Like country and bluegrass and a host of other roots-based forms, punk music often bears the distinct imprint of whichever geographical locale produced it. Though they played the same circuits, the music produced by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys didn't sound anything like Hank Williams. Similarly, bands like Minor Threat (D.C.) and the Descendants (SoCal) emerged from radically different social strata, and their music reflected the varied realities of being a punk -- hell, just being -- in those places.
Which brings us, by fairly obvious if roundabout comparison, to Richmond, Virginia-based punk band Avail. Richmond, 135 years after the Civil War destroyed the old South, only shakily bears up under the title of the "last great Southern city," due to a host of municipal problems. Violent-crime rates, particularly murder, are consistently higher than the national average, the economy fluctuates wildly and the area's Confederate history remains a sore spot in community and race relations.
In previous studio releases on Lookout! Records, Avail constantly mined the historical and sociological geography from which they and their music emerged. On One Wrench, their first release on San Francisco's Fat Wreck Chords, the band continues that trend while moving in some other directions, trying on many lyrical and musical hats at once, and succeeding nearly every time.
Nile Theater in Phoenix
Tuesday, August 8, Showtime is 7 p.m.
With Dillinger Four, Leatherface, and the Distillers.
In a way, Avail's bouncing around among sonic styles and lyrical topics makes sense. These are Southern punks from an area rich in both urban and rural societies who can employ economic inequality as a metaphor for emotional damage (and vice versa) in a song like "Fast One," then pull off a play on the ancient country phrase "High Lonesome" for the title of a song about getting an uninvited visit from a former and now-alienated friend (a conceit that works on disc infinitely better than it reads).
Complementing the lyrical play, Avail's music on One Wrench is a tight mix of noise and craft; Joe Banks' aggressive guitar lines, Gwomper's fluid bass and new drummer Ed Trask's confident time-switches offer a lot more than simple three-maybe-four-chord backing for Tim Barry's barely controlled vocals. Avail's arrangements of angry songs like "Leveled" and "Old Dominion" are crafted pieces that slip easily and sensibly in and out of meters and tempos before a groove can settle comfortably. In short, there's enough talent on Avail's new disc to keep both the thrashers and the class warriors interested.
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"One wrench can break the machine," sings Barry optimistically on "N30," while conceding that "throughout Juárez and the panhandle/It takes one wrench to leave you crippled." These kinds of connections, e.g. the exploitation of indigenous populations to rural economic depression, are sadly lacking in contemporary punk. On One Wrench, Avail's growing lyrical strength is matched by its increasingly assured musical performance.