Among my most anticipated records of 2006, I eagerly and anxiously awaited the latest from Doug Scharin's jazz project HiM, Uzeda's Stella, and Just a Fire's Spanish Time. Sonic Youth's Rather Ripped was perfect, and then Dr. Octagon 2 proved Kool Keith might not be THAT evil after all. My record collection had a solid year.
The music world orbits right around our swollen punk rock heads. We've never been short for stars to bring light to our minds or our ears. In spite of this, there are still countless records that slip through the cracks, waterfalls of worthy bands playing to unsubstantial crowds of uninterested people. There's just too many bands for one to stay aware of all of them, so most folk don't even bother. Hellshit, with all those cool colorful CD cases you got in your closet, why should you care so much about this one?
For starts, all three of the members of Chicago's Just a Fire have done time in a few of the most influential, unique, expressive, and often devastating bands in the history of music. Namely, June of 44, the Crownhate Ruin, Hoover, Abilene, Sweep the Leg Johnny, Haymarket Riot, and the scariest part is, there's more, too. These guys just work harder. As a sidenote, these bands are all on labels that prove to release consistently diverse, engaging, strong albums: Dischord, Touch and Go, Slowdime, 54-40 or Fight!, Thick Records... All revered avenues for getting art to anyone who cares enough to find out what they're offering. (If you have close to $6, go ahead and buy Abilene's Two Guns, Twin Arrows, and bask in it.)
As for the record... Noise rockin' guitar, intricate, chaotic drumming, smooth, churning, fluid dub-inflected bass lines, and soaring, yelling vocals colide to make this my favorite record of the year. These three musicians, rather than setting their collective back catalogs ablaze, have laid the grout in the gaps between each one of their previous releases, while remaining social, friendly, too-cool-to-be-rockstar kinda guys.
With respect to their almost boundless chops, you will hear not a palm mute, nary a shred lick on this whole record. If you can appreciate the power of metal, but you also find yourself getting down to the Who or Jawbreaker or Karate or whatever, you will appreciate this album. It's balls out, man, and everyone is invited to take a look see. Hardly strip club voyeurism, this record is like finding a young couple you don't know gettin' down to it on your little bed. The bed is our scene-fallen brothers and sisters. Rise up, Just a Fire play together now and they play loud.
This bans mirrors a Chicago band called Abilene, albeit less sparse, with less reverb and several key lineup changes. Fred Erskine moves off trumpet and back on bass and vocals, replacing Craig Ackerman of Lustre King and, in turn, his replacement, Tortoise's Doug McCombs. Hoover's Alex Dunham has been replaced by Chris Daly, who played with Sweep the Leg Johnny, and on the newest Haymarket Riot record. Drummer Scott Adamson went to school to study electronic music and music recording. Compared to his work with Abilene, this is a more straightforward, rock'n'roll-oriented affair, with more class, panache, passion, and zest than you will hear almost anywhere else. While this is undoubtedly a rock record, it is not easy to pigeonhole, and the influences are difficult to pinpoint.
The one gripe some of you might potentially have with this affair could be Fred Erskine's vocals. If, like me, you were weaned on Hoover, and the Crownhate Ruin, or any Dischord band, for that matter, you might dig his soaring caterwauling for what it is: a grounding point for a band that could play anything, but that relegates itself to a crucial position in our scene. Just a Fire have become an extraordinary rock band, with quirky melodic dissonance and pummeling, intricate rhythms set adrift. They make a sound like waves against a speeding motorboat on a crashcourse with a cruise ship.
Erskine's basslines are powerful. You hear him reference dub music, punk rock, Fugazi, Jaco Pastorius, Motown, and `50s rock. It's an amalgam of influences that don't ordinarily lend themselves to great bands. He's created a style of bass playing that I call, playing "hard ass basslines." Check his earlier work with June of 44 and Hoover to see what that's all about. He's fleet fingered, and while might I let my words drag, his songs are concise and they hit the mark. As a fan of his playing in general, it's great to hear him stretch out and lead a rock band, for the first time in maybe a decade. Daly's guitar work has always belied a passion for a healthy dose of psychedelia in his punk rock. Maybe the man sees the essence of both scenes and recognizes them as one. His guitar playing is controlled chaos, it sounds effortless, and his tone is just nasty. There isn't a punk or blues rock cliché on the whole album. Whatever you love is right here and this band is rich with it. Presumably, though, they are not so rich with dollars. So do the right thing, fellows.
For Just a Fire's last record, Light Up, the band was only beginning to come together, testing the waters, and satisfying their healthy obsession with dub and reggae. The production was not as crisp as here on Spanish Time, and the earlier record seemed to lack what this record brings in spades. I hear honesty, soul, dedication, perseverance, and discipline throughout the record. And now it sounds mature. Erskine has developed his vocals, and he now sounds like a sick, half-drunk, emboldened, punk rock Sting or Bob Marley. This is not a reggae record, and this band is no longer "reggae-infused." Erskine left his horn behind but kept the rollicking rhythm section and discordant, chaotic guitar melodies in tow.
Spanish Time will sit nicely next to whatever you have sitting on your table, in your kitchen, playing in your car, on your iPod, on your hard drive, wherever. These three fellows have gone and made a record that you've never heard, that you'll feel the more you play it. If you've never heard of these folks or their now defunct side projects, this is perhaps not the most accessible record they've put out. However, it is a great place to start, and if it doesn't pique your interest in the unique, challenging, dynamic, progressive music they've done with their countless other projects, assume it is my fault as a reviewer and a recommender of music. Then please go and pick up June of 44's Tropics and Meridians, and Anahata. There's more of them and each one is totally unique.
I dare say the future of music, underground and mainstream, is at the core of these folks' willingness to explore and develop, while challenging their listener. This is everything a great rock album should be; it's like a fuckin' rock and roll parade through your headphones right into your skull; it's cathartic and through the catharsis this record becomes your passion, your happiness, your regrets, your hope.
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