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Exposing one genre tag's expired plates 

Among bands that have been said to play garage rock, few wear the label proudly. But The Clash did. The perennial signifier of rock 'n' roll righteousness closed their 1977 debut with "Garageland," whose stark declaration—"We're a garage band/ We come from garageland"—feels like the thesis of an unwritten manifesto, pitting the clueless corporate rock world against The Clash's inclusive, working-class anthems. "I don't wanna hear about what the rich are doing," Joe Strummer sang. "I don't wanna go to where the rich are going."

But one wonders if, now a half-century after The Sonics gave us a taste for strychnine and more than 30 years after The Clash's garageland flag-waving, maybe the garage is a bit too crowded. Garage rock is many things to many people. Perhaps it's defined by its spirit and swagger, or its celebration of simple pleasures or embrace of a low budget and lower fidelity. Its primitivism strikes some as rock's undiluted essence; to others, it's petulant regression. And like its closest cousin, punk, the definition's exceptions threaten to render the term almost meaningless.

"Garage rock has historically been music that has been a reaction to the state of popular music," says Petey Dammit, guitarist in the San Francisco rock conglomerate Thee Oh Sees. "From the early days of The Sonics, you had kids making incredible music with no label money (and sometimes little talent) that was practically punk rock 10 years and more before its birth."

Thee Oh Sees have rarely run parallel to pop trends. But as they've added more lysergic Acid Test psych-rock and heavy krautrock grooves to their jangly guitars and yelped vocals, they've also grown in popularity. "I don't know what our music is, so I guess if you want to call it garage rock you can," Dammit concludes. "It's a word and nothing more. Who cares?"

For one, Rich Ivey, frontman of the Raleigh-based Whatever Brains, a band consistently dogged by the tag.

"[Garage rock] is all about in the moment," he says. "You can write a song in two minutes and play it and beat your head against the wall and have the best time ever, which is great. You need that. I'm not trying to do that at all."

Whatever Brains are decidedly, and vocally, not a garage rock band, though they've frequently been marked as such. To Ivey, the distinction is a matter of intention and premeditation. His band has grown increasingly more complicated musically, tangling barbed guitars into buzzing keys and jagged rhythms as Ivey sings snide social critiques. It's urgent music, but it's far from brainless. Garage rock is meant to be fun, but Whatever Brains isn't intended that way.

"A lot of times people go, 'It's kind of piss-off, whatever, I don't give a shit,'" Ivey admits. "I give a big shit. I can't sit down and write three-chord songs and write words in two seconds and be done. It's all very thought-out, which can be either good or bad."

Saturday night at Hopscotch, Whatever Brains headline a five-band bill that they curated. The slate fully inhabits the gray zone where rock 'n' roll efficiency, artistic ambition and cross-genre mutation overlap. The Spits sound a bit like Devo and a lot like Ramones and release records on historically garage-centric labels like Slovenly and In The Red. The Charlotte punks in Joint D≠ relish their hardcore roots but play with an anxious post-punk energy and trebly garage-inflected tones. Winston-Salem's Burglar Fucker corral chaotic guitar and sax skronk into deep grooves. Detroit's Frustrations are perfectly suited for the bill's middle, as their sound cuts between dark post-punk clangor and Motor City rock muscle.

According to drummer Scott Dunkerley, that latter aspect tends to draw the most notice: "It's more just the lazy reviewer being like, 'Oh, it's a rock band from Detroit. They must sound like The Dirtbombs.'"

What Frustrations do has more to do with The Birthday Party's stressed-out scuzz than the Oblivians' turbo-charge rhythm 'n' blues; what Whatever Brains do has more to do with the bitter, wiry sound of The Fall than the groove-oriented swagger of The Dirtbombs.

Even artists who are more comfortable with the idea of being called garage rock find the term lacking: Montgomery Morris leads the rowdy trio Flesh Wounds. He doesn't deny the lineage.

"It was music that was influenced by the British Invasion, which was in turn inspired by the 1950s, 1960s R&B from the United States," he says. "So it's basically a lot of white kids that was one or two or three or four steps away from this raw, ecstatic black music, just doing their best at it."

That's his inspiration, at least; his favorite band is the North Carolina outfit The 5 Royales, who meshed the slithering twang of rockabilly to vocal-group R&B in the early '50s. Flesh Wounds inject a reckless punk-rock momentum, but they don't exactly kill their idols, either.

"A lot of the bands I really like have an attitude that's more about having fun," Morris says. The 5 Royales embodied this idea. "All those songs are taking life with a certain sense of humor, which I can really appreciate. You can either cry about life or you can laugh about it."

As much as such a lighthearted approach can signal a near-ecstatic, hedonistic joie de vivre, garage rock can also signal a regressive primitivism or dumbed-down, sloppy amateurism. The Clash's "Garageland" was, in fact, a response to such a critique by British critic Charles Murray.

Still, there's a lasting charm in what Pete Menchetti, the owner of Slovenly Recordings, calls "Cheap music made by cheap people having fun in garages and basements. Budget rock." He should know: Even as Slovenly's embraced the caterwauling pigfuck of Gay Anniversary or the psychobilly of The Anomalys, it's mostly staked its reputation on what most call garage rock. Paint Fumes, for example, formed semi-famously on the whim of frontman Elijah Von Cramon. Two years ago he decided to buy a guitar and start a band; now he's touring internationally with a forthcoming LP debut, Uck Life, slated for a November release and a Slovenly stamp.

But they're what garage rock is about. Otherwise, the term uniting these bands has been stretched and misshapen to fit the kicking-and-screaming outliers. Even for a thoroughbred garage rocker, the classification struggles to keep up.

That is, garageland's burning.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Multi-car garage."

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