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“The nail that sticks up gets pounded down” is the epigram most commonly used to explain Japanese society, but it applies to many subsets of American culture as well: high school, the U.S. Marines, contemporary pop music. Not, however, to Dischord, Washington’s premier nails-sticking-up label. Dischord music bristles like a threatened porcupine, harmonizes like two pads of steel wool, and welcomes like a barbed-wire fence.
At last month’s Art-O-Matic, where Q and Not U and Faraquet played on “Dischord Night,” the covers of every one of the label’s releases were on display across from the stage. In the context of all those bands on all those sleeves, the most radical one looked to belong to the High Back Chairsthe only Dischord act that ever really dared to play pretty for baby. But that Beatlesque quartet is barely a footnote to the label’s legacy.
Dischord began 20 years agoalthough its 20th-anniversary album won’t be available till next yearand among punk labels of similar vintage, it’s the least transformed. Touch and Go went from being the flagship of Rust Belt brutalism to an outpost of neo-art-rock and post-rock chamber music; Matador turned to J-pop, art-hop, and eccentric female singer-songwriters; and Sub Pop so decentralized its Puget sound that it ended up as Saint Etienne’s U.S. label.
Dischord, however, remains committed to releasing only local musicLungfish’s Baltimore is the outer limitsand only punk. Of course, the label’s punk is no longer Bad Brains-struck harDCore, and it hasn’t been since 1985, when Rites of Spring and Embrace crafted the new templates. Still, the label hasn’t shown much interest in pop-punk or power-pop; Dag Nasty and the High Back Chairs are long goneand probably would never have recorded for Dischord if they hadn’t included former members of Minor Threat. Even Manifestoa band with an impeccable hardcore pedigree but a tuneful mannerwasn’t deemed Dischordable. As for punk-rooted local post-rock, that’s been left to Slowdime (which Dischord distributes) and even smaller operations.
For most of its history, Dischord essentially documented harDCore and its fallout. But today, most of the veterans of that scene are otherwise engaged: Henry Rollins, Dave Grohl’s Foo Fighters, and Brian Baker’s Bad Religion are signed to major labels; Christina Billotte’s Quix*O*Tic and J. Robbins’ Burning Airlines record for other indies; and just about everyone else is retired from active guitar-slinging.
So the label, for all its dedication to local color, has shifted from documenting a scene to promulgating a style. And that style is, more or less, Fugazi’s: spiky, abrasive, and fervent, yet abstract and even hermetic, with melody permitted in small quantities but generally discouraged. Dischordiana doesn’t sound exactly like such angular British precursors as Wire, Gang of Four, the Fall, Public Image Limited, and the Pop Group, but it would hardly have been possible without them. Although Bluetip’s recent Hot (-) Fast (+) Union (a Slowdime/Dischord co-release) includes a version of the Damned’s “Anti-Pope,” the influence of circa-’77-’79 football-cheer punk bands has mostly vanished. No Clash, Pistols, or Sham 69 in 2000.
The Dischord style guarantees a prickly vitality, but nothing else is ensured. The label’s contemporary bands can beif not exactly dullpredictable, playing music in which every crag has been previously charted. But there’s life in badass art-punk yet, as is demonstrated by the two latest Dischord “signings,” Q and Not U and Faraquet. (The label, of course, doesn’t actually sign bands.) The two groups have much in common but demonstrate alternate approaches to keeping post-hardcore fresh: Q and Not U (which includes Washington City Paper staffer Matt Borlik) stays within, while pushing against, the boundaries of three-voices/two-guitars/ bass-and-drums rock; Faraquet feints toward post-rock with trumpet, keyboards, “baritone guitar,” and “piccolo bass” (all played by the three band members, including Washington City Paper employees Jeff Boswell and Chad Molter) and cello (played by Telegraph Melts’ Amy Domingues).
Q and Not U’s No Kill No Beep Beep is the opposite of wall of sound. Its staccato, stop-start mode is a mosaic of sound, with every noise discretely separated from every other by a thin vein of void. (The band’s favorite word is “stop,” followed closely by “end” and “kill.”) The result is marvelously simple, if not necessarily direct. The group also has great gimmicks: The instruments drop away, leaving only the sound of hand claps (“A Line in the Sand”), a ragged a cappella chorus (“Hooray for Humans”), or a ghostly “ooo-ooo” (“Nine Things Everybody Knows”). At its best, the band makes you wonder why musicians bother with all that other stuff.
On CD, the quartet’s attack recalls many of British art-punk’s masters of fragmentation, ellipsis, brittle funk, and live dub (see above). Live at Art-O-Matic, however, the band suggested such galvanizing close-to-home precursors as the Warmers, Happy Go Licky, and Rites of Spring. Especially the last, with its too-urgent-to-sing vocals, struck-by-lightning stage presence, and pile-driver lyricism. “We sleep a call to arms,” proclaims “Sleeping the Terror Code.”
Faraquet’s The View From This Tower is trickier, and not just because of all those extra instruments. The music is jazzier, with more tempo changes and time signatures, and more elaborate guitar melodies, whether samba-stroll (“Sea Song”) or Bach-rock (“Study in Complacency,” “The Missing Piece”). Front man Devin Ocampo shouts a lot”You’re fucked!” goes one eminently Dischordian hook, even though it’s buttressed by trumpet rather than guitarbut he sings sometimes, too. Although not all Q and Not U songs are as breakneck as they seem, that group never works a groove as long as Faraquet does. And Faraquet is not a groove band.
A groove is primal and centered; The View From This Tower is cerebral and fidgety. The trio’s music couldn’t get comfortable, because that would be a betrayal of its fundamental ethic. Keeping itselfand the listeneroff balance is its prime directive. Songs can end, but they can’t resolve. Even the most melodic passages are there only to keep you guessing.
Which is one of the essential things these two bands have in common. They’re both uneasy, but ambiguously. Their lyrics are the sort of cryptic existential haiku that have replaced straightforward adolescent outrage in the Dischord chapbook: “Inside the convex lens we all crash new jet planes tonight”; “Kill me with your favorite comb”; “For pleasure, light all your cassettes on fire.” In a sense, Q and Not U and Faraquet are like latter-day prophets for a doomsday cult whose earlier prophecies didn’t come true. They’re still preaching apocalypse, but vaguely. “Let’s stop this clock from starting,” urges No Kill No Beep Beep’s opening track, but it’s already too late for that.
Has the moment passed? If so, Q and Not U and Faraquet are fighting spirited rear-guard actions. No Kill No Beep Beep is one of the most exciting Dischord albums in years, and The View From This Tower, if a little fussy, is no less accomplished. Still, they’re examples of a style, not a great awakening. To be anything more, they’d need a call to arms that’s up and fully dressed. CP
Q and Not U performs Nov. 25 at the Black Cat; for information call (202) 667-7960.