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Boxcar Satan: (from left) Ken Robinson, Sanford Allen, and Patrick Sane (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

Local underground heroes dish out another serving of rowdy nihilism

For almost a decade, one band has reigned as an indisputable local music scene staple, beloved by crusty punks and egghead aesthetes alike. OK, OK ... one band besides the Sons of Hercules. They call themselves Boxcar Satan, the thinking man's Jesus Lizard - a rowdy, borderline nihilistic sound experiment that rakes the coals of post-punk with a strangely literate blues sensibility.

By self-definition (which, by nature, is part truth and part mythic sound bite), they are the original Delta-blues deconstructionists, hell-bent on delivering a heady alternative to the pure balls-to-the-wall bent of your average Southern alternative outfit.

But how exactly does a band go about deconstructing the blues? In this case, I'd have to say the answer is sheer desire - a desire to tear apart the tidy theoretical structure of 20th century popular music, extract the choice bits, and from them construct an accessible yet craggy leaning-tower-of-weird.

Upstanding and Indigent, Boxcar Satan's third full-length release to date, hit the streets just a few short weeks ago, released on Bob Dog Catlin's DogFingers Recordings imprint. On this new disc, musical inferences reign free and pat conclusions are artfully avoided. Alternating tracks evoke influences as scattered as the Birthday Party, Blind Wille Johnson, Captain Beefheart, and Screamin' Jay Hawkins - all the while miraculously avoiding the pitfalls of pure mimicry and derivation.

Boxcar's current lineup is Sanford Allen on guitar and vocals, Pat Sane on bass, and Ken Robinson on drums. Much like the music he makes, Allen is a paradox. In conversation, his voice retains the snarl of a young punk, but don't let that fool you. A serious business reporter at the Express-News by day, he is at night, well, a rather different spectacle to behold. Allen maintains a delicate balance between his solar and lunar personas - a balance without which someone of his intensity (by his own, albeit sarcastic, admission) might end up a modern-day Charles Whitman.

Allen and Sane are founding members, though Sane spent years on sabbatical, replaced by the phenomenal four-string stylings of Danny Stipp. Allen and Sane's relationship dates back to their days in the Evil Mothers, a band regarded by many as a highly influential link in the post-punk/ industrial chain of underground bands, ranked alongside Pigface, Crash Worship, and similarly apocalyptic ensembles.

Upstanding and indigent
Boxcar Satan
(DogFingers Recordings)
According to Allen, that status, however, has done little in building Boxcar's current audience, both locally and on the road. "Evil Mothers," he ponders. "Hmmm. Strange, but it's not exactly a currency we can trade with. When Pat rejoined the band, we tried to play that angle up, but I don't think the typical post-industrial, Invisible Records scenester is whom we end up playing to. We've ended up playing to - and appealing to - a much different crowd."

Robinson recently replaced Mikey Jam as Boxcar's drummer, a move that according to Allen audibly cambers the band's timbre. "Mikey is a very seat-of-the-pants kind of player," he says. "He doesn't intellectualize music at all, whereas Ken tends to constantly analyze it, take it apart, and put it back together. Mikey is an incredibly intuitive musician and Ken is very methodical. That is a principle difference, but I do enjoy both approaches."

Boxcar recently returned from a tour, and plans to hit the road again next year to support Upstanding. Among their three records, Allen expresses more satisfaction with this release than anything the band has put out before. The recording strikes a mature balance between the raw sound of their first release, Days Before the Flood on Compulsive Records - and their studio-heavy sophomore effort, Crooked Mile March (DogFingers). And beyond the raucous pleasures of the band's music, it's gratifying to see Sanford Allen pleased and not doing his best Charles Whitman impression from atop the Tower of the Americas. •

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March 25, 2020


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