Fans of Chicago's U.S. Maple like to go on about how the band "deconstructs" rock, and lead singer Al Johnson supports this idea in his U.S. Maple band history:
"The four of us meet near the corner of Grand and Western Avenues to discuss a way in which to erase Rock and Roll entirely from our collective minds."
"[U.S. Maple’s second album] Sang Phat Editor is an all out attack on Rock's conventions: honor, tempo emotion etc… [sic]"
Many of the pull quotes from the press release that accompanies Purple On Time either describe U.S. Maple as a parody or position the band in some stage of the evolution of rock:
"It’s rock & roll as it could only sound if it were truly advancing. It’s real evolution, baby." --Cleveland Free Times
"Makeout music for cavemen." --Roctober
"U.S. Maple makes rock music that celebrates the utter folly of making rock music." – Washington City Paper
So let's see. U.S. Maple is:
-Highly evolved rock music.
-Music for our less evolved ancestors to fuck to.
-Some kind of meta-commentary on rock music.
It’s not that that any of these descriptions of the band are wrong; in fact, they all aptly characterize some element of the band’s sound. But they’re all reminders that pull quotes can only go so far in describing music, and even well-conceived pieces of criticism don’t go much further.
What makes U.S. Maple’s music work? Music in which rock is merely deconstructed can be interesting and yet not sound good. Near the end of Matthew Barney’s film Cremaster 3, the punk bands Murphy’s Law and Agnostic Front play to separate audiences in the Guggenheim museum. Their music is edited so that it becomes a series of meaningless gestures: drumstick-clicking one-two-three-fours go nowhere, let’s-get-revved-up chants become ends unto themselves, and crescendi either disintegrate or are cut before they’re over. A few minutes of this and I was dying to hear a complete song, even one by a washed-up trad-punk band.
This isn't what U.S. Maple evokes, at least not for me. U.S. Maple's more graceful musical cousins are Germany's Max Raabe and the Palace Orchestra, who perform note-perfect covers of Top 40 hits (Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again," Eiffel 65's "Blue") in the style of 1930s pop music. Raabe's covers subvert the original artists' intentions so completely and outrageously that he couldn't possibly be serious; on the other hand, his performances are so detailed and flawless that they couldn't be anything but serious. Raabe's music is brilliant because of this apparent contradiction.
U.S. Maple's music thrives because of a similar contradiction: on one hand, the bit about deconstructing rock is at least partially true; on the other, the band's music is so detailed and singularly weird that it can't be viewed as just a deconstruction, but rather a construction in its own right.
Here's where Johnson's band history stops being helpful: "We then set out to devise a working method for reorganizing the [sic] Rock & Roll, keeping what we feel are its most important core elements." Wait-- so do rock's "most important core elements" include U.S. Maple-style stuttering non-grooves, carpal-tunneled guitar chords and jumbled, pathetic come-ons? Sorry, Al, that's not even close!
Fortunately, good music is rarely as simple as even its creators think it is. U.S. Maple as Johnson seems to see it must be viewed through the lens of the history of rock and roll. Or, excuse me, "Rock & Roll." The trouble with this is that much of U.S. Maple's music has little to do with the history of rock and roll. Johnson's hissing vocals sound like no one else's. Mark Shippy's and Todd Rittman's trebly guitars twist around one another in a way that barely resembles the traditional lead-rhythm setup. Pat Samson's (and now Adam Vida's) drums often owe more to free jazz than any sort of rock.
And yet there's something in Johnson's statement about rock's "most important core elements" that cannot be dismissed. Purple On Time, like its predecessor Acre Thrills, features plenty of unexpected but powerful hooks. Purple On Time, the group's fifth album, thus feels markedly different from the band's earlier Talker, which sounded like Captain Beefheart being sucked into a whirlpool. Purple On Time contains more straightforward signifiers, and thus sounds brighter.
Still, enough core elements from Talker are present that it's obvious that U.S. Maple haven't developed a love-love relationship with rock. The lyrics are still streams of confused non-sequiturs (example: "Make your teeth sit down"), Johnson still rasps his lyrics like a drunk asshole in a seedy strip club, and the song structures are still twisting and fragmented.
If this review feels indecisive, that's because excellent music can rarely be described both well and straightforwardly. We live in a culture where artists are rewarded with gigs, grants and positive reviews when their music can be described in simple and interesting terms. Artists whose music is clearly about one thing or another possess a distinct advantage. In the midst of this, U.S. Maple and their fans have collected simple, crisp terms to describe the band's music, going on about "deconstructing" and "reorganizing."
The problem with this system of about-ness is when crisp descriptions tell most of the story, the music usually isn't very good. On some level, U.S. Maple's music really is about "deconstructing" and "reorganizing" rock. But there's also so much to their music that those terms don't explain. U.S. Maple's motivations, both the conscious and unconscious ones, are difficult to discern. U.S. Maple's music is puzzling, and it's full of contradictions. That's true of most great music.
By Charlie Wilmoth