VEE DEE PUBLIC MENTAL HEALTH SYSTEM (CRIMINALIQ)
In the late 60s and early 70s, protopunk bands like the Stooges, the MC5, and the Velvet Underground would often play extended exploratory freakouts without a shred of self-consciousness. But after punk crystallized as a more or less permanent subcultural institution in the late 70s, an orthodoxy arose, triggering dorm-room arguments that may never end about what is and what isn’t punk—and one point upon which most every faction agrees is that punks do not play long songs. The acts breaking the five-minute barrier in the 80s—Flipper, Public Image Limited, even late-period Black Flag—tended to be contrarians inviting controversy, and to this day anything that smacks of rock-star self-indulgence is met with outright hostility by garage punks.
Chicago acid-punk trio Vee Dee started out a decade ago as a straightforward garage band influenced by the likes of DMZ, Crime, and the New York Dolls, but on their new double album, Public Mental Health System, they’ve resuscitated that pre-orthodox punk aesthetic. The tunes average five or six minutes—only the shortest comes in at three—and combine the aggressive rhythmic simplicity of punk with the far-out freedom of 21st-century psychedelia. Singer and guitarist Nick Myers calls it “a non-concept double album about depression,” but the music seems more like a cure for ADHD—a dose of Ritalin for concentration-impaired echo boomers with surgically implanted iPods.
Vee Dee’s only other full-length, Furthur, came out five long years ago, and in that time the group has been beset with a series of troubles no less frustrating for how banal they are in underground rock‘n’ roll. Myers and bassist Dan Lang have had problems holding on to a drummer (Ryan Murphy, who also tours as a lighting technician for Leonard Cohen and Wilco, is number four), they’ve had members tied up by stints in other bands (Myers played for a spell with venerable locals Plastic Crimewave Sound), and they’ve struggled with a nonexistent studio budget (they recorded Public Mental Health System for free during a month of weekends in the basement studio of Mark “Ears” Freitas, from Vee Dee’s Criminal IQ labelmates the Rotten Fruits). Things didn’t get much easier once the songs were in the can: a double LP with a gatefold sleeve is an expensive project for a small label like Criminal IQ to handle, and Myers says he and Murphy chipped in to help out with pressing and mastering costs.
Vee Dee is one of very few surviving bands from the local scene of the late 90s and early 00s that was catalyzed by the infamous titty-punk fanzine Horizontal Action and the guys behind it. But they’ve done more than merely persevere—they’ve evolved, to the general befuddlement of that scene’s more doctrinaire members. Myers attributes the group’s willingness to take risks in time, tempo, song structure, and instrumentation in part to a fundamental change in process. Previously Vee Dee had used rehearsals mostly to work up songs one of them had already written, but Myers actively encouraged them to “jam” (that most hated of words in the punk-rock lexicon). “It was difficult at first, coming from more of a punk-rock scene, to come into practice with a wah pedal and suggest we try jamming,” he says. “But over time, especially with Dan, we realized that the freedom you have in jamming and trying longer songs was refreshing and something we enjoyed. It gave us more chances to do more with our songs.” This led to experiments with new instruments—Lang even bought a sitar and a mandolin. Neither one made it out of the practice space and onto the new record, but he does play flute, prayer bells, or 12-string acoustic guitar on a few tracks.
Public Mental Health System also displays a broader spectrum of influences—not just protopunk and the wild sounds of the Nuggets, Pebbles, and Killed by Death compilations but also 1960s free jazz. “As time went on, our ears got opened up to bigger ideas, and we got really into John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Archie Shepp, and Sun Ra,” says Myers, who’s an avid record collector. “We realized that, more and more, music doesn’t need to have these time constraints, that it can have more of an exploratory aspect to it.” You can hear what Vee Dee does with that newfound freedom on “Electric Room,” whose amphetamined Sabbath riffs melt into a shimmering “neo-new thing” hum that sounds like the Stooges at their farthest out—more like the 17-minute version of “LA Blues” on the Rhino Handmade box set of every take from the Fun House sessions than like anything on Raw Power.
To make a decent double album a band has to stretch out creatively. Unlike the seven-inch, which reigns supreme in garage rock, or even the full-length record, which still has a firm grip on most other forms of rock‘n’ roll, the double-album format isn’t about finding the perfect selection of songs to sum up your music as tidily as possible. A band has to do a certain amount of experimentation just to stay interesting for such a long-haul listen, and that’s one thing that makes the potential rewards of the format so great: think Blonde on Blonde, Trout Mask Replica, Exile on Main Street, Quadrophenia, and the SST double-whammy of Husker Du’s Zen Arcade and the Minutemen’s Double Nickels on the Dime.
Of course double albums often carry a little flab (the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” Beefheart’s bush recordings, the minutes of ocean surf in Quadrophenia) or sink to nauseating depths of self-indulgence (The Wall, anything involving Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson). That’s what makes Public Mental Health System so remarkable: no filler, no throwaway tracks. I’m not saying Vee Dee have created the Trout Mask Replica of late-aughts garage rock, but the intricate instrumental interplay and ball-stomping ferocity on these four sides should inspire other rock bands for years to come.
“Cleveland Outer Space” pushes an unusual-for-garage-rock 6/8 groove to prismatically heavy heights, with Hendrix-style solos from Myers woven in throughout. “Glimpses of Another World” manages a crazy series of metamorphoses, from stormy free-wah into frenzied garage boom-chick into Live at Leeds grandeur, along the way incorporating something very much like the opening guitar riff to Television’s “Friction.” “City in Heat” sounds like a furious cutting contest between Myers and Lang, rising and falling in intensity like a heavyweight bout—and Myers is singing all the way through it. Halfway through the song the fight gets broken up when Lang’s fuzz bass lands alone on steady frantically strummed eighth notes, which ramp up the tension until the battle resumes again—and then it’s not till the very end that they fall back to their neutral corners. The rhythm section more than hold their own during Myers’s incredible solos: Lang basically turns the bass into a lead instrument, and the drummers (Murphy plays on two tracks and Vee Dee drummer number three, the ubiquitous Matt Williams, plays on the rest) provide a solid foundation that keeps the other two from sailing too far out into the cosmos.
It’s been a long time coming, but Public Mental Health System could be the album that earns Vee Dee the wider audience they deserve. And the Empty Bottle seems to agree—though Vee Dee have been a perennial support act, usually playing second or third on four-band bills, the club gave them a headlining slot this Saturday for their release party. Myers doesn’t have any great statement to make about Vee Dee’s longevity, though—when I asked him why he thought they’d outlasted all the bands they used to play with back when Furthur was new, he just laughed.
“I’ve known Dan Lang for ten years now,” he says, “and I wish more musicians would get to do this, but when you play music with somebody for that long, you begin to develop a musical language as much as a spoken language. You learn how to improvise and play off each other and finish each other’s sentences. Anything you throw at Dan, he’s able to come back with something melodic or oddly timed as a complement to it.” More than anything else, this hard-earned compatibility is what’s kept Vee Dee going through thick and thin. “We’ve had disagreements at times, but I love playing with Dan Lang,” Myers says. “I felt it would be too much of a compromise to put the band to rest without putting out this album.”v
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