Graded on a Curve:
U.S. Maple, Long Hair
in Three Stages

Defunct noise-rock outfit U.S. Maple’s career was one long acknowledgement of failure, futility, and self-hatred. The Chicago quartet went on record stating Rock was dead, but instead of taking the coward’s way out by abandoning their guitars for grad school (the last refuge of a scoundrel), they set out on the perverse course of deconstructing their songs, and putting them back together helter-skelter. The results were songs that were like Frankenstein’s monster, only with the legs sewed on where the arms should be and a head for a foot.

With each new release, U.S. Maple made rock music that celebrated the utter folly of making rock music, struggling to create something new under the “been there, done that” sun only to stop, shuddering in horror, upon realizing that all it was doing was dreaming up new ways to flog a dead genre. It is only in hindsight that one can see that while U.S. Maple may have failed, just as all true artists fail (“Only one thing matters,” said E.M. Cioran of artists and life in general, “learning to be the loser”), they did succeed in creating a body of music that is as initially difficult and out-of-kilter as it is ultimately perversely lovable and even funny.

The twisted and prickly structures of their screwball anti-songs have a way of sneaking up on you, of growing you a new set of ears as it were. At which point they still won’t sound right—U.S. Maple never sounds quite right—but they will sound as exciting and as innovative as rock (with its two million identical bands recycling the sounds of maybe 20 better bands) gets.

U.S. Maple—they were Al Johnson on vocals, Mark Shippy on “high” guitar, Todd Rittman on “low” guitar, and Pat Samson on drums—formed in 1995 and disbanded in 2007 after releasing five very outré LPs, including 1995 debut Long Hair in Three Stages. Johnson, the band’s secret weapon and my favorite singer, once said he “wanted to go the other way, to develop my inadequacies,” and he succeeded—or should I say failed?—admirably. When it comes to playing the creepy loser, Johnson is without parallel. He is less a singer than an accretion of alarming vocal nervous tics. He whispers, whimpers, warbles like an unhinged Maria Maldaur, croons, sighs, and does just about everything but actually sing. And it’s virtually impossible to make out a single word he says.

Behind him, the band starts songs at the end, and begins cool grooves only to let them drop, as if too depressed (or disgusted) to go on. U.S. Maple perversely sabotages any impulse to sound “normal” by either hitting the brakes whenever a tune began to emerge or by seeming to let go of the steering wheel altogether. But it’s an illusion; like Captain Beefheart, who is about the only musical signpost on the strange road these fellows traveled, U.S. Maple’s approach to songwriting was anything but free form. There wasn’t an iota of improvisation in U.S. Maple’s sound; each and every note of each and every song was constructed with a formalist’s care.

The wonderfully titled Long Hair in Three Stages opens with “Hey King.” It begins with a barrage of drums and Shippy’s high guitar, which sounds as if it’s struggling to break into something recognizable as a song, but it stumbles and pratfalls like a Beckett clown until, low and behold, he’s playing a perfectly linear solo. Then Rittman comes in and a kind of moaning groove develops and Johnson commences vocalizing incoherently in that deranged hiss of his, letting out a cool “Ooooo!” in the process. The song ends in a staggering groove, then stops abruptly.

The great “Letter to ZZ Top” is fractured but tangentially normal, by which I mean they play a screwy but real groove and don’t immediately blow it up with TNT. Johnson’s great throughout, whispering like a mental patient confiding some great delusion and singing “Give my bones to Billy Gibbons, Ooooo!” and stuttering and repeating, “And you say… you asshole” while the song picks up momentum and Shippy plays a bona fide solo. For once U.S. Maple doesn’t feel obligated to self-sabotage its own propulsion; I would go say far as to say “Letter to ZZ Top” is their equivalent of a commercial move, except the song has zero, and I mean zilch, commercial potential.

“Home-Made Stuff” opens with Shippy’s guitar having an anxiety attack while Rittman’s plays a very dissonant groove until the drums kick in and Johnson comes in moaning and begging in a deeper voice, like a street person on sterno importuning you for a dollar. And once again they actually keep the groove moving, Rittman throwing in bizarre guitar riffs and then shredding while Samson bashes away at the drums. Ah, but it’s just a feint, because after you think the song is over Rittman commences quietly scratching away at his guitar like a rat trying to get through a wall while Samson plays big distorted drum beats, until the fast “Magic Job” begins. It opens with both guitars playing demented riffs, then Johnson comes in and sings (sorta) “I get glad there… cuz/I’m him… the man/With that magic job” (not that you’d know what he’s saying without a lyric sheet) while the guitars continue their buzzing, strange progress. And the song threatens to get bona fide funky as the guitarists break into a cool groove that they just as quickly abandon as too accessible. Can’t have that!

“The State Is Bad” is an album highlight, opening with a few stray piano notes and some scratchy and ominously tentative guitar riffs. Then Rittman and the drums take off, Shippy firing off high-pitched riffs over their heads, until Johnson comes in and the song accelerates like something by Sonic Youth before alternating between some stop-and-start and that really fast groove. Then they really go wild, Shippy going at it like a maniac while Rittman lays down big riffs, before the song opens up, Johnson sings, “The state was bad/And if I come back I’m dumb,” and the song closes in a caterwaul. “Aplomado” opens with some distorted drums and guitars sounding like they’re trying to get something started. Finally a melody of sorts emerges, and Johnson enters on stage left hissing and squealing, “Heat… Heat… Heat… Heat!” while Rittman plays humungous riffs and Rittman plays scratchy riffs until what is either a trumpet or a synthesizer (neither listed on the credits) or perhaps even one really strangely tuned guitar comes in, sounding really fucked up. Then the song slows, the guitarists play out-of-kilter and the melody (such as it at is) reemerges just in time for the song to end.

“You Know What… Will Get You You Know Where” opens with Rittman playing a heavy riff while Shippy plays a cool repetitive riff as Samson bashes away, then Johnson comes in and the song takes off with Johnson singing in a creepy high-pitched voice “And so it goes doo doo doo!” Then the band perversely abandons the groove so Shippy can shred quietly away while Rittman plays low-key riffs until the song speeds up again, Shippy really letting loose while Rittman and Samson play a pounding din until song’s end. “When a Man Says “Ow”” is a strange and dissonant almost-blues that staggers out of the starting blocks with Shippy playing up a storm while Johnson occasionally comes in (howling “Hyee, hyee!”) and the song progresses staggering like a drunk being frog-marched out of a bar as Johnson sings, “You’re gonna hate it/And you don’t like that.” Towards the end it morphs into a strange and choppy instrumental, then Shippy’s burglar-alarm guitar comes back before some completely out-of-place drum pummel takes the tune out.

“Northwad” is truly strange, opening with some odd flapping noise as Shippy plays riffs that sound exactly like a squealing pig. And the rhythm, such as is it is, limps along to the sound of lots of distorted guitar punctuation until Johnson commences throwing out more unintelligible lines like verbal karate chops while the guitars fire off a dissonant riff here, a dissonant riff there, everywhere a dissonant riff riff. Then the song, which has never really been a song, breaks for a drum solo, then goes quiet before it gets louder and hobbles away into silence, but not without a happy-go-lucky little guitar figure at the end.

Closer and instrumental “Lady to Bing” opens with a quirky drum pattern and lots of fancy Shippy guitar play, then Rittman commences playing a super-heavy metal groove and the tune picks up momentum, stopping only for Shippy to fire off astounding riffs on the guitar. Then it commences some disturbed stop-and-start, and Shippy plays a really wrong guitar solo. This is followed by more stop-and-start and Shippy guitar pyrotechnics, before a giant guitar “bwwanng” kills the groove, and some stray guitar notes bring the song to a finish.

And that’s it. There was always an element of slapstick in U.S. Maple’s music; its songs move herky-jerkily along like Samuel Beckett’s Malone, and like Beckett U.S. Maple knew that nothing was funnier than failure. And that’s the reason I love them so—they obviously found their systematic derangement of rock forms highly amusing. Like Bartleby the Scrivener they said, “I’d prefer not to” to everything done before them. Then set out to make it new, or fail spectacularly trying, and their spectacular failures constitute one of the more unique bodies of work in rock.

You owe it to yourself and your unborn children to listen to and ardently loathe U.S. Maple, only (if you’re as obstinate as I am) to grow to love them, because they made sounds the human ear would never have heard otherwise. It is my most ardent belief that nothing succeeds like a grand failure—who would remember the Titanic if it hadn’t sunk? U.S. Maple knew this right down to its contrarian bones. Far better a band that fails on its own terms than one that succeeds on somebody else’s. Especially if that failure sounds as fresh and obstinately alive as U.S. Maple’s.

Long Live Failure!

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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