Three-way Tie For First.

January 6, 2009 at 11:07 am (Uncategorized)

So here’s the deal, and maybe some of the hold up on me finishing this damn list: I can’t figure out how to order the final three discs I’ve got here. I know they’re the top 3–I’ve known that since before Thanksgiving. Since then, these three have been in even heavier rotation for me than they were before, when I initially fell in love with them. I’ve listened to them over and over again, and just when I think I know which is the third- and second-best disc for me for 2008, I hear something new in each of them and have to rethink things from scratch.

To hell with it then. What I’ve got here is a three-way tie for first. So I’ll get started that way, by randomly picking one and writing about it. I should also mention that when I started this list I was convinced that none of the records on it held a candle to previous, “stronger” years. I’ll amend that now, too. Any one of these three discs would have had the potential to sit atop any of my other year-end top 20 lists; I’ve come around to seeing that these three records are as good as anything to come out in recent memory, and I highly recommend all three of ’em.

Lemme start this menage with….

(Tied at 1.) Cheap Time, S/T

The first thing that grabs you is the album cover. In front of a fading-but-garish orange background, the three young members of Cheap Time pout at you, hair feathered just so, the name of the band splashed out there in hot pink letters. The whole thing gives off this 1979 vibe, right down to the band name that evokes (sort of) a certain group of fellas from Rockford, IL.

They come to that feeling honestly. Drop the laser anywhere on Cheap Time’s amazing debut album, and you’ll hear these Nashville lads slamming away with great slabs of glammy guitar and screeching, trebly production. You’ll hear great lines like “I thought you were a flower/But you charge by the hour”. You’ll hear slamming drums and bouncing bass and more spit and spirit than almost the entire sum total of every other record to come out in 2008.

To really get at where Cheap Time is coming from, and to really understand just why this disc is so special, I think maybe it helps to understand the history of the influences at play here. Back in my days as a record store clerk, we had a copy of an album called “Wanna Meet The Scruffs” by a band from Memphis called, unsurprisingly enough, The Scruffs. The album was all late-seventies power pop, with all the compressed guitars, buried drums, and processed Raspberry-ish vocals that genre description implies. I played it a few times and noted the dated, overproduced quality of it all and my co-worker (and Prisonshake bassist) Steve Scariano mentioned that there were earlier Scruffs studio tapes that were quite different from what made it on to that record. The earlier Scruffs demo stuff sounded like it was done in one take after forcing everyone in the band to sit up all night chainsmoking and guzzling coffee. The production was raw as hell, the vocals ragged, and it was a lost rock classic. Thankfully those early Scruffs tapes got released on CD a few years ago, and the result was revelatory, showing the Scruffs to be thoroughly straddling the line where FM radio glam rock and punk intersected.

It also showed them embracing an even earlier ethos, and for that we have to go back to another Tennessee band, Big Star. You all are probably too familiar with Big Star to need me to revisit history in much detail, but I want to point out that the first Big Star album is produced to the gills, with everything sounding perfect and “just right”. Then the band realized how badly they were getting screwed by their record company, Chris Bell left the group, and the second album sounds much more ragged; Alex Chilton wrote almost every song out of his own vocal range, and then had no problem with the finished recording leaving in his valiant attempts to hit those notes, sometimes successful, sometimes not. In the past 20 years, you’ve had bands emulate the slick production of the first Big Star album to nifty effect…but the really great bands to wear the Big Star influence have proudly flown the flag of the raggediness of the second album.

And so having invoked two classic Memphis bands, I’ll mention that Cheap Time picks up where they left off. Jeff Novak, the frontman of CT started the band a few years ago when he was a teenager along with Jemina Pearl and Nathan Vasquez. Those latter two founding members split the group to concentrate on their own band, the now-defunct Be Your Own Pet. Novak recruited a new rhythm section and finished the recording of this debut.

Before getting to the meat of this disc, I s’pose I better discuss the production a bit; to be plain, the production here is, well, messy. Probably deliberately so. Vocals and guitars all “clip” badly, as if things were recorded heedless of volume (not inappropriate at all that this disc came out on In The Red Records, as you can practically see the buried needles when you hear these songs). Here’s the thing: the production is a masterful choice for this album, because if anything about it was “mannered” in any way, I’m not sure the full kick-assness off the record and band would come across. A knob might bitch about a song like “Back To School” sounding like someone standing in an empty parking garage yelling into a bullhorn while a barely in-tune band played the backing track through a payphone receiver, but that’d just miss the point that “Back To School” is 1:22 of the most awesome rock coolness recorded in recent memory.

Get over that hangup then, and dig what’s going on here. The temptation would be to call this disc a Novak solo thing, but that’d miss out on the wonderful bass and drum contributions from the rest of the band (“Jon” and “Stephen”, “Jon” now replaced by “Ryan”). The drums roll and thunder and snap and pop, and the bass bounces around, frequently carrying the melody to allow Novak to go riffing off into the ether on guitar. The result is probably harder-rocking than anything by the Memphis forebears I mentioned above–at times this sounds like a great lost Dils or early Redd Kross album–but still displays tremendous pop smarts. There’s the great bass break in “Too Late” that seems lifted right from “Virginia Plain” and just begs for Brian Eno to come glurping in with a cheezy synth squiggle. There’s the glorious spoken intro to “People Talk” (an improbable cover of an obscure Mississippi indie band that once contained Jack Oblivion on bass) that leads into one of the most kick-ass windmilling guitar riffs you’ll ever hear. To really change things up, they add piano to the leering jailbait fantasy of “Ginger Snap”, a song you can imagine folks twisting away to at some indie rock version of Jack Rabbit Slim’s.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning an old TV show you might be familiar with, “Freaks & Geeks”. Cheap Time don’t sound like a band the kids in that show would listen to…they sound like the band the kids in that show would be in, with all the screwed up majesty that that description could possibly evoke. Do yourself a favor–grab this disc, get in your car and crank it up to ear-splitting levels, and pretend you’re in a Z28 with T-tops and spoiler meeting your buds outside the roller rink before you go cruise the strip. That’s the wonderful always-Friday genius of Cheap Time’s debut, and that’s rock and roll, baby.

“Too Late”
“Glitter And Gold”
“People Talk”

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