Friday, April 16, 2010

Music Review: The Method Actors - This Is Still It (Compilation)

"Up until a few years ago, the early 80s Athens post-punk movement was one of the most revered yet under-documented scenes from the third wave, post-Jimmy Carter American underground. Where local heroes such as the B-52s and college-rock godfathers R.E.M. have had little trouble keeping their profiles elevated (and for good reason), there remained a number of less heralded bands doing work just as worthwhile—though in an admittedly less accessible manner—such as Pylon, the Love Tractor, the Primates and, for our purpose today, the Method Actors. Shining brightly before their rapid burn-out, this strikingly original guitar'n'drums duo found admirers amongst the ranks of both those aforementioned scene stalwarts, and on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of their debut 7", This Is It, Acute Records (who have also recently resurrected such left-field post-punks as the Fire Engines and the Lines) have gathered a healthy portion of the band’s early recordings and cleverly packaged them as the 19-track This Is Still It. Following the DFA’s gracious reissues of the first two Pylon records, more and more of this particularly fertile Athens scene is coming into sharper focus.

I’ll just come out and say it: the Method Actors may very well have been the most technically gifted musicians of the scene in question. The duo of Vic Varney (guitar/vocals) and David Gamble (drums/vocals) exhibited the angular forward momentum of Pylon—glaringly evident on their very first song, “Do the Method”—and, in some of their later tracks, a bit of the jangle-pop which no doubt influenced R.E.M. (who would release their debut EP the same year the Method Actors would hang it up). But more often than not, these guys bear the mark of a fractured, characteristically U.K. strain of post-punk, particularly the likes of Wire, Gang of Four and XTC. Meaning they often gave into precision at the expense of pop hooks—though there's enough mantra-worthy sloganeering on display here to register in any one’s memory banks. “Dancing Underneath” exemplifies this in full force, stringing an elastic guitar line over loosely galloping percussion, while “Distortion” tightens the formula for Varney to unload a series of quivering vocal maneuvers with all the intensity of Pete Shelley in his early Buzzcocks prime. The record is also laid out more-or-less chronologically, with some liberties taken to accentuate the ebb-and-flow between the band's varying structural scales. Thus, for every six-minute diagonal sprawl-out, there's an equally impressive, uncoiled two-minute blast-through, provided for contrast.

And really, these guys succeed at both approaches in near equal measure; “Can’t Act,” for example, should elicit head-turns from those resigned to some of the band’s dubbier tendencies, while “Pigeons” stretches out methodically, showcasing the duo’s instrumental interplay in hypnotic fashion. The Method Actors pop chops even flourish on occasion, with the irresistible duo “Rang-a-Tang” and “Hi-Hi-Whoopee” combining for a goofy pair of highlights, while “Halloween” all but predicts lo-fi acoustic peddlers Woods’s folksy warbling. Honestly, the only thing holding back This Is Still It from an even higher rating is the fact that it isn’t quite definitive—presumably to fit this collection on a single disc, only 10 of the 16 tracks which would end up on their debut full-length, Little Figures, make the final cut here. But that’s a minor quibble considering how rare most of this material has been over the years. Technicalities aside, there isn’t anything close to a weak track here, and I’d go so far as to say this is pretty much fundamental listening for anyone even mildly interested in the post-punk movement, American or otherwise. This Is Still It unearths another thought-to-be-lost page from a decades-old book that reads today as if it were newly minted." [84/100] [Published 04.16.10]

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