Graded on a Curve:
Chain & the Gang,
In Cool Blood

Chain & the Gang have just released their third album, and it displays and expands upon the musical and thematic attributes that have come to define the work of Ian Svenonius over the course of the last twenty plus years. Taken individually, In Cool Blood is a solid collection of stripped down rock highly influenced by 1960s R&B and early ‘80s post-punk/DIY. But it grows substantially when considered with the rest of the band’s discography, and especially Svenonius’ oeuvre at large.

When Ian Svenonius first burst onto the scene around the turn of the 1990s with Dischord Records’ post-harDCore heavy hitters Nation of Ulysses, he wasn’t particularly identifiable as a figure that would be around for the long haul. NoU (as they were sometimes abbreviated) were boldly conceptual, fiercely polemical, and some felt flat-out arrogant.

And above all, they were divisive. Detractors considered them to be a flagrant example of gratuitous playacting, an over-elaborate put-on. Those in favor loved them in the manner some display for sports teams and grand old flags. Svenonius was declared “Sassiest Boy in America” by Sassy Magazine before they even had a record out, though their blistering live show surely did precede them; they came on so strongly that it all seemed destined for brevity, just another in a labyrinthine museum maze of rock music short timers.

But occasionally these brief explosive vessels prove unexpectedly destined for longevity while artists/bands seemingly built to last end up fading out or fizzling away. Following Nation of Ulysses’ disbandment, Svenonius played the front man role in The Make-Up, an equally conceptually audacious entity that produced a surprisingly large body of recorded work and flaunted a live prowess that’s now legendary. The music hotwired mod/freakbeat high style to a platform of youth-centric social consciousness dubbed by the group as Gospel Yeh-Yeh, all before winding to a halt around the close of last millennium.

In this fresh century Svenonius has proven to be an impressive collaborator across a fairly diverse spectrum of projects. To name three; the eccentric groove-mining of sorta-supergroup Weird War, the pseudonymous “solo-project” flower-power/mod gush of David Candy, and the somewhat historically focused and theatrical (at least live) Felt Letters (with Brendan Canty ex-Fugazi). Add to the equation such extra-musical concerns as essayist (his pocket-sized collection The Psychic Soviet was issued by Drag City), internet talk show host (via the program Soft Focus), astrologist as humorist (inside much missed free publication Arthur) and hipster vacation curator (for the Bruise Cruise).

Across all this activity Svenonius has shown an unusual level of astuteness in communicating recurring themes in his work. The surface contrarianism of his ideas, when coupled with his confident, extroverted, some have said dandyish personality, is enough to turn off many observers, and when factoring in the uninhibitedly backward-glancing, deceptively non-groundbreaking nature of the music, the output of Ian Svenonius is often denigrated as an underground self-indulgence. Or, in a nutshell; haters will hate.

And that’s just the way this auteur wants it, I think. Chain & the Gang is another example of this wise musical commentator’s incremental observations/obsessions upon the daily struggles and conundrums that plague contemporary life. In service of these aims he and his band mates employ certain well-honed modes and formulas and are disinclined to care if the at times barbed humor rubs certain listeners the wrong way. Nothing on In Cool Blood tempts listener hostility like Music’s Not for Everyone’s excellent jab at low self-esteem as a lifestyle “Not Good Enough,” but the air of provocateur does remain.

In some cases Chain & the Gang’s methods stretch all the back to Svenonius’ earliest stuff; with the arguable exception of NoU’s post-bop/mid-period Coltrane jazz fixation the progression of his musical proclivities has focused upon styles that were largely neglected or ignored outright beyond their direct fan bases while happening.

Think Nation of Ulysses’ juvenile delinquent/street gang imagery cross-pollinated with post-HC and given a MC5/White Panther-like revolutionary fervor (to some a shtick, yes), The Make-Up’s mod-rock simplicity fused with mock-religious youth-congress theatrics, Weird War’s street-level funk-rock wedded to a post-radical waving of the freak-flag.

More things that stay the same; since The Make-Up, Svenonius has always had a female member/foil, he also holds a severe reverence for the ritual of live music (and how live bands sound best on records), and a definite predilection for the 1960s, an era where in large part rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t yet taken seriously by the establishment.

And again, for a guy who’s been in so many bands/projects Svenonius is one of indie rock’s true beacons of consistency. If his current groups’ have become less elaborate, that’s mainly because he’s gotten so efficient at communicating his ideas. Recently, his swipes from the ‘60s rattle around in a tin can with the aura of bedroom ingenuity displayed by bushel’s full of early-‘80s small label post-punk and self-released DIY artists.

In Cool Blood’s opening track “Hunting for Love” is a perfect example, halfway between a knock-off ‘60s R&B single and something that might’ve been found on self-produced cassette in the racks of the early Rough Trade shop. Plus it features Svenonius making monkey sounds, and I’ve yet to hear it without thinking of the eternally grand “Gorilla” by The Shandells.

The LP was recorded in mono at Calvin Johnson’s Dub Narcotic studio and presents a new lineup of Chain & the Gang. Fresh vocalist Katie Alice Greer really helps cultivate both the old-school R&B and post-punk sides of the equation here. There was already an occasional (and mild) Marvin and Tammi-like aspect to some of Chain & the Gang’s work, but with the addition of Greer it really shines.

Relevant tracks in this context would be “You Better Find Something to Do,” “If I Only Had a Brain,” and especially “Where Does All the Time Go?” and the fantastic “Certain Types of Trash,” where new bassist Chris Sutton lays down a line of fabulous simplicity that’ll surely kill in the club context. Vivian Girl/Coasting member Fiona Campbell takes the drum seat and does so with the necessary understated flair.

Greer has classic sass, but she also possesses a palpable intellectually-inclined swagger that reminds me of the music offered by “new wave” groups in small college towns in the dawn of Reagan. From a lyrical standpoint, a song like “Free Will” sounds positively concocted in response to a longwinded lecture from some scarecrow-thin old professor. Musically however it’s solidly in the tradition of Pac-10 frat-rock. And Greer’s deadpan on “Nuff Said” really accentuates the atypical bookish qualities that ooze from many of In Cool Blood’s grooves and how they wrap like hip vines all over that ‘60’s inclination.

This is particularly resonant on the two parts of “I’m Not Interested;” on one hand the song feels like it would’ve went down an absolute storm in a crowded faculty bar on a foggy Friday night in late autumn circa 1981. On the other, it’s clearly the work of a mind that’s not only familiar with the two parts of Eddie Bo’s masterpiece “Pass the Hatchet,” he might even own a copy for himself.

But y’know, hardly anybody cared about that Eddie Bo single when it was first released. Just like nearly all those self-produced early-‘80s cassettes floundered in the racks (if even allowed space) and were insanely obscure before Chuck Warner’s Messthetics CD-r series and an avalanche of internet blogs resuscitated a DIY revolution. And that fictional college town new wave band? Never recorded an album, though I like to imagine there’s a live tape in a shoe box somewhere just waiting for rediscovery and retrospective adulation.

In other words it’s all ephemera. Maybe the sharpest trick in Ian Svenonius’ arsenal is that he understands the value of detritus rescued and reevaluated, and the beauty of the small gesture executed for the sheer joy of pulling it off.

That’s why nearly all of the records in his discography if taken in isolation can register as being achievements of an amiably mild variety. However, considered together they add up to an impressive sum that shows-off the talents of one of our shrewdest musical thinkers.

Graded on a Curve: B+ 

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