Friday, April 24, 2009

Aural Sandpaper #3

Big Black - "Kerosene"

Big Black was a Chicago noise rock band from the 1980s who, while heavily influenced by punk rock, pushed the genre to darker, more abrasive extremes than had previously been seen. They were led by the notoriously misanthropic singer and guitarist Steve Albini, who is perhaps the most important figure in noise rock’s history. Albini’s bands Big Black, Rapeman (yup, Rapeman), and Shellac are all required listening in the genre, and perfectly fuse scalding noise rock with pitch-black humor. Perhaps even more importantly, he is a renowned recording engineer (he abhors the term “producer”) whose innovative instrumental recording techniques on landmark albums like Pixies’ Surfer Rosa and PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me gives them the harsh, hard-edged sound that is just as contributive to their classic status as the music. He is famous for his willingness to record just about anyone, and his highly ethical approach to receiving payment. He is also an outspoken music commentator who rails against major record labels. He is a living embodiment of the independent, confrontational nature of abrasive music.

His engineering abilities and caustic personality can be both found in Big Black’s music, which fuses harsh, distorted guitar and bass and booming drum machine loops to Albini’s cynical, sarcastic, nihilistic lyrics about pedophilia, racism, domestic violence, and any other ugly topic one can think of. Their greatest song, however, is the infamous “Kerosene,” a brutal, harrowing descent into the darkest places that small-town boredom can go.

“Kerosene” is inspired by Albini’s upbringing in Missoula, Montana, a place where his friends would go to the slaughterhouse to watch cows get killed for entertainment, and a place where he felt alienated, isolated, and most of all, bored. Many of Albini’s songs, just like a lot of punk songs, are about crushing, deadening boredom, but “Kerosene” is the definitive statement on the subject. Bassist Dave Riley frames the story of “Kerosene” as, “there's only two things to do (in small-town America). Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who'll have sex with anyone. 'Kerosene' is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures.” The lyrics are exactly how the uneducated, disengaged, probably teenaged narrator of the song would speak. “I was born in this town, lived here my whole life,” the song begins. “Lived here my whole life” becomes a mantra, repeated after every line of the first verse, summarizing the narrator’s abject disgust at being confined to such a dead-end place. He’ll “probably learn to die in this town,” where there’s nothing to do except, “sit around at home, stare at the walls / stare at each other and wait till we die.” Nothing to do, until he observes that “there’s kerosene around, that’s something to do/ there’s kerosene around, she’s something to do...there’s kerosene around, set me on fire!” Where Albini sings most of the verse with a dead-eyed sneer, on the last line he crescendos to a desperate yell, while the music explodes along with the exhortations to destruction. The simplicity of the lyrics on paper cannot convey the intensity that Albini brings to them. He loads every syllable with rage, menace, and revulsion, and they leave his lips with a cobra-like spit. He so fully embodies his creation that the listener cannot help but feel as desperate and hopeless as the narrator of the song, whose only escape is to be burned alive.

The instrumental playing of the song perfectly matches the lyrics and vocal performance. The verses are driven by a churning, distorted bass riff, and the clanging guitars that erupt on the chorus are like steel cables being slashed with razor blades. The defining moment comes at 4:46, when the song appears to end, only to come back into the already aggressive main riff with even more volume and force than before. The false stop is a simple musical trick, but here Big Black uses it to devastating effect, letting the listener know that it’s never over. There’s no escape from this town.

“Kerosene” still resonates more than twenty years after its release, because small-town rural America still has the sort of characters the song describes. Few songs embody the the hopeless, “No Future” spirit of punk rock as fully as “Kerosene.”

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