Ups and downs: what you get from Born Ruffians and Wire
Thirty-something British band Wire secured its place in rock history with three soberly brilliant LPs released in the late 1970s. Born Ruffians, a much younger Canadian combo, gets steady attention despite having only two uneven releases under their belt. Both groups will be playing likely well-attended shows this week, to audiences who either cut their post-punk teeth on Wire's Chairs Missing (Harvest, 1979) or got really into Born Ruffians' Red Yellow and Blue (Warp) since its release eight months ago. As different as these outfits appear, something about the expectations hovering around their shows seems to call for a slight recalibration of the rock-crit machine what people are going to these shows for might not be what they actually hear. Even if you don't read the reviews and haven't scoped the scenes, someone lodged inside the Web marketing machine has done it for you. The more dimly aware you are of it, the better it works.
And this is what bothered me about Born Ruffians. I like Red Yellow and Blue fine, but before I'd even managed to really hear the band, I'd been blitzed with ancillary information. These three Torontonians, led by a thin, raw nerve of a man named Luke LaLonde, play a jangly form of indie with lots of off-mic huddle-chants something like a summer camp take on Animal Collective's harmonizing. In a way, the critical air support that followed the LP release seemed premeditated, hard-pressed to point out anything really compelling beyond a checklist of standard genre tropes. Still, listening to the album later, I was surprised that, while longing gets mentioned, nobody else noticed that it's the engine of the music. Which can make even their best songs, like the scribbly "Hummingbird," a bit of a painful listen not because they're not afraid to look like fools, but because it cuts too close to the raw experience. Born Ruffians don't dwell on pain as much as they let it seep in, an approach that makes me want to run at first but resolves into something modestly beautiful.
Wire, on the other hand, is in the unique position that even their most dedicated fans haven't listened to the bulk of their discography. Their latest full-length is called Object 47 (Pink Flag) because it's the 47th thing they've released. Wire's initial trilogy Pink Flag (Harvest, 1977), Chairs Missing, and 154 (Harvest, 1979) remain the high-water mark against which they're judged, and rightfully so: they invented a formal vocabulary for punk and rock in a hugely inspired fit of art school imagination. Yet one doesn't get the feeling that anyone who has bothered to listen to their releases since then has actually heard anything other than a lack of those three albums, or subtle tweaks on the fecund language they opened up. The most interesting qualities of Wire's recent recordings have little to do with their early shirt-and-tie experimentalism. Object 47's linchpin is "One of Us," a sweet pink heartbreak confection whose compassion is miles off from "The 15th"'s relationship semiotics.
All of which is to say that both concerts are worth going to for reasons that have little to do with the narratives swirling around each group. It shouldn't be too difficult to let go of the stories anchoring these bands and experience them as something both more and less than the sum of their facts. *
Wed/15, 9 p.m., $8
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF
Wed/15, 8 p.m., $25
1805 Geary, SF