To say you have something against the sort of music played by the Los Angeles noise trio Patsy -- who opened for fellow Angelenos Claw Hammer and the Geraldine Fibbers at the Great American Music Hall last week -- is like saying you hold a grudge against math. Well, maybe you do. Or maybe you covet math. Maybe differential equations and graphs make you downright damp. If so, Patsy's your prize. Me, I just don't react to the stuff on a gut level, at all -- if only it made me mad, much less put me in must. I heard those bassless barrages in irregular meter, and watched the various atonal, asymmetrical sequences contract and overlap, and I thought, at best, "Fascinating, Jim." (Yes, the trio Patsy lack a bass player -- it's just a drummer and two guitarists, one of whom sings in an affect-loaded, but not bad, style. That should sound somewhat familiar before I even bother adding, least importantly of all, that they're all women.) But Patsy aren't alone in this problem -- the calculated, numeric bent is heard in many post-punk bands (including, to a lesser degree, Claw Hammer and the Fibbers), and it has everything to do with that tiresome post-. Namely: After we've yanked out a cultural foundation -- be it a staid chord sequence, overbearing harmonic theory, genre restrictions, or standard instrumentation -- and we can float anywhere we like ... well, where to float? For all the admirable desire to create something unheard of, most unrestricted pop-art efforts seem to end up floating face down.
Without an established idiom, Patsy and their like are left to make their own. Brave as the effort is -- and intuitive, and creative -- most of the time the results have no idiom, self-made or otherwise. Instead, we get a chain of arbitrary absolutes -- seven beats per measure here, five there, no tonal center here, a C sharp there, midtempo here, presto there. Odds and ends, odds and evens -- a music more stiff and mathematical, for all its assertion of freedom, than any genre form could aspire to be. Sometimes it works; most of the time it doesn't.
On some level, Patsy's sloppy constructs might as well have been played on an abacus. (Sloppiness puts a human touch to their engineering -- just like the neglected stresses that might lead to catastrophic failure at one of those faceless and impersonal Colorado dams.) And of course, since rock is still a singer's genre of sorts, it didn't help that I couldn't make out most of the words. At least Patsy tried to make light of it. At one point, their butch vocalist/guitarist turned a four-count into a lyrical gag -- a soft and disaffected version of the Ramones rally recurring twice in the middle of the song. Of course, this might not have been intended to be funny, but it should have been. Funny helps: The Great American cued the evening with a tape of Mr. Bungle/John Zorn-style avant-garde buffoonery -- a good example of a non-genre, post-everything music that finds its own idiom simply by being comical, or at least slapstick.
My unfamiliarity with Patsy probably contributed to my indifference. On the other hand, my relative familiarity with Claw Hammer and the Geraldine Fibbers contributed to my skepticism. Both of them have produced records that, for the sake of adventure, ended up sounding ill-defined. Look no further than the hideous cover art and giggly title of the most recent Claw Hammer effort, Hold Your Tongue (and say apple), and then listen and drink in its Beefheartian spirit. And as for Butch, the new Fibbers disc ... I shied away when I heard the first track, "California Tuffy." It initiates with an old-style strum, almost like a '50s rock 'n' roll prom ballad, with the lyrics, "A ball/ Of light/ Comes down/ To bite me on the ass." On that mildly profane twist, the rest of the band comes in, playing different chords. Singer Carla Bozulich continues: "... the legs, the breasts/ I'm falling from my nest/ My earth, my pride/ Are laughing from inside/ My eyes/ Are closed/ And I'm dripping like a rose." The song pauses and the entire ensemble initiates a churning, fast-strummed break, unrelated to what came before. For an album whose songs play with form -- and over which critics seem to be spurting a lot of saliva -- it is a surprisingly weak intro. (Instrumentally, that is. Make of the lyrics whatever you will. I think dripping like a rose is a perfectly good thing to do.) Nothing on the album stuck with me after that opening. It seemed jumbled and out of sync with itself -- music not by the numbers, but about them. It's often easier to admire the intentions of such stuff than the results.
Imagine my surprise when Claw Hammer's and the Fibbers' music, in person, turned out to have some sass and grip. A few of those mathematical qualities were still there, but in terms of gut reaction ... well, my gut reacted. I don't know whether I can return to Hold Your Tongue -- the cover art is, whoa lordy, just too freaking ugly -- but as for Butch, the performance suggested that it was an ineffective album full of good material.
Claw Hammer's first song touched on more of the old rock-chord balladry that for myriad reasons can no longer be taken seriously. Then their lead guitarist (and vocalist, harmonicist, saxophonist, and kazooist) Jon Wahl began to "shred." And Wahl used it to comic end. Suspicious as I am of that sort of shaft manipulation, Wahl did make me laugh. His vocals proved to be similarly goofy. One song -- and I'm not sure of any of the titles, much less the lyrics -- seemed to be sung to the tune of "On Top of Spaghetti" (and not "On Top of Old Smokey").
Live, Claw Hammer wrung an almost lounge-ready oil out of their tunes. Wahl, in particular, sweated in all the right places. Namely, everywhere. He had an "unctuous frontman" appearance replete with hair wisps sticking all over his face, and a sweat-slicked button-down shirt. He looked like a prom-queen Carrie. And yet, for all the entertainment premium, by set's end I couldn't tell you what most Claw Hammer songs sounded like. Effective hooks were scarce. I recall one tune with an arpeggiated D chord and a Soundgarden-style string bend, but only because it reminded me briefly of that other (better, different) band.
The Geraldine Fibbers took a small eternity to set up, mostly due to the thicket of stringed instruments around the drum riser. (The band includes William Tutton on stand-up bass, Jessy Greene on fiddle, Kevin Fitzgerald on drums, new guitarist Nels Cline, and leader Bozulich, who plays various guitars and sometimes bass.) And fortunately, they didn't begin their set with "California Tuffy," but "I Killed the Cuckoo" (also off Butch). This is a tune filled with tritones -- the most dissonant of harmonies -- as well as various atonal asides, but it also adheres to a hard, fast drum pattern and even an actual song structure. Plus, Bozulich put a little more yawp into the song's standout moment: a silent break over which she mumbles, "You ... might ... think ... I ...," followed, of course, by, "hate you!" Hardly fodder for The Defence of Poetry, but dumb in the right way. In fact, most of Bozulich's shtick seems to hinge on being pissed, or at the very least obnoxious -- a quality that is always more stirring (or grating, or even frappeing) in person than on record.
And yet for all the immediacy, some material still seemed incongruous. Take the two-step "Folks Like Me" ("Not to be confused," Bozulich deadpanned, "with 'Folks Like Me.' ") and the country waltz "Pet Angel." They sound like little else on Butch, and live they seemed to arrive from nowhere, striking us headlong like loose hay bales. And it wasn't just the genre-shunting that seemed abrupt; Bozulich's lyrics suddenly turned sweet. We went from "Not so fast, fucker" to "You cradle my body in safety and warmth."
And how's this for quashing the spirit of adventure: The Fibbers' best material -- live as on record -- was always the more melodic, like "Seven or in 10" or the magnificent, elegiac "Butch," which uses the Fibbers' fiddle and bowed stand-up bass to good dramatic end. In fact, parts of "Butch" are reminiscent of material by Come -- Bozulich used to be in the experimentalist Ethyl Meatplow -- where plaintive, rough vocals and odd harmonic arrangements sound deep emotional muck. (Though some of the lyrics falter -- particularly that bit at the end that goes, "Go in the bathroom and wash your face dear/ You look puffy." That's the kicker? Someone looks puffy?) Sure, I'm the Grinch for saying so. But invention is a gambit, and resisting all those annoying old givens like genre often gets you nowhere. For all of the commendable urge to try new forms (on the part of the Fibbers and many other latter-day genre-free bands), it still seems that we can't lose the melody without risking math. Here's to the Fibbers for remembering as much.