issue 11  dec 2001/jan2002


TO LIVE AND SHAVE IN L.A.: The Wigmaker In Eighteenth Century Williamsburg 2CD (MENLO PARK)

by C.M. Sienko

Admit it, in your heart of hearts, you want to dislike this record. It’s been promised to us for seven years, over half of TLASILA’s entire career! It seems like we’ve been waiting for it since the eighteenth century, hearing about this new mix or that tweaking of the libretto, how it’s almost done, and how we’re all going to be sorry for writing off Tom Smith. The hula-hoopla encircling Wigmaker’s sizeable midsection for at least the past four years is comparable to the epic advertisements for the summer blockbusters. This is the one that’s going to make our hearts beat faster, keep us glued to our seats, make us piss our pants with laughter, or love again like it was the first time. With each new mix, "Wigmaker" was going to be sharper, faster, better-hung and more opinionated than any of this year’s comers. Much like the summer blockbusters, you walk in with a nose primed to smell smoke and a eye open for errant mirrors. And friends, ain’t it a bitch when you leave the show and realize that it DID live up to all its promises? Now you’ve got to tell all your friends, "I just saw the best movie, but I don’t even know how to begin to describe it." Isn’t that the worst?
       Trust me, I’ve been looking up one side and down the other for flaws. It’s too long, the lyrics are hard to hear, the songs seem samey after a while, it’s too dense to absorb. These were all valid complaints (to some degree or another) about past TLASILA discs, but they don’t seem to apply here, even though "Wigmakers" is longer, more incomprehensible, and denser than the rest of the Shave’s output combined.
       Maybe it’s because this time, there seems to be a blueprint behind it all. Trouble is, the blueprint is written in a pre-Chaucer dialect (not literally), with an embedded sense of personal mythology and inaccessible symbolism that one would get reading diaries of departed alchemists. My initial impression of Tom’s lyrical influence was the Burroughs/Gysin school (it’s easier to satirize Tom’s writing style than comprehend it…check out the TLASILA 2 album titles), but the more I read the lyric sheet, the more I think about William Blake. Tracks like "Blandina, Oberwilding ‘77," ("Heat is the color of neutral desire/Her presence queered his well-groomed carrion calyx/Formed by its tumbling twigs") "The ‘Rose’ the Vehicle of Miss High Heels" and "New Poem Dramatized for Lux Cudgel" are more like apocalyptic psalms than cut-ups of "Hollywood Babylon." Greg Chapman’s unusually brief liner notes even point to the end times: "A fitting conclusion to the Shave’s pre-Apocalypse revolution … Doomsday comes for To Live and Shave In L.A., and the ship goes down in flames with many guests on board for the final ride. They will not be missed."
       Ah yes, the guests. There really are a lot of them, and if you keep up at all with the underground movers and shakers not mentioned in Forced Exposure’s weekly new release list, you’ll know most of them. Prick Decay, Mr. Velocity Hopkins, Marlon Magas, Lake of Dracula, Emil Hagstrom, Bill Orcutt, KF36, you name it, they’re folded into here somewhere.
       And that’s where my stammering about "Wigmaker" ends, the moment we start talking about the music. Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: you haven’t heard ANYTHING like "Wigmaker" before. Even if you have every other Shave album ever, including the live versions of these songs that have arrived on various limited cassette recordings. Very few records that are worked on for seven years sound like they’ve been worked for seven years. Anyone who’s had any interest in ’70s rock is used to waiting seven years for a favorite band to finish putting the final touches on their big dinosaur rock opus. But allowances are made in our minds even before buying the record – a year here for snorting coke off a groupie’s tummy, a year there for conquering the Himalayas with a network of sherpas, six months to teach little Reginald how to read (homeschooling all the way, you know), and months here and there for various personal fits and starts. It’s more like a year and a half of "hard" work.
       "Wigmaker" is the only record I’ve ever heard that SOUNDS LIKE IT WAS WORKED ON CONTINUOUSLY FOR SEVEN YEARS. The mix is dense, yet completely lucid. I can hear at least four layers of different kinds of manipulations (tape edits, digital processing, computer manipulation, multitrack gymnastics), and I’m sure those with a degree in this stuff will hear more. It wasn’t a stonewall…when Tom said he was remixing this for a fiftieth time, he wasn’t stalling for time ("I’ll be right with you, I’m just…uh…packing my smokes"). Layers shift in and out of focus, dissolve to static, intentionally overload, desaturate, flip to negative and snap back into shape with nary a tear in the fabric. The only comparable mix I can think of is the Runzelstirn & Gurgelstock/Masonna collab "Arschloch-Onna," but the editing and momentum are different. Tom’s talk of dub as an influence really blooms in full on this one. "Arschloch" is edited like a noise album (albeit a very funny and big-hearted one), with edits and change-ups serving to escalate brutalities and throw random sucker-punches.
       Like dub, the mix in "Wigmaker" takes semi-conventional "songs" (they’re in there somewhere, I’m sure of it) and digs at their internal organs in order to divine their hidden meaning. It’s not automatic writing, it’s rock n’ roll biology class, and today, we’re dissecting pickled no wave and glam rock fetuses.
       Even with the excessive length, time seems to fly quickly past when I listen to "Wigmaker." Every song is different, every nuance feels natural, and you won’t check your watch once, not even at the two hour mark (which this soars past effortlessly). I personally recommend driving to this record, preferably on the highway where you can really open up the accelerator. Taken this way, it’s like listening to a cubist mixtape of glam, death metal and no wave, with each and every facet remorselessly visible. Keep the wheel with one hand, because you can pull air rockstar moves with the other all the way to state lines. Listening at home on headphones, the mix sounds completely different. The songs "come out" and greet you. Like the hooks in popular music, certain hooks here will come back to you as you go through your day. The snippet of surfish garage-rock in "Ideas Make Men Hard." The obliterated saxophone line in "Blandina, Oberwilding ’77." The call of "WIG MA-KEEERRRR!" in "Full Choke Wigmaker’s Vise." (Listen also for the computerized "WigMakKer" voice buried further in the mix. Much like old Firesign Theatre albums, I’ve heard this album many times, but that little sonic trinket just revealed itself today.) You can’t make 40 songs distinct and memorable, especially when they’re placed on one CD which is released months after a previous CD. But after seven years, it’s very possible to polish 27 gems to a blinding sheen.
       In my heart of hearts, I hope "Wigmaker" acts as a wake-up call to the avant community. As Christgau said of Big Black’s final album, this acts as a final farewell even as it decimates all contenders. From a pure technical standpoint alone, the studio techs are going to be talking about (and maybe even studying in school) the mix on this album in 20 years – I have no doubt about that. If people have any ears to hear, they’ll have to absorb "Wigmaker" and realize that the bar has been raised significantly. The laissez-faire attitude towards pushing the sonic boundaries for the past 10 years is going to have to be called into question. It shouldn’t have been before, but now more than ever, it’s not enough just to play around with new technology, to gently process field recordings, to torture and kill pop culture referents like ants under a microscope, or to pay homage to those previously unheard recordings that first made us feel all tingly inside. This album reaches the finish line with the entrails of Tom’s favorite artists streaming from its lips like bad lipstick. There’s no admiration here…this is LOVE, baby!

STREET DATE: February 19th, 2002



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