The sixth album from Ian Svenonius’ rock group Chain and the Gang could be his sharpest set of ironic arguments yet. Svenonius’ hot-wired backing band whips his clever tunes into tornados.
Irony can be too ironic. Pile it on thick and it can blur meaning, or become a fake cover for meaninglessness. This has never been a problem for Ian Svenonius. As a singer and songwriter, he’s often an ironist, but his lyrics have clear, pithy messages, with few extraneous musings or puzzling tangents. Whether he sincerely believes his messages remains an open question, and that gray area deepens his often-simple songs. But what his words are about is rarely a matter of confusion.
Experimental Music, the sixth album by Svenonius’ group Chain and the Gang, could be his sharpest set of ironic arguments yet. Every track has a solid thesis that Svenonius explicates through laser-focused verses and bold choruses. Most of his theses are small, clever tweaks of clichés that rebuke conventional wisdom. In some cases, these inversions are just fun novelties. In “Temporary Insanity,” Svenonius flips the meaning of impermanence: “I’m temporarily insane since I don’t know when… In the daytime I’m a nutcase/At night I’m a mental disgrace/Been this way my whole life.”
But more often, the songs on Experimental Music use simple subversion for broader profundity. By changing just one word in a historical adage, Svenonius turns “Rome” from a song about ancient times into an anthem for action during dire political eras. “Rome wasn’t burnt in a day…It took a lot of time; people had to bring their fire,” Svenonius insists. “It took persistence, it took resistance.” Though the song was written before the 2016 election, it’s easy to hear it as a contemporary call to arms—“It’s time to take a match!/It’s time to return!”—and a reminder that even our current empire can be conquered if we stick to it.
As Svenonius fans the flames, these fires are lit by one of the hottest Chain and the Gang lineups so far. He’s always treated the group like a small-scale version of Mark E. Smith’s the Fall, enlisting whomever can bring the proper racket to his primal tunes. But this configuration might be his platonic ideal. The six-piece band features vital players from Detroit’s current underground, including Fred Thomas and Shelley Salant of Tyvek, and Danny Kroha of the Gories. Recording live to four-track tape, they whip Svenonius’ tunes into tornados, their banged-out beats and red-bleeding solos forging classic garage-punk in the vein of the Oblivians or Billy Childish’s Thee Headcoats (a direction hinted at on June’s Best of Crime Rock, a reworking of previous Chain songs by a different lineup).
The music this lineup cranks out is so hot-wired that Svenonius can easily mine it for ironic tensions. Take the title track, one of the funniest things Chain and the Gang has ever done. Svenonius treats the avant-garde like a teen idol—“Experimental music made me feel so free/Walking down the beach with my baby”—as the band doles out peppy 1950s pop. There are some obvious punchlines, like when Svenonius calls out “it goes like this!” and keyboardist Amber Fellows responds with a solo barely deviating from the base melody. Yet praising experimental music’s rejection of the marketplace clearly falls in line with Svenonius’ political stances. Is he celebrating or mocking? At best, he does both with equal conviction, resolving opposites by fully committing to both sides.
Still, Svenonius can also pick a team, and throughout Experimental Music he sides with outcasts and nonconformists. In “The Logic of the Night”—heard previously in a mellower mode on Best of Crime Rock—he pits day-job drones against dark-dwelling subversives. Meanwhile, during “I Hate Winners,” he proudly assumes the mantle of loser: “I promise you baby I’ll only lose/I’ll never win, I’m not one of them.” And over the rolling piano notes of “Don’t Make Me Dream,” Svenonius rejects the entire concept of ambition. “They said you can be anything you wanna be,” he sings with a skeptical snarl. “But I don’t wanna, no don’t make me dream.”
The most moving track on Experimental Music turns all his irony into real emotion. On “Don’t Scare the Ghost Away,” Svenonius encounters a ghost who’s frightened of him, a victim of chronic depression who killed himself and his family. “Now he stalks the Earth trying to hold on to that pain for eternity,” Svenonius sings. “I tried to get near to say, ‘It’s ok’/But when I got too close, that ghost went away.” It’s a rare sentimental note, and it feels sincere, despite being about someone who doesn’t actually exist. Which is pretty ironic, if you think about it.