Monday, December 5, 2011

Paused for Sixteen Years: Teenager of the Year

I pulled the unfolding stairs down from the attic by a decaying, dangling rope as my brother gently rested its feet to the ground. I followed him up into the nostalgia dungeon in search of something long forgotten in the archives of my parents’ attic. We had a mission, but became immediately distracted by the relics of an earlier age: The Atari 2600, a wood-paneled game console; the creepy, cobweb-covered rocking horse eyeing us dangerously from the periphery. But it was in a shoebox containing a dozen or so random items where I made an unprecedented discovery.

It was a transparent and unlabeled cassette, through which I could see words hand-written on the case insert. I would have disregarded the tape were it not for two distinct words poking through in exactly the right spot:

Olé Mulholland

I traced back through my memories to determine the source of this phrase which caught my eye. Suddenly, my brain returned an answer.

“Oh my god, do you know what this is?” I asked my brother. He looked at it, but continued digging through another box of useless-to-anyone-else contents. I flipped the case open and yanked the tape out, confirming my excited suspicions. “This is Teenager of the Year by Frank Black!”

My brother looked at the tape, but couldn’t recall the source, and couldn’t understand the reasoning behind my excitement over one old bootlegged album on archaic magnetic media. I imagine few could, but I understood exactly why this find was so special—and the gift that I would get to reveal the next time I placed it into a tape deck to spin its reels once again.

You see, this is a wholly immense album, released in an incredible moment in music history. The year was 1994—one of the best years for music of my lifetime—and Frank Black had just disbanded the Pixies, a group ten years ahead of its time. That four-piece had almost single-handedly birthed the “alternative” music scene that was so prolific in that same year. Black had reinvented himself, becoming less a teacher and more of a peer. It was his second of many solo albums, and widely considered to be his greatest effort ever.

The single-disc album features an insane 22 tracks and never loses momentum. And these weren’t leftover Pixies songs either; those were released on his self-titled debut the previous year. Yes, Frank Black had written twenty-two non-filler tracks for this album within a year, without having to use any recycled material.

And he did so with the best possible musicians as well. Joey Santiago from the Pixies followed him to play on five of the album’s tracks, with nearly all other non-Black guitars handled by the inventive and talented Lyle Workman, a man who would go on to great success as a session musician and soundtrack composer. Captain Beefheart keyboardist Eric Feldman handled both the bass and synthesizers. It didn’t hurt that Nick Vincent was the perfect drummer for the songs, either.

Someone had given this tape to my brother before he moved out of my parents’ house in 1995, judging by the context of the shoebox’s other contents. This meant that this tape had been sitting dormant, waiting patiently for at least 16 years, paused during a time when the album was still brand new. It was like finding an unopened Surge soda, and there was only one way to find out if the contents had degraded. Each spool held a more-or-less equal roll of tape—the album had been stopped mid-song.

I still have a tape deck in my car, but my CD player died. As a result, I use a tape adapter to my MP3 player, but its battery dies often, leaving me to the choices of silence or, even worse, the radio. I desperately needed a Car Album to keep in the glove box for emergencies, and I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate record to hold that honorable title.

With an average song length of two minutes, fifty-one seconds, the album plays like an old Beatles record, switching songs before the listener can get bored with the current melody. It opens with “Whatever Happened to Pong?”, a spastic, nostalgic tribute to simpler times. Lyrical content is strong and well-founded, featuring political commentary (“Thalassocracy”), the magic of the Great American Road Trip (“Calistan”), and a literal-yet-not-obvious tribute to the Three Stooges (“Two Reelers”). Black proves his worth as a science fiction buff with inventive tales of Mars, the space race, and terraformation (“The Vanishing Spies”, “Big Red”), a direct reference to sci-fi tome A Wrinkle in Time in the album’s lead-off single, “Headache”, a tale of alien abduction in “Fazer Eyes”, and even the paranoid ramblings of a conspiracy theorist who believes satellites are controlling his mind (“White Noise Maker”).

A particular gem lost in the middle of the album includes the retrospective critique of the practices of circus magnate P.T. Barnum in “Superabound” in which Black “bought a ticket to the freaks” only to become Barnum’s proverbial “sucker born every minute.” It’s tough to place the song into a specific category due to its catchy, snappy guitar leads and jolly organs, but it’s a perfect example of the kind of magic that can happen when you put Black in charge of such a varied and talented cast of musicians.

Beyond “Calistan”, the story of Black’s migration from his native Boston to Los Angeles, the album is clearly influenced by the Golden State. The aforementioned “Olé Mulholland” gives a transplant’s perspective of life in L.A., including the recollection of famed architect William Mulholland who built the aqueducts that made life in the desert possible. “Space is Gonna Do Me Good” is a futuristic tale about his projected eviction from the city to “the islands of Phoenix in 2016” when southern California is fabled to be completely underwater.

The album has its low moments, too, but even those are not so bad. “Speedy Marie” is an earned self-indulgent ode to romance in which the first letter of each line in the coda spells out the full name of Black’s girlfriend at the time. “Sir Rockaby” is an ironically not-rocking ballad. But when you put “Headache” between them, somehow it works out.

The only time Black really falls into the character of his own legacy is during “Freedom Rock,” in which snarky employees of a record store try to tell the songwriter of the Pixies what albums he should be listening to. The fallout from this is severe, as indicated by the sampled gasps of horror heard in the background when Black relates this part of the story. Beyond this brief moment, he’s happy to focus on cranking out incredible music and thought-provoking storytelling. The album ends on a high note with the upbeat, feel-good sun-worshipping song “Pie in the Sky”.

As I cranked up my car to leave my parents’ house, I held the cassette in my hand. Who made this for my brother? Did he listen to it? Why did someone eject the album mid-song? I put the tape down, deciding to never solve any of these questions. After all, it would be a shame and a waste to open an ancient can of Surge, too.

Then, at the last moment, I stuffed it into the tape deck. “Speedy Marie” was playing, and I wasn’t surprised.

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