Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Good for You: the *real new Black Flag?

Good for You: Greg Ginn, left, with Mike Vallely

DFSBP is not a news blog, but at the moment I feel the need to write a quasi-servicey bulletin. Yesterday, I linked to my review of the new Black Flag record. In that piece, I discussed the record in the context of Greg Ginn's hyperprolific bent, his habit of flooding the market (and I use "market" loosely, since it's unclear how many people are actually even aware this stuff is for sale) with an endless stream of new music, without much regard for how, or even whether, it will be received/consumed.

In the review, I made a brief mention of another new Ginn project, Good for You, which he launched earlier this year, and pointed out that this band's latest album, Life Is Too Short To Not Hold a Grudge—which came out on SST last February—sounds more like a sequel to the final stage of the original Black Flag's output than What The… does. I spent yesterday with Full Serving, SST's brand-new, enormously expanded reissue (yes, strangely, the label has already reissued an album that came out only nine months ago) of Life Is, and I want to make a few points about it. [Note: It turns out that I was mistaken re: exactly what Full Serving is; please read the helpful anonymous comment at the bottom of this post for details.]

I think Full Serving is a much better record than What The… So many of the qualities I dislike in What The… are absent from Full Serving. My main problem with the new Black Flag record is its rushed, tossed-off quality—the sense of a flood of indistinguishable songs arriving at a merciless pace, as though the band only had one day in the studio not only to track a new record, but to compose it as well. Full Serving, on the other hand, feels deeply lived in. The tempos are varied, the music has room to breathe; Ginn and vocalist Mike Vallely (mainly known prior to this venture as a pro skateboarder) consistently sound like they're challenging each other and themselves. Whereas What The… homes in on a kind of relentless, vapid drive, a seemingly willful obnoxiousness, Full Serving takes its time, plays with dynamic tension, coils up and reserves its energy, wallows in its own gross churn, practically dares the listener to tune out or cry foul at some perceived betrayal of a stock "punk" aesthetic, much in the way that my favorite Black Flag lineup of Ginn, Rollins, Roessler and Stevenson learned to. The rhythm-section shortcomings of What The… are still somewhat in evidence here; Ginn's still handling bass himself (as Dale Nixon). But there's a different drummer on board (Matthew Cortez rather than Gregory Moore), and there's generally more of a live-band feel to the bass/drums on this record, rather than the sense of rudimentary backing tracks laid down with haste.

I haven't made it all the way through Full Serving yet—there are, after all, 40 songs on this record: 11 from the original issue of Life Is, plus a whopping 29 new ones—but I can honestly say that, as a Greg Ginn fan, I'm excited to spend more time with this record. There's an enormous amount of cool, languid, fucked-up guitar playing on this album, and whereas on What The…, I feel like I'm listening around everything the rest of the band is doing, here I feel as though, while Ginn might be the star, he's not carrying all the weight of the music himself. Vallely is an obvious devotee of Rollins's vocal style, but his delivery transcends imitation. He genuinely sounds like the downtrodden hardass he's portraying on many of these songs; his state of fed-up-ness seems completely real. Whereas Reyes, in keeping with the bouncing-off-the-walls quality of the music on What The…, takes his performance completely over the top, Vallely paces himself, holds back and sculpts a dynamic arc, relishing the slow burn, the perverse anticlimax of many of these songs.

I'm not saying that I'm prepared to label Full Serving a classic album just yet. But I will say that it intrigues me and holds my attention. I'll also say that it sounds a whole lot worthier of the "Black Flag" designation than What The… If Ginn had issued this album as the Black Flag comeback, I'm sure many in the peanut gallery would've found their own reasons to hate it—Ginn is, for reasons I don't need to regurgitate here, a controversial figure in the American rock underground, and will remain so—but I really don't think you'd be witnessing the same levels of snark and vitriol that What The… has incited. Good for You has a ways to go before it's a truly great band, one worthy of the standard of excellence set by the original Black Flag. Some of the songs have the grating, stunted quality of much of What The…, and the lyrics are at times as cringe-inducing as the already-infamous ones on that LP. But as a debut (or, technically, a reissue of a debut), Full Serving is a great start. It's a record that any fan of Greg Ginn, and by extension, Black Flag, really needs to hear. As I did my best to suggest in the Black Flag review, you might not be able to make sense of Ginn's decisions, be they creative, financial or what have you, but it's a bad idea to dismiss an artist like this. You're inevitably going to miss out on some hidden gem, and in my opinion, Full Serving is one.

The strange P.S. to all this is that, according to the Ron Reyes farewell letter, Vallely is the likely candidate to become his successor in Black Flag. (See this video, which, features Vallely and which, according to the annotation, was taken mere minutes after Reyes's onstage ejection). Vallely has obviously been a key player in this whole saga—whereas Ginn hasn't gone on the record once that I know of during this whole mess, Vallely spoke to Rolling Stone a while back. The Reyes letter alludes to some kind of nefarious master plan—"I would not be surprised if Mike V becomes the new singer for Black Flag. It is my opinion that they have been planing this for some time." The signs are certainly there: For one thing, Good for You has opened pretty much every show the rebooted Black Flag has performed; at the Brooklyn gig I saw, Vallely was even acting as a sort of onstage bouncer for Reyes, keeping an eye out for stagedivers and mopping up beer spills. Was he simply scouting out his future territory, going through some Ginn-mandated apprenticeship?

If what Reyes suggest is true, though, why was What The… and the whole Reyes reunion necessary? Maybe Ginn felt that fans wouldn't accept a new Black Flag that had no other connection to the good, old days aside from himself, hence the recruitment of the former Chavo Pederast. Whatever the reasoning, the simultaneous launch of these two new projects—Good for You and Black Flag 2.0—hasn't gone particularly well. And by that I mean, it seems as though the project that Ginn's really pouring his heart and soul into (Good for You) is the very one that's practically guaranteed to be ignored by everyone but his most die-hard fans. Whereas the new Black Flag record has attracted enormous attention, nearly all of it negative.

I can't explain Ginn's reasoning, and it's doubtful he'll make any official comment on the matter anytime soon. All I can do is to implore you to give Good for You a chance before you close the book on the sad, sordid mess of Black Flag 2013. I'm not saying this record is the answer to every Black Flag fan's prayers, but I am saying that it's at least worthy of consideration alongside the back-catalog classics—in contrast to What The…, I'd definitely say it's in the right ballpark. If you're a fan of Greg Ginn as a guitarist and conceptualist, I strongly encourage you to hear this. (It's streaming for free on Spotify, so there's no risk whatsoever; see below.) Like a good amount of what Greg Ginn has done outside of Black Flag, Full Serving—which could be the best album he's made since In My Head—is in serious danger of being overlooked completely. Even in light of What The…, let's not let that happen.

P.S. I know it's a long record. If you're looking for a quick primer, some of my favorite songs so far are "Free," "Coal Town Blues," "Shit Show," "Knife in the Face," "People I Don't Like Blues" and "While the City Sleeps." My God—even just skimming back through this stuff to refresh my memory, I'm reminded of how incredibly much it diverges from What The… in terms of quality, intrigue and variety. This record fascinates me; What The… just frustrates me.

P.P.S. I loved this Vallely interview re: Good for You, which documents his and Ginn's apparently very real musical bond, and their shared love for great classic rock—Springsteen, AC/DC, Black Oak Arkansas, etc. Such a great glimpse into Ginn's famously broad tastes.


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed your BF review on Pitchfork, was surprised to see someone with a lot of knowledge about Ginn doing the review. Most people reviewing it don't even seem familiar with BF's later work, let alone the post-BF stuff. I agreed with most of what you said, though I enjoy the LP more than you. Excited to hear this new GFY stuff - not sure if you realize (they certainly haven't done a good job of promoting it!) - but there is a double LP vinyl LP called "Too!" that just came out - the 3CD you're tackling is a collection of both LPs, a 7" b-side, and 6 unreleased songs. All that plus the BF is a lot to handle! Glad to hear you have a good initial impression so far, I think Greg cares a lot more about GFY than BF these days.

rgms said...

Excellent writeup. I couldnt agree more.

I wonder if Ginn is kicking himself: He's got What The -- an album nobody could possibly like, and then TONS of Good For You material that could have sold so much more if it just said "Black Flag" on it. And, as you say, the material is REALLY good. Now, instead of a critically viable cash cow, he's got a completely panned and hideous Black Flag album, and all this great "Black Flag" stuff labeled "Good For You."

Point being, all that GFY could have sold very well as BF -- after all, Mike V is suddently the new singer for BF. So now what's Ginn's next move? That's the question.

STAY RAD co. said...

I enjoyed this excellent write up.

When all the BLACK FLAG hoopla got rolling I made the point that to be true to the BLACK FLAG legacy GINN should have gotten a new singer. The mighty FLAG was always evolving right to the end. The reunion with REYES was an odd choice, as the nostalgia of it was at odds with what I felt BLACK FLAG was about.

I also enjoyed your WHAT THE... review.

Glad I found this blog! Stay Rad!

jmhouse said...

Nice analysis. I agree 100%. Overall, Good For You *is* the best music Ginn has made since In My Head.

In another twist, it seems like "Too" disappeared from the SST release schedule. I think the production on the "Too" songs is better and tracks like "Lost" and "Steam Roller" are tough not to dig. It would be interesting to hear "Too" on its own.

Having seen FLAG, Black Flag, and Good For You last year--and now hearing these new GFY tunes--it's clear there's no duplicating Ginn's guitar playing. Egerton is as good a choice as possible, but, say what you want about the guy, Ginn's cracked style just can't be copied.