Sunday, July 8, 2012

Big Black    Songs About Fucking  (1987):  78%

How about that PC title, huh? Like many artists before Big Black, songs about fucking have been written and conceived since wo/man learned how to play the guitar. One could even say an impetus to learning and playing songs is to get laid, and possibly vice versa. It is also an instrument of a sexual nature: the neck is phallic, and the body can resemble a female figure. More often than not, these instruments have been strummed and picked with much grace and care by more sensitive artists. Then rock n’ roll came along (which, interestingly enough is blues slang for sex, and pardon the pun), and musicians were having more rough sessions with their beloved equipment. Those who have seen Jimi Hendrix play guitar can attest that he doesn’t merely play the guitar, he has sex with it through his fingers; the noises we hear are pure pleasure. And of course, I like to think of punk rock and the various forms of metal as the fast and furious version of good time sex.

But this….well, this isn’t friendly by any means. All I know is that I would not want to be any instrument utilized by Big Black, especially when making what they knew was going to be their last album. In other words, a last ditch effort to piss off as many people as possible. As much as I discourage myself from using the word ‘rape’ in metaphors, yes, this is fundamentally the equivalent of guitar rape. You would just have to listen to the album to know what I’m getting at here.

There are indeed songs about fucking, but not songs that would make you want to fuck. Try getting turned on to “Precious Thing” or “Fish Fry.” Try to muster some empathy Steve Albini’s character for “Bad Penny.” You see, no subject is taboo to Big Black. After all, they named their band after the two most prominent traits of every monster we were afraid of as naïve youths. As far as the music goes, it is every bit as abrasive as it should be. Guitars grind like pavement saws (which is also another cool song on this album), the bass growls like the maladjusted beings who created this music, and the drum machine takes away the vital human element most songs need to convince people that it is safe and okay to listen to their works.

To know that frontman and well-respected producer, Steve Albini, was one-third of Big Black and the main creative force, is surprising considering his repertoire post-Big Black: Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Cloud Nothings, Bush (really?), Cheap Trick, Pixies, Slint, and even the Stooges. I would go into how Shellac is a modern reincarnation of Big Black, but that’s for another review. Since his days with Big Black, Albini has earned himself the reputation of the engineering nerd that students in the field aspire to be. His open-door policy to bands has earned him the reputation of being the guy who can make a kickass album in less than two weeks with a minimal budget. I have this vision of his geeky traits and rounded glasses hunched over a mixing board for hours on end talking to himself and growling curses whenever something doesn't go right. I've seen him discuss his career in interviews where he can be candid, but rarely asshole-ish. One of my goals is to have a true candid conversation with him, just so I can understand his thought process, and what thoughts might have been going around in his head when this record was being made. 

All in all, we are not supposed to feel clean, innocent or pure after listening to this album. At all. This music strips away any innocence or purity we might have had left in us. What makes it worthwhile is because nobody was making music this damn abrasive in the late 80’s. But why do we need it? For one thing, you can’t argue with this level of brutal, deadpan honesty. You can also argue that this album almost strives for the exact sort of attention Big Black shied away from throughout their career. When Big Black was starting to become popular, shortly before this album was made, they told themselves that this testament was to be their last. Although this is about as close to sounding ‘pop’ as they’re ever going to get, there is no way anybody can tag this as a pop album without someone else in the critic community calling bullshit.

I recently bought this album on vinyl because I know that is the only format the band would have wanted me to buy it. I took out the insert that came with it and read the tongue-in-cheek horrors they printed. It was then I had confirmation that these people had an incredibly sardonic sense of sarcasm. Here are some examples of some of the liner notes, and mind you, I am not going to provide the context of which these quotes were written (they pretty much speak for themselves, really):

“it is speculated that he was upset about the ease with which he was able to get into her pants, when she had resisted his brother’s attempts earlier”   

“how many people were pressed under stones or drowned or burned for Satanism while those of faith were tripping their brains out on bad bread?”

“someone saw him out there jaybird naked one time hopping like an indian out in the weeds. the smell is just ferocious sometimes, like he does his own number twos out there in the yard.”

And quite possibly my favorite seeing as though I unintentionally bust out laughing when I read it:
“steve albini: guitar skinng (steve uses and endorses heroin)”

I think you get the point by now. It almost makes you wonder how the people at Touch and Go felt about releasing an album like this. It is musically repellent, lyrically appalling, and just plain mean content-wise. By no means commercial, yet accessible to the kind of people who get a kick out of reading and hearing insanely nihilistic content. It is Big Black as their best, and albums with this type of angsted and anxious contempt have never been released since.

Music: 8/10
Lyrics: 8/10
Length: 9/10
Meaning: 7/10
Significance: 8/10
Overall Impression: 8/10  

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