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Chain & The Gang, Music Is Not For Everyone (K Records, Release Date 2/22/11)
(conversation with Dion De Arroganto)
CS: I haven’t followed Ian Svenonius’s career much before, but Nehemiah St. Danger highly recommended this album to me, and I respect his discriminating taste, especially when he writes, “in a way you guys are soul brothers.” Have you heard it?
DA: No, but the first wave of reviews are pouring in. Check this out; “Witty Prisoner Persona Needs Sassier Soundtrack” in Spin Magazine. They haven’t lost it; they’re still as pithy, hip and smug as they were when Joshua Clover wrote regularly for them! Cracks me up. “Ian Svenonius loves shtick, though he prefers to call it ‘philosophy’ or ‘manifesto.’
CS: Sounds like he (I’m assuming it’s a he) doesn’t get it, or at least doesn’t like it…
DA: Nah, he says “That’s not a slight. [Svenonius’] smash-the-state proselytizing and fervent audience instigation always make him an arresting figure.
CS: A cop is an arresting figure; does he say anything about the album?
DA: Yeah, he [John Modell] writes that this album “dials back the energy, leaving the winking lyrics somewhat over-exposed. When the band’s clattering, it’s great fun (“Why Not”), but leave the tongue-in-cheek (or is it?) spoken-word track at home and release the rock instead.” I guess you’re right; it’s a slight. Look, 6 out of 10; barely passing!
CS: But one hell of a batting average!
DA: With the last decade’s market glut, I need at least 9s! Why should I waste my time on it? You tell me; is Spin accurate?
CS: I give it a 9; the album ain’t trying to be a “BALLS OUT” rocker, so it depends on how you define “energy” and “over-exposed words” flopping up on the sea like oil-stained pelicans on the coast of Louisiana around the time he was recording this album…But I see Modell’s point; if he wants “the rock,” this album has way too much of a K-Records Aesthetic for him—-especially the very sexy female vocals!
DA: …sounds like he gets it, but just doesn’t like it. So, there’s a lot of fervent Smash-the-state proselytizing on the album
CS: Don’t worry; it’s still largely down with the Bush-era “Music To Forget The Wars By,” aesthetic. If anything, the lyrics are unobtrusive, simple and direct; there’s a lot of energy in the way these words are sometimes over-exposed and sometimes cloaked in beautiful burqas of sound (“Why Not”)… maybe Modell just thinks that musicians, like football players, should be seen & not heard because it threatens their livelihood as writers or critics…
DA: You’re too into conspiracy theories, and trying to see Mr. Modell as a state, or corporate, censor. He’s just saying his taste; no better or no worse than yours. Fans of Modell’s writing know what he likes.
CS: In any event, Music Is Not For Everyone turns the tables on the critic. It doesn’t not rock; but as an album it works very well as bedroom rock, stereo rock, horizontal rock, solitary meditative body rock. There’s a method to the song-ordering in both mood and meaning. The melodies are singalong catchy, the blend of textures as artful as any Calvin Johnson production, the rhythm section’s always propulsive. It’s warm (even though, or in part because, there may be a cringe or 4) & suggests he’d be a fun, and simpatico, band to open for. If radio (& the record biz) was as democratic as it was 45-55 years ago, these songs would be hits. Philosophy or manifesto may only be admissible as shtick these days, but that needn’t reduce it, or arrest it; especially given how cool the keyboards are throughout.
DA (staring at the computer): I like Matt Lee’s description of the album as a “burnt offering” of “neo-sludge and retrodelia.” He talks about the “sparse, hiss-laden soul hooks…adorned by poppy and understated male/female vocals” & calls it a “fine bouillabaisse of styles blending in…soul, garage, finely dusted with several spoonfuls of sugary pop.”
CS: …sounds like he gets it more than Spin guy…does he like it?
DA: He uses the word “fun” and “playful” alot…but he says it doesn’t have enough “intrinsic skill yet to take the groove and throw it over the mountain.”
CS: Like Spin, Lee (in Bigtakeover), is just saying it doesn’t rock enough for him.
DA: Yeah, but even though this review seems more positive and simpatico with Svenonius’s vision, the Spin guy didn’t say anything as damning as the album lacks “intrinsic skill.”
CS: I have no idea how Matt Lee defines intrinsic (or even extrinsic) skill, but I’m glad that Mr. Lee and Mr. Modell represent a new critical demand for hard aggro-psych with lyrics that can’t be heard; that’s great; maybe the era of the lite-rock indie bands of the 00s has finally come to an end!
DA: These critics conjure up an image of Chain & The Gang as the lite-rock of Death Cab, The Decemberists, Sufjan, New Pornographers, etc…
CS: Only slightly more than Weird War was. Svenonius is more “burnt” (songs about everybody/thing being wasted and stoned), partially humbled veteran smart ass utopian, never as precious (and faux romantic) as the others you mention. The persona is more in the ballpark of Jonathan Richman meets Wreckless Eric & Amy Rigby or Nancy & Lee (Johnny & June) backed by a cross between The X-Ray Specs & Spoon. One of the high points of the Chain And The Gang sound is this interplay between male and female vocalists….
DA: …Matt Lee doesn’t like them. He writes, “by the middle of the album, [his] ear begins to tire of the close mic’ed dual vocals, probably more due to the female side of the vocals which tend toward an uncertain and pitchy falsetto.”….
CS: The female vocals throughout are very sexy; I hear a lot of lower altos, a childlike matter-of-fact quality at times; sometimes with “deceptively otherworldly” reverb, other times almost disarmingly naked. Chain and The Gang’s vocal interplay is rich and varied; never do the female vocalists seem gratuitous or formulaic after-thoughts; very rare today in contemporary pop music (whether band is fronted by male or female; there are things here the Mamas & Papas would’ve envied)!
DA: Lee writes, “the male vocals seem in opposition rather than in tandem with the female, as aspect that pulls away from the otherwise pleasant rock n soul slop.”
CS: That’s kind of the point; even on a lyrical level—the “convulsive beauty” between the male and female. But it ain’t even that convulsive; it’s only slightly closer to John Doe & Exene Cervenka’s explorations in harmony than to Peter, Paul & Mary. Yes, it this pulls away from the otherwise pleasant, but “pull away” could also be called “transcends” (if not quite as far as P.J. Harvey’s Shee-La Na Gig” pulls away from “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”). You be the judge; but, I for one, would love to work with these female vocalists (whose names I don’t even know because Nehemiah didn’t have the album cover).
DA: Well, what’s the deal with the title track? Josh Modell doesn’t like it, whether it’s “tongue in cheek” or not.
CS: Well, it’s one of only two songs in which the female vocals are either absent or way down in the mix. Musically, it’s in the “ballpark” of “When The Music’s Over…”
DA: But Svenonius’s title is off-putting, like a big DO NOT ENTER sign on the cover of the album. At least “Fear Of Music” was more ambiguous…. How can you expect the critics to love or promote an album with that title?
CS: Hell, even if we have 20% unemployment rate in America today, there’s still more unemployed than there ever were people who bought Thriller (the biggest selling album in pop history). It’s just a fact. Not everyone loves and needs music, even as a listener let alone a creator. Some admit that; but others treat music like wallpaper and have the audacity to speak for it! Acknowledging that fact both creates a more intimate bond with the listener, when he sings “music’s not for them; it’s for me and you….music’s for the few, the brave….come with me, into that hole where music makes its stand…”
DA: But that’s not sassy! it doesn’t throw the groove over the mountain…and, besides, sounds like he stole that from Tupac Shakur: “My music is not for everyone.” It’s only for the strong-willed, the [street] soldiers music. It’s not like party music—-I mean, you could gig to it, but it’s spiritual. My music is spiritual. It’s like Negro spirituals, except for the fact that I’m not saying, ‘We shall overcome.’ I’m saying that we are overcome.” I sense that same kind of fatalism…I had that same problem with his book, The Psychic Soviet (Drag City, 2006). A brilliant critique of why things went bad with America after the fall of the USSR, but he provides no alternative…
CS: It’s unfair to expect the album to speak for the book. The song’s about the hole, the musical void that waits for the lemming at the bottom of the cliff. It’s not fatalistic, he likes the hole! We’re being invited into the hole with him when his voice chants: “Everyone can turn on the radio and they just don’t get it. They won’t. Don’t tell them about it. I know you wanna share the thing you love so much, but don’t.”
DA: But aren’t you falling into Ian Svenonius’s trap in arguing with these other critics? You’re acting like you’re doing him a big favor in defending this album. But isn’t Chain & The Gang chiding you…
CS: Only if the words are more important, or even as important as all the other elements of the music. I think Chain & The Gang is much wider than Ian’s “winking” provocative lyrics. It isn’t like we have to agree with him to dig, say, Joey Casio!
DA: In The Psychic Soviet, he suggests one must be a close-minded zealot in order for music to induce a whirling dervish frenzy: “While rock as religion once had a fanatic base of close—minded zealots (parallel to Christianity in its heyday), it now typically encounters a cynical and half-interested constituency. Instead of the purists who once argued for rock’s primacy against any and all competing forms, today’s teenybopper gives credence to multifarious musical styles…..Yes, nowadays, rock ‘n’ roll fans are open minded…and no longer fetishize the records they buy but download them from the Internet, seeing them as disposable fluff to be discarded after a single listen.”(79). He clearly wants Dionysian revels, and that’s what he means by music…
CS: That’s just a sociological fact, and the fact that this album is no wailing Neil Michael Haggerty-indie-jam fest, but more melodic song-based and even cartoony suggests otherwise…Sure, he’s got Arrington De Dionyso throat-singing during the eponymous track; but overall the album’s less like “When The Music’s Over,” and more like “Love Street.”
DA: So when he writes, “If music can no longer be relied on to induce a whirling dervish frenzy, it can provide a blanket or cover from the responsibilities of the minute and hour, usually so wrought with fear of death and sexual anxiety,” you think he’s resigned to music being this mere “blanket or cover?”
CS: Nah, the key is in the female vocals…it’s no accident they are emphasized in almost every other song aside from the title song (and the Arthur Lee meets “Jimmy Jazz”-esque “Can’t Run Away From Myself”). Take “For Practical Reasons (I Love You).” Now, that’s my kind of vulnerability and intimacy. If I ever jump the broom, I’d like a song like that at my wedding. Maybe it’s just middle-aged love, like a cross between the sexy bed arguments in My Cousin Vinnie & Much Ado About Nothing as sung by Amy RIgby & Wreckless Eric. “Youth Is Wasted On The Young,” with its lyrical variations on “you don’t miss your water” and a groove recalling Little Willie John’s “Fever,” is accessible enough, but as the song continues, and the male voice lists many socio-political atrocities, the woman voice changes the subject from “the draft” (which America has ‘officially’ at least done away with) to a matter-of-fact, yet seductive, invitation to “come in through the hole in the door.”
By the end of the song, the male voice says/sings:
The air is wasted on the bird(s). The water is wasted on the fish.
Your arms are wasted on the one you hold. That’s how it is.
Your lips are wasted on the one you kiss. I wanna change it. I wanna change it…”
Then the woman’s voice says “That’s just how it is.” and then Ian sings, “But that’s just how it is,” then the song ends abruptly.
DA: Sounds like resignation to me!
CS: Sounds more like a break-up to me! Do you think he actually followed the girl into the hole?
DA: I can’t even tell if he’s trying to win this woman over from a guy who doesn’t appreciate her, or he’s trying to tell her “you’re wasting your time on me.”
CS: The “hole” in this song could be the same one as in the title song, and it’s this “hole” that ultimately redeems this album from that fatalism as well as “soft rock.”
DA: For Ian, the personal is always the political. He even thought the Cold Was a “Ma and Pa Shop.”
CS: But the breakup of the USSR may also just be a way to talk about your parents’ divorce in drag. Just don’t underestimate the as yet anonymous female vocalists. Live, who knows? They might even induce that whirling dervish frenzy…
If Chain & The Gang’s main message was really at its deepest the Gregorian monkish spartan existence suggested in the title track, why is it so radically different from anything else on the album, an album that, on a musical level, may very well be the most seductive, populist album Ian Svenonius has yet created in over 20 years of recording and performing?
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