Saturday, November 24, 2012

Godspeed You! Black Emperor, "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!"; Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, "Meat and Bone"

Check your calendars ... yes, it's 2012, not 1999.

You'd think that as time drags on, music would be less likely to truly surprise us.  The more you see, the more the unexpected becomes expected, or even common.  Bands make comebacks all the time, sometimes they're successful, sometimes they embarrass themselves, but both paths are already well traveled.

I hadn't heard that JSBX had reunited.  Proper bluesmen either never seem to age, or if they do age, they get cooler and more badass as they get older.  Either way, they play forever, or until they physically can't anymore.  But JSBX were never proper bluesmen.  They were punks who loved the blues whose gigs were sweat and beer soaked medleys of songs that often weren't much more than repetitively shouted slogans.  They were fantastic both on record and on stage for several years in the 90's, whose cred was partly fueled by whatever they could siphoned off sometime collaborators like Beck and Beastie Boys.  Anyhow, it was a safe assumption that the indie blues revival, like nu-metal or swing or other brief 90's trend, would have a short shelf life.  JSBX knew it too, which is why they experimented with proper songs and real producers starting with 1998's "Acme".  But the magic was destined to fade away and they finally went on hiatus several years later.  Many formerly devoted fans probably couldn't have told you exactly what year that was.

They returned to the stage in 2010 for some one off shows, which must have been well received because they started playing live more and more frequently thereafter.  You might have thought that these 40-somethings were too old to still pull off all their old shit, I mean sure, bands reunite all the time but this isn't Culture Club playing MOR pop with an occasional harmonica solo, this was the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion who were supposed to be ripping it up on stage and throwing their bodies all over the place.  Based on some of the evidence it seems they've toned things down a bit but you used to feel tired just thinking about one of their gigs, so can you blame them for mellowing a little?

But the new album couldn't possibly be any good.  Maybe there'd have a chance if it was hip-hop tinged funky blues made for driving around on Sundays, but if you told me that they there attempting to record a throwback to the savagery and trashiness of "Now I Got Worry", I would have dismissed it as an idea that was clearly dead on arrival.

And yet, they did it, they made that album and it's good.  It might not have hooks and catchy slogans that compare with their best work of a decade and a half ago, but it's brimming with energy, packed with cool riffs and crazy mid-song rhythmic changes, plenty of theremin solos, and is generally a fantastically fun 40-minute rollercoaster ride of Blues Explosion goodness without a boring moment.  It wouldn't be fair to trot out the clich├ęd comment that longtime fans won't be disappointed.  This album will exceed your expectations.  By a lot.

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GY!BE reunited a couple of years ago and have been touring steadily since their comeback at All Tomorrow's Parties (which they also curated).  At some point earlier this year, they found the time to record a new album basically in secret.  Somehow the very existence of  "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" was virtually unknown until days before its release.   Suddenly, GY!BE had come all the way back, with tours, a new album, and the best reviews of their career.

Maybe I could have anticipated all of that in some alternate reality, but I definitely wouldn't have foreseen them becoming culturally relevant. Who saw that coming?  GY!BE used to be one of the most divisive bands around.  You either thought they were one of the most emotionally powerful bands bands ever, a cinematic tour-de-force and the vanguard of the indie anti-establishment; or pompous Glenn Branca ripoffs whose songs dragged on for forever and a half.  But even their biggest fans, and I was certainly one of them, thought their politics were crap.  Even their most devoted fans wouldn't stan for the ideas of a collective of reclusive figures who wouldn't let up about American imperialism and society's endless downward spiral.  They were too heavy-handed even in the immediate post-9/11 age of pessimism and paranoia, which is saying something.  But skip forward ten years, and suddenly, protests and reactionary politics aren't just the stuff of bearded weirdos.  Between the Occupy movement and the massive student protests that dominated the news all year in their native Montreal, protests are a thing again and GY!BE are the role models providing the best soundtrack for the changing times (reviews like the two I just linked didn't exist during the first phase of their career) .  The fact that most of "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" consists of old material that was kicking around in their live sets nine years ago is irrelevant, in fact, it probably only enhances their image as the prophetic band who saw the future coming before anyone else did.

But the best thing about "Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!" is that GY!BE finally managed to record themselves properly, capturing the brain-melting ferocious power of their live shows on a studio recording for the first time.  

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