The Pop Group - Y
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Even if the currently reigning postpunk revival gets so big that we witness This Heat namechecked on Will & Grace, The Birthday Party in Miller Light commercials, and guitar manufacturers coming out with an Andy-Gill-endorsed pedal (“Now, more trebly!”), I seriously doubt it’ll do much for The Pop Group’s music. Not only inaccessible but murky and truly weird, they’re a dark and complicated band, one that is truly radical in every sense of the word: they boasted a warbling 6’7” frontman who disappeared from the gigging circuit for a while because he was off aiding Cambodian refugees, a cut-and-paste sonic ethos that bordered on the absurdly promiscuous (they didn’t just namecheck dub, free jazz, and Beefheart, they emulated them all, usually within the space of a single song), and a take-no-prisoners agit-prop lyrical style (this album’s opening track, after all, sings the praises of a heroine to whom “Western values mean nothing”). Since TPG are usually so up-front about their influences, then, I won’t feel quite as bad for copping a move from Pitchfork (who were, I think, talking about The Fucking Champs) when I call them the Serpentor of short-lived oddball postpunk groups.
You might be skeptical, but that’s only because you haven’t heard “She Is Beyond Good And Evil,” a junkyard-disco romp that, as the band’s debut single, is the closest they came to an entirely unironic use of their name. Still, the slathered-in-reverb production values here—a series of echoed guitar stabs are the only thing that remain distinct through the dubbed-out, echoes-of-echoes fogginess—make for some pretty uneasy listening; frontman Mark Stewart howls out lines on the order of “I’ll hold you like a gun!” as a chunky, minimal bass ascends, and then it’s all over, drowned in its own wake before we knew quite what to make of it. “Thief Of Fire” is funkier and slower, the sort of thing that seems a clear inspiration to early Meat Beat Manifesto, deranged vocal delivery and all. Again, though, there’s a lurking threat in this slow-burning groove, first in a burbling saxophone shoved to the background of the mix, then in a full-on outburst of scummy guitar and a one-drum nervous fit; though there’s a coruscating bass framework that one can follow through the track, everything keeps tearing itself in several different directions.
But just as you think you’ve got the band figured out (if the album ended here, I’d pen something about them being a Birthday Party/Go4 hybrid that manages to hold onto the more irritating tendencies of each), another curveball arrives in the form of “Snowgirl,” which suddenly metamorphoses into some ornately depraved Aladdin Sane piano work and an absurdly hectic drum breakdown that the rest of the band joins, all of which sounds like the Get Hustle practicing in a room where that last Autechre full-length nobody was too fond of was playing from a portable cassette player. A double-tracked Stewart first croons, then wails, as things go, well, even more epileptic, then a sulking bass cuts everything off.
“Blood Money” is a truly bizarre mixture of tribal drumming (sometimes mixed at half-speed) and what sounds like Jajoukan pipe music, with some truly bloodcurdling effects-treated chaos from Stewart. Is this what Crass would’ve sounded like if they’d let Nurse With Wound take a crack at remixing them? Well, quite possibly. Like certain Boredoms tracks, its intensity-gone-absurd moments bring to mind an alien civilization weaned on a diet of crystal meth, Rudimentary Peni and Tago Mago. Yet things go again in the direction you’d least expect, with the upbeat “We Are Time,” a dub-and-surf-guitar (this provides the interesting opportunity for two sonic idioms known for reverb to create friction with each other) free-for-all that—despite the bizarre presence of sped-up tapes, what could very well be a melodica, and several drop-outs—doesn’t quite succumb to its own internal inconsistencies until six minutes in, with a rampage-at-the-mixing-desk cataclysm that is as scary as anything on The Faust Tapes.
Another melancholy piano ballad that features some downright lovely playing, against which Stewart’s sinister whispering is used to great effect, “The Savage Sea” is all too brief; “Words Disobey Me” returns with a strong funk element, which is probably the band’s most effective use of the idiom. The rock-solid drumming certainly helps here; even the mess of guitar sprawl is reined in a bit, until the song briefly demolishes itself and a campy shift takes place that approaches film-noir jazz, a Sharks-and-Jets confrontation with prepared piano flourishes. A rudimentary saxophone that perhaps arrived late to the party kicks off “Don’t Call Me Pain,” which features some of the jerkiest, most insistent rhythms this side of Cabaret Voltaire’s 2 x 45. Stewart recites “This is the age of chance” several times in a row, then embarks on an relatively lucid anti-military treatise. Backed as he is by the band’s funk-gone-haywire rhythms and a woodwind instrument that sounds at home in a Moroccan bazaar, this is probably the band’s most effective use of sonic disorientation to underscore an anti-imperialist message. One can almost imagine this as the uprising of mysterious forces, the soundtrack to an incoherent-as-usual Burroughsian revenge fantasy where the souls rise from desecrated graves, with vengeance on their minds. Unfortunately, the following track, “The Boys From Brazil,” uses most of the same tricks to lesser effect.
This truly baffling album concludes, appropriately enough, with its most abstract track, “Don’t Sell Your Dreams.” Some oddly tuned jazz guitar and more user-unfriendly cops from non-Western music create a subdued backdrop, which slowly percolates until Stewart’s truly disturbing and violent howls upset this relatively idyllic setting. Drums and bass try to rouse up something, but it never happens. And so a humdrum inertness (ours? That of some distant Other? Is it/us able to move? If so, would motion be deemed necessary?) becomes a final apocalyptic statement. We end deeply unsettled, the band continuing to conjure up a bombed out city block with no idea how far the destruction has spread. Maybe, as we could easily be sitting on the brink of war, this could all be far more relevant than we think.
By: Chris Smith
Published on: 2003-09-01