And they played “The 15th,” one of my favourites of theirs, and the song that inspired the URL and name of this blog.

So that’s one more all-time fave band that I’ve seen live now (I’ve seen David Bowie, the Smiths, the Jesus and Mary Chain, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cocteau Twins….) Maybe Killing Joke can do a North American tour.