Monday, November 19, 2007

Sgt. pepper's lonely hearts club band.

It was twenty years ago today,
Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play
They've been going in and out of style
But they're guaranteed to raise a smile
So may I introduce to you
The act you've known for all these years . . .

Hüsker Dü! Got ya.

If my punk rock essay was my last piece of musical juvenalia, then the following record review, which I wrote for fun and with no sense of ever publishing it, was my first full blown adult effort during my first year of graduate school at Stanford. I'll print it as I wrote it then during the summer of 1987 and in an addendum make some comments and criticisms of the effort, which I'm still pretty proud of 21 years later, except for "THAT intro."

Hüsker Dü
Warehouse Songs and Stories
Warner Bros.

This week brings two double helpings from Minneapolis. I really don't want to waste time with an album whose song titles use sickeningly cute words like "☮" and "U". Besides do we really need four more sides of flatulent outbursts from the littlest big ego in rock? So let us hie to fresh woods, for there's a new day rising.

A friend of mine at Harvard once enthusiastically exclaimed that Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade was "the White Album of the American hardcore movement." I figured it wasn't worth it to point out that this seemed, at best, a questionable tribute to Minnesota's sonic boom trio. But that's another story. A scant three years have passed, and Hüsker Dü present us with yet another double album, Warehouse: Songs and Stories. Noting the pitfalls of comparison, I nevertheless will fearlessly proclaim that this album is the Exile on Main Street of the American post-punk movement. It's that raw, that powerful, and that good.

In a world of declarative statements (Just Say No!, Fight for your Right to Party!), Warehouse refreshingly resorts to pointed and often poignant questions: "Is it pathetic to be sympathetic?", "Is love another way to count the things you haven't got?", "Does wanting a feeling matter any more?". Clearly this is not light-hearted frivolity. The tone of the album is set in the song, "Charity, Chastity, Prudence and Hope" where this quartet tragically enlarged from the classical triumvirate has no place now for Faith merely the possibility of "Hope". And it all needs to be deeply thought about using the classical skill of Prudentia or the sagacity to distinguish between corageous and merely reckless acts.

In the past, I've tended to favor the Dü songs written by the band's manic drummer, Grant Hart, for their comic sensibilities. On their major-label debut, Candy Apple Gray, Hart seemed to become almost as serious as fellow songwriter Bob Mould. Witness "Sorry Somehow," which along with Cameo's "Word Up!" was certainly the best single of 1985. On Warehouse Hart and Mould, lead guitarist-cum-real life fleshy Minneapolis Poppin' Fresh, alternate songs in a cycle of despair, denial, and separation, all driven along by Greg Norton, owner of the best moustache in popular culture since Salvador Dalí, and his bass. The thrash boys have grown up and faced the cruel realities of America.

The first and last songs of the album signify this new awareness, as Mould told Joan Rivers on Carson, "as you get older, your emotional spectrum becomes a little more involved, a little wider . . . . It's not just screaming about how messed up the government is and about how much you hate your parents anymore." Mould's "These Important Years" is a paean to a somehow unsatisfying carpe diem existence: "If you don't stop to smell the roses now / They might end up on you." By album's end we've bee presented with myriad failed and failing relationship, and, while Hart's final "You Can Live at Home" seems to promise something positive in the very power of its titular assertion, the chorus, "walk, walk away, keep on walking away," stresses the impossibility of true romance. The final coda of guitar fadeouts provides the only real sense of escape.

This new found contemplative maturity evokes itself in the very music. No longer are Hüsker Dü merely a hardcore band; they now feel self-confident enough to quote and borrow from their formative American rock influences. New sounds abound on Warehouse. The mocking cuckoo at the end of "Tell You Why Tomorrow" and the bells in the folksy "She Floated Away" smack of the unusual and early Velvet Underground; some Chuck Berry guitar riffs invade the intro to "Too Much Spice." The strange shift to half-time at the end of "Back From Somewhere" reminds me of The New York Dolls' "Personality Crisis." In now way, however, is Hüsker Dü derivative, for they retain their unique sense of urgent, post-punk metallurgy.

Sure The Joshua Tree will sell zillions, all the major media rags will anoint U2 this year's artists of the eighties, and your poseur friends will claim they saw the October tour back in '82, but you have an opportunity to flip your wig and join the real rock revolution. While Dublin's favorite sons garner all the recognition, Warehouse remains the only serious candidate to date for album of the year honors. Just remember that the best things from Minnesota no longer come plastered in paisley.

I can't believe I was so wrong on first hearing Prince's Sign '☮' The Times: mea maxima culpa. I needed to come at the album from my love of 1970s era funk and soul, especially the trio of stone cold political classics—There's A Riot Goin' On, What's Going On, and One Nation Under a Groove, which I did in 1988. So eventually I got it. Apologies especially to Mr. Matos! At least I got Prince from his debut through Purple Rain as the final line of the piece implies (i.e. The best things out of Minneapolis used to emerge from Paisley Park and Prince). As to the lame "flip you wig" reference as pun, I just couldn't help myself then or even 18 years later!

With respect to the piece itself, I'm not sure why I used the weak helping verb "to seem" so much? Some kind of verbal tic I guess. Also if the piece seems to (hahaha) rely too much on lyrical analysis, remember I was fresh off a year doing a MA in English Romanticism at York and beginning a PhD in English at Stanford. In the year of Culture, Two Sevens Clash and New Order, Substance to mention but two real contenders, the claim about Warehouse's status as the sole album of the year candidate looks more than naive in retrospect.

Still and all and despite these criticisms, I think this was a pretty good first crack at writing a "grown up"/post-collegiate-hothouse album review. I especially enjoyed the various pop culture references from Minneapolis' own industrial giant (General Mills) through the Dadesque Spanish icon to Reagan-era abstinence programs. Feel free to comment on how wrong I am now or was then.

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