Ian Svenonius is surely one of the most unique, iconic and out-there singers/performers, well, out there. It's unfortunate that he, and the various bands he has fronted during the last 14 years, have seemingly become pigeonholed as "shtick." His current band's newest offering is years ahead of what anyone is doing, but will most likely get overlooked for exactly that reason. That's really too bad.
In the early '90s, Svenonius fronted legendary D.C. noise punks Nation of Ulysses, which left its 13 Point Plan to Destroy America in its wake. Next, along with current bassist Michelle Mae, came The Make Up, offering their version of liberation theology and playing "Gospel Yeh-Yeh" (think the MC5 meets James Brown) while wearing matching uniforms. Just when the (International) Noise Conspiracy and other Swedish bands caught on, the group folded, and he and Mae started up two side projects. The first, Weird War, along with ex-Royal Truxer Neil Michael Hagerty, was a one-off recording band that never toured. The second, Scene Creamers, this time with Six Finger Satellite and Golden alum Alex Minoff on wah-wah-fueled guitar, proved much more fruitful. They released last year's I Suck on That Emotion (think Hendrix sitting in on a Make Up rehearsal) and toured the hell out of it. Probably realizing their name was quite possibly the worst name for a rock band (like, ever), they went back and scooped up Weird War.
Whereas I Suck was based on the concept of the poor artist using creativity to destroy capitalism, If You Can't Beat 'Em is a similar take on the music industry. And it may be the best damn dance-party record of the year.
Apparently, Svenonius and crew paid a visit to (grandfather of funk) George Clinton's P-Funk Mothership (now located in an abandoned airplane hangar somewhere outside of Detroit) for inspiration and lessons in how to get uptight indie rock kids to shake their thangs. They also got directions to Sly Stone's Key Club studio (where "There's a Riot Goin' On" and other Stone classics were recorded) to lay down the tracks for the record.
Said visits paid off big-time, as the result is chock full of funky licks, riffs, beats and even rhymes. It is, in a way, a send-up of Funkadelic's 1974 funk-rock classic Standing on the Verge of Getting It On.
The album kicks off with an intro/first track right out of the Clinton/Funkadelic playbook. Over Mae's low-end bass ramblings, Svenonius declares, both sped-up and slowed down, that this is, indeed, "Music for Masturbation," before the group launches into the full-on funk assault of "Grand Fraud," in which Svenonius, as usual, casts himself as counterculture protagonist ("There was a village with a witch/Then they decide to burn that bitch/And I am that witch"), more or less setting the pace for the album.
The title track finds our man describing all the ways to destroy the music biz ("If you can't beat 'em, got to bite 'em/If you can't cut 'em, got to siphon/the life from their body, using strangulation/slowly but surely like a python") over erratic drum rolls and alarming guitars. It also features mid-song raspy rapping by JJ Rox, aka Jennifer Herrema of Royal Trux (another shameless plug for that band) that adds some serious adrenaline to the track, along with further musings on how to bite 'em if at first you were unable to beat 'em.
The album closes with "One by One," another nod to the closer on the aforementioned Standing on the Verge (but in a good way). Whereas Clinton spoke over Eddie Hazel's dripping-with-reverb guitar soloing, Svenonius replaces the "free your mind, and your ass will follow" ramblings with Mao quotes, and Alex Minoff pulls off a great tribute to the late, great Mr. Hazel.
By writing clever music, Svenonius and band have completely inverted the usual formula for political music; rather than using music as a means to deliver a political message, they're writing such catchy and danceable songs that the listener may forget just how revolutionary this stuff really is. Rendering Weird War as mere "shtick" risks missing the point the band is attempting to convey. Play this at your next dance party, but don't blame me when you start getting invited to Derrida reading groups.