Styrenes – All the Wrong People are Dying (1998)
All the Wrong People Are Dying is not actually an album, but a collection of the earlier Styrenes album A Monster and a Devil alongside several 12”s and a compilation track. Somehow, despite the cobbled-together nature of its assembly, the CD flows more cohesively than most properly assembled albums do. Go figure.
The Styrenes, initially in a post-punk vein more similar to fellow Cleveland stand-outs like Pere Ubu or Human Switchboard, truly came into their own when they began recording spoken word material, the majority of which can be found on this release and We Care, So You Don’t Have To. Earlier tracks like “Drano in Your Veins” or “Electricity” (reworked on this album as “Memory of You”) have a certain charm, but seem to be pulling punches by comparison. It’s an odd brand of spoken word, one that better captures an indigenous American music more than any other band I’ve spoken to. It’s the music of working class people telling stories of despair and violence over a loud jukebox in a bar, and not just any bar.
See, most bars fall into what I would roughly term the “sex-death” continuum, in that people go to bars to either get laid or to slowly kill themselves. I have always been more attracted to the bars more firmly positioned on the death end of the spectrum; that’s where the better stories are. Everyone in them, terminal janitors or people who otherwise serve at hipper bars or youth of a sympathetic disillusionment to my own, are filled with reports back from the mundane disappointments of small town living… cyclical like Greek tragedies, seemingly inevitable in retrospect and repetitious enough where sometimes the inevitability becomes apparent before the retrospection.
The Styrenes get this with a remarkable lack of superficial beat influence. The dissonance of their backing tracks account not only for the incessant piping jukeboxes, but the passing of nearby traffic and the unpacking of night delivery trucks. Though seemingly a source text to bands like The Hold Steady and Lifter Puller, they are working on an entirely different wavelength, an older more matured one where the promise of psychedelic drugs no longer seems promising, where one will mumble the sexier of their failures and hang-ups in their mind like pop songs, sometimes as pop songs in less eloquent moments. It’s no mistake that the most straightforward and catchiest track on the album is the torch song “Memory of You”. It’s the genuine appeal of the narrator’s memory, not the woman left behind (who isn’t even detailed at all in the lyrics), but the moth-eaten garage sale Sinatra sleeve vibe of the whole thing. The promise of more dignified and wonderful failures.
Avant-garde wind instruments are employed in excellent poetic metaphor on tracks like “Two Up Two Down”, the true story of a kidnapping and execution, and the wonderful 20 minute epic “Jetsam”. Though the woodwind squeal had been used similarly in early Pere Ubu tracks like “Laughing”, to mimic and distort the rhythms of laughter and machinery, the much extended track run-times of The Styrenes give these more time to morph and create fluid meaning. “Jetsam” in particular is the track that “Revolution #9″ was supposed to be; we have the atonality those of police scanners, prolonged enough to avoid the initial shock of trauma, to normalize them. Then prolonged enough to come to deeper shock of normalization. The narrative of two attractive people falling into a swirl of drugs and misfortune is announced with such understatement as to lack all romance, another great achievement of the track.
“True Confessions” hearkens back to the feel of The Velvet Underground’s “The Murder Mystery”, and I would argue is the album’s weakest track for it. The collapsing of three voices into one sonic entity feeling too strictly formal for such direct proceedings. Despite this, the band continues to explore dissonance in exciting ways.
All the Wrong People, again despite the Frankenstein assembly, takes on a distinct arc, one of a descent into hell. The first three tracks all showcase the band reining in dissonant tendencies, showcasing a piano sensibility not foreign to the E-Street Band. But as the tracks become increasingly lengthier, the subject matter becomes darker, the wordplay becomes less playful, and the overall effect becomes much more abrasive to the listener. This is not an album one can put on loop or play casually on an iPod, but it’s a necessary one.
RIYL: Hold Steady, Lifter Puller, The Fall, Velvet Underground, Pere Ubu, Jack Kerouac, Bill Hicks, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen
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