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Wire – Red Barked Tree

The art punk label gets thrown around a lot, maybe too much, so can it feel a little hokey to conjure it up yet again. However, nothing has ever encapsulated the legendary Wire more accurately. They were truly too punk for the art kids, and too artsy for the punk kids across their three decade trajectory. While Wire has enjoyed a prolific career, including Colin Newman solo efforts, a swath of collaborative projects, and their post-millennial reunion, the general gallery of ears tend to associate Wire exclusively with their flawless late ’70s triage – Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154. Hard to blame anyone for that – those records are cataclysmic. But in it’s own way, so is Red Barked Tree.

Red Barked Tree is one of the most strident return-to-forms I’ve heard in quite some time. Even the same guitar tones and phased effects from 154’s “Blessed State” introduce Wire’s latest on opener “Please Take.” The general consensus suggests that releasing similar albums over and over again is stagnant and kind of a bullshit move, and that’s usually true. Yet, Wire’s revisiting of their source material feels entirely fresh. The band has already tried new approaches, most notably in the past few years with Newman’s quirky Githead project and the band’s Read to Burn EP series. The latter saw Wire experimenting with some of the gothic motifs and industrial buzzsaw rhythms that Primal Scream and Add N to (X) were concurrently toying with. The attempt was commendable, but it didn’t fit Wire’s well-established aesthetic. Industrial sounds are for the aggressive and angry. Wire was aggressive, but never angry. Their Situationalist stance never allowed such. So they came, they saw, they decided it was not good, and went back to basics. Wire gets a pass. Of course, the other part of the equation is the quality of the songs, and Red Barked Tree exceeds expectations on all fronts, offering an even stronger effort than 2008’s transitional Object 47.

Of course, none of that is meant to say Red Barked Tree is simply a rehashing of their jagged, angular post-punk. The albums’s strongest moments are also their most surprising, particularly “Adapt,” “Down to This,” and “Red Barked Tree.” These songs are all heavily centered around acoustic (!) guitar and fluttering ambient flourishes, brushing closer to dream pop psychedelia than anything the band has done in the past. Here is an example of Wire trying out new sounds, and this time it works like a charm. Of course, don’t expect Wire to soften or mature like some of their contemporaries (sorry, I don’t get the “chilled out” Nick Cave). “Two Minutes,” “Smash,” and “Moreover” prove the group as intense, snotty, sarcastic, and confident as ever. “Clay” and “A Flat Tent” are both classic Wire. From concentrated, nuanced pop to smart, commentary-laden, self destructive with a wink punk rock, you’re treated to a full-on demonstration of the breadth and contradictions that historically made Wire so intriguing. Throughout these 11 songs, the only real giveaway that Red Barked Tree isn’t some lost LP from the early canon is the super slick production. Perhaps this will surprise or disappoint some listeners who’ve appreciated Wire’s traditional DIY approach to life. However, Red Barked Tree offers some of the lushest compositions the group has laid to tape, rendering the sonic space, detail, and clarity absolutely essential. The holistic vibe and sound throughout is simply enthralling.

While Red Barked Tree masterfully resuscitates Wire’s vitality, even for the more discriminating palettes, it certainly won’t be held in the same conversation as their late ’70s three-part suite. But there’s nothing that Wire, or any artist, could ever do about that. Albums carry extremely strong associations, for better or worse. In tandem with The Fall and Swell Maps, Wire were one of the first punk acts to expand their sound into stranger territories at a time and place replete with civil and economic strife. Ergo, the legendary 1977 Wire can never be reincarnated in 2011. That does not mean revisiting the old aesthetic is a contrived move. Wire breathes new life into the old guard and, more importantly, fires on all cylinders with flawlessly catchy, immensely interesting songs. Newman and company have overcome a myriad of stigmas associated with “maturing,” cultural zeitgeists, and streaming your record on NPR (a potentially cred-killing move) to prove they are still edgy as all hell. Red Barked Tree is exciting, proving unequivocally that Wire is here to show the young and oft lame indie rock dorks how it’s done. School’s in session y’all, so take notes.

Red Barked Tree is out on January 12th everywhere. While you can get it on iTunes and Amazon, I encourage you to pick up the vinyl at your brick and mortar record slinger. Keep it physical – this kind of album demands such.

MP3 :::
Wire – Two Minutes

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