Wild & Far-Out Sounds from the South
Power Pop’s Saving Grace
Photo courtesy of Chris Squire.
In fifteenth-century Japan, there lived a wild, iconoclastic Zen Buddhist monk who wandered around the countryside espousing a philosophy of satori through ribald living, untethered by the constraints of Zen doctrine. His name was Ikkyu, but he was often called “Crazy Cloud.” He drank heavily, he consorted with loose women, frequented brothels, and ranted and railed against the fastidiously stratified Japanese social hierarchy. He was also a poet and musician of some considerable skill, a composer of verse both profound and radical for the time.
Here’s a typical poem:
Don’t hesitate, get laid.
Sitting around chanting: what crap.
I love this one, too:
Fucking flattery, success, money.
I just sit back and suck my thumb.
I’ve always thought of Harahan, Louisiana, native King Louie Bankston as a kind of Ikkyu-type figure, using his seemingly perfect understanding of rock & roll as a way to unfurl his artfully calligraphic sense of the world as irredeemably damaged and utilizing his music as a method to surmount the psychic garbage of everyday life. It’s wrong to think of him as some clichéd Dionysian rock god, hell-bent and laser-focused on the “drugs, sex, and rock & roll” trifecta of pop hedonism. What Bankston does is something that approaches a kind of enlightenment. He has a clean, clear, crystalline insight into himself and the world he moves through that just happens to be acheived by his wandering the earth and playing rock & roll while getting as far out of his head as possible, unmoored from obsession with the trifles of the material world and gleefully thumbing his nose at all that which Western society values most. Ignored by mainstream pop culture, his epiphanies exist in a cool, protective shadow.
His early 1990s recordings with the legendary New Orleans garage band The Royal Pendletons were nearly faultless—the entire combo effected an uncanny connection with not only what rock & roll music (as opposed to rock music) should sound like but also with what it is that rock & roll does best. From those all too few recordings with The Royal Pendletons, through a litany of short-lived or altogether ephemeral groups like The Bad Times (with Eric Friedl of The Oblivians and the late, lamented Jay Reatard), The Persuaders (featuring unheralded New Orleans guitarist Jason Panzer), The Loose Diamonds, Kajun SS, and the ill-fated Oregon band The Exploding Hearts, Bankston has articulated an unerringly clear sense of rock & roll belied by simplicity—a kind of soul science of transcendence through sound disguised in the cheap smoke of a boardwalk-sideshow magic trick. King Louie’s rock & roll exists on the margins. It lives there because it must. Its hoodoo too plainly threatens the black arts of hyper-consumer culture and the soul-deadening stasis of the American status quo.
“Painted White,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
In June 2011, the renowned (though nearly invisible) Atlanta-based record label Douchemaster Records released a fine summertime album entitled Painted White and credited to King Louie and His Missing Monuments. It’s as singularly perfect a summertime record as I’ve ever heard. It is, indeed, a power-pop record, full of coy references to the legendary late-1970s and early-1980s bands that define the genre: The Real Kids, The Flamin’ Groovies, The Barracudas, The Knack, The Quick, The Nerves, The Vertebrats, The Paul Collins Beat, The Neats, The Raspberries, The Last, etc., etc., et al, ad nauseam.
Writing about power pop is always a dicey proposition. It’s a genre that’s as defined, self-referential, and rigid as, say, death metal or crunk, and it is often the case that there simply isn’t much new to bring to the critical table. Power pop is besotted with itself, with its own grammar and circular hermeneutic love letters affirming its own greatness. And, predictably, what was once—for a short time—a semiotic, rich genre is now—for the most part—tired and dim, neutered by its own narcissism and prudish ceremony.
Despite the sonic satisfaction one gets from even a casual listen to good contemporary power-pop bands, the end result is nearly always the same: a desultory realization that one is listening to the sounds of a terminal patient, an exhaustive hoary wheeze from a soon-to-be corpse. The power-pop codices are innocent, unthreatening, and pleasant enough: hyper-tight guitar, bass and drum combos, and clever and meticulously well-constructed songwriting that cleanly melds the melodies of classic British rock bands (The Who, The Beatles, Badfinger) with the charming primitivism of American garage-rock bands (The Chocolate Watchband or The Count Five). Also present is a ludicrous, recherché approach to hip wardrobe—a maladroit hodgepodge of 1960s mod fashion and late-1970s ideas of sartorial cool and, importantly, a reliance on lyrical themes of glorified adolescent perfection—you know, girls, cars, fucking, hamburgers, whatever.
Simon Reynolds writes of the “pallid and monochrome…self-limiting horizons of powerpop” in his brilliant 1990 book Blissed Out. He takes issue with what he calls “regressive rock,” a kind of rock music that fetishizes minimalist conceits, beholden of a flawed idée fixe of what is and isn’t important or cool in the rock & roll canon.
Reynolds’s nearly twenty-five-year-old criticism of power pop is even more legitimate today. What these genre fetishists traffic in most these days can be summed up by one word: boredom. Most contemporary purveyors of power pop create boring music and valorize a boring aesthetic in their oh-so-serious headlong rush to preserve whole cloth a particular sliver of rock & roll history. If it were only kitsch! Alas, their malignantly sincere historicist readings of power pop do nothing at all so much as cheapen and deaden what was once great and alive about the whole thing. Here’s the place where rock becomes geology and music is reduced to dry chitchat among archeologists under a desert tent.
The Missing Monuments erase all that’s often sad and pointless about power pop, rescuing the sound from its traditional genre-exercise straightjacket and electro shocking new life into the corpse. What King Louie and his New Orleans-based group achieve with this LP is alchemical, a kind of wild elemental mystery, a lot of blue smoke and white heat, a sonic incantation conjuring a righteous dybbuk who lays waste to the cheap pretenders and fashion creeps.
Power pop, naturally, relies on exemplary songwriting skill, and here Bankston proves himself as a truly amazing songwriter. Painted White is full of inspired three-minute lessons in melody and economy. And, as in the best tradition of power pop, these songs stick in your head like gum on a shoe. The arrangements the band craft are ingenious—brawny and durable, fat and tough. The lead guitarist, Julien Fried, formerly of the wonderful New Orleans group The Detonations, loads the songs with stunning, metallic guitar lines redolent of late-1970s guitar greats Richard Lloyd and Dick Wagner along with plenty of the 1980s bubblegum-metal guitar heroics. It’s the kind of guitar playing that one doesn’t often hear in power pop, and it works so sweetly, so effortlessly, so well. Fried is masterful.
“The Girl of the Nite,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
Missing Monument’s music certainly sonically name-checks all those great aforementioned power-pop legends, but Bankston and the band infuse their songs and arrangements with so much more. There are perceptible debts to the mighty Dictators (“The Girl of the Nite”), Bruce Springsteen (“Victory Lap”), Dr. Feelgood and Nine Below Zero (“All Bandaged Up”), and Kimberly Rew’s recordings with Mitch Easter and the dB’s (“Dance All Nite”). But the LP isn’t just a cobbling together of choice bits of a cool record collection. Painted White is the sound of a band obliterating self-consciousness.
What’s more to like here? Plenty. The group eschews the standard power-pop uniform of cute, skinny guys with crisp shirts and tight jeans and embrace looking like dangerous guys from the other side of the levee. They look like speed freaks in a Sonic parking lot—corpulent and wild, metabolism and good sense destroyed by drugs and leaden racket, metal-head T-shirts covered in blood and vomit and cocaine and chocolate milkshakes and cum and crack-pipe burns. Missing Monuments are the antithesis of dumb notions of power-pop fashion cool. They slaughter those notions, burn ’em up. They are un-ironically cool, a death-knell to Williamsburg hipsterism.
Bankston’s lyrics are the real revelation here, though. From the writer of “Feet Staink Boogie” and “Sucking on the Grapevine,” you could be forgiven for expecting much. But much of what’s here is real poetry, and there are a few songs I’m particularly fond of. On “All Bandaged Up,” Bankston sings of the problems inherent in combining fearless partying with his real-life job in a hardware store:
Seven days of fuck the Sunday
Ain’t got no good rest for Monday
Standing up sleeping at work
The chisel falls
Then I go to cash my check and I’m all bandaged up
That’s just how I spend my day off.
“All Bandaged Up,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
There are beautiful lines in all these songs, from the images of spray painting gold on the blues-mythic crossroads in “Black Rainbow,” to the quasi-surrealist memories of Hurricane Katrina in the slow-burning r&b of “Nightfall”:
And I’m never gonna forget what I saw that night
When all the water rose and all the wind blowed
I had to save myself
Saw a staircase swimming for its life
Is it nightfall that’s calling me?
“Nightfall,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
And in “Hot Class,” hands down one of the best rock & roll songs of the last five years, Bankston mind-melds with the long, quiet spirit of Ikkyu.
Raging through the night,
gonna get destroyed
drinking from your skull.
Cajun bloody booze,
bodies desperate moves
makes the summer crash.
Get up off your ass.
Put some hot trash into the class.
“Hot Class,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
The LP’s final track, “Dance All Night,” can easily share shelf space with “Roadrunner” by Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, Wilco’s “Heavy Metal Drummer,” Blue Mountain’s “Lakeside,” “Under My Wheels” by Alice Cooper, “September Gurls” from Big Star, or any of the great late-summer, late-night tracks in rock.
We do the hand-job and the rub,
the greasy chicken and the stroll.
And if you look up, baby,
you can see just where we are
in the stars.
Down in the filth and the full moonlight,
baby, let’s dance all night.
“Dance All Night,” off Painted White by King Louie and His Missing Monuments.
Here’s the simple, graceful perfection of late summer nights full of cool wind, low light, a wild dance, an anonymous kiss. These are some of the small things that King Louie and Missing Monuments uncover along their untamed, hell-bent ramble. Simple and perfect.