One of the most oft-cited influences on contemporary Beijing-based rock bands has been more than a little surprising to me. In a country where you say ‘rock’ and almost everyone responds with ‘Linkin Park,’ it’s really relieving that although Linkin has captured many, many Chinese hearts, rock musicians themselves are seemingly systematically attracted to the droning pulse of the Velvet Underground. And it seems to be the drawn-out guitar chords, prominent bass, rhythmic drive, conversational vocals, and fuzzy sonic sheen of the Velvets that gets to young Chinese artists today, rather than the more mellifluous aspects of the band’s instrumentation (guitars=swoon!) or arrangements. Now that I think of it, one of the first bands I saw in China, in January 09, played a cover of ‘I’m waiting for the man.’ Can’t remember that band’s name but I do remember that their cover was my favorite part of the night.
One of the most notable acts that cites the Velvet Underground as a prominent influence is Carsick Cars, and really by that I mean frontman Zhang Shouwang, who releases experimental collaborative work with White and as well as his own solo material. He’s probably the most famed Beijing rock musician (maybeeeee excepting P.K. 14, but just maybe), and absolutely for good reason. But there is plenty of info and acclaim for Carsick Cars on the internet, no need for me to go on about it here. I was lucky enough to see them live on January 22nd though, with a new lineup for the very first time. The show rode on the strength of Shouwang’s songwriting; his Lou Reed-golden-timbre guitar (with just a little more grunge) lays out uncomplicated but gorgeous hooks that sometimes repeat for the entire duration of a song, and he lets the bass’ fluctuations create harmonic tension, all this resulting a very emotionally stirring, sometimes contemplative effect. The band uses a lot of great noise elements and mangled guitar-effected squeals in their recordings that unfortunately didn’t translate into this show. I feel like when I saw the original lineup play at Colby in 2009 these essential components were present, but I can’t really be sure… Of course Shouwang’s voice sounded great, and the new bassist and drummer kept tightly to their scripted parts, although I thought I saw Shouwang shooting a glare or two at the bassist from time to time. If he messed up, I couldn’t tell.
That night, Carsick Cars were sandwiched between Mr. Graceless and P.K.14, who are basically on opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of establishment in the scene and musical approach. A young group of recent college graduates, Mr. Graceless played the sweetest rock songs, their sunny guitars reminiscent of all things that might conceivably be labeled ‘surf pop,’ outfitted with great vocal lines and falsetto harmonies. They might have been the highlight of the night for me, to be honest, and that’s saying a lot because they opened for two of the most well-loved bands in China! I assume I’ll be writing about them again soon enough. P.K.14 on the other hand is constantly proclaimed The Most Important Contemporary Band In China but I don’t think I get it. They have a few songs that resonate with me (eg. ‘What Kind of Wind is Blowing’), but generally I find Yang Haisong’s vocals tastelessly, um, ‘discordant’ and their songwriting leaves something to be desired. They’ve been doing this for a long time, and are indisputably excellent performers, but… guess we’re on different wavelengths.
But back to the Velvets before I close. On Saturday I saw The Offset: Spectacles 憬观:像同叠 play for the first time. I’d translated a bio on them at work the week before in which they were repeatedly compared to the Velvet Underground, behold: “They rarely use effects, letting all their vintage instruments and old-fashioned amps produce all the cruder sounds. Sometimes Li Wentai will even violently stomp on top of his amp to produce bizarre guitar sounds. Li Wentai’s simultaneous playing and singing is reminiscent of Sterling Morrison, while his organ- and viola-playing suggests John Cale, making comparisons to the Velvet Underground quite natural.” So if you can get past my shoddy translation (it’s a DRAFT), perhaps you will be as enticed as I was to hear them! I had planned to go to this Saturday’s show to see “psychedelic rockabilly” Dirty Beaches (Canada) [[SIDE NOTE, My pal Lucifer was seriously rocking out to this guy, though I think he loved the theatricality of the performance more than anything else! Bizarre connection: his band, Rustic, got their start at a club called THE VELVET UNDERGROUND in a little town called Shijiazhuang! I tell you I am not making this stuff up!]], but it was an amazing and lucky coincidence that The Offset happened to be opening. And they were simply entrancing. I tried for a very long time to upload an mp3 of a track from their recent EP onto my blog but unfortunately without a working VPN I can’t do it! But, maybe this is better: when I bought their cassette (which, in addition to being truly excellent, thankfully came with an mp3 download), guitarist/violist Li Wentai encouraged me to share the download link with friends. So here it is.
It might sound a bit abrasive at first but skeptics - please hang in there for at least 2.5 minutes. You will surely see that they do not take turns for the death metal side of things, bending instead towards My Bloody Valentine or something else dark and holy and sometimes a bit tragic. And the tragedy is pretty faded by track 3, replaced by a very, very Velvet-y jammy sound. Haha, my descriptions are poor, but the sounds are beyond words anyway. ENJOY.