Wire’s “Red Barked Tree” Is The First Great Album of 2011

During Wire’s 20-month Classical period (December ’77 – September ’79), they covered so much ground it’s hard to know even how to categorize them.  If a single band, in the blink of an eye, could be emblematic of both the punk and post-punk era, it was Wire.  In fact their evolution from Pink Flag — with its incredibly catchy three-chord rhumba served in one-minute slices — to 154 — which brought a level of art-rock sophistication to a party not even better musicians such as The Clash were invited to — brings to mind that Audi commercial where man evolves from slugs on the beach to a roaring R8 all within the confines of a 30-second spot.  Their evolution was supercharged.  And almost as suddenly they disappeared.

Ira Kaplan (Yo La Tengo) once assigned this writer to review Wire’s 1981 live album, Document and Eyewitness,  for NY Rocker and while memory is fleeting, we distinctly remember the lede being something to the effect that “never has a band been so interesting as at the precise moment when its reach exceeds its grasp.” Their ambition exceeded their facility in a manner that was riveting.  They may not at first have been brilliant musicians (though by “Lowdown,” the fifth song on Pink Flag, Bruce Gilbert proved to be a marvelously greasy guitarist), but they have always been a brilliant band.  Now, 35 years on from their formation, their grasp is considerable, but they are no less interesting than they were in the days when they all had full heads of hair and could fit in skinny tee shirts.

Wire’s history is one of ellipses and return.  They sat out much of the early to mid-’80s, and in the ’90s, the stage lights were essentially dark.  Gilbert and Lewis formed Dome.  Colin Newman had a series of solo albums.  But while Bruce Gilbert is no longer with the band, their essential core of Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, and Robert Gotobed (nee Robert Grey) have returned to the scene, not once but twice, and with a sound that is completely recognizable to fans of their second album, Chairs Missing, and their legendary third, 154.

While Wire’s return in the late ’80s was interesting, there was something about the tinny use of synths and drum machines that screwed up their sound, as much as it screwed every other band’s sound, until the Pixies delivered us from studio evil.  Their return in 2008’s Object 47, and now with the stunning Red Barked Tree, reveals a soundscape woven from natural fibers, whole-grained though electric, built on post-punk but still eclectic.  We miss Gilbert’s guitar, but Lewis, Newman and Grey recreate much of the band’s signature sound: simple drums that snap, elegant (Gilbert) and punk but oft-times pretty (Newman) vocals, with textured pop melody punctuated by the visceral.

There are bands that get cited as seminal, as influential; bands whose most ardent followers are other bands.  Few bands since the start of the punk era have kept the respect of their fellow musicians as Wire has.  Red Barked Tree is the single best album they have released in 30 years — the best thing since Wire’s Classical period ended with 154. Like an actor’s actor who continues to marvel with his craft and approach to character, eventually (in the Hollywood ending) to get the attention he deserves, it would be a good thing for our mass karma as a species if the world woke up and took notice of Wire.  Like, now.  They’ve disappeared before, twice. Their return has, admittedly, been more frequent than certain comets.  But we should not take Wire for granted.  This would be an excellent moment for the uninitiated to grab the sparking line, and for old fans to recharge.

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