Wednesday, May 21, 2008

I first heard Bossanova's "Rare Brazil" in 1999; it was the lead-off cut from a Teenbeat Records sampler. This was a time when the idea of college radio still held some mystical appeal for me, even if the University of Minnesota's campus station, Radio K (770-AM), sounded largely like a dead end to my ears. (My position goes back and forth, and the fact that I refer to it, knowingly, as a position says more about me than it: I'm frustrated with it and still attracted to it, basically.) Anyway, the Teenbeat comp wasn't mine: it was John Smith's. John was the DJ at First Avenue on Tuesday nights (he still DJs there), when my roommate Gregory Parks and I worked in the booth with him (Greg did lights, I did video). It was a golden age for me, though of course I had no idea at the time: early 1999, I was 24 and newly dumped and not handling that at all well.

I don't want to make the case for this record in purely personal terms because I think it stands on its own really fucking well--impressively so now, given that I probably haven't listened to it in eight years and caned it obsessively for something like two. But it's almost impossible not to hear in that light, particularly since I'm in Minneapolis this week. On Monday night, Rod Smith invited me to a top-secret event; it turned out to be the annual First Avenue employee (and friends of club, and ex-employee) party. Apparently we missed John Smith by an hour or so. Karaoke was happening onstage but I decided to leave that alone. So re-finding this song, thanks to Mike McGonigal's Teenbeat Dozen for eMusic, at this time is very apropos.

The song. Short version: layers of shimmering-silver keyboards, which in 1999 screamed Stereolab, or maybe that's memory talking; in any event there are a lot of them, or feel like a lot of them, as well as multitracked rhythm guitars that have the sonic consistency of cards being shuffled, all of it monolithic but with air. There are vocals that sound lovelorn whether or not that's their intention. These are swamped in echo, rendering the singer's missed notes and occasionally faltering cadence into something much more commanding than they'd be on their own. Given that he sings it pretty forcefully anyway, this is pretty impressive. There's one verse, and through this soup, these words stand out: "the evening sun, the ocean breeze," "time was," "white shirt," "comatose staring back at me," "tell me more." One keyboard starts oscillating, at once fierce and serene, just like its surroundings, and after a couple minutes of pinging around it settles into a few sci-fi motifs once the entire thing has broken down and bounced back up. By which I mean everything comes to a stop and the bass leads us back into its woolly silver-edged groove.

Repeat: groove. This isn't isn't an experimental song. It's an indie rock disco jam festooned with tinsel; it practically twinkles, and it's homemade, but it sounds like the last song James Murphy and Pat Mahoney took off the long list for FabricLive 36 after deciding to make the mix disco-disco rather than much in the way of rock-disco. But the guitars' surefootedness is the giveaway even if the bass line doesn't do the job itself: these guys wanted to create a groove you could build a moat around. What it reminded me of at the time was the Buzzcocks' "Why Can't I Touch It?" with the angst transmuted--or maybe just muted.

You'll notice I haven't mentioned the band members' names. I didn't know their names when I first heard this record, and while it's almost certainly foolish to try to hold on to the feeling I originally had when listening to it by choosing not to look it up until after I've said what I want to say, that's what I'm doing anyhow. It isn't the first time, nor will it be the last. Sometimes you want to keep the conversation or thought flowing rather than fact-check as you go; this is one of those times.

Playing it again, the disco/indie thing strikes me as slightly ahead of its time; obviously, this being Teenbeat, the Bossanova guys (from Vancouver--I cracked and looked stuff up) were obviously coming from the same general area as Unrest, who I despised at the time and should probably give another shot on general principle. (I like Stereolab a hell of a lot more than I did then, though I never disliked them the way I did Unrest.) But drone-and-groove is an indie staple at least as far back as Joy Division; it's still easy to hear this song as a DFA precursor. The bass line is the sort for which James Murphy would make a beeline. And if you've read me enough to glean my general attractions, and agree with them, you probably would too. If so, enjoy this file. It's good for dancing and brooding in equal measure. Even better, it's great for them. I can want more from a record, but much more than that I've always found a little unseemly.

P.S. I also looked up the leader's name. It's Chris Storrow, which I feel a little badly for not remembering, since he emailed me a couple times after I'd written the song up in the guise of an album review of that Teenbeat sampler. I'm afraid to look that piece up; I'm guessing it's as embarrassing as almost everything else I was writing at the time. I'm also guessing I'd be a little depressed by how much brighter things seemed to me then, even if I had no idea they were when I was writing them.