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Main Category: Smart Pop
Also applicable: Meta-Rock
Starting Period: The Divided Eighties
Also active in: From Grunge To The Present Day



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Year Of Release: 1986

A triumph of weirdness, minimalism, and "homebrew" over the wonders of full-fledged Eighties production. Now let's get this straight: are YOU thrilled by the idea of two guys getting together, lugging out a pair of battered guitars, a brand new easily-controllable synth, a ragged accordeon, and writing a big bunch of short songs oscillating between straightforward pop and meaningless post-modernism?

While you're busy scratching your foreheads, I'll just use this short opportunity to make a few more observations. First: when I say "short songs", I mean it. There are nineteen tracks on the album, with only one of 'em going over three minutes - obviously, these guys have heard about the Ramones and Wire, and maybe about the Residents as well. There's also a healthy abundance of genres and styles - obviously, Ween have heard about these guys. Pop, country, folk, hard-rock, you name it, everything that can be in some part reproduced by the band's choice of instrumentation. There's also a well-developed sense of humour, and plenty of hooks for the pop lover to consume. And even more weirdness - so that your average popster will probably hate this album.

But hate it or like it, it's not every day that a couple of talented youths get together and make music that's so diverse, complex (in melody terms), and at the same time both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. So of course count me in - no question about that. In fact, I even put my thumbs up for those little ultra-short tracks that sound more like bizarre sonic experiments than anything resembling an actual song; like 'Boat Of Car', for instance, with its completely unexplainable Johnny Cash vocal sample over a background of simple synth chord sequences and organ feedback. Or the extreme idea of taking a generic country melody, slowing it down, and singing the lyrics Eastern-style ('Chess Piece Face'). Or the accordeon-driven minute-and-a-half something-that-sounds-like-a Grateful-Dead sendup mentioning the marriages of Marvin Gaye and Phil Ochs ('The Day'). Neither of these makes any sense, but all of these are fun.

The more "polished" songs, however, display an obvious care for memorable melodies. Like the album's most familiar tune, 'Don't Let's Start', which is like a, uh, severely underproduced synth-pop song with an overall optimistic sound and overall pessimistic lyrics. If these guys were Oingo Boingo, they'd plaster a fat old brass section on top and doubled the number of guitar parts, and they wouldn't make the song any better anyway, because the melody is as fleshed out as possible. 'Everything Right Is Wrong Again' actually goes farther in that it achieves an almost anthemic sound despite the thin production - hey, turns out you can work marvels with those cheap little synths if you wish! And when these guys really want it, they can even "emulate" arena-rock: '(She Was A) Hotel Detective' is a straightforward Kiss/Cheap Trick sendup! Of course, it's ten times as nerdy compared to these guys, but that's the charm of it - it's parodic, totally conscious of its own limitations, and supposed to be treated as such. You can't bang your head to it.

The Johns are also showing us their sensitive side occasionally, and it works admirably on 'Hide Away Folk Family', which you could, of course, interpret as a metaphoric condemnation of industrialization and technical progress wiping out more traditional forms of human existence, but then again you could just ignore the lyrics and enjoy the hell out of the subtle accordeon parts and pretty vocal harmonies before being left slightly baffled by wild-assed experimentation with backward tapes at the end of the song. Then there's the Goth-country merger of 'She's An Angel' (Goth, because of the ominous echoey production and strange emotionless vocals, country, because of the exuberant slide guitars slapped all over the place); the Pete Townshend mockery 'I Hope I Get Old Before I Die', which links together a barroom Pogues-style Irish rocker and loony industrial sound effects; and lots and lots and lots of other goodies.

It's all so different and experimental that not everything is bound to work: there's about four or five tracks on here that hardly do anything for me, and I betcha there'll be five or six tracks on here that do nothing for you and our lists wouldn't coincide at all. I don't see the point of 'Rabid Child', for instance, but maybe you do. Yet the songs are all so short and flow into each other so quickly that you don't really have enough time to be properly irritated by what you consider to be the bad stuff, you know. Which brings me to my obvious conclusion: if you wanna experiment, make your experiments short and sweet, and that might save your ass when it's time to be whupped. And I'm talking to you, Blixa Bargeld!


LINCOLN ****1/2

Year Of Release: 1988

The three-year distance between the band's first two albums is forgivable - after all, they stay true to the basic principle of "say what you want to say and get over with it", with eighteen tracks this time around clocking in at a delightful thirty nine minutes. Which means there's a whole lot of different ideas, concepts, and stuff, jampacked together. Overall, though, it's not much of an "improvement": they are still going same places, with guitars, synths, and accordeons playing equally geeky melodies and lyrics that still dwell somewhere in between the serious, the parodic, and the goofy.

'Ana Ng', which opens the album, starts on as close as these guys ever got to an apocalyptic mood - which isn't that far, but the jagged syncopated guitar rhythm certainly gives you an unnerving feel, especially considering the way they put it on tape (I'm not technically minded enough to understand that weird production on the power chords they strum - is this some kind of tape manipulation?). When a song begins with a guy somberly reciting 'Make a hole with a gun perpendicular/To the name of this town in a desk-top globe', you're certainly put in the mood for some universalist statement, or maybe some anti-capitalist propaganda a la Midnight Oil, and then in the chorus you suddenly learn it's about the protagonist and a gal he never met. That's certainly offputting, and intriguing enough to add extra points to the already obvious great sound, catchiness, and unusually strong (for TMBG, that is) guitar-reliance of the song.

And that's only the beginning of the journey. The second song already sounds nothing like the first - it's a crazy Pogues-style "Celtic punk-rocker" ('Cowtown') where it's nearly impossible not to sing 'I'm gonna see the cow beneath the sea' along with these guys. 'Lie Still, Little Bottle' is an exercise in boppin', with a gruesomely authentic jazzy bassline and grimey saxophones and lyrics about tranquilizers or something. 'Purple Toupee' sounds like the Cars - power pop with a synthy edge - before it turns into a more "traditional" power pop declaration in the chorus.

Alrightey, I'm on a roll here. 'Cage & Aquarium' is Merseybeat meets Captain Beefheart. 'Where Your Eyes Don't Go' is... is... the Byrds meet Frank Sinatra. No, no, not quite like that. I guess these songs are somewhat more "original" in approach than a mere combination of influences. Anyway, it's impossible to namecheck each one of the eighteen compositions. It's hard to make any generalisations either, except that I get a feel of a very strong jazz/lounge influence here - more brass instrumentation than normally, and all these cabaret-flavoured numbers like 'The World's Address'. Well, if you wanna make sneering post-modernist kitsch, I guess lounge music is an excellent vehicle. As usual, with time each song grows on you, so while the first step is to immediately assess the insane fun and catchiness of stuff like 'Mr Me' ('he ended up sad... he ended up sad... he ended up really really really sad!'), the second step is to appreciate less inviting material like 'Piece Of Dirt', which still gets props for that plaintive vocal melody. Just don't take it too seriously.

The biggest sneer comes at the very end, with the shockingly titled 'Kiss Me, Son Of God' - a song ridiculing leadership and cult followings. With lyrics like 'I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage/Called the blood of the exploited working class/But they've overcome their shyness/Now they're calling me Your Highness/And the world screams "kiss me, son of God"', you know these guys aren't a complete joke: their lyrics can occasionally mean something. They're really smart, these accordion-squeezing geeks. Whoda thunk that?

I confess that some of the songs on the second side still don't do it for me - no big surprise, because even if the album runs for thirty-nine minutes, it packs such tremendous lot of ideas that occasionally you get the feeling you're listening to a double LP. Each one of the eighteen songs is a fully fleshed-out entity, no matter how long it runs; they're obviously improving upon the Wire approach (too many tracks on Pink Flag never felt like actual songs in the first place), and so there's a whole lot of stuff to digest. Personally, I'm not a fan of the band's ballad-oriented material on this album, like 'I've Got A Match', which occasionally seems to drag a bit and just lose itself in its subtle sarcasm, but that's just me.

In any case, I'd slightly give Lincoln the edge over the debut - ever so slightly, because the "bigger" songs, like 'Ana Ng' and 'Kiss Me...', are bigger, and the smaller songs are a bit more consistent. But that's about as subjective a judgement as giving Burger King the edge over McDonalds.


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