Big Black--Headache; Various artists--The Wailing Ultimate; The Angry Samoans--Yesterday Started Tomorrow; The Jesus and Mary Chain--April Skies | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Big Black--Headache; Various artists--The Wailing Ultimate; The Angry Samoans--Yesterday Started Tomorrow; The Jesus and Mary Chain--April Skies 

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HEADACHE

Big Black

Touch and Go 20

THE WAILING ULTIMATE

Various artists

Homestead HMS 079

YESTERDAY STARTED TOMORROW

The Angry Samoans

PVC 6915

APRIL SKIES

The Jesus and Mary Chain

Reprise 9 20714-0

Ever since the parochial denizens of Sauk Centre and Zenith, respectively, gave Carol Kennicott and George Babbitt such a hard time, America's known that the midwest is no paradise. Boring, hypocritical, small-minded: that's all been suspected, if not simply given, since Sinclair Lewis got the Nobel Prize.

Still, not even Elmer Gantry, or even The Man Who Knew Coolidge, is sufficient preparation for Big Black. This trio is based in Evanston (though prime mover Steve Albini is reportedly from the big--read "empty"--sky country of Montana), but four or five seconds of its new EP (or any of its other equally ill-tempered discs) suggest that the el running south heads for the Loop by way of the nine circles of hell. Headache, hell! Big Black has the veritable sickness unto death.

Big Black shows no sign of rolling over and dying, though. These guys have the most ferocious sound in America today, indeed just about the dirtiest, nastiest, most cussedly alive six-string attack in the whole world since Andy Gill decided he'd rather be in Kool and the Gang than in Gang of Four. Its heartbeat is mechanical (a Roland drum machine, to be specific), but Albini and Santiago Durango's guitars roil and squall as if trying to encapsulate every word ever hurled in anger in all of Cook County; to them, the 1968 Democratic Convention is just another guitar break.

This sound, while not slavishly derived from any particular band, recalls the postpunk Brits, notably the Leeds contingent (Gang of Four, the Mekons, the Au Pairs) and the death-disco of Keith Levene-era PiL. Those bands were making postindustrial funk with Marxist, anarchist, or feminist agendas, dance music for the revolution. Big Black says screw all agendas: they're too busy taking Polaroids of the dissolution of American society, and if they have any perspective on the crack-up of all that gives life in America purpose or direction, it would seem to be that they relish it.

OK, so it's hard to get a fix on Albini's deadpan narratives of low-life passions and frustrations; maybe Village Voice rock-crit Robert Christgau was being ungenerous when he dubbed Big Black and its (mostly midwestern) peers "pigfuckers." Still, Albini's panting, screeched vocals do indeed suggest some awful empathy between the singer and the tortured protagonists of his songs, a suggestion that's only supported by Albini's other career as an "I say it's wimp-rock and to hell with it" fanzine rock critic. Here's the opening lyric to Big Black's "Il Duce," a song previously released as a single that's included on the new Homestead compilation, The Wailing Ultimate: "I, Benito/I, Benito/I like my job." Well, exactly.

On Headache, Big Black's first EP since abandoning New York arty-garage label Homestead for Chicago pigfucker label Touch and Go, Albini chronicles four American-gothic vignettes: from the new father who smashes his retarded newborn's skull against the hospital nursery wall to the guy who freaks out because somebody's messed with his tools. This is nasty, primal stuff without a hint of transcendence (or even a hint of the desire for transcendence), but Big Black has the firepower to back it up: clanging runaway-train guitars, screeching time changes, machine-gun percussion. Should these guys be encouraged? I don't know, but a noise this big sure the hell can't be ignored.

Big Black's former label, the admirable but seldom dead-on Homestead, set out to salute (and promote) itself last summer by compiling The Wailing Ultimate. Almost a year later, the record was released to find two of the bands signed to other labels (Big Black, of course, and also Dinosaur to SST), several more severely shaken up (the Volcano Suns, Antietam, and Salem 66 have all replaced two members in the interim), and another defunct (that would be Louisville's nifty Squirrel Bait, whose David Grubbs is now a GU student with a D.C.-based band).

Most of these songs are taken from previous Homestead releases, most of them winning but not overwhelming discs, though there are two welcome obscurities: Salem 66's "The Well," previously available only on the cassette version of its latest album, Frequency and Urgency, is a powerful, tuneful meld of the band's early folk-rock style with its tougher current sound; "Il Duce," as worth puzzling over as most other Big Black attacks, was released on a Homestead single, but finding little-label singles these days is pretty frustrating.

In addition, the record collects the best (Volcano Suns' "White Elephant," Squirrel Bait's "Sun God") or one of the best (Antietam's "In a Glass House," Breaking Circus's "Song of the South," Dinosaur's "Repulsion") tracks from several other Homestead discs that you probably wouldn't want to spend your own money on.

Or maybe you would. I could hardly argue that Columbus, Ohio's sloppy, tongue-in-cheek Great Plains is a great band, but hearing their hilarious "Letter to a Fanzine" again is a major treat, as is the news that this long-dormant outfit will release a new Homestead LP later this year. Great Plains's sensibility ("With the possible exception of the New Seekers," explains lead singer Ron House in the liner notes, "I don't think there's ever been a band with less soul than Great Plains. Whether you define 'soul' as the 'certitude of essence,' 'the way James Brown does moves,' or 'pride in your own value,' we don't have it. When I do acid, I can't even see colors") probably won't appeal to all garage-band fanciers, but those who find Plains-song too flip may fall for Live Skull (to me, predictable New York death-rattle stuff) or Naked Raygun (ditto, except from Chicago). Either way, The Wailing Ultimate is a useful departure point.

Homestead specializes in the sloppy, unpolished sound of contemporary garageland, but it would never release so 60s-drunk a slab of garage-band business as the Angry Samoans' Yesterday Started Tomorrow. In fact, it's a bit surprising to find the Samoans making such a disc. The band got its start, after all, backing rock critic/scene unmaker R. Meltzer in Vom, a band known for such classics as "I'm in Love With Your Mom" and "Too Animalistic," and had continued with songs that emulated Meltzer's good-naturedly vulgar, absurdist humor.

This EP, though, is a homage to such proto-punk fanzine faves as the Count Five, the Music Machine, and the 13th Floor Elevators; indeed, the disc's catchiest song, "It's Raining Today," is pretty much a retread of the Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me." A surprisingly mild-mannered disc whose one cover is the Great Society/Jefferson Airplane chestnut "Somebody to Love," Yesterday doesn't even borrow from such din-masters as the Velvets, Stooges, and MC5 (though singer/guitarist, reformed rock critic, and hospital accountant Mike Saunders does sport an MC5 T-shirt on the cover), not to mention the mighty guitar monsters of postpunk.

Anyone who likes these guys' models will probably find this platter agreeable enough. There's no tomorrow here, though, just yesterday.

Big Black may not have the absolute grungiest guitar sound in the world, because, somewhere in England, there lurks a band called the Jesus and Mary Chain. Just as it was impossible to denounce the band as hype after hearing the devastating Psychocandy, so too it's difficult to dismiss it as a one-hit wonder after its new 12-inch, "April Skies," which after much delay has finally turned up as a domestic disc.

Though the bands have comparably ferocious sounds, they quickly part company when attitude's considered. Big Black's on a crazed, unsettling quest for intensity, while the JAMC pursues purely formal pleasures--the brothers Jim and William Reid and whoever's accompanying them these days (sounds like they've traded in their reductionist thumper for a drum machine) are on a deconstructionist romp through the fertile fields of pre-Beatles 60s pop.

Despite its jagged edge, the JAMC sound doesn't mean to nuke its sources, just rough 'em up a bit. Thus the sumptuous "April Skies," for all its rusty-tin-can guitar, is true to the stately Spectorian "little operas for the kids" that are its spiritual ancestors. It's a tart confection, sweet but never sticky, just like the best pop tunes of that innocent yet tear-soaked age.

That the JAMC's subject is pop, not life, is demonstrated even more clearly on the flip, where the band pillages surf music with a caterwauling take on Jan and Dean called "Kill Surf City." Riding a wave of William's feedback, Jim barks that "I'm gonna kill Surf City with a roving [just guessing on this word actually] gun" and "I'm gonna fuck Surf City [mumble mumble]." Hang ten and eat lead, lonely surfer boys, but it's all because "I lost my baby in the deep blue sea." It's as funny as "April Skies" is lovely, and both tracks are so strong that it doesn't matter that the JAMC, nearly two years after its debut album, is so short of material that it has to fill out the disc with an indifferent version of Bo Diddley's "Who Do You Love," a too-literal item on the JAMC's otherwise savvy pop-critical agenda. Even if it never makes another album, explosive little packages like this prove that the JAMC is still garageland's ruling junta.

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