Album 17 of 500: ALL – Percolater

May 30, 2010

LABEL: Cruz Records
RELEASE DATE: May 12th 1992

Recently on Carrie Brownstein’s blog, Monitor Mix, she made an interesting observation to the effect of that music aficionados generally value the first of something, whether it is the first incarnation of a band, original lineup, first album, et cetera because it’s supposedly the most authentic and therefore the best.  This predisposition has victimized many a band deserving of better.  That being said, let’s just get this out of the way, friend: ALL is much better than the Descendents ever were.  ALL at its top-dollar best was and is capable of being more innovative musically, more moving emotionally and more sophisticated lyrically than the Descendents at their peak could ever dream of.  If you wish to discuss the matter further please leave a comment and I will happily oblige you, especially since I’m starting to get jealous of comment-magnet and 500 Rad Records originator R.M. Cresser.

A bit more editorializing before we begin.  Why don’t more bands start off their albums with an instrumental?  Try it out, bands.  Conventional wisdom dictates that you should front-load your album with the hits.  That’s fine, sure.  But a good instrumental (not an intro- don’t do those!!) draws in the listener, and sets the proper tone.  Prime example, “Charligan,” a dizzying, dynamic burst of a song portends greatness ahead.  Some would think its careless to blithely speed through such compelling track of one and a half minutes, but this is the act of a band with talent to burn.  Indeed, all four members of ALL (no matter which lineup) write songs and can sing (the latter ability taken to its logical extreme on their debut album, the vocal harmony-rich Allroy Sez.)  Out of the four members, this is truly a Scott Reynolds’ and Karl Alvarez’ record.  Why, I dare you to name a better breakup song than the Alvarez penned duo of  “Nothin’” or “Breathe.”  The devastating lyrics in “Nothin” are like a bitter letter written but never sent to a paramour whose moved on with “somewhere else to be, with someone who isn’t me.”  There’s no chorus, no repeating lyrical passages, just a rant from a shattered narrator.  After the closing lament, “’Cause your promise means nothin’, much less than nothin’, ‘cause you left me with nothing now,” only a haunting guitar arpeggio is left, and then fades out.  It’s crazy, all the emotions ALL can dredge up, the effect this band can have on you in a song that’s less than two minutes long.  The album closes with “Breathe,” which has a dynamic musical structure that cleverly imitates the extreme mood swings petulant anger of the narrator. The song tempers the gloom with a humorous edge, to wit: “I’ll sit by the phone and make sure that you don’t call,” and “it only hurts when I breathe.”  Why, these very songs taught a young writer what it means to feel the psychic desolation of a messy breakup before that young writer had even been through a messy breakup.

The essence of Scott Reynolds’ genius is best displayed here by the sneakily exceptional, “Wonder.”  The first time you hear a song like “Dot” (his other show-stopper on the Percolater) you can’t believe that how you got by without the song being a part of your life.  It’s greatness is self-evident and it hits you immediately.  In contrast, “Wonder” seems initially like an enjoyable fillip of a song.  It rushes by (one minute and 38 seconds) and serves as a satisfactory introduction to fan-favorite “Minute.”  But then you listen to the lyrics.  “Wonder” is a heartbreaking tale about a young couple beset by dire economic circumstances and the disapproval of relatives.  It’s unbelievable Reynolds is able to fit what is essentially a short story (and a hell of a short story, at that) into such a short song so effortlessly. And the empathy he shows towards the characters, the complexity with which he deals with the subject of near-poverty conditions are unparalleled in punk rock, or even rock music as a whole.  Bruce Springsteen wishes he could write a song like, “Wonder.”

Now of course, there are the songs that are not about relationships, which (as is the case for practically every ALL album) range from songs about life on the road, food, the vapidity of popular music and commentary about the human condition.  Most of the time these are the second tier songs on any given ALL album, and in fact that is the case here.  But hey, you learn to deal with ALL’s stylistic restlessness, and in ultimately you end up loving it because it’s part of what makes them ALL (like say, how Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 wouldn’t be Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 without “feller filler.”)  The songs range from pretty good (Alvarez’ indictment of popular music “Empty” and Reynolds’ slice of life tale set in ALL’s then-new digs “Missouri 63”) to awful (namely Bill Stevenson’s wretched hair metal parody, “Hotplate” which runs at a relatively interminable four minutes and four seconds.)  “Egg Timer” is Stevenson’s bittersweet contemplation of his father’s struggle to provide for his family.  It lurches along at an agonizingly slow tempo (with music written by Stephen Egerton) as if to sympathize with the elder Stevenson’s sisyphean task of trying to make ends meet.  It works, mostly. But this writer feels that Scott Reynolds was never really able to nail the occasional slow songs that ALL did (whereas Chad Price, who would take over vocal duties on their next release Breaking Things took to ALL’s slower, more grinding songs like a duck to water.)

Scott Reynolds’ has an ineffable humanity (for lack of a better word) about his singing.  At his best, he sounds as if he’s empathizing with you directly, something many singers try though nearly none accomplish.  It’s for that reason that though using most any metric by which to judge singers; Chad Price (a close second) probably beats him soundly, Reynolds remains my favorite ALL singer.  In short, to borrow a turn of phrase from Pauline Kael, “if Percolater doesn’t make you feel, nothing will.”

PAT AGUIAR © 2010 500 Rad Records


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