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The Less I Know (Archigramophone)

Wednesday, Aug 22 2001
Emergency singer Ethan Swan thinks someone is out to get him. Because he sees conspiracies lurking around every corner and imagines Mickeys slipped into his drinks, he peppers Emergency's debut album, The Less I Know, with a sense of paranoia. Swan's musical persona is that of an indie rock moppet dumped into a noir film -- a nervous, truth-seeking naif stuck in a capitalist fun house.

Rather than being a dour affair, however, The Less I Know has a sharp humor that targets everything, even its own self-awareness. On "___ Is a Bloodsucker," Emergency critiques its consumerist urges, moving from "We wear our pants just like this" to "We wear our feedbags just like this." Swan knows that label affiliation -- be it music or fashion -- shouldn't be force-fed.

As if to counter all the toxic bad vibes, the Portland quartet layers its commentary with jagged guitars and bouncy post-punk rhythms. While Swan complains about "sucking off machines," Amy Suzanne Heneveld emits volleys of hiccuping guitar squiggles. Ben Lund's bass parts connect with Paul Dicklow's beats in noisy funk bursts, aligning listeners' lower halves with their theorizing heads.

Swan's paranoia focuses the band's chaotic glee. His nasal pleas and awkward cadence recall Chris Appelgren of the Pattern or a more lucid Mark E. Smith of the Fall. Like Smith, Swan has an overdeveloped sense of class consciousness. On "Make Our Men as Fit as Our Machines," Swan sings, "I can feel the workers' hate/ They resent the sounds I make." It's tough being a vanguard -- especially when you're fronting a cute punk band.

Not surprisingly, the people who Swan believes are out to get him aren't that different from the hobgoblins of rock music's past: the bosses, workers, parents, and authority figures who preach societal goose-stepping. The difference is that whereas the previous generation's rebelliousness fit nicely with free trade, Swan's generation has fewer communal fantasies and a sharpened sense of cynicism. Now, revolutions have become private affairs, and the body politic is reduced to the body physical. As Swan sings on "Bloodsucker," "We only bow to regain balance/ We only bow with guns at our backs."

As conspiracy-minded as Swan can be, the listener can't help but believe in his cause, what with the band's lyrical hooks implanted like subliminal commands. While The Less I Know is a great record, it makes an even better role-playing game: Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to escape the system, run underground, and burn your dollars -- after buying this record, of course.

About The Author

George Chen


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