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American dreamers

Tree think positively and play loudly

by Carly Carioli

Some lowbrow philosophers have suggested of late that punk and hardcore constitute a postmodern folk music for indigenous suburbanites. And certainly Tree would concur; it's a connection they make explicit by closing their new album, Downsizing the American Dream (CherryDisc), with a traditional (for hardcore, at least) oi! arrangement of Woodie Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."

The song is both a declaration of their identity within the hardcore world and a gesture expressing their allegiance to traditions much older. But in watching Tree over the two years leading up to Downsizing, it seems what draws people to the band isn't so much an allegiance to the social-protest causes they have championed. In playing to the crowds at this year's MassCann rally and this summer's WBCN River Rave, both of which numbered in the thousands and included plenty of people (including cops) who may never give a shit about trees or whales or elephants or the Industrial Workers of the World or even hardcore, what won the masses over was the Big Beat.

In the years since Helmet's Meantime restacked hardcore's rhythmic vertebrae, the characteristic of metallic hardcore most overlooked has been that it is, essentially, white suburban dance music. Although there are plenty of people who'd rather not admit it, slamming isn't just a form of dancing -- it's probably the most popular dance that white-boy booty engages in after the macarena. And inasmuch as it's the Beat that drives Tree, the music they make is to roots hardcore what early-'70s hard funk was to rhythm and blues: stripped down to its barest elements, then streamlined and amplified, a message with a beat you can dance to.

In Rock and Roll: An Unruly History, musicologist Robert Palmer describes a trend that started with Bo Diddley in the '50s and defined black music up to and including hip-hop: "the tendency . . . for every instrument to become a rhythm instrument," in which "one song is differentiated from another not so much by melody . . . as by the particular character and content of its rhythmic organization and rhythmic wordplay." Hard-driving protest funk in the form of James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic "was inherently radical: It transformed a music that had emphasized the groove and message into a music that was all groove and message." And that's a pretty good description of the direction metallic hardcore (from Sick of It All and Biohazard to downset, Honkeyball, and legions of lesser-known members of the New York/Boston hardcore axis) has taken in the past decade. It's those same tendencies toward radical rhythm that have given the music a natural allegiance with hip-hop.

Tree's contribution has been not so much in innovation as in refinement: boiling down the rhythmic properties inherent in hardcore into tight, three-minute, bare-knuckle bursts. If former James Brown road manager Alan Leeds foreshadowed rap when he described the Godfather as "playing drums with his larynx," he also foretold a key ingredient of hardcore (dating back to Bad Brains and Minor Threat). And by its atonal nature, hardcore guitar -- which relies not on melody but on incremental variations on a simple riff or even a single chord -- is heavily rhythmic. But rarely have those elements found themselves more in harmony -- fused into such a savagely pulsating whole -- than on "Question Abuse" (from Tree's 1993 debut, A Lot To Fear), "Not Afraid" (from 1995's Plant a Tree or Die), or "X-Communicated" and much of Downsizing (all three on CherryDisc).

Even at its fiercest, Tree's playing is eminently simplistic -- sometimes a matter of alternating roughly from one chord to another (or even, at the beginning of Downsizing's "Same Old Song Remains the Same," just hammering away at a single note), the most basic means of song propulsion. But as elementary as they seem, "Same Old Song" and "Homefront" display a superior, instinctive feel for danceable/slammable rhythms, and the ability to support the groove with every riff and syllable. There's a point at which Dave Conley's rabid, syncopated growls cut a cross-current through guitarist Uzi's slugging jackknife chords and they click with Billy Hinkley's propulsive backbeat into a polyrhythmic synergy, a resonance you can feel in your bones that demands movement -- whether it be dancing down front or polite head bobbing on the outskirts of the mayhem. In a word, it rocks.

That's why even from 50 yards away through a crappy PA, even when the riffs are obscured by distortion and the vocals come through only as someone "playing drums with his larynx," Tree are still able to communicate; the Beat goes on. "We have a reputation for appealing to people who say they don't like metal and hardcore," Conley said, checking in from the CherryDisc offices (completely unsolicited, I might add), to talk about the record. "We've always had a hard time getting punk-rock kids to give us respect. They think we're too metallic or something."

If the subjects on Downsizing are mostly the standard hardcore repertoire -- railing against environmental decline, right-wing politicians, religion, and cops -- it's because their protests are as much about building community through a set of shared concerns as they are about open revolution. Unlike the negations of punk's first generation -- but much like the protests found in funk and folk -- Tree seek a redress of grievances within the system rather than call the very legitimacy of that system into question. The subtext of the album is Conley's search for identity, as he tries on various guises -- environmentalist, folkie, even a Wobbly on "Homefront" (in conversation he'll elaborate on the evil of NAFTA and the need for unskilled labor to unionize) -- to see whether any of them fit.

That search for a unifying identity makes Downsizing more accessible than perhaps even the band realize, and their choice of an album title turns out to be quite timely -- CNN ran a special on the decline of working-class wages just last weekend titled, ironically enough, "Downsizing the Dream." It's a scenario reflected in Conley's experience: a freshman-year high-school dropout who sought to educate himself by reading the American history the teachers didn't teach, a series of unfulfilling odd jobs from camp counselor to draining sewers at a mall, a short-lived stint as an artist put on hold by his punk-rock duties. (East Boston gallery owner Michael Beauchemin swears by Conley's photo-and-found-object collage work; one of his photos appears on an upcoming Tree/Mung split single.)

"I wanted to become a archaeologist, I wanted to be a photojournalist, I wanted to dig for truth," Conley says. "Fuck high school, fuck teachers -- the kids don't listen to those motherfuckers, they listen to us, the people who rock, and we gotta tell 'em to educate themselves because education is your only weapon against oppression."

Tree on record
  • "Don't Chop Me Down" on the Rock for Wood compilation (Monolyth, 1992).

  • A Lot To Fear (CherryDisc, 1993).

  • Plant a Tree or Die (CherryDisc, 1995). CD recorded in late '93 but not released for more than a year.

  • Try Harder Every Day (CherryDisc, 1995). EP including material from previous two albums.

  • "Homefront" b/w "Arm the Homeless" (Man's Ruin, 1995). Seven-inch single with Frank Kozik screen cover.

  • Downsizing the American Dream (CherryDisc, 1996). CD/LP.

  • "Evicted" b/w "Dope" (Hatin' Life Records, 1996). Split 7-inch single with Mung; each outfit sings back-up and does guitar solos on the other's track.

  • "This Land Is Your Land"/"Stands Alone" b/w "God Grows Grass" (Man's Ruin, October 1996). Seven-inch single with Frank Kozik screen cover.