Friday, February 12, 2010

Surfing Every Day

Recent visitors to Vice Magazine's music blog--and, God help us, there may be thousands of them--can be forgiven for shrugging at newcomers Rainbow Bridge. Pictured in cutesy facepaint and thrift-store wigs, like some some slumber-party version of Animal Collective, the band is described as a "slacker-pop duo" from Olympia who write "big fuzzy songs" in the style of Daniel Johnston. They answer questions ("Who are Rainbow Bridge?") with an flippant obliqueness ("Have you ever hummed the word us?") that seems to flummox even the battle-hardened Vice blogger, who signs off with a sneering, "Thanks guys--that was interesting..." One reader comments below with a hipsters' world-weariness: "Ugghhh... do we really need another one of these bands?"I'm not sure exactly who he means by these bands, but I suppose we can take our pick--the indie-rock machine seems to throw an endless succession of cutesy, flippant, face-painted heroes at the slacker-pop charts, very few of which stick, and 2010 may well find this style on the wane. But the embedded video for the band's first single, Big Wave Rider, while a fairly straightforward, Times New Viking-style paean to surfing, hints at a deeper sensibility at work, and the diligent music fan might just be moved to do a little digging:

I hope they do, because Rainbow Bridge mastermind Adam Croce is one of our weirder and more lyrical rock 'n roll songsmiths, and his fascination with seemingly shallow subjects like surfing belies a more serious intent. I doubt Croce has ever been near an actual surfboard--Olympia, Washington isn't known for its its righteous waves. Like Brian Wilson before him, surfing is more metaphor than anything else; it's sun and fun, sure, but it's also a precarious dance with nature and gravity that implicitly can't last--and, as Croce sings, wipeout's insane.

And I suppose he'd know. I first heard of Adam through my friend Sergey, the excitable, Soviet-born singer and guitarist of San Francisco's east bloc-noise-thrashers Didi Mau. "You have to hear this tape," Sergey insisted as we drove around the Richmond one afternoon. The tape in question was the self-titled Broken Strings album from Adam Croce, a native San Francisco punker and onetime teenage member of local scuzz-pop bands like Los Rabbis and Tommy Lasorda. The story of Broken Strings, as Sergey related it me--and I make no claims as to its accuracy--went as follows: Adam, feeling feverish and disoriented, starting out walking one day; he wandered out of town and walked for a good many miles before ending up, somehow, on the lawn of a mental institution. Unable to satisfactorily explain his presence to the hospital personnel, they gently led him inside: I think you'd better come with us... he was kept there for a year. Upon his release, he holed up in a cabin on the fringes of the Bay, set up a 4-track and a bunch of gear and purged the whole ordeal in one epic, 14-song blast of tortured, vulnerable and eminently catchy deep-grunge. He played every instrument on the album, and the resulting album was being circulated by cassette-dubbing aficionados like Sergey--who likened his transcendent, dissolute opus to Syd Barrett--within weeks.

The Broken Strings album, recorded in 2006, which has finally found a proper release on True Panther Sounds, does pack a wallop. It starts off with some comparatively lite fare about girls and stolen cars, but soon gets down to some seriously heavy shit. The third track, Eyes of the World, for all its fuzzed-out simplicity, serves as a wobbly post-psych-ward mission statement in which Adam, preparing to traffic with the outside world, states his terms and conditions: Don't cover my mouth for me, he demands. I'm not afraid to sing. As the album unfolds and Adam, wide-eyed, surveys the beautiful, terrible surreality of millennial California, the music likewise ripples out from its scuzz-pop center to encompass elements of archetypal West Coast styles like surf, folk, grunge (the slamming Which Witch out-Nirvanas Nirvana with both its gnarly riffage and its psychedelic angst--When you love someone, stare at the sun/And don't hurt no one, Croce snarls), the lyrical dueling-guitars of bands like Built to Spill, and Beck's stoner-sampling style--bits of TV dialogue interspersed throughout the album suggest the mind-bending tedium of the hospital day-room which Adam's only recently escaped.

Surfing Everyday, midway through the album, is a cleverly contrarian precursor to Rainbow Bridge's Big Wave Rider; here Croce debunks rather than mysticizes the West Coast surf-lore. Out here in California/ not too many ride the waves, he states flatly. They got you believing that we're surfing every day! Croce's California is seedier and more complex--a "Golden State of Paranoia" where sirens and guns are far more predominant than bitchin' boards or little deuce coupes. As for the actual surfers that do remain, Adam can only mock their pseudo-worldview in regurgitated Beach Boys harmony: Dude, I'm bored--dude, where's my board?

The haunting centerpiece of the album, for me, is the sparse Straight on the Crooked Flats.
Over spartan drum-and-piano accompaniment, Croce gives us a guided tour of Crooked Flats, not so much a geographical place as a psychological one--a sort of island resort for the broken and deranged. School bus dredges the lane, picks up only the insane/Drives back to the welcome mats at Crooked Flats, he sings with a certain laissez-faire, as if this was a daily routine. The facts here are familiar, but everything's been muddled and turned upside-down--On the high school track/Adolf Hitler runs laps/does his rounds there and back/while Jesse Owens claps--a disorienting collage of nightmares, fantasies and half-remembered history. As a document of mental dissolution, the song works extremely well--and is wildly catchy, no less.

I had the privilege of playing with Adam in 2008, when my band passed through Olympia--he agreed to play the show on a day's notice. Happily, he didn't seem at all broken or deranged; he seemed like a nice, healthy young man with a good head on his shoulders. I did worry at first about his musical direction when he started off his set with a cover of Porno for Pyros "Pets", but the rest of the set was fantastic--Broken Strings megahits and some great new songs, including an early version of "Big Wave Rider". We ended up playing in Adam's basement several days later, on our way back down the coast. The show was not a great success; the only audience member who was not playing with a band that night was K Records' Calvin Johnson, who left during our first song. But Adam was a gracious and charming host, and his songs were buoyant and lyrical bits of pop loveliness.

It's a shame that so many music fans, armed with all the new technology, have become so capricious and quick to judge--bands are appraised not by the strength of their collected output, but by YouTube clips and blog bytes. Tiresome as it can be wading through the swampy glut of modern music--and I certainly wouldn't recommend looking to Vice Magazine for musical guidance--there are real treasures buried in all that muck, and those with the patience to dig deeper on occasion might be pleasantly surprised...

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Glamorous Piles

I first met Gregory Jacobsen in 2003, when I was living under a bridge and working the concession stand at Chicago's last great 1920s movie palace. Gregory was an assistant manager at the theater. I made less than minimum wage, but the work was incredibly easy and I was granted a great deal of freedom to read, sketch, smoke and spend my downtime however I pleased. I got on well with Gregory. He was pale and thin and had a gloomy, tragic air about him, as if he'd spent years locked inside the projection room; it was difficult to imagine him ever seeing the light of day, riding a bike or playing frisbee in the park.

I soon learned that Jacobsen did far more with his time, though, than simply brood. I happened to see his band one night, at the now-defunct Buddy Gallery in Wicker Park. Named, quite appropriately, Lovely Little Girls, the band put on one of the most gruesome and sinister spectacles I had ever witnessed. As the music plowed ferociously forward, with all the raunchy swing and intricate clatter of the Magic Band but none of the blues-rock residue, Jacobsen, dressed head-to-toe as a pre-K ballerina, twirled and squirmed and slithered and flopped all over the room, writhing and sibilating, pouting and preening--screeching and caterwauling all the while, in a highly histrionic style reminiscent of Jello Biafra at his most unhinged. One did not get the sense that one was watching a performance; Gregory fully was this little girl, not so much acting out her rites and rituals as inhabiting them. She was a bit of a nasty girl, maybe, one who was in the habit of torturing her dolls, who ate her own boogers and defiantly touched her privates, but like one of Darger's girls there was something para-ethical in her childish abandon. A grown man exorcising his inner little girl, Jacobsen was deliriously creepy, but never quite perverse.

The Lovely Little Girl act, though, was only one facet of Gregory's overripe oeuvre. He also painted. He painted with daunting profligacy, actually. Browsing through his collection over the internet, Gregory's seemingly-enormous body of work bore the elegant brushwork of a classically-trained artist. No paint-flinging expressionist, Gregory had clearly slogged through years of rigorous technical training to master light and shadow, color theory and other such mundane trade secrets. Armed with this old-world skill set--the sort of painter who delighted in the folds of a tunic, or the intricacies of a sky at sundown--he set about exploring the goriest corners of his little girl's imagination. Here in Jacobsen's ruined landscapes, the pageant princesses frolicked in piles of rotting fruit and dessicated innards, their orifices spewing forth a bawdy banquet of fluids and flesh--a realm very much through the looking glass, where one pill made you taller, one pill made you small, and the pill that Mother gave you caused dayglo maggots to wriggle forth from your sputtering vulva.

I finally took the opportunity to see some of Jacobsen's paintings in person--his fifth solo show is up now at Zg Gallery. The works on display here are very much those of Gregory Jacobsen, replete with oozing girls and piles of entrails. One hapless reviewer recently described the show as "immoral", suggesting rather melodramatically that "the works would find pride of place in any Satanist's home, above the taxidermied goat's-head sofa or in a rapist's rumpus room". Which makes for flashy copy, but is far from accurate. Jacobsen has in fact toned down the grotesquerie quite a bit in his new paintings, many of which are fairly formal still-lifes of meat and rubbish--piles, he calls them. The piles are lavish in their slimy detail, each phallic gourd and vaginated sea-anemone rendered with loving precision:

"I paint piles of garbage, guts and bodies... pathetic monoliths, towers of shit and garbage," Jacobsen says in his brief artist's statement. "These monoliths are the discarded evidence of obscure personal rituals of masturbation and sex"--refreshing candor in an po-pomo art world full of high-concept inflatables, inscrutable installations and the still-ubiquitous fabric art. I'll take obscure rituals of masturbation and sex any day of the week! Some reviewers have noted the continuity between Jacobsen's visual and sonic outputs--set the paintings to music and, viola! You've got Lovely Little Girls; and indeed, both are clearly sprung from the same fecund imagination. Other critics studiously chart historical precedents in the Chicago Imagists or the Dutch Masters ("like looking out of Breughel's window at Mike Diana's crotch," observes one smartaleck scribe); and nearly every critic who's considered Jacobsen's paintings seems to relish the linguistic possibilities they afford--it's a banner day at the art writer's desk when his subject oozes and secretes. But the paintings certainly don't need all of these referents and citations--they hold up perfectly well on their own, thank you very much, these patient products of Gregory's febrile imagination. "The paintings are about my obsession with bodies and their inevitable failure," Jacobsen summarizes--surely a subject art-lovers everywhere can rally around.

Gregory recently quit the movie theater, after many years of dedicated service, and is now, presumably, a full-time painter. His show at Zg, entitled Prostrate, has been extended until Feb. 27--the gallery is at 300 W. Superior. Now if we could only get the dormant Lovely Little Girls back in action...