At Pat's Pub on Friday, March 21
Sonic Youth, on a 2007 tour of China—where they have an enormous following—picked two bands to open for them: harsh noise/ S&M proponents Torturing Nurse and Beijing's Carsick Cars. For reasons unknown to even Carsick Cars' frontman, Zhang Shouwang, the Chinese government intervened and refused to allow either band to play these stadium shows. Can't have Chinese indy bands getting wide exposure inside China, after all—who knows what they might do with it?
For instance, they might perform a song like "Zhong Nan Hai," the catchy, bouncy, and eminently Sonic Youthy centrepiece of Carsick Cars' eponymous debut album (also from 2007). The song title refers both to the Chinese government district ("the White House of China," Zhang explains to the Straight between bands, at a table at Pat's Pub, beer in hand) and a popular brand of cigarettes favoured by young people. Wanting to "smoke Zhong Nan Hai" thus has more than one meaning. They aren't allowed to play that song at bigger shows in China, Zhang reports (and they have to submit setlists for government approval!). Fortunately, they had no such problem in Vancouver last Friday, where the catchy, bouncy, but still definitely noisy tune climaxed their set, Zhang kneeling at his pedals for the SY-style distortion-fest that replaces what would be the bridge in a conventional pop song, before swinging back to the deliciously infectious chorus.
Actually, the elements of Sonic Youth that the band draws on, for the most part, aren't that noisy, particularly on their third album, titled 3 (because it's their third album, third line-up, and because 3 in Chinese refers to "stability," Zhang says; he feels the band have found their sound, after two albums that show them growing and experimenting). Throughout their set at Pat's Pub, it was their popcraft that most resembled the music of their main acknowledged influence; the way Zhang builds songs around glistening sheets of rapid chording suggests the more conventional, tuneful moments of Sonic Youth, as opposed to their noise jams. Zhang, 27, looks like an ordinary young Chinese man—dark bangs, skinny, sporting hip but relatively conservative clothes (black slacks, black jacket, white T-shirt with a golden Zeus-like figure on it). Bassist He Fan offered delightfully poppy oo-ee-oo background vocals on one song, wearing a Joy Division/New Order t-shirt, while drummer Houzi offered a vaguely martial, propulsive approach to the drums. Manchester New Wave and 60's bubblegum seem to compete with Sonic Youth as influences in Carsick Cars' music, though the whole is quite seamless and unique. (At one point, Track Records/ Collector's RPM legend and current Monster Stalkers member Grant Shankaruk popped up at my ear to shout, "Is this a Joy Division song?" It might have been!). The hundred-odd people standing in the pit, or leaning against that horribly-placed pillar, likely had no problem seeing why Sonic Youth went to bat for this band and brought them to tour Vienna and Prague with them, after the Chinese disappointment—or why members of the Brian Jonestown Massacre are supporting them now (the current tour was planned with the assistance of Ricky Maymi, in attendance at the merch table).
Native English speakers in the audience probably were grateful to have at least one or two songs with discernible English lyrics to them, like "You Can Listen, You Can Talk," the title track of Carsick Cars' second album. The audience as a whole was probably also relieved that Carsick Cars were considerably more engaging and energetic than the electronic side-project, White+, also fronted by Zhang, who opened the night. White+ sounded rather like the Boredoms during their rave period (Vision, Creation, Newsun, say), with layers of bleepy, bloopy, effects-heavy electronica and pre-recorded guitar loops coiling and oscillating over a rock drumbeat. It failed to get anyone to dance, except one pretty redhead in a polka-dot dress; Carsick Cars were much, much better at making people need to move.
In-between, Chinese visitors, locals, and a certain local taxi driver of some repute on the music scene were treated to a smouldering, short set from Shearing Pinx, who have a new third member, photographer Sydney Koke, also of the Courtneys, who—with her long hair mostly in her face and a bit of facial paint giving her a vaguely hippie-ish look—provided a solid bass anchor for Jeremy van Wyck and Nic Hughes' gleeful ravages of conventional song structure. If Carsick Cars borrow a bit from the more poppy side of Sonic Youth, Shearing Pinx borrow mostly from the Confusion is Sex/ Kill Yr. Idols days. The band spoke from stage on a couple of occasions, dedicating songs to Fred Phelps (Hughes—who, like Koke, is out and queer—said "we're protesting his funeral right now," with van Wyck, behind the drum kit, adding "it's not often that I feel liberated from a death but that motherfucker needed to go!"). They also spent a couple of minutes commenting on the rape culture that saw van Wyck's girlfriend get groped at her restaurant job recently (it's about the fifteenth time I've encountered the phrase "rape culture" in the last two weeks; I blame Robin Thicke for this). They opened with one of their strongest, oldest songs, "New Gospel" off Poison Hands, which prompted Shankaruk to come yell in my ear, "that riff is killer, it's like Nomeansno meets Sonic Youth meets I don't know who!" ("Mission of Burma?" I replied, but it was just a guess). They closed on what felt like a tribal ritual of baptism by fire, "Factory Sealed," one of four songs they played that were co-written with Koke and will be on their upcoming album. Great band! Maybe Spin magazine, who got all breathless about the Straight's report of the cupgate scandal—see "Shearing Pinx Attack the Melvins (Not)"—can just focus on their music, next time?