Rhythm & Views

U.S. Maple

In 1995, the four members of U.S. Maple took all of the elements of rock and roll that they liked (drum crashes, power chords, mystery, emotion, violence, nuance, atonality and odd rhythmic timing) and put them in a Hefty bag. They then proceeded to smash the bag with four collective rubber mallets. Next, they drove to the recording studio, turned on the mics, and when the tape was rolling, they opened the bag and emptied it of all that was inside. As the broken contents of what was rock and roll fell out, a new, disjointed and seemingly bizarre sound was born, perhaps more unique than revolutionary. It wasn't free jazz; it wasn't punk, or new wave, or no wave, or early Sonic Youth, or anything that had come before, though it certainly contained trace elements of all those aspects.

What the listener got at the end of the line was Al Johnson leading the band with his hushed, hissed and grunted non-sequitur vocals, while the dual guitarists (one "high," the other "low") of Mark Shippy and Todd Rittman choked and stroked said instruments, sans effects, and drummer Pat Samson (who is now replaced by the excellent, and more than comparable, Adam Vida) didn't play what you thought he was about to play. As a result, these guys could sound tender one minute and terrifying the next. At times, they all seemed to be playing the same song, and other times, well É

Their first four records proved to be a challenge to digest for many, yet garnered the band lots of good press and quite a reputation for their live performance. For those unconvinced, or just outside of the syrupy loop, Purple on Time might just be the U.S. Maple album that converts the confused.

What could it be, you ask? Well, there appears to be an evolution, if ever so subtle, in their approach. Yes, the staples are still there, but goddamn if these guys don't sound like they're (gulp. No wait, double gulp!), playing together! Like, É it almost É rocks?! Yes, yes, it does rock!

Gone are the drastic and instant tempo changes that marked their previous records; barely audible to crashing crescendos and back again, all within the blink of an eye. Instead, Purple has our men keeping a fairly steady tempo throughout.

From the first track, "My Li'l Shocker," it's apparent that the guys have added more conventional song structure to their bag, as verses and choruses are more or less at work.

The band also showcases a bit more diversity not seen on previous albums. On one hand, the guitar licks on the poppy "Oh Below" are light and pretty; on the other, is the bluesy arena-rock guitar riffing a la AC/DC of "Whoopee Invader."

Then there's "Dumb in the Wingz," which begins with a nearly blatant lifting (in a good way) of jazz-prog greats the Mahavishnu Orchestra's Birds of Fire before meandering for a bit with Johnson's vocals and Shippy and Rittman's angular and sparse, almost Fugazi-like, riffing seemingly vying for the listener's attention. Eventually, they hit a momentary groove, with Johnson confidently stating, "Yeah, she's dumb in the wings" before its abrupt ending.

In the face of the many music scribes who have labeled this U.S. Maple's sellout rock album, I say pshaw! True, "accessible" often connotes commercial compromise. But, when there's nothing commercial about a band to begin with (and believe me, this record ain't getting commercial airplay by a long shot), "more accessible" can also be interesting and fresh. And that, my friends, is exactly what we have here.

Rock on, Maple dudes!

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