In the first part of my interview with Robert Morrow, he asked me what I listen for when sampling new music. I stuttered, stopped, changed my mind, contradicted myself and did all the stereotypical blonde things until I hit on a word: commitment.
What I mean by commitment is that the artist has a crystal clear idea of what they want to accomplish and goes all out to realize that vision, often taking some artistic risks in the process. Commitment is something you can sense in the sound, in the energy, in the connectedness between vision and execution. A good example is Songs from the Wood: if Jethro Tull had produced an album consisting of same-o, same-o Tull songs wrapped in a few superficial trappings of Merrie Olde England, the album would have been a dog. Instead, they made a commitment to integrate many conventions of British folk music into both the lyrics and the arrangements while spicing up the music with contemporary sounds. It represented a departure and a significant risk, but they made the commitment to get it right . . . and they did.
I also tried to describe what turns me off, and I did a really lousy job of it, probably because I was thinking about how nice Robert Morrow’s mustache would feel brushing up against my clit. How can you think about what turns you off when you’re thinking about what turns you on?
Anyway, after I listened to Beach Day’s Trip Trap Attack the requisite three times and reflected on the experience over the next couple of days, I re-engaged my brain to tackle that weighty question. Why is Trip Trap Attack so damned good and most everything else I sample absolute crapola? I finally had my “aha” moment when that irritating bitch Adele appeared on someone’s office radio. I even came up with a theorem, just like in Geometry! Here it is:
“The size of the production must correlate to the essence of the music.”
Today, most popular recordings are “big.” The vocal is enlarged by maximizing reverb and echo. The instruments are enlarged by distinct digital panning, noise reduction and volume, volume, volume. The effect of bigness is to make the listener feel like they’re listening to something important, like a breaking news bulletin.
I have a secondary theory that all mainstream music today is specifically engineered for the television commercials that the music will eventually support, but it’s not ready for publication until I do more research.
What’s interesting is that the most powerful music is often under-produced, or “small-sized.” It creates a sense of shared intimacy with the listener. Think of “Waterloo Sunset,” “Suzanne,” or Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.” The arrangements are marked by subtlety; the production restrained. All are exceptionally powerful songs.
The vast majority of popular recordings today have the intellectual depth of a puddle two days after a rainstorm. The lyrics are full of clichés that can easily be transformed into advertising jingles. The essence of the music simply does not justify the drama (size) of the production. Today’s music is largely designed for thrill-seeking morons vulnerable to superficial stimuli seeking escape from their dreary lives. The experience is one of fake intimacy, like porn star sex films. Pretentiousness rules the day.
Beach Day’s début album is anything but pretentious. The musical style is a combination of pre-Beatles girl group, non-falsetto surf music, power pop and classic rock. The production is pure 45 rpm, straight out of the early days of rock. The energy is irresistible and the lyrics contain flashes of brilliance. Beach Day had a clear idea of what they wanted to accomplish and they pulled it off. They made the commitment and saw it through.
My theorem works!
Trip Track Attack opens with a song called “Walking in the Streets.” In reality, it opens with a tiny laugh, followed by a combination of drums and what sounds like a guiro (fish). Even before the power piano chords and unadorned guitar come in, you get a strong sense of Phil Spector in his salad days before he became a murderous weirdo loser. Kimmy Drake’s voice seals the deal: it’s a rich, slightly nasal voice with a sexy mix of attitude and sweetness perfect for the genre. The lyrics begin in girl-chases-boy mode, shifting in the second verse to boy-chases-girl mode: these are two confused ships passing in the fog of young adult relationships. An instrumental segment closes the track, featuring Kimmy’s dead-on classic whoa-oh-oh’s and a beautifully reedy organ. What’s interesting is that this track is drenched in reverb, as was the norm in early American recordings, but the track doesn’t sound “big” and cold in the least. That’s because recording technology in the early 60’s was quite limited, the studios quite primitive and the recordings largely monaural. Bigness was impossible; reverb was used to compensate for technological and architectural limitations. The effect in girl-group songs ironically served to enhance the intimacy: it felt like your girlfriend had pulled you into the girls’ bathroom to tell you a secret. That’s the sound they’ve managed to duplicate in “Walking in the Streets.”
Before you get the idea that this is going to be a 21st century update of either The Shangri-Las’ Myrmidons of Melodrama or The Very Best of the Ronettes, Beach Day takes a sharp turn into power pop with “Boys” (not Ringo’s “Boys”). A straight-ahead rocker with some nice melodic variations and hotter organ bursts (ooh, I like that phrase!), “Boys” shows us that the band knows how to rock while reminding us that sex, sex, sex is at the core of rock ‘n’ roll.
Beginning with a tom roll that awakens memories of The Ventures, we shift to surf music with “Beach Day.” I’ve always loved how life seemed so accessible back in the early 60’s when gas was 27¢ a gallon, making it possible for teenagers everywhere to lug Nehi bottles back to the mom-and-pop to get enough cash to fuel that night’s date:
It’s a beach day, baby and I’m comin’ to pick you up
I’ve got some change in my pocket and I’m comin’ to pick you up.
Today pop bottles come in disgusting plastic and change is this annoying thing you can’t wait to get rid of in the coffeehouse tip jar. What’s different in this song is (if the Gidget movies I’ve watched are accurate representations of the era’s socio-cultural norms) that it’s the girl doing the driving and calling the shots. As it should be! The song fades with a nod to The Beach Boys and the best harmonies on the album. “Stay” (no, not a Maurice Williams cover) comes next, opening with the kind of staccato attack that opened The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (no, not the Vanilla Fudge cover). This track adds more contemporary guitar distortion in spots, but also features a repetitive riff-based guitar instrumental that would have been right at home on Shindig.
My favorite song on the album is the definitely-girl-group melodrama “Seventeen.” Drummer Skyler Black opens the song with a bass drum lick that probably required a great deal of discipline not to try to rush it. He’s joined shortly by sweetly strummed guitar chords and the solid grounding of Natalie Smallish’s bass. My reaction to what comes next was “My fucking god, this woman has a beautiful voice!” To say that Kimmy Drake nails this one is an understatement. It would have been very easy to overdramatize this performance, but she avoids overacting and delivers the goods with genuine feeling. The guitars, bass and drums work exceptionally well throughout, and the lyrics are a tiny poetic gem (according to my transcription, anyway). The theme is the timeless American theme of escaping parental programming and finding your own way in life, with “no particular place to go”:
He was only seventeen
When he’d broken all his mother’s dreams. (2)
He was learning how to speak
By watching all the kids on the TV.
Did he know which way to go?
His friend took him where the wind blows,
He said, “I’ll be back someday.”
I was only seventeen
When I met him playing sleigh bells on the street
I was learning to how to be discreet
But my heart always followed its own beat.
Did I know which way to go?
My feet took me where the wind blows,
I said, “I’ll be back someday”
I was only seventeen
When I’d broken all my mother’s fancy dreams.
Tough one to follow! Lucky for us, they’ve got just the song, “Trip Trap Attack,” a bouncy little number that tells a story that will resonate with countless numbers of women who have dated a loser. An annoyingly chatty, full-of-himself, name-dropping reviewer on Pop Matters by the name of Zachary Houle wrote one of the dumbest critical comments I’ve read in a long time concerning this song: “Despite the fact that some of the tracks are just plain silly (what is, in fact, a “Trip Trap Attack”?) . . .” With that gem, he identifies himself as one of the many males in modern society with exceptionally poor listening skills who are terminally oblivious to the world around them, especially to the women that inhabit that world. Ironically, that’s the subject of the song!
Let’s spell it out for poor Zachary. Kimmy is stuck in a car with a guy who’s full of himself and completely unaware that he’s giving his date the creeps, the yawns or a combination of both. So, we have a woman riding in a car with a guy (a trip), she feels trapped (“I’m stuck in a car with you again.”) and experiences an anxiety attack (“And the things that you said to me/Make me feel like you’re my enemy.”) Got it? Sheesh! Did you ever think of actually listening to the music you’re reviewing?
Sorry, but irresponsible reviewers piss me the fuck off.
“Little Weird” is a good antidote for anger, as it’s a kick-ass rock song supporting the blessed notion of individuality and finding someone who can actually accept that in another person. Full of handclaps, pounding drums and ringing cymbals, this is an under-two-minutes mood lifter that has to make you smile. “Come Back to Me” takes us back to girl-group mode with an appropriately melodramatic lead vocal and high school romance imagery (I want him/nah, I don’t want him). There’s a nice Shangri-la-ish conversation between the two girls that’s only missing the sound of snapping gum to confirm its authenticity.
“Wasting All My Time” is a song with a dominant line that should be the mantra for the billions of stressed-out people trying to negotiate their way through the complexity of modern life: “I’m sick of wasting all my time worrying about things that I have no control of.” The harmonies and guitar counterpoint work well, and the throbbing drums echo the intensity of that “I’m sick of this shit” message. It’s followed by the slightly dissonant chords that open the melodic “Am I the Only One,” a melancholy driver where the power pop feel contradicts lyrics that describe symptoms of loneliness and depression. The album closes with the sexy bass-driven groove of “We’ve Gotta Go,” reminiscent of some of the better stuff the Go-Go’s did in their prime.
After what seemed like an endlessly long period of listening to new releases that weren’t worth the time and energy for a review, Trip Trap Attack has restored my sagging spirits. Florida’s Beach Day is a tight and energetic group with a solid début album that will immediately appear in my list of recommendations. They’ve taken tried-and-true conventions and infused them with contemporary sentiments and genuine feeling, making the music sound as fresh as it must have felt blasting out of those pocket transistor radios perched next to all those beautifully tanned bodies stretched out on the beach at the peak of summer.
I have been assured that those are not real worms on the album cover, but root-beer flavored Gummi Worms. Still disgusting, but not grossly, slimily, creepily disgusting.
The sound of Sugar Stems is as far away from wormy and disgusting as you can get, and even though they’re Milwaukee-based, they have nothing in common with Laverne & Shirley except there are two girls and two guys (and no, the guys are not named Lenny and Squiggy). What they are is an engaging power pop band with surprising lyrical depth whose music should be featured regularly in Little Steven’s Coolest Songs in the World if there’s any justice left in America.
Can’t Wait gets off to a drag race start with “Greatest Pretender,” with guitar and drums flying down the road, building energy for Betsy Heibler’s superb vocals. I love vocalists who can really do descending glissandi, like Little Richard does so well on the word “gal” in the second line of the verses in “Tutti Frutti.” Betsy performs this trick like a champ on the last word of the verses and it gives me the chills every time. I also love the way her voice fades directly into the guitar riff at the end of the first chorus. “Greatest Pretender” is a power-packed song with no empty spaces: it just rocks.
However, the tension between the cheery power pop melody and the edgy lyrics is what raises “Greatest Pretender” to another level. The narrator in the song is a chick who strives to fulfill his every need and fantasy, but the little prick is completely unable to keep his pecker in his pants when other female opportunities present themselves. Our heroine is engaged in a two-front war: one with her lothario and the other an inner war with her identity and self-worth:
I am the blood in your veins
And I am churnin’ like a hurricane
One day I’m gonna throw it all away
I am the air that you breathe
And I am your worst enemy
I am whatever you want me to be
‘Cause I’m your greatest pretender, you know (3)
And I’m all your whores.
“Like I Do” opens with a riff kind of like a high-speed version of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain,” leading to a solid rocker where Betsy combines sass and sweetness as she muses on the classic chick theme, “it won’t get any better than me, asshole.” The little touches of harmony from bass player Stephanie Swinney Conard show once again how small things can often have more power than the grandiose. Not a band in a hurry to slow down, next up is the title track “Can’t Wait,” featuring lower-register harmonies from lead guitarist Drew Fredrichsen and a driving, crashing beat from drummer Jon Heibler.
We finally slow down a teeny bit (not that I was complaining) with “Landline Static,” a mid-tempo life-on-the-road number powered by acoustic strum, a song with a bit more musical complexity but still very accessible. I love the way Betsy splits syllables on this song (lie-ayne, sky-aye, Ju-lye-aye), but even without those great touches, this is her strongest vocal on the album, full of confidence and clarity, with a tinge of country. It’s also a beautiful song with a pleasing melody and strong lyrics. I love the brilliant refrain, “When you’re all alone, a million miles from home, you know you can go back like landline static on the telephone,” a feeling of irresolvable distance I get when I’m on the road and my honey is at home—even with video it’s not the same as having all five senses engaged in the experience of another person.“Landline Static” also demonstrates that Can’t Wait is much more than your garden-variety pop collection.
Reinforcing that perception, “Magic Act” opens with an introductory passage of acoustic guitar blending with organ and either a marimba or a xylophone, creating a delightful moment of fantasy and wonder. The song then shifts to a groove kind best described as Keith’s “98.6” on steroids and amphetamines, with a high-speed whirling melody and tight rhythms. The story of another experience with a wayward lover is engaging and Betsy delivers them with the snappy soulful attitude you hear in Gladys Knight’s best stuff. Drew Fredrichsen then steps up to the mike for a turn as lead vocalist in the raw guitar-and-snare driven melodic rocker “Get to You.” Drew has a warm, engaging, slightly husky voice that was designed for melodic rock.
Betsy comes back with a defiant vocal in “Told You So.” With its tagline, “the world you live in is so fucked up,” one might get the impression that this is a protest song of sorts, and it is—a protest against people who take a doom-and-gloom attitude towards the world and instead of doing anything about it, just “bottle it up, keep your mouth shut.” It’s kind of like Bjork’s “Army of Me,” directed at the passive-aggressive. It’s followed by the toe-tapping, “Make Up Your Mind,” a relationship frustration song with some fine guitar work from Drew Fredrichsen.
“Love You to Pieces” is another mid-tempo song with a slight country feel that describes a love-hate relationship with some of the strongest and most emotionally honest lyrics on the album. The song deals with the classic tension of the opposites that passion can excite (and the confusing desires it often carries with it):
Always liked the taste of birthday cake
Until you took a piece and put in on my plate,
And said, “Baby, what do you think of me now?”
Well, I chewed it up, I spit it out.
I wanna hug and kiss and hold you all night
But sometimes when I do I want to kill you at the same time,
If I could find a way to just hold you tight,
I would wrap my arms around you ‘til I’m choking off your air supply.
Ready or not, I’m coming over,
You can run but you can’t hide and I keep getting closer
No matter how bad it hurts, I love you to pieces.
Never liked the way that my face looked
Until you told me I was beautiful and I got hooked
On loving myself, yeah, much more than you,
Straight to my head, honey, what could I do?
Many women find themselves addicted to male validation, a craving as strong as the addict’s need for a heroin fix. The tendency in the female half of the species to develop greater emotional intelligence is a double-edged sword: yes, it makes us better facilitators but it also leaves us vulnerable with people (male or female) who approach relationships from the perspective of me-me-me. Despite the emotionally complex story line, the song flows naturally and easily, leaving room for the listener to appreciate the subtleties in Betsy’s wonderful vocal.
Equally challenging from a storytelling perspective is the album’s surprisingly cheerful closer, “Six Feet Under,” a song that reminds those who pray for something better in an afterlife, “Don’t hold your breath, you might not get what you want when you’re six feet under.” This is one of Betsy’s more straight-line bubblegum deliveries, supported by sweet spot harmonies, and the disarmingly innocent sound of the song creates another ironic contrast.
The more I listen to Can’t Wait, the more I love it and the more I appreciate its depth and complexity. If you don’t feel like tuning into the fascinating tales described in the lyrics, you’ll still have a marvelous listening experience, as the melodies are delightful and the band is as tight as can be. Sugar Stems is a marvelously talented group with a clear idea of who they are and where they want to go, and with a lead singer like Betsy Heibler, they deserve to go a long, long way.
I could still do without the Gummi Bears, though. Maybe if I soak them in vodka . . .