Pneumatic Mnemonic: Pylon Live
I first heard Pylon in 2007. I had just moved to Pylon’s home of Athens, Georgia, the year that DFA had reissued the band’s 1980 debut album, Gyrate. Aptly named Gyrate Plus, the reissue opens with tracks from the band’s first single, “Cool/Dub,” from 1979, and closes with a select track from an out-of-print EP followed by an unreleased studio demo. My ex-almost girlfriend played me the disc. We nodded along to “Cool,” and once the spastic rhythms of “Dub” compelled her to obey the album’s titular command, I was hooked. I was nineteen and naïve. I had deferred college and moved to Athens to be in a band. I was making sandwiches for a living and paying $300 rent. I was going to be a professional musician! Now an uninhibited older women was seducing me to the emasculating howls of Vanessa Briscoe Hay. It was my first taste of the townie. She ended whatever we had when another of her almost boyfriends came back from tour and threatened to kill me with an ax.
In advance of Chunklet’s release last month of Pylon Live, a recording of the 1983 performance that marked the band’s first formal hiatus, I revisited Pylon’s 1980s albums—after Gyrate came Chomp, in 1983; DFA reissued it as Chomp More in 2009. I found the music at least as compelling as my ex-almost girlfriend had: Michael Lachowski’s pneumatic and melodic bass; Curtis Crowe’s punctual yet unpredictable drumming; Randall Bewley’s sharp and apposite riffs; and Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s commanding vocals—an array of growls, brays, coos, and squeals—advising to “Read a book / Don’t be afraid” or warning that “We eat dub for breakfast.” It all remains instantly yet deeply gratifying, like all great rock music.
Live albums typically rely on interpretation, improvisation, or translation of studio material—or some combination thereof. I was fortunate enough to see Pylon perform in Athens—the band started performing again shortly after the release of Gyrate Plus—so I surmised, correctly, that Live would hinge on translation: capturing Pylon’s driving and melodic minimalism, the aural equivalent of four Newton’s cradles set in a square and swinging in concert.
The album succeeds on the whole, although at times it can feel like listening to Pylon with gauze in your ears. The band’s 1980s LPs aren’t clean or over-produced, but Live lacks the fidelity that amplifies these albums’ intensity. Nevertheless, the best moments on Live singe the gauze—and your nerves—and showcase the artistic vitality of four musicians able to capture such intensity on tape.
“Beep” is a fast and frenetic riff-fest, melodic like Television but less fancy, more potlikker than fond, aided by Lachowski’s chugging lines and Briscoe Hay’s growl of “beep beep,” which is punched up by Crowe’s banging. On “No Clocks,” a song about lazing with your lover in bed the morning after, Lachowski’s bass rings behind Briscoe Hay’s mantric chorus of “No clocks no / No clocks no.” “Danger” rollicks to a walking rock bass punctuated by Bewley’s analog shimmer-riff—a direct rebuke of U2’s The Edge, if I’ve ever heard one—and Briscoe Hay’s ominous, municipal warning: “Danger / Be careful / Be cautious.” Then there’s “Working Is No Problem,” in which Briscoe Hay’s growling delivery, stretching the lyric “working” into a lingering guttural moan, is enough to salvage any off-day at the office.
But perhaps Pylon’s peculiar vitality is best displayed by “M Train,” the stark and catchy B-side to their second single from 1981 and side A closer on Chomp. To say “M Train” is defined by Bewley’s bass chorus riff (he and Lachowski switch instruments for the song)—which imprints itself on your mind like a mnemonic device—wouldn’t do justice to Briscoe Hay’s equally catchy train-whistle chorus; nor to Crowe’s steadfast drumming and Lachowski’s atmospherics. Live, the song gains in character what it loses in studio production. Bewley’s bass is tinny and sharp, Crowe’s drums loose, Briscoe Hay’s vocals muddled and snarling, and Lachowski’s guitar free to overrun what is essentially a pop tune with a trebly warble. “Woo woo,” sings the crowd during the intro over Bewley’s line, hinting at the choruses to come. Woo woo, indeed.
Lachowski has said that his “favorite Pylon is live Pylon.” The performance I saw in 2007 was certainly memorable—like Briscoe Hay, my seductress’s name was also Vanessa; oh, how cathartic it was to sing along to “M-Train” live, belting, “She’s just a party doll / I don’t care for that girl at all [. . .] Woo woo!”—and Pylon Live captures some of that feeling. Still, I respectfully disagree with Lachowski. The band’s studio albums are simply too distinct, too timeless, too fit to define the memories of some foolish nineteen-year-old or of anyone else who has yet to discover them. Then again, Pylon only made three albums, and Live is both a welcome addition and a fine introduction. Fan or newcomer, I’d pick it up.