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The punk gospel of the Make-Up

By Carly Carioli

JULY 27, 1998:  Of the five or six times I've seen the Make-Up -- whose gimmick is that they're former DC-hardcore guys who made the connection between the MC5's White Panther revolutionary rhetoric and Dischord's punk orthodoxy -- their gig a couple weeks ago in a Chinatown loft might have been the best. Until now this "Gospel Yeh-Yeh" tag they've bestowed upon themselves has been little more than a semantic ruse -- after all, it sounds better than "garage band" and has a nice metaphorical resonance when you're talking about breaking down the barrier between audience and performer, or preacher and congregation, or whatever. But here they were opening with an honest-to-God gospel song -- a searing, goosebump-raising take on the old standard "Wade in the Water," which they'd recorded a withering, half-hearted version of for a single last year.

The Make-Up like to include long, rambling, graduate-dissertation-strength manifestos along with their albums -- screeds delineating their revolutionary intents, and so on, a holdover from their former incarnation as the semiotics-obsessed post-hardcore radicals Nation of Ulysses. And part of the problem with them as a band is that they've always felt a need to explain themselves way too much. But here was something that didn't need any explanation, that defied explanation -- a freakin' spooky, secular moment of rock-and-roll transcendence gleaned from a religious tune as played by some guys and a girl whose connection to the song was at best cosmetic and marginal.

It was the kind of moment the Make-Up dedicated themselves to in the manifesto that accompanied their 1996 debut LP, Live at Cold Rice (Dischord), wherein they defined "Gospel Yeh-Yeh" as "a proclaimed 'Liberation Theology' with a decidedly unchristian emphasis on earthly transformation . . . an apocalyptic affair, with ministers urging their flock to 'get theirs' and 'off the pigs -- in all their forms.' " You'd be hard-pressed to take anything like that seriously, not because it's a bad idea -- it's a flowery rewrite of some people's blanket definition of punk rock -- but because it's written in a way that sounds as if they were making fun of themselves. And it's easy to get the feeling, as you watch the Make-Up, that someone -- maybe you, maybe them -- is being put on. On their new album, In Mass Mind (Dischord), there's a song called "Watch It with That Thing" where Ian Svenonious (the frontguy, who looks a bit like Perry Farrell with a Planet of the Apes haircut on Mod night) sings, "I know my place . . . yeah, baby, yeah, I'm a slave." And because his voice has this very Prince-like quality -- alternating between sexy, effeminate, hoarse and an ear-piercing orgasmic squeal -- I hear it as this song about how much he sounds like Prince, and I half-suspect the whole thing's a joke.

There are lots of in-jokes like that -- the way all the song titles read vaguely like James Brown songs, the one about the guy whose girlfriend buries him alive and all he can do is complain about how hot it is. Which would be great if you didn't get the sneaking suspicion that this is supposed to be good for you, that it's supposed to mean something important. These are people, after all, who apparently felt the need to justify -- in the syntax of revolutionary jargon -- their proclivity for fashion, for dressing up in matching outfits and having really cool hair.

You can make whatever justifications you want, but the effect of the Make-Up's screeds -- and of their deadpan, detached, fashion-plate cool -- is to distance them from their audience. And there's nothing wrong with that -- most people wouldn't dream of being on equal footing with their rock-and-roll heroes. The point is that they're more interesting and cooler than you, because if they weren't, it would be cheaper and easier to sit at home and look in the mirror. In any case, the Make-Up are really great at looking cool, and Svenonious is an awesome presence -- he's got some flailing James Brown moves, some of that rabid Iggy Pop/Lux Interior mike-in-the-mouth stuff, the Bobby-Seale-via-Rob-Tyner power-to-the-people thing (he was flashing the Black Panther salute during a song dedicated to honorary garage-punk prisoner of conscience Arthur Lee), and he spent half the night singing from the audience's shoulders.

They finished up in grand fashion -- including an epic cover of "Hey, Joe" rewritten so that Joe's going down to Washington militia-style to lead the revolution, and In Mass Mind's "Do You Like Gospel Music?", which isn't gospel at all but who cares when it's Prince fronting the Shadows imitating the Doors? But as on every occasion I've seen them -- in clubs, lofts, college cafeterias -- there was the inevitable lull in the middle of their set. And it's not as if they didn't have the material to pull off a beginning-to-end scorcher if they felt like it. It's just that they're spending so much time trying to convince the audience and maybe themselves of this bogus democratic notion of equality, which is a nice utopian fantasy, but it don't got a beat you can dance to.


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