Geeked Up: Yesterday Is Tomorrow

Transformative rock covers, timeless soulgaze, and an ode to punk’s drag queen mothers

Nostalgia gets strangled by regret and pride, "retro" is basically shorthand for unremarkable kitsch, "throwback" implies an appropriated style, and all of it can get boring or maudlin or shoved down your throat really fast. “Retro-future” as an Internet-era approach to music- or art-making seems totally obvious: Who could, or should, resist building off the troves of newly available historical material? Oftentimes, though, the fervid googling and YouTubing just leads to repackaged commercialization. But what if we avidly dove into the past, poking around for revelations that might free us to break past historical roadblocks or just propel us unexpectedly forward? That's how I’d like to party, so here are some possible jump-offs.

Wye Oak, “We Belong

For the long-running web series A.V. Undercover, bands choose from a pre-picked list of songs and then perform their selections live, which has produced some gems (Screaming Females’s ferociously controlled exorcism of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”), but has mostly resulted in patchy nice-tries. Here, though, Wye Oak offered their own cover of Pat Benatar’s 1984 hit “We Belong” and cast a fiercely simmering spell. With drummer/keyboardist Andy Stack on atmospherics and beats, singer-guitarist Jenn Wasner tones down Benatar’s theatrics and teases out the lyrics’ subtle tension without sacrificing any urgency. Synths burble, Wasner’s guitar rings and roars, and when she sings, “Maybe it's a sign of weakness when I don't know what to say / Maybe I just wouldn't know what to do with my strength anyway,” it comes across as a meticulously melancholy, Rosanne Cash–level therapy session between two people trapped in a codependent cell.

For years, “We Belong” was nondescript to me, a radio-friendly soft-rock throw pillow that cushioned retail errands around town. That was until Blue Valentine, the raw-wound 2010 film, written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, and starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling as an edgy couple shadowboxing with adult responsibility. Early on, as both hurriedly leave their respective jobs to drive to their daughter’s school play, Cianfrance flips between the two cars – Gosling’s character Dean listening to The Dirtbombs’s “I Can’t Stop Thinking About It” while smoking and drinking a beer; “We Belong” enveloping Williams’s character Cindy while she scarfs a doughnut and nervously checks the rearview. It gets really fucking sad really quickly from there, but in that instant I began to hear “We Belong” in a deeper way, as a quietly crushing depiction of partners who might not be able to make the tiny adjustments that allow us to eke out lives together. The song was no longer just overwrought aural padding. It’s also a creeping study of how one loved one can alienate and dismantle another. Of how the childlike charisma that drew Cindy to Dean is now scaring her shitless. Of how Cindy is palpably worried about surviving whatever comes next. Both she and Wye Oak’s Wasner are squirming inside the same maddening song. And there’s no easy exit.

The Veldt, The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur: The Drake Equation EP (Leonard Skully)

Shoegaze never went away, from reunions (Lush, Swervedriver) to reissues (this year’s Still in a Dream: A Story of Shoegaze) to newer bands still enamored with the oozy, distorted sound (Cheatahs, Nothing, Candy Claws, Title Fight, No Joy). But it’s rare that a shoegazey record shoots through the mythic cobwebs and appears like a glistening, originally designed object. Rarer still that it comes from a Raleigh, North Carolina, band of black dudes nearing their fifties who haven’t released new material under their original name in 20 years and were dropped by more than one major label during the ’80s and ’90s (Capitol refused to release a finished album, although 1994’s excellent Afrodisiac, featuring Cocteau Twins’s Robin Guthrie, came out on Mercury). But the Chavis twins – falsetto’d frontman Daniel and symphonic guitarist Danny – are in gently frenzied form on this lovely EP (aided by stealth programmer/guitarist Hayato Nakao); an album, Resurrection Hymns, will follow this summer. Call ’em “soulgaze,” call ’em Drake producer Doc McKinney’s favorite new band (!), but this shit stuns.

Bacao Street Rhythm & Steel Band, “Love Like This” from 55 (Big Crown)

Most travelers to the twin West Indian island republic of Trinidad & Tobago, if they have a pulse, become enraptured by the local music, be it soca, calypso, steelpan, rapso, chutney, et al. Funk-soul sophisticate Björn Wagner, leader of the Mighty Mocambos – Germany’s answer to The Dap-Kings – not only decided to stay in TNT because of the music, but he learned to play steelpan drums and had one traditionally built (out of a used oil barrel) so he could establish a fresh new funk-soul band back home in Hamburg, featuring members of the Mocambos. The resulting enrapturing Bacao Rhythm sound – feathery steelpan swirl, percussive roll and roil, dancing-bear bass lines, radiant horns – first fully combusted on their cover of 50 Cent’s 2003 hit “P.I.M.P.,” which was so timeless and unsinkable that some nerds claimed that Fitty producer Mr. Porter must’ve sampled it. Here, on Bacao’s debut album, 55 (named in tribute to the 55-pound oil drums used to build the band’s central instrument), “P.I.M.P.” is the lead track, but the eyes-agog moment is a cover of ’90s roller-rink group hug “Love Like This,” by Faith Evans. While the original was based on a prominent Chic sample, Bacao transform the track into a multitiered, cinematic masterpiece that nods to David Axelrod’s cosmic soundtracks but stays firmly anchored with a taut, nuanced low end and punchy organ-versus-brass flurries that push back your wig. Meanwhile, the spare, oh-no-they-didn’t steelpan breakdown about four minutes in readjusts the pocket so that the stroll and strut home are even more startling and spectacular. The uncanny musicianship on the rest of 55 will also blow your head, as the Minister of the New Super Heavy Funk once said; so when the album’s released in May, let’s blow!

Kristin Kontrol, “Show Me” (Sub Pop)

“When it all becomes unbearably heavy … I will show you, I will show you love.” The woman’s voice uttering those words intimately eases around your headphones to an R&B-smudged synthpop fantasia that nods to the early ’80s, but doesn’t stop there. She’s warmly, insistently reassuring, and if I hadn’t known, I probably never would’ve guessed that it was Kristin “Dee Dee” Welchez of garage-goth girl group Dum Dum Girls. Moving beyond her coolly nocturnal chic and melodramatic studio concoctions with Richard Gottehrer, legendary ’60s pop songwriter (“I Want Candy”) and producer (Blondie, The Go-Go’s), Welchez now gives her sneaky-crafty songwriting a more tangibly connected platform. Though she cites influences as disparate as Sinéad O’Connor and Kylie Minogue, “Show Me” unfolds as its own compelling world, where indie blog fantasy touches actual flesh.

Charles Bradley, “Changes” (Daptone)

Whenever I’m chased by the black dog, I love to listen to gospel music or “revival-style” sermons (as we used to call them in my family’s Southern Baptist tradition), and that’s how this withering Charles Bradley cover of Black Sabbath’s ballad “Changes” strikes me. Except it’s not particularly uplifting or redemptive; it just takes your spirit and shakes the shit out of it. The 1972 original was a full collaboration – guitarist Tony Iommi was just learning to play the piano and stayed up all night, possibly snow-blind on cocaine (as he’s admitted to being throughout these sessions), messing around on a piano in the Bel-Air mansion that the band were renting. Ozzy Osbourne heard him playing the “Changes” melody, started singing along with it, and bassist Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics about drummer Bill Ward’s breakup with his first wife. In Bradley’s version, however, the lyrics reflect conversations he had with his mother over the years, especially during the time just prior to her passing (which happened during the recording of his new album). These exchanges were often contentious. As Bradley related to Noisey: “She told me, ‘I was trying to tell it to all y’all kids, but y’all didn’t listen to me.’ I’m glad I took the open heart and said let bygones be bygones and let’s get to know each other.” In the video, the camera stays tight on Bradley’s creased face as it blurs in and out of focus, but instead of lip-syncing, he acts out his emotions about his mom’s death – shaking his head, reaching to the sky, clutching his shoulders, grimacing as if he’s about to cry – while the vocal track wails and beseeches, like James Brown’s most desperate “Please Please Please.” It’ll rip you up.

Mark Leckey, Dream English Kid 1964-1999 (The Death of Rave)

It all started when this Turner Prize–winning artist watched a YouTube clip of Joy Division playing in his hometown of Liverpool in 1979 and realized that he’d been at the show but could barely remember it. This sparked an idea for a possible new project – could Leckey plausibly create a memoir based strictly on Internet-sourced material, taking advantage of how the always-evolving online archive (“DVD rereleases, eBay ephemera, YouTube uploads”) can help “actualize half-forgotten memories and produce a niche for seemingly every remembrance.” Stopping in 1999, the year he debuted Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore – his famed video reimagining the U.K. rave scene (since sampled by Jamie xx and others) – Leckey collaged together the hypnotic, poignant, disorienting audio/video installation Dream English Kid 1964-1999 (named after titles or songs by John Lennon, Marianne Faithfull, and The Pretenders). The piece functions as an excavation of hazy, almost haunted memories, in addition to questioning whether these revelations will ever be as powerful again in the Internet era. Now he’s released the 30-minute soundtrack on vinyl and it’s no less an immersive hallucination, as Leckey sifts and fades in and out of 35 years of audio flashbacks, from moon landings to ’80s/’90s sound-system culture. It’s as if he’s conjuring a secret map of his own pre-millennial life, a conjuring that now seems to go on every day, everywhere, all the time.

Kembrew McLeod, Parallel Lines (33 1/3)

I enjoy 33 1/3’s completist chapbooks dedicated to significant albums as much as the next dork, but it’s a rare treat when an author busts out a tightly researched agenda that totally flips your perspective on a record, a band, a scene, a genre, and an entire artistic era. Kembrew McLeod, professor of Communication Studies at Iowa University, provides such a treat with this gloriously revisionist history, positing that Blondie and the core of the New York punk scene’s early bands and aesthetics were a product of a wildly vital gay underground theater scene that flourished from the late 1960s to the early 1970s, or “between the waning years of the Velvet Underground and the rise of The New York Dolls,” as he puts it. In this story, Warhol Superstar and drag playwright/provocateur Jackie Curtis (with help from collaborators Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn) is the quintessential punk visionary, Play-House of the Ridiculous founder John Vaccaro is just as important as CBGB’s Hilly Kristal, and confrontational drag-rocker Wayne County (with his band Queen Elizabeth) not only puts The Dictators’s “Handsome Dick” Manitoba in the hospital with her fists and mic stand but renders Dick’s cartoonish dude-rock pitifully retrograde. In dives like Club 82 and Bobern Bar & Grill, former Max’s Kansas City waitress Debbie Harry performs in the campy, trashy, drag-influenced girl group The Stillettoes, later joined by guitarist/partner Chris Stein, creating the blueprints for first-album Blondie songs. As McLeod quotes Harry: “I learned a lot from drag queens. That’s no joke.” Neither is the author’s persuasive argument.


VMAs 2017