Various Artists

History in 3 Chords

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Every town in America that had underground scenes as busy as Milwaukee in the period 1973-1982 should also have a compilation like History in 3 Chords. This is a terrific anthology of sub-subcutaneous Milwaukee bands that is truly democratic in terms of styles -- the selection ranges from slick wannabe-on-4AD synth pop to totally-falling-apart D.I.Y. basement amateurs. Of course, conventional wisdom dictates that the only "good" things to come out of Milwaukee in the early 1980s were Violent Femmes and Die Kreuzen, both of whom are represented here in tracks of local provenance. But it is clear that in reality the "big name" groups represent less than even the tip of the Milwaukee iceberg. The most glaringly obvious omission from a viewpoint of standardized critical art-punk history to be found here is the excellent Ama-Dots whose two tracks of experimental art pop can hold their own with anything made even two-and-a-half decades later. But there are also other strong contenders, such as Shivvers, Oil Tasters, Haskels, Prosecutors, Youth in Asia, Acetones, Couch Potatoes, Einstein's Riceboys and Curves.

Among other notable items offered here are Tense Experts' two tracks, which are quirky and fun in a Pere Ubu type vein while managing to not really sound like their Cleveland-based brethren. Muscle Beach's song "Let's Get Dumb" would be a perfect answer to the type of song that the Ramones mastered, except that it is so skillfully crafted and elaborate in style and sound. According to annotator Dave Luhrsson, Milwaukee punks poked fun at their counterparts in California. Nonetheless there are several songs on here which sound not unlike San Francisco-based groups of the era such as the Offs and the Deadbeats. That's not to say the folks in Milwaukee were copycats -- rather it's that Milwaukee's best bands developed their own version of a given approach or style that may superficially resemble trends from outside. The way some of these acts reflect the sound of English groups such as Joy Division or the Psychedelic Furs is instructive, especially as it tends to be more raw and spontaneous in Milwaukee. However in "Sex Doll" by Young Stuff we see something pioneering and unique which should be treasured as an extremely early example of a loose and angry all-girl American punk band. And in one additionally unique instance we hear Arousing Polaris in "Mink Dress," which has got to be the most screamingly funny regurgitation of Bowie-esque drag mannerisms ever recorded. It stands alone -- one suspects not many would want to get very near it!

So while only a few Milwaukee bands developed their sound from the ground up, every one of these bands had something to say, and this seminal regional punk/alternative scene deserves to be recognized. History in 3 Chords goes a long way towards redressing a significant historical and critical imbalance in the way American alternative music is evaluated. If you saw any of these bands in person, History in 3 Chords is something you'll want, however if you are interested in learning more about American punk in this period, then this is something you can't do without.

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