Wire - Red Barked Tree
Record Label: Pink Flag
Release Date: Jan. 11, 2011
When Wire were blazing trails back in the late '70s, covering more stylistic ground in their three '77-'79 albums than most bands do in entire careers, I wonder who would have guessed they'd still be making records more than thirty years later. Naturally, no band could maintain that level of prolificacy and vision for sustained periods, so the last three decades have seen long stints of inactivity. However, if time off is what it takes to breed creativity, we'll take whatever we can get. And what we get with Red Barked Tree is an intriguingly accessible release that downplays some of the band's typical art-rock tendencies in favor of some of the most user-friendly (though often nondescript) songs in the Wire catalog.
The opening track "Please Take" is a prime example, its mid-tempo jangle almost reminiscent of a David Bowie tune, though admittedly, frontman Colin Newman's understated delivery definitely aids in the likeness. The song's lilting melody contrasts sharply with its less-than-savory lyrical content ("Please take your knife out of my back, and when you do, please don't twist it"). With slightly less muddy production and one or two fewer crunchy riffs, "Bad Worn Thing" would fall squarely in the realm of indie-pop. The closing title track could nearly be described as "pretty" if the overall sound weren't so cold.
That's not to say the band have gone completely soft, as they unleash on the album's centerpiece "Moreover". The riffs are pummeling, but unfortunately repetitive. Wire devotees will surely long for the raucous Brits that said what they had to say and got the hell out before overstaying their welcome, all while delivering unforgettable hooks. Suffice it to say, Red Barked Tree contains no "Ex-Lion Tamer" or "1 2 X U", not that that's a fair expectation. "Smash" is probably the closest thing to a memorable uptempo track on the album, with its buzzing guitars and smooth vocals evoking Husker Du circa Warehouse. Still, even it feels just a bit too long.
In recent years, a number of grizzled vets have proven their lasting relevance with stellar releases. Sonic Youth, Mission of Burma-- hell, even Killing Joke burst to life with a surprisingly blistering disc late last year-- come to mind. Credible though it is, Red Barked Tree rates a notch or so below those records, if for no other reason than none of it truly demands attention. When punk broke in Wire's early days, it seemed bent on setting fire to mainstream rock's desiccated corpse, leaving nothing behind but ashes and the putrid stench of decay. While they weren't exactly successful in their aim-- Kid Rock still makes, and inexplicably sells, records-- there are still bands carrying the torch today, and the shoe is precariously close to being on the other foot. Red Barked Tree isn't exactly a blemish on Wire's venerable career, but it's hardly a highlight.