The nuggets of the future?
Here's what this post has to do with music: I have a cassette player in my car. When I say it's new, I really just mean it's new to me--it's from 1996, a year back when it didn't yet seem that weird to put a cassette player in a car. These days I imagine that most of the ones that are still in use are just being used to run adapters plugged into Ipods, but I'm old enough and enough of a packrat that I still have the huge collection of cassettes that I built up starting in my childhood (the mid-80s) and continuing until about 2005, when even used cassettes started disappearing from record stores. Since I got this car less than two weeks before becoming unemployed, I couldn't spare the cash to buy an adapter for my Ipod, so right now I'm driving around listening to tapes. These days I mostly listen to music on my computer (for better or for worse), so a lot of the tapes I've pulled out in the last couple of weeks for driving music are things I haven't heard in years.
Tonight I was listening to a mix tape I made in 2003 or thereabouts, close to the end of the era in which I listened to cassettes on the regular. I was just starting to burn CDs regularly, and when I got a car in spring 2004 that had a CD player in it, I started listening to those burned CDs whenever I was away from my computer. My walkman started gathering dust, as did my cassette collection in general. The mix tape I was listening to tonight might be the last mix tape I ever made, and if it's not, it's close to it. Anyway, I was listening to the tape in the dark, and couldn't really check the tracklist, so it was fun trying to figure out what I was hearing as each new song came on. Some of them were immediately recognizable tunes that I still listen to today, but others were things I hadn't heard since not long after making the tape. The track listing spoke well for my tastes six years ago, because none of the songs I'd forgotten about made me think, "What was I thinking with this song?" Instead I kept thinking, "I forgot how good this song was!"
The song that blew my mind the most tonight was one I heard as I was getting home. I recognized it immediately despite having not heard it in years, because it was very distinctive. The song was "Til The End" by Haven, from their album "Between The Senses." I'd bought this album from Tower Records, back when they were still around. I used to like going into Tower and listening to all of the CDs they had on the listening stations. They used to have one particular listening station that was all CDs priced at $9.99 or less, and I found a lot of awesome albums by random bands that I'd never heard of on that station. Haven came from there, but so did the first Ours album, The Coral's "The Invisible Invasion," and "Interventions And Lullabies" by The Format. Some of these are still remembered now, but that Haven CD isn't one of them. It may have been issued by a major label, but it wasn't a success, even on a cult level. The band released one more album on their British label, which wasn't picked up in America, and then broke up. Their website is a dead link these days, and as I listened to "Til The End," I had the passing thought that I'm probably the only person who still remembers it.
That's when I had the epiphany that I referenced in the title. On some level, I thought, isn't Haven comparable to the bands that took part in the garage/psych explosion of the 60s? Haven's sound mixes the leftovers of 90s alternative rock with a strong shoegaze influence and a wide-ranging vocalist who obviously took some cues from Jeff Buckley. In the wake of the success of bands like Coldplay and Travis, a lot of bands that sounded exactly like this were probably getting signed. Ours, who I mentioned earlier, were along the same lines, though with more of a Smashing Pumpkins influence. There are plenty of others I could cite, too, going back to the post-Nirvana grunge gold rush and moving forward up to right now, with the current attempt to find the new My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy in full swing. A lot of these bands are completely forgotten within 5 to 10 years of their first release, and while many of them make albums that are inconsistent at best, most of them will have at least one really good song buried somewhere in their discography.
Take Haven, for example. "Til The End" is the third track on "Between The Senses," and other than the opener, "Let It Live," it's the only track that really stands out. If I'd chosen to listen to tracks 5 and 7 instead of tracks 1 and 3 when this CD was on Tower's listening station, I probably wouldn't have bought it. But considering the joy I still get out of "Til The End," I feel like it was a worthwhile purchase. The song starts with a quiet single-note guitar intro, over which vocalist Gary Briggs croons the first verse. The lyrics aren't too great, and he mostly repeats the same verse and chorus throughout the song, but when the rest of the band joins with the lead guitar halfway through the verse, the mixture of the simple minor-chord riffing with the melodic lead guitar and Briggs's high, crooning vocals creates an understated yet catchy feel. As the song moves into its pre-chorus, the drums become more powerful, and push things towards a stronger, more driving chorus. However, Gary Briggs never sings any more forcefully. Instead, he goes higher, adding to the passion of the chorus by hitting surprising soprano notes. My favorite part of the entire song is when, on the chorus, he sings the line "Lately I'm sure, words won't implore you to stay," emphasizing the internal rhyme on the words "sure" and "implore" by hitting an impossibly high falsetto note on the first word, then moving to an even higher harmony on the second word. These kinds of vocal tricks won't be for everyone--if you can't handle a bit of fey grandiosity, you're better off with a Husker Du record--but if you can get on their wavelength, Haven have a lot to offer. At least on this song.
And that's the kind of story that I've discovered most of the time when I've gone digging deeper into the careers of garage/psych bands from the 60s who have one or two songs that I fucking love. Take the Count Five, for example, whose "Psychotic Reaction" is one of the most famous Nuggets of all time. Lester Bangs, in his "Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung" essay, promised me an entire album of garage awesomeness where that first single came from, but when I hunted down the Count Five's other recorded work, I mostly got embarrassingly inept crap (though I will give credit to "Double Decker Bus"). I should have known not to trust Bangs on this one, though, considering that the rest of the essay discussed four other Count Five albums that unfortunately never existed. Anyway, the point is that, like Haven, Count Five's career didn't have much depth to it. They're remembered for one song, and that's probably all they should be remembered for. So who's to say that, in 20 more years or so, there won't be a similar movement to preserve fondly the memories of all the lesser alt/pop/rock bands from our own time? I sure hope there is, at least. I'd love to hear a four-CD box set of post-grunge pseudo-Jeff Buckley shoegazers, each playing their one good song. Of course, by the time all of this happens, the box set won't be CD, but whatever format comes two steps after blu-ray, and I'll be experiencing a four-dimensional virtual reality immersion that makes me feel like I'm playing bass for whatever band I'm listening to. Which sounds pretty cool, come to think of it.
Haven - "Til The End" and "Let It Live"