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U.S. Maple’s career has been one long acknowledgement of failure, futility, and self-hatred. These Chicago scenesters have gone on record saying that rock is dead, but instead of taking the coward’s way out by abandoning their guitars or attempting some kind of rap- or electronica-rock fusion, they have opted for a more oddball course. U.S. Maple makes rock music that celebrates the utter folly of making rock music.
On Acre Thrills, its sixth release, the band struggles heroically to create something new under the dim rock sunonly to stop, shuddering in horror, upon realizing that all it’s doing is dreaming up new ways to flog a dead horse. Like its Midwestern noise-rock predecessors Killdozer and the Cows, and its more esoteric free-jazz contemporaries in such Windy City outfits as the Flying Luttenbachers and the NRG Ensemble, U.S. Maple makes prickly, difficult music for prickly, difficult people.
Singer Al Johnson has said that he “wanted to go the other way, to develop my inadequacies,” and he’s succeededor should I say failed?admirably. When it comes to playing the creepy loser, Johnson makes Thom Yorke and Beck look like what they always were: a couple of winners looking to cash in on loser chic. Just listen to Johnson on “Chang, You’re Attractive,” a hangdog number that features him whimpering the song’s title as if he’s an absolute nutterand the last person in the world Chang would want to hear praise from. Or check out the disquieting “Babe,” on which Johnson alternately warbles like an unhinged Maria Muldaur and croons like an old lecher offering candy to preschoolers. The guy is less a singer than an accretion of alarming nervous tics.
Behind him, the bandMark Shippy on “high guitar,” Todd Rittmann on “low guitar,” and Pat Samson on drumsveers abruptly from agitated metallic crunch to atonal stop-and-start skronk, working up grooves only to let them drop, as if its members are too depressed (or disgusted) to go on. U.S. Maple interrupts its songs’ slower passages with jarring flashes of guitar or drums and sabotages its own attempts to build momentum by either hitting the brakes at exactly the wrong moment or letting go of the steering wheel altogether. The results are simultaneously discomfiting and compelling.
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But like Captain Beefheart, who is about the only musical signpost on the strange road these fellows travel, U.S. Maple takes an approach to songwriting that’s anything but haphazard. Although they may seem chaotic, the band’s songs have been constructed with a formalist’s care. Just take a look at Acre Thrills’ lyric sheetwith its blizzard of annotations spelling out who is to do what on each song and exactly how and when he’s to do itif you have any doubt that there’s a method to U.S. Maple’s madness.
Album opener “Ma Digital”which begins with a bravado flourish of pure punk chord-mongering only to quickly dissipate into nervous jazz noodlingprovides the blueprint for what’s to follow: namely, songs that shift rapidly from peaks of frenzied activity to sloughs of despond and back again and then gradually peter out, as if everybody involved has finally become convinced of the pointlessness of the whole enterprise. Shippy, who could show Thurston Moore a thing or two about odd guitar tunings, contributes frantic flurries of notes, and Rittmann bats big riffs into the bleachers, kind of like Mark McGwire if he played for Foghat. Meanwhile, Johnsonwhose frequent “yeah!”s are about the only thing he says that can be understoodmumbles forlornly into the void, which, to judge from the sound of his voice, started staring back quite a while ago.
There’s an element of slapstick in U.S. Maple’s music; like Samuel Beckett, the members of U.S. Maple know that nothing is funnier than futility. Thus, Acre Thrills’ untitled fourth cut, an abbreviated instrumental, starts out as if it’s going somewhere, stumbles, picks itself up, and then stumbles again. It’s all pratfalls and wounded dignity, and it reminds me of the poker-faced protagonists of Waiting for Godot, who seem destined to spend their existence going nowhere.
That said, Acre Thrills marks a departure for the band, insofar as it boasts several tunes that don’t go out of their way to be grating, off-putting, or even difficult. “Obey Your Concert” is, I suspect, the closest we’ll come in this lifetime to hearing what the Minutemen would have sounded like with Howlin’ Wolf handling lead vocals. Johnson switches between a stomach-twisting bellow and a larynx-lacerating croak before the band comes to a screeching halt, leaving nothing but a guitar that wobbles on sadly, like a wheel continuing to spin on an overturned car. “Open a Rose” is a propulsive exercise in guitar distortion, with Rittmann pounding out the groove while Shippy makes twittering, twitching mayhem around him. And the midtempo “Make Your Bedroom Great” is practically easy listening by these guys’ standards. “You don’t have to wait to make your bedroom great,” sings Johnson, intelligible for once, while the guitarists repeat a wonderfully unadorned riff and the drummer plays it straight before kicking into a chorus in which Johnson promises, “Today we sleep, tonight we hit Africa.”
Which just goes to show that sometimes even those most determined to fail can’t get things wrong all the time. But, hey, I’m sure the guys will do betterby which I mean much, much worseon their next outing. Beckett, bless his prickly heart, spent a good half-century writing about the impossibility of writing. It’ll be interesting to see how long U.S. Maple continues to build a résumé around its own failed attempts to reinvigorate rock. If the difficult but rewarding Acre Thrills is any indication, these guys are going to be waiting for Godot for a long, long time to come. CP