Tuesday, October 16, 2007

That's how I escaped my certain fate.

A few short song reviews:

Seconds: Perfect Moments In Pop

"I'm Not Always So Stupid"
The Wedding Present
Nobody's Twisting Your Arm e.p. (Reception 1988)
George Best Plus (Cooking Vinyl 1997)

David Gedge is known for his blitzoid guitars, his work with Steve Albini, hipping John Peel to Pavement during their Treble Kicker 7" self-produced e.p. days, and a tasteful and interestingly diverse collection of cover versions (The Close Lobsters, Elton John, Orange Juice, Angelo Badamenti, and Penetration for starters). But what made The Wedding Present great from day one was his gift at lyricizing the obsessive angst of love, the pitfalls of lust, the stuff of relationships. Yup, he beat Stephen Merritt to the punch by a decade.

Often topping fan polls of favorite Weddoes songs, "I'm Not Always So Stupid" began life rather as the fourth and last track on a 1988 e.p.; now kids you can best find it as an extra to the 1997 reissue of the Wedding Present's debut album, George Best. The first time I heard the first verse of the song

Every time a car drives past I think it's you
Every time somebody laughs I think it's you
You changed your number and my phonebook's such a mess
But I can't bear to cross your name out yet
Each time the doorbell rings it might be you
Each letter the postman brings might be from you

I said to myself by gosh that's me. Her name was . . . well none of your business really. She's twice married now and a successful orthopedist (ironically a not very ethical profession apparently) and that's the end of that story.

Shaking myself out of a nostalgic reverie and getting back to the song, "I'm Not Always So Stupid" represents the quintessence of what made the original C-86 Pete Solowka-driven Wedding Present the classic lineup: Hard driving guitars madly strummed as if they were one of Earl Scruggs' patented "overdrive" banjo breakdowns and Gedge's plaintive almost in tune warble. Sure it was a simple and repetitive sound featured on those great Reception records "Once More", "My Favourite Dress", ""Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft", Shatner", "The Boy Can Wait", "Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now" … , but what a sound.

The song starts with several bars of guitar work by Gedge, a quick drum arpeggio, and then Solowka comes in maniacally strumming. The tension of the song's lyric is mimicked in the battle between Solowka trying to speed things up and Gedge leisurely reminiscing about a long lost love: "Somebody told me you went to work down South / as far away as you can from my big mouth." Then it's another epochal guitar workout that sounds like a history of rock 101 riffs and a fast close with the first two lines of the song doubled and repeated as a kind of refrain. If this music doesn't move you emotionally, get off the Xanax and live a little.

"That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate"
Mission of Burma
Vs. (Ace of Hearts 1982)
A Gun to the Head (Rykodisc, 2004)
Snapshot (iTunes 2004)

I was lucky enough to have shown up as a wide-eyed freshman in Cambridge, MA in the fall of 1981. While exploring Boston and environs, I noticed some maniac had tagged anything tied down and even some MBTA rolling stock with "Mission of Burma." Knowing Boston's liberal rep, I assumed this was some kind of protest against General Ne Win and the BSPP. Then on WFNX, I heard "That's When I Reach For My Revolver" and everything changed. For the next two years, when time and money allowed I caught the all ages shows of Mission of Burma including the glorious afternoon gig at the Bradford Hotel. My favorite song by this band was the one I always referred to as the other "That's" song. And on many a day I deemed it the better "That's" song.

Here's what Roger Miller had to say about "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate":

Pure Punk Power Pop. For Vs., the tape ran out before the end was over. We decided we liked that. In the mix, we opted for overdriving the living hell out of the vocals and guitar track in the board. Some thought this was a bit extreme at the time.

That snap, crackle, pop ending is indeed one of the song's highlights. But I'd also look at the beginning, where Roger Miller insistently intones the title twice and the an almighty noisy ruckus breaks loose for about 2 minutes of aural bliss. And that's the point Mission of Burma was always about playing live; their recorded output was slim and I'm not really sure ONoffON adds that much to it. Buy yourself the Rykodsic anthology and then rush home, log on and get the iTunes-only Snapshot ep, easily one of the two or three best items of the year; it is, as Douglas Wolk wrote in The Seattle Weekly, the sound of "the sky being torn open.… that amazing noise." The version of "That's How I Escaped My Certain Fate" has Miller again invoking the title twice, interrupted only by a knowledgeable in-studio fan excitedly gasping "Yeh" and a guitar flourish, and then it's off to the races for 2:13 of Clint Conley's hollered lyrics and walking bass lines, Peter Prescott's brutally metronomic drums, Martin Swope's tape loops, and Roger Miller's smeary guitar brilliance. It is "the sound that American indie bands have been tinkering with ever since" as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield once noted. Do yourself a favor and be sure not to escape "this certain fate".

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