USA Nails are the best noise rock band working today when it comes to fury and frenzy. Across the band’s five full length records and various EPs and singles they have come to combines speed, intensity, dissonance, and lyrics to match better than any other band in the genre. Having mastered that sound, over their last three records the band have begun to work out further elements to their music, adding a jagged, outsider-art approach to post-punk.
Now they’ve released Character Stop, their fifth full length record, a serious album of the year contender for me. It’s especially impressive coming as it does just over a year after their incredible and caustic fourth record Life Cinema. (If you want to buy a hard copy of Character Stop, and you should, in the US get it from Hex Records. In Europe, order it from Bigout Records. In the UK buy it from the band’s Bandcamp page. I’m trying to save you a bit in shipping, young bold soldier. You’re welcome.)
Character Stop finds the London-based quartet sounding a little slower, more moody and volatile. The guitars are scratchy layers of caustic texture, funhouse-mirror melody, and quirky percussive noise on top of loud, relentless bass and drums. In the lyrics and vocals, on Character Stop as on their prior records, they often vacillate between depressed flat affect and an ice cold rage, whether at the world or directed inward at one’s self.
For instance, there’s the ferocious “I Don’t Own Anything” with its chorus of “I experience everything, but I don’t own anything!” This is one of several songs in the band’s catalog that deals with themes of work, money, and the various indignities that come from a society ruled by both. I’m a big fan of work songs, and USA Nails have a genuinely unique take on the genre, evoking the sorts of going through the motions we often do at our jobs, and the emotions swings from feeling angry and to feeling empty, the product of years of drudgery.
This time out the band plays with a little more manic and unpredictable edge – like on the flailing and dissonant “No Pleasure.” In addition, this record is, well, weirder – as with the album closer “Wallington,” with its slow and shambling beat and leering bass line, guitars a mix of melodic and shrieking, all accompanied by an off-putting whispered vocal panned entirely to one side. In a few places on the record the main vocal is an anguished shout recorded with distortion on the vocals, doubled at times by a listless, bored-sounding spoken second voice.
It’s jarring, hearing one person sound highly distressed while another sounds like they’re reading out a list of numbers. It’s also a miniature portrait in sound of a great deal of how our society works: anguish at the bottom, indifference at the top. (At other times, the main vocal is spoken, doubled by an angry shouted vocal mixed lower. It sounds to me like the screaming in my mind when I hear radio news reports of sanitized barbarism.)
All USA Nails records are introspective and dark. That introspection is only sometimes shared though. What I mean is that the listener is sometimes invited into the mind of a song’s narrator, and at least as often the listener is closed out or pushed away. Sometime the songs sound like they’re expressing a frustrated desire to connect with others but more often they sound like they’re expressing a need to get away from others, to finally carve out a little space alone and quiet instead of the daily grind and the firehose of bad and/or irrelevant information.
There’s another layer of ambiguity with USA Nails. I tend to assume punk bands saying “I” are referring to themselves as real individuals and doing so in a sincere way. I have a lot of time for that in my own listening, but it can also create a false sense that the singer is the listener’s friend or confidante. USA Nails, on the other hand, are often ambiguous about this, in interesting ways. Is the “I” of the song the person singing the song, or is it a character? Are the words sincere, ironic, or little fantasies indulged as coping mechanisms? The fact that it’s not always easy to tell – plus the band’s creative, unconventional music – make USA Nails an art rock band, in the best sense of the term.
Character Stop is full of great songs. My personal favorite is “How Was Your Weekend?” Over moody feedback and simple percussive guitar riffs and that huge, unstoppable rhythm section there’s a heavily reverbed spoken vocal, the left and right channel just slightly off time from each other. The lyrics discuss being a musician, with a mix of honesty and self-deprecating, sardonic humor: “We are part time artists. We are full time amateurs. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about iambic pentameter. Say two words. Say three words. Say two or three words. That makes a line.”
Maybe I’m projecting from my own life, but I took the song as a reflection on the work involved in maintaining a creative life as you get older, when you have to work for a living and when creative pursuits aren’t particularly well respected. You end up happy and glad you made the choices you made, but that happiness isn’t always as loud as you might like, and it comes at some costs. But what’s the alternative? Just more drudgery, I guess. This is reflected, I think, in the chorus: “Hello, how was your weekend? Yeah it was okay. Yeah it was alright.”
USA Nails have their own unique sound and outlook. I don’t think this is a sound for everyone since it’s deeply uncompromising, sometimes confrontational, and the lyrics sometimes go to some weird and dark places. (I’d love to be wrong about this and for the band to get massively rich and famous.) If you like noise rock, though, then Character Stop – like everything in the USA Nail catalog – is absolutely a must-listen. Honestly, just go buy it already.