Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Turn Up That Noise!

By Stephen Grimstead

MAY 26, 1998: 

Mike Ireland & Holler, Learning How To Live (Sub Pop/Sire)

While the punked-up sound of the Insurgent Country movement degenerates into messy bohemian doodlings, Mike Ireland & Holler have found an even more subversive honky-tonk strain. Namely, Countrypolitan, the string-laden subgenre introduced in the Sixties by producer Owen Bradley and protégée Patsy Cline, and perfected the next decade in the brilliant collaborations between knob-twiddler Billy Sherrill and his bodacious stable of talent, which included George Jones, Tammy Wynette, and Charlie Rich. Long the bane of purists who lean toward the swaggering sound of Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and pre-Sherrill Jones, Countrypolitan nonetheless produced some of Nashville’s greatest hits, among them Rich’s “Life’s Little Ups and Downs” and Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man.”

Ireland isn’t writing them that good yet, but Learning How To Live – the Kansas City-based singer/songwriter’s debut – has more than a few that come close, and he has draped most of them in the finery of Countrypolitan. Meaning you get flourishes of glockenspiel and Floyd Cramer-style piano, and majestic strings that flow through the songs like sweet, warm butter. That’s not to say this is all mushy and gooey like Countrypolitan at its worst: Throughout the set, Michael Lemon’s lead guitar snaps like firecrackers, a perfect match for the piercing twang in Ireland’s vocals. And Ireland’s lyrics are steeped in the politics of both the barroom and the bedroom, on weepers such as “Biggest Torch In Town” and “Worst of All,” as well as the raging, vindictive “House of Secrets.”

Mike Ireland & Holler: too raw, too slick…

Great as they are, you have to wonder what’s going to happen to Holler. Too raw for country radio, too slick for indie-rock twangers, Holler will most likely slip quietly into the dark corner of cultdom that’s become home to neo-trad no-sellers Jim Lauderdale, Buddy Miller, and Mike Henderson. And that’s too bad, because Learning How To Live is contemporary country at its finest – be it insurgent, mainstream, or classic. – John Floyd

Negativland, Happy Heroes (Seeland)

For some reason, whenever the name of the audio-collage group Negativland is glimpsed or heard, two separate indelible images surface. The first is a graphic that was printed in Les Daniels’ seminal 1971 book Comix: A History Of Comic Books In America, which pictured a clutching, claw-like hand emanating from a television (along with three microbe-filled balloons labeled “Misinformation,” “Half-Truths,” and “Mind Rot”) attacking the skull of an unwary victim with the caption, “What are YOU doing to protect yourself from MEDIA BURN – The Nation’s leading mental crippler.”

The second appeared in director Nicolas Roeg’s challenging 1976 film adaptation of Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell To Earth. Space oddity Thomas Jerome Newton (played with detached perfection by David Bowie) is surrounded by a bank of video monitors, each tuned to a different channel. As the cathode-ray sounds and visions grow to an overwhelming cacophony, Newton screams, “Leave my mind alone!” Put these two powerful media commentaries together and you have a good working definition of Negativland.

No stranger to these pages (your not-so-humble reviewer previously tackled the band’s Sex Dirt and Dispepsi in this column within the past two years), Negativland is back with a vengeance in the form of an eight-track extended-play CD titled Happy Heroes. With a “total consumption time” of 26 minutes and 36 seconds, Happy Heroes delivers more bang for the buck – particularly if you have a wicked sense of humor and high threshold for aural pain. To the uninitiated: Much of Negativland’s output will leave the delicate amongst you screaming for mercy – but for those savvy (and wicked) enough to read between the lines, a rollicking good time awaits.

Thought- (and laughter-) provoking packaging is integral to Negativland’s modus operandi. The cover of Happy Heroes features the infamous image of a topless Janet Jackson with an unidentified pair of male hands cupping her bare breasts. However, the Negativland version cleverly tweaks the expected by superimposing Marcia Clark’s face over Janet’s, and adds O.J. Simpson’s exuberant face peering out from behind her raised arms.

With the consensus being that O.J. got away with literal murder, why shouldn’t Negativland get away with figurative murder?

Alert the good-taste police, because the offensive material doesn’t stop here. Bloated legend Orson Welles grapples with peas on “Jolly Green Giant,” a disoriented Colonel Harlan Sanders verbally stumbles repeatedly throughout “Chicken Diction” (isn’t his corporate visage looking more and more like Chairman Mao these days?), and the scintillating shocker of them all, “O.J. And His Personal Trainer Kill Ron and Nicole,” with its repeated affirmation to “get the blood flowing” over a pair of hair-raising screams. (Another mirthfully morbid touch – the bonus insert poster picturing the Bloody Green Giant and the One World Advertising logo.)

The repeating theme on Happy Heroes would have to be the universal symbol for all pervasive (and persuasive) media, which Negativland conjures as a concoction called “Mertz” – a “tiny, brain-shaped tablet that makes up your mind.”

So, if your mind hasn’t already been made up for you, fight back and avoid the total brainwashing pattern that bombards us at every turn by wallowing in Happy Heroes. And don’t expect these guys to ever change their name to Positivland. – David D. Duncan

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