By John Rodat
LIVE Straight From the Art
Suran Song in Stag
Saturday, May 26, 2001
Mother Earth's Cafe- Albany, NY
The calcification of art-critical terms is a funny thing. Any artistic discipline to which a significant critical appendage is attached will be saddled with definitions- jargon that attempt to pin that art in place like a bug in an entomologist's box. Inevitably, new terms devised to deal with stylistic innovations become dated, institutional and inflexible; one wonders how they were ever helpful at all. For example: "art rock."
Many of you are now racked by auditory hallucinations of disconcertingly high-pitched male voices babbling about singing swords and dark lords. But there's more to art rock than Tolkien imagery there always was. It's just that the term has hardened so as to be misleading. Bowie was art rock, after all. And Eno. And Patti Smith. And Laurie Anderson is, really. And so are Suran Song in Stag.
The three-piece from New Jersey make no bones about their artistic ambitions: "Lyricist-vocalist-action imagineer" Suran Song formed the band in 1996 as a way of getting her artwork out of the narrow confines of the art galleries, the "white cubes" in New York and L.A. where she was being exhibited. And the band's blend of visual and performance art with melodic post-punk clatter is a far cry from what you would expect to see at most art exhibitions.
The high windows behind the stage at Mother Earth's were covered in white fabric, which provided a makeshift screen for four slide projectors. Larger-than-life-sized images of Suran Song and her bandmates dressed as cowboys and Indians flickered in black-and-white. The images bore telegraphic legends that looked as if they had been painted on the slides with red nail polish: "Rare," "Sex," "Redskin," et cetera. Centered on this background, a smaller sequence of slides depicted the deterioration of cheerful warplay among a group of children into actual violence. Superimposed on these slides were disturbing snippets of the kids' conversation: "Who wants to kill me?" "Yeah, I'll scream when I die." Lacking the playful racket that would accompany such a game in actuality, the silent, written phrases were chilling and morbid.
The band took the stage in outfits reiterating the slides' imagery: Song and her drummer wore feathered head dresses, and the bass player was geared up as a cowboy. But where the visual background was chilly and taciturn, the musical element was forceful and plain spoken. A muddy vocal mix compromised the clarity of the songs, but what lyrics could be discerned were direct and politically charged. In "Ubergrrl (song for Naomi Wolf)," for example, Song sang, "Anger is an energy, not an identity/Ms. Thang, don't tell us noble lies/Ms. Thang, you are not what you own."
The artifice of the slide show, coupled with such an earnest lyrical approach, could easily have hurtled headlong into self-importance, but Song's voice is well-suited for her punkish material: strong but not showy. Her melodies are simple and sure, and her unusual backing band of just drums and a heavily distorted bass were spot-on. At their best, they sounded like early PJ Harvey, which is really, really good.