I was going to write something about this being “conceptually perfect,” but that feels a bit disparaging — it’s a tribute act, and it’s obviously important that a tribute act get their ideas right — but there’s a lot more thought gone into this than just “women playing the Monks called the Nuns! Brilliant.”But I’m going to come back to the actual record in a second. It’s a tribute record, so it makes sense to natter about the Monks first. I first picked up Five Upstart Americans on the basis that the blurb described them as “the anti-Beatles.” Which is, if nothing else, the right reason to buy a record. I’ve often failed to be impressed by that sort of digging mentality of ‘”the proto-” [x] thing — Nuggets is all well and good but never quite swung it for me in toto. An awful lot of first-wave musique concrète isn’t that grand. White Noise, Morton Subotnik — I know they’re great, but it just doesn’t gel. I think the thing that got me about the Monks is that they were playing hard, but somehow closer to a jazz sense of playing hard than a simulating violence way. But with a verticality to it, rather than the horizontality of long solos. Perhaps this is a bit over-egging things, but the use of the “Tiger Rag” motif (a jazz standard from forever ago) in “Hushie Pushie “makes me wonder if they weren’t crazed GIs stranded auf Deutschland but consummate musos. Which, with their pretty heavy playing schedules doesn’t seem unlikely. If you get the chance, it’s well worth catching the film about them, Transatlantic Feedback — sad, beautiful, inspiring and lends them so much more depth than just “lost classic.”
So what is it that makes a tribute record not hokey and turd? For me, there’s two options — doing something outrageously disingenuous (see here), with a caveat — the danger of going too far pushes it into irony territory (Soft Pink Truth covering black metal just doesn’t quite work for me, except conceptually, which is sad because he’s FAB otherwise). The other option is to have enough affection for the band without falling into fetishism. Which is where Ye* Nuns come in.But of course the problem is that this is a review of two bands, right? So they couldn’t really fail with the material. But then how do you invest enough into a record without falling into slavish facsimilism? Maybe it’s just a laugh? It certainly is a laugh. The recording’s gorgeous — garage-rough but never tipping into pale lo-fi-ness. There’s a lot of instruments on here (more than on the Monks’ originals) and there’s enough space to keep it all together. The group vocals seem just close enough to be considered but never choral-anal. At the risk of getting into a dodgy side of recording fetishism (yeah, who am I kidding there?), the drumskins are just a smidge looser-tuned than the Monks’, which lends the record some good thuddy proto-disco vibes.
Standout track is their cover of “Pretty Suzanne” — which sits squarely between the additional lyrics of the posthumous 2007 single version and the tempo of the Five Upstart Americans version — but delivered with a sort of conflicted tension absent from either of Gary Burger‘s deliveries. While I’m on that, I should say that the re-imagining of the Monks output is pretty smart — a straight-up, track-for-track rendition of Black Monk Time would’ve been simple as, but they’ve taken the time to pull out the songs from across the limited canon and stick them in a different order — not merely BMT masque/replica.I’m trying to think of any other tribute bands that are any cop, and there’s aren’t any, are there? So yeah, what’s to compare this with — I’m kind of discounting the Silver Monk Time tribute (not really my bag) and I’m left with The Fall’s Monks covers. Which are, outstanding, obviously, but The Fall’s remit with any cover is always to bring the song into The Fall (see “I’m a Mummy” and original). Ye Nuns are kind of sitting between orthodoxy and sacrilege and doing a holy good job of it (SORRY). Little touches make this a record worth getting for the Monks fan (and doubly so if not) — the bass presence on “Oh How To Do Now,” the passing of little noisey solos between vocal phrases. Stuff that doesn’t jump out immediately but makes it worth going back to. Yeah.
If you buy one record by a tribute band this lifetime, best make it this one eh?
*NB: “Ye” is pronounced “The”.