Saturday, September 06, 2008

Wire: Read & Burn 03 (MRR #300, May 2008)

WIRE - "Read And Burn 03" (Pinkflag)
It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me when I say that I am a huge fan of Wire. It started, for me, with the song "12XU", which appeared on some punk compilation a friend of mine had and was my first exposure to the band. The record that song came from, Pink Flag, is a perfect album, and still my favorite of theirs. In fact, I put off listening to anything after that record for years. I would pass on Chairs Missing and 154 as they turned up in the record bins, suspicious that they originated from the 'lost years' I'd heard about, when Wire got derailed a bit. I think this worked to my advantage. By the time I got around to picking up those albums, not only had my tastes widened (mellowed?) a little, but I feel like I'd absorbed so much of the band's earlier music that I could pick out the essential Wire-ness of even the least Pink Flag-like of their tracks on the two subsequent records. So there I stayed, for a long time. I adhered steadfastly to those first three albums, eschewing all later output. Sure, I dabbled in bootleg issues of 77-79 stuff like their demos and the Live At The Roxy tracks, but no Wire sounds from those dark detested 80s every graced my ears. Since then, I have grown to appreciate some later stuff: if you can get beyond the slick production of A Bell Is A Cup Until It Is Struck you can detect the strain of controlled tension that run through all their work.
Which brings me to the controversial subject of Wire's production. I think Harvest knobsman Mike Thorne did a great job with the first three records, although the earlier, live, stripped-down versions of the Chairs/154 songs as they were performed on German TV and released on the Wire On The Box DVD/CD package (highly recommended by the way), I can't help wondering if maybe he wasn't a bit heavy-handed with the synths etc.
Wire broke up and then got back together again a couple of times, at one stage with only three of them so they called themselves Wir, which I remember thinking was a bit strange at the time. Then in 2000 they reformed once again and have been a band ever since, although they don't seem to play or release records on a very aggressive schedule. Their post-reunion recordings, for the first two "Read & Burn" EPs and the "Send" album, were hailed as something of a return to form, and while they did mark a renewed and welcome readoption of both velocity and volume, something about the production was still a bit off. They (or at least Colin Newman, who appears to handle most of the post-production these days) seem fascinated with processing sounds digitally, so that guitars sound not so much like individual instruments played by humans, but like some robot supercomputer's nano-engineered idea of what the perfect guitar should sound like without any messy interference from pathetic inhabitants of meatspace. It's almost the opposite of the too-lush production of the 1980s but it serves the same purpose: it dilutes the band's core strengths, which are to be found in its superior songwriting, structure, minimalism, and kinetic energy.
Which brings me to their latest release, something of an appetizer for their upcoming eleventh(! - really?) studio recording. I don't recall seeing it in our review section since it came out, but then the chances of me actually making it all the way to the "W" section of any issue of MRR are pretty slim. I've found myself listening to at least the first track of the EP on the way to work almost every day, so I thought I'd talk about it here. Coming in at roughly the same length as Pink Flag even though it's only got four songs, Read & Burn 03 could almost count as an album in its own right. The first track, "23 Years Too Late" nips under the wire at just under ten minutes long. The remarkable thing is that once it's over I want to listen to it again right away (and have), and I usually get bored if a song goes over two minutes. It's almost a spoken-word piece set to music (usually the use of the term 'spoken word' is a massive red flag, I know): bassist and lyricist Graham Lewis reads a long piece describing a decadent continental scene as a three-note guitar and synth figure builds tension behind, exploding into a propulsive, angry Colin Newman-sung chorus and a squall of bass, guitars and drums. Lewis's terse, pointed delivery could earn him a spot doing voiceovers for documentaries about serial killers, while Newman, quite simply, is still the second best vocalist to come out of the '77 punk era (Rotten of course, since you asked) and is possibly the only one still putting out interesting, exciting music. Of course, the record's not perfect: the processed production makes Robert (Gotobed) Grey's already robotic, metronomic drumming sound like a drum machine most of the time. In fact, I think there might be a drum machine in there as well at times. Still, for a band that's been around for as long as they have to still be producing music this good, skirting the edges of pop with the vitality of much younger men and no small dose of intelligence and wit, is quite a feat. Especially while contemporaries seem content to mine the revival circuit.
It has to be added that as a group Wire seem to be a little far up their own arses much of the time. Don't get me wrong, I think they come pretty close to genius but in interviews it sometimes seems like they do as well. There was an amusing snippet of an interview with Colin Newman in the Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo (Mike Watt has often cited Wire, along with The Pop Group, as one of the biggest musical influences on the Minutemen, especially for their short songs) where it looks as if the producers have collared him on the street unawares. His body language resembles someone trying to extricate himself from a pair of Jehova's Witnesses. On apparently being asked about Wire's influence on the Minutemen he expounds on how much Wire influenced American hardcore bands, saying something along the lines of "especially the way we would do a whole song of just one note." It's here that he demonstrates how out of touch he is with how Wire actually affected people. I'm going out on a limb but I'd guess pretty much the only Wire song that influenced US hardcore was the aforementioned "12XU", and even then probably more because Minor Threat covered it than anything else. That "one note" quote shows that he probably hasn't even listened to very much hardcore, since I can't think of many hardcore songs that stay on one note for very long. Hardcore is about fast riffs, not exploring the sonic possibilities of deconstructing a chord down to its essential spatial coordinates or something. The American bands who really owe a debt to Wire are the 'post-punk', artier bands like Mission Of Burma. In fact, Burma have said that it was only after seeing Wire reform as older men and not look stupid up there that they decided that they might be able to get back together as well. So there's that to thank Wire for too.

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