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Bold as love
Paranoid Social Club release a double triumph

You might be tired of rock and hip-hop artists using samples to open songs and albums; they get old on repeated listenings, and theyíre usually only funny/deep for the performers themselves, anyway. The clip chosen to open Paranoid Social Clubís Axis III, however, is better than average.

Some zealot or other from the í70s ó I searched and searched, but only came up with the fact that this clip has also been used by one Jason North, an electronica producer from Portland, Oregon (no less) ó is foaming at the mouth about the influence of rock music. You know the type: "Nineteen hundred and seventy-four is the year that they are now planning for sex on the street in every major city from coast to coast. And get ready for a shock: The music that theyíre planning to use to crumble the morals of America is this rotten, filthy, dirty, lewd, lascivious junk called rock and roll." Wouldnít it be nice if there were a secret "they" planning to get us all to fuck in the streets? A "they" planning to crumble the morals of America? As if they needed crumbling.

But thatís all standard stuff. What I love most about the sample is the way PSC have presented it, with an airy hip-hop beat and some delicate synths. Then, when the speaker delivers his kicker ó "the fertility rites of the jungle are the same beat incorporated into this modern rock" ó they pepper in some congas, right as he says "same beat." Most importantly, thereís the message youíre left with: "Itís not just the lyrics, itís the beat!"

I couldnít agree more. Why is this double album, Axis I and III, the bookends to PSCís debut Axis II, so amazing? Well, itís not just the lyrics, itís the beat. This is the most rhythm-driven album Iíve heard since Superfly, cast with the imagination and incredible vocal delivery of frontman Dave Gutter ó himself primarily a rhythm guitarist.

With 25 songs all told, thereís enough here on the two discs worth writing about to fill pages of this newspaper (and I may revisit the album sometime in the future, just because Iíve got a million angles on it). But first, a word on what this numbering of Axes is all about: The terminology comes from the DSM-IV, what you might call the dictionary of psychological disorders (you know this if youíre taken Psych 101, so you can skip ahead a bit, if you want). Axis I disorders generally involve schizophrenia or mood imbalances like depression, actions that are repugnant to the person doing them; they canít help themselves. Axis II disorders are more stable and long lasting, like personality disorders, and are generally unnoticed by the actor; they think theyíre doing exactly what theyíre supposed to be doing. Axis III problems are physical, like hypertension or high blood pressure, which can lead to or make worse psychological problems.

So, you could say that PSC were just being themselves (i.e. paranoid) with their debut, and that theyíre exploring foreign territory on these two follow ups. But Iíd hazard that theyíve got a touch of multiple personality disorder, and theyíre lucky to be prolific enough to take what might have been an uneven album and turn it into two themed albums. Not that it matters much.

Axis III is an explosive mix of hip-hop and R&B stylings coupled with rock aggressiveness and pacing (riffing on the hypertension angle). But this isnít the sort of rap-rock hybrid youíll find coming out of 311 or Linkin Park because instead of being a forced collaboration, where they seem to have rap and rock switches that they turn alternately on and off, PSC have simply absorbed the sounds and melded them, so that Gutter isnít first rapping then singing, but rather his delivery is clipped and staccato with sung timbre and pitch. The rhythm section cycles back upon itself like repeating samples, but has soul and ad-libs. Or the songs will be sung entirely, but the verses go on and on like the ambling mind of the freestylist, and with similar rhyme scheme.

IIIís standout track is "Righteous," something to get the religious nuts fired up about and a great bump-and-grind number. Opening with some discordant synths, itís metallic and cold, then quickly warmed by a lilting vocal riff of seven steps. When they lyrics hit, the songís all about where you might find God: "the strangest places," like on the streetcorner dealing drugs, or paying a prostitute to get clean. PSC are heathens, sure, but their brand of heresy is appealing. God is everywhere and everything and theyíll be righteous any way they choose. After all, "Godís too busy for church/ Keeping the devil down in the dirt is hard work."

"Some find God when they meditate," sings Gutter in his trademark melodic rasp, but "what if itís all just in our mind." Heís disdainful, the words spit out. "God if youíre just in my head, then why wonít you set me free?" For "free" he lilts up toward the heavens into a heart-stopping falsetto, then descends to wonder "If he hears my prayers, why do I always get it wrong?"

Of course, thatís just more paranoia. They donít get much wrong here. "Last Cigarette," "Baglady," "Music Man," and "Two Girls" especially showcase PSCís versatility and creativity: rasta stylings, loving a homeless woman, the catch-22 of groupie infatuation, desperate infatuation. The songs drip with passion, the music as layered and dense as emotions are complicated.

Axis Iís a meditation on depression and the light at the end of the tunnel. These are ballads all, slow and contemplative, a band at the end of their rope clutching for the notch above them. "I Was Gonna Kill Myself" is simply gorgeous and lush, a classic minor-key singalong with sense of humor that is dark indeed. The song opens with a car starting, but we donít imagine the hose leading from the tailpipe till much later. Later, Gutter offers, his voice echoed and inviting, that "I was going to be a serial killer, just to kill some time."

"Fish in a Sandbox" is downright chilling, opening with kids in the distance, playing on the beach, waves crashing, while marimba-influenced, upbeat ditty plays in the background, featuring "simitar" from friend Matt Esty. But then it all just crashes and descends into this eerie collection of cuckoo clocks ó funny, unless youíre listening in a dark room by yourself.

It might seem counterintuitive, but itís here with the slow songs that Jon Roods on bass and Marc Boisvert on drums make a case for themselves as the best rhythm section in town. These songs plod, they lurch, they amble, but they never lose their way, and their pacing is always impeccable. Most musicians will agree that itís far easier to make a fast song sound good than a slow one. Thereís nothing to hide behind when youíre playing at 50 beats per minute.

No, Paranoid Social Club neednít hide, but one gets the feeling they donít see the light of day all that often. This is a brand of art that smacks of late nights, millions of cigarettes, and almost total seclusion. At one point they ask, "All we need is love/ But what if you ainít got no one to love?" Iím guessing you make music like this.

Sam Pfeifle can be reached at spfeifle@phx.com

Axis I and III hit stores Tuesday, June 8. Paranoid Social Club play the Big Easy, in Portland, as part of the Old Port Festival, June 6. Call (207) 871-8817.

Issue Date: June 4 - 10, 2004
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