The bridesmaid turns bride
Kid Congo Powers comes out of the shadows to celebrate the grit that was
For most of his career, Kid Congo Powers (né Brian Tristan) was a sideman, performing with some of the most influential bands of the past two decades. He began playing guitar in 1979, when a charismatic weirdo named Jeffrey Lee Pierce taught him a few tricks and inducted him into the Gun Club. By the late 1980, Powers had already left to join the Cramps, but some of the songs that he co-wrote wound up on the Gun Club’s seminal debut, Fire of Love. He was in the Cramps for four years and, perhaps more than any other member, defined the band’s sound, a slouching beast born of trashy horror flicks, sleazy rockabilly, and scabby garage. The title of the first album he made with them, Psychedelic Jungle, perfectly describes not only the Cramps in their finest hour but also (and this is no coincidence) Powers’ guitar style, a loose and lubricious open-tuned squall that split the difference between Chuck Berry and a feral cat. To call it “technique” is laughably inadequate: Technique can be taught, and Powers’ playing goes deeper than that — deeper, and, um, lower. Somehow this little Mexican-American kid from the suburbs of LA had stumbled upon the sonic equivalent of the primal scene.
After stints with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Congo Norvell, the Angels of Light, Kid & Khan, and the Knoxville Girls, among other projects, the longtime bridesmaid is finally a bride. Philosophy and Underwear, Kid Congo and the Pink Monkey Birds’ first album, finds Powers ably donning the frontman’s mantle on a dozen louche and lowdown originals. There’s “The Weather the War,” an apocalyptic duet with Little Annie that culminates in what sounds like a punk mantra: “It’s the weather, it’s the war/ I’m confused, I’m a whore.” With its squelchy synth squiggles and migraine-inducing beats, “Why Hurt Flesh” is nasty minimalist electro, whereas the instrumental suite “And the Evening Sun Turned Crimson” highlights Powers’ and fellow guitarist Jack Martin’s inventive fretwork, combining downtown skronk, tribal stomp, abrasive funk, and all manner of twanging turbulence.
Powers doesn’t really sing so much as talk, in a campy, declamatory snarl — sometimes he sounds like Vincent Price, sometimes like an S&M-shop parrot — but what this singsong oratory lacks in musicality it makes up in mood, conjuring a pre-lapsarian, pre-Giuliani, pre-Disney Times Square, where leather boys nod out in dirty alleyways and their needle-pocked girlfriends toil in peepshows. That filthy, fecund, glamorous New York — Lou Reed’s New York, Johnny Thunders’ New York — doesn’t exist anymore, a fact that Powers concedes in the rueful manifesto “Even Though Your Leather is Cliché . . . ,” which opens with a voluntary of fuzz and the scene-setting phrase “Your rent-controlled apartment off Tompkins Square.”
Of course it’s rent-controlled; who besides trust-fund jerks, movie stars, and investment bankers could afford to live in Manhattan otherwise? Yeah, it’s a fantasy, this racy, dangerous, rotten-apple New York, and the Kid is no dummy. He’d been around the block a few times before it got gentrified, and he knows the difference between the original and the appropriation, the real thing and the cliché. But here’s the beauty part: Instead of being all bitter and superior about it, as is the prerogative of first-wave scenesters (and one of the few consolations of middle age), he still takes pleasure in whatever residue remains: “Even though your leather is cliché,” he announces, “I like what it has to say anyway.” How could a stupid quarter-century tarnish his golden nonage? They call him the Kid for a reason.
Contact René Spencer Saller at firstname.lastname@example.org.