Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Not a music post, but...

I'll be making more music posts soon, but in the interim I should mention that my dear, old friend Alex, whose idea it was for me to keep a blog of music writing in the first place, will be appearing as a contestant on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire this Friday night, July 27th. I'm not sure if they tape these things well in advance or whether they play them the evening of their taping, but either way, he'll be in the studio on Friday and, being a fine gentleman and talented writer, I encourage you to wish him well at that time. Winning on a game show is, as he put it, the only effective way of saving for retirement these days. Good luck, Alex!

Friday, July 06, 2007

Appreciation: Nightmare Scenario LP by the New Bomb Turks (2000)

(Photo by the venerable Shawn Scallen, from his website)

Between 1992 and 2000, Columbus Ohio’s the New Bomb Turks were the best punk rock band in the world. Fortifying the purest, most energetic rock and roll with a combination of smirking attitude and literate wit (the group members met in the English department of Ohio State University), they were more fun than hardcore, raged harder than any garage-band, and their wry wit made the pedantry of political punkers seem puerile.

The Turks’ 2000 release Nightmare Scenario is not their best record—that honour belongs easily to their first LP Destroy-Oh-Boy!!, famously described by MRR’s late Tim Yohanan as the perfect blend of 50s rock and roll, 60s garage, 70s punk, and 80s hardcore. Their second LP (Information Highway Revisited) and first singles collection (Pissin’ Out the Poison) are also very strong contenders for best-record status. But in many ways, Nightmare Scenario is their most interesting album.

The receipt I still have says I bought Nightmare Scenario on April 28th, 2000, the week it was released. I had followed the Turks religiously from the first time I saw them in spring of 1996 at Oliver’s Pub in Ottawa. It was my last year of high school and I’d bought Information Highway Revisited several months before during a visit to Montreal, where I knew I’d be moving at the end of school. I was restless to start the real life I’d been waiting my entire adolescence for and that record only further whet my appetite for growing up: it seemed to me at 18 like a very adult record, full of brash swagger, earnest confidence, and sidelong cleverness that sounded like what I wanted out of being older.

Shortly thereafter my pal Luke, who sat next to me in history class (and now fronts the mighty and very much Turks-influenced garage combo the Million Dollar Marxists), taped me Destroy-Oh-Boy!!, and that album’s wit and delivery instantly marked my attitude toward both rock and roll and growing up. On the day at the end of the summer that I moved into my first apartment and prepared to start university and adulthood, I celebrated by unwrapping a copy of the Turks’ latest LP Scared Straight, a record which anticipated many of the mixed feelings I’d soon encounter about getting older, being alone, and facing down the passage of time. Around then I began to look at the Turks as somehow channelling messages from my future. The more I listened to Scared Straight, the more I wondered how lyricist Eric Davidson could have guessed so much of what was on my mind. When At Rope’s End came out in 1998, I bought it on the day it was released (as I had its processor), arriving at the record store before they could even unpack the records from the box in which they’d been shipped. It, too, admirably caught the spirit of my day-to-day being, the uneasy comfort and experimentation of getting through school and coming into one’s self. I couldn’t wait for the band to tour, and once they’d been through on tour I couldn’t wait for their next record to drop—they were my band, and every record or frantic, fiery live show seemed to me to explain so many things or, at least, remind me that I wasn’t alone in the face of those things that couldn’t be explained.

At the beginning of the summer of 2000, I finished school and moved temporarily into an empty room in a friend’s downtown apartment left vacant for the season. It wasn’t my place and no part of it felt like home: experience has since taught me that salmon-pink décor rarely foreshadows the coming of the best of times. On the day of my last class of university, I savoured my achievement for a scant four hours before I had to show up to my job as a dishwasher/busboy at a busy dessert café. The dreams I had of instant achievement and a clear path to the future—to which I’d stupidly held on so long—seemed amputated and were remembered only as phantom pains. Very soon I would be without an apartment in a record year for housing shortage, stymied in my desperate search for a better job, and beginning the spiral of realizing my future offered nothing me in particular.

But first, I got the new Turks record—featuring ex-Gaunt drummer Sam Brown replacing Bill Randt who apparently left to get his MA and become a teacher. The album cover foretold the mood of the record—a blurry, largely dark image in black, orange, and purple of the band silhouetted by what looks like a massive column of flame on a night street. The design seemed sombre and intense, but had nothing on the music itself. Beginning with angry cymbals and insistent 16th-note bassdrum kicks that lead into the revving of Jim Weber’s jet-engine guitar, the record floors it from the first track with the breakneck-velocity rock and roll of “Point A to Point Blank.” The sheer power of the opening of this record brings to mind, more recently, the exhilirating thrust of "Colour Removal," the opening of Fucked Up's Epics In Minutes LP-- a power unsurprising in a band as as heavy Fucked Up, but startling in a band like the Turks, whom most in 2000 were expecting would follow the lucrative hip-swinging script of garage rock. Recorded almost entirely in the red (its sonic details blurred in a wash of noise that mirrors the bleak high-contrast image on the cover) and significantly louder than any previous Turks release, the album sounds destructive, and by no means in production alone. “Point A to Point Blank” is a torrent of contempt for garage-rock culture (then heading towards its MC5-worshipping apex, though still a couple of years ahead of trucker-hats), writing off that core group among the band’s fans as “playing dress-up white trash” with “all the groove and move of a full-up parking lot.”

What’s striking about that opening track, however, is that it doesn’t strut or boast in its ridicule of garage-rock culture—instead, it lunges straight into existential scorn, damning songs about “hearts done wrong” as meaningless in the face of spiralling panic and reminding the listener that “Cute Satan tattoos only hold up for so long” when “The only thing that lasts for me / dies every day.” Gone, suddenly, is the wink-nudge cynicism of previous records, or the good-time party rock of the band’s earliest releases. The speed and desperation of Nightmare Scenario sound reckless, drunk, and terrified, its music the sound of someone trying frantically to outrun the inevitable. The ominous choice of “better dread than dead” in the opening track’s chorus sums up the nausea underlining the entire record.

That’s not to say that there aren’t slower tracks, or that every song on the record is serious—they aren’t all, but even among those not sick with dread there’s an attitude of defeated pessimism very different from the cynical joshing I’d come to expect from previous Turks records. “Spanish Fly By Night,” the album’s silliest throw-away track, still sounds unsettled and ill-at-ease. Most garage-rock bands brag of being “born to lose” as though every one of them is shouldering some share of Johnny Thunders’ spiritual burden, but here even that stock pose is enriched with the reality of being horrified at the purposelessness of life. The entire world-view of the album is embodied in its title: this is all about the nightmare scenario of there being no meaning or pleasure in being alive.

The most memorable songs are the ones that confront the awful dread head-on, like “The Roof” which offers that “what comes natural to us” is “sucking up car exhaust.” Sure, the song suggests, you can “[kill] time by climbing up the roof” when you’re feeling bad, you can throw bottles if you like, but don’t ever forget that “you can look north, south, east, or west and never see anything.” Again, the thought of suicide appears: “We stand there daring to jump off, but stand still anyway” in the “late summer wind.”

Bunched together at the end of the record, the last five tracks mount to an apex of hopelessness. From “The Roof” on, the album forgets any subject it brought up after the first track and returns again to playing bleak music about feeling useless and devoid of meaning. “Your Beaten Heart” spits bile at a second-person “you” that given the rest of the lyrics on the record can only be self-directed—noting empty eyes, and lamenting the act of “gasping for breath fighting old despair” before finally demanding, “Do you even know your name anymore?” In “Turning Tricks,” Davidson admits that he can easily be both whore and pimp, but will in either case just “piss the money away.” Yet, “There’s no apology in this tramp’s pants,” even as he compares himself to both Judas and Mary Magdalene.

It’s the last two songs, “Wine and Depression” and “Quarter to Four,” though, that nail the lid down on the coffin the rest of the record has been preparing for hope, and lower it into the ground. “Wine and Depression” shakes with maracas and a head-swinging beat but celebrates “self-inflicted pain” as it admits that whatever fun a drunken stupor might offer will pass soon enough, leaving you alone to face the insurmountable foe of empty sadness that seems only to make you more aware of how little you matter. As “Quarter to Four” closes the record, it does so at the same surging velocity as the album’s highest points, elegizing “another wasted night” in an anthemic chorus that weeps, “I want to say something, I’ve got nothing to say. Close my eyes, don’t want to see the sun coming up on my history.” Summing up the entire thrust of the album so far, Davidson shrugs, “Resignation is bliss,” before confessing, “I never brake when I hit the skids on a wasted night.” The futility of any attempt to dull the pain is trumped by the impossibility—for whatever reason—of suicide, though. “We can close our eyes and let our hands pretend that we can kill this life,” says Davidson, “But for now let’s curl into this wasted night.”

Only at the last line of the record did I get, on first listen, a sense of what the reason behind it all was: in the most oblique reference, Davidson says, “Living by night in a lonely place, my father was Nicholas Ray.” Ray was the director Rebel Without A Cause among other classics of lost adolescence (notably here, They Live By Night and In A Lonely Place), but in trying to decipher the meaning of that I noticed the line at the bottom of the liner notes dedicating the record to Joseph A. Davidson, with a date of death in late summer of 1999, followed by, “Thanks Dad. –E.D.”

The dread foretold in the record caught up with me soon after and carried through as I found a new apartment, a better job, and came to realize that my problems weren’t just where I lived or worked but far deeper and more difficult to rectify. True to its promise, as much as I listened to Nightmare Scenario over those months, it did nothing to make me feel better. If anything, it reminded me that however bad I was feeling, I could only feel worse, and eventually would. At the centre of what years later I would look back on as “the crisis,” I saw the Turks play at the Jailhouse Rock café, which was my favourite venue to see them in. The show was typically incendiary and fun, with Davidson goading the audience, mocking, hugging, kissing, and sweating on whomever he picked out between charging manic back and forth in front of the band, off and on the stage. He looked like he was having a great time and I was glad, despite the fact that outside of that night’s show I wasn’t having much of a good time myself. After they finished their set, I stopped Davidson as I always did after shows to say thanks and remind them to come back to play my town again soon.

I said my usual bit as I shook his hand, but at the end of it, added, “I just want you to know how sorry I am to hear about your father.” Davidson, who was sweaty and exhausted and had previously looked distracted, looked startled, then took my hand with both of his and looked into my eyes with an expression of seriousness.

“Thank you for saying that,” he said. “It was really hard and it still is, every day.”

Never sure how handle the subject of death, I edged around asking how his father had

“Multiple sclerosis,” he said sadly, still shaking my hand and staring intently at me. “It had been downhill for years and years and it just got harder and harder. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Maybe that explains the record’s plunge into the darkest of subject matter, or maybe it’s just one of a number of factors. What’s strangest about Nightmare Scenario, though, is that beyond all of its thematic darkness and claustrophobic noise, it’s a great rock and roll record that’s fiercely played and tight as hell. It demands to be played as loud as you can manage it and it’s easy to dance to, unless your goal is dancing to forget. The Turks released one final LP followed by a third singles collection following this one, but neither was up to their previously high standards. How could they have been? At the twilight of their career, Nightmare Scenario set a high-water mark for existential-crises-expressed-in-garage rock not reached again until 2005 with Max Danger’s tracks on the Deadly Snakes beautiful swan-song LP Porcella and finished the arc from the boastful conceit of youth to the hesitation and dread of beginning to grow up.