at Lounge Ax, August 13
By Monica Kendrick
Ever since I first saw them, three or four years ago, I've thought of U.S. Maple as one of the greatest bands Chicago has produced this decade; I've even got a streak of the fan's how-could-anyone-not-see-that certainty about it. If the struggling Skin Graft roster, where they started out, were high school, they'd have earned my vote for Most Likely to Succeed, and it was gratifying to see them move on to the larger, better-distributed Drag City earlier this year.
So I was a little taken aback--but not necessarily displeased--by the raging controversy they inspired on their stint opening for Pavement on the road this summer. Comments in various indie-rock Web forums ranged from "U.S. Maple kicks ass....I think they totally upstaged Pavement" to "I would rather have my fingernails pulled out with a pair of rusty pliers than sit through that shit again." Pavement fans being generally a mild-mannered lot, we didn't get the fistfights and rioting that accompanied, say, the debut of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, but the back-and-forth was virulent enough to make me wonder if this subcultural-fragmentation thing is getting really out of hand. For all their freshness and energy, U.S. Maple have never struck me as particularly outre. Jagged, yes; with distinctive song structures, yes; sputtering and gasping in a sort of poetic nonlinear language, sure--but more than 20 years after Pere Ubu and no wave, their stuttering, high-tension churn is just what your basic inspired, breathing, visceral, turn-of-the-century rock 'n' roll sounds like. Or should.
Whether you like them or hate them, U.S. Maple's three dense albums, Long Hair in Three Stages, Sang Phat Editor, and the recent Talker pale in intensity next to the live experience of the band. It's not that U.S. Maple relies on improvisation; in fact, in concert they re-create the recorded material pretty faithfully. It's just that the proverbial smell of the greasepaint and roar of the crowd--or is it the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd?--are so essential to this music that listening to the records is sort of like looking at pictures of sharks: you can understand, theoretically, that they're beautiful, dangerous creatures, but it's nothing like having one gnawing your leg off.
Of course, this could also explain why some people enjoy U.S. Maple's records immensely but would rather be in another state when they take the stage. In the stanky intimacy of a crowded little room like Lounge Ax, where U.S. Maple headlined its own show last weekend, front man Al Johnson's twitching and hissing, his proclivity for disrobing and smearing himself with paint and grabbing audience members by the hair--all of that dreadfully uninhibited rock 'n' roll stuff--can be a little much. The usual distancing mechanisms don't work; whether it's a put-on or not becomes irrelevant. Though all these confrontational grotesqueries refer to others in rock history, it's no stadium they're in, and Johnson is no hard-bodied iconic impossibility like Iggy Pop or David Lee Roth. He's an extraordinarily regular guy up there, drooling and contorting his regular features in a state of controlled surrender to the pummeling vibes his bandmates are emitting with relatively deadpan concentration. That's doubtless unsettling for other regular guys to watch. The subverbal, pheromonal masculine tension, especially in combination with the threatening, unresolved urgency of something like "Songs That Have No Making Out" (from Sang Phat Editor), is designed to embarrass. But the little girls understand: maybe I haven't enjoyed their records as much because on some animal level they just don't smell right.
At this show, U.S. Maple looked like they'd adapted to the exposure they've been getting. They played with a big-room assurance and less of the generated things-fall-apart anxiety than I've seen before. Guitarists Mark Shippy and Todd Rittmann moved around a bit more than they used to, as if they'd gotten used to having more stage on which to mosey, looking maniacally, distractedly focused while they frittered and shimmered through the tight, abrupt rifflets they can probably play in their sleep by now. Johnson seemed relatively restrained, as if he were startled to have so many faces at crotch level again. If I have one complaint, it's that Pat Samson's bloody-fisted drumming (the reason they've never needed a bassist), which was brought up in the mix to Bonhamesque levels, overshadowed some of the trebly caffeinated guitar nuances--and Johnson's vocal echoing of guitar solos with his spastic jazzman's sense of timing--which have made past gigs at Lounge Ax and other teeny-tinies such purifying revelations.
Recently in Spin, reviewer Joe Gross creamed, "When a band like Maple comes within spitting distance, when you actually hear the rules being crushed altogether and the results still, you know, swing, then attention must be paid," even predicting a time in the 21st century "when U.S. Maple tribute bands will be all the rage and everyone will be trying to do that Wheeze." But U.S. Maple's genius is in warping the rules, not crushing them. And with their knack for inspiring argument and uncomfortable empathy, I'm not sure they'll spend much time in confines less intimate than the ones they electrified last Friday. Just in case, though, I'll cherish my memories of the encore that lapsed into brute-force boogie, its grinding rhythm like a paper shredder eating Swans and Led Zeppelin, knowing that while U.S. Maple may be headed somewhere, they sure didn't come out of nowhere.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.