Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #1

The Jesus Lizard - “Boilermaker”

There is a lot of music out there, and most of it serves a purpose: to make the listener happy, to make the listener sad, for dancing, for meditation, to try and get someone to sleep with you, etc. Most of it wants to be liked. It is designed to entice the audience with a catchy hook or a relatable lyric, and for most people this is enough. The average, sensible person wants music that is pleasant to listen to, easy to like even if it’s thematically difficult (Steely Dan, for example. So smooth, but so fucked up). But what about those people who don’t want to hear or play something nice? Those people who are more interested in being provoked, challenged, or repelled? Those who see the world as an ugly place, but still find value in the ugliness? Yes, there is music for them, too. It can be found in dark corners, dank do-it-yourself venues, and Japan. It’s loud, nasty, often druggy, sometimes violent, disgusted and disgusting. It’s also sometimes as beautiful and transcendent as “Rhapsody in Blue” or whatever. No matter what it is, once you hear it, it’s hard to forget, whether you like it or not. If this doesn't sound appealing, that's ok. U2 has a new album out. Go listen to that. But if it does, then put on your rattiest t-shirt, crank up the volume, and enroll in art school (other than Parsons), because things are about to get ugly.

Since I don’t want to let things escalate too quickly, I’ll be starting off with a relatively accessible track, the Jesus Lizard’s “Boilermaker.” Founded in 1987, the Jesus Lizard was a flagship band in the fertile Chicago noise rock scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They released six albums before breaking up in 1999, and a reunited lineup will be touring this year. Several of their albums were produced by Steve Albini, possibly the most important figure in abrasive music of the past twenty-five years, who will be covered here at a later date. “Boilermaker” is the first track on their third album, 1992’s Liar.

When I say this song is “relatively accessible,” I mean it’s accessible relative to one’s tolerance for feedback or screaming. While “Boilermaker” may be more appealing to a rock radio listener than, say, the droning, doomy metal of Sunn O))), it is still definitely not for the faint of heart. It is aggressively fast-paced and follows a verse-chorus-verse structure, which puts it in line with hardcore punk. Guitarist Duane Denison’s guitar sound and style of play are reminiscent of grunge, very loud and overdriven but still clear, similar to Kurt Cobain’s on Nirvana’s In Utero, which was also produced by Steve Albini. However, what separates “Boilermaker” from any other punk or grunge song is vocalist David Yow. On “Boilermaker” and most other Jesus Lizard songs, he sounds like a man driven mad by rage, a crazed drunken redneck who would not hesitate to smash heads with whatever he has handy. He doesn’t sing so much as he rants, his words coming out in a breathless tangle. The melody is secondary to Yow making his rhythms as blunt as possible. He sounds totally untrained, which makes his delivery come across as wild-eyed and out of control. His vocals are buried low in the mix, which only makes them more menacing. You may not be able to understand what he’s saying, but you know it isn’t good. A look at the lyric sheet shows that the song appears to be about a man getting drunk before he busts in on his girlfriend and her lover. “I’ve calmed down, but I’m shaking,” he growls at the beginning, just before the chorus, “make me another boilermaker.” A boilermaker is a shot chased by a beer, a no-nonsense drink sure to get you drunk. Yow spits the chorus so venomously that the listener feels the implied beatdown coming before it ever does. You’re shaking? No, Mr. Yow, I am.

Of course, Yow’s menace would go nowhere if not supported by the rhythm section’s precision and intensity. They stop on a dime and start back up again just as quickly. The thrashing power chords hit with the force of a hammer. Every time I listen to this song, the phrase “blunt force trauma” comes to mind. The drums, bass and guitar each slam the listener individually, and then collectively slam even harder. The music matches the violence of the lyrics perfectly.

“Boilermaker” is exemplary of the frantic intensity of the Jesus Lizard. They are one of the few bands that genuinely makes the listener fear for his or her safety.


Artemis Archer said...

"The Boilermaker" is also the largest 15k road race in the country. They lure people to Utica by ending the race at the brewery with free beer for those who participate.

So someone once said: let's combine runner's high + runner's dehydration + beer! This can only end well! (And might make people forget that they are in Utica.)

Nice entry. Very engagingly written!

Weston said...

Blues Explosion Vs. Pere Ubu