There was a time not long ago in Dayton, Ohio, when excellent music seemed to ooze from every rusty pore of the post-industrial landscape, when bands left and right were grabbing national attention for their tuneful indie and alt-rock amid a growing sense that Ohio music (which included the Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati scenes) was taking over not just MTV and Rolling Stone and Spin, but the world.
I’m speaking, of course, of the early-to-mid ’90s. That halcyon time when the Nirvana-led major label signing frenzy was in full swing and every A&R suit had his desperate ears out for the new Seattle, Athens or Minneapolis.
At the time, Dayton bands like the Breeders, Guided by Voices, Brainiac, Swearing at Motorists, O-Matic and others were gaining cred and shooting up the industry ladder. Some would find lasting careers, other would burn out spectacularly. But overall, the sense of momentum and promise couldn’t have been stronger.
As a Dayton native and writer who began covering that scene in the ’90s for magazines and newspapers, I was bursting with pride. But cut to the early 2000s, and that musical momentum had all but disappeared due to the breakups, tragedies and industry churn that befell the scene.
I’ve never stopped loving and championing Dayton’s indie rock — even when there seemed little to champion — which is why it’s heartening to hear so much activity in it this year, including these recent and upcoming releases. The first of these is a review and the next two are previews, but all are worth keeping on your musical radar.
Robert Pollard, “Jack Sells the Cow”
(Sept. 18, GBV Inc.)
Lo-fi heroes Guided by Voices have enjoyed a lot of mainstream press lately, thanks to a reunited “classic” ’90s lineup that has already produced dozens of festival and touring appearances and a pair of new albums this year — with an improbable third LP (“The Bears for Lunch”) on the way in November.
Through it all, GBV mastermind Robert Pollard has kept up his prolific release schedule of solo and side projects, including last month’s “Jack Sells the Cow.”
Casual GBV/Pollard fans long ago began to regard each new Pollard release with skepticism, but they’d do well to take notice of “Jack.” Not because it’s overwhelmingly better than anything Pollard’s written and recorded recently, but because it’s a clear-eyed culmination of these strengths, a consistently tuneful and focused platter that recalls his best work under any name. Perhaps it’s the vigor he’s gained reuniting with his old mates or just some gossamer, drunken winds of inspiration, but the songwriting, lyrics and performances on “Jack” are as solid an argument for the man’s musical relevance as any in the last decade. A few tracks are downright classic.
One of Pollard’s greatest assets — besides his surreal, poetic, non-sequitur lyrics — is the way he wields melodies. Like any great magician, he introduces them, makes them disappear for a moment, then brings them back in a fuller and more surprising way. “Jack” starts off with the dirge-like “Heaven Is a Gated Community,” which at first seems short on this type of prestige. But that’s the illusion. The song quickly morphs through quasi-prog sections before revealing itself to be a clever figure-8 of melodic variation, and an immensely satisfying one at that.
“Take In” is another slow-burner that inevitably pops into your head hours after listening to it, while “Who’s Running My Ranch” reveals the darker, more playful side of Pollard (usually heard on his Circus Devils side project). The colloquially-titled “Up for All That” offers some light-touch melancholy and excellent lyrics before the R.E.M.-indebted “Pontius Pilate Heart” (surely one of Pollard’s best titles, even among his many thousands) injects pop ebullience into the album’s core. Tight and bright, it’s nearly worth the purchase price.
“Big Groceries” follows with a similar vibe, distilling many of Pollard’s recent uptempo trends and melding them with some of his poppiest verses. The gnarly “Fighting the Smoke” conjures images of burning buildings and sparking machines and demands to be blasted at top volume, as convincingly menacing as it is. As if to flaunt his range, he follows with “The Rank of a Nurse,” a classic Pollard ballad in the vein of “Town of Mirrors” that begins quietly and deliberately before twisting into a tower of stomping chords and soaring, triumphant melody.
The expertly-sequenced “Tight But Normal Squeeze” recalls Doug Gillard’s (i.e. latter-era) Guided by Voices with its jittery, halting changes. Full of martial beats and prototypical Pollard picking, the mellow “Red Rubber Army” is a calming break from the rest of this often noisy album, replete with deft electronic touches. “The March of the Merrillville” would fit nicely alongside any late ’90s/early ’00s GBV work, channeling the resigned dignity of the under-appreciated B-side “Sucker of Pistol City.” Pollard ends the album on the somber, synth-aided “Winter Comes to Those Who Wait,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a mid-’80s Ozzy album.
The playing and production on “Jack” seems a bit more solid than usual, despite the fact that everything was performed and recorded (once again) by Pollard and go-to producer Todd Tobias, who’s proven himself a latter-day hero in the Pollard/GBV canon. But as mentioned, this isn’t a departure. It’s just another surprisingly great argument for Pollard’s recent output — which is putting his entire career into perspective and demonstrating his incredible stamina rather than some isolated pocket of creative rebirth.
Smug Brothers, “On the Way to the Punchline”
(Gas Daddy Go)
“On the Way to the Punchline” doesn’t have a release date or even cover art yet, but its quality warrants inclusion here. That, and listening to Smug Brothers right after any GBV or Pollard work is an easy transition — and not just because the Dayton band, led by singer/guitarist Kyle Melton, shares aesthetics and personnel. Melton’s appealingly thin voice doesn’t sound a great deal like Pollard’s, but his love of damaged, homespun sonic textures, oblique lyrics and sugary melodies is something Pollard (and his fans) would admire.
Ironically, Smug Brothers’ songs are often more economical than recent GBV or Pollard work, which, like classic GBV, makes you want to hit play again immediately after they’re over. The conversational titles (“It Was Hard to Be a Team Last Night”) never come off as ironic or forced, and the easy guitar vibe throughout provides a respite from the synth-swamp of so many other acts, indie or otherwise.
Melton’s songs carry a comforting familiarity that’s hard to place, like a vaguely recognizable classmate who’s weathered the years in surprising ways. The loose, reverb-drenched guitar overdub that takes over the left channel at the end of “Investigative Years,” for example, feels like it was borrowed from any number of ’90s indie bands, albeit with their full blessing. The acoustic strumming on “Over and Outside” comes out of the gate like a tweaked version of GBV’s “14 Cheerleader Coldfront.” But Melton takes the melody in a completely different direction and curves even further with the minor-key chorus.
Drummer Don Thrasher is a Dayton legend, having played in Guided by Voices, Swearing at Motorists and other acclaimed bands and written professionally about music in that town for years. His instantly-recognizable fills are in no short supply, but the solidity of his contributions cannot be overstated. Not only does he lend the project experience and credibility, he’s just a damn good drummer. His innate sense of dynamics guides the excellent “A Thing for English” and gives songs such as “Treasure Virgins” the off-kilter, college-rock feel that so many other bands attempt (and fail) to capture.
“St. Paul at the Helm of the Wyoming” feels a bit half-baked and overlong, given the simplicity of the idea and its relatively drawn-out length, but the driving “Talk at the Gates of August” revs things back up again in time for the trippy, thorny “New World Limits.” The intimate “He Makes Their Young Magic” is possibly the quintessential Smug Brothers song, with its easy cadence and layered vocals. The chunky, palm-muted intro to “Quick to Illustrate January” lets Melton’s triangular melodies establish themselves before joining the usual mid-section din, while “Farewell Equator” closes things on a wistful, stately note that builds to a suitably fuzzy and psych-rocking finale.
Even with strides in both Melton’s lyrics and his guitar tricks, “Punchline” isn’t a huge step forward for Smug Brothers — and that’s not a bad thing. If you’re a fan of any past work, you’ll feel at home on this record, and if you’re a newcomer, there’s a bit more dynamism to hang onto. As prolific as the band is, “Punchline” feels concise and considered with 12 songs clocking in just over 34 minutes, which befits Melton’s generally restrained style. Just as it should be.
Watch for the forthcoming album on Gas Daddy Go Records.
The Motel Beds, “Dumb Gold”
(Nov. 13, No More Fake Labels)
If Smug Brothers are the heirs to Dayton’s lo-fi ’90s indie throne, then Motel Beds might be reclaiming some of the tight funkiness of bands like Mink and early Brainiac. A melodic garage-rock act with strong glam and classic pop tendencies, the Beds present a slicker yet more emotive front than Smug Brothers, especially coming out the gate with a song like “Smoke Your Homework,” which leads their latest release.
Pop-rock’s historical current runs through the fast-moving first half of the album, from the tumbling boogie of “Valentimes” to the riff-driven “Rattle, Rattle,” which would have had ’70s Midwestern kids pumping their stoned fists. Singer PJ Paslosky’s voice has also never sounded more confident and limber, and guitarist Daryl Robbins — an occasional GBV collaborator — brings a warm touch to the production and mixing.
“Runnin’ for Nothin'” sounds like a teenaged Thin Lizzy hanging around the basement and downing beers — tasty leads and all. It’s good-times music for hazy days, even when melancholy creeps into songs like “Oh My, Oh My.” But it’s got a certain adherence to melody and forward motion that seems to define Dayton rock bands of all stripes. That said, Motel Beds’ rhythm section is a cut above most, as the band proves on the propulsive “Dreams of Sleep” and the title track, an updated version of a ’50s young-love tear-jerker (same with second-to-last song “Better”).
It’s premature to hail this and other releases as the new Dayton music renaissance, but it’s certainly the strongest the scene has sounded in years. And that’s good news not just for expats like myself, but any fans of Midwestern power-pop and classic indie rock.
Of course, this is all coming from someone who hasn’t lived full time in the town since 1999. Here are some recommendations from Smug Brothers’ drummer/music writer Thrasher:
“There is a lot of good stuff coming out of Dayton. Buffalo Killers are considered a Cinci band but two of the dudes live here in Dayton and the other guy, Zach, is in Middletown. We consider them local too and their latest album, which came out in Aug., is great. Human Cannonball, which is led by Jesse Remnant of Southeast Engine, features current and past members of Shrug. They have a great new disc coming out too in October called Let’s Be Friends. In my mind it’s kind of like an indie rock cross between Harry Nilsson and Emitt Rhodes, catchy and kind of old-fashioned but not too precious.
“Also good is the brand new album from Abertooth Lincoln called ‘Abertooth Lincoln vs. the All-American Beef Battalion.’ They’re a prog-punk cross between early King Crimson and Butthole Surfers complete with post-free-jazz sax work. Also, check out the brand new single from homegrown DJ Ruckus Roboticus, who has a new single and video, ‘T.G.I.F. (Thank God It’s Funky)’ out featuring R&B singer Spanky Wilson.”