In the late 1970s and early '80s, the British band Wire joined artists such as Gang of Four, Public Image Ltd., The Fall and Joy Division to redefine post-punk music. They brought art-school sensibilities to pop songcraft, taking the anger of punk and adding a cool sheen of dark, sexy intellectualism.
The first three Wire albums—Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154—helped upend and transform the most basic assumptions about rock. The band came and went over the decades, its relevance fluctuating with the trends and times.
So it was with trepidation that I approached this latest recording, fearing the worst and hoping for the best. Well, Red Barked Tree turns out to be a pleasant surprise.
Although this CD is somewhat restrained, generally lacking the angular riffs and jagged rhythms that defined the band's earliest recordings, the melodies still sound fresh and unusual—as if aliens were trying to sound human. The result is that the best tracks—"Please Take," "Clay" and "Bad Worn Thing"—sound familiar and disarmingly offbeat at the same time.
The remaining founding members—Colin Newman (guitar), Graham Lewis (bass) and Robert Grey (drums)—fold occasional electronics into the basic arrangements, yet are still capable of creating unique and unusual sounds with the basics. And no one can match the combination of anger and disaffection with which Newman infuses his vocals.
It's sad that the group's fourth founding member, Bruce Gilbert, chose not to participate, but Red Barked Tree is a late-model triumph for a subtly influential veteran band.