Monday, August 1, 2005

Records In Review: Wire--Send

The appearance a few years ago of Wire's first bits of original material in ages was proceeded by a predictable wetting of underpants. Finally, after 25 years, they've delivered Pink Flag 2! I'm always amazed at how devotees of weirdo bands can be among the most conservative music listeners. I've found almost all of Wire's output over the years to be interesting at the very least, magnificent at best, and I don't have any particular axes to grind viz stylistic points.

Of course, I'm not going to dwell too much upon the Robert Christgau mindset when Read and Burn 01 was such a kick-ass little ep. Fast and necessarily short, it packed an undeniable punch in 17 minutes and then ran out the door, leaving the listener with a taste for more. But what more was there? I experienced Wire's latest incarnation in this order: saw them live, heard R & B 01, then heard the album. I found the live show a minor disappointment. They were incredibly focussed, but, as is often the case at Lee's Palace here in T.O., unbearably loud. There was also too much musical flag-waving for my taste; i.e., objective follow-through without a second to catch your breath. Like Stereolab, but faster and louder, and without the mallet percussion sounds. My principal complaint about the band over the years, in fact, has lain in their determination to view themselves, Eno-like, as non-musicians. I've never been sure whether or not this was purely a rhetorical posture, but after seeing this tour, I'm kind of thinking not. My purely knee-jerk opinion is that minimalism should visit live performance only on holidays, have one drink max, and then politely go home to put the bird in the oven. And anyway, Eno surrounded himself with the likes of Mr. Philip Collins and Percy Jones.

Not having heard the mail-order-only Read and Burn 02, I was curious and/or dubious about how the current band approach could be applied to a full-length album. The result, Send, a herky-jerky, processed drill-press of a disc, rewarded my curiosity but left a few of the doubts unassuaged. A very good record to be sure, but not Wire at their very, very best. The album contains three songs from the first R & B ep, four from the second, and four new ones. All or most of the tunes employ the band's current technique of record and then cut/sample/loop. All three "sessions" are pretty distinct in tone, though, and this makes the mix of tunes a bit odd at times; actually, it's the first Wire album that's ever had me using the fast-forward button regularly, not because the songs are bad, but because it's hard to swallow 50 minutes of this kind of music whole. No headbanger, me.

I would have been happy to have the whole of R & B 01 included, if I didn't own it already. "In The Art Of Stopping" and "Comet" are two of Wire's finest songs, stripped to their bare essentials and running-times. The former, which leads off both the first ep and this album, is an appropriate standard-bearer for this new music: repetitive three-chord loop hook, no chorus, an abrupt electronic one-bar drone acting as the only break and three lines of lyric. "Comet" is the catchiest tune on the record. The drum (machine) loop sounds like an early '80s Casio beatbox in a foul mood, an almost comical counterpoint to the driving straight-four guitars and bass. Again, breaks are abrupt and brutal. The balance between nastiness and humour is evident in the lyrics, too: "It's a heaven-sent extinction event/and the chorus goes/bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!" Note to emo bands: a little bit of this stuff, and maybe you wouldn't suck, at least, not as badly. This is industrial-strength music with a groove and a sense of humour. "The Agfers of Kodack" was my least favourite off the first ep, as I felt it repeated the drone-and-break motif of "...Stopping," but with a less catchy groove. Love that buzzing guitar sound, though. Graham Lewis' lyrics are processed up the creek on this his only vocal performance. Heavily treated vocals are a problem on about half the album; you can't really make out a lot of the lyrics.

The weaker moments, it must be said, come from R & B 02. They run three-in-a-row in the middle of the album, and this is where I hit the ol' double-arrow-to-the-right button when I'm not in the mood. "Nice Streets Above" is heavily processed from vocals down to drum patterns. The rumbling sub-rhythms create great menace, but the song itself is fairly charmless. "Spent" is a two-chord endurance test with screamed vocals (by Bruce Gilbert, I believe?) that has no business being close to 5 minutes long. Imagine "Boiling Boy" from A Bell is a Cup..., but with angst. "Read and Burn," like "Comet," has an overtly comic side, in this case, a parodic one. Colin Newman's Dalek-processed yelping vocals punctuate like a percussion cap a comical array of industrial sounds put to a new wave beat. The closing track "99.9" is an oddity, a drawn-out, pulsating beast whose payoff couldn't possibly begin to match the menace of its build-up, but which is nonetheless impressive in its single-mindedness.

It's in the newer stuff that I see the real future potential for this incarnation of the group, should they choose to continue. Read and Burn 01 is, by its nature, a one-off; 02 pushes repetitive industrial motifs to their endurable limits; but the new tracks, or three of them anyway, allow for more breathing room and expansion. "Mr. Marx's Table" displays the relaxed Newman upper-range voice for the only time on the album, delivering a simple, lilting raga-like melody over top of layered guitars--one playing an abbreviated three-beat pattern and at least two others moving only slightly more loosely around it--and a pulsing mash of bass and barely-discernable drums. Despite its repetitive nature, it feels like it could go on for a few minutes longer (which it does on the accompanying live disc). "Being Watched" digs in at a walking/skanking pace, with a bass line that wants to lift your speakers off the floor. This one reminds me most of their "electronic" period (the unfairly-derided Manscape and The First Letter) in terms of having an awful lot of little things and bits of counterpoint going on, arrangement-wise. It also is a break from the minimalist lyrics of the first two eps, with Newman cosying up to the listener and delivering a lyric about the voyeurism of the electronic age. "You Can't Leave Now" is a favourite and encapsulates a lot of what Wire is about: frightening and funny, mechanized and yet very human and idiosynchratic. One of my all-time favourite lyrics: "You've eaten your way through/the whole menu/you've savoured every thrill/and haven't paid the bill." I'm waiting for the Trent Reznor cover, which will no doubt suck every last drop of humour out of it. "Half-Eaten" has more in common with the drill-press rhythm stuff from R & B 02, but ends before you can get too annoyed with not being able to make out the words.

In interviews, the band has stated fairly clearly that the seeds of this music were jointly a re-examination of their distant past and a reaction against the roast-pock, sorry, post-rock milieu that was still active at the dawn of the millenium. Nevertheless, Send never sounds less than modern, and only occasionally sounds reactionary. The big question in my mind is whether or not Wire can find a way to translate their current processes into a custom-built, full-length album, rather than a very interesting series of short statements.

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