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Teenage Jesus and the Jerks / Beirut Slump - Shut Up and Bleed

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Artist: Teenage Jesus and the Jerks / Beirut Slump

Album: Shut Up and Bleed

Label: Atavistic

Review date: Aug. 25, 2008

Forget what you may already know about Lydia Lunch. Ignore her vitriolic spoken-word performances; her bellicosely feminist writing; her vampy S&M fashion sense; her associations with renegade alpha males Nick Cave and Jim “Foetus” Thirlwell; her orgasmic moans on Sonic Youth’s “Death Valley ’69”; her erotically grizzly romps in the campy-creepy films of Richard Kern; her futile sparring with idiot comedian Joe Rogan. Purge from your mind her queen-size intellect and ego. Erase the subsequent mass-market co-opting of her prescient obsessions: serial murderers, Southern Gothic literature, rape, insanity, proto-Riot Grrl solidarity, buckets of black eyeliner (hardly shocking stuff today, but terra incognita when Lunch was loudly and proudly milking them in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s).

From a purely musical perspective, it’s the woman's first two bands, the violently minimalist Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, and the monstrously damaged Beirut Slump, that are her most important accomplishments. And to appreciate them properly, it’s necessary to sever them from their creator's reputation and to listen to them on their own terms. As a handy compendium of both groups' slim discographies plus previously unreleased live goods, the excellently titled Shut Up and Bleed allows you to do just that.

Rewind to 1976: An alienated 16-year-old girl named Lydia Koch runs away to Manhattan from Rochester, N.Y. Months later, she stumbles upon a quartet called Mars, whose cataclysm of amateurish dissonance, art-world conceptualism, and primitive rock physicality borrows punk’s urgent thrust while negating the whole equation. Journalists will label this style “no wave.” Smitten, the youngster swoons over the rumpus, which she then personalizes to suit her particular strain of jailbait hostility. Christened Lydia Lunch, she steers Teenage Jesus through 10-minute sets comprised of minute-long songs that pivot around her screeching, electric slide guitar and deviant percussionist Bradley Field’s stiff, staccato thuds on a single snare and cymbal. Their rudimentary, machine-gun approach is undeniably provocative. Who could resist a lascivious high-school vixen yelping about boredom and torture, flanked by a pair of addled weirdos-turned-trained monkeys? In 1978, superstar producer Brian Eno gives Teenage Jesus a coveted slot on the landmark, scene-baptizing No New York LP.

Three decades elapse: Thurston Moore and Byron Coley are nicely summarizing downtown’s sordid past in their luxurious No Wave photography book, which might as well be a love letter to Ms. Lunch. In June 2008, the Jerks herald the tome’s publication and play their sole gig since 1979. The context of this one-shot semi-reunion is quite bizarre: a fleeting, self-destructive epoch re-examined as revered fodder for galleries and coffee-table editions. But onstage at the Knitting Factory, the trio - with its former bassist Jim Sclavunos on drums, and Moore filling in on bass - sounds invigoratingly strident, brusque and, dare it be said, entertaining. Lunch, who’s pushing 50, sticks her tongue out, curses the audience, and barks the lyrics to “Baby Doll” and “Orphans” in a hoarse, jaded snarl that has deepened considerably from perpetual wear and tear. Looser and less aloof than they were in their prime (check the clip from Lydia’s career-spanning Video Hysterie: 1978-2006 DVD on Atavistic), the Jerks still decimate the majority of noise-crud that currently pollutes the local club circuit. This means you, No Fun Fest.

And so it’s no surprise that the material collected on Shut Up and Bleed stands as tall as Yao Ming in platform shoes. Time has eroded much of the initial inaccessibility of barbed stomps such as “Crown of Thorns,” leaving behind a deliciously nihilistic, psycho-cheerleader cha-cha. Lunch is a criminally underrated instrumentalist: Heed the drill-bit whinnies that scar “Red Alert” and the ascending, jet-engine whoosh of “Freud in Flop.” Substantially improving on the 1995 Teenage Jesus retrospective Everything, the new CD affixes decent, if scruffy, archival bonuses (but omits a killer take of “Race Mixing”) and wisely restores many, if not all the tunes to their original aural luster. (Thirlwell had frustratingly "reprocessed" the Jerks’ master tapes in the 1980s, adding gobs of strength-sapping reverb.)

Interspersed throughout the track listing are the complete recorded works of Beirut Slump, an obscure quintet that lurked in the shadows during Teenage Jesus’s final phases. For this unruly combo, Lunch steps aside to concentrate on her trebly, nightmare-surf strumming and assigns the vocals to Bobby “Berkowitz” Swope, a migrant from Florida’s Eckerd College who sings like a nauseous, homosexual Frankenstein menacing you with an ice pick. Vivienne Dick’s B-movie organ disfigures the Doors into a bad-acid freak show; Sclavunos and bassist Liz Swope’s sluggish tempos anticipate the cruel plod of early Swans. Whereas the Jerks’ momentous blurts now come across as abusively catchy, Slump’s frazzled “Staircase” and utterly revulsed “See Pretty” continue to pry open some ghastly portal to hell. A wealth of perverse pleasure awaits anyone brazen enough to peer in and gawk.

By Jordan N. Mamone

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