Wednesday, March 4, 2015

album review: 'citizen zombie' by the pop group

So when I talked about The Mavericks' comeback and reviewed Mono, it was at least a comeback that could be explained relatively easily - the group had split apart amicably, it had only been a decade, there was a growing market for old-fashioned country in the wake of bro-country's ascendance, it made sense why they'd take a shot at it.

If only the resurgence of The Pop Group made that much sense. Sure, post-punk has returned more to the spotlight in recent years, especially in the independent scene, but The Pop Group weren't exactly a traditional 'post-punk' group, at least however you can define that nebulous genre. While they might have kept the clear striking guitar textures and deep, washed out mix, it can easily be argued The Pop Group had more in common with funk crossed with free jazz, dub, avant-garde spoken word and noise that most post-punk. And as such, they were held as influential by no-wave acts like Swans to noise acts like Sonic Youth to other post-punk groups like The Birthday Party, which spawned Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. 

But The Pop Group always seemed to have a ramshackle approach that barely seemed sustainable for a few songs, let alone the two albums they managed to release in the end of the 70s - and I have to admit, of the post-punk of that era, The Pop Group is a band I appreciate more than like. Many of their songs had great elements that fired in all sorts of weird directions, but cohesion was always a problem - and it makes sense, considering the band was comprised by a group of teenagers who had more talent and imagination that cooperation. It certainly explained the lyrics, which had some evocative imagery but definitely uneven writing. Internal fighting eventually split the band apart, with the members eventually joining several other punk bands... until 2010, where talk of the band's reunion started. It took five years until Citizen Zombie was finally released - how was it?

Well, if you're expecting this comeback album to resemble their previous records, you're in for a pretty harsh surprise, because Citizen Zombie takes The Pop Group's ramshackle approach to music and rams it through not only the distinctly unique production style of Paul Epworth and a half dozen mid-80s anarcho-punk and late 80s industrial records. What results is a record that is at least interesting, but is it good? Well, in this case I think it's a matter of expectations - those expecting a second Y are inevitably going to be disappointed, but those entering this record with a cleaner slate will find this record mostly agreeable, but in a strange way a little underwhelmed. That's probably where my opinion falls on Citizen Zombie - not a bad album, but the more times I listened through it, the more I wished I liked it more than I do.

So let's start with the instrumentation, where the biggest changes are visible - and if I was asking for more cohesion from The Pop Group, I did get that - there are more straightforward, structured songs on this album, with verses and choruses and even some halfway decent melodic hooks filtering through the fuzz. Hell, you could make the argument that the band swapped out more of their funkier side for fragments of dance-punk with the rollicking guitar and bass lines. Hell, in a twisted way, the poppier sides of The Pop Group are actually where they score some of the better tracks, or at least the moments that don't grate on the nerves in the same way. Granted, that was part of the point - it's very clear that the dissonant elements of The Pop Group are still determined to make this album a hard listen. Albeit nowhere near as much as you'd expect, which is the first element that threw me off-guard. Most of this is a factor of Paul Epworth's production, which seems to add a thin muting layer to anything with real visceral sizzle or power - So the abrasive elements don't really come in the distortion, but in the melodic dissonance or conflicting elements in a mix that feels much more dense and thick than previous records - and really, that's a lot more grating to listen through than raw crunch. Really, the most distortion comes through in the fuzz, reverb and effects piled on Mark Stewart's vocals, which make his half-growled half-shouted lyrics even harder to make out.

Now that's not saying there aren't instrumental moments I liked on this album - the eerie shambling shriek of the title track, the slick groove on 'Mad Truth', the shift of 'Nowhere Girl' from a typical punk intro into this slow noisy seething that actually managed to balance the backing chorus and waves of synth surprisingly well,  the bouncy guitar lick to 's.o.p.h.i.a.' that almost reminded me of Franz Ferdinand or Modest Mouse, and the wobbling synth against the eerie squeals of guitar on the spoken word piece 'Nations'. Hell, even though I don't think the piano was especially well-integrated into the harsher tracks on this album, I actually didn't mind it on 'Age Of Miracles', which is probably the most fragmented and spacious track on the record and actually benefits from having a thin backbone in piano and percussion, or on 'Echelon', which goes for slower, more operatic swell with hazy guitar, reedy pipe organ, and even howling sax near the back of the mix. Hell, if I were looking for one area that's almost universally good on this album, it'd probably be in the percussion lines, which all tend to have a lot of dripping texture, cacophonous presence, and variety in their progressions. The one area where they don't nearly as well is in the backing vocals - mostly because the female vocals they chose for tracks like 'The Immaculate Deception' are just a little too thin and clean to really blend with this record well.

But of course it circles back to the lyrics - and look, I'm well-aware that The Pop Group were never a hugely lyrical band. The lines were blunt, frequently overwrought, and earned their impact thanks to a blend of teenage angst and raw passion. But now thirty-five years later, one would expect that they wouldn't rely as much on lyrical broadsides that feel cliched even for anarcho-punk music. A lot of this album is in a hurry to get to the chorus, and comparing larger society to zombies or robots spiraling out of control, thrashing religion as an opiate of the masses, even co-opting game show metaphors, it feels tired and overdone, rarely bringing the lyrical nuance or sheer power to make up for it. Hell, even though I'd argue the spoken word piece 'Nations' is easily the best track on this album, it still cribs parts of its overarching message from Trainspotting, which came out nearly twenty years ago!

But on the other hand, just because the references are overplayed, does it mean the overall message of the record is? Thematically, this is an album that's trying to shock the system out of apathy and stupor, infuse it with whatever spark it can, be it the spark of wild love or the fire of social revolt. And say what you will about The Pop Group, for the most part they do sustain some level of populism in connecting with their audience and not talking down to them - the only points they really do are the religious potshots taken on 'The Immaculate Deception' and 'St. Outrageous', and they are weak points on this record. But circling back to 'Nations', what I really do like about that song comes in the final seconds where the topic circles back to addiction with the lyric, 'I was contextualized in relation to these things'. It puts the mess of this album into sharper context, as The Pop Group's broad grab bag of subjects rings of any possible desire to connect, to snap someone free, to cause that miracle. Because with the closing track 'Echelon', the stakes become sharper - because it's the first song on the album that really addresses the band's return, both grateful for those precious few who manage to get the message and mournful of the fact that so many more will ignore it, leaving dissonant melodies to echo in a haunted dance-hall.

So at the end... this is a hard album to rate. Place it against The Pop Group's early discography and while it's more cohesive, it doesn't have the same spark of raw energy or wildness that made them fascinating. But the band knows that to some extent, and is trying whatever they can to reforge that connection. And whether you like this album or not will come down to whether they pulled this off. For me... I got to be honest, I miss the energy and the funkier, jazzier edge and the lyricism that took more chances. So for me, it's a very strong 6/10, but definitely a recommendation. I won't say it's a perfect comeback album, but I definitely do see its appeal and if you've got a taste for the weirder side of post-punk, give Citizen Zombie a look.

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