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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Non-Hardcore Side of Dischord

OR: Making a Seminal Label's Name Ironic

Luke here, and I want to set punk rock aside for a post. Dischord, founded by Ian MacKaye, is most known for its output of hardcore punk in the late 80s. And I love that stuff. Minor Threat's great, Fugazi's great, blah blah blah. Void is amazing, and if you're into punk and haven't bought a copy of the infamous Faith/Void split, you can get it through Dischord for like 8 bucks on vinyl (with free digital download). But what about the other music Dischord put out? The music that gets written off because maybe it doesn't sound as exciting on first listen, but ultimately influenced how the next 20 years of music would basically play out (hyperbole, yes, but I'm trying to make a point).

Shudder to Think started in the late 80s, and still seem an odd fit for Dischord. They have a sound more akin to later bands like Teenage Fanclub, a sort of smart man's guitar pop with some early signs of grunge. Craig Wedren, the band's leader and vocalist, has a distinctly sweet voice and an obvious background in music composition given away by melodies and harmonies too complex for a garage band. The lyrics temper the sweetness a bit, "Red House" deals with overdoses and their boons and consequences, and more experimental tracks like "Ride That Sexy Horse" bring out a paranoid creepiness that sometimes strains through Wedren's otherwise choirboy-like delivery.

This band acted as a bridge between the gruff violent pop of bands like Hüsker Dü and the more radio-friendly sound that would be taken to the great stages of Lollapalooza by Pearl Jam and others. These strains would later mutate into grunge-influenced pop bands that littered the 90s like Marcy Playground and, more unfortunately, Candlebox. Shudder to Think themselves would eventually sign to a major label and meet semi-success (though most of it critical rather than commercial). Eventually, Wedren would disband STT and focus on a career of composition for TV and film (The State's theme song? Yeah he wrote that.) Oh and he'd later marry the woman from the Cardigans.

Seriously, this band took punk rock to the radio with only a handful of other bands, and they did it without ending up sucking (Evan Dando I'm looking at you).

Shudder to Think - Day Ditty

Shudder to Think - Red House

Seriously listen to the harmonies on "Red House," they're insane. Now these songs exemplify what makes this band sound "so 90s." Lyrically, musically, vocally, they sound like a lot of 90s bands. Trouble with this statement is they did it in the late 80s, setting the benchmark for pretty much everyone who followed after.

Gray Matter were definitely more hardcore than Shudder to Think. Rather than the straight-ahead-no-bullshit hardcore punk though they were early purveyors of the dreaded emotional hardcore label. Moreso than Rites of Spring, I think they nailed the emotional part. And they did it first (granted only by a year).

Partially formed out of the ashes of Iron Cross, a brutish hardcore band that basically broke up because half of their fans were nazis, Gray Matter had a more nuanced sound. While most punk bands used energy and emotion (chiefly anger), Gray Matter channeled their pissed off attitude into more complex songs that made for albums longer than 15 minutes. Simpler was not better for this band, and while hardcore's grease fire was basically burning out, bands like GM, aforementioned Rites of Spring, and other Dischord acts Embrace and One Last Wish were moving into a sound that would last the next couple decades. Gray Matter sort of gets lost in the fray of these bands, considering Rites of Spring and One Last Wish both featured Guy Picciotto and Embrace featured Ian MacKaye, both of whom are much more well known for their work in Fugazi. But in retrospect, Fugazi sounds less like the unexpected punk saviors mantle they've since received than a logical endpoint to a path set by bands like Gray Matter.

Gray Matter - Take it Back

Side note: the rhythm of the verses reminds me of Leonard Cohen's panicked breathless delivery in "Teachers."

Lungfish is an even stranger offshoot of the Dischord tree. First off, I have to thank Andrew for getting me into this band. I still never really listened to them until I saw Dan Higgs, frontman of Lungfish, open solo for The Evens at NYU a couple years back. He was playing banjo, letting loose these bizarre sputterances about the devil and God's outer space origins and everything in between. He would also play the jaw harp like man possessed, speaking through it and spitting great volumes. I immediately picked up as many Lungfish albums as I could the next day.

Lungfish are masters of meditation. Each song is more of a drone, the band locked in an unwavering groove, while their lord of chaos Higgs goes off on whatever plane he's visiting at the time. Dan Higgs, minus the street drugs and generally ignorant/violent demeanor, could and should go down as punk rock's Ol' Dirty Bastard. I mean that as a compliment.

Lungfish unfortunately are a bit of an oddity, not just for Dischord but for music as a whole. First of all, they're from Baltimore. They are the only band signed to Dischord that is not from the D.C. area. Considering Dischord's mission statement, to only release music from their local scenes, this is a bizarre (and wonderful) fluke. Secondly, their influence is not widely heard as are the other bands I've mentioned. Maybe some bands like Les Savy Fav have passively absorbed influence from them (although maybe I'm only thinking that because Tim Harrington looks like a fat Dan Higgs) but for the most part it's very difficult to track Lungfish's DNA through the Musical Gene Pool. It's probably for the best, because what you're left with is a pure core of transcendental music that has since its inception been left undiluted. Here, listen.

Lungfish - Slip of Existence

Lungfish - Sex War

Notice the line "I kill you and you kill me" in that last song. Shakespeare used to use the word "kill" to replace what then would then be the equivalent of "fuck." So Higgs is playing with violence and sex on a Shakespearean and meta level. Pretty smart. I'm pretty smart for catching that though, so let's give credit where credit is due.

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