Johnny Winters Reviews indie rock credibility

Rusty Spell and I decided not to go with the interview idea for this album. Even if I had wanted to, Rusty would have refused because, as he said, "I'd just like this album to talk for itself instead of me blabbing my crap." So, I'll blab my crap, because that's my job. And because somebody needs to talk about it, just because--well, it's the most fantastic thing Rusty Spell as solo artist has put out.

Rusty had expressed a few months ago how he never actually released anything which sounded like the kind of music he actually likes, that everything he puts out tends to be one joke of some sort or another. "It's hard for me to remember that I can make music that's not funny." This probably comes from six years of being in 'nikcuS, his first band where subtle musical jokes were a given. It was ingrained. So Rusty said he would eventually put out something that was actually indie rock. This is what he's done.

Of course, one has to wonder: We have the title, first of all, indie rock credibility. Then we have the typical indie habit of using childhood photos for the cover of the album (not to mention using a picture of a gas station for the back). The we have everything written in lower-case letters, something the ultra-grammatic Rusty Spell would never have done (he is, after all, the guy who still indents his paragraphs when writing email). And the songs themselves seem to jump from sounding like something from Calvin Johnson to The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion to Pavement to... well, almost every indie band I can think of: in 33 minutes (even the short length of the songs and the album is un-Rusty and true-indie, like Lou Barlow perhaps). So, yes, one has to wonder: Is Rusty just joking around again? Is the album simply Rusty doing indie rock, parodying it like he's subtly parodied everything else in the past (from solo debuts to outtake albums to Christmas albums)?

The answer doesn't really matter, because--like all of Rusty's work--the albums and songs are wonderful anyway. True parody is always so sensitive to its object that it turns out to sound very tender and loving, and Rusty already loves this kind of music best of all, so that if it is a joke, it's still good, and you don't have to understand it as one to enjoy it. I frankly asked Rusty if it was a joke or not. He said, "I don't know."

At any rate, this album truly sounds like nothing else Rusty has released. From the opening track, "The Matter," you know you're listening to something different. Electric fingers spray falling-apart-yet-tight guitar while a bass whips up and down and homemade drums (or something?) in the background patters away with epeleptic rhythms. "Size 28 Jeans" is one of the most beautiful songs Rusty has recorded, in spite of itself, in spite of the fact that it changes (while remaining the same) at least three times, as if trying to decide what song it really wants to be. In the end, it makes sense. "Basement Punk" is too good to be true, sounding like a three-piece band trying desperately to play something too hard for them, the day before the gig. "Valentine's Day" has a rambling narrator desperately trying to tell his girlfriend how much he loves her, barely getting it out at the end while sidetracked with how they'll get money to buy each other gifts since both have none. "This War" almost sounds like a 'nikcuS song (but not quite, of course--not on this album), the rock organ so famously used on Surprise flailing away during this cross between a protest song and a pro-war song (I don't know how it can be both, but it is). "Dead Father," a song that is way too short because it's so beautiful you wish it would go on for just a little more than 2:24, begins by telling about the narrator's father dying, but ends up talking about the two members of They Might Be Giants. The most solidly-constructed song (because most all of these songs sound like they could fall apart any moment--which is what makes it work) is the closer, "Hyperboles," the only song that may (it would be stretching) have fit on an earlier album like Mailbox.

Mailbox. Rusty talked about making a followup to that album for a long time, an album that wasn't a "genre" album (Christmas, outtakes, whatever), that was an "album-album." No one knew it would be like this. Perhaps what makes it even more amazing is that Rusty made this album in six hours (that's less than half an hour a song), adlibbing everything entirely (something he hadn't done since 'nikcuS), but that it doesn't sound like that. It sounds like Rusty painstakingly tried for a different effect for every song and layered complicated parts on top of each other to achieve this. Well, I suppose he actually did this, he was just quick about it.

Summary: For the most part, it doesn't have a good beat and you can't dance to it. It manages to be highly experimental while still being listenable (very listenable, even catchy--these tunes stick in your head) and it's personal without being over-the-toppedly so, like with his first album. It's personal in that any human can relate to it.

That's it. It's an album for humans. If you're a human, you might need this to figure out what's been going on all this time.


Copyright (c) Feb 1999 by Rusty Spell and Johnny Winters