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David Nance, "Negative Boogie"

cover imageI embarrassingly came very close to sleeping on this brilliantly unhinged and raucous album, as most critically acclaimed rock music these days tends to underwhelm me.  Omaha's Nance is an entirely different story though, as Negative Boogie does a damn fine job recapturing the hostility and recklessness that made bands like Suicide and The Cramps so much cooler than everyone else.  Of course, Negative Boogie does not sound at all like either of those bands, but Nance's incandescent intensity and viscerally slashing guitars have a way of making even a Merle Haggard cover sound feral and frightening.

Ba Da Bing

In general, there are few things that scream "this is not for me" quite like a white guy playing the blues in 2017, yet the opening "More Than Enough (Reprise)" is exactly that and it instantly hooked me.  Of course, "the blues" channeled through David Nance is quite a unique beast, as this particular example opens with a molten eruption of jarring guitar squall.  A standard-issue blues shuffle eventually crawls out from under that gnarled chaos, but it feels wonderfully sick and wrong in Nance's hands, as he seethes with desperation and constantly subverts anything songlike with dissonant flurries of strangled guitar.  It feels like the final performance of a rockabilly legend who just fell off the wagon in a bad way and will likely hang himself or murder a prostitute in his hotel room later that night unless someone intervenes.  The anthemic title piece that follows is a bit too straightforward for my taste, sadly, but Nance strikes gold again with his lovely, bittersweet cover of Haggard’s "Silver Wings."  For the most part, it is quite tuneful and reverent, blending male-female vocal harmonies and some nice pedal steel guitar, but it sounds like a goddamn plane (or UFO) crashes into the song around the halfway point, nearly eclipsing the whole song with a blast of snarling feedback, amp noise, and blooping electronic chaos.  Amazingly, the song somehow rights itself after that deliciously invasive "solo," though Nance manages to get in one nice farewell blast of feedback after the final chord.

Aside from nimbly walking the tightrope between explosive noise and tight songcraft, Nance also has an intriguing penchant for something similar to pastiche, yet quite a bit more inspired than that word implies: it is easy to identify a lot of his influences, but they are almost always filtered through his own ragged and nihilistic sensibility. Admittedly, he misses the mark a bit from time to time: the jangly "Give It Some Time," for example, sounds like it could be an Okkerville River demo (albeit quite a good one).  For the most part, however, it sounds like someone gave their talented insomniac friend a bottle of whiskey and a mixed tape of their favorite Big Star, Rolling Stones, and Gun Club songs and was repaid the next morning with a freshly recorded collection of his own wild, half-remembered, and spontaneous-sounding interpretations of them all.  Some songs are admittedly better than others, yet Nance has that rare and intangible gift that makes nearly everything he touches seem sincere, fiery, and right on the precipice of being out of control. Though there are plenty of aspects to Negative Boogie that I love (broken-sounding junkyard percussion, raw power, messy guitars, great hooks, the yelping and poetic stream-of-consciousness lyrics), it is primarily Nance's seemingly effortless "rock savant" persona that makes this such an unusual and transcendent album: he is equally at home howling about "cheeseburger amphetamines" ("DLATUMF Blues") or unleashing a beautifully smoldering and unstated guitar solo ("River With No Color").  Whether I understand where he is coming from or not, Nance always seems like he is trying to convey something extremely important and that he really fucking means it.  That is a rare thing in rock music these days.  When he is at his best, David Nance rocks like the world is ending.

I hesitate to use words like "raw" or "real" to describe Negative Boogie, as they tend to be overused and cynical shorthand for an artist's attempt to create the illusion of authenticity.  They seem to apply in their purest sense here though, as Negative Boogie feels entirely uncalculated, unpolished, explosive, and devoid of irony.  Nance's music, like that of fellow Nebraskan Simon Joyner, feels born of bleak Midwestern hopelessness, yet he has a striking talent for wresting poetry and black humor from that darkness (the latter best expressed in the ranting, almost conversational "Don’t Look at This Ugly Motherfucker Blues").  Amusingly, Nance and his backing band splurged on an actual studio session for this album rather than his usual home recording set-up, but somehow managed to use that opportunity to make an even more angry, frayed, and snarling album than usual, bashing out the entire thing in a single day.  Negative Boogie is just as no-frills as Nance's other albums, but now his trainwreck majesty is finally as loud and physical as it should have been all along.  This is one of those rare albums where the hit-to-miss ratio is almost irrelevant: song-wise, Negative Boogie is probably only a half-great album, yet the whole thing feels like a series of undiluted dispatches from an artist who feels like underground rock personified.  In a perfect and just world, Nance will be every bit as revered and influential as Robert Pollard once his body of work gets a bit more substantial: if Guided By Voices are the Beatles of indie rock, Nance and his band make a strong case for being the Exile-era Stones.