Monday, March 04, 2019

Unknown Instructors' "Unwilling To Explain"

Wow. Has it really been a decade since the last Unknown Instructors release? Tempus fugit. But the punk-rock poetry supergroup is back with a new waxing for ORG Music, a label of approximately the same vintage who mainly trade in rock and jazz reishes (including a series from the Euro Black Lion catalog, about which more later).

On Unwilling To Explain, Ohio poet Dan McGuire is reunited with the former Minutemen/fIREHOSE engine room of George Hurley and Mike Watt, plus a new Instructor: Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis (filling the slot formerly occupied by Saccharine Trust/Universal Congress Of man Joe Baiza, who contributes some vocal assistance here). At every turn, Hurley and Watt play together like two cats who grew up in each other's back pockets, who can explore and extemporize together because they know each other's time so well. The interplay between the three instrumentalists is so solidly in sync that it's hard to believe they recorded their parts in different locations, on different days.

When I reviewed the Instructors' second disc back in 2007, McGuire told me his intent was to hear his idea of the best rhythm section in the world, with a guitarist going berserk over the top. Mascis is undoubtedly the axe-slinger for that job. One need only listen to the version of "Maggot Brain" on Watt's 1995 solo debut Ball-Hog Or Tugboat? to appreciate the unbridled intensity of J.'s attack. Of his generation of indie rockers, he's surely the most tapped into the blues vein that connects Eddie Hazel, Sonny Sharrock, Pete Cosey, and Ron Asheton (to whom J. generously ceded half of his set to play Stooge songs during SXSW 2000). Throughout Unwilling To Explain, he employs a thick, fuzzy tone reminiscent of '60s psychsters like the Electric Prunes, Fever Tree, and Spirit on cogently point-to-point rides that never lack for melodic imagination.

Listening to McGuire's pugnacious poetics on "Election Day in Satchidananda," I was reminded that I watch too much political news. (The other night, I took my wife to a show in Dallas where the woman fronting the opening band reminded me of Tulsi Gabbard, while the gent seated next to me was a ringer for Jeremy Corbyn, to the point where I had to restrain myself from leaning over and asking him, "So -- second referendum or no?") Over a Coltrane waltz, replete with Stephan Haluska's tinkling harp (conjuring the spirit of Alice in the same way as the song's title), McGuire worries the line, "Somebody's going to have to stand up, somebody's going to have to bear witness" like a blues lick, or good sex, before dissolving into echolalic delirium.

On "Hand In Hand," McGuire spits workingman's blues ("Every goddamn day I take another another bill...try and get my fill...take another spill") over a James Brown groove, while Mascis spins sinuous lines over the top. "Out in the Cold" uses obsessive repetition to create a mood of jumpy paranoia, while "How It's Done" features a cameo by Joe Baiza as Captain Beefheart, intoning lines from Lou Reed's "Waves of Fear" over Hurley's tribal thump, punctuating McGuire's images of carnage that are both horrific and no worse than what we read in the news every day. "Initiation" starts out with a description of a high school hazing before moving on to a different teenage rite of passage (recalling "Those Were the Days" from the last Instructors outing, 2009's Funland): "In a clandestine cornfield / Live and learn's what you told me / Dime bag's what we do / Trying to get through / Bet you wouldn't believe if I told you / I can read your mind."

Unlike the Instructors' previous work, the songs on Unwilling To Explain were all written beforehand (by Watt) rather than improvised in the studio. Even with that degree of intentionality, and the circumstances of its creation, the music retains its freshness and immediacy, from the opening notes of the self-referential "Ballad of the Unknown Instructors" (as astute an observation of night life as 2005 debut The Way Things Work's "Lost and Found") to the leisurely waltz that closes the chilling "The Patriot" ("If you don't do the math / And if you really don't look into terrorism / You should be able to sleep at night"). All in the service of McGuire's unnerving thoughts for unnerving times.


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