The present is an inopportune moment to start classifying popular music. For one thing, there's simply so damn much product out there that any lines you draw are going to be straddled by someone somewhere. For another, the mere act of classification is going to piss off any artist worth his or her salt. Knowing that, it's still pretty safe to say that, in general terms, and probably riding a generational divide, there are two sorts of pop music being aimed at contemporary audiences: that which strives for prettiness, and that which strives for ugliness. Among the ugly stuff, there are still further divisions between that which achieves its ugliness through sheer ineptitude (much true punk rock comes about by precisely this sort of idiot accident, and is redeemed by its undiluted enthusiasm and social function), and that which achieves its unsavory tone by willed design. The redemption of willful ugliness is a finer line. It's a hit-and-miss proposition, and its practitioners live or die by their adherence to one rule: deviation from that which has already been accepted and accommodated as pretty.
On the other hand, it's only rock and roll.
Tell that to Barkmarket guitarist, lyricist and singer Dave Sardy.
"The music industry and media, over the course of time, by appealing to the lowest common denominator, is making people more and more stupid, and more and more expecting things to be easy and easily digestible. We're trying to get away from that as much as possible. And plenty of people seem to be into it, so..."
So... the Brooklyn-based four-piece (Sardy, bassist John Nowlin, drummer Rock Savage and sound-man Greg Gordon) finds itself with three indie releases behind it, a contract with Rick Rubin's American Recordings, a new CD called Gimmick, and a national small-club tour offering the band the opportunity to scream its idea of rock into a lot of impressionable young faces. It's an ugly idea, but it's not without its referents, stretched though they may be.
"We're pulling off Lightnin' Hopkins, Little Walter, Robert Johnson. That's the kind of stuff we listen to," says Sardy. "There's more fuckin' weird rhythm changes in acoustic blues -- one measure of five, one measure of seven, one measure of two -- it's all between the fingers. Rock and roll kind of evened it all out, made it into 4/4. We're trying to bring that all back. I mean, I love Black Sabbath -- I just recently got into them -- but Hopkins had more power in his thumb. You look at the notation and it was all over the place. The shit grooves, but it's not in 4/4. That's when I started getting into unrounded song forms. Not that we're trying to imitate that -- we're just trying to branch out and find our own thing."
I tell Sardy I don't think it likely that anyone will confuse Gimmick with the recorded work of Robert Johnson.
"Yeah, but it's probably closer to Robert Johnson than to fuckin' Nirvana."
And in some key ways, it is.
The songs on Gimmick have an obviously modern industrial edge, topped off by Sardy's unpleasant screaming and accented with tape samples, banjos and amplifier noise, but what pleasure they hold is the pleasure of the unexpected. Sardy leads you through these tunes by the nose, changing rhythm and tempo where it's not supposed to change. The better lyrics do the same. "Hack It Off" combines every stereotype of the romantic ballad ("Don't stop your lovin' give me some of that good lovin'") and the rap boast ("I am the baddest man, don't mess me up I'm mad") and strings them up on a framework of the nastiest sarcasm four boys from the ugly borough of Brooklyn can muster. At their failed-experiment worst, Barkmarket's songs have all the appeal of a jackhammered sidewalk outside a bedroom window on a Sunday morning. At their best, they are a viably unpredictable alternative to all that is oppressively pretty.
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Lest anyone think that a few blues-derived tempo oddities are going to shake the foundations of rock and roll and turn the kids from sheep into experimental thinkers, Sardy's got a story.
"We played a show the other night, and for the encore they wanted us to play "Pencil" off the last album. I couldn't remember the words for the life of me, so we had these two kids come up from the audience, we handed them the mike and they sang the whole thing because they knew all the lyrics. Every night we play, there's like five to ten kids who know every word to every song ... who sit there and want to fuckin' learn them."
Which seems to baffle Sardy just a bit. That probably never happened to Lightnin' Hopkins.
Barkmarket plays at Goat's Head Soup Friday, January 28. Call 520-7625 for info.