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Chain & The Gang
Minimum Rock N Roll Helen King , May 7th, 2014 05:28

Apparently, President John F. Kennedy had to get laid at least once every day. If he didn't - he informed friends and political confidantes - he became immediately besieged by searing migraines which, when suffered in conjunction with the myriad spinal, renal, and muscular ailments with which he was afflicted, rendered him unable to perform (cerebrally, at least) in office. Failing to come good on his averred promise to "smash the CIA into a million pieces" before they paid him the same compliment, the corrupt, angelic, doomed-and-doomed to dubious and flimsy canonisation golden-boy of boisterous pre-Cold War America thudded priapically to a violent and cinematic death; inscribed forevermore on the public consciousness as a conflicted symbol of unbridled American privilege, appetite, and thwarted idealism.

On 'Got To Have It Every Day', the fifth track on Chain & The Gang's new long-player, art-provocateur and political savant Ian Svenonius's latest musical troupe chase the leitmotif of this their fourth album down to its bare bones: "I got to have it every day/that's what the people say/'I don't care how I get it…'". For Minimum Rock N Roll is an album forcibly concerned with appetites – of both authentic and confected kinds – in the murky value systems of late capitalism's societies. Far from shying away from injecting their unmistakable soul-griddled, punked-up gospel yeh-yeh noise with a tendentious political slant, Chain & The Gang stage their critique of rampant consumerism via an album of pointedly stripped-down, economical, and sparse garage-rock (Svenonius describes the philosophy behind the album as "why pay more for unneeded words rhymes and riffs?").

Since 2009 the 'Gang' to Svenonius's 'Chain' has comprised Chris Sutton on bass, Brett Lyman on electric guitar, Fiona Campbell on drums, and Katie Alice Greer on the microphone, all four of whom evidently passed their initiation tests with style. Their music may be minimal but it is by no means restrained; carving out a similar musical aesthetic as Svenonius' earlier outfit The Make-Up did on 2000 album Sound Verite, this album sporadically evokes James Chance and the Contortions on Off White, Dub Narcotic Sound System, as well as Thee Headcoats, and, at points, James Brown. If that sounds like a weird mix, it is because it is a weird mix; and it works. Bass and guitar take turns in being either filthy or cleanly isolated, the drums an up-front and anchoring force. Greer's vocals are brilliantly charismatic, a mash-up of Lydia Lunch, Kim Gordon, and Brix Smith, countering Svenonius's alternately plaintive and vociferous exhortations with menace and poise.

Opening track 'Devitalise' is a typically Svenonian call-to-arms, a furious, spitting takedown of corporate capitalism(and, I think, its cynical appropriation of the language of the body, the soul) delivered with the fury and disdain of Billy Childish or Comet Gain's David Feck at their most acerbic: "I wanna close everything so nothing's for sale/bring down real estate…". Posturing the kind of nihilism which is actually its opposite - a constant re-averral of the things they do believe in - Svenonius and Greer snarl and curdle with dignity and outrage: "I want the middle class to feel alone/like strangers in their own home".

On 'I'm A Choice', Svenonius effects the kind of detournement which would make Guy Debord proud, turning the apotheosising of 'freedom of choice' against itself and into a sweet and dirty love song: "I'll make you choose me/choose me over him/choose me over her". Countering the imagery of slavish and incessant commodification with that of tenderness and flesh whilst sounding like Blood Sausage or Chris outta Huggy Bear on 'Concrete Life', Svenonius once again nails the deeply palatable pitch between affectation and earnestness which, in the hands of a lesser intellect or a larger ego, could easily go wrong. Which is kinda the point. Similarly, 'Never Been Properly Loved' ("now that I have it/I never had it before/Now that I have it/I want some more") plays around with quantification vs. qualification, a structuring tension played out in the call-and-response vocals, and coming to fruition in a killer chorus. 'Stuck In A Box' is a taut, cyclical gospel chant which allows Svenonius to insert a few of those trademark screams of his – the deliberately hyperbolised sound of desire and longing, staging the raucous magnetism of one heart to the other - which have threaded their way throughout his oeuvre: and they're always good.

Speaking of that oeuvre: whilst his has always been a gang mentality, and the various kindred spirits who with him brought outfits The Nation Of Ulysses, The Make-Up, and Weird War (briefly The Scene Creamers) to life comprise a long list of pivotally creative, talented beings, Ian Svenonius has also singularly and sure-footedly loped his way through a distinctive artistic path all of his own. It is possible to read his body of work – spanning some 25 years, now – as a long and cohesive manifesto; a protracted, tangentially polemical tract; a design for life – and lived as such. Merging Situationism with Marxism via a deep engagement with the history of punk, gospel, and soul music, Svenonius has doggedly torn up the underground with a series of uncompromising documents like 13-Point Plan To Destroy America, Destination: Love – Live at Cold Rice! and If You Can't Beat 'em, Bite 'em. His multifarious musical projects (including his downrightly bizarre yet beautiful incarnation as 'David Candy' on 2001's Play Power) have never appeared in isolation; rather, they were routinely delivered wrapped in - or stuffed with - words. And there's a lot of them: manifestoes, philosophies, eulogies, poetry, and statements of intent, often typed by Svenonius on a Hermes Rocket typewriter (I think so, anyway – I bought one of these gorgeous pistachio-green machines back in the day because I was convinced its grainy cursive typeface was that used by The Make-Up on the back of Sound Verite and inside Destination Love). His beautifully garish little pink book, The Psychic Soviet, gathers together numerous essays and writings in which Svenonius – a gifted, wildly idiosyncratic writer - dissects politics and pop culture, forever reinforcing and interrogating the links between the two. His talk show series, Soft Focus, featuring our host in conversation with a range of luminaries from pop culture (including Mark E. Smith, Chan Marshall, Genesis P. Orridge) is stunningly strange, often extremely funny, and emphatically essential viewing.

As such, there is a sense in which Minimum Rock N Roll - as in many of Svenonius' projects – is best (and most likely to be) read as a part of a whole; an artefact of a singular punk aesthetic which is continually evolving and redeploying itself – exploring itself, even - but which has lain immanent and traceable in every manifestation of Svenonius' markedly creative life. Which is not to say that this record is bereft of identity or intent by itself: as the title suggests, Minimum Rock N Roll collides its politics with a wry send-up of rock posturing, vacuity, and apathy (in their own words, their album is "a purely distilled rejection of the indie rock prescription for enforced brain dead, artless mediocrity."). Which is no novel target, but in the hands of Chain & The Gang, it becomes something new and compelling; a strange and liberating blend of ostentatious theatricality, and serious authenticity. It's what allows Svenonius, when performing live, to quite literally reach out to the audience - placing his hands on their heads, almost in benediction - and to be met in return with a sea of outstretched hands, seeking to make contact with his own, and doing so; a strangely spiritual exchange. It is, somehow, both deeply ironic and deeply fervent: a constant, circular send-up which yet shifts itself outside of satire or parody into something vastly more interesting and heartfelt. And, let's not forget, truly sexy (in a way Kennedy never was): Chain & The Gang are a band riven with appetites and desires – and, boy, do they let you know that - but on this record they vaunt a particular kind of self-discipline, and choices made with great care. Austerity can be hot.

The ninth track on Minimum Rock N Roll asks 'What Are You In Here For?' before turning the question on its head and instead demanding to know "why are they out there?" Chain & The Gang have an answer for that one, as brazen and articulate as the record as a whole: "they're out there cos their blood runs cold/they're out there cos they do what they're told/and buy buy buy just what they're sold". I'm very glad we're in here.

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