AT THE DRIVE-IN: IN/CASINO/OUT (1998)
1) Alpha Centauri; 2) Chanbara; 3) Hulahoop Wounds; 4) Napoleon Solo; 5) Pickpocket; 6) For Now... We Toast; 7) A Devil Among The Tailors; 8) Shaking Hand Incision; 9) Lopsided; 10) Hourglass; 11) Transatlantic Foe.
Big lineup changes here: former bassist Omar Rodríguez switches to second guitar, with Paul Hinojos taking his place, and drummer Ryan Sawyer is replaced by Tony Hajjar. Are these shuffles responsible for a change in sound? No idea, but there is a change in sound, and not necessarily a good one, as far as my ears can tell.
The album was issued under a rather standard ideological sauce: «we want to come close to reproducing our live sound in the studio». This idea never worked for the Who, who pretty much abandoned it after several unsuccessful attempts; why it should have worked for At The Drive-In is never made clear. What it all comes down to is sacrificing the basic studio sound of Acrobatic Tenement — a sort of «Television updated for the 1990s» — and plunging deep into the world of loudness, distortion, power chords, screaming, and other charming attributes of noise-rock.
At this point, Cedric Bixler certainly sounds like one of the illegitimate sons of Captain Beefheart: the songs never distinguish properly between verse and chorus, the lyrics are an endless stream of consciousness that never makes literal sense but sometimes creates a «mood», the vocals are literally «on the edge», and the music is intentionally ugly and non-catchy. The only problem is, In/ Casino/Out is no Trout Mask Replica. The lyrics have too few intriguing lines, and the words are mostly indiscernible anyway; Bixler's screaming is no better or worse than the acoustic waves sent out by millions of punk guys across the world; and the music...
...well, a few songs are genuinely interesting in one way or another. ʽPickpocketʼ is fast, concise, collected, and riding on a set of wobbly, quasi-psychedelic guitar lines that are at least amusing, and at best, inspirational. That is an example of an actual song with an idea behind it. Then comes ʽFor Now... We Toastʼ, where the same type of wobbly line makes an occasional appearance — but most of the time the musical background remains just a background, loud, but bland.
Many of the songs use a broken, stop-and-start structure (ʽA Devil Among The Tailorsʼ), pretending to some sort of «avantgarde» structure — and despite the band's loyalty to the usual soft-verse-vs.-loud-chorus trick (except, as I said, there is no verse/chorus distinction here, unless the «getting louder» part always counts as the chorus), anyway, despite that, yes, quite a few chord and rhythm changes here are relatively unpredictable. The only problem is, this group is smart, but taken together, they aren't exactly the Mothers of Invention or the Magic Band. They handle their instruments on the same level as any modestly capable punk band, no more and no less. And when you do not play your instruments in a particularly complex or unusual way, «experimentation» is usually a dead end.
To be fair, the album finds quite a warm reception in certain circles; I have seen terms like «amazing songwriting» and «unparalleled musicianship» applied to such songs as ʽAlpha Centauriʼ and ʽLopsidedʼ far more often than I'd like or even expect to. Therefore, I have a diplomatic duty to acknowledge that, perhaps, I am not «getting» something here. As far as musicianship goes, there is, at best, a bit of «nice» jangly / drony interplay between the two guitars (far less interesting than, for instance, the Bachmann/Johnson duets on Archers of Loaf albums), and the songwriting never advances beyond well-trodden paths of proto-punk and post-punk artists.
But my biggest concern is probably with Bixler, who is simply unbearable here — a naturally whiny guy trying to scream his lungs out is far more annoying than just a natural-born screamer. Eleven songs in a row try to convey a sharp personal tragedy of desperation and disillusionment, spat out in a schizophrenic stream of non sequiturs, and all I can discern is a sociopathic guy in bad need of professional help. (Side note for those who understand: while At The Drive-In could be seen as sort of a «Birthday Party» prequel to the «Bad Seeds» of The Mars Volta, the comparison would never be secure, since Bixler never really «found himself» with his first band, whereas Nick Cave was already perfectly well within his element on the first Birthday Party albums).
Bottomline: if you like your N-O-I-S-E clumsily stuffed into a relatively conventional song format, and your punky music dressed with «modern improvisational poetry», In/Casino/Out may well be for you. But not for me — I think that, unlike the first and third LP from this band, this one has almost nothing redeemable about its thumbs down.