Sometimes, on dark days, I really resent Spacemen 3. When they broke up I was left with an awful jones for their peculiar brand of evil trance-out drone rock–a sound that holds on to its pop bones, as if the vultures missed some bits. I’m even madder at them than I am at the Velvet Underground, who were so distinctive you knew something like that was never going to come around again and that you’d better start collecting bootlegs on long-lasting formats now. Spacemen 3, on the other hand, created the illusion that anybody could do it, and it sounded so fucking great it’s hard to understand why everybody doesn’t.
The creative arc of the Warlocks–who for a few years were very, very close to the Grail–can be instructive on this point. Front man Bobby Hecksher did a stint with the Brian Jonestown Massacre before starting the Warlocks in 1998, and like the BJM’s the band’s early records were ambitious and grating and joyously, dorkishly energetic, like college boys waxing rhapsodic about opium. They might have just been applying fuzz to pop songs all dressed up in black and love beads with nowhere to go other than someone else’s dorm room, but they did so better than anyone since the Jesus and Mary Chain. If nothing else “Shake the Dope Out,” from The Phoenix Album (Birdman, 2002), is the best entry in the “Sister Ray”-lite category I’ve heard in ten years, and there’s been a fair amount of competition. But with their newest release, Surgery, they’ve gone a bit off the rails, and I’m not sure it can be chalked up to “maturity.”
On the Warlocks’ early records, for all that the music was grim and dark and guttery, there was a lightness and a sense of fun in the totally over-the-top playing, each repetitive, maddening, Chinese-water-torture ching-ching-ching drawn out so far past the point of absurdity you could imagine strobe lights flashing off the band’s shit-eating grins. Now it sounds like Hecksher thinks we ought to pay lots of attention to his usually regrettable lyrics, and judging from the way he works the vocal lines on the bloated “Thursday’s Radiation” (repetitive in a frustratingly cautious way), the desire to be taken seriously can be downright oppressive.
But despite Surgery’s disappointments and its incomprehensible timidity, I don’t think this album deserves the likes of the scathing review it got from Nick Sylvester at Pitchfork: “A mopey bunch of trite sap O.D.-type tales almost as unstomachable as the band’s former crapothecary hymns.” It’s still perfectly listenable, lightly psychedelic mope rock, with some charged shivery moments scattered here and there. “Evil Eyes Again” hits me in a certain “aw, look, boy trying to be all scary is really adorable” way–see, in public he tries to be all Michael Gira and Charles Manson and shit, but in private he really likes Sandman comics and The Nightmare Before Christmas just as much as his girlfriend does. It’s an awkward combination–the band’s melodies aren’t what they need to be to pull off something this sweet and dreamy–but it does offer a retro romantic sort of pleasure. “The Tangent” and “Above Earth” are the kind of slow-dance songs you might’ve wished you had in high school instead of that waily Whitney Houston stuff. And “Bleed Without You Babe” has a musky, languid swagger that hints at a lingering audacity and a not entirely dead instinct for the well-placed landing.
But guys, that’s not what I’m here for.
“Suicide Note,” the 12-minute closing track, is what I’m here for: the Warlocks have guitars and they’re not afraid to use them, well past the boiling point, when the water in the pot’s evaporated and the eggs have burst, and there’s maggots in them, maggots, I swear, get ’em off me! Oh, the listener has to earn it, there’s a good spot of pitiful crooning in the beginning, over churchy organ chords–the reason Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain are still mourned is because they didn’t write suicide notes of this sort–but then there’s this intense guitar swell, like someone who’s worshipped David Gilmour all his life trying to copy Sterling Morrison, and it sounds like at least someone in this band is willing to put up a fight. It’s corny, it’s elegiac, it’s faux ecstatic, and it frustratingly hints at the heights to which this band could soar if it didn’t feel compelled to weigh itself down with soggy “intimacy.” And if you stick it out to the end there’s a buried coda, a bit of stiff-legged but ringing raga that rocks so hard you wonder why they bothered with the first seven minutes at all. Or the first ten songs, for that matter. You tricked me, bastards, and I like it! But could you err just a little more on the side of instant gratification next time?
Warlocks, Gris Gris, Miss Alex White & the Red Orchestra
When: Fri 10/21, 9 PM
Where: Metro, 3730 N. Clark
Info: 773-549-0203 or 312-559-1212
More: 18+; see the Treatment for more on the Warlocks and Gris Gris.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Q..