1995: U.S. Maple - Long Hair in Three Stages

There’s a scene in the film adaptation of High Fidelity where a nervous man tries to buy a copy of Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk from Jack Black’s parody of a record store clerk. That man was U.S. Maple vocalist Al Johnson, and the scene cracks me up — not for its dialogue, mind you, but for how these supposed record store “snobs” completely denied Al fucking Johnson. I know, I know — it’s a film, they’re all playing characters, but come on! There’s even a U.S. Maple poster tacked up by the counter!

Long Hair in Three Stages was my introduction to Chicago’s U.S. Maple. The first time I heard it, I didn’t know what to make of it. Actually, that’s an understatement — I was confused, apprehensive, and a bit shocked. The intertwined guitar lines of “high” guitarist Mark Shippy and “low” guitarist Todd Rittman sounded like hiccuping contortions, as if scraps of rock n’ roll progressions were twisted, melted down, and remade into something else entirely. And even that’s too organized of an explanation, as whenever U.S. Maple would lock into a rhythmic groove, transition, or even a sustained melody, they would either take it somewhere else or abandon the idea completely. Precious few moments in the band’s discography sound relatively tidy (e.g., “Open a Rose” on Acre Thrills, “Go to Bruises” on Talker), and that’s with a heavy emphasis on being relative. Arguably more so than any other rock band from the 90s, U.S. Maple’s idiosyncratic and fractured music is difficult to provide accurate comparison points for. Some suggest Captain Beefheart, but U.S. Maple weren’t prone to the off-kilter zaniness of the Captain — they were too focused, even in the passages where everything falls apart.

Several years after hearing the band, I still don’t always know what to make of their music. Unlike so many records that may draw attention to one or two elements at a time (like say, vocals and guitar lines), U.S. Maple consistently draws (and, I’d argue, requires) one’s full attention to the whole piece. Take Johnson’s vocal approach, for example — although he’s reciting lyrics of some sort, his delivery is abstracted and gestural. Without a lyric sheet handy, the only thing I’ve ever been able to make out on Long Hair’s “Letter to ZZ Top” is “give my bones to Billy Gibbons,” and that’s mostly because I once saw the lyric mentioned in another review of the album. In doing so, Johnson’s vocals meld into U.S. Maple’s primordial melt; if one were to deconstruct their sound, each element would make absolutely no sense, yet together, a bizarrely rich (and thankfully bereft of the wackiness that plagues most “weird” bands) whole emerges. Long Hair just captures the band at their loudest — a few years later, with the Michael Gira-produced Talker, U.S. Maple demonstrated their unique creative vision could survive quietly just as well.

A friend of mine that taught guitar lessons for several years finds U.S. Maple largely unbearable — “if I wanted to hear off-tune guitar warm-ups, I’d go back to selling instruments,” he once told me — but this dismissal assumes that U.S. Maple’s music is somehow undeveloped, accidental, inept, or some combination thereof. I won’t deny that much of the Chicago band’s oeuvre can sound cacophonous or unstructured, but just saying that would undermine how constructed their songs really were. Watch any video of their live performance and it’s quite obvious just how much concentration went into their songs. On Long Hair particularly, that focus was especially raucous. The amount of noise-rock coming out of Chicago in the mid-90s was hardly lacking, but such a disjointed, unpredictable album really stands out.

Inexplicably, I pull out U.S. Maple’s records every five or six months and continue to be confronted with some of the richest, uncompromisingly unique rock music that somehow always feels slightly out of descriptive reach. Perhaps now I understand why so many people called U.S. Maple “deconstructionist rock” — even if the band contested the term, I could seemingly justify it descriptively in a vague sense; i.e., by trying to understand U.S. Maple by relating them to other bands, they most certainly were on their own. Now if only that U.S. Maple documentary would surface — the “in progress” trailer was posted six years ago!

DeLorean

There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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