The Silos--Cuba; Mofungo--End of the World, Part 2 | Music Review | Chicago Reader

The Silos--Cuba; Mofungo--End of the World, Part 2 

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CUBA

The Silos

Record Collect RC-22

END OF THE WORLD, PART 2

Mofungo

Lost Records TTL87106

Rock 'n' roll's original appeal to the white middle-class youth that supplied its economic viability was escape. Let's get real gone. They call me the wanderer. We gotta get outta this place. The music, like drugs, mysticism, and later revolution, offered an improvised off ramp from the suburban road to nowhere, a gap in the white picket fence that surrounded both the actual and psychological terrain of the 50s and early 60s.

By the time Woodstock's agrarian-utopia fantasy took hold, though, rootlessness was beginning to pale. Grown-up rock craved tradition, if not the gray-flannel-suit folkways of its immediate ancestors. The result was Creedence, the Band, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and altogether too many imitators. Our house, the newly domesticated rockers sang, is a very nice house--which is exactly what their parents had been trying to tell them all along. Though its fans didn't notice at first, this music nodded off pretty fast. Gram Parsons died, the Band split, and Neil Young wrote a love song to Johnny Rotten.

Roots rock, like most other rock subgenres of the last 15 years, never really went away. It keeps surfacing, whether with the unexpected small-label resurrection of a Jesse Colin Young or a Chris Hillman, or the curious evolution of Slash from a fanzine that hyped the Germs to a label that releases Los Lobos. Even in New York, a city whose rock scene is so diffuse and disoriented that it's made cult stars out of Pussy Galore, a few bands are making records that echo of the Appalachian hills or the Mississippi Delta. Even stranger, they're pretty good.

The Silos titled their second album Cuba, but the quintet's songs aren't about Cuba (well, one does have a verse in Spanish). Maybe that's where principal songwriter Walter Salas-Humara or his family hail from, but his songs are set in places like Tennessee and Vermont (never in New York, or at least not so you'd notice). Simple places where simple things happen: getting married, listening to the radio, driving, going to bed and getting up.

This could get labored or cute or worse, but the songs are as direct and unsentimental as their mournful melodies. Even the Jonathan Richman-esque "Just This Morning," which does little more than repeatedly thank "Mr. DJ / For playing my favorite song / On the radio" (is it "Roadrunner"?), doesn't tax the patience. It helps, of course, that there's a sober, even slightly ominous undercurrent to these matter-of-factly domestic songs. After all, when you realize these Silos aren't full of corn, you have to wonder: are they full of missiles instead?

That's a good guess, because Cuba sometimes gives notice that this lower-Manhattan new-wave country-rock band doesn't owe its dark hues just to Hank Williams and Gram Parsons. On songs like "Tennessee Fire" and "It's Alright," the guitars double back in acid-rock spirals and violinist Mary Rowell abandons down-home fiddling for a modal assault that burns with white light/white heat. When "All Falls Away" fades back in, someone lets out a Grand Ole Opry war whoop that signals a rave-up that's half "Orange Blossom Special" and half "Black Angel's Death Song." There must be a well-played copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico in the Silos' record cabinet, right near Gram Parsons's Grievous Angel, probably.

There are other influences here, of course--backup songwriter Bob Rupe writes downbeat English folk-rock tunes to match his gruff Richard Thompson-like voice--but that Velvets-go-to-Nashville synthesis is the band's best trick. Songs like "Mary's Getting Married" border on the hippie-pastoral (though the Silos' deadpan demeanor throws them appealingly off balance), but this is the only country-rock band I've ever wanted to hear do the Velvets' "I Heard Her Call My Name."

If the Silos' earnest, engaging country rock is especially piquant because they've tasted of the Manhattan art-punk apple, Mofungo swallowed the whole thing in a single gulp years ago. Originally a no-wave noise band, the quartet made as terrifying a racket as any of their noisy peers. Beneath the often unfocused cacophony, though, the band had an interest in harmony, both in music and in the third world. It's no accident that the first track it recorded that really jelled was mixed by pop whiz Chris Stamey and called "El Salvador."

Mofungo's recent End of the World, Part 2 starts with a mechanical-man march, but it quickly resolves to the harmonica intro of a traditional black folk song, "Ku Klux Klan," which the band plays straight except for adding a new verse about Chief Justice Rehnquist. The rest of the album sustains this elusive balance: simple blues or folk tunes suddenly turn a corner and encounter a burst of art-rock anarchy, only to cool out again for Elliott Sharp's sax--or some equally unlikely progression of down-home and downtown styles.

Where early Mofungo was all over the place, though, this music retains its shape through numerous transformations: the band has managed to construct songs that usually avoid both the traditional pop-song verse/chorus structure and simple, repetitive, funk-derived rhythms (the only thing that kept early no-wavers like the Contortions together) without losing their coherence. "Just the Way," for example, travels from cool-jazz vamp to rock sing-along to hot-jazz coda without ever wandering off into the underbrush.

Ascribe it to populism--"Lemmings" employs an almost Stonesy arrangement to tell America's youth to think twice about militaristic enthusiasms--or to producer/guitarist/saxophonist Elliott Sharp, who enlisted as a full-fledged Mofungo between 1985's Frederick Douglass and last year's Messenger Dogs of the Gods, but this band now clearly wants to be heard--and understood--by an audience that doesn't live within walking distance of Saint Mark's Place. The album cover even helpfully annotates some of the songs: "SR-71 Blackbird" is about a reconnaissance plane the U.S. flies over Nicaragua; "Firm as Monkey's Tail" refers to a Baby Doc boast of his political potency. Indeed, the album's lyrics sometimes err on the side of overobviousness.

Even on songs like "Ku Klux Klan," no one will mistake Mofungo for country-blues purists. Their skittering guitars and artless vocals reveal their Manhattan pedigree as surely as the Silos' haunted urban viola does theirs. Purism isn't what these records are about, however, and they're both the better for it. After all, who says making interesting roots rock must begin with your own roots? That's the sort of gray-flannel-suit thinking rock 'n' roll was supposed to have blown away 30 years ago.

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