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Wire, "Nocturnal Koreans"

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cover imageWire’s latest mini-album is a somewhat darker, subtly more experimental, and arguably superior sister to their self-titled 2015 release.  In fact, these songs were all written during the very same period, but they were split off into their own release because they ostensibly shared a path directly opposed to the aesthetic of Wire: the self-titled album was a deliberately no-frills document of what the band actually sounds like when they play together in a room, while Koreans documents what they can achieve with studio enhancements and liberal editing.  Despite those very different approaches, the two albums do not actually seem all that different to my ears.  I guess I was hoping for a bit more of a radical departure than this.  While there are a few intriguing exceptions, Koreans mostly just sounds like more of the same hook-heavy and slightly off-kilter songcraft that I always expect from Wire.  That is certainly not a bad thing, but Nocturnal Koreans is definitely more solid than revelatory.

Pink Flag

I have to admit that I was quite surprised by the amount of mainstream attention that this album has garnered.  I understand that Wire are no longer the prickly, contrarian, and boundary-pushing band of their youth and that there is quite a wave of nostalgia these days for the leading lights of the post-punk milieu.  However, Nocturnal Koreans is still a self-released album and Wire are not elder statesmen doing a valedictory lap to bask in their past glories.  Anyone hoping for another Pink Flag or 154 is definitely not going to find it here, as Wire are adults who have aged (fairly) gracefully and are now making very adult music.  They still have a healthy amount of angst, but it is very much of the understated variety.  On a fundamental level, I find it remarkable that a batch of well-crafted, cerebral, and sophisticated rock songs can make a blip in the current cultural landscape.  Even shorn of menace and eccentricity, Wire are not an easy sell, as these eight songs are coolly detached, distinctly unflashy, and peppered with inscrutable, cryptic, and obtuse lyrics like "I sent a message to your mobile home, I'm counting rings in a fish's bones."  As always, a decent amount of the band's wordplay is insightful or amusing, but what Nocturnal Koreans mostly offers is just a lot of catchy, polished, and mid-paced rock that is not dissimilar to 1979’s "Outdoor Miner."

All of it is quite easy on the ears, of course, but the best songs are definitely the ones that allow some bite, ominousness, or eccentricity to color Colin Newman's otherwise pristine and cool songcraft.  For example, the album's centerpiece ("Forward Position") completely eschews drums in favor of a languorously lush and brooding reverie and some of the album’s most unsettling and evocative lyrics ("I am black box, I remember").  The buoyant and rolling "Internal Exile" is another strong piece, embellishing its descending arpeggio groove with uncharacteristic touches like trumpets and a lap steel.  Unsurprisingly, the one piece that features Graham Lewis’s vocals ("Fishes Bones") is also quite memorable, unleashing a charming stream of non-sequiturs and plenty of vocal effects over a heavy groove.  A few more songs in a similar vein would have been quite welcome, as Lewis's infusion of character, cracked artiness, and gleeful absurdity is a wonderful counterbalance to Newman's perfectionism.  I can understand why the album took the shape it did, as the Newman-sung songs are considerably sharper and more fully formed, but some more anarchic experimentation, fun, and rough edges would have provided the contrast necessary to make the more chiseled songs stand out.  Of course, I am some writing for an experimental music website rather than, say, Rolling Stone, so catering to my taste may very well be commercial suicide.  Lack of objectivity aside, however, it is hard to truly love an album where so much character and idiosyncrasy has been sanded away.  Truly liking it, on the other hand, is quite easy.

Minor grievances aside, Nocturnal Koreans is unquestionably a strong and consistent album (albeit quite a brief one).  My sole significant frustration is that the laser-focus on production and taut, propulsive, and (fairly) conventional rock structures mutes the band’s personality to a less-than-ideal degree.  Consequently, this is a very smart, likable, and catchy release that only occasionally catches fire or hints at greatness.  The flipside of that, of course, is that it never ever falls flat, lags, or seems half-baked.  If the Wire of 2016 excels at one thing, it is definitely the mechanics of songcraft.  While professionalism is admittedly not high on the list of traits that I excitedly hope for when I put on an album, I definitely appreciate it when a band knows when to end their songs, knows how to keep their momentum going, and makes damn sure that every single song has a strong enough hook to be memorable.  At its worst, Nocturnal Koreans consistently achieves all of those things.  At its best, it contributes one more entry ("Forward Position") into the canon of great Wire songs.



Last Updated on Saturday, 23 July 2016 13:25  


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