Ian Svenonius' career as a musical provocateur has spanned nearly 20 years, starting with bands like Nation of Ulysses and more recently with Scene Creamers and Weird War. His 2006 collection of essays on music and art, The Psychic Soviet, proved he's just as sharp with a pen as he is with a microphone.
Svenonius was thinking about making a spoken-word album when he headed out to Dub Narcotic, the Olympia, Wash. studio run by musician and K Records founder Calvin Johnson. What resulted was a hybrid of the original idea, Svenonius says, with edgy, taut soul grooves provided by a revolving door of musicians. That band, now called Chain and The Gang, has just released the fruits of the sessions as Down With Liberty ... Up With Chains!
"It's called Chain and The Gang because it's inspired by work gangs and the kind of compulsory service that musicians feel, making music," Svenonius says. "The record takes its title from the battle cry of Spanish partisans against Napoleonic invaders. When Napoleon was invading Europe under the pretense of spreading the ideals of the French revolution -- equality, liberty, fraternity -- the Spanish partisans would say, 'Down with liberty,' supposedly."
Svenonius calls the album title poignant, "in the age where the U.S.A. uses liberty as pretense for imperialism, of free markets ... the whole freedom thing." This isn't exactly obvious from the music on Down With Liberty, but regardless, the Gang has created a compelling set of tracks, with Johnson's production giving the drums an especially strong crack. Svenonius sounds like The Fall's Mark E. Smith backed by a punk-soul outfit in "Chain Gang Theme (I See Progress)." Elsewhere, in tracks like "Cemetery Map," call-and-response chain-gang vocals are combined with girl-group harmonies.
In "Interview With The Chain Gang," it's hard to tell how much spoof factors into things, as an aloof interviewer begins each verse with a rhymed question that Svenonius answers with a swagger. He laughs when asked if this was inspired by years of dealing with the press. "I feel like the interview is such a part of rock 'n' roll -- whether it's Elvis Presley talking to Steve [Allen] or The Beatles at the airport [press conference]," he says. "Most people aren't good at being interviewed. I think at one point people were expected to defend their art, and I think, now, less of an expectation."
If it's sometimes hard to tell where the line falls between serious and satire, that's often been the case with Svenonius' past work. Many have questioned whether the polemics of Nation of Ulysses were tongue-in-cheek or the real thing. And in the mid-'90s, Svenonius provided some of the best moments in Half Cocked, a low-budget film cast mostly with inarticulate indie rockers. He portrayed an over-the-top, über-serious frontman of a white soul group, which to friends and fans meant he was playing himself.
Regardless, Svenonius is the consummate showman. The touring band, which includes five of the original 14 contributors to the album, should get some converts this week, when it plays The Nerve, a new art and music warehouse space operated by Edgar Um and Lauri Mancuso.
Chain and The Gang with the Hive Dwellers and City Center. Thu., April 16. 7-11 p.m. The Nerve, 500 Dargan St., Bloomfield. $7. All ages. 412-951-0622