HARVEY MILK SOLO MAKES MUSIC FOR BREAKDOWNS
An absolute hulk of a slow-chord surge opens the album in short but wildly heroic style. 91771 is slow enough to be doom but nowhere near sombre enough as it pulls you into the euphorically funereal, if that makes any sense. Drone and sustain pumps your veins with noisy nutrients. Feels good.
This is Music Blues, the solo project of Stephen Tanner, Harvey Milk bassist. 2014’s Things Haven’t Gone Well is his first, and so far only, solo record.
Shame. Things Haven’t Gone Well belongs in anyone’s sludge-noise collection, down at the squalid end where the fuck-ups and failures hang out, and Tanner trades on two strands of guitar-driven dronedoom: one is total pessimism, the kind that beats you down with airless oppression. The other is total pessimism piss-streaked with rock-ist uplift, like 91771 (Tanner’s birth date), and it’s those rock-acknowledging downers that make the record work, though you gotta be patient. Aside from those, a couple of short clips from the Tom Waits School of Freak keep the album broken and fragmented. There are no vocals.
The autobiographical PREMATURE CAESAREAN REMOVAL DELIVERY follows straight on from 91771’s colossal awe, but the euphoric touch has evaporated to leave skeletal chords slamming. HOPELESSNESS AND WORTHLESSNESS and FAILURE’s Sunn O))) stylings lift the mood not one bit, and wedged between them is TRYING AND GIVING UP. Get through the defeated first drag and you’ll hear a guitar morph from death-slow one-chord reps to a rough-as-fuck blues lick drowning in diesel dregs. It’s the slowest, grimiest 12-bar you’ve never heard. ZZ Top on a dying battery.
Seven tracks in, you might feel there’s not much to grab hold of. You’d be right. 91771 and a mutant Texan blues tip is scant return.
But IT’S NOT GOING TO GET BETTER is where it picks up (relatively) after the ghostly DEATH MARCH interlude. Here we get guitar breaks and a real human touch instead of blackout basement isolation. Thick, sludgy beauty with light. It crushes, but it’s the crush of a communal gig pile-on.
Then the big one: TREMENDOUS MISERY SETS IN. Tremendous misery – nice. TMSI is final proof that, even on an album as depressed and damaged as this one seems, Stephen Tanner has a Propensity to Rock Out and here his Harvey Milk spilleth over in that Corrosion of Conformity-channelling-Thin Lizzy way, but inebriated, messy and mournful. ’tis majesty on a slow repeat. Then THE PRICE IS WRONG conquers all with a massive Rock ending, completing the album’s transformation from No Hope to Slight Hope.
The closing BONUS TRACK just has to be a Van Halen tribute – not Massive Hits Halen but Weirdo Least Halen, aka Sunday Afternoon in the Park from their toughest (best?) Fair Warning album.
Which means we’ve got a noise rock record that ploughs mental breakdown and dark autobiography, touches on ZZ Top and CSNY (Teach the Children) and ends with a Van Halen freakball …
… sounds about right. Things Haven’t Gone Well comes across as a journey through grief – it nails the slow, draining, disorienting feeling and physicality that grief brings, yet it’s distracted and sketchy too. Music Blues might be depression as expression, but in the end Tanner can’t restrain his need for primal oversized riffs. You can’t keep that down.
Things Haven’t Gone Well (2014, Thrill Jockey Records)
Premature Caesarean Removal Delivery
Teach the Children
Hopelessness and Worthlessness
Trying and Giving Up
It’s Not Going to Get Better
Tremendous Misery Sets In
The Price is Wrong