Fugazi had it all wrong. When the seminal D.C. post-hardcore politicos released the album
Repeater in 1990, vocalist Ian MacKaye's rage against materialism personified the group's agenda. In the song "Merchandise," he summed up his frustrations with one line, "you are not what you own." Soon after, the same words appeared on bootlegged Fugazi T-shirts as though they were part of a postmodern joke, poking fun at the "alternative nation" generation.
These days MacKaye has to be scratching his head in wonderment when he hears a band like Blood on the Wall. The Brooklyn-based trio is increasingly defined by comparisons to the grit, fuzz and lo-fi pop sounds of early '90s alternative rock bands such as Sonic Youth, Pavement and most strikingly, the Pixies. The barrage of comparisons the group receives has eclipsed any earnest critical examinations of the music – which, in itself, has drawn criticism.
In a review of the group's second album, Awesomer, the Village Voice described the music by saying, "Imagine Mudhoney covering Daydream Nation." Pitchfork said "... Blood on the Wall don't try to hide the fact that they're trying to write another 'Gigantic.'" Even Rolling Stone magazine called the group an "indie-rock three-piece doing its best to fill the void that Sonic Youth left when they stopped bringing the heavy guitar fuzz a decade or so ago."
With all these references to references, it's hard to get a true impression of the group's personality. But undeniably, BOTW's songs bear the telltale marks of a group obsessed with its record collection, which its members have digested and meticulously regurgitated. So despite MacKaye's battle cry from the same era that left such an indelible mark on the group, Blood on the Wall makes an art form out of being exactly what it owns.
Songwriters in every genre of music have long channeled real-life experiences, wisdom and reflection into the narratives and allegories of their songwriting. Blood on the Wall skews this M.O. by relying on pop culture to inform its songs. But for siblings and founding members Brad (guitar, vocals) and Courtney Shanks (bass, vocals), pop culture is a strong element of day-to-day life that has played a vital role in forming the band.
As the story goes, the Lawrence, Kan., transplants Brad and Courtney were out for a day of record shopping in Brooklyn when they met the man who would become the group's original drummer, Miggy Littleton (also of Ida and White Magic). One lengthy conversation about music and the bands they liked led to another and soon enough they became close friends. It didn't take long before they were jamming together, which led to the formation of Blood on the Wall.
Littleton has come and gone and returned and left the group again a couple of times since 2004. Zach Campbell currently rounds out the BOTW lineup on drums.
Over the course of three albums, the group's sound has evolved into a fiery and melodic balance of noise and pop hooks. The songs are catchy and energetic. From the bounding drum-and-guitar roll of "Hibernation" that kicks off the group's third full-length, Liferz (The Social Registry), BOTW makes it clear that the same dose of '90s worship is still deeply ingrained in the band's DNA. Their voices even adopt the traits of their heroes. Brad is the Frank Black to Courtney's Kim Deal. Her breathy vocal delivery in the hazy "Lightning Song" even sounds like a gruff and long-lost Breeders cut.
But the emulation stops there. In the early '90s, one word captured the angst-ridden and heavy-duty mind-set of the times that was hiding just below the din of lo-fi noise and smug pop anxiety. That word was ennui. Look up any review of an indie-rock album from the era and it's there, waving back at you like a cultural beacon. Ennui is present in Blood on the Wall's songs, but it feels like an accidental emotion, or a byproduct that's the result of borrowing its tonal palette from a cult of so many personalities.
But unlike the forefathers who shaped the BOTW sound, narcissism takes a back seat. Even though they sound like their influences, there is no Frank Black, Thurston Moore or Steve Malkmus giving a tortured sulk to the group's songs. BOTW has the feel of a democratic three-piece, working together, making music and having a blast.
Sure, the band wears its influences on its sleeve. They're covering the impressionism that defined an era nearly 20 years ago with style and finesse. As the pop culture wheel keeps turning, these things are bound to get kicked up again and again.
Remember when the Rapture was all the rage? Every song was a direct reference to the Cure, Public Image Ltd. and Gang of Four. It's happening again with Blood on the Wall, just a generation later. The kids are playing what they know, and not even Ian MacKaye can thumb his nose at that.
Record makes a great Frisbee
There was about one or zero good songs on each side. My 3LP set came…
"your favorite local atlanta band sucks"
Thanks for reading, and thanks for the catch!
Tues, Dec 31st. Not 21st.