Smile Politely

One-minute reviews, with bonus book review

Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday. SubPop.

The lyrics, the liner notes, the silly picture of the band mugging for the camera, and the peculiar-cool cover art of broken quarter notes don’t suggest “masterpiece.” But rock masterpieces fail harder. In fact, plenty of great albums were recorded without thinking too hard about it: Ziggy Stardust, Please Please Me, I Often Dream of Trains. Happy Birthday’s eponymous debut is a great, fun, easy album of inscrutable furry garage pop with sweet, androgynous vocals. I like it just the way it is, and am not tempted to research the background of the band and spoil the mystique through reductive over-analysis of the Gestalt, knowwhatI’msaying? Wikipedia it yourself, geek. Think of an album to play loud in your car on the first day of spring, when you would open the sunroof or fold the top down, but can’t because you rock a ’93 Camry with 200,000 miles and rust spots. This album is all yummy like gourmet french fries: pommes frites, if you will. Happy Birthday is, in a word, good. At 33.3 minutes, this album suggests that you want it on vinyl, which SubPop, bless their indy/corporate soul, can provide.


POLYSICS. Absolute POLYSICS. Ki/ooon Records.

Turn down the music, I think my cellphone is ringing. Wait, that is the music. A great composer once said, “Those who get what they want, get what they deserve.” I’ve been wanting more early Devo. Suddenly I have found this impossible desire fulfilled in Japan’s POLYSICS, and I don’t know where to listen to it. In the car? I’d get in a wreck. Put it on during a party? I don’t think that would go over too well with the Tom-Waits-loving kids of my generation. I don’t even know how the band’s name is pronounced. But I knew, the moment I saw the cover with the band posing like mannequins in matching safety orange jumpsuits, that I was on to something.

This music is a plastic power sander to the ear canal. Relentlessly driven, synthetic, upset but disciplined, it is organized on a musical level but on a lyrical or emotional level completely inaccessible. The singer doesn’t exactly sing, and if it’s in English it doesn’t matter–his conniptions prevent any understand of the music or its genre. They straddle lines between old school synth pop and old school hardcore punk… categories are useless in the presence or original music, but it pleases me to think that certain decades-old strains of energetic rock strain on in the music of POLYSICS. One can even pick out musical references to Devo or XTC’s unpopular and bracingly jittery debut White Noise (I know I’m not making this up because the song title is “XCT”). This is my second favorite release from the past year, and the one I am the most afraid to listen to. Every situation is inappropriate for this music! But I like a challenge! I like music that tells me I am mostly complacent, lazy, and smooth around the edges.


Joe Carducci. Enter Naomi: SST, L.A., and All That… 2007.

What I want people to know about Black Flag is this: despite music that on the surface seems aggressive and nihilistic, and despite a reputation (unfortunately glorified by certain observers) for violent concerts, the band was idealistic. Idealistic in a way beyond what is appropriate for a rock band, much less a hardcore punk rock band. Idealistic, determined, unflagging, and even, dare I say, professional.

Not much about all that in this book though.

Enter Naomi is ostensibly the story of punk rock photographer angel Naomi Peterson, but the digressional, anecdotal, personal, diary style of the prose seems to rarely touch upon its subject. I am still not sure how she died, and the author apparently did not interview her husband nor family. What we get is an involuted flavor of the narcissism of the southern California hardcore punk milieu . As few histories of this scene exists, this book carries an unfortunate burden it cannot live up to: that of documenting the idealism.

There’s a lot of information about the author’s friends and colleagues, but these characters tend not to be properly introduced, vividly portrayed, or add up to anything. In other words, if you know the players, this book could provide a useful reference to certain evaporating gossip for those who were there. But for the rest of us, it is a reminder that we were not.

With this tribute, I can’t decide whether Carducci has honored Peterson or committed the unfortunate (he would agree) act of rendering her forever a female sidekick to the important people with names like Spot, Mugger, and Henry Rollins.

To be fair, the writing style, at its best, is rock solid and razor sharp. The book is far more intelligent, scholarly, and typo-free than one might expect. Unfortunately for me, the book defied all expectations, including hopeful ones. There but for a merciless editor.

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