Sunday, February 17, 2013

Triggerfinger and beyond

There are a few bands that are hard for me to pin down. Most of the time, I've got a pretty good idea what the band wants to accomplish within two or three listens. Sometimes, I know the band well enough that I can figure things out as I hear a new song. Then, there are bands like Triggerfinger. I have been aware of them since about 2008. I finally ordered a copy of their last studio LP "All this Dancin' Around" after seeing the triumphant set they did at Lowlands this past summer. When I heard it was a remaster, I figured they were trying to polish a not strong set of songs. So I didn't worry when it took a month to get to me. I gave the CD a cursory listen, and filed it away. But I remembered that set I saw. So, I listened a few more times this past week. What I can say is that, while I can't pin down who they are as a band, nor what they're trying to do, I can say that they have some strengths that are compelling. First, as should be obvious from following the links above- they put on a hell of a show. Second, Singer/guitarist Ruben Block has a great voice that is mostly like Josh Homme's but with a wailing, killer  howl of a falsetto that he deploys like a cruise missile and plays guitar  with a both a command of his instrument and an underlying joy of noise, in a way that I cannot resist. Third,  drummer Mario Goossens, while a strong drummer, really knows how to produce a record ( he worked the same for Black Box Revelation, and Hooverphonic)- and with this record, he got to do it at Sound City (I've simply gotta see that doc) . Seriously, the record sounds absolutely crackling!  Fourth, Paul Van Bruystegem is a secret weapon of a Bass player. He functions like both an augment to the drums, and as a second guitar player- no mean feat, that. It reminds me of Mike Watt, and you'll hear no higher compliment from me.
However- there's some basic confusions going on. I cannot figure out if they're doing an exercise is blues rock formalism a la The Black Keys and White Stripes, or a psychedelic desert rock grunge revival a la QOTSA and Red Fang. There are definite elements of both, and usually not at the same time. One track is a flat out grunge boogie, and another track a Blues rock scorcher- and they do either one with enough conviction that I'd believe either one is their true calling.  They do covers like some kind of bar band. But they also do originals as their mainstay, like bohemians. They dress like errant members of Grinderman, and yet, with a kind of ironic hipsterdom that reminds me of Cake, circa "Fashion Nugget" .  All this is nearly impossible for me to reconcile, unless I consider them hacks- just blown about by whatever marketing tells them- but that doesn't fit, either. These guys have put in their time- Ruben was in a psychobilly band, Mario a grunge band and the sound would fit between those two influences. Also, if they wanted to sell out, I would think that a more pop direction would get them farther. So, I'm not buying that.
There is a precedent - Thin White Rope.  Now I'm not saying that Triggerfinger sound like Thin White Rope, or that they have the same talent one of my favorite bands of all time, but I am saying that mix of reverence for golden era blues and roots music mixed with a heavy metal love of sheer volume and brash rock theatrics. They, too,  would passionately record covers but then put out truly convincing originals. They, too flirted with irony on their image without becoming parody. The resulting sound they had would also fit neatly halfway between Psychobilly and grunge. Also, let's not forget that aforementioned "golden age"- what made many of the artists of that time forebears of bands we love now was their ability to walk between worlds. If Ike Turner hadn't mixed blues and country, there's no rock n roll. If Les Paul hadn't decided to mix studio wizardry with virtuoso musicianship, modern music doesn't happen. If people hadn't decided to sing more than one melody line, there's no harmony. You can take this as far back as you'd like- the point is the same- Art is about confusing our expectations. It's about both commerce and piety at the same time, and about joy and pain, and everything else. I know that's pretty heady stuff. Triggerfinger just play Rocknroll, so don't make it more than that because that's enough to make it more than worth your while, whenever you come across it, and however it forms.
On the other hand, such concerns are important to me- whether art innovates, renovates or replicates matters to what and how it communicates. Something that's just replicating says that there is nothing more to be said and is therefore closed. When a bar band does their level best to play the hits of the day, exactly as the original artists did, they are erasing themselves, and stating that the here and now matters less than the fantasy of what could have been. Such is why I loathe "tribute" bands. They are saying- right now sucks, and wasn't it cooler, or wouldn't it be cooler if we were watching AC/DC? Further, it's even making the object of their Tribute a closed off proposition - their songs are preserved in amber, like million year old mosquitoes, no longer able to breathe, or live in any real sense. When a musical Artist innovates, they are also saying that something  no longer works, but they are trying to fix that. They are asking us to let go of our fantasies and see what might be next. I vastly prefer that, but the best choice for me is when Art renovates- when they say this is great, but let's customize it, let's make it function better for our purposes, now. That, to me, is at the heart of what I think Culture should be. So, while it's not truly important if Triggerfinger hews to that line, it's important that I point us in that direction.

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