This eight-year retrospective comprises robust and fierce re-recordings from the group’s decidedly lo-fi catalog, featuring the best of Ian Svenonius’ sneering rock ‘n’ roll anthems.
Ian Svenonius’ is at once one of rock’s shrewdest intellectuals and one of its most primal performers. But there’s no dissonance between those two modes—the ideas of the former fuel the physicality of the latter. Since surfacing with D.C. post-hardcore heroes Nation of Ulysses a quarter-century ago, Svenonius has fronted several different bands—from gospel-ye-ye purveyors the Make-Up to the frisky psych-funk crew The Scene Creamers—but they’ve all been rooted in the late-’60s belief in rock ‘n’ roll as an agent of radicalism, and in the potential for a three-minute single to instantly make you question and dismantle everything you’ve ever known.
As such, Svenonius’ sideline writings—be it in books or magazines—aren’t so much extracurricular pursuits as the expository DVD commentary for his music. Though he’s always drawn from the proto-punk garage rock and black-power soul, Svenonius isn’t so much nostalgic for their sound as their revolutionary intent, pining for a bygone era when pop stars could show up on a network talk show and spend the better part of an hour talking about race, feminism, and U.S. immigration policy.
He also remembers an era when greatest-hits albums weren’t just quickie cash-ins for rock bands, but the tool that cemented their legend. Svenonius’ current band, Chain & the Gang, has released five albums since 2009, making it his longest-running, most prolific outfit since the Make-Up. Where the band’s name once served as its cheeky organizing principle—with stripped-down, call-and-response chants in the prison blues tradition—by 2014’s Minimum Rock ‘n’ Roll, the proverbial chain had come to represent a whip, with Svenonius smashing windows and busting bricks on the sneering anti-gentrification anthem “Devitalize.” The song distills the band’s insolent essence into a Molotov cocktail of bruising soul-punk rhythm, shout-it-out-hooks, and lyrics that deftly toe the line between pointed anti-capitalist critique and a sly, knowing sarcasm toward the impractical extremities of their mission. In two minutes, they go from calling for a decline in real-estate values to wishing ill will on fresh fruit and child educational standards.
“Devitalize” is thus the perfect opening salvo for Crime Rock, which, ironically, seeks to revitalize. It comprises more robust and fierce re-recordings of the best songs from the group’s decidedly lo-fi catalog (plus two new tracks—the organ-spun soul of “Logic of the Night” and surf-ready power pop of “Come Over”—the fit right into the post-mod milieu.) It’s an uncharacteristic concession to the marketplace for a band that’s more liable to wage war on it, but then it also illustrates just how prepossessing and powerful this band can be under the right conditions. Chain and the Gang is the most accessible group Svenonius has ever commandeered, and with the Crime Rock revamps, he matches the white-hot intensity of The Make-Up (with bassist Anna Nasty playing the Michelle Mae-like foil), but with that band’s JBs-funk engine stripped out and replaced with revved-up Motown motions.
Where he once used his shriek like a weapon, Svenonius now wields a sense of humor that’s as cutting as it is absurd. The garage-blues strut “Certain Kinds of Trash” functions as a companion piece to his 2014 essay in defense of hoarding, its lyric sheet presenting a laundry list of arcane, discarded consumer products (“typewriter ribbons, TV dinner pans, you just don’t see ’em”). But embedded within his fetishization of refuse is a thinly veiled contempt for planned-obsolescence sales strategies and the iCloud age’s premium on intangibility. For Svenonius, garbage and decay represent a freedom from a culture of constant commodification—when something has no value, it’s truly priceless. “I see progress,” Svenonius sings on the bass-swung song of the same name, “in paint peeling/And I like a leaky ceiling!” He punctuates the line with a high-pitched Princely gasp that finds the eroticism in rot.
Several of the new versions on Crime Rock just amount to tighter, better-quality recordings. In other cases, the changes are quite dramatic: the nihilist to-do list “Why Not?” gets pumped up from a stripped-down busker-blues shuffle into a taut, motorik garage-rocker; the militaristic psych-folk march “Deathbed Confession” becomes the cinematic, piano-pounding curtain-closer its ridiculous conspiracy-theory lyrics demand. But in all instances, Crime Rockgreatly improves upon its source material, by amplifying the tension between Svenonius’ hard-knock lyrics (from “Livin’ Rough”: “I’m livin’ in a bathroom stall/With no paper on the roll/I can’t believe it!”) and the Gang’s punchy performances. Chain and the Gang cheekily (or maybe not) describe themselves as the world’s “only anti-liberty rock ‘n’ roll band,” dismissing the genre’s ingrained wild-child mentality as an emblem of unchecked capitalism. But after spending years in a small holding cell, Crime Rock finally transfers them to the maximum-security penitentiary they deserve.