Photo courtesy of USM-home
by Scott McGaugheyIt is nearly impossible to describe certain bands. This is when accepted labels or genre titles come in handy. But once a "type" of music is identified with certain characteristics and given a name, no one seems to do anything but gripe over it. The labeled artists feel their music is being simplified to a catch-all term, the fans echo the band's complaints, and the writers spend their time denouncing a buzz word that someone else is proud to have coined (ie. post-rock). King Crimson comes to mind as the ideal past example. Robert Fripp has continually expressed his dissatisfaction over King Crimson being branded with the prog-rock label. And any Crimson fan knows that they don't deserve to be in the same category that carries crap like Emerson, Lake & Palmer (try to avoid the irony of Greg Lake's early membership in King Crimson). Unfortunately, if you wish to "explain" the sound of certain bands, the most accurate way to do so is to give descriptions of the textures, sounds, etc. that the band uses. Of course, most people still take the easy (and less awkward) route by using the common labels and living with all the contradictions they create. But the wise will pay no mind to unnecessary theories (like the rubbish above) and suggest to interested parties that they go hear a band for themselves. However, if I left it at that, the article would be somewhat lacking in everything. So now I'd like to attempt the impossible by describing a particularly indescribable band - U.S. Maple.
You're probably already tired of King Crimson references but oddly enough a term once used to explain Crimson's sound is even more fitting for U.S. Maple - "Organized Anarchy." Initially, U.S. Maple could sound like a bunch of drunken six year olds. But if you're a fan of Pere Ubu, Marc Ribot's Shrek, or any heavily dissonant music, U.S. Maple is a godsend.
Maple's mission (apart from making great music) is to contort all accepted rules of rock 'n roll. But not in the snooty sense of going 'beyond' or 'past' rock. U.S. Maple is a rock band, but one that bends everything we know as rock 'n roll. Working within the contexts of rock, Maple is like a spy sabotaging everything from the inside. But U.S. Maple isn't just a cold and calculated band riding solely on a interesting concept - they've got the music to prove that.
Al Johnson (vocals), Pat Samson (drums), Mark Shippy (high guitar) and Todd Rittmann (low guitar) work together to create a sound which only makes 'sense' after time. The guitars sputter unrelated phrases, the drums mimic an irregular heartbeat and the vocals zoom in and out like a cartoon spaceship. All of this could seem improvised or random, but it's not. U.S. Maple's music comes from careful deliberation and attention to detail. Johnson's unique vocals act as another instrument in the mix as they mingle with the guitars and drums. But rarely do the musicians meet up and lock into a steady groove. Those looking to tap their foot or pump their fists along with the music will quickly be lost. But that wasn't always the case.
Maple's debut, Long Hair in Three Stages (1995), on Chicago's Skin Graft Records contained a few moments with recognizable beats. "Magic Job" has a semi-solid rhythm underneath and "The State Is Bad" flat out rocks. Compared to their following albums, Long Hair is unusually straightforward. Generally Todd Rittmann's 'low' guitar provides a heavy bottom while Mark Shippy keeps his playing on the high end. The best moments occur when the two guitars meet and then quickly fall back into their individual spaces. Maple began racking up Captain Beefheart comparisons, but simply calling them "Beefheart-ish" doesn't do their sound justice. U.S. Maple's music is even more vicious and frightening than Beefheart's. And the horror would only increase with their next album, Sang Phat Editor (1997).
Sang Phat Editor is a record filled with contradictions. It shouldn't rock, but it does. It shouldn't keep you coming back, but it does. And overall, Sang should be an irritating listen, but it isn't. This album focuses exclusively on the most abstract moments of their previous sound. Each separate instrument is in its own world. And when you stand back and listen to them as a whole, it probably still shouldn't come together - but it does. One of Sang's most interesting tracks is "La Click." The song begins with the screech of feedback and a cello. The guitars quietly slither in, only to tease and snicker at us. A few numbers are yelled out just as the music lunges forward, establishing a crippled groove. "La Click" ends with what seems to be the musical representation of rape. Johnson whimpers and howls while the music swells above him and occasionally pounces his vulnerable vocals without mercy. Another track, "Songs That Have No Making Out," could serve as a general motto for Maple's music. Sang has the feel of a band that has pushed themselves to the brink. It's an album that makes you ask "where can they possibly go now?" And I'm still not sure where they've ended up.
Talker (1999) is U.S. Maple's latest release and also their hardest to understand. By understand I mean that Maple's intent with Talker is difficult to 'pinpoint.' While Sang pushed the original sound of Long Hair in Three Stages, Talker just doesn't fit in. Not taking things as far as Sang and also not returning to the 'straightforward' feel of Long Hair gives Talker the feeling of a stepping stone. Is this safe ground (in U.S. Maple terms) to rest on while they plot a different sound? Probably not. They seem to be happy with where they are. Still, Talker wasn't the logical move after Sang, and that's probably what Maple intended. Maybe my thinking on this is completely wrong. Some have found Talker to be very similar to Sang, while others think it's like Long Hair. But neither comparison seems valid. For one, Talker is surprisingly quiet compared to the other albums. It's still confrontational and most-likely wouldn't be an easy listen for someone who hasn't heard Maple, but overall it's very low-key. All of this half-assed contemplation is probably pointless. Talker could just be the new U.S. Maple album - no more, no less. U.S. Maple might not care about how each album fits in with their other efforts. And over-thinking (or under-thinking) their intents gives the impression that I don't like Talker. I do, it's a great album. It's just frustrating.
But maybe it's good that Talker doesn't take a giant leap away from Maple's basic territory. First of all, you can't expect a band to completely change with each record and secondly, by staying within the same general framework, Maple gets to explore new regions of their familiar sound. So maybe by NOT radically changing directions, they've naturally altered the music without anyone knowing?! (this just keeps getting more confusing) In U.S. Maple's case, digging deeper into their current style may be more rewarding than obvious progression (but isn't that kind of the same thing?!) The only coherent suggestion I can make at this point is that you ignore my blurry speculation and go pick up any album by U.S. Maple. The second suggestion would be to catch their live act too.
On stage, U.S. Maple looks like four asylum inmates pretending to be Rolling Stones. Al Johnson struts around the stage, stopping periodically to give an uneasy stare into the audience. Pat Samson bounces around on his drum stool like a hyperactive first grader. Mark Shippy stares blankly, kicks his leg up in the air like a Vegas dancer, and lets out infrequent screams of anguish. And Todd Rittmann shuffles to the front of the stage and shakes his ass like Mick Jagger. Sure, lots of bands have a schtick, but U.S. Maple's is original and hilarious. And while '90's music is overflowing with irony and playful mockery, Maple's live show isn't stale. Their performances are just an added bonus to hearing the music in person.
Like much of the greatest music created today, U.S. Maple has been dogged with many hackneyed labels: No Wave, Now Wave, the all-encompassing Indie Rock and even Post-Rock. An increasing amount of '90's music criticism is saturated in a confusing web of 'Protos,' 'Posts' and 'Cores,' which are convenient but problematic. But what’s the alternative? The dreaded Thumbs up/Thumbs down simplification? Muddled ramblings like the one you've just read? It doesn't really matter as long as there are artists like U.S. Maple who make music which stands on its own, despite all the categories surrounding them.
Also see our 2014 article on U.S. Maple
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