There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Ian Svenonius has spent decades in bands that present themselves as anything but ordinary—the Nation of Ulysses, the agitprop post-hardcore group he fronted till its demise in 1992, even seceded from the union. Svenonius is an immeasurably sharp and sophisticated pop auteur who could make challenging, provocative work in a variety of mediums. He’s dabbled elsewhere: He’s hosted his own talk show (Soft Focus) and he’s written a couple of books (most recently 2012’s Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘n’ Roll Group), but rock music is still the vehicle Svenonius uses to propel his heady sociopolitical manifestos.
He’s also got a knack for condensing a lot of ideas into lean, catchy rock, which is central to Chain and the Gang’s fourth album, Minimum Rock N Roll, released on Svenonius’s new label, Radical Elite (and distributed by Dischord Direct). It’s rock music stripped to its barest essentials—sometimes the spaces between notes can leave an impression as powerful as the group’s blunt guitar stabs—and played in a fashion reminiscent of the unvarnished, animalistic garage of decades long-since passed. Minimum Rock N Roll is revival rock, but that has less to do with the fact that the album sounds like it popped out of a time capsule from the ’60s and more to do with the way Svenonius, vocalist Katie Alice Greer (of Priests), and the rest of the band deliver the stark tunes with a fervor that borders on religious.
The music gets pretty intense, but its simplicity and near-minimalism tend to foreground any elements that change from song to song, elevating Svenonius’s words, and, more importantly, their content. The music’s the grand pulpit Svenonius uses for his declamations, and on Minimum Rock N Roll, he’s speaking (or singing, or sing-speaking) from one with a strong amplification system. His polemics are multipronged and layered—”Devitalize” is as much a takedown of gentrification as it is of society as a whole, no stretch for a guy who once released an album about destroying America and who calls his current band’s sound “crime rock.”
Indeed, there’s a sense of lawlessness that pervades Minimum Rock N Roll, which spills over from Svenonius’s lyrics into the band’s music and back again. The album’s a pointed attack on indie rock’s middling status quo, and it feels a little dangerous in a way that’s also entirely charming and approachable. Chain and the Gang even make outlaw life sound stylishly romantic on “I’m a Choice (Not a Child),” an old-school ballad that hints at some hidden nuance that’ll take months to unpack. It’s clever, a bit deceptively so, but that’s what you can expect from Svenonius and company—something that sounds innate and familiar, yet twisted in unexpected ways.