SUPERSYSTEM with NOW YR TAKEN and TIMBER as part of the Over the Top festival at Sneaky Dee's (300 College), Tuesday (April 26). $8. 416-603-3090. www.overthetopfest.com. Rating: NNNNN
The year of the rooster's been all about reinvention for NYC/DC's Supersystem.
The charmingly spastic dance-rock crew greeted 2005 by joining Death from Above 1979 and Caribou (aka Manitoba) in the elite club of indie artists who've had to change their names due to asinine lawsuits. When a dopey crew of corporate-sponsored Chicago punks who shared the band's old El Guapo tag got all up in their face, the easygoing fellas decided they didn't really want to be named after the bad guy from the Three Amigos anyway, and Supersystem was born.
So their fifth LP, the excellent new Always Never Again (Touch & Go/Quarterstick), is technically the first Supersystem album - and it marks a big step forward for the foursome.
Where older recordings like the live Geography Of Distance (Mud Memory) disc and 2002's Super/System (Dischord) were marred by meandering, directionless funky-jazz jams and a surfeit of wacky sound effects, Always Never Again is a set of super-tight, squelchy synth-rock with a surprising Afrobeat kick.
While you might think this newfound sense of cohesion was influenced by the fact that half the band (founding members Rafael Cohen and Pete Cafarella) used their production prowess to put a post-punk sheen on Q & Not U's taut Power disc last year, Cohen claims their motivation for getting it together was simple.
"We just wanted to make a record we'd actually want to listen to," he laughs sheepishly on the line from his NYC home base. "I remember hearing years ago that Johnny Rotten hated what the Sex Pistols were doing - he always wanted to make music that sounded more like PiL. And then he did! We kinda followed that course.
"I listen to a lot of African music, and most of my time playing guitar outside the band is spent trying to imitate what I hear on those records. In the past, I stopped myself from bringing those influences to the band - I thought it'd be lame, cuz I'm not from Zaire. But now I figure, why not?
"I never thought I'd say this," he adds, "but I think Q & Not U's album is actually more all over the place than ours is!"
Hell, yeah. Instead of a discombobulating blend of, say, an electro-polka followed by wanky fusion, Always Never Again melds slinky, angular Middle Eastern-inspired guitar riffs with retro synths, disco beats and Supersystem's customary call-and-response vocals.
There's also an underlying focus to the lyrics. Cohen seems shocked by this when I bring it up. Although he insists Supersystem is one of those lovely quasi-socialist crews where three different writers contribute material, most of the 10 tracks on the album dwell on modern alienation and wanting to escape from the city.
(Well, except for the Chinese horoscope motif in 1977, which is wicked just because it contains the word "mongeese.")
"OK, maybe there's an attempt to write about spaces, things you see on a daily basis, and to make it common for people," he begins slowly.
Despite that of-the-people ideology, Supersystem made the decision to break from former label Dischord for this disc partly because they weren't totally down with the vehemently grassroots manifesto of Ian MacKaye's punk utopia.
Cohen says he digs the DIY approach, but a guy's gotta sell records to eat.
"We have nothing but nice things to say about Dischord and everyone there. But they're run with a very specific set of political and business principles, and we wanted to try new things in terms of promoting the record more and getting more distribution.
"When they made it clear they couldn't be more flexible, we decided to go with Touch & Go. We liked that they had a similar relationship to and respect for their bands. We'd never go somewhere worse."