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MusicDec. 22, 2006

WHAT GOES ON

By Mark Jenkins

This is a kind-of-monthly online column that's sort of about music. Its writing is an act of pure will.

An Accident of Genius

Punk demolished the wall between performer and audience. Punk toppled the hegemony of the star, the producer, and the career. Punk proved talent and skill are meaningless, and all that matters is sheer desire.

I like all those ideas. Some of them I even believe, sort of. Thirty years after punk, however, it's clear that if all punks are equal, some are more equal than others.

That's not exactly news. Most 1976-1980 punk bands flamed out quickly, and their members lacked the motivation or ability to regroup. A few punks became professional musicians—or worse, professional entertainers—based more on charisma or persistence than vision. And by now, many of the punk (and post-punk) bands that split before they'd burned out all their ideas have already reassembled, at least on a part-time basis.

So it might not be considered especially notable that the current incarnations of two seminal British postpunk bands—both of which made their recorded debuts in 1979—passed through the Washington-Baltimore region last month. But these were rare sightings: The Slits seldom played in the United States, and Scritti Politti, sidelined for decades by Green Gartside's stagefright, had never before done an American tour. And there's even more to the confluence than that.

Both the Slits and Scritti were deconstructionists, as much out of necessity as philosophy. The former actually started in 1976, among the earliest British bands to be seized by the spirit of CBGB's. The original members had no musical experience, and it's part of the Slits' essential lore that the Clash's Mick Jones used to tune their guitars for them before they went onstage. Of the original lineup, only singer Ari Up survived to 1979, when the band—an all-female trio, plus a unphotographed male ringer on drums—released the epochal Cut. It's impossible to say how that dub-punk masterpiece came together, though producer Dennis Bovell certainly deserves a chunk of the credit; subsequent releases, while competent, never recaptured the album's slippery brilliance.

Scritti's case is a little different. A product of Leeds, the art-theory hotbed that also produced Gang of Four and the Mekons, the trio also had no musical training, but that suited its goal of interrogating all pop music's assumptions, including the way it's made. That idea was fun while it lasted. But by the time of the band's debut LP, 1982's Songs to Remember, singer-guitarist Gartside was exploring pop-soul and lover's rock—and enlisting session musicians to do so. The group became Gartside's musical alter ego and soon went high-gloss, even scoring chart hits during the New Romantic mid-'80s. Subsequently, Gartside conserved his energy with long layoffs. He spent almost all the '90s in his native Wales, reading, drinking, and "going for walks." The new White Bread Black Beer is his first album in more than six years, and only his second since 1988.

If neither band kept the same lineup for long, the Slits did have a definitive moment. So it was only reasonable to be suspicious when the realigned group arrived at the Black Cat with only two of the musicians who appeared on Cut: Up, of course, plus bassist Tessa Pollit. Rounding out a sound that was originally known for its sharp angles were NO, Adele Wilson, Anna Schulte, and Hollie Cook. (The latter is the daughter of Sex Pistol Paul Cook, who appears on Revenge of the Killer Slits, the new three-song EP that includes one tune, "Number One Enemy," dating from 1976.) This gave the band two things it didn't have in 1979: a second guitar, and a honey-toned backing singer.

A longtime U.S. resident who currently lives in Brooklyn, the dreadlocked Up was true to her name. It was her between-song chattiness that expanded a 12-song set to 65 minutes, not any lengthy instrumental forays. The guitars had little to say, in fact, although the rhythm section was solid, and the sweet-sour vocals melded nicely. The band only played a few Cut numbers, but that was just as well: The scrambling energy and youthful indignation of songs like "Typical Girls" and "Shoplifting" didn't really suit today's Slits, even if the band did try to reach even further back for a couple of Pistols-style rockers.

Up once wanted to incinerate London; now she complains about secondhand smoke. "January 2!" called out fans—the date that D.C.'s restaurants, bars, and clubs go smoke-free. The Slits are welcome to return after the ban goes into effect. They didn't embarrass themselves, even if their moment has clearly passed.

Like the latest version of the Slits, the Scritti Politti that arrived at Baltimore's Sonar a few weeks later was a sextet. The latter band, however, had a lot more power and versatility. Gartside, who played guitar on most of the 17 songs, was backed by another guitarist, as well as a bassist, a drummer, and two keyboardists. All of them sang, which allowed the outfit to reproduce the complex vocal layers of White Bread Black Beer—and Scritti's earlier work, if Gartside was so inclined.

It turned out that he was. In a confident 90-minute set, Gartside covered his entire career, including "Skank Bloc Bologna," the 1978 anti-composition he identified simply as "the first song I ever wrote." Although he emphasized the new album, the singer-songwriter touched on his entire career, from "The Sweetest Girl" and "Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin)" to "The Boom Boom Bap," with a trio of hip-hop covers underscoring that last song's devotion to the genre. Like the new album, the result was a cagey mix of Gartside's interests, from politics to Pet Sounds, and from silky American soul to punky British guitar—all leavened with a newfound belief in one of those pop music assumptions he once interrogated: the word love. (Gartside recently married, and the new "Snow in the Sun" vows with unprecedented earnestness that "you will never be without me/I'm beside you, never doubt me.")

The long-reclusive singer even added some personal remarks, explaining that "Robin Hood" and "Mrs Hughes" are about, respectively, "the end of Utopian socialism" and "my old English teacher." Yet if Gartside's stage fright seemed to be in remission, he didn't join the rest of the band in hanging out with the small crowd after the gig. Old LPs and EPs were dispatched backstage for his signature, as veterans of such D.C. bands as Fugazi, Q and Not U, the High Back Chairs, and the Insect Surfers compared notes on the show. (If most of the crowd was from Washington, why was the date in Baltimore? Probably the work of some booking agent who doesn't really know the difference between the two cities.)

There was one irony of Scritti's performance, and of the whole tour, I suspect. Although White Bread Black Beer is a home-studio, one-man-band album made possible by cheap modern technology, the tour looked like a classic money-losing, major-label outing. Six British musicians hauling a truckload of equipment—numerous keyboards, multiple drum kits, and so on—to play for about 60 people in Baltimore? (I felt so bad about it that I actually bought a T-shirt, which I almost never do.) The album will have to go platinum before Gartside recoups, which is just the sort of problem bands like Scritti intended to bypass back in 1979.

But the show was great, and the album deserves whatever publicity it can eke out of a cash-burning tour. Even if the project never pays for itself, some of the psychic pressure is off. When I interviewed Gartside at the time of Anomie and Bonhomie's early-2000 U.S. release, he said that "one of the cool things is I'm so much older now that nobody really expects me to be a pop star. I could be a second division elder statesman."

Through art-punk stratagems and canny commercialization, Gartside sidestepped claims of "genius" or being "the only [fill in the blank] that matters." It's clear now, however, that he wasn't just a troublemaker with a Situationist handbook and a guitar. I think White Bread Black Beer is the album of the year. And if that's not the result of a special talent, it's a lot more than we can expect from, say, Glen Matlock in 2006.

In the CD player:

DAT Politics, Are Oui Phony? (Tigerbeat6). On a nutty, exuberant, ingratiating seven-song romp, this laptop-pumping French synth-punk trio gets away with bad puns and a fuck-you cover of Kermit the Frog's "Rainbow Connection." Cartoonish? Yeah, and Justin Timberlake isn't?

Nellie McKay, Pretty Little Head (Hungry Mouse). OK, I admit it—Nellie McKay is a little too cute for my taste. And in an era when "carbon neutral" has become a badge of honor, it wasn't necessary to split these 23 ditties across two CDs. But the Broadway-besotted vegan oddball is a hell of a melodist, and I like her range: She can make the Revolution ("The Big One") and a kitty cat ("Pounce") sound equally silly and equally serious. CP

Serious? Silly? Keep the conversation going at inDCent Exposure, the online spot for discussing D.C.'s music scene—and anything else. No cover, open 24 hours.

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