Graded on a Curve:
Next Year at Marienbad

Rightly ranked as one of the best and most influential of the ‘70s punk acts, Los Angelinos the Urinals are back with Next Year at Marienbad, only their third full-length in an extended if fitful existence. Long cherished for the unstrained art-ruckus comprising the trio’s early output, the new record emphasizes a vigorous realization of high-quality songwriting. It’s out now on the band’s Happy Squid label.

The title of this release, most certainly a reference to Last Year at Marienbad, the masterful ’61 film directed by the great French auteur Alain Resnais (who we lost last March at age 91), mainly underscores the background of bassist-vocalist John Talley-Jones and drummer Kevin Barrett, both UCLA film students and founding Urinals, the group formed in ’78 with philosophy major Kjehl Johansen.

But the playful moniker illuminates a mild similarity between Resnais and the Urinals, the former predominantly known to non-cinephiles for his Holocaust documentary short Night and Fog (’55) and features Hiroshima mon amour (’59) Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel (’63), while the latter’s reputation primarily derives from the three 7-inches they squeezed out in ‘79-’80, records compiled with stray comp tracks and live stuff on Negative Capability…Check it Out!, issued first on compact disc by Amphetamine Reptile in ’96 and again by Warning Label in ’04; a 2LP emerged on In the Red in ’13.

However, Resnais worked as a director until the end of his life, and likewise the story of the Urinals endures after 1980; in the early part of the decade, having developed beyond punk beginnings they became 100 Flowers, releasing a self-titled full-length in ’83 on Happy Squid (their label since the beginning) and getting the completist treatment by Rhino Records in ’90, 100 Years of Pulchritude one of the more useful single disc collections of ‘80s u-ground rock activity to hit racks immediately in its wake.

In the mid-‘90s they became the Urinals once again, though it took them a while to get a new platter out, What is Real and What Is Not appearing in ‘03 on Warning Label, and even longer to complete Next Year at Marienbad, Talley-Jones and Barrett now working in tandem with Rob Roberge, their guitarist of longest tenure (and also a writer of note).

The ’03 album established them as smartly disdaining any attempts to recapture the nuts and bolts of the three ’79-’80 EPs, those massively significant documents (songs covered by Gun Club, Minutemen, Yo La Tengo, Halo of Flies, No Age, Grass Widow, and METZ, amongst others) originating from the circumstances of a very specific period.

To elaborate, the Urinals’ material from that era has been appropriately compared to early Wire; like their UK brothers, the band’s pared down and intriguingly succinct emissions connected to the genre that inspired them in a similar manner to how punk’s initial uprising related to rock in general. This isn’t to suggest an abandonment of formative strategies in the here and now; for instance, the familiar element of concision is retained and further developed.

More importantly, they avoid trying to replicate the striking aura those EPs swam in, an atmosphere combining enormity of inspiration and smallness of scale. By contrast, Next Year at Marienbad exudes a consistently vibrant sound attained in large part through engineer Andre Knecht, his previous credits including Robert Plant and Terry Riley.

Alongside Knecht’s mixing and mastering is production by Mike Martt, an ex-member of such certifiably Los Angeles congregations as the Gun Club, Tex & the Horseheads, and Thelonious Monster. In accord with days of yore, opener “Shut Yr Trap” barely breaks the two minute barrier. But where the Urinals’ fledgling efforts thrived on minimalism at odds with convention, the current mode of operation wields a wider palette that’s more conversant with stylistic norms.

“Shut Yr Trap” possesses sturdy vocals and forward momentum blending with just the right touch of melody; the confident instrumentation, while non-flashy, doesn’t preclude tight soloing. Second track “Close Our Eyes” is even shorter but ups the tunefulness as it integrates a guitar spot sweetly recalling one of the band’s greatest moments, namely “Surfin’ with the Shah.”

Overall, it doesn’t land far from the vibe of the Paisley Underground, a resemblance unsurprising given some of their confreres. “The Girl Before” is rhythmically hefty punk with catchy choruses and advanced tendencies, especially in the guitar department. It’s followed by the moody riffing and heartfelt vocalizing of “Tear My City Down,” a cut positioning them nearer to Mission of Burma than I’ve ever noticed prior.

Next Year at Marienbad wastes no time making clear it’s not for the nostalgia trippers, but frankly that crowd has never gotten much mileage out of the Urinals anyway. It’s also evident this is a stronger showing than the likeable but fairly minor What is and What is Not. Here, relatively low-key number “Bring Me Joy” is rendered large through the toughness of Talley-Jones’ bass, the timely verve of Barrett’s drumming and the roar, sustain, and pretty little solo cascade Roberge coaxes from his axe.

He also rips throughout the highly dynamic “This Love is Impossible” as the bass rumbles and Barrett gives his kit a tidy battering. Additionally, Talley-Jones’ singing is uncommonly expressive in punk terms, though increasingly evident is the Urinals’ persistence in transcending genre trappings; to wit, the integration of popish aspects in “Unblackmailable” utterly avoids the clichés reliably accompanying such a mingling, and it leads directly into the excellent “Water/Blood.”

Beginning by expounding upon an infectiously Ramonesian template and adding minimal lyrics (“water…blood…spit…cum…”), it’s not far away from the launching platform of ’79. But the track deftly expands, displaying tandem precision and adding backing voices before a rousing finale. It gives way to the muscular soul-purge of “Insomnia” and the achy and too short density of sing-along nugget “The President and King Shake Hands.”

It might seem inevitable that a punk LP 13 tunes deep would shoulder a few lesser entries, but even the modest “Too Much or Not Enough” acquits itself nicely via punchy execution, and the 44-second “Rocket to the Moon” serves as a fine prelude to the lengthiest and most ambitious track (both musically and lyrically), the nearly five minute closer “This Song is a Virus.”

This record doesn’t equal the heights of the unit’s renowned work, though the point’s ultimately moot; as outlined above that’s not Next Year at Marienbad’s raison d’être, and the differences are quick to discern. Once ground-level pioneers of singular achievement, the Urinals of 2015 are more accomplished and easier to grasp, but booting out an album this good so late in their personal game is almost as remarkable as “Last Days of Man on Earth” or “Ack Ack Ack Ack.”


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