Monday, June 28, 2004

Prior to getting into Band Of Susans, I had wanted to post some tracks by a band called Neu and then by a composer named Rhys Chatham in order to establish some context. I wanted to do that because my first experience with BoS involved being told that they sounded like Sonic Youth (they don't) and then being horribly disappointed when I found out that loud guitars + feedback does not equal Thurston & Co. Time and space restraints mean I'm not going to be able to fulfill my evil plan, but if you ever feel like checking out Neu's first album and a box-set of Chatham called An Angel Moves Too Fast To See, it'll probably be worthwhile.

Interestingly, while I was looking around for info on the band I found an essay by lead Susan Robert Poss that's basically devoted to explaining that he had nothing much to do with Glenn Branca (famous guitar composer who was a major influence on Sonic Youth) and everything to do with Rhys Chatham (the other famous composer for guitar ensembles). I sense that this was a sore spot. It actually is important, because Band Of Susans didn't do much in the way of pop songwriting or dissonance, so if you have the wrong expectations you'll be let down.

I know I was. I'd bought most of their albums (a large portion of which is collected on a 2CD set called The Word And The Flesh) and been mostly unimpressed. I never much liked the drum production (I think gated reverb was the problem) or the vocals (too low-key, and occasionally on the goth side) and since the music struck-out on the pop/noise level that I was expecting, I gave up without giving the band enough of a chance. If you listen to BoS as guitar minimalism put into a rock context they make much more sense. There's one other key to BoS: one of the most unusual things about them is that their final album is likely their best.

I know of very few groups that went out with such a bang. On Here Comes Success (great title, in retrospect) they finally get their production just right (the drums and the guitars sound tight and the vocals don't sound bad) and manage to simultaneously focus their songwriting while extending the songs' length (which seems counterintuitive). They also finally manage to produce the guitars so you really can hear all three separate and interlocking parts. You can hear this best on a song called Pardon My French that takes a Rolling Stones riff, breakes it into three, assigns the sections to three separate guitars and then pans the three guitar players at 9:00, 12:00 and sounds really cool on headphones. Unless there are massive protests, I'm going to post that song tomorrow.

The song that's been wowing me lately is called Stone Like A Heart. It starts off with a methodical Bo Diddley-related beat that doesn't let up throughout the entire song, then sets up a pattern of two chords/silence. If you listen closely, you'll notice that the guitars play just about every variation possible on these two chords without ever repeating...I'm pretty sure they didn't just improvise this. The whole thing builds up an amazing amount of tension that finally releases with an arpeggio just as the vocalist sings, "There you'll be," followed by a well-deserved swell of feedback. I find that the more I listen to this, the more I get fascinated by the details. Great, great song.

One thing I'd intended to do was to try to show how production was key to BoS by posting three versions of a song of theirs called Hope Against Hope. It first showed up on their first EP and was marred by thin sound. They remixed it for their first album but added that horrible drum sound that I hate and murked up the guitars. It's sad: Robert Poss produced all of the band's records, so there's no one else to blame. And you can really hear the difference on the one and only CD that he didn't produce: The Peel Sessions. Here's Hope Against Hope from that...I like to imagine that this sounds like the Feelies on steroids and like you've stuck your head into the center of a donut-shaped guitar amplifier. Just as Stone Like A Heart builds up to one chord, this track builds up to one chord change in the middle of the song. Unlike Stone, that moment is followed by a full-on three minute feedback blowout that's utterly amazing. If you liked The Jesus & Mary Chain, you should hear what the pro's can do with a bucketful of feedback and a couple of notes. I highly recommend headphones and volume (but don't hurt your ears) as keys to getting the most out of this.

Not really trivia, but all the cool kids know that Page Hamilton of Helmet was in Band Of Susans before he became a big star. He's playing on this version of Hope Against Hope. Lida Husik's cousing Anne is playing on the other song.

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