Flip the Dial and That's Which Side You're On
40 · 2 November 95
Goo Goo Dolls: A Boy Named Goo
I hate bad band names, and "Goo Goo Dolls" is, in my book, about as bad as they come. Names that seem calculated to keep bands from ever getting taken seriously make me furious and disgusted. I also react badly, at least initially, to both pretty bands and slackers. Combine these three things, and you get my overall objection, until very recently, to the Goo Goo Dolls. Okay, yes, most of this came from just seeing the video for "We Are the Normal", from their previous album, Superstarcarwash (oh yes, I forgot, I also distrust titles made by cramming words together, titles with "super" in them anywhere, and anything having to do with celebrity-worship, whether sincere or sarcastic), a video in which the singer looked like a model and the other guys looked like high-school rejects.
So then, a few weeks ago, driving home from work or something, I heard a gorgeous, ringing guitar ballad on the radio that sounded like the Replacements might have sounded if they'd ever been given a good thorough scrubbing and detox just before being admitted to the studio to record. The DJ declined to ID it, though, so I filed it in my mental bin of unknowns, and limped on with my life. The next day I heard it again. And liked it even more. But still no ID. By the third time, I was singing along, and when they finally attributed it to the Goo Goo Dolls, I was crestfallen, as that either meant that the song was going to lure me into buying a lame album with one good moment, or else I was going to have to re-evaluate my stance against the band, and given how swamped with music I am already, having to admit that I now like a band I'd thought safely written off is always upsetting. But I kept hearing "Name", and finally I had to break down and buy the album.
My groaning CD vault, looking askance at another new band on the pile, was doubly distressed to note my reaction to playing A Boy Named Goo, particularly as the manic, joyful flailing it induced in me threatened to dislodge the plastic speaker-cable spool that holds the vault's upper doors closed. This is yet another phenomenal album, another album that I could disappear into for hours at a time. I know there are people who insist that no good music has been made since the Sixties (or the Forties, or 1610, or 1982), but on anything but the most dispassionate, intellectual level, I find it hard to believe them anything but totally, and tragically, insane. It seems like every time I pause to take a breath I discover another album that leaves me agape with wonder that a planet of humans who can't reliably manage to throw expired chewing gum into trash barrels can nonetheless produce achingly transcendent music seemingly at will.
If my current feelings for this album can be trusted, I may consider it one of the truly quintessential power-pop albums of the post-punk era. The Goo Goo Dolls are one of the easiest bands to describe that I can remember encountering: they sound to me exactly like a combination of the Replacements and Too Much Joy, grown up on Cheap Trick and open tunings. I mean the Replacements circa Tim and Pleased to Meet Me, when weariness had just begun to temper their punk vigor with melancholy, and if this reference is lost on you you've got two albums you need to go buy. Take this rage infused with desperation, and marry it to Too Much Joy's giddy, brattish, roaring, hook-packed glee (and if you don't know them, I suggest you quickly acquire their albums Cereal Killer and Mutiny), so that the Replacements elements no longer sound dissolute or noisy, and the Too Much Joy parts no longer sound precious or gimmicky. Let the Cheap Trick influence lend the mixture a fondness for stadium-shaking power, and then cover the whole album with a sheen of shimmering octaves and major-key harmony, and this is the album you get. There's not a sour note on the whole record. The guitars ring with heart-rending resonance, heavy on open fourths and fifths; the soaring harmonies are sweet and pure, and uncluttered by technique; the rhythm section crunches with an unassuming solidity, the bass throb rounding out the bottom of the sound; the lyrics are compelling but unthreatening. The composite effect is seamless, and I literally can't imagine how anybody could fail to smile bounce up and down in their chairs on application.
The record's structure obeys some timeless rules of guitar-pop album balance whose origins are shrouded in antiquity. It opens with the fast surge of "Long Way Down", where slashing guitars underscore a rousing chorus of generic sentiments like "I don't think I'll make it on my own" and "I don't want to live in here alone". This segues to the bouncy quickstep of "Burnin' Up", which provides half of the album's USRDA of titles with truncated "ing"s, as well as some good throaty screaming. "Naked" switches the pace slightly, dropping to an urgent mid-tempo that stutters across its bridges, the vocals stretching out over the rhythm in anthemic splendor (much like the chorus to "We Are the Normal", come to think of it, which probably means I'll be buying some back albums, grrr...). The lyrical references to "shots in the dark, from empty guns, never heard by anyone" echo classic rock and roll tropes of unheeded youth. "Flat Top" then takes the tempo both ways, alternating slower, deliberate, resounding choruses with verses that double the choruses' speed. "A visionary coward says that anger can be power, / As long as there's a victim on TV", they sing, neatly mixing Nineties media-cynicism with the Clash's canonical punk dictum about letting fury have the hour. They then speed up again for the goofy and irresistible "Impersonality", which reminds me of Too Much Joy for more reasons than just the fact that it refers to Thanksgiving and malls in the same song.
Then, perfectly placed just ahead of the album's midpoint, is "Name", the obligatory poignant, quiet, wistful, acoustic ballad. I don't have the slightest idea why the narrator seems to think he's doing the subject a service by not telling their name, but regardless, it's clearly a tender and principled decision, and reflects some indelible sadness having to do with orphans and emotional exhaustion, or something. The chiming acoustic guitar and the gentle bass and drums are pristine and mesmerizing, and this could be the Goo Goo Dolls equivalent of Queensryche's "Silent Lucidity", or those Extreme songs that got unsuspecting office drones to buy copies of Pornograffitti.
It doesn't do to linger on the slow bits, though, so "Only One" slams back into gear with gusto, a menacing bass rumble powering a chattering vocal about folk-singing and dope-smoking. "Somethin' Bad" gets big and goofy again, just to remind you that they can. "Ain't That Unusual" then decelerates just slightly, and lets its contrast with "Somethin' Bad" make it seem thoughtful and glorious. Something makes me think that this song is the kind of music that both Green Day and Social Distortion might have made if they'd had more-nurturing childhoods. This is happy music. A car-full of teenagers playing this album are not going to smash convenience-store windows or get into broken-bottle fights in gas station parking lots, because they're going to be too busy with the infinitely more valuable pursuits of playing air guitar and fantasizing about cheerleaders. "So Long" might lead the ones in the front seat to get a little carried away exaggerating the centrifugal effects of turns, and so cause the driver to mount a curb or two, or perhaps even graze a mailbox, but those are healthy expressions of youthful vigor, and also give small-town papers something to put in their police reports ("Damage to town property occurred when...", these entries always began in Park Cities News, the one I grew up with, though in case anybody from there is reading I should emphasize that I am, of course, aware of this behavior only actually going on in other places, where I didn't know anybody's last names, and couldn't see their faces clearly, and certainly wasn't at the wheel myself).
"Eyes Wide Open" is especially Replacements-like, a sort of "Bastards of Young" with better backing vocals. Then, for the important album-ending weirdness, there are churning covers of "Disconnected" (I should know who did this song originally, and even if I don't know it I should be able to figure it out from the writing credits to Mann, Piranha, Secrist and Sinister, but I'm afraid that all I can dredge out my memory on the subject is the vague suspicion that Secrist's first name is Stuart. One of you, no doubt, will email me the answer within hours of this appearing, and I'll feel like an idiot. I so wish they'd put a players index in the last Trouser Press book...), and "Slave Girl" (sorry, no clue on this one, either, and "M. Blood and R. Jakimyszyn" means nothing to me).
Anyway, it's all just about flawless. There's nothing here I'd call innovative or challenging, but there is virtue too in refinement, and both the Goo Goo Dolls and producer Lou Giordano deserve elevation to the peerage for coming this close to perfecting a noble art.
Smackmelon: Blue Hour
Smackmelon and Tim O'Heir attempt to earn their nomination for venturing with stirring confidence into the forbidding demesne of what I can only think to call "somewhat edgy normal rock". Another trio, Smackmelon aren't as concerned with catchy pop twinkle, preferring to tread the wide lane between sturdy blue-collar rock traditionalism and Mould-indebted speed-and-noise that a host of Boston bands before them (such as O Positive, Big Dipper, Heretix, the Neighborhoods and Bullet Lavolta, and in a way newer entrants like Pooka Stew and Machinery Hall, as well) have worn smooth. Duke Roth's propulsive rhythm guitar drives these songs, but he's not afraid to relax into a long, drifting guitar solo when the urge hits. His singing voice is unexpectedly rich, reminding me a little of Catherine Wheel's Rob Dickinson's, and sounds just enough out of place to push the music in an interesting direction. Bassist Eric Jarmon and drummer Robert Brazier seem to mostly just be along for the ride, but they acquit themselves well enough.
My first encounter with Smackmelon was their six-song, self-titled 1994 debut EP. That disc featured some engaging melodies, some good guitar playing, and a couple egregious failures of judgment, particularly the boorish and crude "Dick Driver". This full album finds their instincts noticeably improved in virtually all areas. Almost every one of these eleven songs has a memorable core, and most of them have some interesting structural peculiarities, as well. Roth's lyrics are still not up to what his voice deserves, but they manage not to detract from most of these songs (perhaps the most lamentable exception being "I'm Not Cool", whose verses' tense drama is rather rudely undercut by the mundane repeated-title chorus). Sugar comparisons are probably inevitable, as there are moments here, like parts of "Drum Solo Song" especially, where Smackmelon sounds fleetingly a lot like them, but Roth doesn't have Mould's resolute unwillingness to take his foot off the overdrive pedal, and several of these songs are much longer and more evolutionary than Sugar or Hüsker Dü's concise, slablike compositions usually were.
Whether there's really an audience for this stuff is another question. Smackmelon's songs don't have punk's succinctness, but their expansiveness isn't in the form of retro jamming, either. Their arrangements are too minimal to interest progressive fans, and too oblique and noisy for soft-rock radio. In the end I fear they may be destined to go the way of all those other Boston bands they remind me of, unable to translate cultish area audiences into extra-local appeal. How much of a shame I think this is remains somewhat to be seen. This album sounds amazing, but lame lyrics make it hard to fully support the songwriting. The long quiet parts don't seem unmotivated, per se, but neither do they always seem essential. I'm also not sure if this music is leading anywhere; not that all bands have to, but I have a little of the feeling that this is basically what Smackmelon does, and that subsequent albums won't have a lot to add. It's strange to let that detract from one's enjoyment of an album as accomplished as this, though, so perhaps you won't let it bother you.
Shatterproof: Slip It Under the Door
Shatterproof is the second product of the boutique-label deal that Boston studio Fort Apache struck with MCA (the first was Cold Water Flat, who I've discussed more than once), though the band themselves aren't actually from Boston. In fact, though I bought this album knowing only the label situation, it turns out that I know the participants' prior work well. Shatterproof is basically the band-o-nym of Minnesotan multi-instrumentalist Jay Hurley, who I know both from his prior band, Hovercraft, and from his guest spots on some 27 Various albums. 27 Various, in turn, were Ed Ackerson's band before he formed Polara, who I've reviewed here before, and Ackerson both plays on this Shatterproof album and shares production credits with Fort Apache's Paul Q. Kolderie.
The resulting album is very much of the Hovercraft-Polara-27 Various family (Hurley even revives one song, "Has Been", from Hovercraft's Been Brained EP). Ackerson and Hurley's forte is in taking sweet pop songs in the vein of Big Star, Game Theory, the dBs, Let's Active and perhaps the Posies and early REM, and setting them in thick, hissing sonic settings whose constructed and sinister syntheticness and bristling disharmonic experimentation is as unlike Mitch Easter's trademark transparent, jangly south-eastern production style as Minneapolis is unlike Athens. This leaves many of these songs sounding a lot like somebody patched sawtooth filters into every channel of what would have resembled a Velvet Crush or Matthew Sweet song, and then fiddled with them until the output bus began to show signs of Chameleons and Guided by Voices fans having fought an indecisive battle over its proper production aesthetic. Depending on your tolerance for fractured perspective, then, this album may strike you as good material irrevocably ruined in the mix. Personally, though, I've found that Polara has grown on me steadily, and I think this one has very similar potential. The production, though strange, is far from arbitrary, and on every listen it seems to make better sense to me. So be patient with this, and see what that gets you.
Grover: My Wild Life
Speaking of Mitch Easter and Let's Active, Grover marks the resurfacing of Let's Active's Angie Carlson, and Mitch himself even produces four of these songs. The others, for another Boston connection, are produced by Kevin Salem, once of the band Dumptruck (and whose solo album Soma City, from last year, I got recently, and really like). And to tie all stray elements together, My Wild Life ironically bears more than a little resemblance to Slip It Under the Door. Angie's dense waves of distortion color what might have been cheery pop songs, and give them an ominous haziness. Angular twists of guitar remind me a little of the Breeders, and Angie's raw, slightly-chirpy, English-accented voice then bends the mood in yet another direction, making Grover sound a little like Elastica without so much Wire in it.
When this works, as it does arrestingly in the raspy bass pulse and airy vocals of "Yeah, I'm Dumb", the This Mortal Coil-like vocal flourishes in "Bend", the jumpy and good-natured bop of "My Wild Life", the frantic verses of "Sweet Thing", the distinctly Big Star-ish "Anesthesia", the snarling (and Sleeper-like) "Superhero", the swirling atmosphere of "Heavy Past" and the twangy Byrds-y chorus of "Damaged Girl", it's quite intriguing and effective, indistinct in a good way, preserving some animating mystery. When it doesn't work, though, it can just sound muddy and strained, as if the music can't quite extricate itself from aural quicksand. Several of these songs, despite the sterling production credits, sound an awful lot like demos, and while this is appealing in some ways, in some ways it also makes me impatient to hear what Grover will be able to do when they really have time to get things right.