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photo:Joe Putrock

Rats in a Cage
By Bill Ketzer

Despite all their rage, the members of Complicated Shirt are just your average, everyday rock band

 

There is a delightful little rehearsal space in Nassau, a quaint, two-story chateau of sorts, nestled into the woodlands on a steep hill behind an old family farmhouse. The pristine lands are peppered with paths of stone, lush with flora and chirping fauna; a rural hinterland with small trails that lead into an emerald forest. It is beautiful, and at dusk, beatific.

Suddenly, in a matter of a few seconds and with little warning, a trio of rail-thin young men file into the first floor of the place, and paradise is lost. They drink Heineken. They mock the poor. They fire up a mighty craic, replete with bursts of serious volume. Vitriol cakes the country air like bloody snot in a hobo’s hanky. Complicated Shirt have arrived.

“Thank god you didn’t waste all that money on college!” singer-guitarist Drew Benton screams during the opening volley, his jugular fat, his lower lip buttering the microphone. He strains against the volume, necessary to be heard over Jonathan Pellerin’s running-start, blow-shit-up chops. “You don’t need an education with a bitchin’ psychotic hotline, a camouflage Klansman squattin’ at Delphi, your heart is beating a meth lab’s stepchild!”

Benton is almost rapping, slouched at the microphone with heavy lids and swab of orange hair, a Celt whose fingers move effortlessly into strange chords on the Gibson SG as he mercilessly slanders those who mistake psychic hotlines for legitimate guidance in life.

“I thought ‘Rotary Rosary’ was pretty straightforward lyrically, but a few of my friends seemed to miss the point,” he says after finishing the tune. “It’s not a subject or a demographic I felt needed specifically to be targeted. I’ve never shaken my fist at a Ms. Cleo [sic] commercial, but it was a fun way to sort of stick it to ignorant poor people.”

And stick it they do, to drug addicts, music-industry drones, the middle class and anyone else with weak character and dull wits. Such is the acerbic grace of the Shirt, the corrosive thread that could. But from what depths does the venom dripping from these Capital Region natives arise? Through poverty? Injustice? Institutionalization? Bursts of serious volume?

“Just being hateful and trying to sound smart,” Benton says, and it should come as no surprise. After the release of 2004’s Strigine, he has been, as the band’s primary songwriter, tagged by music media as everything from a “drunken genius” delivering “searing satire” that is both “disturbingly elaborate” and “unusually schizophrenic” to a “mean-spirited” and “self important” bully throwing a “little kid’s tantrum.” Even the title of the effort—which means “of or like an owl”—speaks to the band’s artistic temperament.

“ ‘Owl-like’ implies a great wisdom, which I thought was just off-the-charts pretentious,” Benton explains. “That pretentiousness sort of worked well with the arrogance that’s so pervasive throughout the album. Also, I don’t like long, wacky album titles, so we definitely wanted something succinct and kind of vague.”

In a sense, the critical lens has become the band’s calling card, but the newer material they lay down in rehearsal for an upcoming release (including “Somnambulateur” and “The Resilient Combo,” to name a couple) does not appear to invoke the same sense of outrage and anger that propelled last year’s release, although a sardonic aggression is still readily apparent. Is this the dawn of a kindler, gentler Shirt?

“I don’t think it’s nearly as pissed-off-sounding so far,” Benton admits. “Making angry album after angry album is kind of tiresome.”

“And too easy,” Pellerin reasons.

“I think I said this between our last two albums, though,” Benton adds.

It was in working with Noreaster Media (a local company with a stable of about 20 bands from all over the United States), that Complicated Shirt was able to drum up a serious amount of press coverage for Strigine. Everyone from Chicago’s Punk Planet to Boston’s Lollipop and beyond has had a taste, although half of the reviews cannot seem to get past the band’s biography for some reason. This is odd, because the claims of intense rawness and trumping all posers do not appear to be any more pretentious than every other band bio; yet something about the Shirt disturbs them.

“As far as album reviews go, the character of [Strigine] is either loved or hated . . . split right down the middle,” says Pellerin. “It is interesting that when we get a bad review it is short, poorly written and always focuses on ‘poor production quality’ or ‘constipated vocals.’ All our good reviews enjoy the overall sound of the record and go into detail why it has musical value.”

The CD in question was recorded using an old Otari 8-track machine, so Big Rock Production isn’t exactly what you expect, or what you get; in fact you get a most threshold-ripping opposite. Its seemingly intentional rudimentary aural assault is a smoker to some, a salmon to others; but to Shirt fans it seems clear that the album wouldn’t have the same character if recorded in a higher-budget fashion.

“Yeah, well, the low-tech approach was just a low/no-budget approach,” explains Pellerin, 23, who holds a degree in music education from Albany’s College of Saint Rose and handles most of the recording. He looks a bit like Ashton Kutcher but with sharper features and much more than fake boobies on the brain. “I guess the way we recorded Strigine was intentional in a way, but not permanent. Definitely not what the next album will sound like. I view recording the same as playing my instrument. In listening to anything I’ve played in the past I think, ‘Oh, that’s how I played at that exact time.’ I think the same with recording. As long as there is improvement with both, we will keep going with it. We wanted to do as much as we could on our own, and I knew the songs would translate no matter how they were recorded.”

The songs also translate live, and by the time this piece sees print the band will have set out in the proverbial big van for a two-week jaunt that will bring them to major Northeastern cities like Philadelphia, New Haven, Conn., and New York City, among others (“We’re gonna go ahead and call it a ‘tour,’” Benton says). The Shirt will join another Albany decibel-limit offender, Brevator, on the trip.

“Always bring at least one other band on tour with you,” says Benton, speaking like a man who no doubt has performed for single-digit crowds before. “That way you can guarantee that someone will be in the audience.”

Despite their honesty-without-compassion reputation, the Shirt lads are unassuming, gracious hosts (they offer me alcohol and ear plugs, both respectfully declined). They do seem a bit preoccupied, as if the wheels are always turning as they blast out song after incendiary song. Perhaps it’s the upcoming tour, or perhaps they are eager to revisit material with brand-new bassist Jason Jette (who does double duty as a guitarist for Brevator), or in Benton’s case perhaps it’s because today is his birthday (he is 24) and he’s been eyeballing a finger of Goldschlager perched precariously on a corner table since he walked in. Hard to tell; also hard is the band’s categorical ignoring of standard interview queries like how the band met, when the new CD will be released and what their intentions are for the future. As we sit down briefly after the rehearsal, chirping fauna duly silenced, it’s not as if they are standoffish or rude, or come across as conceited or condescending. It’s just that, well, they practically yawn at protocol.

“Reading about someone’s ‘rock band goals’ pretty much makes life not worth living,” Benton says.

Nor are they willing to get into heavier musical sport. It is clear they are capable of doing so (Benton also holds a music degree, from SUNY Oswego, and all are very well-read), but when asked whether the dullness of today’s popular music can be directly related to the decline of our nation as a democratic republic much in the same way the proliferation of plagiarized poetry and art coincided with the fall of the Roman Empire, one can almost taste the disdain. “I think answering that question would make me sound like a preachy Dischord Records enthusiast,” Benton replies. “I hate those fuckers.”

“Well, there is a televised audition to be the next lead singer of INXS hosted by Dave Navarro,” Pellerin says, implying that this should be some indication where America is headed.

Instead, they are much more interested in local music, writing and recording, as well as muggings and the general decline of the moral downtown Albany fabric. “What is with Lark Street?” Jette asks rhetorically. “I was just riding my bike down Willett [Street] the other day and there were these kids—they were like 10 years old—saying, ‘Yo, gimme that bike.’ So I ignored them and they started throwing rocks at me! I’m like ‘What the fuck?’”

The mention of local music brings up the subject of Stephen Gaylord of the Wasted and his Upstate Wasted Web site, where if one searches long enough a link to a posting board can be found that has become locally renowned for its sharp criticism of local bands, scenesters and . . . ahem . . . Metroland. One recent post on the site solicits opinions regarding the outcome of a hypothetical grudge match between Benton and Gaylord.

“Steve and I arm-wrestled once and somehow I pinned him, but he left a stigmata wound on my left hand that was there for a week and a half, so who the actual victor was is kind of fuzzy for me,” recalls Benton, who confides that in a real fight Gaylord would kick his ass.

I suggest that message boards can be important forums. Certainly some have taken notice (and others offense) at their often-stark assessment of local music, causing at the very least some introspection here and there.

“Talking on message boards is just silly,” Pellerin says.

“We never, ever look at that board,” Benton says with a smile. “We tend to get associated with it because Keith (former Shirt bassist K. Sonin) was on it constantly. He couldn’t help it. He was in a place where he could just sit there and post constantly. But we never did. Keith is kind of paranoid; he doesn’t come out of his house very often.”

Pellerin begins breaking down his kit, putting them in cases, and Jette, arms aced with black ink, is already out the door. Benton is eager to leave, and now the source of preoccupation is perhaps revealed: He wants to get back downtown so he can get a parking spot near his house in Center Square. “If you get there after a certain time,” he says, “forget it.” But that does not stop him, finally, from approaching the finger of Goldschlager. “Can I have this?” he asks Pellerin, who nods affirmatively. “After all, it’s my birthday.”

He pulls the bottle to his lips and the golden flakes swirl as if in a snow globe before they disappear down his throat. Pure gold. Worth about $1.38. The chateau, now darkened, smells like cinnamon and sweat. It is beautiful again.


ROUGH MIX

no rough mix this week



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