King Cobb Steelie - Junior Relaxer
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
I don’t know if King Cobb Steelie are known at all down there in the States, but even up here in their home province of Ontario they’ve never been that big. They’ve had a few good notices, topped the college charts, some concert tours and not much else. I interviewed them for the student newspaper a few years back and was shocked (shocked!) to hear that all of them had day jobs–such was the place of Junior Relaxer (more circumstantial evidence that all the best records were made in 1997) in my life at the time. “Rational” was almost a hit right? I’d seen it on TV, I was sure. And if “Rational” was the best single of the year (and it was), then surely the band who had produced it could live off the fruits of their labours. Ah, to be young again.
The first thing to note about Junior Relaxer is that it’s big. Twelve songs in just a little fewer than sixty minutes, and let’s be honest; the sound doesn’t exactly vary terribly. It’s all dubbed out bass, intricate or dead-simple drums (best use of bongos ever, surely?) and shapeshifting guitars, here clean and pinging, there echoing off into infinity or occasionally red-shifting into distortion. It’s textured as hell of course, drones and keyboards and odd little bits of percussion and occasional scratching augmenting the web of the music. But don’t be fooled, the album shoves its way into your awareness, leaving time on later listens for intricacy.
Project Twinkle had seen Bill Laswell at the helm, and here Loveless engineer Guy Fixsen mans the wheel, but this is more explicitly dub-rock than their last record ever was; while most ventures like Junior Relaxer sound like half-done remixes, here KCS pull out everything from forlorn ballads (check “Champion Of Versatility”) to jazzy, ringing instrumentals (“Pass The Golden Falcon”) without deviating from a core sound that initially doesn’t seem suited to either. They may have been a “collective” (and the liners bear that out), but this sounds like the work of a tightly knit unit, even during the free sax freakout on the heavy, heavy “You Should Be Getting Something”, ploughing a furrow so deep it feels like it should permanently stain your speakers, pushing forward and cycling for six minutes.
The instrumentals here, of course, are gorgeous; the two mentioned already but also the beeping “Functions And Relations”, panned guitar zooming in from the sides then intermittently erupting before the band goes back to the funk; the brief “Doomed Thinking Man Vs. Stupid Action Man”, a showcase for lovingly restrained guitar and percussion (brushes curling and hissing on the drums); and of course the extended slow freak out of “Quo Vadis” (“what next?” in Latin, an ever-relevant question), the rest of the disc re-encapsulated one last time (from sparse beauty to dubby heaviness and back again) before a closing chopped up remix of “Rational” eases us out of the album.
As for the songs proper… well, this is a political album. A fairly vague one; most of the specific references are outdated/obscure enough to be beyond me, but I can tell you King Cobb Steelie are broadly speaking in favor of Good (read love, people, truth) and against Evil (read money, government, death, greed). Which isn’t a bad message; “Starvo” opens the disc with a fairly effective evisceration of the ridiculous impulses that drive Western society (“They’d take you down if you ever showed / In living you believe not what you own” —trust me, it comes across much better over the rolling bass and drum hits of the song). “The Power Of Love” is practically pop, although built out of the same ingredients of the rest of the album. Sure, once occasional guest Kinnie Starr starts ranting that “your ragged claws drag the ocean floor” it gets a bit silly, but ignore that and focus on how for long stretches the instruments seem to be on a changeless loop.
“Highly Conductive” and the aforementioned “Champion Of Versatility”, meanwhile, take a welcome turn for the abstract, Kevan Byrne repeating on the former “Raise your beggared arms” over and over until it means something to us over the slow-motion crawl of the guitar and Kevin Lynn’s bass, which slowly prowls the perimeters. “Swiss Crumb” (the prelude to “Quo Vadis”) does spit out some standard calls to arms (“never be deterred”, of course), but they come from far off, and the guitar burst of the second half keeps it from being a mere soundtrack to a bunch of “radical” university students lighting up another joint.
And then there’s the That Petrol Emotion-sampling “Rational”. Already attention getting in single form, its full six-and-a-half minutes here are positively magisterial. Opening with an indelible looped guitar figure of surpassing loveliness and not coincidentally much reverb, a chalky drum loop winds up for a minute before Byrne jumps in. You want pre-millennial tension? “Apocalypse or jubilee, I just wanna see the end” he sings, a full three years before we had to worry about the big turnover, and even earlier before we had to worry about now. It’s about the Zapatistas and Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer killed in 1996 for daring to stand up to his government and the oil company that funded it. But it’s really about Byrne’s struggle as a (relatively) privileged Westerner, not to care about these things (that’s easy), but to do something about them; the struggle many of us face, to hear about the horrible things in the world and to not let others die and suffer in vain. Although couched in the terms of a particular political ideology, one I happen to have much sympathy for, “Rational” is ultimately a song about the essential doubt of our day-to-day existence as human beings, our frequent inability to live up to our own ideals (which is why the “never be deterred” on the later “Swiss Crumb” rings so hollow). The song opens as such:
Today I tried like hell to clear my head of troubled times
But I couldn’t stop the desperation, fighting for my life
Never held illusions, never fallen on pretence
While I worried how to make the rent, they put a bullet in your head
Not only is “Rational” a dazzling, rapturous song on purely sonic merits, it is the single piece of political commentary on the album that flat-out works; if much of it and “Starvo” are self-critical, that’s because there’s no better place to start. The last line quoted above could so easily have come off as maudlin or portentous, but Byrne’s delivery renders it just matter-of-fact: There’s a balance to be struck between living your own life and caring about the lives of others, and “Rational” suggests compellingly that we’ve moved the goalposts a bit far to one side.
Junior Relaxer is groovy and muscular and supple and deep and angry and loving (if a tad despairing) and it marshals a sound you’ll rarely hear elsewhere into full effect, milking the sonics until the band’s gotten everything they can out of it. King Cobb Steelie never sounded like this before or after, but they didn’t need to: Junior Relaxer is a world of possibilities unto itself, a transmission from a universe where this layered setup is the equivalent of guitar-guitar-bass-drums rock and rather than just crudely inventing the style the band have the luxury to mess around with it, exploring a wealth of emotional texture and hooks. When “Irrational (Incarnate Perspective)” cuts out with a looped cry of “Never held illusions, never” phase-shifting out of awareness you’re left in awe of King Cobb Steelie’s temerity at getting all that in this monolith of sound. And there’s only one way to be sure they’ve really done it: Put it back on again.
By: Ian Mathers
Published on: 2004-10-12