Remember Wire, the band of arty punks (more like artists who jumped on the punk bandwagon rather quickly in 1976) that released two perfect albums of stripped-down guitar rock (Pink Flag and Chairs Missing, in 1977 and 1978, respectively) and then went on to record ever more obscure crap throughout the '80s? The band's later releases were so dreadful they made Depeche Mode and Gary Numan seem not-so-horrible in comparison. Perhaps I'm being too cruel, but everything from singer Colin Newman's 1980 solo album to 1991's The Drill (won't even mention their nadir of nadirs, Manscape, from 1990) was rough, barely listenable stuff that made Brian Eno's solo releases from the same period sound coherent and composition-based.
So what were the chances that the original foursome would ditch the synthesizers and drum-programming in a glorious return to guitar rock form Ö la their first two long-players? Well, somewhere between slim and none, but that is just what happened in the last year or two. Wire has reformed as a two-guitar, bass, and drums (yes, I'm still slavishly devoted to that worn-out performance mode, thank you) "beat combo" and recently released two limited-edition six-song EPs in their Read & Burn series (Read & Burn 03 is due out sometime in the future). Send takes three tracks from "01" and four from "02" plus four new songs recorded since "02." (Those four new songs are not to be confused with "03." You can take the arty tea bags out of England, but you can't ever completely remove their arty impulses.)
What does Send sound like? Like shouted chants backed by mercilessly insistent distorted guitars and mindlessly simple drumming. No, I'm not describing the metal gruel played by identical looking/sounding guys with shaved heads and tats featured in heavy rotation on MTV2. Wire sound like angry men yelling, not like a mid-'20s fatty straining to sound like a steroid-driven pro wrassler. The only other point of comparison I can come up with is early Swans, only faster. Very simple, very good. This has to be one of the most unlikely aesthetic comebacks ever.
Please, no synths on Read & Burn 03, okay, guys? --Ross Johnson
To be blunt, Pete Droge, Shawn Mullins, and Matthew Sweet peaked during the '90s, so at least superficially, the concept behind the Thorns appears blatantly calculated to battle obscurity by marketing them as a supergroup to aging, mellowing Gen-X'ers. Whether or not this is the case, their eponymous debut goes a long way toward dispelling that suspicion and establishing the Thorns as a new and separate musical entity.
For starters, their chemistry is more musical than commercial. The Thorns' acoustic folk-rock sounds very southern California, combining the pop sensibilities of Brian Wilson with the shambling jangliness of the Byrds and the soaring vocal harmonies of Crosby, Stills & Nash. On one hand, their geographically specific musical roots set them apart from a lot of contemporary singer-songwriters, like Pete Yorn, Train, and Five for Fighting, many of whom they directly influenced.
On the other hand, like a lot of California music, The Thorns is heinously overproduced. Brendan O'Brien has slicked up their sound with too many strings and too many Professional Studio Musicians, where a rougher, looser sound would have revived songs like "Dragonfly" and "I Told You."
Among the album's strengths, however, are harmony and melody. The Thorns' three voices mesh well, but the stand-out is Mullins, whose scruffy tenor nicely offsets the smoother vocals of Droge and Sweet. The songs themselves are catchy and unpretentious, especially "No Blue Sky" and the first single, "I Can't Remember," whose dramatic chorus is the album's finest moment.
The Thorns are being marketed as a supergroup, but they've yet to reach the level of super. Fortunately, their debut album emphasizes the "group" part of the equation, suggesting each of these artists is reaching another peak in his career.
-- Stephen Deusner
The Thorns will perform with the Jayhawks Friday, July 4th, on the Gibson Rooftop.
Up the Bracket -- The Libertines (Rough Trade): Snotty, loose, poppy, invigorating but ethically questionable and a little lacking in the content department, these buzzed-and-backlashed Brits earn their "English Strokes" tag, substituting a horny Mod rush for their Yank counterparts' studied NYC cool. ("Death on the Stairs," "Boys in the Band," "Up the Bracket")
L'Avventura --Britta Phillips & Dean Wareham (Jetset): Luna frontman Wareham and relatively new bassist Phillips spin off for a batch of lazy bohemian back-and-forth a la Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, mixing Wareham's sly originals, Phillips' less distinctive copyrights, and some random covers. ("Threw It Away," "Ginger Snaps," "Random Rules")
Love & Distortion -- The Stratford 4 (Jetset): Literate, low-key alt-rock gem from a San Francisco quartet that peaks exactly halfway through with the Song of the Year candidate "Telephone," seven minutes of drone-pop bliss in which a mother and son exchange notes on life and mom drops the following indispensable advice: "I'll say it again though I've said it before/There's more to this life than the Stratford 4." ("Telephone," "Twelve Months," "Tonight Would Be Alright")
Poodle Hat -- "Weird Al" Yankovic (Volcano): The timing's right: With Eminem taking himself way too seriously, we need someone to thumb his nose at the pop parade, but just like in his earlier Republican-administration incarnation, not-really-so-weird Al's too culturally complacent to pull it off. Here, as in the past, his parodies (Avril, Nelly, Backstreet Boys a couple of years too late) merely use the familiar backing tunes as vehicles for equally familiar and mostly unrelated generic and sophomoric jokes (smelly garbage, toilet humor, "eBAY") rather than poking holes in the personae that provide his source material. But it's hard to be too down on a record that opens with this priceless Eminem goof: "Look/If you had/One shot/To sit on your lazy butt/And watch all the TV you ever wanted/Until your brain turned to mush/Would you go for it?/Or just let it slip?" ("Couch Potato") --Chris Herrington