What’s the use in referring to anything as punk rock anymore anyway? First of all, punk rock – a phenomena, a movement, a genre, a moment in time – as a concept has been completely divorced from Punk.
And by punk, we all know that I’m referring to the graphic t shirts and long shorts and warp tours and the like that blanket the walls of the Target nearest you. Punk as a commercial – and almost purposefully – cartoonish brand identity is one of the enduring images of our time. For my part, I can’t say it’s something that I saw coming the first time I heard the opening chords of “Basket Case.”
So the question is, what clever identity can we assign to indie groups who are too defiantly un-noodley and un-spacey and generally too ramshackle to impress the editors at Pitchfork? Is “indie” good enough? What about that old chestnut about “alternative rock – a term that hasn’t carried water since radio dials ran from left-to right – should we break that one back out?
Basically, what do I call a band like The Muslims? Somewhere in The Muslims bio someone makes a reference to The Replacements, and frankly, this is why I go down to see them on a Monday night in Manhattan for an early show at the Mercury Lounge. At this point, I’ve only heard their recordings online, though I don’t know exactly what to expect because the songs on the myspace page were both (a) terribly recorded and (b) suitably ramshackle to confirm those comparisons to the ‘Mats.
Keeping these two things in mind I was hoping for the best and prepping myself for the worst, as usual. The guys from The Muslims were milling about the club before they went on – goddamn was it early and goddamn was everyone so, so, sober – and from the look of the group, they seemed reassuringly relaxed and self-confident. Good, I thought. They took the stage and the show was a blur. The set wasn’t terribly long but it impressed in that each song seemed to buzz in and out with enough force and abandon. The singer was off to the side of the stage, letting the bassman take the middle ground – a good move on a night when dude was clearly the most animated man in the entire club.
I began to recognize the songs from the band page and I was pleased that my two friends, whom I’d dragged down – had enjoyed themselves. There also was a cool vibe around the audience of “hey, we’re the first gang in town to check out the buzz-band of the month.” We all new knew they were due to play several more high-profile gigs later in the week. Towards the end of the set, the band broke out their version of that song that every classic punk rock group was supposed to have. It’s the one where everybody sings a couple of lines with the frontman, and then obliges him by going “woah-oh-oh” on cue. They finish curiously on a rave up to end the night. Everyone kinda wishes they had finished with the anthem instead...
Friday night, myself and a different battery of friends find The Muslims again, this time at Union Pool. Even after the show kicks-off, my friends and I linger outside the hall for a while as the singer from the first act seems less stable than Daniel Johnston, so we cower over a few beers and smokes in the ‘garden’ and wait out the return of the crowd faves. Tonight, The Muslims – judged against the first show – kill.
Sure the bassplayer still knows how to make a move, but significantly, the singer’s moved back to center stage. He goes so far to even perform a few songs straight up, sans guitar, like a showman. It’s just as well, because although the vibe is leagues ahead of the Mercury show, the sound is muddy as hell and the rhythm guitar can’t be heard either way. The crowd is mixed and well into the music, if nothing else.
My friend Nora and I have the pleasure of standing behind a group of tall kids with Asian girlfriends, while the couples next to us argue about whether or not they think the Buzzcocks are “a classic group” (verdict? They decide that their first album was totally awesome if nothing else). The set is identical to the show the first night – and so are the band’s loved-and-lived in polo shirts – except for the addition of what Nora decides is a Spiritualized cover (which is really awesome) and finally, a one-song encore. Which means that tonight we get a set that closes with the woah-oh-oh song then the rave-up, then another rave-up on the heels of the first one.
At this point, my roommate, Jesse, concurs with my opinion from the first night that despite the overall quality of the source material, that the set’s pacing leaves something to be desired. And they do have the tunes. It must be said. And we all agree that they are a reckless and joyful act – which suits the image of the Pool’s manic, painted proscenium stage. Basically, the bottom line is that everyone leaves happy, and fairly satisfied; no one is obviously disrocked. No crimes against truth or beauty to be reported...
It’s also nice just to see a band swigging beers and tuning their guitars between songs by ear (when they bother to tune at all). So was that a punk rock show? I’m not sure what that means anymore, but I am pretty sure that's what we used to call it.