Perfect Sound Forever

Hard Place

by Aaron Sunshine
(February 2009)

I am in a band. This girl at my job calls me a rock star- as in 'hey rock star, you got a phone call.' She means it sweetly, but it feels like calling a tall pygmy "giant."

Hard Place are a group of taller pygmys.

The facts about them are as such: they are an L.A./SF band, they have between three and four members. They have existed as Hard Place for many, many years. They are cursed. Though they have recorded, recorded, recorded they have only put out one album. Once, Dallas Austin (of TLC fame) tried to sign them, but the deal was so horrible that they turned it down. They occupy that substrata of bands who live between never-would and could-of-been.

These facts are not particularly important: though they contain the shape of Hard Place, they do not contain the meaning.

Hard Place is a joke: like all good jokes, they contain an ugly truth and a joyful shell. The joyful shell is their nerdy-pervy quality- their combination of low-budget videos, costume and rock and roll scholarship. The specific brand of rock n roll they work within is the mass culture of the '70's and '80's- 'Labrynth' era Bowie, hair metal, MOR bands like Journey and Fleetwood Mac and 80's synthpop. They treat all of these with loving respect and distance.

Wrapped within that though is Hard Place's fixation on the fact of predation, of consumption. This is a bodily issue, both a threat to ourselves, and a constant, gnawing need. The demands of our bodies (and our minds) are pre-rational and it's the most terrifying parts of ourselves. We all know hungers, and we can imagine them out of control. Hard Place writes about these needs with empathy and kindness.

The kindness I speak of is best expressed in a song they have about a Dahmer-like serial killer. The song is called "All the Pretty Boys." It's written as one side of a conversation, the murderer telling his victim about his desires, about how escape is impossible- the best line being "and if you run away from me/the cops will only bring you back to me." The line is sung easily and quietly. It is almost a coo, loving until it becomes horrific. It's a velvet sheath on a cleaver.

Their songs are about people using things for their own purposes: each other, themselves, music, drugs, sex. The moment of power, as someone is consumed, is where the Hard Place aesthetic lives, and what transforms their signifiers into ideas and what transform the smooth surfaces into something frightening.

Their best video, for the song "Get Your Hopes Up" plays out as follows: a man dressed in a skin tight body suit with zebra stripes, standing in the snow. Faux metal plays as he stands there. A woman in a tiger suit, her face painted for war. He moves slowly, smoothly. She dances, stares straight at the camera. Zebra and tiger dolls are on a table, with the tiger bee-lining for the zebra, the zebra barely moving. She leaps on him- it's erotic ballet, until the blood begins to stream off of his neck. He struggles limply, while she thrashes, half vampire, and he collapses slowly, his eyes shut- in rapture or blood loss, who knows.

The song itself is about a lover making promises, and then breaking them- promising to give anything and then suggesting that maybe a pearl necklace is nicer than a diamond ring. Offering everything in the world in exchange for consent and silence.

What unifies the story of the video to the story of the song is the issue of power and victimhood, the driving force behind those who take what they want, and those who find themselves taken. Lies or teeth, talons or promises, either way the strong take what they want from those weaker than themselves.

Rock stars figure prominently in the Hard Place iconography. While objectively, they are not rock stars as a function of money, success, recognition or glamour, they embody the 'rock star' far more than most currently-successful bands. Being a rock star has become a joke, a stand-in for all the idiotic posing that success, or the illustion of it, inspires in people. To 'act like a rock star' is first and foremost to act like a fool.

This is one of the reasons Kurt Cobain was perfect for his moment: though he lived the cliche as aggressively as anyone, bottoming out faster, harder and more finally than the finest of the Sunset Strip, he lived it as parody of being a rock star, a knowingness of how ridiculous it was.

Hard Place display themselves as rock stars, with a quality that is half pathetic and half admirable. Their desire and the knowledge of how far they are (in time as well as space) from their desire creates a tension that fills there song. Unfulfilled desire is a supreme topic: desire that soaks through you, twists and shifts until it grows more monstrous than had you just gotten what you wanted.

What does this tell us? What does Hard Place tell us? They can tell us a truth about the world, that beneath the magic and the glamour (which they love, laugh at and endorse), there is something breathing, stinking, rutting and hunting. It is the fact that they can laugh at this, the uncontrollable, violent nature of the world that makes it so immediate. The way our careful selves can be humiliated or rent suddenly by the natural world. It is easy to recoil in horror from the brutality of life: it is much harder to laugh at it, and therefore accept it (as laughter is a way to accept), to live with the knowledge that your being consumed.

Writing this, I stop to stare a moment, at their new video, for a song called "Pink Champagne," which like most of there work is deadly serious kitsch. It's a desperate wish for love that curdles. The chorus pleads like Richard Farley, if only you would wake me up with kisses and pink champagne, but it goes terribly wrong.

Yet the video itself conveys none of this drama- in place of grand guignol of "Get Your Hopes Up" is a mish-mash of of cool people being cool. It's not clear if it's supposed to be funny, or ironic or serious. It goes off the ledge (as artists are entitled to do), and the style of it- the sloppiness, the artificial lighting, the 'bad' acting drowns whatever idea they are supposed to be expressing.

Unfortunately, this is not the only Hard Place video in which the cool being cool is the primary feature. Their video for "Fucked Up Piece of Fuck" suffers from the same problem: beautiful people partying, so what? Beautiful people party.

Then another thought came to me, like a sine wave that has moved closer and close to the forefront as I've written this essay (at school, in bars, waiting for the bus, in my bed). What I am writing is not about Hard Place: not those people. Those people who create Hard Place (though it exists apart from them) aren't what I am writing about- even Hard Place is not my Hard Place. What I am creating is a fantasy of Hard Place, what I want them to be. I realize as I shape this essay into something which makes sense, I am editing them: I have left out their more cartoonish aspects, their laziness to make them heroic.

Now comes a vital choice: do I try to find some truth about them, or do I finish spinning the fantasy?

This is not an easy choice: most music writing revolves around the fantasy, and the best pop writers make fantasies so elaborate that they subsume the music being written about. Music writers are persuasive to the degree that they do not discuss the music.

The reason for this is that in order to write well about music, the meaning that music carries must be translated from a sonic experience into a literary one. Some authors do this through lyrical dissection, making their music criticism something close to the analysis of poetry: this is a weak form of music writing. A better method is one that creates the same thrills of pop music, that tries to express the nature of the song in the style of the writing, in the anecdotes that the writer decides to tell.

Further complicating the question of truth is what would this truth look like? An animator, an Gap Corporation marketing executive, an American Apparel clerk and a between-jobs kind of guy have an 80's fantasy band? Is Hard Place really so far from Tainted Love (SF's best 80's cover band)? Isn't it just a way for them to blow off some steam, and have a few kicks?

Is the truth of a band what the band chooses to present, or what they cannot control leaking out about themselves?

I don't have answers to these questions, but I do have an answer to another. If Hard Place is going to suck, they will suck because they become too cool instead of not cool enough. What's good about Hard Place is not cool- but what is bad about Hard Place is. To be cool is easy- it is in fact defined by it being easy. While easy can be beautiful (and to look easy is even more so), it can also be a trap.

The trap of being cool is that it makes taking risks impossible, because to take a risk is to court failure, to try something you do not do beautifully.

I have nothing else to say: if this article piques your curiousity, go to their Myspace page or Youtube account. You'll quickly form impressions and opinions much stronger than anything I can tell you. No longer do writers pitch records- at best, we're pitching page views.

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