Saturday, February 10, 2007

"Join Us."

(Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of timely and remarkable albums; unloved and overlooked.)

When Bluetip’s Join Us came out in 1998, I had no idea who they were. In fact, I had only limited knowledge of their contemporaries. All I knew was Dischord Records had provided some other fantastic taste-altering selections in my young life: Minor Threat, Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Jawbox, Government Issue, etc. I was mostly juggling upbeat pop-punk (Promise Ring, Get-up Kids, etc.) and downtrodden rock (Jawbreaker, Sunny Day Real Estate). The former was a by-product of three years removed from society—a jaunt in military school that was as much fueled by jock-rock than any discernable tastes, i.e. I took what I could get and that was accessible pop—and the latter a notation of my life in a pit stop on the way to the North Carolina beaches. Jawbreaker (et al) and the occasional hardcore band were the outlets of choice for lifelong friends.

Bluetip’s importance, personally, ranged from a straightforward lyrical mentality. There was no referential “you” or lovelorn scenarios unexplained. There were no frills—no metaphors that didn’t fit or unwarranted emotional outbursts. The streamlined approach explained more without a victim mentality (victim’s mentality, see also: my entire record collection until 1999). This lack of showiness is, however big a downfall with modern audiences, a cat-call to the angry male (ages 18-27). This includes alternate takes on break-ups, the pursuit of happiness—including paring down one’s acquaintances while noting one’s loneliness)—work-related problems and a general awareness of one’s actions and consequences. From the first chord to the last, every phrasing complete thought, fragmented curse, and impartial judgment of character remains important to the ideas behind Join Us.

Joining Bluetip means a rejection of the groupthink ideal with absolutely no ideas on how to combat the consequences. It is, in fact, less embattled than the group’s angular rhythms and loud caterwauling would suggest. The overall aesthetic involves less acrobatic means than the norm—defensiveness and self-loathing—of personal lyrics. Instead of triumph over tragedy (or vice-versa), Join Us’ aesthetic involves a series of vignettes mixed with confessionals.

The first song, “Yellow Light,” is a short emphatic piece about as small victory leading to a greater understanding. It is a set-up for the failures and finality of the album’s stark awareness of faulty behavior:

Not always sad, just easier to write like that

When I’m depressed I think I want to stay like that

But man today things just barely went my way

It’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time.

(chorus) I made every yellow light today.

The improbability of something actually going well for the protagonist is immediately foremost. Later, when angry outbursts and separatism become the norm, the listener is not shocked. Instead, he/she awaits the levelheaded lyricist to explain himself. Songs like “Join Us,” “F-,” and “I Even Drive like a Jerk” may not repeat the simple and somewhat positive idea within “Yellow Light,” but they mirror the sensibility of self-awareness; of ordered (even sensed) dissension.

It’s that dissension that struck me when I heard “Yellow Light.” I was working at WUAG 103.1, the college radio station at UNC-Greensboro. I reached into the CD stacks to grab a Bluebird CD, an old staple for the end of my springtime radio shows. I didn’t realize I had the wrong CD until it was just about time to play, so I played the first song, a short one. Needless to say I enjoyed it on a technical level immediately. The brevity struck me—this song said a lot in a little time—and I was intrigued to hear more. I went and bought the album three days later ($4 bucks on vinyl… I miss North Carolina record stores). I sat in my room for days reading the lyrics and memorizing the phrasing. I remember being shocked that such a record existed and I had never heard of it. Other people had. In fact, when I would list them as one of my new favorites, most of the town’s music Nazis would dismiss my views for years to come. I still have this album to thank for being a musical outcast for my formative college years. Still, I play the record over and over. It never gets old.

Musically, Join Us’ high and low points are scattered. The first side (especially “Yellow Light,” “F-,” “Cheap Rip,” and “Salinas”) highlights the basic punk ethos: be fast, be loud, and be angry. These songs are the “recognition period” of the album. Other times, the aforementioned angularity assaults the listener—one could dismiss these as Fugazi/Jawbox rip-offs, but the precision would prove one wrong. This is not an album of noisiness or a “big” sound. For example, the title track is an admission of guilt and a dismissal of groupthink. Musically, it resembles a parity of their influences, but lyrically it separates itself entirely. A party of friends and enemies is described at one point as, “…so many in one place saying ‘you don’t count.’” The lyrics lead the listener to believe that the speaker’s loneliness is a chosen lot, but that line gives away the desperation of being appraised.

Before “Join Us,” however, is the most atypical song on the album. “Cheap Rip” displays the lyrical cleverness, and musical assault of which Bluetip was capable. The description of writing an angry letter replaces the actual feelings being expressed to the person addressed in the letter. This use of the objective correlative is the separation point that defines Bluetip compared to their late-nineties (and onward) counterparts. Where most would describe the contents of the letter, they describe the process:

Third draft trying to scrawl “sorry,”

Take a second as I fold it slowly.

Stamps make shitty band-aids,

My letters come back stamped, “fuck the sender.”

The process makes up for the trite and abrupt lines. The listener can forgive raw emotion when it is masked, or in this case, introduced with an apologetic sense of accomplishment. We are more likely to understand the sentimentality of the situation if we actually know about it. Rather than resuscitating a vague image of love or broken-heartedness, Bluetip resurrects the ideas of being surreptitiously apologetic. The protagonist’s obstinacy is realized during the task—he learns this as we learn this.

“Carbon Copy” is a repetitive slow-to-a-fault build toward the more pointed “Salinas.” Its vagueness is expressed both lyrically and structurally. The riff maintains its confusion and drudgery throughout while the lyrics repeat themselves:

I hear the S’s of their conversation.

I would be angry but I appreciate the honesty.

I press out days in perfect carbon copy.

I used to get angry, now I like the consistency.

In the “everyman” lyrical approach, Bluetip provides a cautious look into the skullduggery of work conversations—the craftiness of a man listening to other’s talk and assume that he is involved recalls the paranoia of Poe or Dostoyevsky set to an abrasive blues rock riff—the perfect song for Jason Farrell’s Rockabilly-esque vocal swagger.

“Castanet” offers the first glimpse into the speaker’s cause for anger: “I must’ve severed everyone I knew/ on the day my sisters pointed out the sense to call it quits with you.” Jason Farrell yells this with no accompaniment; driving home his own unwillingness to avoid problems (though the albums seems to be centered on ridding the protagonist of his problems). The solution is both omnipresent and unstated. While the listener knows that Farrell is obviously opining for a change, the change is in name only. He knows that losing someone’s company does not mean their lasting impression goes anywhere: “If I miss you, I can still do a damn good impersonation.”

The second side is a scatterbrained affair—“I Even Drive like a Jerk” is a marathon of prophecy and emphatic self-assuredness. It opens: “I got myself convinced/ that if I do die/ it’ll be in a car wreck/not as a direct result of any cross-eyed looks/ I might be getting from you.” Vocalist Jason Farrell gives more away in this song than any. The conditional feelings of his narration (if I die…) are his fault completely, but he at least claims to have another person in mind. The mystery guest is possibly a victim of his own beliefs, or the same person continually referenced in a justifiable break up (re: “Castanet”).

“Bad Flat” is the anti-anthem—a mid-tempo jam that uses staccato vocal meanderings with clever phrasings: “Every good day gets old.” “Sugar, come back to the cavity.” This song could double as a reprehensible study of a man drawn to drama or, simply, a case study in bad days and car trouble. Either way, it begins the descent of the album—the beginning of the album’s “giving up period.”

At some point, the general idea seems to be that nothing gets better. In 1999, I was unsure of this, but as I get older alongside Join Us—its unvarying nature and the constant brutality of mundane affairs—that idea has followed me throughout my ventures. At no point is this more prevalent than writing this article. The fading in and out of the final riff in the instrumental “Cold Start” running it’s course (J Robbins showing his face, no doubt). I am reminded of the past few jobs, the last few years, the rejections, the loss, the continual bleeding of good friends into the vastness of the coastlines, and the overtly negative feeling that belies each day not doing exactly what I love doing.

Still, the “giving up period” of the album retains the bittersweet dissension of small victories. Jersey Blessed,” the precursor to “Cold Start,” is a true testament to the observational Farrell being overcome with his own irritability. The song centers on a constant riff, and the music gives way to the storytelling. It is the New Year’s story of a man drinking alone while surrounded by his own personified loneliness: “Watched New Year’s hit in an upstate bar/ men’s liquor breath that whispers/ “Please let me be liked./ Start my new year right.” “Noses sour cross the faces of girls smelling desperation/ so they stay unfocused.” “Men’s courting kisses miss their mark/ they start grasping at strings.” As the night progresses, fights erupt, and Farrell equates wanting to be liked to being punched in the face. This metaphor is completely natural given the specifics of the story and the overall feel of the album. The story itself being altogether believable is one thing, but Farrell making us believe his lesson learned is another.

The album, until this point, had made several assertions, but none as severe as the grandiose one set in the final songs. Farrell’s understanding comes full circle in “Slovakian.” His travels (presumably on tour) take him to Europe, and meet him with like-minded individuals. His return home brings his recurring anger (as described in every other song) to a boil. His (Henry) Jamesian look at his viewpoint while removed from America is a perfect settling point; a place to rest after an album of pointed complaints and matter-of-fact misanthropy. Through blaming his surroundings, Farrell reminds the listener of anticipation “…of tomorrow’s headaches, the soft reminder for what I done today.” Content in his current surroundings, he makes a final judgment call—repeated during and after the song—“It’s yesterday back home.”

Fittingly, the return is glossed over. As are the final rebuttals and mentions of lessons learned. The point, finally, is as graspable to the listener as it is to the band. Through the impartiality, the banality, and the backstabbing, Join Us is a rejoinder to the vagueness of a Fugazi and the specific verboseness of a Jawbox. Bluetip wrote an accidental antithesis—an anticlimax of antipathy that drives home a point lost on most. Sometimes, there is no point. To a soon-to-be twentysomething, knowing that there was no point, that everything and nothing is your fault, that you have right to be angry, is pretty important. I’ve come to realize that these ideas are just as important now. The 1999 and 2007 versions of me don’t have a lot in common other than this album. Yet, in fact, Bluetip proves the old adage true: “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” I like the way they put it: “It’s yesterday back home.” The revolving doors of new and old lessons conjoining are, indeed, a Carbon Copy. Maybe I’m not so angry now, but I get it. Join Us is a big reason why.

See also: Retisonic (current Jason Farrell project).

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At 2:49 AM, Anonymous Kelli said...

You write very well.

At 8:19 PM, Blogger The Upright Man said...

I finished my first term at Canterbury university (Kent, UK) last week. Before I went, I was inspired to write my housemates a poem each as gifts. One girl messaged me Christmas morning saying she'd only just read the poem, and that it was really good, but who had written it? I told her it was me who wrote it of course! But just stumbling upon this blog post right now, and reading this analysis of "Join Us" has made me feel the need to 'fess up; I would not be writing the way I write were it not for Jason Farrell.

The line "Sugar, come back to the cavity" has resonated with me for nearly a decade. The whole album is full of priceless lyrics, but that line; the humour, the paralellism, the sheer horror of it.. powerful stuff. And as a song, 'Slovakian' is the most illustrative and life-affirming thing I've ever heard, even if, as Business or Leisure? says, it has misanthropic tendencies. Yeah, this album is cynical, undeniably, but it is also such an exposure of (one man's) faults and fractures that it's absolutely thrilling to listen to.

I never saw Bluetip live, I did see Retisonic. I often wondered if Bluetip could ever live up to this album live. That's unusual, I know, to say a record is better than the live band. And I'm only guessing, of course. But seriously; the production, the guitars, the drums, Farrell's voice (and crank it all up to eleven and my god it sounds good) this has to be up there as J Robbin's best produced albums. Even Farrell's design (and on all Bluetip CDs) is utter class.

This is the singular best album I've ever heard. I've become a fan of "Polymer" and "Dischord 101" over the years too, but "Join Us" has it all. It is also, as stated in the post, massively personal, and perhaps also specifically male to find so much meaning in this record. I am thirty-one in two weeks, but this will still be the best album I've ever heard in two weeks.

Since being at university, I've been happier and more productive than I've been in years; I was unhappy back then, but Bluetip helped me through. I am happier now, but Bluetip still helps me through - even with penning poetry!

It is sad that this record seems so overlooked considering how incredible it is, but it is heavy-going, cerebral, and subtle. But anyway, those who like it like it, and that matters.

At 4:14 PM, Blogger Business or Leisure? said...

I saw the reunion in NYC this year. It's fucking amazing live. Seriously. Plus, the original lineup is planning an album and subsequent tour. It's good news.


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