Lou Barlow Talks Scott Walker and Sunn O)))
The Talkhouse is where artists talk about the work of other artists. The idea is to promote creative dialogue by having smart, distinguished artists from the world of music, of all genres and generations, write about the latest releases by their peers. And the twist: the artist who’s being written about is encouraged to respond. Each week TIDAL presents one of our favorite new Talkhouse pieces.
On Soused, Scott Walker’s nightmare-on-Broadway vocalizations meet Sunn O)))’s DUH-DUNNN. And Sebadoh’s main man tells us how he feels about it.
There are two ways to approach this: from the Scott Walker side, an eccentric 70-some-odd-year-old pop vocalist who has taken on the avant-garde in his later years; or from the Sunn O))) side, grunge-era slo-core indie-rockers who stumbled upon the amazing gimmick of donning monk hoods and playing sustained chords, thus bamboozling a subsequent generation of alt-alt-seeking post-grunge millennials.
I’m taking the Sunn O))) angle here — Scott Walker’s rise and fall and rise have been well documented. It is also difficult lately because many of the desperate fundraising Democratic party/MoveOn.org emails that flood my inbox say things like “We must stop Scott Walker!!” — which has only heightened my anxiety about completing this piece. (Scott Walker is also Wisconsin’s Tea Party-backed governor/douche.)
So here’s what I know about Sunn O))): one of the founding members was in Engine Kid, a perfectly respectable melodic indie band from the mid ’90s who released at least one fantastic, molasses-paced seven-inch. Sebadoh had them open for us in the Pacific Northwest, their area of origin. At some point they abandoned the whole “song” thing and concentrated on playing one chord, perhaps inspired by fellow Pacific Northwestern post-grungers Earth. And why not? If there is an Earth releasing records of one sustained, textured chord (with accompanying cryptic cover art), then why not a Sunn as well?
To be clear about this (because at some point my jealousy will take over) I have absolutely no problem with this kind of music, the monotonous, test-your-patience, use-it-to-decide-who-your-true-friends-are kind of music — my favorite band of the ’80s was Swans. At the time, Swans were as slow as music had ever gotten, incredible guitar distortion oozing over glacial drum beats that challenged anyone’s idea of what music was, could be or would be in some distant future. In my mind, in the year 2020 Swans will be revered like the Stooges — and that may still happen! At some point my peers (and presumed fellow fans of Swans) decided to take that model and subtract the vocal presence and, consequently, the heart. Swans were, and are, defined by the voice and hardcore spiritual philosophies of Michael Gira, who brought a human element to what would otherwise be, as my mother once called it, “music to kill yourself by.” But the fact is, the warm, epically ambivalent embrace of a held guitar chord can soothe an ambivalent soul.
So, Swans minus vocals = Earth (specifically their early recordings — later on, they became more Ennio Morricone-esque). And Earth minus texture = Sunn O))).
Though Sunn O))) is named after a vintage amplifier line used more successfully by ’70s funk bands, their brand of DUH-DUNNNNNNNNN (this is the typed approximation of the sound that their guitars make in every single recording I have ever heard by them), their drop-B (or whatever super-low, pseudo-satanic CIA torture-note they aspire to) comes across as smooth as smooth jazz. It’s a steady, low buzz that wouldn’t be too hard to recreate and has more in common with Metallica than Throbbing Gristle (the original musical terrorists). Sure, it is intolerable after 10 minutes in a high-volume live setting, creating an atmosphere that fans must subject themselves to as a litmus test of cool, but it lacks character, in my opinion. And through a pair of computer speakers it’s a fat, lazy bumblebee.
I’m not sure what Sunn O))) added to Scott Walker’s nightmare-on-Broadway vocalizations beyond the DUH-DUNNNNNNNNN. And their low-end muck has nothing on the proto-slo-core stylings of Ted Falconi of Flipper or Norman Westberg of Swans. Those men created a guitar style that is so textured and beyond imitation, and it amazes me that Sunn O))) seem immune to the innovation and potential that the style could inspire. Sunn O))) seem like a joke that began to take itself seriously, but rather than dig in they seem to stick to their pedestrian power chords, sport hoods and flog their logo, shrewdly understanding that they don’t need to do much more. I could go on about how truly dull the sounds Sunn O))) make are — and, in a live setting, obnoxious, according to a friend who was forced to tend bar through two of their shows — but they do have an ability to attract creative vocalists and come up with interesting titles. (One of the most necessary talents of a modern artist is naming and ascribing higher purpose to their works. Like a three-paragraph description of a black dot in the middle of a white canvas.)
Also, I have to say, Scott Walker is inspired on this — he’s got some passion, some melodies, and Sunn O))) even play two chords on “Bull.” On it, Scott sings something that sounds like “bum fo bee king!” and repeats it over and over, thus making it the “hit” of the album for me (and a delightful catchphrase to call out randomly). His voice is high and clear and the lyrics never fail to make you say, “What the fuuuuck?”
My favorite Scott Walker solo song from the past (“Montague Terrace in Blue” era) has a line about a young man swinging on a string from his underwear.
Because of that, on Soused I imagine Scott in his underwear in the studio as the synthesized pre-set whip-cracks, and groans erupt underneath him. A 70-year-old man in his tighty-whiteys taking on his inner demons, the guys in Sunn O))) periodically stepping in to go DUH-DUNNNNNNNNN and add a Slash (yes, from Guns N’ Roses) guitar flourish here and there. I think Mr. Walker would have been better off working with Einsturzende Neubauten, though — the best moments of Soused remind me of EN’s 1985 Halber Mensch album and anyone who likes this should probably listen to that as soon as possible. Which reminds me of how dated this record actually sounds.
My friend who knows Sunn O)))’s music loves this album. He heard it for the first time in my mini-van. He audibly sighed when the DUH-DUNNNNNNNNN kicked in. He loves Sunn O))), loves their t-shirts, and it may have been a good idea to sit with him and review the recorded output of Sunn O))) before trashing them out of hand in this piece. He also says that you are not supposed to say the “O)))” part of Sunn O)))’s name. He likes the new challenging work of Scott Walker too, so this is a dream-team release for him. He also lives alone. The best way to listen to Soused might be alone and drunk. I subjected my bandmates to it on a drive through the South Dakota prairie. Two thumbs down.
In conclusion, after listening to Scott lift two verses from “My Favorite Things” (from The Sound of Music) on one of the five songs from Soused, I do truly wish that Sunn whatever))) and Mr. Walker had done a Christmas record instead. Now, that would be great
Lou Barlow is a member of Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. You can follow him on Twitter.
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