Give it up for the old guys

GIVE IT UP FOR THE OLD GUYS

Can you be too old for rock and roll?

It’s a reasonable question. For every Neil Young stubbornly exploring the open road, there are a dozen over-extended remainders milking the oldies on the nostalgia circuit. A lot of these geezers simply have nothing better to do. It’s not just acid casualties and metalheads who don’t know enough to come in off the road. Every now and then I shudder to see a new Flock of Seagulls or Circle Jerks tour. So it was with a slow dawning of wonder that I realized quite a few of the graybeards of my generation are actually pulling off growing old gracefully. Mission of Burma, Wire and the Soft Boys are actually doing the reunion thing without embarrassing themselves. Let’s take a look at some of these survivors.

The Mekons have been an ever-changing collective for their entire 25-year career. The Mekons have done punk, techno, wasted country, straight up rock and twisted art projects. Members have come and gone and come back during the band long odyssey. The thing that unifies the band’s various incarnations is a spirit of community and exploration.

The Mekons latest CD is called O.O.O.H. The disc coincides with the band’s second collective art project called “Out of Our Heads,” which is making its way to selected galleries in the US and UK. The disc is a meditation on religion and spirituality. The disc opens with an incendiary track called “Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem.” The song has Middle Eastern musical overtones while the lyrics take you on a quick impressionist tour of religious conflicts over the past two millennia. While religious ideas infuse all of the songs, the Mekons don’t embrace any specific religion. “Dancing in the Head” sets Haitian voodoo lore about zombies to a dub reggae soundtrack. Over the course of the disc, we meet seekers wrestling with demons and hoping for some form of salvation. There are no definite answers. Like our post 9-11 world, this disc looks to religion and finds conflict, confusion, mythology and some degree of comfort.

The Ex have been toiling in relative obscurity for close to twenty years and are still breaking new ground. I’ve been remiss in not writing about their two most recent releases until now. Dizzy Spells and Een Rondje Holland both came out in 2001 but are exceptionally good. Dizzy Spells is another collection of jagged guitars and wooden shoe rhythms propelling thought-provoking songs. The cult of infotainment gets taken down a notch on “Walt’s Dizzyland.” Katrin sings, “The only thing I know of you is you journey from Bremen to Stuttgart” in “Oskar Beck.” The song appears to be a meditation on an antique streamer trunk. It’s really quite lovely. The next song, “Burnsome” takes a swipe at the spin-doctors that try to put the best face on things like mad cow and chemical spills. The Ex take you to places you don’t expect rock bands to go.

Een Rondje Holland was commissioned for Holland Festival 2000 and sees the Ex augmented by an impressive array of Dutch jazz and new music players. Previously recorded songs get reworked for the jazz/rock orchestra and Dutch vocals with amazing results. Rather than piling on excess, the added instrumentation opens up new horizons for the music. Listening to the disc is a visceral rush. I love hearing what these players come up with when turned loose on this material. The most accessible tune is “My Happiness,” which has a bit of English thrown in. I love the sheer joy that radiates from the rhythms and voices on “Stukvendriet!” This disc was recorded live at the Paradiso in Amsterdam and shows what an explosive presence this group can be.

Let me bring the Ex story up to date since I was late reporting on these discs. Beautiful Frenzy, a video portrait of the Ex had just been released in Holland. Hopefully, a DVD release will hit these shores soon. Ex Orkest has played a few gigs recently, but for the most part the group is resting up from their tour of Ethiopia with jazz drummer Han Bennink. The Ex spent three weeks playing concerts in places that haven’t seen a European rock band play, ever. The tour was a total loss financially, but thanks to funding from some Dutch foundations and Chumbawamba, the band were able to make the trip and donate their gear to a music school in Addis Ababa when they were done. See www.theex.nl for a full account of the tour.

Since I mentioned Chumbawamba, let me tell you about Readymades. The latest disc from these anarchist popsters finds them blending the dance friendly music that made them famous with elements of English folk music. They make extensive use of samples from folk musicians. Davy Graham and Kate Rusby even contributed to the writing a bit. I know it’s supposed to be uncool to like Chumbawamba because they had a huge hit. I don’t care. I am thoroughly entertained by their unwillingness to conform to anyone’s expectations. Beyond that, they consistently produce thought provoking, adventurous pop music.

Another bunch of old timers who continue to make quality music are Sonic Youth. Murray Street is the band’s first disc with Jim O’Rourke as a full member. The disc is named for the street where Sonic Youth have their Echo Park Studio, which was in the shadow of the World Trade Center. O’Rourke was asleep in the studio when the first jet crashed into the building. The disc is full of the sonic explorations that the band is famous for, while still drawing a tight focus on what appears to be something like normal song structure. The songs have an impressionist quality about them. Some of the songs obliquely reflect the aftermath of 9/11. “Karen Revisited” finds the band meditating on Karen Carpenter again. This is strong, focused work from a group continuing to find new challenges to explore.

One of the challenges Sonic Youth accepted was Konkurrent’s offer to do an “In the Fishtank” session. The Dutch label invites artists to do a collaborative project with limited studio time. Sonic Youth called up Terrie and Luc from the Ex and Han Bennink, Walter Wierbos and Ab Baars from the Instant Composers Pool (ICP). The EP offers up eight tracks of abstract improvisation. Expect to hear intricate guitar and horn improvisations, but don’t expect to hear pop songs. This is a collaborative sonic experiment closer in spirit to the ICP’s free jazz workouts than the controlled rock frenzy of the Ex or Sonic Youth. It’s also a good summary of what’s right about all of the bands mentioned in this story. They’re all groups with long histories who are looking for the next opportunity rather than trying to revive past glories. That’s a good way for anyone to approach life.

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