The key to “getting” Chain & the Gang is to understand the oeuvre of its conceptual wellspring, namely one Ian Svenonius. If that name rings a bell, it should. Aside from simply sounding important, Svenonius is a punk rock OG, a scene vet with massive cred, having fronted early-90s DC/Dischord outfit Nation of Ulysses, whose seminal record, 13-Point Program to Destroy America, served to influence the sound and politics of bands like At The Drive-In and The Refused. In addition to having been the focal point of the Make-Up and Weird War, he has, with much consistency, projected his thinking man’s punk persona into the world through a book, the Psychic Soviet, and a fairly well-known online interview show, Soft Focus, where Svenonius resembles a sort of William F. Buckley of educated, East Coast liberals reared in the DIY scene and its aesthetic.
One thing that must be said of Svenonius’ output, spanning almost two decades, is that it’s been consistent in its chosen method of presentation, punk or rock ‘n’ roll music always informed by Situationist ideals and blustery yet tongue-in-cheek cultural/political sloganeering. With that said, the formula is now showing definite signs of wear. TMT’s review of Chain & the Gang’s 2009 debut album came down hard on the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” of the implied running joke of this project, that of utilizing a musical form once meant to be empowering in the face of repression to expound a sardonic kind of world weariness and surrender. If the joke was old then, their latest, Music’s Not For Everyone, certainly calls for tomatoes to be launched and the big hook to be employed.
I didn’t think Down With Liberty…Up With Chains was so bad. There was deadpan analysis of daily minutiae (“What Is A Dollar?), chuckle-inducing quips (“Trash Talk”), and a solid song or two with actual hints of sincerity (“Deathbed Confession”). Unfortunately, those scattered highs are nowhere to be found on Chain’s most current offering. Relying heavily on posturing and tired song structures, lacking the incisive commentary and pointed humor that it strives for, Music’s Not For Everyone is a record that fails on many fronts.
The essential reason for these failures is the shortcomings of Svenonius and his whole personal brand, at least in this particular instance. In light of the recent revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, the downcast mood and everything-is-a-drag jokey laments are made to look glib at best, especially coming from a guy with a supposedly deep interest in populism. I’m not saying there’s no room for humor and that everything political in this vein needs to be Democracy Now-type investment in the earnest struggle for freedom, but the humor here and commentary it is supposed to deliver falls flat.
Album opener, “Why Not?”, a song about throwing your hands up once and for all, is the only track here good for a chuckle or two, if only for lines like “I took them all/ I don’t even know what they are.” “Youth Is Wasted on the Young,” in a horribly ironic twist, is a defeatist statement from a guy whose Nation Of Ulysses thrived on the youthful energy and revolutionary rhetoric that this project is sorely missing. The two numbers titled “Detroit Music,” while meant to laud the rich history of music from the Motor City, come off as hackneyed rock ‘n’ roll, a third-rate impression of MC5. The last one-third of the album is particularly regrettable, due to the fact that it reprises two of the record’s previous cuts but actually succeeds in making them worse. At this point, amid questions of the necessity of these reprises, you just want it all to end.
Svenonius stated in a recent TMT interview that, “To me, the important thing about music is the personality, the singer, it should be communication.” There’s no doubt that Svenonius is an intelligent guy who has interesting, thoughtful things to say, but here his “communication” has woefully missed the mark with its intended audience. While listening to the album’s title track, the penultimate marker for what’s gone wrong here, one has to ask themselves, as the song raises issues of inclusiveness versus exclusiveness and the value of music in every day lives of every day people, just who, if anyone, this music is for. The only answer that I can come up with is Svenonius himself.