Okay, the other day I sent off a pissy little post to a mailing list I’m on all about certain musical devices I generally hate. The list included: harmonica, particularly when played either in a “mellow” or egregiously bluesy mode (and most particularly when played by some dope wandering around the streets); cheesy pseudo-soul female backing vocalists, particularly when outside their genre of origin (i.e., a lot of early ’80s Bob Dylan records); and ghastly saxophones, particularly when they’re playing mellow solos or arrayed into groupings and adding fake R&B accents to non-R&B music.
Really I was thinking, with the last one, of Phil Collins records and the like. But I should have known that such generalizations almost always sprout exceptions; as for instance, I will confess to still liking Steely Dan, even though there are moments on their records where all three hated factors are in effect simultaneously (admittedly, those are moments that either make me cringe or force me to sniff out irony in the very arrangements: not all that hard, in fact, since Becker and Fagen are on record as saying they intentionally like to contrast the bitterness and cynicism of their lyrics with a very smooth surface). Still further, it’s not horns I don’t like; it’s bad arranging and playing. Anyway, the ass-biting referred to above is simply that here I am feeling compelled, a mere two days later, to post three songs by a band with a three-piece horn section (two saxes and a trombone). I should learn.
Anyway: so last night we went out to the reunion show (first in ten years) of that band, former local institution Blue in the Face. Seems some friends of the band got married, and one drunken idea led to actual serious thinking led to arrangements for this show. The band looked good – some hair a little less glossy, foreheads extended a bit further back on the scalp, some facial features sporting a bit more texture – but really, nobody looked like a disaster area. And they played well, enthusiastically and accurately. The show was (they say) a one-off – people have lives, kids and jobs and the like – but they didn’t sound to have lost a step at all.
The band’s main strength is the songwriting of singer and guitarist Mike Stefaniak, whose “pretend name” (as he said onstage last night) is Mike Benign (oh those wacky punk-rock days of yore). Stefaniak worked for years as a bartender, and his lyrics present keenly observed moments of hope, frustration, and folly – in all of which he most certainly includes himself: no sense putting yourself above it. (It hadn’t occurred to me until now, but Benign also has that wiseguy singing-out-the-side-of-the-mouth sound I mentioned in my Wrens post last week.)
“No Better Off” is the b-side of Blue in the Face’s first single, from 1992. Every word is true, whether or not it happened to anyone in particular. The line about “Catholic guilt” is a true classic (Elvis reference and all). This track also shows up on a mopping-up CD called Went Well with Bourbon, theoretically available only at last night’s show, which contains both sides of that single, a couple demos for the unfinished third album, and live versions of a couple of songs presumably also intended for that album.
The band released its first full-length in 1993, called Kicks & Deals. It led off with “Dot Dot Dot,” a track that shoulda-coulda been a hit – not a million miles from what Elvis Costello was doing circa Punch the Clock, but the band missed confusing the folks who’d believe “bands with horns play ska” by a couple of years (and the “bands with horns play ‘swing'” craze by a few more). The song is a smarter cousin of the Police’s annoying (but catchy) “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” – and the title’s way easier to type as well. (Incidentally, and unrelated to anything else, in my fingers’ opinion the most irksome title to type is Midnight Oil’s 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – it’s all that moving from the off-angle numerals back and forth to the commas and trying to toss the space bar in there too.)
The band’s final album was called Curtains either presciently or knowingly (you’d have to be in the band to know, I guess). No one I’d trust could resist a song called “The Fountain of Act Your Age,” so here it is. That little sax intro almost sounds like a quote from an early ’60s jazz track…I can’t place it if so. That, by the way, is one thing that makes the horns less objectionable: when the players are rooted in jazz (you can hear it more clearly in their solos, especially live – although the trombone solo here is pretty straightforward).
Incidentally, I can think of no better summation of a certain rust-belted Milwaukee in the late ’80s and early ’90s than the first few lines (and title) of “Land of 1000 Drinking Problems” (from Kicks & Deals): “I met my love in the city of pickled eggs and varicose veins. I kissed her lips amidst a flannel-shirted barfight, by tanneries and tallow factories and ghosts… No one thinks to drink the world away; you just drink away the part you know.”
I’ll drink to that.