Buried Pleasure | Music Review | Chicago Reader

Buried Pleasure 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe


Julius Caesar

(Drag City)


Funny Farm

(Drag City)

For better or worse, rock music is married to the hook. Without a simple, easy-to-digest phrase--lyrical or melodic--a rock song collapses. In spite of this axiom, many rock groups have rebelled against the hook. Progressive rock bands like King Crimson and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer created songs without any hook at all, songs with nothing upon which to hang one's hat. But as the average numskull discovered he couldn't hum along, those bands were forgotten.

These days, in some circles--the underground and those of certain rock scribes, for instance--the very idea of the hook, and the eagerness for acceptance and success it represents, has been completely discredited. To them hook equals sellout.

But there are those artists who, while loath to exploit the lowly catchphrase, would nonetheless like to be noticed and remembered. Some of them have contrived a way to circumvent the problem. Even while they maintain the posture of disinterest and apathy, apparently eschewing the dirty little device, these groups manage to produce simple, catchy songs. They never even soil their underground credentials. These are the bands of Drag City and they are the masters of the antihook.

Characterized by its cerebral bands and self-conscious hipness, the local label Drag City was started by Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn around the time the gimme decade gave way to the shimmy decade. They scored immediately with the release of some early singles by instant critical darlings Pavement, a choice that signaled their flair for finding personal and quirky music. The Drag City Umwelt was on display last summer at the first (annual?) Drag City Invitational, a three-day orgy of disaffected pop at a jam-packed Lounge Ax. With Pavement providing the star power, the shows drew national attention; Spin magazine agreeably proclaimed Drag City "America's best record label."

The archetypal pop song trumpets its hook: Drums pound thrillingly and tension builds at the end of each verse. The hook is emphasized in the mix and repeated enthusiastically to ensure its endurance. The practitioners of the antihook avoid this kind of semaphore. Music wearing the label's tag is meandering and indifferent, its production intentionally poor, its lyrics cryptic and slack. But under all that remains a core of tuneful, encapsulated bits of charm. These bits, however, can only occasionally overcome the standoffishness of bands bent on seeming aloof. In short, Drag City bands embody the antihook.

The formula was in place from the get-go, exemplified by songs like "Canada," the Silver Jews' lo-fi masterpiece, and "Summer Babe," a breathtaking early Pavement anthem. These ditties cling doggedly to the principle of the antihook. They are as catchy as anything on Top 40 radio. But they retain enough nonchalance and self-parody ("Summer Babe" alludes to Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby") to convince the gullible that the groups themselves have no idea how infectious their songs are. "We just can't help it," they seem to utter demurely. "We try to write songs that no one will remember." It is clear that confectioners like Pavement can create songs that are every bit as hooky as those of the Archies. What remains unclear is why these bands pretend they can't.

Led by Bill Callahan, erstwhile publisher of the exceptional fanzines Willpower and Disaster, Drag City's Smog takes the antihook to the extreme. They'd never want to be accused of stooping this low, but the songs on their latest CD, Julius Caesar, especially "Strawberry Rash," "37 Pushups," and "What Kind of Angel," all feature gorgeous lyrical ideas wrapped neatly around simple but memorable melodies. With the exception of "I Am Star Wars," which cheekily sneaks a Stones riff under its vocal, the best Smog songs toe the antihook line. They are accompanied only by minimal guitar and the occasional cello. These gems don't provide the ritual backbeat and root-note bass guitar, however, which supplies Smog with enough squish to deny that the melodies and lyrics were actually designed to engage the listener.

On the recent CD Funny Farm by Drag City labelmate King Kong the use of the antihook is more subtle. King Kong's brand of childlike funk nods toward 80s dance-rock combos such as Oingo Boingo, but the nod is sly, accompanied by a wink. A variety of tricks bury the hooks: tinny production, unemotional singsongy vocals. But while Smog's manipulations only partially disguise the catchiness of Bill Callahan's songs, the affected simplicity and overly self-conscious faltering rhythms of King Kong's music bury the underlying melodies. There's no question that hook-writing skill informs such songs as "Dirty City Rainy Day" and "Here I Am," but it's bogged down under layers of antihook attitude. In the end King Kong is a shitty band. And it wants its audience to believe that its spazzy jazz answers to a deeper calling than something so middlebrow as the desire to play rock 'n' roll.

It would be easy to continue with Drag City's roster, noting the reluctant twang of the Palace Brothers or the Silver Jews, whose quintessential antihooks force a smile from any hipster's badly chapped lips. It is true, as Spin noted, that there is "no obvious Drag City 'sound.'" But there is a Drag City style and its mantra is the antihook. Ten years from now, the Drag City Invitational will have attained the status of cultural milestone. Some who attended will recall how they played in the mud, while others will claim to have given birth right there in Lounge Ax. The bands who performed will surely have vanished, their songs preserved by binary codes on CDs that gather dust. Unlike the music of Woodstock, no one will want to hear those songs; no one will remember the antihooks of bands long past. No one will care to hear bands that pretended that they did not want to be heard.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Marty Perez.


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ken Kurson

Agenda Teaser

November 18
Caterina Barbieri Chicago Cultural Center, Preston Bradley Hall
November 18

Popular Stories