Whipping Post

Both Grubbs and O'Rourke are comfortable with more traditional song structures, when they care to employ them; Grubbs molded snappy punk-styled songs in Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Bitch Magnet, while O'Rourke, on last year's magnificent Bad Timing, unleashed a dizzying excursion through folk, country, and Americana in general. Focusing on those instincts and setting aside the weirdness, Camoufleur finds the two and their cast of guest musicians at their most open and freewheeling: the insistent guitar strum of "The Seasons Reverse," the somber organ of "Each Dream Is an Example," the Oriental-flavored folk of "Black Horse." On the closing "Bauchredner," it even picks up a catchy drumbeat (courtesy of, again, Mr. McEntire), with O'Rourke's graceful finger-picking building steam as the song drives forward. It's a shame that the same can't be said for O'Rourke's pointless collaboration with Sonic Youth, Invito Al Cielo. The third in a series of EPs quietly released by Sonic Youth through last year, its 50 painful minutes betray another post-rock bugaboo: drone. Noises pop out -- horns, a clunky piano, some drums -- but mostly, it's a wandering hum. Like Esperanto, which inspired the song titles, it voices a pointlessly invented language few care to speak in, let alone hear.

Drone, as post-rock scholars know, is nothing new -- it goes back to John Cage (to name one avant-noise touchstone), just as the dub rhythms hearken back to Lee "Scratch" Perry and the avant-folk ideas sprung out of John Fahey's work. But even the combination of those concepts isn't something that came out of the Age of Tortoise. Take TNT, give it a backbone and a fright wig, and you've got Dub Housing, the 1978 masterpiece of absurdist punk by Clevelanders Pere Ubu. That band, like Tortoise, started with an attempt to fuck around with rock conventions. But unlike Tortoise, David Thomas, the band's leader, never forgot the power of a pure pop song, the way a well-placed hook or lyric could make you hear the music from an angle that you never knew existed. Before and since Dub Housing, for nearly 25 years, songwriter and vocalist Thomas has leapfrogged across genres and side projects, from the rough-hewn experimentalist rock he called "avant-garage" to the crafty pop of Ubu's highly underrated 1989 Cloudland. Both of those musical roads, and a few others, collide on the sharp, sinister Pennsylvania. Where Tortoise offer smooth transitions and rounded edges, Pennsylvania spends its 70 minutes fraying, snapping, and splintering. With Thomas' wailing voice shifting from a mutter to a scream, he sings laments for lost loves, lost places, and lost faith. "I can't get that stretch of road out of my head," he proclaims on the opening "Woolie Bullie." "I hear it when I'm taking a shower or reading the paper."

Brows furrowed, the band goes about the business of constructing a road map, a catalog of people and places, and the oddness that pervades them. From the fellow with the 75-year-old light bulb in "Mr. Wheeler" and the "hard-edged town" circled by the slinking rhythms of "Monday Morning" to "the loneliest highway in the world" that the rollicking "Drive" burns rubber on, the group conveys a scarifying nervousness about the world throughout the record. Except that its nervousness isn't willfully experimental, difficult, or forced. Indeed, what's most striking about Pennsylvania is just how tuneful and honest it is, catchy while retaining its offhanded feel. The immediate hooks of "SAD.TXT," the pummeling "Urban Lifestyle," and the closing rave-up "Wheelhouse" pave the way for the restful "Silent Spring" and the disarming chanting on "The Duke's Saharan Ambitions." The musicians -- particularly Robert Wheeler's haunting synthesizer and theremin, and Steve Mehlman's loose, evocative drumming -- approach the music artfully, but passionately. It's thinking man's rock, sure, but it's also the sound of a brilliant rock band creating great music the way it's always been done -- by fucking around with sounds and having a good laugh. Before it became post-rock, that's what they used to call it.

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