When punk rock reared its ugly, Mohawk-emblazoned head in the late 1970’s, Wire was right there in the thick of things. Their debut album Pink Flag still remains near the top of many “best of” lists for punk albums, chock full of angst-ridden, amphetamine-poppin’ tunes that represented the onslaught of British punk music at the time.
Throughout the course of their albums, Wire began to wander into more avant garde territory, slowly straying away from the traditional sound of hard punk found on their first album and moving into more of an untried and multi-directional realm as their releases unfolded. Their latest effort, Red Barked Tree, has very little of that late 70’s punk anxiety but still manages to come across as a great collection of rock and “semi-punk” infused songs.
All of Wire’s songs on Red Barked Tree carry a distinct persona—an undeviating sound that is solid, well-played and charismatic. The guitar work is exhilarating, the bass lines are well placed and effective, and the drumming carries the music forward with ease and fluidity. Album open “Please Take” sparkles with a musical amiability that hits home immediately. Sure, there’s an obvious mocking of Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry in the vocals, but putting that distraction aside, it plays out to be a formidable opening cut.
“Two Minutes” is one of the tracks that puts them closest to their inaugural sound; a reminder of what British punk once was, complete with grinding, rust-colored guitar playing, straight-ahead drum banging, and overly accentuated (but effective) English inflection.
“Bad Worn Thing” is a see-saw, drum-and -bass lead tune done in a familiar time signature, while “Moreover,” in contrast, is a dirty and crunching yet directional bit of lyrical yaps that somehow surfaces with appeal. “Smash” could quite easily be a radio hit, reflecting over a dozen or so bands that emanate the same sound—think Brian Eno, a rockier Joy Division or even a bit of The Soft Boys.
The album’s closer and title track, “Red Barked Tree,” can’t escape inevitable Beatles comparisons—the song streams along on a trippy, psychedelic backdrop reminiscent of the Sgt. Pepper’s era, and bubbles along with a drug infused ’60s-styled air. While it doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of songs, it does make for a refreshing, and memorable closer.
Wire has definitely grown up since their heyday, but they haven’t grown “out” of making intelligent and diverse rock. They have undeniably altered their sound to a more commercial feel, and even their core punk fervor has been rounded off at the ends. But the band did it right—they left just enough of their original sound in their music, mixed it with a few odd musical angles, and came out with a pretty decent set of rockish punk (or is that punkish rock?) songs.