The Cat and the Cobra
Les Savy Fav
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Saturday, April 22 2000, 7:18 PM
Hardcore punk is near-impossible to define as a genre: it's more an international zeitgeist than a musical commonality. Crash and thrash alone don't constitute an opposition, and hardcore punk has always and ever been about an attitude of oppositional independence. This is a double-edged disposition, because aesthetic isolationism can emerge lightening-quick in any contemporary music culture that remains preoccupied with the minutia of insider knowledge. If anything puts the 'hardcore' into punk, though, it is music that bleeds attitude. There is no resolving the cultural amorphousness here, since oppositionalism is contingent and forever changing.
Yet this same cultural opposition, especially when it is already a generation advanced and employing the preservationism of 'hardcore,' is open to question as to its effectiveness. At what point does fully demonstrated alienation become a matter of stylistics more than practice? Can there be a 'hardcore' that does more than repeat and elaborate upon an Ur-punk of the 1970s? To be 'hardcore' is to admit to living as a corrupt semblance of a more meaningful past. The adjectival qualifier condemns.
A marriage of style and social attitude lives at the moment of birth, discovers its consciousness early, ages fast, and turns sclerotic soon. By the time an ideological restatement emerges to confirm its content, style already lives among the walking dead. Petrification arrives together with commercialization, and the creative lifecycle concludes amid profit-taking.
Like so many others, punk music sought to short-circuit this so-familiar cycle. Indie 'attitude' became the defense mechanism against expressive decrepitude within market capitalism. Yet a privileged 'bad' attitude of itself expresses neither social opposition nor existential alienation. These manifest themselves through historical acts and a participation in history, even through personal negation of history. Attitude of itself speaks political insufficiency, since action is the flash point of political life. Attitudinal repetitiveness is tiring in its lack of variation, while repetitive action has the minimal virtue of accomplishment.
A reductive invocation of an attitude, though, can serve to establish genre reference, which drives marketability. Absent 'badness,' hardcore punk is no longer 'hardcore' and the audience dissipates. Nominally new genres arise when artistic products do not behave as they once did, and new versions of old products gain adjectival descriptors to identify their genre origins. As with Romantic poets who have lived beyond their revolution, as with a crotched Wordsworth writing miserably poetic condemnations of reform, the putative but inevitably unhistorical history of an attitude becomes a rhetorical prison. Artists living within an attitudinal label live condemned by another's yesterday.
Les Savy Fav inhabits a zone of post-hardcore genre change: they might be hardcore but they are something else too. The punk attitude is there, but the musical style alters noticeably through the album. An album like this brings focus to the question of how we come to categorize as 'hardcore punk' a music that surprisingly continues to shape-shift and change its own terms of existence. If an alleged attitude becomes the one-size-fits-all designation, then the constraints of a name rather than the work of music monopolize understandings.
When Les Savy Fav open The Cat and the Cobra with "The Orchard" and "We've Got Boxes" we enter the familiar world of the driven and surrounded self, of a persona inhabiting the contortions forced by life. A 'bad' attitude sprawls across these songs. The classic stuff of punk, yet it is a fuller sound that escapes rock genre limitations. Ferocious play between sounds and styles emphasizes that the band is in flux between ideas, working towards a distinctive sound that currently registers as a surreal-accented scream. Les Savy Fav acknowledge this voice and its various origins as they open their second album, with the more self-consciously punk songs reserved for later in the album.
This five-man group, which assembled at Rhode Island School of Design and now works out of Brooklyn, has followed a well-known transit route from New England schools into the New York music scene, such as fellow RISD alumni The Talking Heads. Les Savy Fav can be a freight train of pulse, beat and heat. When they slow down on a track, it is usually in order to pick up momentum towards a speed where they can achieve more. Their instinct in several of these songs is to push from an initial slow pace towards the salvation of speed and amp power. A song like "Wake Up!", for instance, begins rather weakly, carried by Tim Harrington's unimpressive front vocals, but grows into a convincing and driving piece. Harrington has a homely voice that works best when he is shouting back at the band's music in full tilt, with his adenoids about to be arrested for indecent exposure.
A group political voice emerges in a song like "Who Rocks the Party," an anthem of antagonism towards class where party-crashers plunge into the private party of wealth and privilege. Life and movement comes from the radical party-crashers, whose rabble roots are such that "they can't loose the dogs on us / because the dogs like us more than the dogs like them." This is the resurrection of the English gin-drinking class, now hiving into a well-juiced surrealism: "Fuck the champagne / We want gin / We'll take back Toad Hall again." If Toad Hall has been captured, then every manjack rocker should rage...
In "Roadside Memorial" the band achieves an operatic swing of guitars and bass that pushes off into high-pitched extremes as the song fades out. In a song like this, Harrington's voice becomes marginal to the heavy instrumentalism. That same heavy gravity of tone collapses in the next track, a muddy instrumental entitled "Dishonest Don Part I." The following "Dishonest Don Part II" re-establishes clarity in a hard-driving and burning song. Seth Jabour and Gibb Slife, who share guitar work throughout the album, are especially good in "Reformat," a high-edged, stringy and nervous song that nails a mood of excitement.
Les Savy Fav capture a sense of musical change; they are not 'ordinary' or easy to anticipate; they are more concerned with music than the name of the music; they are not fossilized by their inheritance. Les Savy Fav are an active question mark.
The Cat and the Cobra is a Frenchkiss Records/The Self-Starter Foundation release