Weird War

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em

(Drag City; 2004)

By David M. Goldstein | 30 December 2007

I took in a Ween show with my buddy Rob a few months back. After witnessing Gene and Dean perform a mind-numbingly faithful rendition of the late-period Zeppelin classic "All of My Love," seemingly out of nowhere, Rob turns to me and asks me a question that still manages to keep me up nights; "Dave, what would have happened if the Make-Up had never called it quits?" Rob was extremely stoned, and I was concentrating too hard on the ensuing performance of "Big Jilm" to answer the kid, but it's not like I wasn't able to grasp the significance of his question. Simply put, if ever there was a band that missed seriously cashing in by a year or two, it would be the Make-Up.

In their four year existence, the Make-Up released five mostly excellent albums of highly energetic punk-infused R&B; purposely lo-fi and driven by the oh-so breathy vocals, faux leftist polemic, and stage antics of one Ian Svenonius with lots of Motown basslines and electric keyboard doodles, too. In other words, if they hadn't packed it in at the height of their popularity in 2000, they'd likely be spending 2004 gracing NME covers and touring the country with the Hives or something. This is all speculation mind you, and granted it's a little difficult to imagine a band that split their career between Dischord and K willingly riding a trend to major label dollars. But whether or not they realized it at the time, the Make-Up was ahead of the curve and their live show was explosive.

But in an even greater similarity to the self-consciously lo-fi rock bands reproducing like bunnies nowadays, the Make-Up had a gimmick. Not content to merely rock, Svenonius, along with bassist (and Weird War member) Michelle Mae, drummer Steve Gamboa and guitarist James Canty fashioned themselves as uniformly black clad, white belted purveyors of the "Gospel Yeh-Yeh Sound;" a booty-shaking liberation theology calling for all oppressed peoples to "get theirs" while advocating destruction of "the pigs in all their forms." Hell yeah! Makes having your ex-wife masquerade as your little sister look positively weak by comparison, don't it? Such concepts were further supplemented by their trademark packaging; overly expansive liner notes featuring such curiosities as hilarious interviews with non-existent publications.

I was pretty enamored with the Make-Up in college, but aside from a listening to a handful of MP3s, my interest in more recent Svenonius projects has been considerably less. From what I can tell, the man seems to have taken on somewhat of a Frank Black-ian existence, touring often and releasing a yearly album of adequate product for a cult fan base. If You Can't Beat 'Em is the first post Make-Up Svenonius disc I've actually listened to from start to finish, and unsurprisingly, Weird War is basically the latter with a serious wah pedal fixation: grimy and instantly familiar -- and I'm guessing that nobody who buys this record would want it any other way. What you want out of Weird War (or any Svenonius band for that matter) is simple: predictably lo-fi party rawk grooves that will require the listener to shower after successive listens. At least half of If You Can't Beat 'Em makes good on this promise.

If there's a significant difference between Weird War and the Make-Up, it's in the guitar work of Alex Minoff, who utilizes wah-wah and flange to positively gaudy effect. The best songs on this record are the ones where he evokes classic blaxploitation grooves, riding his wah pedal to create an atmosphere far sexier than the one suggested by the hardcore porn moans in the background of the introductory "Music For Masturbation." The gold standard here is "Store Bought Pot," which combines funky snare work and call and response vocals with a wah riff so slinky, it practically oozes down the face of the listener like so much…uh, yeah. For the four minutes that this song is on my headphones, I can positively strut, and force myself to believe that I'm the baddest muthafuckah the East Village has ever seen. This is exactly what any (and every) Ian Svenonius recording should do. Practically all of the first half of If You Can't Beat 'Em delivers in this regard, with the title track and the '70s cop show/high speed car chase feel of "Grand Fraud" being especially effective. The latter offers a further example of Minoff's inventive guitar work, containing a fleet fingered solo treated to the point where it sounds like an electric sitar.

While Svenonius's vocals seem to be buried a little farther in the mix than usual, he more or less sticks to the script, offering amusing double entendres and typically breathy declarations like, "pimping, pandering, prostitution! Which one of these am I?" Careful listeners will also be able to make out something resembling left-wing politics in the album's second half. The lyrics of "Ak-47" amount to a history of the weapon's use in guerilla warfare (complete with rat-a-tat-tat sounds!), and the "P" of "N.D.S.P." stands for Palestine, but the song itself wasn't interesting enough for me to go ears to the speaker in search of what "N.D.S." means (serves me right for reviewing a Svenonius album without the liner notes). The same can be said for practically all of tracks after "Store Bought Pot." After a considerably sexy and energetic first half, If You Can't Beat 'Em suffers from a lack of hooks, and an emphasis on mindless noise and a more traditional (i.e.; less interesting) punk sound, obscuring their groovy goodwill.

All in all, If You Can't Beat 'Em is a solid way to get your Svenonius fix, though I'd recommend anyone unfamiliar with the man's body of work to grab a Make-Up (or better yet, Nation of Ulysses) record instead. The second Weird War album merely serves as another excuse to get drunk and ball in a back catalog that's already loaded with similar excuses, but sometimes that's all anyone needs. Svenonius and Co. deserve mad props for being this horny for this long. While the percentage above actually does reflect my feelings for this record, could I have really have rated it anything else?

(WARNING: It's worth noting that the first song on this album features a bass riff mixed so incredibly high that it will quite literally destroy your speakers if you were unlucky enough to have been previously listening to something that requires an unusual amount of volume. Users of multi-disc changers would be advised to make sure that Weird War is not slated to play upon conclusion of the Happy Mondays live disc or the un-re-mastered version of the first Ween album.)