Few album titles summarize their contents like Cubist Blues.
Few album titles summarize their contents like Cubist Blues. It’s hard to call a mid-‘90s meeting of Suicide frontman Alan Vega, Big Star mastermind Alex Chilton and singer-songwriter Ben Vaughn a supergroup, not only because its two major stars were in career wanes but because nothing about these three sounded cohesive on paper. How could Chilton’s magisterial power-pop possibly work with Vega’s history of ear-splitting electronic noise and coke-numbed synth anti-disco? Yet the uneasy collision of diametrically opposed styles only benefits this strange meeting of minds, and a new remaster of these sessions unearths their brilliance.
Each of the 12 tracks drawn from the trio’s loose jams showcases a jarring mash-up of sounds, and the placement of the eight-and-a-half-minute “Fat City” as the album’s opener makes clear from the outset what you’re in for. Chilton delicately strums prom guitar chords over the sounds of traffic as rockabilly drums chug forward as if it were one of the cars on the road. Vega’s voice doesn’t so much enter as stumble in as if by accident. Vega’s performances in Suicide have the dead-eyed dispassion of post-punk avant la lettre, but with only a few tweaks and the tanning effects of age, he here sounds like a true bluesman, scratching and growling and yelping vague, improvised lyrics until the snatches of discernible words take on a visceral impact beyond their confusing literal meaning. Each element fits together with the others in uneasy truce, to the extent that a largely static composition sounds constantly shifting, even though it only changes things up at the end when Chilton charges ahead with his guitar and Vega kicks his manic vocals into overdrive.
The opener takes its name from a neo-noir book and film, and such dark generic forays typify the rest of the songs. “Fly Away” is unnervingly spare, with pulses of guitar noise rolling out of humid drums like swamp fog, while the only thing more flanged than Chilton’s Tex-Mex riffs in “Come On Lord” is Pentecostal twang, which he uses to invoke the summons of the title with petulant impatience. “Freedom” basks in synthesized shimmers, while Chilton floats above it all and Vega calls after him from the parched earth below. “Do Not Do Not” sounds like three siblings in different age ranges practicing their instruments, with the unruly older brother idling away on surf guitar while the more well-behaved middle child plays elegant piano exercises and the baby slams on everything that can make a percussive sound.
Not everything comes out fully formed, but the throughline of invention and casual experimentation makes for occasional bits of infectious fun. “Love of Love” puts a blues guitar shuffle on a barroom piano and makes for an unlikely drinking number. “Sister” two-steps like a drunken lecher and turns Vega’s halting delivery into a come-on from a hobo. “Promised Land” bridges punk percussion with psychedelic wash, disrupting the spacey tremolo of the latter with a cold, sobering splash of water. None of this really sounds like what one thinks of when one thinks of Chilton or Vega, but underlying currents of melody and alienation make more of these distended, quickly cut songs than if they just jammed out some weird tunes. The two sound more revitalized here than in anything else they were doing around this time, and if Vaughn is clearly a tag-along, he nonetheless ably keeps pace with whatever excursion the other two plan at any given moment and adapts the album’s fluid percussion to match.
The reissue comes with a live album recorded in France in 1996, and it’s interesting, if unsurprising, to hear how well material largely crafted on the spot sounds in a live setting where the performers continue to tweak and intuit. Nothing is too different, barring perhaps Vega’s slack approach to already-dubious lyrics, but there are rewards in the added charge of “Too Late” or the sincere interlude in “Freedom” where Vega half addresses the audience and half speak-sings extemporaneously to no one. This album may just be a footnote in the storied careers of its two most famous personnel, but Cubist Blues is nonetheless a curio absolutely worth the price for the chance to hear an unclassifiable union.