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Amid a punk scene littered with self-consciously chaotic bands, Arab on Radar is one of the few that realizes rock ‘n’ roll as near-total abandon. Taking cues from Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, Brian Eno’s No New York compilation, and Sonic Youth circa Confusion Is Sex, the Providence, R.I., quartet presents an art-damaged, tweeter-shredding mess of distorted dual-guitar skree, relentless hardcore drumming, and mental-patient vocals. Tastefully hip influences aside, though, Arab on Radar is anything but highfalutin: The group’s surreal lyrical concerns run the gamut from genitalia-obsessed gym teachers to sexual-deviant clones.
Rock writers are fond of using the word “seminal,” but Arab on Radar is a band that actually deserves the tag. The common theme of its four beautifully debauched LPs1997’s Queen Hygiene II, 1998’s Rough Day at the Orifice, 2000’s Soak the Saddle, and the new Yahweh or the Highwayis sloppy, solipsistic sex. Kicking off with one of the band’s stickiest couplets”Sometimes, I just gotta jerk off/My nuts are a pressure cooker”the spermcentric Yahweh or the Highway plays like Richard Hell & the Voidoids’ “Love Comes in Spurts” expanded into a lowbrow rock opera, chock-full of scatological gems such as “Ejaculation is a waste of valuable resources!” and “I’ve longed to smuggle my sperm across that border.”
But unlike filth-talkin’ Frank Zappa, whose annoying lyrics spoiled many a killer jazz-rock jam, Arab on Radar vocalist Mr. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder has air-raid-siren vocals that perfectly complement the noise of his bandmates: Mr. Type A and Mr. Clinical Depression’s garbage-disposal guitar squall, and Mr. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’s construction-site drum barrage. When Post Traumatic wails, “Gettin’ numb always spoils the fun” on album highlight “Birth Control Blues,” the singer’s creepy vocal streams become just another tension-inducing instrument amid the high-pitched blur of guitars, which bubble and scrape like the brain-damaged bastard children of Lee Ranaldo.
Despite its proclivity for anyone-can-do-it six-string noise, what distinguishes Arab on Radar from the current crop of No Wave revisionists is the band’s ability to cram its rakish rumble into conventional pop-song structuresand to back those up with some of the sturdiest beats this side of John Bonham. “My Mind Is a Muffler” tempers high, bluesy soloing with a catchy,
skeletonized chorus of “ahhh…
ayyy…ohhh.” “God Is Dad” contrasts punk-speed aural anarchy with tweaked bubble-gum-pop sentiment: “I love her, I love her, only a stool pigeon understands why.” And “Vatican Is Up to Bat Again” harnesses nervous-breakdown string-bending within the confines of snare-heavy hump grooves and a disturbingly infectious, the-pope-sure-wouldn’t-approve refrain: “I only get her on the egg hunting days.”
Though Arab on Radar’s single-minded quest to bring the noise is admirable, its products can sometimes come across more like shock tactics than actual songs. Unless you need help pissing off your girlfriend, rhythmically inert Yahweh or the Highway ditties “Cocaine Mummy” and “Semen on the Mount” have little going for them beyond their locker-room titles; musically, they’re just background clatter for lyrics that would make a sailor gag. And the band members’ one-track songwriting has also translated into career stasis: These miscreants don’t make progress so much as refine their sonic sewage and come up with new dirty jokes.
Yet despite Arab on Radar’s tendency to err on the jarring side, Yahweh or the Highway is a high-water mark of sorts: Within the splintered world of modern rock, it nails the anarchic aesthetic quite nicely.
If Arab on Radar is the kind of band that would hang out at Hooters, you’d be more likely to find Erase Errata en route to an organic food co-op. Which isn’t to say that the members of this all-femme San Francisco quartet are more uptight about their No Wave-inspired sound and fury. They just aren’t jackasses. Indeed, their label’s press sheet makes a big deal out of the decidedly nonuptight fact that back in December 1999, Erase Errata spit out its first 10 strident songs in only half an hour.
Despite all the slapdash skronkin’ going on, Erase Errata’s debut long-player, Other Animals, is surprisingly accessible. Like D.C.’s own dearly departed chick rockers Meltdown, the first-name-only folks in Erase Errata turn in right-angled guitar-and-bass interplay that builds a tight lattice of high-pitched chromatic riffs. However, like Arab on Radar, these gals wisely follow the verse-chorus-verse pop-song blueprint. And they combine it all with rudimentary, ESG-style funk beats.
One of the finest examples of Erase Errata’s brand of death disco is “Marathon,” which reimagines Public Image Ltd.’s Second Edition had Lydon & Co. jonesed for ABBA’s crystalline pop instead of King Tubby’s bottom-heavy dub. Racing neck-and-neck to “Marathon”‘s finish line, Sara’s snaky guitar line, Ellie’s pointillistic low end, and Bianca’s hi-hat-squishing disco beat represent an inspired collision of populist and obscurantist impulses. This is noise that moves, man: scrappy punk with one eye on the dance floor.
But Erase Errata isn’t just dilettanting around. Shake appeal is a primary motivator on Other Animals. “Billy Mummy” continues the jagged dance vibe with Jenny bragging, “I was born with an angel’s heart” over squawking guitar and a cocaine groove. “Walk Don’t Fly” merges aggressive spirit-of-’77 energy with chicken-scratch riffage and funky falsetto vocals. And “Other Animals Are #1” pairs anti-capitalist sentiment (“What is the good life?/Is it the rich life?/Is it the simple life?”) and the disc’s most booty-shaking beat in a thunderous noise-funk workout that would have been right at home on 99 Records. As the band says in the liner notes, “Dance, U.S.A., dance.”
The girls in Erase Errata might be more politically aware than the boys in Arab on Radar, but they sure as hell aren’t going to let that spoil their good time. Whereas most disco records were as emotionless as Mr. Spock and produced within an inch of their respective lives, Other Animals crackles with punk-rock electricity and warmth. Just check out the vertiginous hook from disc’s first track, “Tongue Tied,” which almost unravels before your ears. Over Keith Moon-worthy drum fills, Jenny sings, “I get so tongue-tied” and then contorts her voice into a series of Charlie Feathers-style rockabilly yelps and hiccups. Meanwhile, the seemingly random guitar shrapnel sprays down over a simple, solid bass backbone.
Other Animals expertly balances a treacherous line between structure and chaos. Plus, you can dance to it: Erase Errata never gets so tied up proving it has brains that it forgets about the body. CP