Friday, October 14, 2011

Joseph's Picks Of The Week 10/14/11 - Fruit Bats and Dinosaur Jr.

Until fairly recently, my experiences with Fruit Bats had mainly been intermittent pleasures absorbed through hit-and-run web-streaming or activities of similar nonchalance. In this regard I thought the music sounded fine; a whole lot of folksiness with some well calibrated indie pomp thrown in. For no specific reason I just never followed up those favorable impressions with a lengthier, hardier sit down to better acquaint myself with the work. Well TRIPPER, the fifth full-length in a decade from the Eric D. Johnson-led group has been out for a couple months now via Sub Pop, and it’s sticking to the wall of my consciousness like taffy and Testors. On first listen this record seemed like it might be afflicted with the fairly recent indie tendency to unashamedly wade into soft-rock waters, an inclination extant on newish records from everybody from Iron & Wine to Bon Iver to even Girls. This is definitely becoming something comparable to a trend and frankly it’s starting to get bothersome. Fruit Bats do certainly mess around with soft-rock sounds, but thankfully there is an underlying strangeness to the whole endeavor, even though their music isn’t particularly oddball in finished execution. Actually TRIPPER goes down pretty durned easy, smooth enough to even help soundtrack a long-assed road trip with a highly-strung pal riding shotgun. Johnson’s voice reminds me very much of Destroyer’s Dan Bejar (speaking of guys recently embarking upon strange soft-rock journeys) but with most of the poetic eccentricity replaced with a generally more direct attack; occasionally he’ll whip out some post-disco falsetto-soulifying jaunts that conjure up tall, overly skinny white-boys imitating Mick Jagger in smudged bathroom mirrors as their sisters pound on the doors for needed makeup time (what a constant battle). And as potentially horrific as that might sound, it actually works. The similarity to Mr. Behar also points to a mild and appealing glam-folkiness that springs early Bowie to the frontal lobes of my mind. No, TRIPPER isn’t all that odd of a record, but it is an often woozy one. For instance, opening track “Tony the Tripper” (any relation to Nick the Stripper?), with its vocal ache, acoustic strum and ripples of electricity sounds like a readymade anthem for young drunk lovers to boldly blast from the stereo as they stumble out to slow dance and lean on each other in the back yard. Oh, the good life. “So Long” sounds maybe a little like Matt Ward briefly setting aside his guitar to record a one-off single produced by James Murphy. With maybe a guest spot by Joanna Newsom. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. “Tangle and Ray” actually approaches something close to a rock sound, not all that far from the more driving material by The Shins (with whom Johnson has played), and this helps lend TRIPPER a nice diversity. Speaking of which, “You’re Too Weird” is easily the record’s most blatant soft-rock statement, taking a big mess of Fleetwood Mac and mixing with some o’ that modern pop-chart rhythmic choogle ala Scissor Sisters. No joke. And ultimately it is seriousness that saves it from being tossed into the dust-bin; nothing in the song is ironic or arch. It indubitably helps in my case that I’m pretty okay with pop-era Mac (in doses, especially from TUSK) and those Sisters (who like so many things surely sound best to me while gills deep in booze). To continue, “The Banishment Song” shifts with ease from New Odd Beardo front-porch picker-isms to piano driven wounded-lover soul-purge and then floats it seamlessly into the somewhat Sufjan-ist organ sounds of following track “The Fen”. Cagily, closer “Picture of a Bird” is the most straightforwardly indie-folk moment on the disc, a pretty tune dominated by acoustic guitar and tough singing, reminding me of what I’d previously pegged from my fleeting encounters with their work as Fruit Bats’ default sound. TRIPPER is a fine record, confidently succeeding in its refined mellowness where many other mainstream indie acts fail or flirt with full-on disaster. Anybody turned on to the sounds of Sam Beam, Justin Vernon or Fleet Foxes should find Fruit Bats to be worth investigation if they don’t already know them quite well. Hey, just because I’m playing catch up ball doesn’t mean you haven’t been top of things. Just do me a solid and fill me in next time, okay?

Though I’d been reading about them in the underground music press since first getting clued into the scene, I didn’t finally get to hear Dinosaur Jr. until late ’88 or so, shortly after their third album BUG was released. However, my introduction to this singular and incendiary band came through the previous year’s YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME, a record that I continue to rate as one of the ‘80s greatest rock albums. I’m talking top five, easy. Upon hearing it and being knocked sideways, I promptly placed my mitts upon the rest of their catalog. ‘Twas the smart thing to do, Dinosaur Jr. being one of the truly key bands to spring from their decade’s whole beautiful American punk/hardcore/u-ground mess to directly affect mainstream music culture as a whole. How? To explain that, it helps to define exactly what made their records such huge gulps of fresh new air back in the day. J Mascis (guitar), Lou Barlow (bass) and Murph (drums) emerged from the fallout of the Western Massachusetts hardcore scene looking for new kicks. Murph had been in All White Jury (whose APATHETIC SOCIETY demo cassette from ’83 is a fun if non-essential HC curio) and J and Lou were part of the justifiably legendary Deep Wound (whose work, collected on the ALMOST COMPLETE compact disc is a crucial component in understanding HC’s vitality as a non-metropolitan phenomenon). In Deep Wound Lou played guitar (which he would later do in Sebadoh, Folk Implosion etc.) and J played drums (which he does from time to time, most notably in Gobblehoof), and in one sense the blindingly fast speed of the music sets them far apart from what the trio subsequently fleshed out on the ’85 debut DINOSAUR; integrating at-times popish melody and the long-established dynamic sensibilities of heavy rock, in the process slowing things down considerably and touching upon influences that were rather out-of-vogue in the punk scene of the time. By the release of LIVING the group had really managed a firm handle on their unique blending of Sabbath-ian heaviness with a post-Crazy Horse propensity for getting to the heart of the jam. Figure in that J emerged in many people’s ears as the fledgling indie-rock scene’s guitar god du jour and Dinosaur can be perceived as quite out of step with the hardcore scene that reared them. But on the other hand, not really; the band retained a sense of density and an attack that was directly descended from hardcore even if it felt strikingly different. For instance, Lou strummed his bass like a guitar, coming up with thundering bottom end that was distinct from any sort of pre-punk precedent. And Dinosaur’s brilliant combination of hard-rock and punk-rock qualities manifested through heaviness and tunefulness is where their influence on the mainstream is located. To put a fine point on it, they were the dry run for Nirvana, and just as succinctly (and boldly, perhaps), they were far superior to Kurt and company. Furthermore, I question if Nirvana would’ve even existed (at least in the form that we know them) without Dino as a guiding light. None of this is a big secret, and for that matter neither is the quality of the band’s first three records. All three have just been reissued on vinyl by the JagJaguwar label, and LIVING is the cream of this truly bumper crop. If I were asked to simply play four songs in illustration of what made this band such a sustained big deal, I’d resist the urge to cherry pick from the records and simply play LIVING’s first side. Beginning with a burst of effects-pedal whoosh and submerged screams, “Little Furry Things” quickly shifts into a mode more introspective, far less cacophonous yet ultimately just as powerful. With guest backing vox by Lee Renaldo bookending J’s own sweetly sleepy whine, a suavely executed instrumental break and waves of distortion carrying the tune to its conclusion, “Furry…” is Dino at their most approachable and most abrasive. This segues into “Kracked”, a speedier number which includes volatile riffing, bruised and needy vocal emoting, brutally assertive guitar soloing and even some acoustic strum for good measure, it’s a textbook study in dynamic firepower. This goes double for “Sludgefeast”, its effectiveness only increased by a slower tempo that  allows everybody to really lean into their instruments and conjure up a total shitstorm of rock’s true essence. Couple this bottled up intensity with a lyrical tactic that eschews any gestures toward grandiosity or eloquence in favor of short stanzas that communicate blunt, direct emotional appeals and states-of-mind (and then: repeat), and it’s not hard to see how some folks, particularly those eyebrow deep in a post-Beatles, post-Dylan, post-Springsteen, post-Costello mindset could find Dino a tad bit um, regressive. But that’s a mistake. Leslie West wasn’t trying to be Leonard Cohen; he was just a fat dude who was really adept at wailing on a guitar. On paper, the lyrics to “Sludgefeast” are borderline embarrassing; boy finally works up the nerve to wring his hands and plead for that special girl to pay him some attention (i.e. ex-hardcores ‘fessing up that they dig chicks more than sweaty mosh-pits). But a song isn’t on paper. The lyrics to “Sludgefeast” succeed through delivery, sound and oh okay sincerity. The big deal about so much truly timeless rock music is how it’s an assemblage of little things that aren’t individually any big deal. “The Lung” is a case in point. It is a succession of small gestures deftly integrated and sublimely executed; a loud but defiantly pretty instrumental opening that once clearly stated undergoes a shrewd tempo shift, giving the band opportunity to strut a wickedly loose groove. From there, J lets fly with one simple lyrical couplet, restating it once before gliding into a guitar solo that can only be accurately described as slouching towards epic (sorry Joan Didion). J’s voice then returns to emphasize that hazy stanza twice more (there’s still debate on what exactly he’s singing) before everything comes to a pedal stomping conclusion. In theory, it’s just a bunch of things other people have already done in different combination, and yet at the time of their arrival Dinosaur Jr. were thrillingly distinctive. It only took a couple years for a whole assload of lesser lights to get wise to their moves (and no I’m not talking about Nirvana here folks), but at the stage where YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME was fresh booty in the bins no one but these three disheveled, dysfunctional bodies sounded anything like this. To think I haven’t even mentioned the second side. To sum a few things up, “In a Jar” is maybe the single song that best exemplifies all of Dino’s superb qualities (it’s a photo finish with BUG’s “Freak Scene”, natch), and not to sound like a stressed-out street percussionist thwacking on the side of an oil drum with a 9-iron, but vinyl is the best way to experience the magnificence that LIVING holds; one reason why--the record ends with the mopey acoustic strum and tape-collage of Lou Barlow’s “Poledo”. SST’s initial CD issue screwed the pooch by following it up with a cover of Pete Frampton’s arena-rock warhorse “Show Me the Way”, thereby negating the lingering, naggingly unsettling atmosphere of Lou’s lo-tech experimentation. The remastered Merge CD swapped out the Frampton for their much-loved run-through of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven”, and while I value both of these tunes very much (particularly “…Heaven”), I’ll state unequivocally that this classic record ends with “Poledo”. M'kay? It’s now engraved in indie-rock lore that BUG spelt the end of the original line-up of Dinosaur Jr. While I dug the post-Lou Dino stuff pretty well (especially the Sub Pop single of “The Wagon” with Don Fleming briefly in the band), it should shock no one that in my estimation the Mike Johnson-era just wasn’t the same. Sebadoh was its own prickly (and then sorta polished) can of worms, very important and much loved by me. But hardly anything in the aural sphere compares to the sound of early Dinosaur Jr., and the fact that they’re back together in the studio and out on the road is just a grand thing to behold. YOU’RE LIVING ALL OVER ME helped put them onto the map as one of the greatest heavy-rock trios in the history of the whole shebang, and any serious rock fans still unaware of their status need to rectify that omission post haste.