Sunday, September 27, 2015

Lardo calls it quits in thrilling Cactus Club Debut

Back in my college days, my friend Josh stumbled across a random, inconspicuous slice of vinyl buried in the library of WRST in Oshkosh, the college radio station where we were tag teaming an overnight freeform shift and looking for random odd finds in the back room to take a gamble on at 3:30 in the morning. On this night, Josh found a humble, beat-up sleeve labeled “The Cardboards: Greatest Hits Volume Two,” and the back cover photo of four awkward looking nerds futzing with a bunch of cables somehow convinced him to throw it on. What we had discovered was a lost, nearly forgotten DEVO-esque new wave punk group from Pittsburgh that managed to get this five-song EP released before falling apart and disappearing into obscurity. The discovery of something so randomly awesome and unheralded hit us over the head with way more force than anything the labels and magazines were trying to jam into our earholes at the time, and it could be argued that the Cardboards had as much or more an impact on our first bands as Sonic Youth or any of the other Alternative Nation poster children of the time. Of course, now that we're a couple decades deep into the Internet Era, a cursory Google search will pull up plenty of information about the Cardboards, but without that one eye-catching flip through the record sleeves buried deep in a college radio library, we wouldn't have known to even search their name.

But even today, in the era of blogs and PR firms spamming our eyes and ears with the latest career-minded trend-hoppers looking to get their Kickstarter funded, it can be those short-lived, hot-burning obscurities that still pack the biggest punch and excite music lovers the most. It's almost cliché at this point to say that there are more bands out there than ever, and for every Hep New Thing that catches fire through some combination of luck and timing, there are a hundred bands that are just as good or better that flame out before anyone cares to notice the self-released, unsold stacks of vinyl collecting mold on their merch tables.

Which bring us to Chicago's Lardo. A part-time concern formed in 2013 by serial band-starter Brian Pennington (Radiant Republic, MegaMaul) and Nick Minor, Lardo is a thrillingly virtuosic no-wave informed post-punk trio layering bit-crushed, synthesized guitar heroics over a bare-bones rhythm section straight out of 1990s Touch & Go Records. Their recently-released debut, Gunmetal Eyes, is a minimalist mindfuck of dark, scary noise-rock as creepy as it is exciting, as sparse as it is heavy. It's an incredibly unique and messed-up work that deserves loads of attention. It would be a phenomenal opening statement in what you'd normally think would be a future full of possibility, but Lardo played what may well be their last show ever at the Cactus Club on Saturday in front of a room full of stoked and swaying attendees.

The band ran through Gunmetal Eyes in its entirety during their runaway train of a set, barely pausing for a breath as they ran nearly every one of the record's ten tracks together. Minor, standing stone-still, stoically delivered cynically snarky vocals (“Everyday's the same/Things are gonna change/I can play this game/'Cuz things are gonna change” from “Another Day in the Life”) while Pennington violently flailed all over stage left, repeatedly slamming his body into the wall while laying down dizzyingly bendy guitar lines in between fixing the pedals he kept accidentally unplugging. It was an exhilarating juxtaposition, although it probably wouldn't be lying to say that all the attention in the room was focused on the shredder with the synthetic-sounding licks. That undivided attention came from a fairly full room full of excited, flailing headbangers, many of whom came up from Chicago to see their local heroes call it quits (come back soon, everyone!).

So now does Lardo fade into memory? As is the case in so many bands that die before their time, real life is butting in, as Pennington is moving to North Carolina for the usual work/family reasons. But he hasn't closed the door on Lardo, reminding a few of us at Cactus that there's no telling the future. After all, the internet has made long-distance practice and file-sharing more rule than exception for some. In the meantime, who knows, maybe a copy of Gunmetal Eyes ends up in some kid's hands in a discount bin or college radio library somewhere in a few years, completely unheralded, and that kid gets their mind blown into next week and immediately starts a band so they can get their guitar to sound as fucked up as Lardo's. I bet the Cardboards would approve, wherever they are.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the bill, three other bands stepped up to the plate to deliver excellent sets along with Lardo—most notably Chicago's The Terrible News, a brand new noise-rock outfit playing their second show. Their brand of bluesy Steve-Albini-and-The-Bad-Seeds skronk absolutely leveled the Cactus faithful, including a downright punishing version of Cher's “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” that was equal parts beautiful and downright ugly. The show was bookended by local favorite Heavy Hand, playing a few new tracks including a new singalong winner about malfunctioning Big Muff pedals (“This Big Muff is fucked up/And all our shit is broken!”), and Gauss, who brought an interesting Elephant 6 take to their brand of noise (although maybe that was just the trumpet). Hopefully every one of these bands gets the time to develop a full discography before one of their members gets dragged to Missoula for work or some shit.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

WWE Network World Tour: WrestleMania 13

Wrestling historians tend to point to WrestleMania XIV as the beginning of the "Attitude Era:" that oft-romanticized period of unprecedented profitability for the then-World Wrestling Federation during which competition with WCW pushed Vince McMahon & co. into new, more adult-oriented (read: high school male-oriented) creative arenas. Most wrestling fans prefer to remember the Attitude Era as a time when raunchier storylines were accompanied by a marked increase in hardcore wrestling styles and a continued uptick in in-ring workrate that began with the ascension of Bret Hart during the "New Generation" era of roughly 1993-1998. (They either prefer to ignore the rampant sexism and outright misogyny or insist that it wasn't a big deal because of the target demographic, but inches upon inches could be written about the more problematic aspects of having "Attitude.") But let's be real here--the Attitude Era started long before "Stone Cold" Steve Austin's ascendancy to the WWF World Title. By March 1997, there were plenty of cuss words and middle fingers being thrown say nothing about the pistol "Loose Cannon" Brian Pillman threatened Austin with in an infamous segment of a late 1996 episode of Raw:

So if we're going to use a WrestleMania as a signpost to the beginning of the official "Attitude Era," i suggest we use the moment where Steve Austin, the next face of the company, transitioned from the despised villain that broke into his former friends' homes to the authority-cursing antihero whose hell-raising antics caused more audience glee than consternation--the WrestleMania 13 Double-Turn. (If nothing else, this 'Mania was the turning point that caused the ramp-up to what was probably the real beginning of the Attitude Era: the Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series '97, which, if you're actually reading this and don't know what that is, demands your attention be directed to this phenomenal Radiolab episode.)

Man, have i been waiting for this one. Not for the main event--the WWF World Title picture in Spring 1997 was a complete mess and that it shook out into Undertaker vs. Sycho Sid was pretty unfortunate...but it did free up Bret Hart and the rapidly ascending (and already super-popular despite his status as a "heel") Austin to settle their burgeoning blood feud with one of my favorite 'Mania matches ever: their semi-main event submission match.

OK, here's the story: Shawn Michaels held the title he won at WrestleMania 12 all the way until the 1996 Survivor Series, where he lost the title to Sid after the big man cleaned Michaels' clock with a TV camera. Shawn won it back at the Royal Rumble in January '97 by delivering a taste of Sid's own medicine courtesy another camera, but before the February pay-per-view, Michaels ended up vacating the title. The reasons why are left to the speculative lens of history; the storyline involved a knee injury and Shawn's need to "find his smile again," while more nefarious theories point to Michaels choosing to forfeit the title rather than lose it back to Bret Hart in a scheduled rematch at WrestleMania 13. 

So regardless, the title was vacant and thus, a four-way elimination match was booked at In Your House: Final Four featuring Vader, Undertaker, and the final two Royal Rumble competitors, Steve Austin and Bret Hart. Austin won the Rumble under controversial circumstances that prolonged what was already a growing feud between Hart and him, and at Final Four, as the Hitman eliminated Austin en route to winning the match and his fourth WWF World Title, Austin refused to let it go. (Somewhere in here Austin's guaranteed title match at WrestleMania was conveniently forgotten about--probably because he got a shot at Final Four? I guess?) The next night on Raw, Bret defended his new title against Sycho Sid and Austin interfered, leading to Sid's victory for the title and a fresh layer to the grudge between Austin and Hart. If that wasn't enough, after Undertaker/Sid and Hart/Austin were set for WrestleMania, a cage match for the title was booked for the March 17 Raw between Hart and Sid, which could have affected which match actually ended up being for the title. After Sid won again due to interference from the Undertaker, Bret launched into an expletive-laced tirade as he complained about the WWF being out to "screw" him. all that? Shawn Michaels gives up the title and goes bye-bye for a spell, the title changes hands twice in 24 hours, and Bret's growing frustration with the company, which started during the build to WrestleMania 12, was boiling over as more and more people were slowly beginning to cheer for established "bad guys" like Austin. How can you argue with that buildup? Hell, you almost don't even need the undercard--although, who's gonna argue with Rocky Maivia vs. The Sultan? Wait--don't answer that. Let's just watch the damn show.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Ten Latest Flame Records Releases You Should Hear

On Thursday Milwaukee Record ran my feature article on Latest Flame Records closing up shop after nearly 13 years of kickass releases. It was really difficult to write that piece without injecting lots of personal asides and, admittedly, sour grapes and snarky butthurt feelings about Dan's decision to close up shop, which is why i'm hopping over here to do that, naturally. Make no mistake--i fully support Dan's decision to stop setting his personal income on fire in order to allow his favorite bands to have something to sell at shows. But the day i got the email from Mr. Hanke breaking the news, i felt like a family member had died.

To me, Latest Flame Records and the bands that recorded for it during its noisy second act were family. Having become aware of punk rock and independent record labels beginning with a mind-expanding summer between my senior year of high school and the onset of college in the early 90s, i was immediately drawn to the romantic notion of record label as symbol of quality and community. If i bought a Touch & Go Records release in the 1990s, i had a pretty good idea of what it sounded like before breaking the shrinkwrap--it was going to be loud, it was going to be abrasive, and it wasn't going to sound exactly like anything else available. And i was probably going to love it. Just as importantly, i had a pretty good notion that each of those bands were likely to play shows together, tour together, hang out together. Eli Janney of Girls Against Boys recorded Brainiac's Hissing Prigs in Static Couture. Blond Redhead opened for Shellac at the Congress Theatre. And so on. It quickly became a dream of mine to be a part of something like that. Dan shared that dream and made it happen with a stacked roster of aggressive and off-the-beaten-path-yet-completely-accessible-if-you-give-it-a-chance rock tunes from the likes of Police Teeth, Waxeater, Trophy Wives, Nervous Curtains, his Like Like The The The Death, and my own IfIHadAHiFi and Body Futures.

Music, like any art, is deeply personal and subjective, of course, and that the Latest Flame roster never exactly set the world on fire is by no means an indictment of its quality....of course. It's the same story that scores of labels that have come and gone have endured over the years. But when you're sinking the amount of money that it takes to release a record or a CD into something in which you believe, it's hard to not be frustrated when those efforts aren't validated by the outside world. We are only human beings, after all, and human beings are inherently social creatures seeking outside validation. But make no mistake: almost every time i get on stage with Body Futures or IfIHadAHiFi, and every time i throw on one of our records, i feel completely validated in that we've produced music that i would want to listen to and would be stoked about even if i wasn't in the band, and that's all anyone can realistically hope for. As my friend John Dykstra has often said to me, we should all be thankful for living in a time where we are able to make music and press records with our pals in the first place; should anyone else actually enjoy it, that's a bonus.

Still, being able to cover costs would have been a nice bonus.

In the spirit of celebrating the diverse Latest Flame catalog, here are ten Latest Flame releases that everyone should hear. Dan was kind enough to document it, so dammit, it should be heard. This stuff is all over the map, from new-wavy power-pop to wiry post-punk to brutal riffage, and it all deserves to be remembered. I hope you take some time to check them out if you don't know about them already. And thanks, Dan, for helping all of us live that dream of being part of a musical family with a sense of real community and belonging, just like those indie labels of lore. What a gift.

In more-or-less chronological order:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Starving Artists of the 1%

I haven't done a ton of music-related writing in recent months. There've been lots of reasons for this--my day job saps my energy (the most consistent blogging i've ever done here took place while i was unemployed four years ago--go figure, eh?), all my available writing time has been taken up with WrestleMania liveblogging--but mostly, i've been in a rut of non-enthusiasm fed by a feeling that most people just aren't interested in reading about the bands i want to write about. I mean, who would want to hear about Motherfucker or Le Butcherettes or Hungry Man when stuff like this is out there in the world?

This sub-twee nonsense is a New York band called The Prettiots, and they live in a world that is almost completely removed from the musical universe populated by my peers and friends. I say "almost" because sometimes the two universes crossover like a Marvel vs. DC one-shot, although it's really more like Marvel vs. Achewood or DC vs. your local indie cartoonist who gets stocked at House of Heroes because It's Important to Support Local Art. One of those world collisions happened earlier this month, when The Prettiots traveled to South By Southwest in the hopes of getting "discovered" and "making it," a trek chronicled in part by a piece in the New York Times:
Weaving down from New York to Austin, Tex., in a minivan will cost the Prettiots about $1,000 in gas, plus $3,000 to rent the van with insurance. Hiring someone to manage the tour will be $1,500. Cheap hotels along the way: $500. And once the band members arrive at the music marathon on Tuesday, they will stay at an Airbnb accommodation, which will run them another $2,500 for four nights — the going rate, as the city is overrun by thousands of visitors.
All told, with incidentals and a $15 per diem for the musicians, the trip will cost the unsigned group nearly $10,000, said Asif Ahmed, the Prettiots’ manager, who is fronting some of the cost himself. “When you’re a band this young, it’s a necessary evil — spending money to eventually make it,” he said.
The article's point is valid on its surface--SXSW, as everyone knows, is crammed with "starving artists," in the Times' words,  playing for little to no money while hoping to catch someone's attention. But how starving can a band be when they have access to $10,000 to blow? In a spot-on response to this article, Deerhoof's Ed Rodriguez astutely observed, "The people they chose to speak with were so unlike any musician I’ve encountered in the past 20 years that I’m left wondering, where do they find the sources for these stories? Is this your realtor’s son’s band? Did the famous movie director you spoke with for your last interview have a daughter who recently recorded a demo?"

Saturday, February 28, 2015

WWE Network World Tour: WrestleMania XII

For a guy who won five WWF World Heavyweight Titles, Bret "Hitman" Hart really got the shaft when it came to being the standard-bearer, the "face" of the company. His second title reign in 1994 saw Hart exclusively defending his title on the undercard of pay-per-views headlined by The Undertaker and others. And of course, everyone who follows wrestling knows how his final title run ended in 1997. After Hart ended long-running WWF Champ Diesel's 358-day reign at the 1995 Survivor Series, it quickly became apparent that the Hitman was simply keeping the belt warm for the guy whose popularity was quickly reaching a fever pitch among the WWF faithful--"The Heartbreak Kid" Shawn Michaels. After his defeat in the main event of WrestleMania XI, Michaels dropped off WWF TV for a short time, re-emerging as a babyface and beginning a year-long road to redemption for his past evil ways and a push that would, around the time of the Royal Rumble, start to focus on Shawn's "childhood dream" of winning the WWF World Championship.

At the same time, Michaels' backstage crew of wrestling buddies, the "Kliq" consisting of Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, the 1-2-3 Kid, and recent arrival Hunter Hearst Helmsley, were beginning to exert influence in booking decisions and the WWF's creative direction, much to the consternation of pretty much anyone on the roster that wasn't those five guys. (At the In Your House: The Great White North PPV, Michaels forfeited the Intercontinental Title to Shane "Dean" Douglas after Shawn was legitimately beat up in a bar fight a few days before and unable to compete. Douglas then immediately lost the title to Razor Ramon in the same night. Standard WWF development, or Kliq-influenced booking?)

Still, no matter how large a part backstage politics played in the rise of Shawn Michaels, the bottom line is that during the 1990s Shawn developed into a premier in-ring performer, able to work matches with nearly anyone the WWF would throw at him (he's really the only reason the title match with Diesel at WrestleMania XI was at least watchable and not straight-up clunky, finish notwithstanding). The fans recognized this and it's to Vince McMahon's credit that he listened to his fanbase, moving away from the Diesel experiment and his knee-jerk instinct to push the largest dudes in the locker room and finally letting two "smaller" in-ring technicians headline his flagship event.

But with Michaels' star on the rise, the Hitman was quickly becoming an afterthought, and after Michaels won the 1996 Royal Rumble to earn the chance to achieve his boyhood dream, there wasn't a single WWF fan that watched the build to the event, the training vignettes, and didn't realize that Michaels' victory was being telegraphed for weeks.

Bret's not being pushed as a heel just yet, but look at the juxtaposition of these two fan favorites--the music gets darker and more dramatic when Bret begins to speak, and after a quick concession to Michaels' growing fan base, he proceeds to spend his time criticizing Shawn's personality and ring antics. "This isn't dancing, this is not a dance marathon--this 60-minute iron man match is going to be the biggest fight he's ever had." Sure, we purist Hitman fans will respond to that, but the majority of the WWF fanbase were sure to see that as sour grapes or jealousy, and it just rallied more fans to Michaels' side.

And how about that choice to give an entire hour of the biggest event of the year to two "smaller" guys? It's almost like Vince McMahon, indignant that the fans wanted to see two natural-looking technicians tear the roof off instead of the lumbering larger-than-life supermen Vince preferred, spat "they want wrestling? Fine, we'll give 'em more wrestling than they can stand! And they can't leave their closet until they've smoked every last cigarette in the carton!"

Well, hey, thanks for that, Vince. After last year's bullshit, a solid hour of one of the best main events in WrestleMania history is gonna be a long, deep breath of fresh air.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

WWE Network World Tour: WrestleMania XI

The years immediately following Hulk Hogan's departure were a weird time for the WWF, who were trying to promote their "New Generation" of stars led by the Undertaker, Bret "Hitman" Hart and the "Kliq" of Shawn Michaels, Razor Ramon, Diesel, and the 1-2-3 Kid. I wasn't following very closely at this point because, while the WWF made amends in 1994 by putting the title back on Bret Hart at WrestleMania X, the storylines and characters outside of Bret and Owen's adventures weren't very compelling (to say nothing of the WWF's positioning of their world champion as a mid-carder playing second fiddle to the Deadman--something to which i'm sure a certain CM Punk could relate). The WWF in general had doubled down on cartoonish, overly colorful characters in order to sell to kids, and the fanbase that had grown up with Hulkamania were hungry for something new and more grown up. While the WWF would finally capitalize on this desire with the Attitude Era (thanks in no small part to ECW's influence), there were some pretty thin years between the boom periods.

One of Vince McMahon's weaknesses, during thin times or fat, is an over-reliance on celebrities. McMahon has always seemed obsessed with wrestling's sports entertainment's legitimacy, and this obsession has often resulted in a questionable desire to insert famous actors, musicians, and athletes into his storylines during 'Mania season. When it's something as simple as Alice Cooper at ringside for Jake "The Snake" Roberts, it's fine--it's a fun glitzy addition to the business' premier annual showcase. But as soon as those celebrities get into the ring, it never ends well (when the closest example you can get to a legit crossover is Mr. T, you know it's slim pickings).

Considering the state of pro wrestling's mainstream popularity at the time, using recently-retired New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor in the ring in a heavily-promoted match against Bam Bam Bigelow stank of desperation (especially when you consider Taylor's substance abuse problems and the stain McMahon's steroid trial had left on the WWF). Everything about the match--its hype, its placement on the card, and the way it was booked--was meant to attract mainstream media attention, but ironically, it only served in every way to discredit the very art form it was meant to promote. On top of that, the WWF's champion at the time was its latest attempt to push a bigger-than-life superman on the fanbase, "Big Daddy Cool" Diesel (aka the future nWo's Kevin Nash), a 6'10", 300-plus-pound beef slab that got a rapid-fire monster push the year before that hadn't been seen since Hogan's immediate placement at the top of the card 10 years earlier. In the span of one calendar year, Diesel went from Shawn Michaels' non-wrestling bodyguard to tag team champ (with Michaels), Intercontinental champ, and finally the World Title, three days after Bret Hart shockingly dropped the belt to an aging Bob Backlund at the 1994 Survivor Series. After a 35-minute submission match that ended with Owen Hart convincing his mom, Helen (who was at ringside in the Hitman's corner) to throw in the towel and do Bret's submitting for him (shades of Arnold Skaaland throwing in the towel on Backlund's behalf when he lost the title to The Iron Sheik in 1983), Backlund immediately dropped the belt three days later to Diesel in an 8-second house show squash:

Lots to unpack in this sequence of events: in 1983, the WWF wanted Backlund to turn heel in order to drop the belt to Hulk Hogan; he refused, leading to the need to use the Iron Sheik as a transitional champ, losing to Hogan at Madison Square Garden. In 1994, Backlund, working as a heel, became the transitional champ between another smaller, technically gifted titleholder and the muscled superman the WWF preferred as their standard-bearer--losing the belt in Madison Square Garden. That the legendary manager-throwing-in-the-towel gimmick was incorporated shows that the similarities were not lost on WWF creative; what they had not yet grasped though, was that the WWF audience was getting tired of the same old same old, and were desperate for something new.

Well, they didn't get it at WrestleMania XI, even with Shawn Michaels in the title match against his "former" buddy. But hey, let's recap it anyway, since we're here.