In a way, it's a bit of a shame that the saxophone, as a totem, came to become irreconcilably tied to either sexy times or terminal hokiness - and frequently both. The instrument has been practically plagued, guilty by association with images of Rob Lowe wailing on one in St. Elmo's Fire, or inspiring PTSD in people who are still incapable of purging "Baker Street" from their minds. The ‘80s mercilessly laid waste to the saxophone's ability to be taken seriously in pop music. In modern music's capacity for balancing sincerity and irony, though, the saxophone has been reclaimed in service of recontextualizing the cheesiness of the ‘80s, though many choose to accentuate that cheesiness, not to eschew it.
Still, there are those out there who are committed to reminding you of some of the sax's other qualities: its ability to express menace, intrigue and squalor. On several songs, particularly "Lie Still, Little Bottle" and "(She Was A) Hotel Detective," They Might Be Giants used a baritone sax to add weight and smoky energy to songs about seedy characters. Morphine was defined by its use of sax, which was indispensable to their narcotic sound. Olympia experimental music icon Arrington de Dionyso's newest project, This Saxophone Kills Fascists, is a quartet made up entirely of the instrument, using their squelching tones for his free jazz freak-outs.
From the first few seconds of album opener "One Way," San Francisco four-piece Blank Square announce themselves as a band that uses the saxophone as a tool of disorientation. Their debut album, Animal I, is a jagged bit of post-punk that heavily embellishes itself with sleazy saxophone. Of the aforementioned bands, Blank Square most closely aligns itself with Morphine, but that narcotic haze is replaced with a nervous tic, with most songs carrying stuttering beats and confrontational guitars. While they're definitely working in concert, the members of Blank Square sometimes seem as if they're aurally jockeying for position, nearly shoving one another off the stage. The result is an electric sound that teeters on the edge of chaos, yet somehow always gets reigned in before the collapse occurs.
This is punk that packs enough melodic oomph into songs that the band feels comfortable deliberately f@#&*ing with the equilibrium; the foundation is sturdy enough to support their sonic fault shifts. Mostly, though, their songs play like a man sprinting away from an unseen threat, only to be barraged by obstacles. "Bangers," the second song on the album, is a chugging punk number that keeps getting knocked around by discordant stabs from guitar and sax.
Blank Square is made up of Justin Tomlin, Marisela Guizar, Evan Showalter, and Syam Zapalowski. This is a quartet that sounds full, immediate, at odds with the listener, challenging the audience to keep up and to fight back, like a punching bag that keeps striking you in the nose. You can fall back on your heels, or you can lean forward and give a little bit back. Regardless of how you respond, though, Blank Square remains solidly on the offensive, its saxophone squealing like a horn of war. By their nature, Blank Square aim to leave you disoriented. At a certain point, you can decide to fight back, or surrender: when it comes to the latter, you'll be giving yourself over to a punch-drunk night of swinging wildly and being given hazardous spins. As far as these things go, there are worse ways to go out than by being violently shaken by a punk band with a saxophonist.
And as for "Baker Street," let a bit of that ear-worm get scrubbed clean by the Brillo Pad of Blank Square's sonic assault.
Blank Square, w/ Marion Walker, La Rage, 8 p.m. Sunday, March 12, donations suggested, The Valley, 1206 Puyallup Ave., Tacoma, 253.248.4265, thevalleytacoma.com