ONE CHORD WONDERS
Dentists and Raincoats Ring Burt's Bell
THE RAINCOATS The Raincoats (Rough Trade/DGC CD)
If the spirit of '77 was overamplified youth rebellion, as personified by Messrs. Rotten, Vicious, Strummer et al, then the spirit of 1979 was all about experimentation: building new kinds of musical structures in the postapocalyptic terrain of post-punk, post-boom, post-rock and roll England. Nobody did it better than the London-based Raincoats, whose 1979 first LP has reappeared in America as a DGC CD (apparently at the request of some guy from Seattle named Cobain, who's been a big Raincoats fan for years). If they're famous for anything, the Raincoats are famous for their feminism. Ana da silva, Gina Birch, Vicki Aspinall, Shirley O'Loughlin and Palmolive not only avoided the musical and verbal cliches of 50s-style 1-2-3-4 rock and roll-cliches the first wave of (male) punks had just copied; the Raincoats actually said to the British music press that they wanted to avoid those cliches, because they (the cliches) were male whereas they (the Raincoats) were all female.
To make matters even more clear, the Raincoats traded members with the only all-female punk band that had been around longer than they had, the influential and aggressive Slits; they also covered the Kinks' "Lola," adding another layer of gender confusion to Ray Davies' already mixed-up sexual world. The Raincoats' first record therefore gets attention as a kind of pop-music ecriture feminine, and the articulate Raincoats themselves as the distant foremothers of Bikini Kill.
Which wouldn't be wrong, exactly, so much as it would be too narrow: in chasing the Raincoats' (Considerable) importance to the politics of pop, the pieces I've read tend to ignore their MUSICAL importance. Everybody in London learned something from reggae; the Raincoats' guitarist learned that a guitar could be wholly out of sync with the strong (first and third) beats in a measure, and the effect would be not chaos but openness. The drummer, Palmolive, learned that she didn't have to emphasize the strong beats at all: the loose, textural unaccented beats that showed up between the verses of a reggae number could be used to drive the whole song forward, and the space vacated by traditional "rock" drumming patterns could be occupied by thick, harsh, visceral swaths and sweeps from Vicki Aspinall's violin.
Rather than charging forward like "Anarchy in the U.K." (or like "Johnny B. Goode," for that matter), the songs on The Raincoats seem to stutter, or stumble, or struggle ahead, with Aspinall's violin in the lead; the momentum they do achieve builds up within the course of each song. Standout pieces like "Fairytale in the Supermarket" and "Black and White" (which begins with siren-like saxophone bleats) fall together as they go along, as if the improv techniques of free jazz had suddenly been discovered to apply to rock and roll, or as if-and I think this is the coolest way to hear it--the Raincoats were less interested in making already-constructed songs than in dramatizing for you, the listener, how a song gets written, and rehearsed, and comes together.
The Raincoats' self-consciousness about their sound-their sense of playing music that was about rock and roll. rather than playing rock and roll music--went hand in hand with a pure belief in the do-it-yourself, amateur ethic. The ethic showed up in their economic: the original Raincoats LP was one of the first full-length releases on the cooperative Rough Trade label. It showed up in the record's crisp production, in which each movement of fingers along the electric-guitar finger-board, and each breath Gina Birch takes, can be heard. And it showed up in the lack of "technical skill" which informs each musical move: it's normal to say that the Raincoats discovered their style in part because they "couldn't play their instruments" in conventional ways. Maybe; whether or not they "could," they clearly DECIDED not to.
Their avoidance of so many ordinary tricks of the trade (there are no guitar solos, no violin solos, no funk-style contrapuntal parts, barely even any cymbal hits) is one of the reasons this product of London can nevertheless give any listener a feeling of tremendous horizontal space, of nearly physical limitlessness: the aural space those missing solos, counterpoints, multiple riffs or crowded drumming patterns would occupy is instead left open for the listener to fill.
I'm aware that this talk of spaces, of ethics, and so on is rather highfalutin, even for me; all I can say is that the record justifies it. The Raincoats' self-conscious amateurism was inseparable from the sounds they made, and the sounds they made, in turn, laid down paths the rest of the pop world has only begun to follow. (Some beginners: Australia's Cannanes, Scotland/Holland's Dog-Faced Hermans, and Boston's own High Risk Group.) And lest you think this is an album of instrumentals I've been reviewing, I ought to add that the lyrics are cool. "In Love" takes the Ifeel-sick-because-I-don't-know-if-he-wants-to-cal l-me angle to new heights of angst. "Off--Duty Trip"-ostensibly about militarism-sounds to me like a sarcastic attack on the rest of the rock and roll world; the more--amateur-than-everyone Raincoats end the song chanting, in wide, ragged harmony, "Join the professionals."
Most of their new--wave neighbors did-and created a hole, a missed opportunity, from which the 90s' amateur indie--pop world is still trying to extricate itself. The Raincoats were different. Their interest in a music that would be primarily about, and for, women's experience may have been HOW they came by their sound, but it's the sound, and the songs, themselves that will catch and hold your attention on the first or the fiftieth listen-just as they have held Mr. Cobain's.
THE DENTISTS Behind the Door I Keep the Universe (east West CD)
Did I say professionalism in rock and roll was a Bad Thing? Let me try that again: in rock and roll, it's the amateurs (Whether they're kids or 40-year-olds) who are the innovators. The professionals (typically in their mid-to late 20s) take the new (or formerly-new) ideas and build, over and over again, appealing works, or songs, out of them. In this category, for example, are the Dentists, whose songs, tightly constructed out of leftover psychedelic-poptechniques and clean--lined New Wave guitar moves, have been circulating through the sunnier regions of England (if there are any) for about nine years. After sowing their whimsical tunes all over the English--speaking world and Belgium, the Dentists have finally reaped a major--label contract. To my mild and delighted surprise, their big label hasn't changed them a bit: they're still making small-scale pop gems on the scale of five or six to a record.
Sustaining that kind of songwriting over such a long string of records must involve far more mental work than the finished products show; it reminds me of Superman's party trick of turning lumps of coal into diamonds. The Dentists' powers aren't dissimilar; they are using the normal musical fuels-four boys, no girls, two guitars, verse/ chorus/ verse/ chorus/ bridge/ verse/ chorus, two or three riffs per song, and one memorable line to provide the title--raw materials more common in the pop music "underground" than coal under the real ground. And their lyrical and emotional raw materials are equally commonplace; lead guy and stripedshirt collector Mick Murphy sings about wanting to escape his friends for a while ("Mr. Spaceman"); about not understanding why his girlfriend left him ("Gas," "Tremendous many"); about crushes ("Water for a Man on Fire") and so on. Sometimes (as in Sorry's Not Enough") the results are equally commonplace, WFNX fodder whose riffs are" memorable" only is some minimal, involuntary sense.
But more often the songs are just odd enough to hold your interest, just ordinary enough to succeed in addressing everyday life, and, above all, catchy and well-constructed. This is a CD you could play five times in a row without offending your roommates and without getting even an inch bored with most of the songs; the undulating opening riff of the first song, "This Is Not My Flag," ought to follow you out the door and down the street if you, or your roommates, have any appreciation at all for well-made, unpretentious, unoriginal melody-driven guitar pop, of which this is as good a specimen as any label--major or not-is likely to come up with this year. With the Possible exception of the next Tommy Keene record. (Tommy Keene, whom regular readers of this space may remember from last fall, will be playing at the Causeway Club, on Causeway Street (T:North Station), tonight (that is, February 3). Go see him.)