Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Question the Answers

27Jun12

qta.jpg“Kinder words here we could pick.
A kind approach might do the trick.
Hurt you, hurt me–well that needs to stop.
Kinder words here we could choose.
We’ve kind of got a lot to lose.
The temperature, we need that to drop.”
–Mighty Mighty Bosstones, “Kinder Words”

Last year sometime, when I was more successful about writing here regularly, I started doing a series which was a sort of free-association review/reflection on each of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ full lengths and EPs. You can find the other reviews here. I thought I’d get back to it, since I didn’t even get halfway through. The Bosstones are my favorite band, and one that was really formative to my teenagerhood/adulthood.

So with that, on todays’ playlist is Question the Answers.

QTA opens with Joe Sirois alone on drums and gradually crescendoing guitar feedback that breaks into a pretty slamming opening, that abruptly transitions into bouncing horns, and we’re into “Kinder Words.” This might be my favorite opening song of all the Bosstones’ albums (except for maybe “Devil’s Night Out” opening the album of the same name. I’m not even going to try to rank which of those grabs my attention more). When I was in high school I used to use this song to wake up to. This was before the days of iPods in clock alarms, so I think I woke up to my regular alarm and then hit play on my boom box. But the gradual opening, that then slams into the guitar riff, is better than coffee.

I can’t listen to this song without thinking of the music video for it (findable on YouTube), which features the Bosstones as members of a chain gang who escape off the back of a pick up truck and proceed to sing the song while fleeing over the country with their legs chained together, O Brother Where Art Thou-style (though QTA was released in 1995, so it was really more of a Cool Hand Luke-style). So entertaining.

Second song on the album is “A Side Silence.” With a couple of exceptions off of Devil’s Night Out (mostly I’m thinking here off “Patricia”), Dicky rarely wrote personal songs during the early years of the Bosstones, but this is one of them. Early on when he wrote personal songs, they tended to be a little esoteric and vague, and this is no exception. I didn’t entirely understand what it was about until I read an interview in which he was asked about it, and he said (with the caveat that he generally doesn’t like talking about his lyrics) that it was about a kid in the gang that he hung out with who used to crack him across the face every day just for laughs, and how he and the other kids in the gang didn’t do anything about it. “The kids that watched this every day now watched him hit the ground/No one spoke and no one moved, no one made a sound.”

Next up, “Hell of a Hat.” Another wildly entertaining music video that takes place in a Japanese karaoke bar and features Lars Frederickssen, crazy Japanese chefs beating the shit out of fish, and Ben Carr dancing on a table. Not that kind of dancing. Another song about Dicky’s general uncomfortableness with guns (see also “Guns & the Young,”) and with show-offs. For some reason, in my head, “Kinder Words,” “A Sad Silence,” and “Hell of a Hat” are kind of a trilogy, even though they’re different musically and in lyrical subject matter. But they go together, they feed into each other. They’re a set.

QTA is one of the weirder albums, guitar-wise. I’m not a guitarist, so I can’t review it competently, but I can hear Nate experimenting here and just going wild. I recognize a Big Muff fuzzbox (or else I heard him talking about using it in an interview), building up walls of sound, these abrupt changes in tempo and style and sound, doing all this crazy almost percussive stuff behind the horn lines and just creating this really interesting soundscape (sorry, Bosstones, for using a word like “soundscape” to describe what you were doing). The Bosstones tried a new strategy to record this album; they were on the road almost constantly during this time period, and rather than taking an extended time off the road to record the whole album, they would stop into a recording studio here and there between tours and record two or three songs at a time. This album was recorded at different studios and with different producers, and it was a strategy that I think the Bosstones ended up didn’t work for them logistically, but the album itself hangs together really well–it doesn’t sound to me like it was recorded here and there, it sounds like a whole, cohesive album. It sounds alive and spontaneous, and it sounds like they had energy to put into it, unlike their other album that was recorded amidst much touring and turmoil, Pay Attention (a statement that I’ll elaborate on in my write-up of that album).

“Pictures to Prove It” is a breakup song. I think this is an example of something that Dicky does lyrically that I really appreciate: when he writes a song that is in a well-worn lyrical trope (say, the breakup song), he manages to approach it in a way that not many other lyricists to–in this case, talking about the relationship and its demise only indirectly, and mostly focusing on photographs that he has lying around that prove to him that his memory of the relationship is an accurate one. “Pictures to prove it, smudged with fingerprints and tears, cigarette ashes, and our first few happy years. They’re old now, they’re faded, and the edges all are frayed. I’ll always have these pictures, but I wish that you had stayed.” He takes a symbol of a thing and turns it into the thing itself. Not a lot of writers–especially lyricists, who tend to be direct folk–do that.

“We Should Talk” is one of the weirder songs, to me, on the album. It’s about how much Dicky hates talk shows, and musically, it bends more toward hardcore (I guess? What the hell is this anyway?). It’s an entertaining song but not one that I can sing along to. 1995, I guess, was kind of the height of trashy talk shows–was it pre-Ricki Lake? Jerry Springer was around, probably Montel Williams, Maury Povich (who, I swear, no longer does anything but paternity tests). Sally Jesse Raphael. Nate sounds like he is grinding broken bottles inside his guitar amp, weaving feedback elegantly into transitions and behind horn lines. Elegant feedback? This is a thing? In Nate Albert’s hands, I guess it is.

“A Dollar and a Dream” is also a weird song. It opens with the sound of coins falling to the ground (or maybe breaking glass, but given the subject matter of the song, I always assumed it was coins). It’s sort of a spoken word poem on Dicky’s part, at least at first, with the drums loping along slowly in the background and the horns, slow and mellow, sound like they’re doing the aural equivalent of doodling (a technique they’ll use again in the opening bars of “Let Me Be” on Pay Attention. I am comparing QTA to Pay Attention a lot. The albums bookend each other in an interesting way).

AND THEN THERE IS GUITAR AND THE HORNS ARE RISING AND WE ARE OFF. Horns and drums are still playing together, but now they’re sort of hitting me in the face, and Nate is–once again–filling the blank spots with growls and punches and backing up Dicky, who is no longer talking semi-casually like he’s reciting beat poetry in a smoky basement coffeehouse, but ranting and raving and possibly destroying a dressing room in his rage.

And then all is quiet. Dicky’s back to sitting on a stool at an open mic session, maybe smoking a cigarette, talking to the audience about his experiences. “I had a dream I had all the answers to all the questions I’d ever been asked. And in my dream I had all the answers to all the questions I’ve ever asked myself. Man, what a dream, it sure felt great. I took to the streets because I couldn’t wait to freely give wisdom and share what I knew. I had a dream and that’s all I had.” This, in a sneaky way, is where the album title comes from. The narrator has a dream he has all the answers to all the questions. But merely finding answers to questions isn’t what we need to be doing.

Abrupt timbral shifts like this song has are kind of a specialty of the Bosstones’. Sometimes it’s obvious, like in this song or in “Break So Easily” off of Let’s Face It, soft verses followed by slamming choruses, changes that are not just in the pace of the drums or shifting from the clean to the distorted channel on the guitar, but changes in Dicky’s voice, in his mood. Someone on the Bosstones forum once said that so many of the Bosstones’ songs sound like two or even three songs smashed together. You hear it most often in song intro to song verse transitions. Like in “Kinder Words,” the drum tempo and guitar build there is something that never happens again in the song. “Drunks and Children” is another song that has actually cycled through three or four different intros, a new one each time the Bosstones record it. It’s sort of like movements in classical music, except each movement only lasts thirty seconds or maybe a minute, and you don’t notice as much, maybe because Dicky’s stories hold things together.

“Stand Off” is a not-quite-breakup song, a song about a breakup that hasn’t quite happened yet. Maybe it’s not about the breakup of a relationship, it could just as easily be about a friendship breaking down. I like this song, and though it’s never been super-special to me, it does have one part of the lyrics that I love: “I don’t understand where we went wrong. I don’t understand how we fell apart. Did I wait too long to write this song? I always thought I was smart.”

“365 Days” is another weird, almost-hardcore song (that seems to start off as another song entirely) that’s hard to sing along to (well, not for everyone, but for this non-screamy girl it certainly is). I think it’s about going on a bender, or maybe about the Throwdown which is five days long, or maybe about the week between Christmas and New Years (“Twist off another and bring on next year”). This song gave Bosstones fans the ongoing joke about long necks (of beer bottles) and twist offs vs church keys. When I first heard this song when I was 15 or so, I didn’t know what a church key was. My dad mostly drank beer in restaurants, and the alcohol I most often saw around the house was wine, so what Dicky calls a church key I just called a bottle opener. Caused some confusion to this young naive girl, I tells ya.

The song ends with something that sounds like it was taped off of German-language radio, but was actually taped specifically for the album. Allegedly, the person is saying something like, “The Bosstones wanted to cover [such and such song] for this album but the record label wouldn’t release the rights to them.” The band put it in there mostly to see if the record label would notice and make them pull it, but either the record label didn’t notice or didn’t care, so there it is. (If anyone out there speaks German and wants to let me know what the actual translation is, that’d be often.)

Ahh, “Toxic Toast.” One of my favorite songs off the album. One of the best songs to hear live, especially if John G (if I try to spell his last name I will mangle it) is there on keys, especially if the keys sound like a piano. A sweet, nostalgic song about a chaotic house that Dicky used to live in. “Raising hell with reckless style, and sure our time was poorly spent, but toxic toast still makes me smile.” Toxic toast being, apparently, the invention of one of the housemates (and subsequent inside joke amongst the residents).

I have stopped typing to just listen to and appreciate this song. I actually sang this song to my younger sister as a lullaby. A cappella, it works. Also, I am probably a bad example for the younger generation, if songs of residential chaos and substance abuse are things I freely expose my sibling to.

“Bronzing the Garbage” is allegedly a song about a breakup of Nate Albert’s, but I don’t remember where I heard that. There’s songs from both sides of a breakup on this album. I can imagine my ex-boyfriend singing “Bronzing the Garbage” to me while I try to sing “Pictures to Prove It” to him. There’s a point here where it sounds like they’re sending Dicky’s voice through a filter that he’s maxing out–it sounds like he’s coming through a crackly telephone line or on of those old, crappy, boxy cassette recorders. It’s a rough song about rough emotions. Sometimes, the Bosstones will write about rough emotions and pair them with sweet, soft (for them) music. Sometimes the emotion and the music match perfectly. Like here.

“Dogs and Chaplains” is the last studio recording of “Drunks and Children,” a song that first appeared on a compilation pre-Devil’s Night Out (it also shows up on their live album released in 1998 or 1999). I think I like this version best, I love the intro, the speed at which it goes by. This song is also one of the most quoted on Bosstones’ websites, tattoos, fan sites, forums, Facebook statuses, etc. “You know, I’ve made mistakes. I’ve had my ups and downs, my ins and outs, my share of bad breaks. But when it’s all been said and done, I raise my beer and I swear, God it’s been fun!” Also, this song is great live. Great. I’ve seen it live enough times now that even when I listen to a studio version, I can see Ben in my head, dancing.

And finally, “Jump Through the Hoops.” A song about drudgery (and, again, the intro sounds like an entirely different song until the horns kick in), about having to play along, about wanting to quit. I love this song, I do. It’s not necessarily groundbreaking, doesn’t necessarily stand out, but I’ve always loved this song, and it always comes to my mind when I start to get bored with my daily routine.

Now I’m just listening without typing again. QTA isn’t necessarily the album that has the songs that I connect with most profoundly on it, so it’s not my favorite, but it’s a really good, solid album. I hear new things in it every time I listen to it (especially when, like now, I listen to it using my dad’s high-quality headphones, instead of my shitty iPod headphones).

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