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Weird War - If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em

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Artist: Weird War

Album: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Bite 'Em

Label: Drag City

Review date: Feb. 8, 2004

The new album from Washington DC’s Weird War opens with the brief “Intro (Music for Masturbation),” on which sexually explicit moaning plays over a bass line that the band recycles on the very next track. It closes with “One by One,” a mellifluous speak-sing number on which lead singer Ian Svenonius exhorts his listeners overcome their problems as a peasant clears a field – one row at a time – or as they would get rid of a meal – bite by bite. The danger of simplistic affirmation lurks perilously close to the song, true, but it works as an intentional reminder that rewarding solutions can only come with time and effort, and an unintentional reminder that even the most sincerely dedicated of politically minded bands have failed to exhort this sort of patience from listeners. So we face the problem of trying to move from here to there – from an opener that makes no attempt to shield its escapism, to a high minded call for resolution in efforts to shape the world. While this is certainly a dilemma in its own right, it gets deeper: “Intro (Music for Masturbation)” also declaims social and political conformity as both a form of unacceptable hedonism – giving the title an additional sense – and also as profoundly uncool. “One by One,” meanwhile, has a two-minute instrumental lead-in that, should anyone be so inclined, could be edited without the vocals, possibly yielding a modest hit at parties.

So is If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Bite 'Em a rousing call to work for a brighter future or a celebration of never-ending parties, shady behavior, and any and all forms of retro self-indulgence? The answer (which you have probably seen coming for some time now) is both. The part about “retro self-indulgence” may be crossing the line: Weird War, like Svenonius’ and bandmate Michelle Mae’s previous outfit, the Make-Up, has a noticeable R&B influence (and Mae strikes each and every bass note so that we can hear it), but Weird War is also a distinctly contemporary outfit. Alex Minoff’s guitar playing post-dates several revivals of punk, and Svenonius’ didactic lyrics could only come from this modern age. But if they’re not self-consciously bringing R&B back up through the underground, the members of Weird War are at least trying to do this in a way that injects something new into the mix – namely, an ideological edge that sharpens the corners of both the words and the music.

I can only speculate as to the band’s ends; the album contains no overt political statements, just odes to the revolutionary spirit. I suspect that the real motive is not a specific set of belief, but rather making even the most diverting party music into thoughtful social commentary. So a dashed-off song like “Store Bought Pot” serves as a brief respite between songs like “Tess,” a fully-developed allusion to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, or possibly Roman Polanski’s adaptation, and “Chemical Rank,” a trenchant ode to non-aggression. Sometimes this tension can be heard on the same song: the first single, a would-be party anthem called “AK-47,” is actually an elaborately drawn-out history of that weapon’s use in guerrilla warfare. That “AK-47” might still be a party anthem and comes across, to me at least, as a call for non-violent use of the revolutionary spirit, attests to the difficult line that Weird War walks on this album: committed, but not zealous, hopeful, but not idealistic, and most of all, energetic. Energy is eternal delight, as William Blake once wrote, and an album designed as a testament to the wonders of perseverance and commitment needs to be, when you really think about it, a party album.

One could of course question the originality of all of this, and jaded hipsters might be quick to point out that the political commitments of Weird War were obvious some time ago (the Make-Up did release a record on Dischord, so the argument goes). And without original collaborator Neil Hagerty, might this exercise just become a little too literary and self-important? Yes, it’s certainly possible, but If You Can’t Beat ‘Em, Bite ‘Em avoids most of these problems because nobody takes the album too seriously. Certainly some of the songs are ideologically loaded, and the band knows this. Some of the time the grimy atmospherics get to be too much. But cool presentation counts for quite a bit here, as does a bit of humor. Both of those elements are in abundance.

By Tom Zimpleman

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