I first heard about Nakatomi Plaza after a few friends saw them play with the now-defunct politipunks in Marathon. My roommate pegged them as a potential interest for me, and he was right. I picked up their then-current record, Private Property, and was blown away by its passion. It was a little spotty in places, but overall, still it holds up as a solid post-hardcore album. My fandom rose quite a few notches after the band’s next release, the J. Robbins-produced Unsettled. It was a huge leap forward artistically, cementing in my mind that maybe Nakatomi Plaza could be my Jawbox -- punk work ethic combined with blistering musicianship. The fact that Robbins produced it made perfect sense to me.
The band played Pennsylvania (my home state) a few times in support of Unsettled, and I caught their live show a few times out in Doylestown. D-town is about a half-hour away from me -- maybe an hour with traffic -- but I never really tapped into its punk/hardcore scene. When I found out NP were playing nearby, though, I make the trek. After a lengthy drive north on 202, I saw them perform at Siren Records with Jena Berlin. And man, they were tight despite being stripped down to a trio. Vocalist/guitarist Oscar Rodroguez could shred. It’s funny to me that it took a Brooklyn band to make me appreciate the Pa. music scene more, but there you go. Since that drive, I’ve been able to see Paint It Black, Fake Problems, O Pioneers!!!, Crime in Stereo and plenty more in Doylestown's record stores, bars and church basements. And with ample parking!
What was crazy to me about Nakatomi Plaza was how normal and nice the trio was. Rodriguez and vocalist/bassist Al Fair were actually awkward and humbled to meet fans. I talked to drummer Lou Maiolica about his day job as a plumber. I think I pulled a muscle trying to sound normal in front of these folks. I’m not good with people I respect. But they were cool about it, and played D-town a couple more times, to my delight.
It turns out my Jawbox association with Nakatomi Plaza might have been a little too accurate for my liking. Like Jawbox, Nakatomi Plaza broke up after four records, all of which were criminally underappreciated. Their swan song, the 11 tracks that constitute Ghosts, has been available in one way or another for the last month or so. The band offered MP3s of the record online with a “pay what you feel” price tag in August, as well as physical copies on their farewell tour. A final physical version will be offered to the masses come Sept. 29, while online retailers like Amazon and iTunes are already carrying the digital version.
Ghosts makes me think two things: 1) This is awesome, and 2) Please don’t break up. In a way, it’s both a logical progression from Unsettled -- guitar pyrotechnics abound, like on the solo for “4017” -- and an overview of the band’s 10 years together. There are throwbacks to Private Property’s screams, and two of the tracks, “The Ghost Intrigue” and closer “The Finish Line,” are finished versions of demos from the Frog Octopus Wolf EP. Though the band’s angular post-hardcore will appeal to At the Drive-In fans, there are some indie inflections, like on the string-laden ballad “Words.” Of course, “Words” features another searing guitar solo at its conclusion, so maybe calling it a “ballad” is an exaggeration.
Musically, this is a great way to go out. Ali Hassan’s (Bouncing Souls, Loved Ones) production is a little dry -- opener “Bomb Shelter” feels like it could use more power -- but he still captures the band’s essence. This is a kickass rock record. Lyrically, though, this might be one of the saddest albums of 2009. While some of this material is pre-Unsettled, it’s hard not to take a lot of the lines about feeling weary and worn out as indicative of the band’s dissolution. Heck, one song is called “Requiem.” Some of it might be in my head, but lines like “We’re barely living but we’re hoping to go soon,” “‘Cause I don’t feel it / I don’t feel it coming in so I’m going down / I’ll find a way out,” etc., certainly carry that angle to them. And it’s hard not to think “The Finish Line” was purposefully set up as the closing track.
“You call yourself tired / I’m just as tired as you are,” sing Rodriguez and Fair in unison. Then they hit the chorus -- “Who cares if they fire us / We’ll just quit.” It’s ostensibly a song about touring and worrying about everything being OK back home. Here, as the last song of the last Nakatomi Plaza album, that feels inverted. When Rodriguez talks about being scared, it feels like he’s talking about his future after the band. He started the group, and now he’s breaking it up, uncompromised and still beautiful.
Which is exactly why I don’t want Nakatomi Plaza to end. This band has had plenty of bad luck, sure, but they still sound so good on their terms. I’m hoping for some sort of posthumous recognition, because Nakatomi Plaza got better with every release. And I keep thinking that, maybe if the economy wasn’t so poor and Unsettled hadn’t had all those distribution issues and more people would just listen, Omar, Al, and Lou would still be kicking out jams.