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Reviews: Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years

Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years

Picking up Rodan's Fifteen Quiet Years, a highly anticipated collection from the short-lived Louisville greats, was the highlight of my biannual decimation of Chicago record stores. One key caveat: I had already heard every song on the vinyl. I own a few copies of the How the Winter Was Passed single, grabbed The Machines from Record Service in Champaign to hear "Darjeeling" (with the clerk, Todd Bell from Braid, praising my purchase on the merits of that song), mail-ordered Half-Cocked on VHS along with its soundtrack to hear “Tron,” scoured enough used bins to find the Compulsiv for Two single with the Aviary version of "Shiner," traded bootleg cassettes to hear the rest of Aviary and the live version of "Big Things, Small Things" from the initial pressing of Working Holiday, and hunted down their Peel Session on the earliest peer-to-peer filesharing networks. My years of Rodan obsession removed most of the surprises from Fifteen Quiet Years, but not the excitement of its long-overdue corporeal existence.

To reiterate the key point: Rodan remain worthy of obsession. With no slight to their Louisville forefathers Slint, Rodan's family tree reigned over my high-school notebooks. The group had split up before I first heard 1994's Rusty, their lone full-length, but my ravenous appetite for their blend of post-rock, math-rock, hardcore, post-hardcore, and indie rock only grew from the mystery of their short lifespan. No matter how many related acts I tracked down—boat-crazed math-rockers June of 44, neo-classical troupe Rachel's, bastions of beautiful restraint The Sonora Pine, slightly less boat-crazed math-rockers The Shipping News—I could never find one that precisely replicated what made Rodan so intoxicating, which is why I spent so much time sifting through used bins for the ephemera collected on Fifteen Quiet Years. Rodan possessed characteristics of all of their offspring, but what those later groups lacked (or perhaps could never have had) was the fiery passion of youth. The blistering hardcore of "Shiner" and the planet-shifting emotional gravity of "Everyday World of Bodies" mattered absolutely to its authors. That intensity is hard to maintain and harder to repeat in different situations. You could say that's the raison d'être of emo as a genre, which Rodan presumably represents along with the others I mentioned above, but very few of its acts overwhelm like Rusty does. (Rites of Spring and pre-reunion Sunny Day Real Estate are the only ones that come to mind.) Couple that boundless passion with the compositional maturity of "Bible Silver Corner" and you have a good sense of why I became a zealot.

Even though I wasn't actually around for its demise, I enjoyed theorizing on why Rodan split. I drew factions through their family tree with singer/guitarists Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller on one side (given their eventual recoupling in The Shipping News) and singer/bassist Tara Jane O'Neil and final drummer Kevin Coultras on the other (since they stuck together in The Sonora Pine). That divide overlooked how both Mueller and Coultras guested on Handwriting, the 1995 debut LP for Rachel's. I saw how Noble and Mueller continued to write and perform aggressive rock music in The Shipping News (with their final LP, 2010's One Less Heartless to Fear, offering their most palpable dose of fury), while Tara Jane O'Neil gradually shed the seething menace of "Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto" in The Sonora Pine, Retsin, and her prolific solo career. Perhaps it was as simple as no longer being 23, no longer feeling "Everyday World of Bodies" in their bones.

The most infuriating aspect of Rodan's demise is how seemingly close they were to having a follow-up to Rusty. With no offense intended to the blistering beauty of "Darjeeling," the instrumental implosion of "Exoskeleton," or the hardcore leanings of "Milk and Melancholy" and "Tron," Fifteen Quiet Years' pre-Rusty output doesn't intrigue as much as its post-Rusty forecasting. If you take "Big Things, Small Things," "Before the Train," "Sangre," "Wurl," "Martin," and The Sonora Pine's "Rungs" (a Rodan leftover not included here), you have six songs spanning roughly forty minutes, the default profile for mid-’90s post-rock.

The core of Hypothetical Rodan Album Number Two would have been “Sangre,” a Tara Jane O’Neil tour de force. Few vocalists deliver haunting evocations with visceral force like O’Neil did in Rodan, and “Sangre” surpasses “Toothfairy Retribution Manifesto” in how smoothly O’Neil shifts gears. “Big Things, Small Things” lines up as the likely single, a Jeff Mueller-sung rocker with more anthemic melodies than anything on Rusty. It’s halfway between Rusty and June of 44’s “Rivers and Plains” (their superlative contribution to the Lounge Ax Defense and Relocation compilation). From there, HRA #2 goes heavy on math-rock, with the eleven-minute “Before the Train” flexing its muscles in stops and starts, “Wurl” careening between a tricky riff and a dreamy, cathartic midsection reminiscent of June of 44’s Engine Takes to Water, and “Martin” throwing low-end haymakers. On The Sonora Pine’s debut LP, “Rungs” floats along percussion-free on Samara Lubelski’s violin, so it could have acted been a palette-cleanser for all of these math-rock workouts, or that version could have dropped weight from its original incarnation.

The sum of these parts is difficult to calculate. It’s hard to imagine the rigid “Before the Train” evolving much before another recording session with Bob Weston, but the two live versions of “Wurl” in the downloadable extras of Fifteen Quiet Years are noticeably different. Mueller and O’Neil would be well-represented vocally, but the fire of Noble’s “Shiner” and “Everyday World of Bodies” is missing. Would Noble write another blast of near-hardcore like “Shiner” or “Milk and Melancholy” to fill that void? No matter how close Rodan came to having the material necessary for a second album, it remains more mystery than reality, and Fifteen Quiet Years is the closest we’ll ever get to solving it.

In some ways, it’s bittersweet that Fifteen Quiet Years officially closes the door on Rodan. Even in an era where nearly every burnt bridge can seemingly be rebuilt, I never expected a proper Rodan reunion, but this is it. Jason Noble’s tragic passing in 2012 cut the roots of Rodan’s family tree. No more Shipping News, no more Rachel’s, no more Per Mission, no more Young Scamels. As thrilled as I am at the existence of Fifteen Quiet Years, since it provides the chance for more fans to hear “Sangre” and “Before the Train,” stunning album artwork from Jeff Mueller’s Dexterity Press, and one final gem for excavation in “Wurl,” it comes with an uncomfortable sense of finality. By no means should this point dissuade you from picking up Fifteen Quiet Years (or hearing Rusty for the first time, if by some accident you’ve made it this far without doing so), but know that a hard stop awaits.

The Haul: Rachel Grimes' Book of Leaves

A few months prior to this visit, I’d wondered what was up in the world of Rachel’s. Since 2003’s superb Systems/Layers, their lone release was the Technology Is Killing Music EP, a scattershot eighteen-minute-long track in the spirit of the postmodern musings of its predecessor but lacking its emotional resonance. They had performed Systems/Layers with the SITI company in Urbana, Illinois in 2005, but since then, their only news items had been appearances on soundtracks like Hancock. (Director Peter Berg, who also helmed the Friday Night Lights film and still oversees the unbelieveably great Friday Night Lights television show, is no stranger to post-rock, having introduced the sporting world to Explosions in the Sky.) Last spring there were rumblings of a forthcoming Shipping News album, but those took a back seat to more pressing news.

As I mentioned on Twitter in the fall, Jason Noble’s been battling cancer since the late summer. You can read more about it on his Caring Bridge blog, and send him well-wishes. (Note: The donate link on the site appears to donate to Caring Bridge, not Jason Noble directly. They do provide an excellent service, but it’s worth noting.) I’ve only met Jason Noble once, at the Fugazi/Shipping News/Rachel’s show in Louisville back in 2002, but he was awfully nice to someone who was obnoxiously gushing at the time. Between Rodan’s Rusty, Shipping News’ Very Soon and in Pleasant Company, and Rachel’s Systems/Layers, he’s made some of my favorite music. I hope he continues to handle the treatment well and doesn’t suffer any setbacks. Get well soon, Jason.

In light of this development, I feel bad for Rachel’s pianist Rachel Grimes, whose solo debut Book of Leaves came out in September with little advance press. Seeing it in Newbury Comics was the first I’d heard about it, but since Rachel’s has a solid track record—except for the harpsichord song on Selenography, shudder—I eagerly picked it up.

120. Rachel Grimes – Book of Leaves LP – Karate Body, 2009 – $22

Rachel Grimes' Book of Leaves

I had a reasonably accurate idea of what Book of Leaves would sound like—closest to Music for Egon Schiele or the minimal piano songs on Systems/Layers like “NY Snow Globe.” Although Rachel’s is a collective, the contributions of the three main members—Grimes, Noble, and viola player Christian Frederickson—are all unique enough that it’s noticeable when one takes lead on a song. I suspect that there’s a push and pull between Grimes/Frederickson and Noble for the balance between classical and rock elements, more often leaning toward the former (especially on Egon Schiele, but occasionally emphasizing the latter to great effect (“Full on Night [Recension Mix]”). What made Systems/Layers so compelling was how they circumvented this tug-of-war by choosing more postmodern approaches to song structures in lieu of their collaboration with SITI. There are more rock moments and more classical moments, but neither sticks out as much.

In a very literal sense, Book of Leaves picks up where Systems/Layers left off, since that album closed with “NY Snow Globe,” but on a broader scale, those intriguing postmodern approaches to song structures and sonics have been greatly reduced. Like Dusted mentioned, the most interesting songs are those that take off-kilter approaches: “Mossgrove” turns percussive punctuation into an absorbing drone, “Starwhite” takes the opposite approach and emphasizes the reverberating space in between chords, and “She Was Here” slates its repeated chords against field recordings. Such field recordings pop up a few other times on Book of Leaves, but more variety than just birds and insects would help the recording considerably. The other songs vary from reserved to exuberantly melodic, but my preferences lean toward the former, particularly for "The Corner Room" and “A Bed of Moss,” which closes out the album on a somber, emotional note.

Grimes’ biggest challenge was transitioning from the collective approach described above to a purely individual approach, and I don’t know if she conquered it on her first solo venture. I’ve spun Book of Leaves a number of times and too many tracks float by without clamping down, leaving me with a largely blank slate after the album’s over. I suspect that I’d like Book of Leaves more if she’d recruited a few key collaborators from the collective, but then it would essentially be another Rachel’s LP. I certainly wouldn’t mind getting another one of those, but I would also like to see how Grimes progresses as an individual performer. Hopefully one or both of these things happens.

Pressing note: The vinyl of Book of Leaves (which is in a gorgeous gatefold, by the way) was available in two editions at Newbury Comics, one with a book of sheet music (which was the case for the first 100 copies), one without. The price difference wasn’t enormous, so I opted for the sheet music. Who knows if I’ll ever practice the piano enough to actually learn these songs, but it was a unique option. This book of sheet music is still available direct from Rachel Grimes herself for $15.