Only four artists this week, but that’s because I became so immersed in each of their individual worlds. All of them, regardless of their backgrounds, make the sort of music that feels like it’s always pushing against an opposing force; their voices resonate most strongly when they sing their way out of pain or confusion or maddening circumstances. Note: OK, the bit about The Damned is frickin’ endless, but it’s also a doozy.
Maxo Kream, “G3” and “Big Worm” (Kream Clicc/TSO)
This is not your big brother/sister/cousin/uncle/aunt’s Screwston rap. Though the lean intake stays high and the candy-paint car show rolls on, the sound of the city’s fieriest rapper, Maxo Kream, a.k.a. Emekwanem Biosah, a product of southwest Houston’s Alief/Forum Park area, reflects a different metabolism. Growing up, Maxo experienced both his big brother and father being shot, and he watched the police kick in the front door of his family’s house twice to arrest his dad, who spent virtually his son’s entire teenaged years in prison. A burly, scruffy-bearded dude who can fill out a hockey jersey, Maxo raps halfway between a numb murmur and an agitated growl, and on “G3,” he crams every possible digital crevasse with verbal information. In his flat, trancelike affect, he chants an obsessively detailed jump-cut narrative of being tripped out and confused as hell, e.g., “Murder rate high ’cause we had a crazy summer / Ten-one-ten murder block always do numbers / Brain on dummy, pills in my tummy / Living half-dead, slow-mo like a zombie / Trappin’ out my granny’s, mama can’t stand me / Tryin’ to get away so I’m poppin’ all these Xannies.” On “Big Worm,” as producer Ryan ESL works over the eerie synth-flute trill from Wiley’s classic grime riddim “Morgue,” Maxo ricochets into a syncopated flurry of drug-game lingo, almost to the point of delirium, with a story based on the absurdly permed “Big Worm” character in Friday, who sells drugs out of an ice cream truck and gets played for comic effect by Chris Tucker’s character, Smokey (“You know this, maaaaan!”). But there’s nothing playful about Maxo, especially when he matter-of-factly spits: “Forgive or forget, call it Robin Givens / I’ve been robbing, giving, serving all the children / This is how I’m living / I’m a piece of shit …” He doesn’t even pause on that line, just barrels forward. “Want the dough, for sure, Maxo Richie Rich.” Identifying as a Forum Park Crip and talking openly of his history in home invasion, he isn’t prone to regret; but that doesn’t mean he’s in denial. It’s his steely gift for voicing discomfiting detail that grabs your attention.
Margaret Glaspy, “Emotions and Math” live on NPR, August 22, 2016
Most critics were immediately all-in, but after listening to California singer-guitarist Margaret Glaspy’s 2013 EP, If & When, and this year’s debut album, Emotions and Math, I was fairly nonplussed. The EP was preciously folky and mannered, while the album felt accommodating and commonplace. Scattered songs almost reached me, the title track most of all, but I never found a point of connection and moved on to the hundreds of other Americana-ish singer-songwriters hawking their plainspoken wares. But then I watched this clip of her performing earlier this month in the unforgivingly intimate setting of NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series, and I couldn’t turn away. Glaspy’s voice and guitar were both mesmerizing. At their best, they have a crackly rasp and gulping quaver that not only send chills but make you gawk at her like she might be a relationship oracle; as she shuts her eyes and stiffly sways, some may be reminded of a buttoned-up Fiona Apple. The closer you get to Glaspy, the more nervy she seems.
Lambchop, “The Hustle” (Merge)
Lambchop’s new single is an 18-minute meditation on a Quaker wedding over a drum machine’s pitter-patter. (I shit you not.) Kurt Wagner, the longtime Nashville art-pop project’s leader, plays a reticent, off-kilter observer who is deeply moved by the ceremony’s unstructured testimonies and the collective fellowship of the attendees doing the Hustle at the reception (he declines to join them). The song’s lyrics allude, gnomically, to how couples try (and fail) to provide support for each other, but the mood is shaped more by the way digital and acoustic rhythms or instruments (piano, oboe, other woodwinds) play off each other with an air of open-ended discovery. But when Wagner sings, delicately, “I can see the future in the air / With you sleeping in the morning / And if all our efforts lead to this / And how it barely slipped away,” he approaches an unavoidable truth: In marriage, gratitude and hope always dance in lockstep with compromise and resignation.
The Damned: Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, by Wes Orshoski (Three Count Films/Cleopatra Records)
In Don’t You Wish That They Were Dead, we learn that the first punk record — The Damned’s 1976 single “New Rose” — was made by four guys who didn’t particularly like each other and had virtually nothing to say. That’s glib, of course, but it’s what you might conclude from this fascinating, if disordered, film from Wes Orshoski, codirector of the blackly comic 2010 music doc Lemmy, about the no-fucks Motörhead frontman (who appears here as a transitional member of the band, when it was briefly called The Doomed). The original members — singer Dave Vanian, guitarist Brian James, bassist Captain Sensible, and drummer Rat Scabies — met in London after playing in other bands (including Mick Jones’s The London SS), and their career got off to a blistering start, preceding The Clash and Sex Pistols with “New Rose” and the exquisitely furious debut album Damned Damned Damned. They eventually became the first Brit punk band to tour America, their tight blasts of chaotic noise and melody helping to kick-start West Coast hardcore punk. Though not overtly political, the band embodied punk’s rebellious madness.
So what happened? Why are they only a footnote to the era? Well, buried in the DVD extras, there’s one clue. During the 1976-77 Anarchy in the U.K. tour (featuring the Pistols, Clash, and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers), The Damned were strategically betrayed by the punk scene’s caddish puppet master and Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. As told by The Damned’s then-manager (with details even the band didn’t know), McLaren pointedly lied, both to the band’s reps and then to the media, in an effort to discredit The Damned and get them off the tour. At first, McLaren had needed them to boost ticket sales (they were the best live act and had toured more than the others), but as the Pistols became tabloid fodder following their profane television appearance, The Damned were a distraction from McLaren’s planned situationist pop domination.
The band’s first album and U.S. tour happened after the Anarchy debacle, but their view of the punk scene, and their place within it, had been permanently marred. Unwilling to hire a Svengali-like manager to duke it out with McLaren or Clash operative Bernie Rhodes, they were viewed as just a bunch of drunks who pissed on monitors. As Captain Sensible put it, mocking agitprop punkspeak: “This … ‘we’ve gotta fight together to, like, make something special, like, working classes stick together, fuck the Pope.’ I can’t do the dole queues of discontent, I’m sorry, it’s just not me.” The Damned were prankish, often-wasted kids who ripped it up onstage and backstage. Their camaraderie was too fragile to withstand the politics and business of being a professional band. Their second album stiffed; James, the main songwriter, quit, and their label dropped them. But after briefly breaking up, they reformed with Captain Sensible taking over as guitarist-songwriter, soon evolving in garage-rock and goth directions, and releasing hit singles in the U.K. (Captain Sensible even had a No. 1 solo novelty hit with “Happy Talk” in 1982). They would break up and reform many more times, and somehow released 10 albums overall — at least half worth hearing — despite acrid arguments over money. They even scored a meeting with Simon Cowell during the 1980s, but it ended abruptly when Cowell spied a member of the band recording the discussion.
One doesn’t have to project to sense that Orshoski struggled to complete the film, dealing with band members’ battered feelings and recriminations, which may account for leaving out the Pistols tour debacle or including far too much video of crotchety late-era Damned shows with Vanian, Captain Sensible, and hired guns. There are plenty of earnest tributes, from Chrissie Hynde, Billy Idol, Dave Gahan, and Ian MacKaye, though Buzz Osborne of The Melvins gets off the best line about the band: “They were clowns that could deliver.” Fred Armisen stops by a Los Angeles gig to reminisce with the Captain and charmingly busk on the sidewalk with The Damned’s “Life Goes On,” but again, it’s consigned to the extras (one can imagine Rat Scabies bellowing “no fucking way, mate” after viewing that poignant meet-up).
About an hour and 40 minutes into the film, the whole survivors’ narrative face-plants as Rat Scabies descends into a bitter diatribe while strolling through a junk sale in an unnamed English seaside town. I’m gonna quote the rant in full because it’s so unusually, brutally honest; plus, most of you will never make it to the end of the film. So, here goes, The Damned’s Rat Scabies staring down Orshoski, who is basically serving as a stand-in for his fans: “What do you want from me, man? What do you fucking want? Because, you know, really, I’m not fucking interested. I’m really not. I don’t fucking care about your documentary. I don’t care about being in a fucking group. I don’t care about being anything, you know? It’s fucking bollocks. All I care about is survival. Moving, being able to keep going. None of it fucking counts. It’s all in the past, it’s fucking history. Why the fuck would anybody care that we made a few fucking records? We didn’t discover the cure for cancer, we didn’t fucking change the world. The Pistols and The Clash did that, right?” (Here he raises an eyebrow archly, to indicate his sarcasm.) “We were just also there. The public don’t care. The industry don’t care. I care even fucking less. Brian [James], well, maybe the others may wanna be there for posterity. But you know what? I don’t fucking give a shit.” Punk nostalgia dies here.