Nation Of Ulysses


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13-Point Program To Destroy America , 6.5/10
Plays Pretty For Baby , 8/10
Make-up: Destination Love , 7/10
Make-Up: Sound Verite` , 6/10
Make-Up: After Dark , 5/10
Make-Up: In Mass Mind , 7/10
Make-Up: I Want Some , 7/10 (comp)
Make-Up: Save Yourself , 5/10
Scene Creamers: I Suck On That Emotion (2000), 5/10
Weird War: Weird War (2002), 5/10
Weird War: If You Can't Beat 'Em Bite 'Em (2004), 6/10
Weird War: Illuminated By The Light (2005), 4/10
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Summary
Nation Of Ulysses concocted the explosive, theatrical agit-prop sound of Plays Pretty For Baby (1992), an album that was the Clinton-age equivalent of MC5 and Public Enemy. The band's cacophony was tamed by hysterical vocalist Ian Svenonius in an epic way. Guitarist Tim Green moved to San Francisco and formed the Fucking Champs, while Svenonius reformed the band with a slightly different line-up and a new name, Make-Up (2): Destination Love (1996), a conceptual exercise of community-based music, and the more organic In Mass Mind (1998) experimented with a deranged gospel-funk-rock sound borrowed from Gang Of Four, Pop Group and Contortions.
(Translated from my old Italian text by/ Tradotto da Nicholas Green)

Within the Washington D.C. hardcore scene, the Nation Of Ulysses were the political group par excellence. Their records were programmatic works that emphasized lyrics above music, and their songs praised armed insurrection, drawing inspiration from various guerrilla groups. Their music abused many of the stereotypes of the Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, and Pussy Galore, blending these influences into a volatile mixture along with a strong dose of wind instruments and violent sobbing. The group became legendary for their provocative and spectacular live shows.

The group was led by Ian Svenonius, a genial and unruly subversive, and a daring and throat-rending vocalist. A cross between Mark E. Smith, Ian Dury, and Captain Beefheart, Svenonius brandished the aggression of punk but often melded it with the theatricality of glam rock. Dangerously doctrinaire though he may be, he has the charisma of a folk leader and the reckless abandon of a mad dog, gifts that could make him the Jello Biafra of the East Coast.

13-Point Program to Destroy America (Dischord, 1991) is a formative work, but it already includes such powerful tracks as Spectra Sonic Sound, alongside experiments like Channel One Ulysses and Aspirin Kid, in which the group creatively uses rhythm and horns. The best songs are Ulythium, a war cry of sorts with a berserk "cavalry trumpet", and The Sound Of Young America, a breakneck cacophony realized as a generational anthem worthy of the classics of the 1960s.

Translator's note: The Sound Of Young America and Channel One Ulysses were originally released on the band's self-titled EP The Nation of Ulysses (Dischord, 1991). They are not present on the LP version of 13-Point Program but are included on other versions of this album. In a similar fashion, the songs from The Birth of the Ulysses Aesthetic are included on non-LP versions of Plays Pretty For Baby.

With the EP The Birth of the Ulysses Aesthetic (Dischord, 1992), their program of impassioned political proclamations rises to a higher level of chaotic commotion, attaining a deranged "hyper-fusion" (N.O.U.S.P.T.D.A.), alongside grotesque agit-prop theatrics (The Sound Of Jazz To Come). The propulsion of heavy metal, the gratuitous detuning, the furious barrages of drumbeats, the incoherent structure of the solos, the anarchic sorties of wind instruments, the complete ignorance of any sense of musical proportion, and, last but not least, Svenonius' psychotic "singing" (so to speak) comprise a primitivist form of punk, closer to the Pop Group than the Sex Pistols.

That boisterous, incendiary sound triumphs on their second album, Plays Pretty For Baby (Dischord, 1992). The goal of this music, as always in punk, is to heighten an explosive tension, an uncontrolled emotionality; but here the effect is achieved through a total exaltation of sound, an expansion of all its components, a visceral noise. In place of the conciseness of hardcore is a fervent chaos, expressed as much in the hysterical sobbing of The Hickey Underworld as in the bestial rush of Perpetual Motion Machine, and as much in the murderous attack of Maniac Dragstrip as in the angry screeching of The Kingdom Of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm (the latter putting them thoroughly in the same camp as MC5). Amidst the bedlam generated by four instrumentalists capable of any level of sonic savagery, Svenonius remains aloft, in his heroically insane frenzy.
Nevertheless, the lineup is capable of N-Sub Ulysses, which would like to be an epic MC5-esque fanfare, and, on the instrumental N.O.U. Future-Vision Hypothesis, even cocktail lounge jazz. 50,000 Watts Of Goodwill, which starts with ominous slashes in an "industrially" apocalyptic mood, ends up being the most melodic track, calling to mind another group equally capable of such catchy harmonic upheavals: Pere Ubu. The group's philosophy is as grandstanding as it is hermetic; the only obvious thing here is the level of violence with which this philosophy is preached.

The group disbanded soon after recording this masterpiece. Their last tapes would be released on The Embassy Tapes (Dischord, 2000).

Guitarist Tim Green would later form the Fucking Champs in San Francisco.

Nell'ambito dell'hardcore di Washington, i Nation Of Ulysses furono "il" gruppo politicizzato per eccellenza. I loro dischi erano opere programmatiche che davano piu` peso ai testi che alle musiche. Le loro canzoni inneggiavano all'insurrezione armata, ispirandosi a gruppi guerriglieri assortiti. Le musiche abusavano piu` che altro degli stereotipi di Dead Kennedys, Fugazi e Pussy Galore, ma iniettando nella miscela esplosiva di quei gruppi anche una dose massiccia di strumenti a fiato e un chitarrismo violentemente singhiozzante. Il gruppo si costrui` una leggenda attraverso esibizioni dal vivo provocatorie e spettacolari.

Il gruppo era capitanato da Ian Svenonius, geniale e sregolato sovversivo, cantante sgolato e rocambolesco all'incrocio fra Mark Smith, Ian Dury e Captain Beefheart, che sfoggiava l'aggressivita` dei punk ma la sposava spesso alla teatralita` del glam-rock. Per quanto pericolosamente dottrinale, Svenonius ha dalla sua il carisma del capopopolo e l'irresponsabilita` del cane sciolto, doti che potrebbero farne il Jello Biafra della East Coast.

13-Point Program (Dischord, 1991) e` ancora un lavoro formativo, ma annovera gia` brani potenti come Spectra Sonic Sound, nonche' esperimenti come Channel One Ulysses e Aspirin Kid, in cui il gruppo usa in maniera creativa la ritmica e i fiati. I capolavori sono Ulythium, una sorta di coro di guerra con tanto di sgangherata tromba della cavalleria, e l'ultrasonica e cacofonica The Sound Of Young America, inno generazionale degno dei classici degli anni '60. Channel One Ulysses e (The Sound of Young America erano originariamente sull'EP del 1990 e solo in seguito aggiunti a una ristampa dell'album).

Con l'EP The Birth Of Ulysses Aestethic (Dischord, 1992), il loro programma di concitati proclami politici approda ad un ulteriore grado di confusione e frastuono, ad un'iper-fusion squilibrata di cui e` massima testimonianza N.O.U.S.P.T.D.A., ad un grottesco teatro agit-prop di cui e` emblematica The Sound Of Jazz To Come. Le propulsioni heavymetal, le scordature gratuite, le grandinate selvagge della batteria, la struttura irrazionale degli assoli, le sortite anarchiche dei fiati, la completa nescienza del senso della misura e, dulcis in fundo, il "canto" (si fa per dire) psicotico di Svenonius compongono un punkrock primitivista, dalle parti del Pop Group piu` che da quelle dei Sex Pistols.

Quel sound sguaiato e incendiario trionfa sul secondo album, Plays Pretty For Baby (Dischord, 1992). L'obiettivo di questa musica, come sempre nel punkrock, e` quello di far lievitare una tensione esplosiva, un'emotivita` incontrollata; ma qui l'effetto viene ottenuto attraverso una esaltazione globale del suono, una dilatazione di tutte le sue componenti, una rumorosita` viscerale. Al posto della concisione dell'hardcore c'e` un parossismo caotico, che puo` impiegare tanto il singhiozzo isterico di The Hickey Underworld quanto l'impeto bestiale di Perpetual Motion Machine, tanto l'attacco omicida di Maniac Dragstrip quanto lo strepito rabbioso di The Kingdom Of Heaven Must Be Taken By Storm, ormai abbondantemente dalla parte degli MC5. Nel bailamme strumentale generato da quattro musicisti capaci di ogni efferatezza sonora si libra eroicamente dissennato il delirio di Svenonius.
Cio` non toglie che la formazione sia capace di N-Sub Ulysses, che vorrebbe essere un'epica fanfara alla MC5, e dello strumentale N.O.U. Future-Vision Hypothesis), addirittura un jazz da cocktail lounge. 50,000 Watts Of Goodwill, aperta da fendenti minacciosi in un clima da apocalisse "industriale", finisce per essere il brano piu` melodico, e richiamare alla memoria l'altro gruppo capace di sconquassi armonici altrettanto orecchiabili, i Pere Ubu. La filosofia del gruppo e` tanto sbandierata quanto ermetica: e` certo soltanto il livello di violenza con cui viene propugnata.

Il gruppo si sciolse subito dopo aver registrato questo capolavoro. Gli ultimi nastri verranno alla luce su The Embassy Tapes (Dischord, 2000).

Il chitarrista Tim Green formera` poi i Fucking Champs a San Francisco.

Ian Svenonius reformed the band with a slightly different line-up and a new name, first Cupid Car Club, that was credited for the EP Join Our Club (K, 1993), and then Make-Up, that was credited for the album Destination Love (Dischord, 1996). Make-Up were very much from the beginning a spin-off of a performance art project. It evolved into a conceptual exercise of community-based music that Svenonius relates to gospel's call and response format. Bassist Michelle Mae is a newcomer (from the Frumpies), whereas drummer Steve Gamboa and guitarist James Canty were in the last line-up of Nation Of Ulysses. They mix funk (Don't Step On The Children, R U A Believer), rhythm and blues (We Can't Be Contained) and garage-rock (How Pretty Can You Get, They Live By Night) like a cross between James Chance, Jon Spencer and the Troggs.

The strength of Sound Verite` (K, 1997) lies in the grooves of funky songs like Gold Record Pts I and !! and Hot Coals. Make-Up seem determined to continue the dynasty of Gang Of Four, Pop Group and Contortions, bands that shared an insurrectionist punk attitude towards gospel and funk.

The live After Dark (Dischord, 1997) adds an equally powerful Gospel 2000, and so does the single Free Arthur Lee (K, 1998).

All the songs of In Mass Mind (Dischord, 1998) are self-referential, and that defines the ambition of the album, their most focused yet. Do You Like Gospel Music, Joy Of Sound, Live In The Rhythm Hive, Time Machine are sermons that are actually fun to listen and dance to. His gospel-punk has become an official genre in the history of rock music.

The double album I Want Some (K, 1999) collects 23 tracks that appeared as singles.

Save Yourself (K, 1999) is the least modern and least conceptual of their albums. The music harks back to soul and rhythm and blues records of the 1960s. If funky is their genre, then White Bells is their hit.

Ian Svenonius and Michelle Mae are also the brains behind Scene Creamers, a project of psychedelic soul, funk and jazz that released I Suck On That Emotion (Drag City, 2000)

On the other hand, Svenonius, Mae, Love As Laughter's guitarist Jessica Espeleta. and Royal Trux's guitarist Neil Hagerty recorded Weird War (Drag City, 2002), a lame collection of innocous roots-rock. Without Hagerty, Svenonius continued the Weird War saga on If You Can't Beat 'Em Bite 'Em (Drag City, 2004), a more focused and blistering album of garage-rock (Grand Fraud) and funk-rock (AK-47), and Illuminated By The Light (Drag City, 2005), an inferior collection of dance music.

Ian Svenonius' next project was called Chain And The Gang and released Down With Liberty...Up With Chains (K Records, 2009).

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