The concept of “the classics” is unavoidable in virtually any artistic movement. Assigning to a work the quality of lasting value, regardless of the shifting fashions of the times, not only puts that work on a certain pedestal but also sets it up as part of a tradition – a standard by which future works are measured.
This gives contemporary artists an inheritance to draw from, but also a problem: “How do I respond to the classics in my own art? Should I just imitate them? Ignore them and just do my own thing? Or should I try to integrate them somehow?” All three roads have been followed by artists over the years, to varying degrees of success.
It was with that in mind that I approached Ex-Cult’s new release, Midnight Passenger (Goner Records), released on April 29. A five-piece garage-punk outfit from Memphis, TN, formerly known as Sex Cult, the group has been a vibrant part of Memphis’s local punk scene. But like many of their peers, they have not seen much attention outside of their scene.
Production-wise, there is a clear lo-fi aesthetic to be heard here, with a noticeable lack in strong bass and treble frequencies. It’s loud and raw, but not as big-sounding as most modern records tend to be. No one instrument really takes centre-stage – they all blur together a bit in the limited range of the recordings.
The songs are delivered in the expected punk formula, with Natalie Hoffmann’s bass guitar driving the rhythm and harmony, and JB Horrell’s and Alec McIntyre’s guitars making it loud and messy! Michael Peery’s drums show plenty of energy, but as a listener, I found I often had to really concentrate to find them in the crowded mix.
Generally, each band member had something to offer, but I found myself rather let down by Chris Shaw’s approach to vocals. There are actually no sung melodies, nor are there any of the impassioned screams you expect from hardcore or garage-rock vocalists – just a shouted monotone. It’s certainly not rapping, and it only barely works as spoken word. The early punk singers had virtually no musical ability, but their failed attempts are the stuff of legends now. I wished for bigger successes or failures in the vocal department.
Related to the vocal style is the fact that none of the songs really grabbed my attention. They are all fairly satisfying in the moment, but once each is done, I feel no need to go back and listen to it again, nor am I compelled to recall it later in the day.
The perceived immediacy of the record seems to be tied to the listener’s frame of mind… and how loudly you play it. At higher volumes, you can get into the music physically, feeling the impact of the sounds and letting them move you (and it is meant to move you). There’s not a great deal of subtlety here, but what there is can be heard more easily – little touches of guitar you didn’t hear before, or sudden realizations of how good the drum-fills are. Without the benefit of volume, it just sounds blurry and indistinct.
Midnight Passenger is a record that should really only be listened to LOUDLY. As a result, it’s not one that rewards close, careful listening. Of course, that’s all part of the punk rock style, but it also suggests that the band might be better live than on record.
Jello Biafra recently suggested that punk should probably die in order to be reborn, and I think he has a point. The trappings of punk are easy to find in pop culture, yet its spirit is elusive, even if it can be defined. So what about Ex-Cult? They certainly have the trappings, but what about the spirit? This is where my point about classics comes in.
I can’t answer the question, “Should I listen to Midnight Passenger?” However, it’s a no-brainer, phrased this way: “Should I listen to Midnight Passenger… or just dig up more Bad Brains and Dead Kennedys records?”
Midnight Passenger invites comparisons to Ex-Cult’s musical predecessors, and so Ex-Cult have submitted themselves to measurement by the classics. The path of mere imitation can be nice and fun and safe, but it does not create new classics – things of lasting worth. It just reminds listeners how good the real classics are, and ends up feeling empty in comparison.