Given my fondness for reunited ’90s indie rock bands and current bands influenced by ’90s indie rock, you might think I’m paralyzed by nostalgia for 1996, spending my days watching reruns of The Single Guy, flipping through my high school yearbook, and circling future purchases in the Touch and Go catalog. Unbelievable as it may be, this scenario is not accurate. Two key distinctions: first, I do not pine for my 1996 existence, a key aspect of nostalgia. No part of me wants to return to high school—I literally have nightmares about it happening. Second, with regards to the ’90s music mentioned above, I never stopped enjoying it. I’m not returning to a time when I listened to Chavez, Hum, and Girls Against Boys—I still listen Chavez, Hum, and Girls Against Boys. It’s not like I’m making playlists of the ’90s alt-rock hits that were shoved down my throat; the mere thought of “Brimful of Asha” beckons a cold sweat.
The closest I’ll come to being properly nostalgic is recalling my 120 Minutes routine. I’d stay up until midnight on Sundays to press record, rightfully distrusting the programmable VCR's ability to perform its advertised duty. When I watched the tape, I’d dub favorites like Girls Against Boys’ “Super-Fire” to audio cassette, where school-bus replays would encourage a trip to Circuit City or Media Play to purchase a CD that would, by fiscal necessity, receive almost exclusive attention for a few weeks. A tedious process, yes, but it was my primary method of learning about new music. Contrast that set-up with 2013, where recommendations are dumped on me on an hourly basis from a wide range of sources, music can be freely and easily heard, and new records become ancient within a week. The singularity of my 120 Minutes indoctrination tempts a rose-colored remembrance, at least until Matt Pinfield’s visage starts blathering on about the latest Oasis single.
The song that triggered this 120 Minutes flashback is “Blood from a Loyal Hound,” from Two Inch Astronaut’s Bad Brother. Its component parts project a low-budget video courtesy of Alias or Caroline Records on my wall—the ear-catching opening riff, the verse slow-down, the energy burst into the chorus, the falsetto hook, the passionate spike of its final refrain, and a careening-off-the-walls conclusion. While I can’t create a proper treatment for this hypothetical video without rewatching the clips for "Harnessed in Slums" and "Pat's Trick" all afternoon, here’s the pitch: it opens with a sped-up, possibly colorized version of a mundane day-job (copy shop or coffee house), switches to the band performing when the first verse starts, deftly jump-cuts between the practice space and the day job scenes, gets progressively weirder with the band's wardrobe in each space, then closes on them first performing in and then destroying their hated workplace. The video for "Blood from a Loyal Hound" might never make it into regular rotation or the beloved Buzz Bin, but it would certainly prompt my cycle of cassette dub / Media Play CD purchase / four weeks of singular rotation. Media Play and Circuit City are still doing well, right?
Apologies to Two Inch Astronaut for focusing so heavily on the past; by no means is Bad Brother solely reminiscent of mid-'90s cut-out classics. Like I mentioned in my review of their split single with Boston's Grass Is Green, there's plenty of DeSoto/Dischord post-punk influence here, with particular nods to Devin Ocampo's Faraquet (in the leads) and Medications (in the knotty structures of "He Was Our Boy"). But Two Inch Astronaut push the songs in both more aggressive, post-hardcore and more melodic, '90s alternative rock directions. The wild energy and throttling chords of "Spank Jail" represent the former nicely, splitting the difference between the control of Drive Like Jehu and the caterwauling of Daniel Striped Tiger. As for the alt-rock reference points, I've absolutely racked my brain trying to determine which synapses are firing over mid-tempo anthems like "Check the Yard," and the best I can come up with from the 120 Minutes pool is a less goofy Self, although Hammer No More the Fingers provide a good contemporary touchstone. Consider the crucial difference between a band being melodic and a band having memorable melodies; Two Inch Astronaut belongs firmly in the latter category.
Two Inch Astronaut’s triumvirate of tricky, aggressive, and catchy is awfully hard to top in my book, and Bad Brother flies by even faster than its fat-free twenty-seven-minute runtime. It’s almost a shame that so many of their peers have released similarly excellent LPs of late—almost—since Bad Brother deserves a few weeks of your undivided attention (and not just because you can’t afford any other albums).
When it comes to seven-inch singles, I’m either complaining about their steadily escalating prices or wishing more bands would release them. Let me be more specific: release them properly. Charging eight bucks for two songs—one from the album people already own, one that’s more likely an alternate take, demo, or tossed-off cover than a must-hear rarity—is testing my faith in the format. If the price can’t come down, increase the value. Reward the faithful with a non-album single like Wire, The Smiths, or Stereolab did. Put something fun down on wax, like Wye Oak’s covers of “Strangers” and “Mother.” Or share space with another excellent band and see who comes out on top.
This single falls into the last category, with Boston’s Grass Is Green and Silver Spring, Maryland’s Two Inch Astronaut each making their vinyl debuts. With each band offering two exclusive songs, Split Dicks can be politely excused from the above discussion of value. The only thing that would have stopped me from recommending this single is if they’d chosen the cover from a Google Image Search of “split dicks,” and fortunately you only get the mental picture (which still makes my crotch recoil).
I’m well acquainted with Grass Is Green—I would have slotted Ronson in my top five LPs of 2012 if I actually got around to, you know, doing one. In classic seven-inch logic, these songs are solid enough to have made Ronson, but wouldn’t necessarily have fit into its flow. “Tasty Hot Air Balloon” struts like an aggro Polvo before breaking into an all-too-short anthemic finale. “You’re Yawning All Over My Baby” flies out of the gate with the spastic energy of their live sets, then runs some math-rock trials. I’d be happy to encounter either song on one of the group’s set lists.
Two Inch Astronaut appear to have been raised on the same steady diet of Dischord/DeSoto post-punk as Grass Is Green, but chose a less frenetic, more melodic direction. These songs are so up my Jawbox/Faraquet/Candy Machine alley that I’m kicking myself for not making it out to a house show in January to see both bands. Hopefully I’ll get another chance this spring after their upcoming album, Bad Brother, comes out.
I know the idea behind split singles is to introduce bands to their respective audiences, but I’d be glad if Split Dicks became a yearly series. Maybe next time Grass Is Green goes mid-tempo and Two Inch Astronaut gets spastic, maybe they cover each other’s songs, maybe they cover DC classics. Just keep away from GIS results for the covers.
Approximately a minute and a half into my first spin of “Jesse’s Fashion Show,” the third song on Grass Is Green’s recently issued Ronson, I started getting the sense that the group made a quantum leap forward since 2011’s Chibimoon, like if my three-month-old daughter walked over to me and asked me to put on Fugazi’s Red Medicine. This feeling kept solidifying as the song continued and at exactly 3:13, it became a certainty: I wholeheartedly endorse whatever illegal riff-growth-hormone Grass Is Green imported from Mexico last year. They haven’t entirely lost the anxious angularity that appealed to me on Yeddo and Chibimoon, but the teasing nature of those albums—flashing a superb Polvo-meets-Faraquet passage in “Slow Machine,” then suddenly abandoning it—has been replaced by a new philosophy: write a great riff, then one-up it with a better one, then one-up it with a better one…
It’s a tall order to get past how smartly constructed “Jesse’s Fashion Show” is (the vocals dropping out midway through its four-minute runtime to prioritize the nimble lead exchanges, for one), but Ronson offers other expansions of Grass Is Green’s portfolio. “Panera” is the tightest, catchiest song they’ve written; it would have merited inclusion in nearly every mix tape I mailed out from 1997–2000. The slow-burning “Somebody’s Something” finds deeper catharsis with “It’s getting hard to ignite those kerosene eyes / Difficult for everyone else,” then allows Andy Chervenak’s vocals get overtaken by a pitch-perfect closing guitar part. The instrumental “Ruffleball” ends Ronson with satisfyingly bright interplay between the four members before fading to black. If you’d told me Grass Is Green had mastered any of these moves on their third album, I would have been impressed, but all of them? I’m still scratching my head.
It might sound like I’m disparaging Grass Is Green’s previous efforts, but it’s hard to go back to earlier records after a big leap. Returning to The Dismemberment Plan’s ! after Is Terrified proved largely impossible, I spent considerably less time with Smart Went Crazy’s worthy Now We’re Even after acquiring the superior Con Art, Shiner’s Starless felt like a dry run at a four-piece edition of Shiner after The Egg was birthed, et cetera. My question for Grass Is Green, now that they’ve written a score of guitar riffs I uncontrollably sing along to, is this: Where does Ronson fall in their evolutionary curve? Returning to the Dismemberment Plan comparison, is their Emergency & I coming up? That is what I’m so excited about: if they made this enormous leap for Ronson, imagine what could be next. Am I going to break my hands drumming on my steering wheel?
No pressure, guys.
Last night at Great Scott I was presented with an impossibly rare occurrence for a jaded concert-goer: a four-band set where I was not just willing, but actually excited to see all four bands. How often does that happen? The last instance I can think of was the opening night of the Flower Booking Festival at the Metro in Chicago, where Burning Airlines, Hey Mercedes, Shiner, and Bluetip brought an epic amount of rock. And that was a special occasion. And eleven years ago. But much like that show, the four bands at Great Scott played different, but complimentary styles.
The newly expanded Me You Us Them arrived as a four-piece, with former drummer Jimi Jano rejoining the group as a keyboardist/auxiliary drummer. The change adds depth to their more shoegaze-oriented tracks, represented in their set by “Drugs” and a pair of new songs, and melody and noise to their more aggressive songs (“As of Now” and “iQuit”). It also unleashes drummer Zach Eichenhorn from the tyranny of the click track which accompanied their old backing loops. (Fun fact: Eichenhorn also drums for the instrumental rock band Adam’s Castle, whom I saw in Urbana, IL, back in 2003.) Me You Us Them closed off their set with a nasty take on “Research” (live footage) from their split single with Bloody Knives and the double-drummer ache of “Loving Like Lawyers” (live footage), the highlight of their 2010 LP Post-Data. Here’s hoping the new line-up tours a lot and records those new songs soon.
Fellow Brooklynites Grandfather played second, bringing a confrontational mixture of the aggressive rock of Shellac, the Jesus Lizard, and June of 44, and the art-rock twists of US Maple, Shudder to Think, and Singer. The resulting post-punk concoction swerves between vulnerability and violence, confidence and curiosity as it winds through bracingly intense passages. Their Steve Albini-recorded 2010 LP Why I’d Try is available for free download, but I gladly picked up a copy on vinyl.
After listening to Grass Is Green’s Yeddo and Chibimoon for much of the last week, I appreciated hearing the best of those songs live delivered with kinetic energy and precision. “Slow Machine” was the highlight, its multi-part construction sounding particularly epic. They closed out their set with the hyperactive “Uhm Tsk,” which reminded me of the early, crazy days of the Dismemberment Plan. (No trombone, however.) It was also a special treat to hear Smart Went Crazy’s Con Art as the house music once their set had finished.
Pile closed out the night, sounding downright loose and raw after the tightly wound math-rock of Grass Is Green. Bits of hardcore adrenaline, country finger-picking, and garage rock energy were all filtered through Rick Maguire’s charismatic vocals. What I appreciated most was the unpredictability: they’d get a head of steam, then cut it off and hit a lull; threaten a set-ending jam and then stop the song entirely; turn a howl into a sheepish grin. I grabbed a copy of Pile’s new 7”, “Big Web” + 2, which you can hear and order over at Bandcamp. They’re heading out to the Midwest this month, so catch them if they’re in your area.
There’s an encore performance of this billing at the Cameo Gallery in New York tonight, and it’s awfully tempting to blow off my plans and see the four bands again.
Here’s a tip for all press agents sending digital one-sheets to my inbox: If you cite Fugazi, Jawbox, and Smart Went Crazy in the first line of the e-mail, I will check out the album and/or see the band live. Fugazi and Jawbox are a good start, but anybody citing Smart Went Crazy in 2011 earns my trust. It obviously helps if the band sounds like Fugazi, Jawbox, or Smart Went Crazy, but there’s only one way for me to find out, right? Even if you’re lying, I’ll appreciate the effort. Anything to keep “Animal Collective, Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys” from being applied to the newest, hottest post-chillwave record.
In the case of Grass Is Green, my excitement was doubled because those references were coming from a Boston-based group. As it turns out, three-quarters of the group are transplants from Rockville, MD, a more natural locale to be weaned on Dischord’s finest, but that fact doesn’t kill the buzz. I am drawn to math-rock guitar figures and time-signature changes like a moth to the flame, and Grass Is Green offers enough of both to make me into a burnt husk on the floor.
Don’t expect a straight hybrid of the aforementioned bands. There’s a lot of Polvo/Rectangle weirdness floating around, specifically the juxtapositions between frenetic guitar interchanges and unexpected bouts of melodic pacification. Smart Went Crazy and Fugazi register for the DC reference points, but the clearest touchstone would be a twitchier take on Faraquet’s ever-shifting math-rock, and not just because Devin Ocampo mastered their first album, Yeddo. With a few welcome exceptions, Grass Is Green aren’t prone to standing still.
It’s easy to extend that tendency to the group’s output. The ten-track Yeddo was released on Bandcamp last September, followed up in March by the seven-track Chibimoon. That’s a remarkably quick turnaround for a band bartering in jagged guitar shapes. Credit the ease of digital distribution and/or an overflow of material. Fortunately, you can grab both of these albums for a whopping $10.
The distinction between Yeddo and Chibimoon is noticeable, if by no means absolute. The former has cleaner hooks and more straight-ahead momentum, the latter has sharper left turns and greater changes in pace. Yeddo is still off-kilter, but the melodies of “No Legs,” “Feeling Different,” and “Tricky Tim’s ‘Night on the Town’” ring through the knotty thicket of guitars and percussion. The aggressively antsy “Uhm Tsk” hits the raucous energy of early Les Savy Fav, and was the highlight of their set when I caught them earlier this year.
Chibimoon is better at showing its range. Opener “Slow Machine” cycles through several whiteboards worth of passages, but never tops its hooky “Drift into the magic hour” part. “Boat Show” and “Chibimoon” start off with uncharacteristic calm, but the cathartic climax of the title track is the highlight of the record. The rollicking “Tongue in Cheek” hits its stride with a drum-crazed mid-section. “Twinkle Toes” is likely as close to a slow jam as Grass Is Green will write. This split between fifth-gear discord and lilting lullabies can make your head spin.
Even within the realm of high-energy, DC-inspired math-rock, there’s an awful lot going on in both Yeddo and Chibimoon. Grass Is Green’s compositional restlessness is both a blessing and a curse, bringing in a surplus of ideas but occasionally ushering the best ones out too soon. The easiest solution would be to cherry-pick each record, grabbing some satisfyingly skewed rockers from Yeddo and the calmer and/or weirder moments from Chibimoon, but you’d inevitably miss out on memorable passages. It’s better to get both albums and work through the knots.
Special Boston-area note: Grass Is Green is on a bill with the excellent Me You Us Them, Grandfather, and Pile at Great Scott on September 1. If you miss that superb bill, you can catch them again at the Middle East Upstairs on September 29 with fuzzed-out indie rockers Young Adults.