Spending the whole goddamn day in bed.

Remember Third Eye Blind? Yeah, the "Semi-Charmed Life" band. I wasn't any more into that song than anyone else, and I thought the followup single, "How's It Gonna Be", was even worse. It took until the third single from their first album, "Jumper", before I really got into them at all, and then I never really heard anything else by them, and just kinda forgot about them completely. That was true for a few years, until a girl I was dating put their song "God of Wine" onto a mix CD she made for me. This was the summer of 2002, and I had one particular sleepless night where I stayed up for three hours listening to that song on repeat. It wasn't that much like any of the songs I'd heard before by Third Eye Blind, being a much more guitar based rock song. It was slow but not a ballad, and got loud on the choruses in a way that cut right through me. I was moved, which wasn't something I'd expected. It made me wonder what else Third Eye Blind had to offer.

It took until just this past week before I ever found out, though. After I quit listening to that mix CD, I didn't think about them all that much. Then a message board I read constantly (and am starting to mention pretty regularly in this blog) had a thread about 90s alternative rock, in which several people sang the praises of Third Eye Blind, their first album in particular. Some felt that they'd never done another good album, while others appreciated their second album but thought the third one was bad, but all agreed on the quality of the first one. I finally broke down and obtained a copy. At first I didn't really listen to any of the songs but "God of Wine", but I finally played the whole thing a couple days ago while cleaning my room, and I loved it. I've been listening to it constantly ever since.

"God of Wine" is the last song on the album, and I expected it to be the best, but it's actually rivaled by the opening track, "Losing A Whole Year". This song gives us a more uptempo version of what "God of Wine" already accomplished, creating a catchy rock song with the slightly sad sound that I associate with minor chords. The chorus is based around the line "I remember when we used to spend the whole goddamn day in bed", which makes me think of the honeymoon period at the beginning of relationships, when nothing seems as important as spending time with one's new love interest. It never lasts, though, and this song takes place at the end of a relationship. The narrator laments the changes his girlfriend has gone through, feels that she's less real now than when they started dating, and wonders if he even wants to continue bothering to keep up the relationship. The lyrical sentiment is not too far from Avril Lavigne's "Complicated", but with the crucial difference that Stephen Jenkins' lyrics are well-written and evocative, instead of riddled with cliches like Lavigne's. The idea of "losing a whole year" because the work he's put into a relationship has turned out to be wasted effort is something we've all felt at one point or another.

There are a bunch of other really good songs on the album too. "Narcolepsy" and "Graduate" are both guitar-driven rockers that use distortion to add weight to the melodies on display. "London" is faster than anything else here, almost punkish, and quite enjoyable. The album lags towards the middle, but if anything I think this is a result of it having too many songs. There are 14, it's almost an hour long, and tracks 7 through 9 are all very similar. If two of those songs had been left as B-sides, it probably would have helped album flow. But that's not a major problem.

I had wondered if "Semi-Charmed Life" would sound better, more natural, in the context of the entire album, but I still find it kind of annoying, and it definitely sticks out like a sore thumb. The production used on that song is very different from that on the rest of the album, with drum machine beats augmenting the real drums, and a completely different (much wimpier) guitar tone used through most of the song. What I keep imagining when I hear this song in the context of the entire album is a record company higher-up saying, "This is the single, so let's go back in the studio and beef it up." It could have been a really good song if they'd left it alone, but as it is it's well on the way to being ruined. "How's It Gonna Be" is still every bit as bad as I remember it being, too, but it sounds less like the result of studio trickery and more like a band attempt to write a song that would play well on the radio. Where "Semi-Charmed Life" seems built around the core of an honest attempt at writing a good song, "How's It Gonna Be" doesn't seem like it ever had any honesty to it at all, seems like a song with its genesis in rational thought and not feelings. This is probably why I hate it the most of anything on the album.

One thing I will give Third Eye Blind: even when their music is lackluster, the lyrics are always interesting and well-written. I used to hate "Semi-Charmed Life" most of all for its lyrics, with their unflinching and seemingly positive portrayal of crystal meth usage (it was funny to me how it took six months of radio play before the stations in my town woke up enough to bleep out the name of the drug). There are some brilliant lines in that song, though; I really can't fuck with "the four right chords can make me cry". Additionally, the fate of the meth-addicted girl, the one who said "I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed life" in that song's lyrics, does not seem promising. I may be reading too much into the parallels between different songs on this record, but I get the sense that a lot of these songs are the story of the same couple. If this is the case, it gives added weight to the last three songs, which (other than "Losing A Whole Year") are my three favorite songs on the album anyway.

This trilogy begins with "The Background", a song about the aftermath of a relationship, long enough after the breakup that the former couple aren't talking to each other anymore, but soon enough that the male protagonist still walks around thinking of his ex all the time. "The plans I make still have you in them," he says, as he talks about the guys at the liquor store asking where the girl he used to get drunk and fight with is. There's an ominous note, especially when considered in light of all the talk of drugs that permeates the earlier tracks on the album, when he says "I don't see you anymore, since the hospital." Is the girl dead? This song isn't saying. It seems obvious that the drug problems got so bad that she ended up with health problems, and this was enough to drive him away. He still misses her, though, and this is reflected in the downbeat, emotional sound of the song, which replaces the schmaltz of "How's It Gonna Be" with riffs that really do convey a feeling.

The next song, "Motorcycle Drive-By", is still quiet and slow, at least at the beginning, but seems much more hopeful. This is a song that talks about a moment at the end of a relationship that one doesn't see mentioned in song too often; the times you hang out with your ex a few months after you've broken up and you still don't know how to act like friends and not lovers. The narrator of the song obviously still feels very strongly about his ex, but he's trying to move on. "We'll be friends again, and I'll get over you," he promises her. The fact that elsewhere, he says of her, "Careening through the universe, your axis on a tilt, you’re guiltless and free. I hope you take a piece of me with you," makes the listener wonder how easy it'll be for him to keep his promise... but we all know how that goes. It's always hard.

Finally, we have "God of Wine". This song is still just as awesome musically as it always was, but the lyrics are even more affecting in the context of the rest of the album. If "Motorcycle Drive-By" represented hope for the former lovers to become friends after some time has passed, "God of Wine" is the flip side of this hope, the narrator's sincere worry at what will become of his former girlfriend. She's survived the hospital, but if the meth is out of her life the wine is definitely not. The narrator's still trying to be there for her, but as we all know, once one is no longer playing the role of significant other, one's capacity to be there for people is significantly reduced, and even trying to be there can get awkward. He's still trying, but he knows it's futile. "I see you searching for something I could never give you", he says, then follows that with an even harder realization: "There's someone who understands you more than I do." This is the note on which we leave the entire album; a feeling of hope for the one you still care about, overlaid by a greater feeling of failure, of having tried to help in vain. The cumulative effect of these last three songs is positively crushing. It always feels good to identify with songs about emotional pain, to know that at least you're not alone, but at the same time it can feel like the worst thing ever.

This is how life has been for me lately, though. Bad feelings are lingering from relationships I thought I'd be over by now, and new friendships that I thought would last are already souring. I'm uncomfortable with admitting just how much of it's my fault, but it's true. I've been playing this album a lot, not even skipping the few songs on it I can't stand. Even "How's It Gonna Be" has a little bit of catharsis to provide for me. The last three have a ton.

Maybe I'll feel better tomorrow.


Buffalo Tom.

Sorry I missed a couple of days, I went home to my parents' house for Thanksgiving. Trying to write while I'm at my parents' house is often more trouble than it's worth; the only place I can really compose (in any way other than longhand, which really just doesn't work for me) is right in the middle of the den, where they sit and watch television constantly. I can't function with that kind of distraction.

Whenever I go back to my parents' house, I find myself wanting to listen to Buffalo Tom. They were one of my favorite bands back when I was in high school, and driving through the hills and fields of rural Virginia, around my parents' house, never fails to get their songs stuck in my head. Even without all of the memories I have of driving around that area back when I still lived there, listening to Buffalo Tom tapes, their music is naturally evocative of that sort of setting anyway. I guess you could call it heartland rock, though that's not all there is to them.

Most of the bands that I'd put on a list of my favorites ever are bands that almost everyone has heard, and has an opinion on. There are a few, though, that despite my personal love for them, have almost completely been forgotten by the world at large. Buffalo Tom is one of those. When I mention them, if anyone I'm talking to remembers them, it is almost always because they were featured on an episode of "My So-Called Life". In fact, a lot of people think they were a band that the writers of that show made up. So much for that particular PR gambit... not that it matters now.

I have no idea why Buffalo Tom have disappeared so completely from the minds of so many. A lot of their CDs are available at used CD stores for $5 or less, and they're worth every penny they'd cost you and a good bit more besides. They're easily written off by people who've never actually heard them as third rate also-rans of the early 90s alternative rock movement, but they had so much more going on than that. I hear echoes of what they were doing in such diverse places as early Uncle Tupelo, Dinosaur Jr, and Ordination of Aaron (the only hardcore band I've ever heard who could be described as sounding pastoral). The Dinosaur Jr echoes are understandable, considering J Mascis was their earliest proponent, and produced their SST debut. A few overt Dinosaur touches showed up on this album, most notably the lead guitar on "Impossible", which was played by J Mascis and mixed extremely loud. This might have been a pure ego move on the part of Buffalo Tom's producer, but even if so it works really well, adding a note of discord to what is otherwise just a straight up rock song, albeit an incredibly catchy one. This was always Buffalo Tom's biggest strength; they weren't breaking any new ground by any stretch, but they wrote incredibly catchy songs.

They did this with varying amounts of success on their first album; "Impossible" and "Sunflower Suit" were highlights, but there were also duds on display, such as "500,000 Warnings." Their second album, "Birdbrain", was when they came into their own, and it started on the chorus to the opening title track. This was the first Buffalo Tom song I ever heard, when the video was played on MTV's "120 Minutes" sometime in 1990. I was already into it before the chorus hit, but when it did, I was nearly knocked out of my chair. The idea that a guitar driven rock band could flawlessly integrate the kind of pure pop hook that this chorus was based around into their sound was completely new to me, and I couldn't get over how great it was. This began my love affair with Buffalo Tom's music.

Things got more intense on their third album, "Let Me Come Over". Now, in addition to mixing pop hooks with crunching rock guitars and a pounding rhythm section, guitarist/vocalist Bill Janovitz was finding ways, through lyrics as well as music, to make the kind of emotionally evocative music that has always touched me on the deepest levels. I was still a bit fuzzy on how possible this sort of integration even was, so songs like "Porchlight" and "Mountains of Your Head" were a powerful shock to my system, mixing riffing that made me run around my room playing air guitar with lines like "What's on your mind? If it's on your tongue you should speak," and "It's like the man said, 'I ain't here on business.' It's all work anyway". The stories they told felt real to me at a point in my life when metal's revenge fantasies and punk rock's vague polemics didn't have much to offer. Bassist/vocalist Chris Colbourn started to reveal himself as an impressive songwriter also, especially on "Darl", which began, "I ain't cryin for ya. I'll let the angels mourn ya. I'm just trying to understand," and went on to tell the story of being pushed away by a loved one in excruciating detail.

This was just as much what made me love Buffalo Tom as their incredible ability to come up with catchy yet powerful rock riffs. They always had a story to tell in their lyrics, and it was generally a story of unrequited love, alienation and loneliness, subjects I thought about a lot myself (and still do, more than I'd like to admit). They could have riddled their words with cliches as so many other bands did, left you with lyrics that only sounded good until you really thought about them and realized how insubstantial and even dumb they were. Instead, Janovitz and, occasionally, Colbourn went the extra mile to come up with lyrics that sounded good even on their own, and were amazing when laid over the kind of exceptional music they were given as backing.

Buffalo Tom's streak of excellent albums continued up until the very end of their career. Their peak was "Sleepy Eyed", their fifth album, which contained fourteen songs and still left the listener wanting more. There was one misstep in "Twenty Points", which featured heavy-handed lyrics decrying spousal abuse and a melody that was too slow and never really went anywhere. The subject was certainly a worthy one to preach against, but perhaps Buffalo Tom weren't the best band to write overt social commentary. Their strengths obviously lay elsewhere. However, the other songs on the album were flawless no matter what sound they tackled, from slow, mournful ballads ("Sunday Nights") to ominous-sounding midpaced tracks ("Summer") to upbeat songs with a positive sound, even if the love they described was still unrequited ("Sundress", "It's You").

Buffalo Tom finally broke up after their sixth album, "Smitten", and it was probably good that they did. The distorted edge to their guitar sound, which had always kept things focused on rocking no matter how far they drifted into pop territory, was starting to dull, and although I'd say they were still far from adult contemporary, some felt they were sliding in that direction. There were still plenty of amazing songs on this album, including "White Paint Morning" and "Scottish Windows", which I would rank amongst their best songs ever. That said, inspiration seemed to be wearing thin, and it's best that they quit while they were ahead, rather than ending their career ignobly, foisting duds upon the public and slowly winnowing away at their fanbase by doing so.

Buffalo Tom have been gone for over half a decade, and I've played all of their records so many times by now that sometimes I'll go months without even contemplating putting any of them on. However, all it takes is a trip back to the Virginia countryside where I come from, especially on those days when it's sunny outside and I'm driving in the middle of the day because I've got a holiday from work and I'm on the way to spend it with my family, to put them back in the forefront of my mind. At times like that, Buffalo Tom are perfect, and I'm sure they always will be. I can't imagine that I'll ever get tired of hearing their music, even if the day comes that I'm the only one who remembers them at all.


I opened my mouth and I found nothing.

I can't remember why exactly this happened, something about making a mixtape for a younger friend who doesn't know that much about the hardcore of the mid-90s I think. But in the last week or so, I've found myself listening to Current incessantly. Current were one of my favorite bands ten years ago, but I can't remember how long it's been since I listened to their music with any kind of regularity. At least five years, I'd guess. Anyway, I had never forgotten how much I loved them, but it was something that was more rationally understood than felt in recent years, so it's been somewhat of a surprise that they've returned to such prominence in my life, and so quickly.

Current were but one of a huge amount of bands coming out of the underground hardcore scene in the mid-1990s who seemed to be modernizing and redefining the entire genre before my very eyes. It was incredibly exciting to me, especially since I was just starting to play music myself, and was also just leaving the comforts of home and school for a much more exciting (in both the good and bad senses of the word) life on my own. To top it all off, the particular style of hardcore that Current and the many bands I associated them with was one that hit very close to home for me, on a level with bands like Superchunk, Dinosaur Jr and Teenage Fanclub, who'd shaken me to the core in earlier years.

What was unfortunate was that the very things about Current's music that made them so exciting and important to me at the time did a lot to draw fire from friends of mine who reacted to music differently than I did. They belittled all of my favorite bands at the time by calling them "emo", a term that was much more obviously a pejorative then than it is now. These days, I am far from giving a fuck about how other people respond to my musical preferences, but I was still a teenager then, and it really bothered me that my friends were so down on my favorite bands. So I would argue with them constantly that what they were calling emo was hardcore, every bit as hardcore as Minor Threat, Black Flag, or Youth of Today. If I couldn't justify this claim on the basis that bands like Current were far heavier than my friends gave them credit for, I would fall back on the argument that hardcore was a mindset, not a sound, and that these bands that I loved were every bit as sincere as the bands my friends called hardcore. I never won those arguments, and I'm sure part of the reason was that I legitimately cared about the things I was arguing, whereas most of my friends were just trying to wind me up (still an easy thing to do even now, infinitely easier then).

The funny thing that I realize now, upon listening to Current again with somewhat new ears, is that they were hardcore, very much so. And this is true even if you use the criteria my friends were using, a solely sonic criteria. This seems to be a typical reaction to bands who are pushing genres of music forward (especially underground ones, such as hardcore); those who are loyal to the genre classify anything too innovative at the time as outside the boundaries of the genre, while the kids who come after them will look at the same bands as seminal pioneers, even as they relegate the innovators of their own time. After all, I've heard older guys who were into hardcore in the late 80s say that when Infest came out, they were death metal, despite the fact that a listen to them now makes it obvious that all that separated Infest from contemporaries like Youth of Today were harsher vocals and more frequent tempo changes. The same is obvious when listening to Current today; apart from the fact that vocalist Matt (bands of the time did not typically use last names in liner notes, and Current were no exception) spent at least half the time either talking or singing rather than yelling or screaming, and that Current were big fans of dramatic pauses, which had been unheard of in hardcore up to that point, their music is not dissimilar from acknowledged hardcore of the time such as Unbroken or Born Against.

That's not to say it was exactly the same, though; Current were not known for their speed, preferring midtempo speeds to the breakneck pace of many of their contemporaries. They also used a lot of octave-based chords, which gave their songs a more melodic sound even though they still structured these chords into very standard hardcore arrangements. But in the end, they were using hardcore chord structures and song arrangements. The songs were reasonably simple, typically relying on a verse-chorus structure, and using no more than half a dozen chords. They didn't mess with complex time signatures or abrupt tempo changes. They just found the rhythms and riffs that felt comfortable, and did their best to express themselves within those. They were playing hardcore.

All of this genre nitpicking would mean nothing if it weren't for the outstanding songs that Current produced. Their discography CD (now just as out of print as the vinyl records it originally compiled) features 24 songs, which were spread across two 7 inch EPs, two split 7 inches, one full-length album, "Coliseum", and three different compilations. There's not a weak track among them. They pack an emotional wallop, both individually and taken as a whole, that was unheard of at the time. Though Matt talked and sang at times, his distinctive moments as a vocalist came when he'd scream furiously, sounding like he was putting every ounce of energy he had into his voice. The musicians knew what a powerful vocalist they were working with, too, if the songs he sang over are any indication. The songs never used the predictable formula of having the singer talk or sing quietly over the calm verses, then switching to heavy choruses and loud screaming. "Leech" features Matt screaming a narrative of alienation and doubt over quiet octave chords that never build up, staying quiet for so much of the song that the listener starts to expect it to stay that way throughout. Then at the very end, as Matt grows quiet, speaking the line, "if you could see past indifference, there is a difference between you and..." suddenly the band slams into a much louder version of the main verse, which they play for only a short time before crashing to a halt. The initial combination of loud vocals and quiet music builds so much tension by that point in the song that when the originally expected but by that point forgotten surge of volume finally hits, it feels like your entire body is going to explode.

The song "Monument" is another example of this sort of tension release, though instead of beginning quiet and remaining so for a long time, this song starts out loud and rocking, with a main verse that is one of the heaviest riffs in Current's catalog. However, Matt sings overtop of it, saving the screaming for the chorus, on which the band pauses completely at the moment of his loudest screams. The song then has a long breakdown towards the middle that seems to be tapering off to a quiet end before slamming back into the chorus. Over the final verse, Matt screams over and over, "This is what I despise! Everything I told you!" so fiercely it sounds like his head should explode.

It's moments like these that endeared me so closely to Current, both then and now. These days I tend to prefer lyrics to tell a story, but when I was 19 years old Current's oblique declarations were pieces of my soul. I wasn't sure what exactly was meant by "Outside Is Better", with it's chorus "but the water is too cold for me to dip my toes." But when Matt screamed it, I felt it. I sang along, lying on my bed in the dark. Sometimes I cried. I guess I was every bit as emo as I didn't want to admit to being. That's OK with me, though, even if I couldn't accept it then. Hardcore is supposed to be the music of sincerity, and Current and their peers (Still Life, Indian Summer, Iconoclast, Policy of 3, and many more) found a way to tap into that on a deeper level that no one had hit at the time. I feel lucky to have been around for that period of musical history, to have seen so many of those bands in their prime and in intimate settings. I never got to see Current, but I have their records, and I'll never get rid of them. A lot of bands running around today calling themselves "screamo" could learn a lot from these guys.


Redwall rhymes.

People I know have been passing me CDs lately, which is pretty cool. I love getting free music, and I'm always interested in checking out what my friends are doing. But it can be weird to hear what your friends are doing musically, especially in a context other than seeing them live. It's less strange when you see them playing it than when you put it into a CD player and hear their voice come out. The weirdest one for me lately is the CD I got by Swordplay, "The Tilt EP." My friend Isaac Ramsey, who I met when he was 14 and who used to play drums in an emo band I played bass for, is one-half of Swordplay, who are a hip-hop duo. It's quite a mindfuck to hear Isaac rapping our emo band doesn't seem like that long ago. I guess that's something to do with his age, though--in the 4 years since our band broke up, he went from 16 to 20, while I went from 25 to 29. The former four year gap is a much more significant one than the latter. In the meantime, Isaac has lived in France for about half a year, been a solo acoustic performer, and in the last year has gotten into hip-hop.

I don't remember him listening to the stuff before, but maybe he was doing that when no one was around, or maybe he's just a really quick study, because this record is good. There are only 5 songs here, but all of them are at least decent, and a couple of them are pretty amazing. I've been finding myself returning to this CD a lot lately, even more than some stuff I expected to be playing a lot. I guess that's an indicator of how good it is. The first song, "Tilt", is probably my least favorite. It has a repeating sped-up vocal sample throughout that gets on my nerves after a while, and I feel like I'd like it a lot better if the music varied things up. While I can hear some of his influences in his lyrics, such as Non-Phixion ("the end of man is in government-made lasers") and Aesop Rock, they are creative enough that they don't seem derivative. On the whole, though, the song's sound reminds me a bit too much of Sage Francis for me to really get into it. Not that I don't like Sage, just that I'd like it better if it had more of an original sound.

The real masterpiece here is the third song, "Martin the Warrior", which is based around a mournful acoustic guitar melody (perfect for this rainy Monday morning). A friend of mine, before I'd heard the CD, had described Swordplay as "emo-as-shit rap", and on this song I can see why she said that. But as far as I'm concerned, it's not a bad thing. After all, I love everything I've heard by Atmosphere. That's not to say that "Martin the Warrior" sounds like Atmosphere; in fact, it sounds significantly different than anything else I've heard. Isaac's background in rock music comes to the fore here, as his vocals mix with the samples used in a particularly melodic manner. The lyrics to the songs here tend to lack overarching narrative, sticking with one particular concept for no longer than 8 or so lines. This isn't really unusual in hip-hop, in spite of the fact that I tend to like hip-hop lyrics better when they are telling a story, I still have a strong emotional reaction to this song. At one point, Isaac switches to French for half a dozen lines or so, and though I think I'd enjoy it a bit more if I spoke one word of French, it's a particularly good trick that I can't imagine anyone else in hip-hop doing.

The other three songs on the EP vary in quality. "33 Revolutions" is almost as good as "Martin The Warrior," though less emotional in nature. "64 Bit" has the hardest-hitting beat out of all five songs, and if anything is too short. There's a lyrical conceit related to the "24" television show that I wasn't too into, but the rest of the song features some of the best lyrics on the EP, especially the Wow Owls shoutout (the guitarist from our old emo band sings for that band). "I'm Sorry Ociffer" is the only one besides the title track that I have any reservations about; specifically, I feel like the joke from the title gets repeated a bit too much and starts sounding annoying. The music's excellent though, based around a speedy flamenco guitar riff that sounds sort of like "Spanish Caravan" by The Doors. That's probably just my rock background coming out though.

On the whole, I'm really digging this CD. If Isaac and his DJ Chris Lauderdale can pull this off over the course of a full-length, they could actually get somewhere in the "conscious"/"backpacker" hip-hop subgenre. That'd be pretty cool to see. The one thing that keeps sticking in my head when I listen to this, though, is that I know Isaac. I know what he's like in person, and he's not what you'd think of when you think of a hip-hop dude, to say the least. Meanwhile, I've never met Sage Francis, El-P, or Slug from Atmosphere, but their music is pretty similar to what Isaac is doing. So... what if Sage Francis and all those guys are really just like Isaac in real life? It's a weird thought. Kinda awesome, though.


Word gets around.

I have an unerring instinctual draw toward the maudlin, the overwrought, the stuff that everyone else hates for playing its cards too far from the vest and showing everything. It makes me a laughingstock amongst many of my friends, because without fail, no matter how cheesy and teenybopper-ish they feel whatever easy target they are attacking is, I will pipe up with, "I like that band!" I'm known upon occasion to be the only one who hates whatever cool band is big with all my friends, but I never hate what everyone else finds beneath contempt. It blows my mind.

My championing, in past months, of Taking Back Sunday and Fall Out Boy is a great example. But it's far from the only one. And the most recent example of this particular trait of mine proves that it's in no way calculated, because I made the connection with the particular record I'm about to talk about before I even knew that a lot of people looked down on it.

Let me try to make sense of this babble. Well, to begin with, I post on a message board. I used to post on several, but these days there's only one that survives as part of my daily internet habits. This particular board is focused to a great extent on music, primarily indie-rock and metal. There's a lot of intelligent discourse about not just those but all forms of music, as well as politics, religion, interpersonal relationships... anything you can think of. And it's handled with a minimum of the false logic and adolescent namecalling that generally dominates internet debate. So it's a great place to visit, and I enjoy it thoroughly. OK, and on this board we tend to post a lot of mp3s for each other to listen to, through the magic of yousendit.com. It's gotten to the point where I don't even listen to most of the mp3s that get posted--just download them into a special folder marked "Message Board Downloads" and leave them there. Recently, I realized that this folder had grown to considerably larger than a gigabyte in size. So I decided that I needed to go through and listen to all these songs, with an eye to figuring out which bands I was into enough to check out further, and which I didn't like, at which point I could delete the latter mp3s and clear some space on my hard drive. I made a playlist on my mp3 player, consisting of the entirety of the folder, then hit shuffle. I hit play and lay down on my bed to read a book, figuring that if I heard a song I liked enough to get me up and see who it was by, it was a band worth further investigation.

The first song to hit me enough to get me out of bed was about 8 songs in. It was by a British band, this much was obvious from the singer's accent. They were melodic and catchy, but the guitars were loud and the vocals were sandpaper-rough, as if the singer smoked three packs a day. He had an excellent voice. There wasn't any of the psychedelic influence that dominated a lot of my favorite British bands of the early 90s; instead, this band reminded me more of the mid-90s Britpop movement--bands like Oasis and Ash. I was digging it. I got up to check on what I was hearing and found that it was the Stereophonics, a band there'd been a thread about months before. I couldn't remember anything about the thread, but I did remember that I had downloaded several mp3s by the band that one person had posted. Without even listening to those others, I went straight to my downloading program and found the album from which the song I was hearing was taken. Then I downloaded the whole thing.

The record is called "Word Gets Around", and if I thought the first song I heard ("Last of the Big Time Drinkers") was good, I was blown away by how much better some of the other songs on the record were. The opening track, "A Thousand Trees", started out upbeat, which belied its dark lyrics about a schoolgirl being molested by her gym teacher. The chorus featured a lyric I found pretty amazing, reducing the words of the song to an apt metaphor: "Only takes one tree to make a thousand matches. Only takes one match to burn a thousand trees!" The singer's voice rose to a raspy howl on the last half of that line, injecting the lyric with even more emotion and raising goosebumps on my arms. I was excited to hear the rest of the album, and it didn't let me down, alternating more upbeat tunes like "More Life In A Tramp's Vest" and "Check My Eyelids For Holes" with contemplative fare like "Local Boy In the Photograph" and "Traffic". "Word Gets Around" is a concept album of sorts, revolving around the secrets that hide under the surface of a seemingly pleasant small English town. Each song tells the story of a different character, exploring the skeletons in their closet, their petty resentments and frustrations, the desires they've all put on the back burner or long since drank away. There's nothing revolutionary or groundbreaking about the music, but it does what it needs to do, led by Kelly Jones's wonderful vocals, which sound like a modern update on Raspberries-era Eric Carmen, or Rod Stewart's work with Jeff Beck and The Faces. Jones also plays guitar, and is responsible for the catchy guitar lines that anchor his vocals to solidly constructed songs that have a tendency to stick in my head all day.

I couldn't believe that I'd gone this long without hearing The Stereophonics, especially considering that "Word Gets Around" was released over seven years ago. It was one of the best rock albums I'd heard all year, and I couldn't wait to get the other Stereophonics records. So imagine my surprise when I dug up that old thread to post about my experience falling in love with that record and found that it was almost universally negative. One person had asked about a Rod Stewart cover they did recently for the theme song to some television show, and half a dozen people had replied about how crappy they were. One person had posted in defense of "Word Gets Around" in particular, and that was where the mp3s I had on my computer came from. I never had checked out the other three, and when I went back to look, I found that, sure enough, they were all also from "Word Gets Around". Even the person who'd posted about how much he loved that album had been largely condemnatory of their later releases, and one guy from England (where The Stereophonics are evidently a lot bigger than they are here) said that in England they are a band that only mallrat teenagers like.

So now I'm kind of baffled. I for one love "Word Gets Around", if nothing else. Also, that British guy said the same thing about Idlewild a few months ago, and I love them too. And finally, I'm notorious for liking things that "only mallrat teenagers like", so why should this be any different? I guess what I don't get is why this band, who seem pretty obviously amazing to me, are looked at in this way. Maybe it's just because I haven't heard the rest of their records (so far, I've been a bit skittish about checking into the rest of their catalog, for fear of being disappointed), or maybe it's because I'm a weirdo. I don't know. What I do know is that I've had this particular Stereophonics album for over two weeks and I'm still listening to it every day, which isn't something that happens too often. You know what? Fuck it. That's good enough for me.


Everything's alright forever.

I'm no good at answering the "favorite album ever" question. I might be able to narrow it down to ten, half-a-dozen on a good day, but I couldn't put them in a particular order, and I'd never be able to axe any of them from the list. I just like too many things, and the idea that I could make a quantitative comparison between two extremely well-loved, extremely different albums is often ludicrous. It just isn't possible.

There's one album that would always show up on this list that has been getting a lot of personal airplay lately, and it's an album that most of the world has either forgotten or never knew existed in the first place. "Everything's Alright Forever" may be the first or third album by The Boo Radleys, depending on how you look at it, but it's definitely the first one to get a United States release. For an album that came out on Columbia records domestically, it sure slipped under a lot of people's radar. Those who remember the earlier Boo Radleys work at all (by which I mean the albums they released before having a UK #1 hit with "Wake Up Boo" in 1995) generally see it as formative. They'll give "Giant Steps," the follow-up to "Everything's Alright Forever", some props for its wide-ranging exploration of the psych-pop genre, but "Everything's Alright Forever" is usually damned with faint praise as an also-ran of the shoegaze (god, I hate that term, probably even more than I hate "screamo") movement's tail end.

I have a different opinion. As far as I am concerned, "Everything's Alright Forever" ranks with My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless", Ride's "Nowhere", Swervedriver's "Raise", and Slowdive's "Just For A Day" as one of the crowning achievements of the entire "shoegaze" time period, representing a particular combination of psychedelic textures, roaring guitars, and pure pop songcraft that was unique to The Boo Radleys and better than almost any other contemporary band that attempted to combine those ingredients. That sentence was particularly long and I can't decide if it's a run-on or not, but fuck it! My love for this album must be stated unequivocally, in terms no one can fail to understand.

There are those who would criticize "Everything's Alright Forever" with the argument that there is not enough song structure buried underneath the layers of psychedelic haze that dominate the album; that, once the layers of distorted guitar that somehow manage to be both loud and ambient are peeled away, there's not too much there. This argument might have weight if it is assumed that the goal of The Boo Radleys on "Everything's Alright Forever" was to create an album of solid power-pop on which any layers of psychedelic noise is just window dressing, but this is an assumption that doesn't really offer any evidence to back itself up. There are several songs out of the 14 present here that directly contradict this assessment. Even the songs that are vulnerable to this criticism have plenty to offer despite their relative lack of solid pop song structure. More to the point, while many of these songs would be disastrous as mixtape picks, all of them work extremely well in the larger context of the album they're presented in, helping "Everything's Alright Forever" add up to considerably more than the sum of its parts. There may be albums that are better as collections of songs, but I've almost never encountered another record that works this well as a whole.

Despite the fact that it works better as a whole than a collection of parts, there are some amazing individual songs here. "Smile Fades Fast" features a loud, rocking instrumental bridge that is overlaid by swirling loops of distorted guitars that both augment the loudness of the main riff and create interesting harmonic counterpoints to it. Meanwhile, the verses are acoustic-based and Beatlesque in their construction, but still feature a grinding electric guitar, far lower in the mix, adding an undercurrent of menacing heaviness. "Lazy Day", the shortest song here at 90 seconds in length, is so criminally underdeveloped that I once made a mixtape featuring the song twice in a row. Nonetheless, it's one of my favorites here, mixing a conventionally rocking chorus with strange verses that jump from loud and distorted to melodic and acoustic within each line. "Memory Babe", the title of which is but one of several Jack Kerouac references hidden throughout the album (it's title is shared with a book considered to be the definitive critical biography of Kerouac, while the album's title comes from a line in Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums"), is the closest The Boo Radleys come on this album to imitating the sound of their contemporaries in British rock of the time, with Sice's crooning vocal tones mixed higher than usual over a standard soft verse/loud chorus dynamic and a catchy, power-chord based chorus. Still though, the multiple tracks of loud, roaring guitar chords that dominate the instrumental breaks mark the song as an unmistakable Boo original.

In fact, it's these strange washes of jet-engine guitars that still manage to sound ambient that connect the quietest, slowest acoustic songs to the loud, rocking guitar numbers and give the album a unified, coherent mood. I think this is what I like the most about it: it expands on the "melodic vocals and lead guitar overtop extreme volume and scorching distortion" formula that Dinosaur Jr perfected on "You're Living All Over Me" (another one of my short-list candidates for favorite album ever). Instead of making the division between melody and heavy noise so clearcut between parts and instruments, The Boo Radleys find ways to do all of those things at once, with the same instruments at the same time. The best sections of "Everything's Alright Forever" are quiet and heavy, loud and melodic, noisy and poppy, all at the same time. The sheer sonic layering of it all is explicitly psychedelic, while still giving the listener plenty to anchor to within the songs, even on such less structurally developed tracks as "Towards the Light" or "Firesky". These less-developed tracks are dispersed throughout the album, placed between stronger songs in order to act as a bridge from one strong point to another and to keep the album flowing as a coherent, unified whole. In the end, to cut "Everything's Alright Forever" apart into segments in any fashion is to do it a disservice and render the full effect of the album impossible to perceive. Only through listening to it as a whole can its greatness truly be understood.



Paralyzed by options lately. Well, that and lack of motivation and inspiration--a constant problem for me, especially in these late fall and winter months when everything starts to feel like a herculean effort. Seasonal affective disorder or something like that, I don't know. It's not important. What is important is that the slightest bit of difficulty in jumpstarting the brain will keep me from writing for days and weeks at a time. Sorry about that.

Right now, I have no idea what I even want to talk about. There are always so many new albums flowing down the broadband pipe and onto my computer, some of which get lots of listens and some of which sit there for months before I ever hear more than 30 seconds. That's not to mention the steady stream of burns from friends, cheap used stuff from the record store, and rediscoveries of old albums I haven't played in years. I cart around a 32-slot CD book that's always full, and in general have at least half a dozen more CDs still in their cases, plus about the same amount of cassettes, shoved into my backpack. It's always way heavier than it needs to be. And picking just one of those things to write about is sometimes a nigh-impossible task. Lately, I've had brief ideas about such scattered albums as Hellbender's "Con Limon", The Boo Radleys' "Everything's Alright Forever", Klimt 1918's "Dopaguerra", Swordplay's "Tilt EP", and at least a few others. I'll get to them all in time.

Today, I want to talk about the radio. Radio sucks, that's a good starting point. I hate it when I have to listen to it. If I come into my work and my boss has a station on, it's invariably the lite-rock station, and though I don't work at the right time to encounter the noxiousness of the Delilah show, it's bad enough any time of the day. The best I can hope for is a Sarah MacLachlan song to ease the pain of The Doobie Brothers and Lonestar and all that other crap. And there are always a million advertisements, which are more distracting than even the worst of the songs that or any other station plays.

The other stations are no better, either. We used to have two classic-rock stations in Richmond, but one of them switched to a "new rock" (which is what they're calling what they used to call "alternative", now that it's become obvious to everyone that there's nothing left for it to be an alternative to) format, to go head-to-head with the non-Clear Channel station playing that style of music. The non-Clear Channel station is better, with a slightly more varied selection, but it's still not that great. One in every half-dozen songs is decent. Maybe. As for the classic-rock station that remains, it quickly jumped on the "Richmond's only classic-rock station!!!" soapbox, and continued to ram the same 100 songs that we've been hearing every day for 20 years down our throats. See, even the non-Clear Channel stations have a very limited playlist, because even the non-Clear Channel stations are owned by some conglomerate, Radio One or Cox or whatever. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 did massive deregulation work to the laws governing radio station ownership, and ten years later radio has been so ground-under-heel that there's barely anything left.

What inspired me to talk about all of this, though, is a new phenomenon in radio. Apparently, the big conglomerates have figured out that everyone hates radio now, that the only people who listen other than those forced to at their job or the fast-food places where they buy their lunch are kids under 15 and all the right-wing conspiracy nutjobs listening to G. Gordon Liddy on the AM band. It didn't take them too long to come up with a way to sell that disaffection back to us, either. Have you heard about this new format called "Jack"? Apparently it was named after some DJ who had an online radio show where he varied the playlist far more than a standard radio station would. He had a lot more songs on hand that he was willing to play than most radio stations do, and he was far less restrictive with genre content, making wild, unexpected transitions between, say, early 90s alt-rock and Motown soul, then following it all up with a famous disco track and a mid-80s new wave chestnut. People thought it was amazing, or so the articles I've read in the "Rock N' Roll" (aka "Industry Bullshit") section of "Rolling Stone" magazine tell me. Then the format started showing up in random large-market towns, with a different name every time (usually some generic person's name, like "Lisa" or "Bobby". Or maybe other names completely; I pulled those out of my ass). It worked well in those towns, scored high ratings, etc. Now it's starting to spread a lot more.

We have one of those stations in Richmond. Calling themselves "Liberty", they proclaim loudly that they "play anything!" on all their station breaks. And they're catching on like wildfire here, just like they did everywhere else; at least that's the case if how often I hear this less than half-year old station in fast-food places is any indication. I've heard more of that station than any other in recent weeks.

Make no mistake, I'm not all that into it. It is cool to hear songs I haven't heard on the radio in a long time, and some of them are even decent. More than the usual amount. It's cool to be reminded about the discordant violin sawing in U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday", the way it makes the entire song. It's cool to be reminded that Duran Duran had some legitimately great songs on their first couple of albums. But it sure does suck to be reminded all over again how much I hate Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive", a song I thought I'd left behind when I quit going to gay clubs and fraternity parties (believe it or not, that was the same period of my life when I was going to both). And while I am hearing a lot of songs I haven't heard on the radio in a long time, there's also still plenty of the same old bullshit mixed in there. It's just... get this; they're mixing up all these radio chestnuts from two dozen different formats and throwing them all together into one big hodgepodge. So what ends up happening is that 80% of the time, the song you're hearing is an overplayed tiny-playlist format victim, but you only notice a fraction of those times, because most of the time it's not a song that's overplayed on your format of choice. Selling the same old bullshit to a new group of consumers: whatever program director it was who came up with this idea probably got a big bonus. The playlist is way bigger too, deflecting criticism on another level. It's kind of depressing to see it happen, but in the end it's almost funny. And at least it makes radio interesting, if only because of the unanticipated transitions between mediocre songs of different genres.

Whatever though; in the end, there's still nothing worthwhile on the radio, unless you have a university station or a volunteer-run low power station in your area. We've actually got both here, but one comes in through a haze of static if it comes in at all, and the other has such a strange schedule that when I remember to tune in, I usually find it playing news programs. For now, I'm pretty much sticking to CDs.


Show review: The Catalyst, The Summer We Went West, Hi Ho Six Shooter, French Stewart, Minor Twang.

This show was on Saturday night, at the Warehouse Next Door in Washington, DC. I rode up to the show with the guys in The Catalyst, and volunteered to drive the van home so that all of them could drink. They of course took me up on this offer.

This was my first time going to Warehouse Next Door, and I found it to be a small but cool venue. It's basically an empty room with a stage that might be 18 inches high at one end, and a small four-seat bar at the other. It has a sound system that's really good, especially for the space it's in, and the stage is high enough to make it possible to see the band from anywhere in the room, so it mixes the best aspects of club and house shows. I wish there was a venue like this in Richmond, as a matter of fact.

Minor Twang played first, and as you may have guessed by the band name, was a guy playing country-style Minor Threat covers on acoustic guitar. He only did a few songs ("Straight Edge," "Guilty of Being White," "Minor Threat," and "Out of Step"), but they were well-played and every bit as amusing as I'm sure he wanted them to be, so the set was a success. I was surprised to note how well Minor Threat songs actually adapt to country arrangements. He could probably modify a lot more of them if he felt like it.

Next up was French Stewart. This band was also humorous in intent. There were three members, all of whom sang, and a sequencer playing their backing music through the PA. All three of them dressed in matching tunics of some sort, that they put on while a musical introduction played. The introduction was based around a loop of the bass intro to Fugazi's "Waiting Room," and this use of prominent indie/emo/hardcore samples was a theme throughout their set. As their introduction played, I wondered whether they would be rapping, but as it turned out, they screamed their lyrics. The musical construction was somewhat similar to rap, as it relied more on samples than computer-generated music a la Atom and His Package, but the overall effect was more like a multiple-vocalist hardcore band. The three singers traded off lines Beastie Boys-style, with one doing high-pitched screams while another had a deeper, more growly vocal style and the third did straightforward yelling. All three of them stood on the floor and quickly moved out into the center of the crowd, clearing plenty of space with their manic stage presence. The songs had humorous themes, which I mostly don't remember now, but I feel like had to do with monsters a good percentage of the time. On the whole, I enjoyed them. I don't know that I'd want to listen to a French Stewart CD, but I'd certainly go check them out live anytime.

The show was moving quickly up to this point, but Hi Ho Six Shooter, the first conventional electrical instrument-based band of the evening, brought all that to a halt. This is not to say that I didn't like them, but just that they played for way too long. I didn't keep precise track, but I was looking at the clock more and more frequently as their set went on, and I'm pretty sure they played for between 45 minutes and an hour. This had a lot to do with the music they play, which on first instinct I'd call alt-country. Really, though, my use of the "alt" prefix has more to do with the fact that I encountered this band in the hardcore scene than anything else. If I had ignored the things I knew about Hi Ho Six Shooter before ever hearing their music, I would have found their music to be far less a product of the alt-country movement than it was the product of obvious influences taken from the mainstream country music of the 50s, 60s and 70s. From the singer's accented vocals to the march-time beats and twangy guitar sound, I heard a lot more elements of musicians like Conway Twitty, Porter Wagoner and Webb Pierce than I ever would have expected. The only thing that Hi Ho Six Shooter did that musicians like that would not have done was to integrate horns into their sound. One member, who also played keyboards, most often played a trumpet, and at times the rhythm guitarist would play a second trumpet. It worked well in the context of their music, reminding me of Ennio Morricone's music for spaghetti westerns. However, as I said, they played for way too long. I can remember thinking at one point that the song they were playing should have been their last. Looking at their set list as they were breaking down, I saw that that song had been fourth out of nine. This is one band who, if they're going to play that many songs, should try to make them shorter.

On the other hand, The Summer We Went West played for what I felt was too short a time. After playing one song, which, granted, was probably six minutes long or thereabouts, the singer announced that the next song would be their last. I kept thinking I had missed something, but everyone else I was there with was also under the impression that they only played a two song set. I had mixed feelings about their set, too. It started off promisingly, with their two guitarists playing a series of alternating notes that linked together to form a pretty good melody, as all four members of the band sang different melodic vocal parts. This section of the song went on a bit too long, and after a while I felt like the multiple vocal parts were starting to run over each other and ruin the entire effect. But eventually, after building to a crescendo and holding it for too long, to the point where the energy was starting to fade away, the entire band came in on a pretty good melodic riff. The main vocalist continued singing while the rest of the band concentrated on their instruments, and although I couldn't help but notice that the entire thing was incredibly derivative of mid-90s chaotic hardcore/"emo" bands such as Still Life, Ethel Meserve, and Owltian Mia, I felt like they might end up being pretty enjoyable. However, The Summer We Went West's music is basically ruined by their inability to write cohesive songs. They don't know when to change into and out of parts, they don't know how to do it without a lot of buildup that is unnecessary and kills the song's momentum, and they don't seem, from what I saw, to know how to end a song. I felt like I was seeing the same sort of thing I saw in the second wave of bands that played in this style, in the late 90s. Sure, bands like You And I added things to the original musical formula, such as metal, jazz, and more overtly indie-rock influences, but they were often so blown away by the incredible outpourings of emotion on view in videos of old bands like Inkwell or Current that they felt like they had to imitate this sort of stage presence, regardless of inspiration in the moment. True, it seemed really dramatic to see You And I collapse to the stage in tears at the end of their sets, but when you saw them five times and they did it every time, it started to ring hollow. The Summer We Went West also rang hollow for me, as the end of set amp destruction that occurred after their second song seemed planned in advance. It reminded me of watching Stone Gossard from Pearl Jam try in vain to smash his guitar after playing "Rockin' In The Free World" with Neil Young on MTV. Instead of being overcome with emotion, one could tell that his thought process was "time to be intense and smash my instrument." Same with The Summer We Went West, who I had overheard before their set planning which song to play last around which one had the ending most suitable to "freaking out and destroying equipment". Make no mistake, musically this band has potential, as they wrote a lot of good, driving melodic riffs. But if they really want to realize that potential, they'll have to take the energy they're currently putting into onstage histrionics and channel it into better songwriting techniques.

The Catalyst played last. I've talked a lot in this blog about what they sound like, and what they're like live, so I don't really feel the need to rehash all of that. But I will mention that this show was supposed to be their last show with original bassist Nate Prusinski. However, at the last moment, he found that he couldn't take time off work, so Kyle Pederson of The Olive Tree/The Internet/a whole bunch of bands (who lives with most of the members of The Catalyst) filled in on bass with one day's notice. Surprisingly, this did nothing to detract from the set's power and energy. Kyle learned six songs for the set and played them well, without any noticeable mistakes, and the rest of the band were on point and energetic. It was one of the better shows I've seen them play, though I must admit that lately they've been pretty outstanding every time I've seen them, so I'm not sure how many more times I will find myself saying such a thing before eventually I just go into things expecting them to be outstanding and incredible. Under the circumstances, though, it was above and beyond what anyone could have expected. I guess sometimes overcoming obstacles really does bring out the best in people.

P.S.--Sorry I've been so bad about updating lately, after promising that I'd post something new here every day. It's the easiest thing in the world to lose motivation and stop bothering to do something you have really only committed to yourself to do. It's much harder to find ways to bring that motivation back. Hopefully I've done so now; I have a few other things I want to write about over the next few days, and by the time that's done I should have found more. Additionally, I'm thinking of starting a second blog devoted to comic books. If I do, you'll be the first to hear about it. Again, sorry about the long absence. Take care, everyone.


Dollar 7-inch therapy.

Sorry it's been a few days since I posted--this whole writing every day thing is harder than I'd like it to be. I'm always having tons of trouble with motivation, and then sometimes even when I can make myself write, I hate what I'm writing. That happened earlier tonight; I was halfway through writing a post and I suddenly looked up and thought, "This is a bunch of bullshit." I saved it as a draft, but that's probably where it'll stay, because I can't see how to rewrite it at all. My impression of it right now is that it's wall-to-wall bullshit. Maybe I'll see it differently in a few days, if I even bother to go back and look at it at all. We'll see, I guess.

Anyway, I was 20 minutes away from being off of work when I had that realization. It totally ruined my mood, which I don't think was doing that great as it was. I was supposed to go to a show after work, but I suddenly couldn't see doing it at all. Instead, after closing up the store and buying a sub for dinner, I walked a block down the street to the hip independent record store. My friend Kyle has this thing he does sometimes, when he's sitting around the house with nothing to do. To keep himself occupied he goes up to this same record store, goes through the bins of used 7 inch EPs, and buys the cheapest one that strikes his fancy. He usually only spends a dollar, but it'll take him upwards of an hour to go through the bins, and that's something he enjoys doing, so it does what he needs it to do--cures boredom. Tonight I decided to try that myself, though I was more trying to cure a crappy bad mood and a sudden bout of anti-social tendencies than anything else.

It was 8 PM by the time I got in there, only an hour before they closed. I was almost the only one down in the used vinyl room (which is in the basement), and I didn't want to keep the guy working down there any later than he had to be, so I only went through a small section of the used 7 inches before making a bunch of selections, which I proceeded to listen to on the headphone-equipped turntable provided for that use. The Rein Sanction Sub Pop single was good, but nothing outstanding, and honestly not as good as the album ("Broc's Cabin") that I own by them. I only listened to the Pony Up! side of their split with Ben Lee that I found, mainly because I've long been curious about what they sounded like. I get the idea from the song I heard that Pony Up, an all-female 5 piece, are good with pop melodies in the same way that Heavenly and some of the other early 90s K Records twee-pop bands were. However, the song on the single was a novelty, with joking lyrics and the band vamping behind two girls talking for most of it. I did pick up two singles though, for a total expenditure of $4.

The first one I grabbed was by the short-lived Goodbye Blue Monday. They were part of the slightly more melodic/rock-oriented second wave of mid-90s emocore, and featured one of the guitarists from Frail. I already have a split EP that they released with a band called Across Five Aprils--bought it back when they were still together, in fact. I'd heard at the time that they also had a solo EP, but I'd never seen a copy before tonight. The second song from their split with Across Five Aprils has long been a favorite of mine; it's an upbeat, rocking slice of emocore driven by a funky, rolling bassline. This EP is a good bit more melodic and less 'core, straying closer to indie-rock than the songs on the split EP ever did. I don't know if I'd have liked it as much back then, but now I find myself liking it even better. "7600" is slow and quiet at first, but when it builds up to the chorus, it hits that same note of angst-ridden mournful longing that was present in the best Still Life songs. Goodbye Blue Monday's singer can hit notes with far more precision than Still Life's vocalists ever could, though, and it's almost reminiscent of Mineral's earlier work because of that. "Endless Waiting Route" is more uptempo, but still only attains a medium pace, and probably could have been a bit longer. As it is, it leaves the listener wanting more. "Chicago Coin" comes closest to the loping basslines of the songs from the Across Five Aprils split, but still features more melodic vocals than those did, at least until the last verse, when singer Brian Hutchison kicks things into overdrive for a powerful climax. "Summer Nights" begins much the same as the other songs, but soon the rhythm section drops out for a short section of unaccompanied vocals and guitar before kicking back in. The entire record hangs together well, and while none of the songs stand out as head and shoulders above the rest, all are quite good. Certainly worth a dollar.

The other record I got was a newer single that I didn't know existed by Cleveland Bound Death Sentence, one of many bands over the years to feature zine legend Aaron Cometbus playing drums and writing lyrics. These bands all play a similar variety of late 80s vintage pop-punk, long before said genre contained any trace of emo. Aaron's projects often stand or fall based on the people he enlists to play with him, and since Cleveland Bound Death Sentence features Patrick of Dillinger Four on bass and vocals, it stands at or near the top of the heap where Cometbus-related bands are concerned. This record is far more punk than pop, with faster tempos and less melodic flourishes than I'm used to from Aaron. In fact, it's considerably less poppy than the last CBDS EP I heard, which may be because that record came out at least five years before this one, or may be due to the fact that founding CBDS guitarist Spitball is absent on this record, due to current incarceration in the federal prison system. He's replaced by Buddha, who may or may not be the same Buddha who played in the early 90s Florida punk band Chickenhead.

I'm actually kind of surprised at how much I like this record. It's been years since I've had any real tolerance for pop-punk, especially the sort that boils everything down to simple power chords and elementary melodic hooks. I don't usually like fast, non-poppy punk rock, either, so the fact that this record is almost as close to that style of music as to standard pop-punk doesn't explain it either. Whatever, the fact is that I do like it, and that's good enough for me. Patrick and Emily's harmonizing vocals, which I hesitate to call singing or yelling (it's somewhere inbetween), sound rough and clean over the speedy, fill-heavy drumming and loud guitars. The whole thing is over in blink-you-miss-it time--maybe 5 minutes total. There's a pattern between each two-track side; first song is faster and more punky, second song has more melody to it and goes on slightly longer. The back cover lists the songs in the wrong order, by the way--for some reason it lists the first song on side one as being followed by the second song on side two, and vice versa. What's it matter, though? They're all good, and you're probably gonna play the whole thing through half a dozen times before you get tired of it. For the record, though, "Somedays When" is my favorite song on here, at least so far.

Hey, what do you know? Not only did I get a couple of good records for a small amount of money, not only did I make myself feel better about my writer's block, I even managed to write something that I don't hate! That's what I call a successful evening. I'm gonna go find my friends.


What becomes of the musical packrat.

Today I dug something up randomly from deep in the annals of my music collection. Specifically, I'm talking about The Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, an Athens, Georgia-based band from the early 90s that are so forgotten at this point that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that I'm the only person not connected to their musical career who remembers them. The fact that I could randomly have one of their songs pop into my head while I was in the shower and be able to dig up both of their records within 10 minutes of leaving the bathroom is one of the truly great things about my tendency to obsessively cling to every piece of music I've ever owned. Sure, I'll occasionally sell stuff when I need money, but even though I sometimes think about how I have way too much stuff (usually around the time of a move), I never even consider throwing away or donating, for example, the boxes and boxes of cassettes I taped off the radio in high school and haven't listened to since. And it's times like this that I remember why that is.

Chickasaw Mudd Puppies only existed for a brief time in the very early 90s, and were the sort of band that are just too unconventional to describe in terms of genre or band comparison. Like many bands of this nature, they slipped through the cracks, only releasing an EP and an LP before disappearing. I found out about them when I saw the video for "Do You Remember" on MTV's 120 Minutes in 1991, and was intrigued enough to dub a copy of their EP, "White Dirt", from a friend of mine's mom (of everyone I knew, she was the only person who owned any of their albums. I should have seen the foreshadowing in that fact). I didn't get a copy of "Do You Remember" until much later, ordering it off half.com a couple of years ago for around $5 including postage. It's not all that common of a used CD, but people just don't want this stuff.

I, for one, think that's a shame. It may not be easy to say what genre of music Chickasaw Mudd Puppies play, but one thing's for sure: it's a lot of fun to listen to. Their band came out of isolation; they were only discovered because singer/harmonica player Brant Slay happened to live next door to Michael Stipe, who heard Brant and guitarist/backup vocalist Ben Reynolds practicing on their front porch. During live shows, Brant would sit in a rocking chair like he had on his front porch when they practiced. Other instruments would be brought into the mix, especially on record, but Brant and Ben were the only real members of the band, and they had a fair amount of songs that used no instrumentation but guitars, harmonica, and Brant's feet stomping on the floor as he sang.

My copy of "White Dirt" was dubbed 13 years ago, and has been stored coverless in a milk crate with a lot of other coverless tapes for at least a decade of that time, which necessitated 10 minutes of digging before I found it. For all that, the damn thing still sounds really good. It's a bit muffled, but the production on the original recording was raw enough that it doesn't make that much difference. The album starts with "McIntosh", a rollicking, upbeat tune backed by skiffle-sounding percussion, heavy on the speedily brushed snare. Ben Reynolds plays an electric guitar, but his riffing is descended from a time when country and rock n' roll were far closer to each other than they are now. Meanwhile, Brant Slay's frantic harmonica solos and absurdist lyrics that pile up non-sequiturs about "a three-leg alligator layin' in a wallow" and "a great blue heron boxing with his shadow" without ever assembling them into any coherent narrative give the overall impression of hearing a radio station that's being beamed in from the bayou swamps of Venus or something. It's completely out of nowhere. It also fucking rocks.

The other songs on "White Dirt" vary in intensity, from similarly upbeat tunes like "Lon Chaney", which tells the story of the famous silent-film actor, but still from the perspective of the insane alien swamp creature who narrates "McIntosh" (sample "Lon Chaney" lyric: "Laugh that ol' laugh or he'll get slapped, the eyes are connected to the brim of your cap") to mournful country wails like the percussion-less "Skinny" and "Prison," which features a violin and at 3:57 is twice as long as almost every other song on the album. The entire thing is over in less than 25 minutes, and by the time it's over you just want to hear the whole thing again.

"8 Track Stomp", the full-length followup, is not bad, but it sadly loses a lot of what made "White Dirt" so weirdly transcendent. The production, jointly handled by Michael Stipe and blues legend Willie Dixon(!), is far clearer than that of "White Dirt", but this if anything does a disservice to Chickasaw Mudd Puppies' music. The raw, grotty sound of "White Dirt" accentuated the uniqueness of their sound, and removing it does a lot to diminish the mysterious, alien intensity that Chickasaw Mudd Puppies found on that album. That's not to say that it's all bad--"Do You Remember" is every bit as great as it sounded when I first heard it 14 years ago. It's aided by a riff structure that utilizes a lot more complicated chording than the standard blues progressions that most Mudd Puppies songs are based around. Also, the band members make some rare choices with their instrumentation that change the impression the song gives. Ben Reynolds plays an acoustic guitar, which allows the natural resonance of that instrument to draw more of the song's natural melody out into the open, while Brant Slay forgoes his usual technique of singing through a harmonica microphone, exchanging the metallic echoing sound that this gives his normal singing for a clearer, more melodic vocal tone.

They are less successful when attempting to repeat what they'd already done on "White Dirt". Some of the more standard Chickasaw Mudd Puppies songs here still work well, especially "Jambalaya", which features clanking cowbells and grinding ratchets as its sole percussion, "Night Time", with more of Brant's swamp dada approach to lyrics, and "Moving So Fast", a cover of producer Willie Dixon that is faithful without failing to inject a healthy dose of the unique Mudd Puppies personality. Tellingly, all of these tunes are grouped closely together at the beginning of the album. Things start to peter out toward the middle, especially when they hit "Shannon Loves Bisquit", a slow ballad that gives lead vocals to Ben while leaving Brant to play harmonica--a mistake the producers shouldn't have allowed them to make. While the social commentary of "Wasp" shows that Brant and Ben are not so isolated as not to be aware of the problems in the world, it seems awkward from a band who you'd expect to write a song with that title about insects, not white men. A second Willie Dixon cover, "Oh Yeah", sounds almost gospel at times, and is as awkward musically as "Shannon Loves Bisquit".

In the end, the lesson of "8 Track Stomp" may just be that Chickasaw Mudd Puppies shouldn't try to stretch what they do far enough to fill an entire full-length. Perhaps if they'd left the listener wanting more, as they did on "White Dirt", instead of making the album feel just a bit too long, it would have worked better. In the end, though, it's still a pity that so little recorded work of theirs exists. I'd love to hear what they'd have come up with, given another year or two to sit on their front porch and write another album. Hopefully they'd have kept it quick n' dirty, too. But there's really no use pontificating about it. Instead, those of you in the mood for something unlike anything you've ever heard before would be well advised to hunt down a copy of "White Dirt". And play it loud. With the windows open. Trust me.