Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Grownup Music

In which Wide Right's working-class broad from the provinces expresses her arty side

Leah Archibald's favorite music quote comes from Andy Shernoff. "People like bands for the music," the Dictators' master theorist supposedly said. "But they love bands for the words." You can see the attraction of this idea for the leader of the Brooklyn-based, Buffalo-rooted Wide Right. "We are not players," she says of a band boasting Archibald's muscular, gung ho vocals and willing rhythm guitar, Brendan O'Malley's solid drums, Dave Rick's solider lead guitar, and whoever tags along to approximate the bass parts Rick devises on record. "You can't plug us into another situation and expect us to execute."

Not that Wide Right's "straight-up rock" is generic. For one thing, it doesn't aspire to the barroom boogie in which most straight-ups subsume their generic songwriting--it's sparer, the better to set off the words. But if songwriting means catchy tunes supporting well-observed lyrics with a p.o.v., as opposed to whatever formal tweaks indie aesthetes are into, then Wide Right are a band after Andy Shernoff's heart. No wonder he bought their eponymous 2003 debut on Poptop, where Archibald serves as president, production supervisor, and mail clerk.

Of the many lines I wish I could quote, let me isolate two that stick out, one from Wide Right and one from Sleeping on the Couch, available now at widerightmusic.com or June 22 at their Southpaw release party. From "400 Miles," about driving to Buffalo to "grownup music" with the kids finally asleep: "A Diet Coke and one more salty snack." From "Flicker Film," about a Fluxus freeloader Archibald kicks off her couch: "Let the narrative decay." To me, these sharp details imply a redolent contradiction. Archibald presents herself as a working-class broad from the provinces, a Bills fan given to vulgar pleasures she knows too well: fish fries, firemen's fairs, lots of beer, and "a Midwestern guy/Who plays guitar and wears his hair in his eyes." But she's no folk artist; she has an arty side. So occasionally there'll be one about Vincent Gallo's pores or a pretentious has-been "on tenured life support" who'll steal your cough medicine while you're at work. Need I add that in none does the narrative decay?

On the F train to dinner at Archibald's house, I remembered the three shows I'd caught and pictured something like this: tastes run classic rock, met a few avant-gardists at SUNY Buffalo, moved here for the music's sake around 2000, mid-level computer professional, two kids, husband . . . the real breadwinner? an average joe? what did "Why can't a Ph.D. find his own shoes" mean? As I mounted the stoop of a Park Slope attached beyond the brownstone zone, the vinyl siding struck me as a homey touch.

I was right about the kids--though I obviously didn't know that eight-year-old Kira spent a year in a cancer ward, which means among other things that Archibald will always need good medical--and wrong about everything else except the straight-up half of this Drive-By Truckers fan's tastes. Archibald, who will turn 40 five days after her release party, studied sound recording at Michigan State and after graduation returned home to become a secretary, just as her Irish cop dad if not her Jewish school secretary mom had figured--only soon she was making better money selling fragrances on commission at a now defunct department store. Cosmetics would be a career path for Archibald, who left her dying rust belt hometown way back in 1988 and has been describing it from memory ever since, migrating first to D.C. and then L.A. as her spouse, SUNY Buffalo alumnus Dave McBride, earned his doctorate in American history. But increasingly her income came from jobs in politics, including an excellent one as de facto chief of staff for a councilman in West Hollywood. The family settled in Brooklyn in 1998. McBride is an editor at Routledge, and Archibald, who now has a New School M.A. in public policy, is marketing manager of the Industrial & Technology Assistance Corporation, which generates industry in New York City. That comes before music. "My self-image is tied to what I do professionally. I'm working for the cause. I'm a very competent voice for working-class jobs in the city."

One Spouse to Another: Put Your Dishrag Down, Don't Be So Goddam Boring

Wide Right
Sleeping on the Couch
Poptop
Sleeping on the Couch kicks off with a rock and roll genderfuck unlike any other. Keyed to a jumpy handclap chorus, it's called "Dishrag," and since a woman is singing, it leaves open the question of who's stuck in the kitchen and who's in front of the tube watching the Bills with romantic plans for later--probably still some jerk of a husband, only as the album goes on it's the wife who hates her boss and eyes the guitarist and won't say who's she been with. Of course, it's also the wife who got hit on and then fired at the gas station at 15 and was late to work yesterday dealing with her kid's "issues." And it's also the wife who looks askance at two academic wastrels and an out-of-work actor in a purple Speedo making excuses to his mother on the phone. You want a formal analogy, King Missile isn't altogether crazy--only there's nothing in the band's firm settings or Archibald's straightforward tone of voice that hints at John S. Hall's hip disdain. Not that Archibald is without disdain of her own--far from it. She's angry. But she keeps it under control and makes it sound like common sense. That's her musical achievement.

Wide Right Songs About Marriage and Kids for People Who Read

"ROYANNE"

8:45, I'm late for work
She's trying to make me feel like a jerk
Crammed into this teeny chair
To determine why my son won't share
She thinks that he has issues
She's hoping I can give her some clues
Slowly nodding her head with a saccharine smile
Urging me to do what's best for my child
Oh Royanne, Oh Royanne
I really think that you don't understand
Ten after 9, I'm still trying to go
She thinks I shouldn't work outside of the home
Would his behavior improve for real
If I couldn't pay my monthly bills?

"LAWS OF GRAVITY"

I'm parked in beltway traffic
Coming home from my job at the store
My legs and feet are aching
From nine hours on a terrazzo floor
A flattened PBJ sandwich on Safeway's discounted bread
Tides me over till this jam clears
And my rusty car can pull ahead
Daddy said I should stay home, maybe take the civil service test
Get a job with the city, something safe with good benefits
I thought I was too smart for that, that I would do better if I leave
You got to work twice as hard to try to defy the laws of gravity
I got fired from my first job when I was 15 years old
Working at the gas station, mechanics hitting on me in the cold
Mentioned it to the manager, next week my name was off the wall
Didn't know what else to do, so I found a job at the mall
My sister works in a steel mill, her boyfriend works on the line
I came down here to make my mark but I think I'm just wasting my time
Sucks when you're there, then it sucks you back, the suction never seems to stop
Another beans and rice dinner, another shitty service job

Village Voice, May 31, 2005