If you’re a music fan–and if you’re not why are you here when you should be off looking at porn like a normal person?–you’ve got, whether you realize it or not, a Top 10 list running through your head. You know: those songs you’re so in love with you’d feed your grandmother head first into a wood chipper rather than give up. The first rule of Top Ten lists is that nobody gives a damn about your list but you; show it to another person and she’s likely to sneer, roll her eyes, and say, “Where’s Toto?”
But I’m a professional music critic (read know-it-all with head very far up ass) and I’m writing this review, so I could force my Top 10 on you if I wanted, but I won’t because I’m a regular Gandhi of compassion, minus the diaper. Suffice it to say that The Penetrators’ “I Painted Lips on My Vacuum Cleaner” and The Shirks’ “D.C. Is Doomed” are currently at my No. 1 and 2 spots, with Deathfix’s”Low Lying Dreams” headed towards No. 1 with a bullet, as the great (I almost made that “the late” until I googled him and found out he’s still among the living) Casey Kasem likes to say.
Deathfix–they’re Brendan Canty (of Fugazi) on vocals and guitar, Richard Morel (of Blowoff) on vocals and keyboards, and Mark Cisneros and Devin Ocampo (both of Medications) on bass and drums, respectively–are a sorta new glam/ pop supergroup from D.C. that makes great songs like the aforementioned “Low Lying Dreams,” which is slow, appropriately dreamy, has a vaguely Middle Eastern vibe ala Led Zeppelin, and is very very beautiful. But slow and dreamy is far from all that Deathfix does; what I like best about their new Dischord release (the eponymous Deathfix) is its remarkable eclecticism–no song on Deathfix sounds like any other song on Deathfix, reflecting the band’s admirable commitment to experimentation in the studio.
Fact is I love everything about Deathfix but its name, which makes the band some like some kind of abominably abrasive grindcore outfit that specializes in cranium-crushing tunes with titles like “Anal Salad Surgery” and “Unspeakable Death by Titty Twister.” When as close as Deathfix gets to the usual themes of death and dismemberment its name suggests is “Hospital,” which is about nothing more death obsessed than… wanting to get out of the hospital. Deathfix would be better off with a name like The Many Sides of Fred Neil (okay, so maybe that’s too arcane and a nonstarter) or The Royal Scam (you can never go wrong ripping off Steely Dan) or Dino Valenti, which would be perfect except it’s already been taken by some guy named Dino Valenti. But for better or worse Deathfix it is, so all you grindcore fans be forewarned.
Band formation stories are a terrible bore–I once tried to read how the Irish band Horslips came together, only to suffer a case of psychosomatic blindness similar to the case of hysterical deafness I got from listening to their song “Bím Istigh Ag Ól,” which is very sad and translates into human language as “My Plough Horse Is Farting.” So I’ll give you the condensed Deathfix creation myth: the band was formed in 2009 when Morel (whose made his rep as a DJ, record producer, and noted remixer of the likes of Mariah Carey and The Pet Shop Boys) met Canty while both were on tour with Bob Mould. Canty and Morel decided to try their hand at writing songs in the studio, then brought in Cisneros and Ocampo when they figured it was time to become a real live touring outfit. In February 2013 they released Deathfix, which may only boast seven songs but they’re all good except “Mind Control,” which may grow on me yet. (Forget it. It just did. It builds to a great climax that will put you in a trance quicker than some svengali with a jewel in the center of his forehead.)
Deathfix are a more melodic and playful outfit than many D.C. bands, which tend to lean towards a humorless, guitar-centered mathematical post-punk that bores me almost as much as the reality show “I Want to be a Hilton,” which I might watch if it was called “I Want to be a Hitler.” Deathfix’s very un-D.C. sound stems from the fact that the band is looking to rock’s glam and prog past–rather than D.C.’s insufferable post-punk present–for inspiration. Canty has said the album reflects his and Morel’s shared love for 1972 (best year in rock ever!) and David Bowie, early King Crimson, and T. Rex. And while I don’t hear the King Crimson in Deathfix’s music that’s probably because I’ve always shunned them (too proggy for this misprogynist) and wouldn’t know them from Gentle Giant, whoever they are. That said, I can hear the Bowie and it’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned, because he comes in at No. 2 on my list of all-time favorite musicians.
One thing Deathfix isn’t lacking is a sense of humor: It’s all over “Dali’s House”–which is at No. 8 on my list and climbing–a superfunky and happy-making 8:12 groove with a big throbbing bass line and a cool repetitive guitar riff punctuated by frequent “Yeah Yeahs” and ringing phones that sounds like a house party song about houses, with Morel wishing he was the homes of a long list of celebrities (“I wish was Kanye West’s house/Cuz he tells you when people suck/Even if it makes you mad”) and (“I wish I was Steve McQueen’s house/Drinking martinis/Smoking grass every day.”) Personally I wouldn’t want to be Louis C.K.’s house, as Morel does, but I would love to be Bob Dylan’s house, so I could overhear him say things like “What’s it to ya, Moby Dick, this is Chickentown.”
I also love “Playboy,” which has nothing so far as I can tell to do with playboys but reminds me of the evening I spent orgying at Hugh Hefner’s mansion with triplets named Karen, Sharon, and Warren, the third of which, oddly enough, had a mustache. But that’s a story from my younger, wilder days, when Charles Bronson and I used to get into frequent shirtless brawls over the question of the nature of Earwicker’s crime in the park in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Anyway, “Playboy” is very ultra sophisticated sounding and boasts a wonderful chorus with what sounds like 1,000 French chicks singing “ooooooooooh aaaaaaaaah” and cool verses of mysterious import. Then there’s album opener “Better Than Bad,” a very catchy power pop number that reminds this guy (or at least its opening and vocals do) of the immortal Raspberries, who unfairly never got what they wanted, namely to be an overnight sensation with a No. 1 hit that everybody had to know.
But rather than talk about every song on the album, suffice it to say that Deathfix is the best pop record I’ve heard since Redd Kross’ recent Researching the Blues, whose “Stay Away From Downtown” incidentally occupies my No. 5 spot. But Deathfix is better because it is, as I said before, a remarkably varied slab’o'vinyl. And variety is the spice of life, as Hef said to me when I pointed out that, in addition to a mustache, Warren also had testicles. Anyway, I was eager to hear Deathfix perform their songs live at the Black Cat on Sunday, March 17, or St. Patrick’s Day as it’s known to those people who enjoy puking green. Unfortunately I missed opening acts Dubpixel w/Robin Bell and Spain’s Pull My Strings due to a hair emergency–never try to use the ceiling fan to give yourself a free home haircut–but arrived with a brand new monk’s tonsure and 13 stitches just in time to hear Deathfix.
To put it bluntly, they were great. They may have only performed eight songs (the full album plus a new one, “Porcelain,” as an encore) during what they billed as their official record release party, but they really played the hell out of every one of them. And Canty delivered the funniest line of the night when he said of opening act Pull My Strings, “We had to look really long and hard to find a Spanish band to play on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Morel and Canty swapped vocals, and sometimes sang together, and Mark Cisneros provided wonderful back-ups. Morel has the far better voice: he has volume and presence, enunciates clearly, and has a great intuitive knowledge of when to pause between words. I even loved the way he pronounced “house” in “Dali’s House.” Whereas Canty, who is no natural singer, seemed almost to approach the microphone with trepidation, and often appeared to be virtually whispering. But I’m certain he’ll get better with time, just as I did when I was lead singer for Grand Funk Railroad.
“Dali’s House” was the definite showstopper. It was every bit as funky as on record, so funky that at one point Canty gave up on his guitar and commenced to dancing and even pogoing, something no human has seen fit to do since, if my records are correct, 1979. (It was at a hardcore show. Skinheads kicked the hell out of the poor guy.) Not only did Dali’s house feature some great drumming by Ocampo and a gigantic bass riff by Cisneros, Canty threw in some cool “chukka chukka” guitar and even some brief Metal Machine Music white noise. I was lucky enough to run into Morel, who seems like a very nice fellow, after the show, and he graciously set me straight on a lyric I couldn’t make out and was driving me wild. To wit, “I wish I was David Bowie’s house/Strung out on lasers/Making sure that white stains.” Thank you, Mr. Morel, you are hereby forgiven for associating with Mariah Carey.
“Low Lying Dreams” was also wonderful, with Morel opening the song with a simple keyboard riff then singing “I lost my way when the music died/The show turned out/ I couldn’t cry” while the band turned the volume up and down before ending the song with a frenetic jam that featured some stellar guitar work by Canty as well as some ferocious drum wallop and spectacular cymbal crash by Ocampo. “Better Than Bad” featured Morel and Canty swapping vocals (“Never stop the action/Never let me go/Better than bad is all I know”) then joining Cisneros in some very R-Berries three-part harmonies while Canty played a classic Wally Bryson (Wally? No wonder the Raspberries never made No. 1) guitar riff. In hindsight, I really blew it talking to Morel; I should have asked if he and Canty had Eric Carmen and the boys in mind when they wrote this one.
Deathfix opened with “Mind Control,” a mid-tempo and vaguely proggish-sounding number which started with a long instrumental passage featuring a really happening bass line and some kick-ass drums. Then Canty jumped in on vocals, singing “Falling out of mind control/But there’s no where to land but down,” then turned the mic over to Morel–they passed it back and forth all song long–before the song took off, Morel singing “I am the father/I am the son” while Cisneros provided great back-up vocals and Canty’s guitar suddenly soared and the band worked its way to a melodic and sublime climax.
“Hospital” was another personal favorite; this mid-tempo number has overtaken The Modern Lovers’ “Hospital” at No. 1 on my Top 10 list of songs about places to go to be catheterized. The lyrics are vaguely sinister; it opens with Canty singing about a guy just wanting to get out of the hospital, then morphs into something more chilling with all three vocalists singing in harmony (“Get up get up/Get out of bed/There’s something wrong inside this hospital”). Or maybe I’m reading too much into it because I’ve been living on a steady diet of FEARnet films. Canty provided some cool guitar as the band kicked it up a notch–with Canty throwing out a great “Hey!” followed by a brief but thrilling guitar solo–before the song returned to its original tempo and came to an end.
“Playboy,” with its great international sound, opened at a somewhat fast pace with some steady drum bash and a neat repetitive guitar riff by Canty, and featured Morel and Canty swapping lyrics (“He got a broken nose/Somewhere north of Mexico”) telling a story I still don’t understand. Then a soaring chorus came in, and I was reminded of Steely Dan, that’s how sophisticated-sounding this tune is. (If it were human, it would own a platinum credit card.) The band closed their set with “Transmission,” which may well be its tour de force and for all I know is where the King Crimson comes in. A very long (8 plus minutes) number that opened at a fast tempo with Morel on vocals and Canty playing some really Ziggy Stardust space-age-tuned guitar while Ocampo pounded the skins, “Transmission” then segued into a long, slow instrumental section with Canty picking out notes like a latter-age Jerry Garcia before the entire band exploded into a crescendo of power chords and drum pillage.
The band then returned for an encore, Canty angrily shouting “What do you want from us, you never-satisfied band of demanding pricks!” (Just kidding.) Actually they went into “Porcelain,” which started out as a bona fide rocker with Canty singing and Cisneros and Ocampo doing a wonderful job of holding down the fort. Then “Porcelain” slowed down–with Morel repeating the line “Hip hop for the Underground”–before speeding up again and evolving into a righteous jam with Canty firing off great guitar riffs before ending gloriously with a series of titanic drum crashes and power chords.
Deathfix has a great future before it, and I for one can’t wait to hear what they come up with next. Another Top 10 song, I hope, to take the place of “Low Lying Dreams,” which will long since have fallen off the charts. Because that’s the thing about Top 10 lists: no song stays forever, with the possible exception of “All the Young Dudes,” which has been on my Top 10 list since, let’s see–1972. Currently I’m suffering a dilemma, because in addition to The Penetrators’ “I Painted Lips on My Vacuum Cleaner” my Top 10 list also includes their “Teenage Lifestyle,” and having two songs by the same band on your list is a definite no-no. So I either take it off or–excuse me, I’ve got to go feed my grandmother into a wood chipper.