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Wire - Read & Burn 03

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Artist: Wire

Album: Read & Burn 03

Label: Pink Flag

Review date: Dec. 3, 2007

Wire, the band, stops, starts and takes different directions without warning, just as they do with their music. They quit first in 1981, then reformed five years later. At that time, bands like Big Black were reconfiguring Wire's pulsing guitar tones and fragmented lyrics to distinguish themselves from the hardcore scene. Wire was more interested in electronic pulses, though, and proceeded to put out their calmest and most melodic music. It was punctuated with cantankerous moments, but fit surprisingly well with late-era synth pop. Some singles received good amount alternative radio airplay, sounding just fine next to Depeche Mode. When they showed up in the early part of the aughts, underground rock was undergoing a full-blown love affair with the clipped aesthetic of their first incarnation. The Read & Burn EPs that emerged had Wire playing tight, furiously mechanical rock. They were loud again, but didn't do much to evoke the off-kilter sounds that so many young bands were borrowing.

Had they reconvened at the height of Britpop or in the midst of Electroclash remixing, it would have seemed timely, too. It seems there's always a segment of the music scene working over a segment of Wire’s catalog. After the full-length Send five years ago, it seemed like their third iteration was finished. But this EP presents itself as part of the same series, even if it sounds more like the missing record between 154 and The Ideal Copy.

The opener is a 10-minute argument between their two modes – warm circuits and cold guitars. Electronic washes flow back and forth, and Graham Lewis, sounding like a senior BBC news reader, recites Nordine-like word jazz. Each schizophrenic set of images ends with the music swelling and Colin Newman's nagging vocals taking over as the drums kick in. He brings it pogoing back to the electronics, and the cycle starts again. Both sections have the refrain "23 years too late," which, oddly enough, lands us in 1984, the first gap in their history, another bit of the recursive joking that's guided their music from the start.

The rest of the set leans closer to their ’80s pop, pairing abstract lyrics and trance-like repetition with accessible musical textures. There's lots of chiming guitars. Newman sings as much as he barks. This time around, the production is more restrained, and the vocal delivery is altogether less fruity – which is an improvement, 'cause the ’80s records, driven by overly crisp drums and soaked in digital chorus and flange, sounded dated even when they came out. For all the pretty guitar and keyboard tones, these tracks have a tension to them. By layering very simple figures they get a big sound without ever being theatrical. Wire has always come across as conceptual artists using music as the medium for their explorations, yet their method can be surprisingly good at creating approachable, tuneful work. When they want to, at least. The four songs on Read and Burn 3 are dissimilar enough that it's hard to guess what the forthcoming full-length album might be like.

It's also notable that the downloadable version of this record is only available through an online store Newman runs, and they're selling it as unrestricted mp3 files. A lot of their back catalog is available the same way, though the first three albums are only available in physical formats. Wire, as always, seems to be both current and disengaged from the times. Their output is evenly split between sketchbook-like EPs and more crafted albums. Trim away any release, including this one, and the picture of the band becomes incomplete.

By Ben Donnelly

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