Monday, July 30, 2018

resonators - episode 007 - 'double nickels on the dime' by minutemen

So when I started Resonators my general expectation was that I was going in cold - I might recognize a couple singles from punk compilations but beyond that I wasn't really familiar with the records I'd be exploring at length... but there was always going to be one exception, and it's this one.

And to explain why it's an exception, we need to go back to 2015, when I reviewed Return To The Moon by EL VY, a side project from the frontman of the National Matt Berninger that's one of the most criminally underrated and satirical projects of the decade, not to mention one of the best of the year. Throughout that record, Berninger repeatedly made reference to the band we're talking about today, Minutemen, a signee to SST and who started putting out records in the early 80s, alongside Black Flag and with Spot on production. But it rapidly became apparent that for as quick as Minutemen were in cranking out songs, they were significantly more ambitious than most of the hardcore punk acts we've covered here, dabbling with bassy post-punk even earlier and picking up chunks of jazz and experimental rock as they moved forward. Now of course it helped that the band was really good, thanks to D. Boon's jittery guitarwork and wild, guttural vocals, Mike Watt's frenetic basswork, and George Hurley's pretty damn solid drumwork, all of which fed into songs that could be as witty and genuinely funny as they were catchy - this was a group that relied more on raw wit than bellicose presence, making their first two records, both well-deserving of their critical acclaim, really stand out amongst their peers. And yet in 1983, when they heard their labelmates Husker Du were putting out a double album, they went back into the studio to expand their single disk into what some have held up not just as a hardcore classic, but one of the best records of the 1980s - a four disc, eighty minute beast overstuffed with ideas, inside jokes and off-kilter abstraction. And it's this record for which I started exploring back when I covered EL VY... and now I'm back to finish the job. That's right, folks, we're talking about Minutemen's Double Nickels On The Dime, and this is Resonators!

So one thing I wanted to focus on in the second half of Resonators this year are the records that pushed hardcore punk outside of its comfort zone. The six acts that I've covered thus far, while even they deviated from the pure hardcore punk formula, they were instrumental in setting the scene in which Minutemen felt comfortable releasing this project, some which have heralded as the zenith of hardcore experimentation, others the beginning of the end for the genre mutating and fading throughout the 80s. It's also the first time I'm not talking about a full-length debut - don't worry, I went back and relistened to The Punch Line and What Makes A Man Start Fires? a couple of times and they're certainly solid, but I'd be hardpressed to call either of them truly exceptional. Ridiculously tight and witty, absolutely, and I liked how their sophomore project got a darker and rougher and just a shade slower to show off their melodic chops, but I wouldn't quite put them among my favourites, although that sophomore album did show off a thematic complexity that did herald what was to come.

But Double Nickels On The Dime... the first thing to note is that it's split into four discs, one named for each member of the band and one purely of what they described as throwaways, which is the sort of thing for a quadruple album already over an hour raises some questions of indulgence. It was also not produced by Spot, instead opting for a relative unknown named Ethan James, for whom they had contributed a few songs to a compilation and were so impressed with his work they brought him on board. And when you factor in how the album includes instrumental cuts, live cuts, and covers, you have to wonder whether Minutemen didn't expect to release anything else after this, just to cover all of their bases. But this does present a complication in discussing the record as a whole: there's over forty songs on this project, most running under two minutes, and the more listens I gave it the more I got the impression that highlighting individual pieces within the project isn't really the point of how it's meant to be listened to - which already sets it in a different lane compared to more song- or single-driven hardcore records, something Minutemen themselves recognized by releasing the Wheel Of Fortune EP that contains nine of the more accessible cuts from the project.

But that's not what I'm covering here, instead the eighty-plus minutes of fragmented but tangled hardcore punk... made all the more complicated because when you start digging into the content, Double Nickels On The Dime kind of resists easy analysis. Music critics of the time described this album as closer to free verse poetry and I see it, given that lyrical hooks are mostly set aside for interweaving snapshots that blur together as they speed past - which makes sense for a record named for going fifty-five miles an hour on the I-10 going home to San Pedro. And while this record doesn't quite have the instrumental feel of a road trip record - I'll come back to this - it's hard to ignore how it captures the blur of contradicting ideas driving across middle America in the mid-80s. And what's genuinely impressive is how the band is keenly aware of these contradictions even circling back to the band itself, so while there's a defiant leftward slant across significant chunks of this record, the second disc named for Mike Watt is much more interested in deconstruction and digging into his role feeding into those defective systems. Sure, they'll take potshots at the failure of the United States in the Vietnam War in destabilizing the reach of the Soviet Union and communism and increasing anger at a pop industry that in the mid-80s was all about doubling down on oversold American exceptionalism while ignoring chunks of the country sliding into decay, but even there they'll question their own agency in that exploitative capitalistic system, and by the time we hit the second disc, it's hard not to see the band retreating into higher abstraction surrounding the postmodern deconstruction of free will in the face of the few universal truths they can perceive. But what I really love about the group is that they're empathetic enough to be very conscious of the consequences of their involvement in that system to others, especially outside of the United States, but also self-aware enough to take a step back and reground themselves, and in one of the most memorable points on the record, swap out the lyrics of 'Take 5, D.', perceived as 'too spacey' for a scrambled note surrounding a leaking shower from a friend's landlady, showing a renewed commitment to both reality now and others around him.

And what might serve as an internal climax point for most records is only the halfway mark for Double Nickels On The Dime, as then we snap back to the sharper picture of middle America and their panicked observations of the hard rightward shift that was taking a deeper hold in culture - topical! - and what gives the third disc such potency is its sense of momentum. From earlier on the record they seem firmly aware that in their current state they can probably avoid the majority of systemic rot and oppression, but others can't, and their concern about society's inability to change or accept responsibility or even acknowledge it exists is a huge barrier, which leads them to hypothesize that in order to express some of these concepts the true forms language might not even exist yet - and to some extent that was very true, as the examination of social privilege only started receiving academic study in the late 80s and wouldn't enter mainstream discourse for decades! And by the time we get to the fourth disc... where things kind of slip of the rails a bit. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate some of the off-kilter pivots here, but between the covers and the numerous instrumental passages, it never quite picks up the same thematic weight as the earlier discs, and I'd probably treat the entire piece as a tacked-on extra.

Granted, it's a pretty damn agreeable tacked-on extra, but that's because Minutemen are operating damn near at their peak with this release, especially when we consider the production and compositions... which, again, is tricky to talk about when pointing to specific songs because of how so much of the record flows together. I will say if you're expecting a conventional, furious hardcore punk release, this record will throw you immediately with its cleaner bassline and more intricate rhythm sections that with Boon's yelping delivery probably owes more to the Talking Heads than Black Flag, but then you combine it with the crazy intricate guitar passages that a lesser punk band wouldn't be able to play, or maybe stretch out for one hook to hammer into the ground. And while it's hard not to be in awe of how Boon blows through them in fragments only to leap to the next one, by the time we get the first intricate acoustic instrumental piece, you know you're dealing with a virtuoso where Mike Watt's bass is often responsible for holding the primary melodic foundation where Boon's guitar and Hurley's more frenetic drum fills will leap all over the damn place, and that's before we get tonal switch-ups that owe as much to jazz or funk as they do to classic southern rock or surf rock or even country timbres! And amidst all of this we have Boon's delivery... which yes, is far from the most visceral or savage or distinct from within hardcore - hell, at some point it has the same conversational, yelping vibe as David Byrne's did - but it fits the cleaner brand of more literate hardcore punk the band utilizes, emphasizing the everyman presence that gives a record so heavily deconstructionist a real populist edge, which I absolutely appreciate. 

Now that being said, this record is not without its experimental detours that don't quite stick the landing. I might love the blur of bass and guitar textures that build off the subtle roil of percussion on 'Do You Want New Wave Or Do You Want The Truth', and following it with a straight live cover of Creedance Clearwater Revival's 'Don't Look Now' frankly works better than it has any right to, and then you get the second disc which has the balls to retreat into rougher but surprisingly restrained hardcore pivots that get increasingly tangled - it's probably still my favourite of the four discs and not just because 'Corona' eventually became the Jackass theme - similar case for a considerable section of the third disc as well, where you probably find some of the strongest individual hooks on cuts like 'Themselves' and 'This Ain't No Picnic'. And I already mentioned how much 'Take 5, D.' just clicks for thematic coherence within the record even if it is one of the most slapdash cuts here. And while I could go on how 'History Lesson Part 2' is beautifully poignant in its moment of quiet personal focus... following it with the half-scat acoustic jaggedness of 'You Need The Glory' was likely not the best of choices, even if it's quickly redeemed by 'The Roar Of The Masses Could Be Farts' right afterwards. And again, while the main three discs are damn near flawless in their own way, the fourth disc does feel like a cross-section of throwaways. Really good throwaways, mind you, but it's hard to ignore the fact that if they weren't included, this might well be damn close to a 10/10.

That said, while i loved Double Nickels On The Dime back in 2015 when I reviewed EL VY for its wit and flair and insane overstuffed catchiness, the layered deconstructionist approach and fiercely beating heart of human empathy and social awareness makes this record feel even more poignant and relevant today, with few if any of the historical reference points feeling dated at all. A record that has aged unbelievably well, it also sadly prove to be one of the last from Minutemen within hardcore punk - one more genuinely excellent album in 3-Way Tie (For Last) in 1985, mostly of covers, and then tragically D. Boon was killed in a van accident that same year, which led to the band dissolving immediately. But their legacy lives on with Double Nickels On The Dime, which is getting a strong 9/10 and absolutely a recommendation as a hardcore punk classic. Where the genre was to go from there is an open question, but in terms of a high artistic watermark, Minutemen set it, and few have come close to matching it.

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