City Paper is not for tourists
Bands led by Ian Svenonius tend to elapse according to five-year plans—“like Stalin,” the frontman once pointed out. With his main groups Nation of Ulysses, the Make-Up, Weird War, and now Chain & the Gang, Svenonius has left few capitalist hypocrisies unpacked, and even fewer beatnik tropes untweaked. But amid and in between each revolutionary campaign, he’s found time for some extracurricular rabble-rousing. The rah-rah radicalism of Cupid Car Club, the performative glam decay of David Candy, and the shimmying doom improv of Felt Letters rank among the more focused installments of Svenonius’ quarter-century punk-preacher project, and they have a worthy successor in XYZ, Spiv’s sexy, centered collaboration with Memphis Electronic, aka Didier Balducci of the French acts NON! and Dum Dum Boys.
Compared to the roaring, minimalist rock ’n’ roll of Chain & the Gang’s, uh, Minimum Rock ’n’ Roll, XYZ’s spiffed-up, very Francophonic electro and cool temperature are a surprising backdrop for Svenonius’ deadpan-radical shtick. (Spiv supplies the vocals, Balducci the beats, guitars, and throbbing, unsettled electronics.) But the Svenonius on offer isn’t singing about degentrifying the neighborhood. His concerns are, for the most part, more interior, or at least as interior as a guy who once wrote a song called “For Practical Purposes (I Love You)” can get.
Throughout XYZ’s self-titled debut LP, listeners can probe as deeply as it suits them. “Hangin’ From a Tree” jitters like early psychedelic electronic music, with a bit of Cramps-like crunch. “Bubblegum” is super-streamlined greaser electro, with a catchphrase-y chorus (“You’re the one/Bubblegum”), surfy rhythm guitars, and fat, moaning bass synths, but it’s interested in pulling apart the teenage-troublemaker myth. “Don’t Call Me” plays like a trashy slow dance but doubles as a miniature epistemology of breaking up, with Svenonius tracing the thin line between it’s-over insouciance (“Don’t call me/I’ll call you”) and outright despair (“Don’t call me, I can’t stand it”).
When it comes to matters of the heart, in fact, XYZ is at its most compelling. On the loungey, tin-grooved “Where Do You Come From?”, Svenonius’ lyrics have the jumpy menace of a bureaucrat in a Terry Gilliam film—“Are you from the jungle, where no man’s been?/Or from the bottom of the sea? Did you spend your life swimming?”—but he coos the words like he’s addressing an intimate. And in the licky, rickety “Would You Do It?” he wonders: “Can you do it? Yes you can. But will you do it for a friend?” He pulls another amorous switcheroo in “Drum Machine:” “I needed someone to run their fingers through my hair,” he laments, before yelping, “I had nothing! But now I have a drum machine.” In these songs he could be addressing a lover or a co-conspirator or a piece of gear, and you can imagine Svenonius—or at least the capitalism-smashing frontman he plays on his albums—asking similar things of them all. At Spiv’s politburo sockhop, it’s all one revolution.