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Flin Flon, Unrest, and Henry Cow

By Douglas Wolk

OCTOBER 18, 1999:  Boo-Boo, the new album by Flin Flon, comes in two flavors. Besides the CD, there's a vinyl LP edition, Boo-Boo (Version), with different mixes of every song. Both are on singer/guitarist Mark Robinson's label Teenbeat. The basic sound of the material doesn't differ in any major way. Grooves lurch like a cheetah at top speed, sparkling with just enough guitar to keep from touching earth. The difference is in the structures of the tracks. On the CD, they're songs first and foremost, developing logically from introduction to conclusion and propelled by the rhythm section's post-disco jerk. The LP version is nothing but that propulsion, quick and jolting, edited down to rhythm patterns that dispense with the extraneous gestures of songwriting. The band are fast and wiry, but the beat always seems to be leaning to one side. It's the same kind of rhythmic sleight of hand that drove Joy Division and early New Order -- bands whose musical ideas turn up all over Boo-Boo, from the ultra-dry recording of Matt Datesman's hi-hat-focused drumming to the way Robinson has largely ditched chords in favor of darting around the bass lines, one or two spindly notes at a time. Meanwhile, Robinson's lyrics have become a deliberately meaningless excuse to sing; the words to "Jumpers" seem to have been lifted from a dental surgeon's notebook, and the chorus of "Upper Ferry" goes "34/34/34."

The mercurial Robinson has been heading toward Boo-Boo's unalloyed groove for a while now. His best-known band, Unrest, first hinted at it with a string of extraordinary singles and their last two studio albums, Imperial f.f.r.r. and Perfect Teeth. They drew on the fluid repetitions of the New York funk group ESG and the artists on the British post-punk label Factory, molding them into songforms of their own, where the rhythm section mostly just provided support for Robinson's forceful, clean-toned guitar strumming. Unrest mutated into the chewier Air Miami, after which Robinson formed Flin Flon.

That's just one genealogy for Flin Flon, but there's an alternate chain of development whose relics have just resurfaced. Before Unrest were a groove band, they were an oddball neighbor of the DC-area punk scene. The two fun, spazzy late-'80s Unrest albums that document these period have been out of print for close to a decade. But No. 6 Records has now reissued both of them. Malcolm X Park sounds like the product of a band set on avoiding stylistic continuity at all costs -- it's a wonderfully (and terribly) messy one-band mix tape, with frenetic punk, acoustic abstractions, faux art-film music, a straight-faced cover of Kiss's "Strutter," a piano-and-drum drone piece, a sweet little love song, and an inept Elvis impersonation invading one another's personal space. That was followed by Kustom Karnal Blackxploitation, on which Unrest can't quite decide whether they're a sex-crazed power-rock trio or a sex-crazed joke about '70s wah-wah funk. Song titles include "Black Power Dynamo" and "Kill Whitey." Still, parts of it are awfully clever. The chorus of "Teenage Suicide" conflates a joke from the movie Heathers with the title of Robinson icon Sammy Davis Jr.'s autobiography: "Teenage suicide/Don't do it/Teenage suicide/Yes I can!"

Before Unrest, there was Unrest, the 1974 album by the English art-rock group Henry Cow that gave Robinson's group its name. Henry Cow were one of the first bands to be both seriously interested in making the distinctions between rock and improvisation and "serious" compositional music irrelevant and seriously equipped to do it. Although its members (including guitarist Fred Frith and bassoonist Lindsay Cooper) tended to overindulge in number-crunching time signatures, they were subtle players more interested in supporting one another than in showing off. Unrest, newly remastered and reissued on East Side Digital, was recorded when they found themselves in the studio with only half an album's worth of material and punted. The second half of the disc is based on a series of textural improvisations (menacing buzz, woodwind whir, bash-and-scrape freakout) arranged into complicated, coherent pieces with the help of tape manipulation and overdubs.

Unrest doesn't sound a thing like Boo-Boo, but they're related, most of all in the artists' slipperiness. Whatever you think I am, they argued, I'll refuse to be that -- even to the point of not releasing "definitive" versions of their albums. (Henry Cow's 1973 Legend is now available in two different mixes too.) Both mutated from paradigm to paradigm too quickly to be attached to any one genre, until incrementally they'd built styles of their own. And though Flin Flon and Henry Cow share little in terms of sound, the two groups illuminate each other from a distance as cousins whose shared bloodline is a hidden one.

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