Friday, 13 May 2011

The Gateway District - Perfect's Gonna Fail

The first album by this band, Some Days You Get The Thunder, is a complete favourite of mine, as you really may have guessed. Like Caves and The Measure (SA), they could broadly be described in exactly the same way, as scratchy pop-punk with female vocals in the Discount tradition. The way I sold people on their first album was by telling them that it was like The Measure (SA) if you replaced all the spindly indie/folky influences with rollicking country ones.

There is practically no country influence on this album, in fact there are bits of the album (especially in the opener) that at times reminds me of an oft-overlooked pop-punk album that is put down because of its origins, and that's the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack album. People get sniffy about it, which is fair enough, because it is the slick product of a team of Hollywood screenwriters and major label musicians working for hire and we all want to believe that something is inevitably going to be better if it comes from a place of desire and naive unstudied creative impulse, but if you retagged that album, knocked off the titular closing track and sent it to someone really into that late-70s power-pop Runaways/Joan Jett style or even the classic Lookout/Ramonescore sound telling them it was by The Battledykes or The Spazzys they would lose their shit over it. This Gateway District album is infinitely better than Josie and the Pussycats and it's nowhere near as saccharine sweet but in its moments of sheer fun and infectiousness it bears a few recognisable strands of the same bubblegum DNA.

A far more prominent part of their sound is Jawbreaker. That certain feel that comes from the thick prominent chugging bass, that sort of rolling train rhythm, the clunk and clang of metal on metal twisted into a propulsive motion. That's the central sound here, but, like last year's brilliant Dead Mechanical album, they eschew the more sprawling tendencies of Jawbreaker, ending up somewhere near what the short pop-punk Bad Scene, Everyone's Fault on the slightly slicker major label Dear You might sound like if it had been sung with the painful vocal exasperation, the rawness of feeling and production of their earlier albums. There's not a bad song on this album, but a few do really stand out.

New Hands has a slow tense opening over which your hear "When they cut off my hands threw me money. I grew new hands so I could pick it up. When they cut off my legs they all came for me. I grew new hands, to escape this love." where the guitar chords are like the tolling of a bell. The whole intro reminds me of a dolorous Soviet worker's anthem sung in ironic defiance, the power of a single voice erasing for just a moment the cold trudge of totalitarian unity, before the whole situation snaps into raging life and blasts through the rest of the song in the same punk tone that dominates the album.

Fishman's Story is a song that trades off the mystery and appeal of the sea and the long history of art dealing with that topic, like Mark Richard's Fishboy or that Simpsons joke where Homer announces "I'll live out at sea. The sea forgives all! Not like those mean old mountains. I hate them so much!" The humour in Homer's announcement comes from a physical counterpoint highlighting the absurdity of the way we do tend to anthropomorphise such a huge geographical object, such an unknowable elemental force and assign it human characteristics and personality, but we can't help it. The sea is such a large potent image, such an awesome physical presence that its metaphoric power is almost unlimited. Here are some mad-libs for you: The (object) was like the sea. She (past tense of a verb) like the sea. He had the (emotion) of the sea inside him. Kind of always works, doesn't it? The song here starts off in the same slow manner as New Hands, building and falling, speeding up and slowing down. She sings "No-one knows there's a wrecking that's shifting under there/No-one knows it's the wreck not the wind that causes waves to tear" equating the depth and blackness of the sea with the depths of the human soul, as many have done before. As far as an approach to the topic, of course it works and the song is really great, one of my favourites on the album, but my personal favourite song dealing with this broad topic is (you guessed it) a Jawbreaker song, The Boat Dreams From the Hill, which deals with the yearning for purpose, in which the sea is not a moonlit mass aswell with human desire and emotion, but the place where we can return to, the sea is a simple home where the boat dreams of 'fishy flutter on its rudder'.

File this paragraph under not particularly relevant but whatever: There's a brief moment in Fishman's Story that reminds me of Jimmy Ruffin's What Becomes of the Brokenhearted and when writing this review I had to pause my constant playback of the album to open up Youtube and croon along to some absolutely fucking stellar classic Motown, which is probably better than whatever you're listening to right now. Now if I had any sort of technical knowledge of music I would be able to tell you in precise terms exactly why this similarity leapt at me, or why I made that comparison on New Hands to Leninist people's hymns (or maybe, I just realised, it really only reminded me of that Wat Tyler song which pretends to be a Leninist people's hymn), but for me I can only just stumble on with my little connections, unsure of quite what the proper reasons I have for music sparking off all sorts of touchstones, propinquitous memories and imaginative leaps, never quite sure whether I'm just fantasing a real connection like when the start of Against Me!'s Don't Lose Touch seems to recall Jimmy Cliff's You Can Get it If You Really Want for a few seconds or while waiting for the next episode of Wizards of Waverly Place to start on the Disney channel I found myself subjected to Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana/Biggie's finest collaborator and her song He Could Be the One which made me think that None More Black's Oh, There's Legwork had been licensed to the company of ol' icebox Walt and his mousy descendants.

The Gateway District have constructed a well put-together album that never runs out of steam or drags as it works that thick overdriven Jawbreaker base into an insistent cohesive work, but it isn't perfect. While it has some real high-points as I've mentioned already, none of them quite grabbed me by the throat as the way the music peters out for a second on the title track of Some Days You Get the Thunder before the titular lyric is screamed. Or the drumless bit on Lake Street is for Suckers that draws you down into this small dreamy and seductive vision of getting stoned with on Motorhead's tour-bus travelling through Georgia, treating Lemmy as a combination of a confidant and some growling bewarted sage. I think I do still prefer the first album which did all that Perfect's Gonna Fail does sonically and also incorporated some Pretty Boy Thorson style country shunt into their sound. You could describe the first album as roughly somewhere between a speeded-up version of Kiss the Bottle, and a speeded-up version of Lucero's cover of Kiss the Bottle, whereas here they've stripped away the Lucero and I'm not entirely sure why, maybe they just got bored with it.

But if we're talking about Jawbreaker so much, why not just listen to Jawbreaker, why does this album not fit into that selection of music that generally makes me go "Yeah, this is pretty good, but it just reminds me of something better that you're not doing that anything more than." The Riverdales stuff with the exception of a couple of great tracks (Rehabilitated, Werewolf One, I Don't Wanna Go To the Party) never really catches me enough to forget that I'm listening to a band that really wants to be the first couple of Ramones albums, so I just go back and listen to Leave Home again.

Similarly, Flogging Molly are a great fun live band, and while they have more obvious heavier drive than the Pogues and something like Drunken Lullabies or What's Left of the Flag is a well-constructed blend of celtic-folk, misguided Republican pride and punk rock attitude, no-one is under the illusion that they're doing something that wasn't done miles better by a man who had his ear cut off at a Clash gig and was drunk enough all the time that his songwriting seemed to commune with the social and self-loathing spirit of alcohol itself. These aren't massive criticisms really, the first couple Ramones album are the basic sonic template for most of the music I like, no matter how weirder or noisier or faster or heavier or more complex it gets compared to Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue. And Shane McGowan is in that hallowed group of songwriters that have such skill and ability to root themselves in musical traditions while interpreting them in new ways, like Waits, Dylan, Jason Webley and Erik Petersen. These people are capable of writing songs that sounded like they've been around forever from the first moment they're played, songs hewn from the giving flesh of a whole culture, songs so artful they can't have been constructed by one man, they must have organically formed themselves in gutters, long walks home and barroom singalongs, coalescing from pain and camaraderie and misremembered stories retold a thousand times, imbued with all the same mythic and modern pressure as Joyce's Sirens, afternoon-drunk in the bar and restaurant of the Ormond Hotel. "A low incipient note sweet banshee murmured: all. A thrush. A throstle. His breath, birdsweet, good teeth he's proud of, fluted with plaintive woe. Is lost. Rich sound. Two notes in one there. Blackbird I heard in the hawthorn valley. Taking my motives he twined and turned them. All most too new call is lost in all. Echo. How sweet the answer. How is that done? All lost now. Mournful he whistled. Fall, surrender, lost." That's the fucking Pogues. That's not Flogging Molly, and it never ever will be. Just as The Gateway District will probably never reach the level of Schwarzenbach's lyrics, which are capable of springing effortlessly between literate late-night musings, artful metaphorical constructions and simple universal evocations of secret moments.

These aren't big putdowns, they're an inevitable damnation springing from unrealistic but warranted comparison to the perfect ur-sound that someone's try to evoke, so Perfect's Gonna Fail would be a very good, extremely listenable piece of work if all it did was call up memories of Blake Schwarzenbach and co, but it doesn't just do that. So why does Perfect's Gonna Fail, shorn of the country twang that was blended seamlessly into their basic rolling punk rock sound on its predecessor, not just make me want to put on 24 Hour Revenge Therapy again. And it's simple, it's the voice.

It's an amazing voice. It would have to be to evoke even for a second the lovelorn spell of Jimmy Ruffin's one moment in the spotlight. It's a pair of amazing voices, I should say. The Gateway District has two duelling singers who are both pretty similar, to the extent where I can't actually tell which one is singing until they're both singing at the same time and one is usually at a slightly higher-pitch than the other. It's confusing sometimes, like someone performing a duet with themselves. But they're both fucking great. The vocals are so key to the whole appeal of this band. They yelp and sneer and drawl. They croon and howl and talk. They ache. They really fucking sing. Look back to my Caves review and recognise what I say when I say that the vocals combine both the integral collaborative nature of way The Measure (SA)'s vocals work in concert with the music and the fierce blustering power present in Caves. The Gateway District vocals don't just work perfectly with the music though, they play brilliantly off of each other, one working as a slightly discordant reflection placed either as an airier version of the deep furious scope of the lead vocals, or a thick booming shadow of their lighter force, a wild polyphony of sound focusing a taut harmony of emotion. In this they remind me of the way the Vindictives so fantastically utilised the voice as a structural tool in songwriting, whoa-ohs dipping and diving around the lead singer, sometimes used for wordless wailing like another instrument, sometimes jumping in with poppy echoes to repeat a phrase, sometimes joining in for just the emphasis of a word or two like a hip-hop crew. The raucous phrasing, the way that Carrie and Maren know exactly when to drag a word out with a single lonely howl and when to spit it quickly with a twinned shout, lends the lyrics far more weight and meaning than they would have not just as written, but as sung by just one person throughout in a smoother voice.

I have actually seen them live but I can't quite remember who sang most of the songs as I was slightly-pissed and dancing madly with my one friend trying to distract myself from the fact that most of the crowd who had gone nuts for some of the opening bands had fucked-off, or if they stayed just formed the indifferent semi-circle of arms-crossed doom around my effusively bopping self and my mate Rich. They deserve such a better response than that. They're a band full of talent, just listen to the way they build atmosphere with the escalating repetition of "You worthless piece of shit. You worthless piece of shit" on Blue Halls as it crops up through the song first as a murmur of doubt and then later as a shrieking hateful accusation. Just listen to the way they have pull off the almost Sinatran snap of an approximated 'do-be-do' thrown into the racket on Queen Avenue. Despite the fact I prefer Some Days You Get the Thunder, this is fine punk songwriting shining and sucking you in with the fun, the tightness and fullness of their sound and then blowing you away with the conviction of their lyrics conveyed though the utterly mesmeric power of the human voice.

Post script:

Lessons learned from this review: I would make things a lot easier on myself if I made more of an effort to remember shit precisely. I did have a great quote for the bit about the Josie and the Pussycats, something about how Joan Jett is a robot or secret agent designed to trick and seduce little girls into liking rock and roll. I'm fairly sure I read it in a Razorcake interview, I skimmed through all my issues and couldn't find it. That wasn't so bad though, it's cool to skim through all your Razorcakes now and then. What wasn't so fun was failing to remember precisely which Miley Cyrus song resembled None More Black so to make sure I wasn't going nuts I had to go to the List of Miley Cyrus songs on Wikipedia and listen to the first ten seconds of every single one of her songs on Youtube only to find that it wasn't on the list. In doing so I learned, the first ten seconds of every single Miley Cyrus song sound like some other song, in every genre from hip-hop to classical to reggae to country to ragtime to college rock, I can only hope that this soulless musical pillaging (which exists as a sneering capitalist distortion, a toxic corporate parody of the reckless roaming spirit behind Tom Waits or The Clash or the World/Inferno Friendship Society) inspires at least one happy tween on the verge of adolescent breakdown to connect with a particular genre and delve into it, finding themselves in a few short years with an encyclopedic knowledge of Peter Tosh records or reliving in their mind the beautiful rebellion of the swingjugend possessing a deep denial they ever sang along with the spawn of a man about whom we can only lament that Bill Hicks died before his titty-filled fevered ego slaying pilot got produced. In the end I discovered that the song wasn't on that list because it's not a Miley Cyrus song, it's a fucking Hannah Montana song. God, I felt like someone who hated horror but read Stephen King's entire bibliography looking for a particular book that their father told them to read from his death bed so they could finally understand their family traditions and genetic place in the world, only to find it was actually a Richard Bachman novel. Fuck you, dead dad. And fuck you, whichever Disney motherfucker came up with the idea of bolting the central tension of all superhero fiction on to an updating of the Monkees which amplified all the cynical cross-media marketing to an apocalyptic gargantua of prickvertising 'synergy' whilst surgically removing all the mad naivete and enthusiasm that led Mickey, Davey, Petey and Mike to burn their career to the fucking ground in the batshit psychedelic firestorm of an early Jack Nicholson movie.