When I claim that the band Upper Wilds plays Americana, I know I’m being provocative. When I claim that Upper Wilds is America’s best contemporary Classic Rock band, I’m engaging in hyperbole. When I say “Upper Wilds is my favorite contemporary Southern Rock band,” that any one of their songs, picked at random, is a proud continuation of Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” I know I’m being absurd.
For one thing, the band is from Brooklyn. Upper Wild’s individual members (Dan Friel, Jason Binnick, and Jeff Ottenbacher) are certainly as scruffily handsome as any Driving ‘n’ Crying cover band, but they look less like Near Dark extras than if the randy misfits at a Park Slope Bar Mitzvah inserted their coins in a Zoltar fortune-telling machine and said “we wish we were in models” but Zoltar, that wily succubus, curled her monkey’s paw so that all three adolescent horndogs woke up fully grown, but as members of Ex Models. Upper Wilds being from Brooklyn is less an obstacle than one would think. After all, my other favorite Southern Rock band is from Queens. What’s geography anyway, now that the internet is all? If some Nashville wag wants to claim Atlanta’s Algiers is the best New York post-punk band, you won’t see me crying in my egg cream. So, I’m being absurd. Big deal. So what. Who cares.
A (slightly) bigger deal is that Upper Wilds don’t sound remotely like Southern Rock. But that’s not really a deal breaker for me either. Here at Abundant Living, we deal in larger truths. And if a larger truth isn’t available, we’ll accept vibes. Doesn’t hurt my vibe reliant position that most self described Southern Rock bands sound like either Heartbreak Station era Cinderella or Queens of The Stone Age if Josh Homme was John Garcia and was even more emotionally invested than he currently is in showing the world what a shit-kicker he can be. It’s a genre largely stuck in 1990-trying-to-sound-like-1973. Upper Wilds, on the other hand, sound like if ZZ Top’s Degüello sold more copies than Eliminator so the boys decided to forgo drum synthesizers and MTV and just get noisier and noisier. And if Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill loved Fairport Convention as much as they love the blues. That British folk band’s influence is why Upper Wilds are Americana. And Classic Rock. See, geography ain’t nothing but a thing.
A reasonable reader might reasonably beg me to shut the fuck up for a moment and consider why I’m so intent on shoehorning a Brooklyn trio of noise-niks into a genre that they themselves don’t claim. Well, to be honest, while I’m sincere in my claim, it’s a sincerity holding hands with strategy. My more sincere belief is in Upper Wild’s rightful place in a classic rock tradition. I don’t (again, sincerely) consider the band’s art to be “noise” or “indie” rock. I think the guitar pyrotechnics and melodicism of the vocal lines, even while also indebted to the songwriting of Bob Mould/Grant Hart, merit the consideration of a placement away from Upper Wilds’ (very fine) label and (very fine) peers. And, since I acknowledge that contemporary “classic rock” is uniformly lousy with pastiche, I’m attempting to make a case for Upper Wilds’ distinctive classicism by placing them in a slightly less crowded (and considerably less irritating) field. I don’t expect Upper Wilds to thank me for this. But no band is the boss of me.
Upper Wilds’ new album, a suite of numerically ordered and named Love Songs (#1-10) entitled Venus, deals in classic, universal concerns. Probably the most universal concerns there are; matters of the heart and matters of getting real, real gone. Lyrically, Dan Friel comes at love from numerous perspectives; from the Singer As Protagonist, to Singer As Omniscient Dispenser of Truths, to Singer As Mass Suicidal Cult Member Left Behind. Sonically, the band comes at love as Led Zeppelin did, minus the self-indulgence or misogyny. In fact, every song on Venus is “Train Kept A Rollin’, if every version of the song, by every band that ever recorded it, was played on a roomful of turntables simultaneously. Occasionally the records are turned down so that those in the room can open another bottle of nitrous and make out to the Can tribute band practicing next door. But that respite is immaculately timed, with just enough motorik air allowed in to make shit, you know, “dynamic.” The drummer, Jeff Ottenbacher, takes a quick sip of water, counts off, and the room is once again swimming in methamphetamined do-wah-diddy.
Any complaints about mixed metaphors are lost in the guitar squall, sorry.
I’m exaggerating again. Sorry. Venus is not all wall of sound. And the guitars are maximum R&B in their insistence on (an admittedly off-kilter) groove, but I could call the song dynamics “post-hardcore” if I wanted to be mean and the discernibility of the leads could lead credence to Upper Wilds being a power metal or Burning Spirit-style hardcore band, if that was an argument I was trying to make. But even if my Southern Rock thesis won’t fly (it won’t… I made the mistake of asking Dan Friel and he said, “I definitely think of the band as riff-centric, and therefore classic rock. Obviously lots of influence from what I think of as subsequent riff waves: Wipers/Huskers/Buzzcocks, Sleater-Kinney/Sonic Youth/GBV, Torche/Big Business/Oh Sees. The southern rock thing surprises me though.”), Upper Wilds are a Classic Rock band as sure as Vanilla Fudge and Alice in Chains were. A track like the 9th song on the album (“Love Song #9”) is absolutely a combination of Zepplin’s “Rock and Roll” and Unsane’s “4-Stix,” and the album as whole tempers its locomotive propulsion with a cascade of gorgeous melodies and hooks within hooks within hooks, all of which are primed and ready to be included in the Dazed and Confused soundtrack that is slated to be released after humanity flies a phallic spacecraft into the first black hole it finds and all interdimensional time collapses into itself.
For himself, Friel says, “Song #9 was pretty straight up ‘I wish Motorhead and Hawkwind were the same band,’ but Zep and various other blues rock boogies obviously cast a big shadow there.” I’m taking that answer, caveats be damned, as confirmation of my larger thesis.
Accepting that the members of Upper Wilds’ musical backgrounds (Friel coming from the motorik-indie sturm und drangsters Parts & Labor, the soundtrack and dance-punk credentials of Binnick, and Ottenbacher having done time in the sadly unsung Golden Error) aren’t exactly the stuff of Tee Pee Records retrospectives, it’s a given that any nods to “Classic Rock'' are complexified by the collective’s allegiance to the punk, post-punk, and noise rocks that either rejected ‘70s radio entirely or at very least attempted to subvert it. Even a dunderhead like myself who generally prefers Space Truckin’ to Space Is The Place, understands that any meathook rawkin performed by Upper Wilds will be transmitted via radio waves intentionally wobbled by artists spiritually disinclined towards pastiche. What I hear as pure bubblegum probably sounds like unbearable noise to the average Jeff Beck fan. Sonic Youth-esque tunings (or whatever. I know the tuning/guitar sound comes from somewhere else but I’m pretty basic when it comes to avant guitar. Sharrock? Lil’ Stevey Reich? Jazz? New Music? You’re the genius, you tell me.) and/or heavy psych riffige, when applied to “soulfull” songwriting can be hit or miss in even the best case. I won’t tell you how to feel about Royal Trux and I won’t expect you to remember Thee Hypnotics. But I’ll just say The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Mainstreet is a swell album that should be illegal for noise guitarists to own. But Upper Wilds’ fusion of sideways guitar and Classic Rock choogle is devoid of cock-of-the-walk blooze affectation, junkified half-riffs, or neo-Floydian self indulgence. Instead the sound opts to focus on just how downright pretty all modes of guitar-liberation playing can be; whether they be Sonny Sharrock, Archers of Loaf, Pussy Galore, a million post-metal instrumental bands I can’t bear to listen to, or the Young Brothers’ effervescent work on Powerage. Venus still makes a bruising sound, but the result is less pain and more about how beautiful a black and purple mark can be. A hickey from Upper Wilds-ky is like a Hallmark card etc etc.
And I haven’t even gotten to the singing.
While Dan Friel claims to be a “medium, but not super deep fan” of Fairport Convention, he cops to having had their classic 1969 album, Liege & Lief, “in regular rotation the last few years.” See, I’m not completely talking out of my ass. Unlike the doom ‘n’ Dio phrasings utilized by contemporaries such as Torche or Big Business, Upper Wilds hammers vocal melodies atop their din that wouldn’t be out of place sung in one of Sandy Denny’s melismatic odes to faeridom. There’s an anthemacising at play that feels ever familiar without sounding lifted from anything other than cultural memory. Freil’s effect-drenched tenor, mixed high and pegged to a sense of urgency, condenses even further an idiosyncratic truncation of traditional English folk tunes into bites of constantly soaring (even within just a couple notes) folk-inflected hard rock. As though, when Scott Walkers decided to lose his marbles, he opted to take his rhythm stick to Surrealistic Pillows rather than slabs of ham. I won’t pretend that Friel has the opera-punk range of Walker, the grit of Grace Slick, or the folk melody rolodex-mind of Richard Thompson. But what his voice (and vocal-line writing/taste in effects) has is a boldness mixed with plaintive grace that makes his various meditations of love feel like both inhabited truths and cool signifiers; the one-two-punch of meaning and signal that all worthwhile rock and roll depends upon.
Anyway, once we believe in punk, the only difference between Rick Danko and Burton Cummings is the cheekbones. (jk jk jk… calm down. I know Danko is the sun and the moon. It’s just that Friel sounds kind of like both, slightly more like The Guess Who singer, and I didn’t want that to come off like an insult because it’s not. Dum dum lyrics aside, “American Woman” is a banger. Anyway, Upper Wilds has way better songs than The Guess Who. If anything, they sound like Cherubs doing “Chest Fever.” Canada is Southern Rock if yr a polar bear. I’m not losing the plot. You are.)
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I know Dan Friel a little. We don’t stay up all night talking on the phone about our friend Goo or anything, but I’d say we’re friendly. But that friendliness initially stemmed from me repeatedly saying nice things about his band online. What was he gonna do? Not like me? Regardless, while he was writing the songs for Venus, I lent him some books of poetry (the Rattle Bag anthology, some James Tate and Louise Gluck I think, etc.) to help with lyric writing. I don’t know if any specific poet influenced the lyrics on Venus. Friel isn’t quite sure either. But even if Friel’s words are more indebted to the less self-consciously poetic half of the Husker Du songwriting team (Grant Hart) than he is any MFA candidate or Irishman, his version of Hart’s understated style has its own weight. The existential is rendered either hopefully, with love seen as an inevitable occurrence, or fatalistically, with love as externally powerless. But fatalism is written as a positive too: the void is omnipresent, but less an obstacle than a backdrop. Even educated fleas and goldfish in the privacy of their bowls know the end is looming and infinite, so let’s get it on. It’s end-time romanticism of the Daniel Higgs-ian kind; profoundly/prosaically open hearted, heroically unbothered by the acknowledged mystery. The lyrics are arguably the least “classic rock” thing about Upper Wilds, as they’re not super fucking dumb. But they’re consistent with Friel’s notion of classic rock; a Motorhead where Lemmy didn’t love iron crosses and jailbait as much as he loved class war and instead devoted his considerable, earthy and wise, lyrical prowess to being a big sweetie. (In this alternate reality, his opinion of methamphetamine remains unchanged.)
I don’t expect to change many minds about what is and what is not Classic Rock. I realize the canon has not been updated since post-grunge drivel flooded rock blocks nationwide with gravel voiced goombas moaning about Christ and heroin. But, if and when there’s an opening in the Classic Rock mailroom, I hope the academy will consider Upper Wilds. They got the sound and they got the hair. They have songs for days and, unlike 90% of established classic rock bands, no skippable tracks. If the Powers That Be are having trouble making room, they should consider just taking out Carmine Appice. Or post-Creem Eric Clapton. Doubtful anyone who doesn’t professionally suck would complain. See? Nothing is absurd when you put in a little effort.
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