Tuesday, July 25, 2017

One Last Pick Through the Bins, Volume 33: The Fastbacks: The Sound of a Good Mood

The importance (and, indirectly, the blessings) of proper scale.
Around the time the Seattle scene just started inching away from a national/media obsession, Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, ran a cover that featured four local bands and under the headline (I’m paraphrasing), “Who’s Next?” The question was who would be the next band to sign with a major label, maybe even blow-up like Nirvana. I can only remember two of those four bands (thank you, my stupid, soggy memory): Flop and, swear to god, The Fastbacks.

Now, Flop I got. If memory serves (again), they had just started playing and gaining notice as agents flooded Seattle in search of the next (or last, really) Big Cash Cow, so there was a certain momentum behind them. (I remember really liking one of their songs, too; just dug it up: "Anne") The Fastbacks, on the other hand, somehow felt like they played every show in Seattle – and to an actual impossible extent (is it possible for a band to play three places in one night?). That’s not a knock, really, because it also felt like they played with everyone because everyone really liked The Fastbacks – and I mean that as both people and band.

The research on this volume proved a little trickier than expected, and now that only casts further disappointed aspersions at my memory (e.g. soggy might be charitable). When I tried to fill in some blanks about The Fastbacks, my first search (on Spotify) pulled up what sounded like a country band (and, holy shit, Spotify, is that act hell to find on the web); the second search (just “The Fastbacks” typed into a navbar) pulled up an Italian heavy metal band – which I liked better, if for personal reasons (wait, wait, wait...they're gone...I didn't single-handedly shift the entire search...holy shit, what if no one looks for that? Uh...) I eventually pulled down The Fastbacks Wikipedia page – which included a couple nice interviews and sincerely fond recollections. Of all the (limited) stuff I read, one specific passage really stood out:

“We thought, ‘Well, I'm not gonna fool myself to think that it's for the good of our band, because when you start putting that kind of pressure on something, it's bound to fail." In fact, we made probably no record-company contacts that night. A couple people said, ‘Oh, yeah, we should do something or other.’ But I certainly had a good time, and the show was great, and everyone was nice to us. It was really cool.”
The whole interview is worth the read, but that line of thought, that sentiment, kept creeping into Kurt Bloch’s revelry about The Fastbacks. To borrow the most hideous of set-ups/clich├ęs, The Fastbacks are in it for the music – only, sincerely, they are in it for the music.

The Fastbacks never broke into The Bigs – then again, neither did Flop, or the other two bands who showed up on that alt-mag cover – but they had the thrill of doing what they love in front of, at least later, arena-sized crowds. If those crowds gave the songs a chance, they would have liked The Fastbacks. And I’m not just being cute there; either: they toured with The Presidents of the United States of America and nearly every song they’d play (at least that I know/remember) should sit snugly in those same fans’ comfort zones. So, to invert the question a bit, why did the Presidents (who, for me, winked a little too much) break out, while The Fastbacks didn’t? (That is, was it the winking?)

For what it’s worth, I think part of it follows from The Fastbacks starting almost a decade ahead of a lot of their contemporaries. If I remember right, people somehow quietly understood that Kim Warnick was older than most the bands floating around at the time, but, in the context of The Pixies Kim Deal (or what I presumed of her), who gave a shit? I can’t remember them having a bad show, their songs were super-fun, and just different enough from what a lot of bands got up to (grunge or angry punk) that they felt a little like a happy ray of light shining down on a gloomy scene in both attitude and atmosphere (yes, the weather).

Elsewhere in that interview above (from the A.V. Club), Bloch served up an incidental cautionary tale narrative on chasing fame:

“When you identify that it hasn't gotten popular or hasn't been popular to your satisfaction, then not only is the band a failure, but you are a failure. Just look at so many people in bands who are like, ‘We're gonna make it, we're gonna do it,’ and then they slog through two-foot trenches of shit for two or three years.”
I don’t know enough about any of this to argue that fame skipped over The Fastbacks, or that the band took a subconscious pass on the entire idea. What I do know is that some form of their sound caught on with enough of the country/world for a few years, that I can see no reason why they didn’t scale up. I just know that they didn’t, they don’t seem to mind, and that just about anyone that remembers them, does so fondly.

That probably has something to do with the fact that The Fastbacks sound like a good mood. Think the song that got Kirsten Dunst stomping on her bed in Bring It On (hell, yes, I saw that). Moreover, in any song they sound despondent, or even frustrated, that despondency and frustration follows from not being in a good mood. And that’s a good segue to the music.

If any song can stand as The Fastbacks best first impression, it’s “In the Summer.” My name for that sound, back when – and god knows if I found it (likelier) or came up with it on my own (just…shut up; that’s to myself) – was “power pop,” a really basic, high-tempo, lightly-distorted sound. The speed of the sound makes dancing irresistible and easy – one doesn’t have time for “moves” – but the vocals probably do more to announce the overall tone, e,g., bright and fun, even with a sharp crack or a sleazy leer. Though The Fastbacks didn’t do sleazy, at least not that I’ve ever detected.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted one of these without a Spotify playlist, but…no choice this time. Spotify fergot 'em. That also meant I couldn’t wander around the band’s entire oeuvre as I sometimes, stupidly, want to do. All the above only means that I have only two albums by which to measure The Fastbacks corpus: Very, Very Powerful Motor, and Zucker. Then again, those are the two I remember, so maybe all good? (No, shit, shit, shit. I remember this album cover (did it work?)...and the song. Good one, too.)

First, I rate Very, Very Powerful Motor quite a bit over the later Zucker (full discography). I read this line from Elvis Costello (literally today) that grinds a thumb into the weight the holds Zucker down:

“The closer you get to your ideal, the less original you sound.”
If I have a personal obsession with music – or any art, really – it’s a quiet frustration at the idea of dipping into the same well too many times. I’ll crap on the individual bands as they come, but, as a listener, I want range, even within an album; if you’ve got 12 shots to show me who you are, and you only take chances on one of ‘em, never mind three, that just raises the critical stakes for your usual. The band slipped a couple solid songs on Zucker, but only “Gone to the Moon” and “Bill Challenger” (I've heard tell Bloch likes his guitar) stand out (honorable mention, though, to “Always Tomorrow,” if only for demonstrating the persistent staying power of going faster and louder). The rest of it, though, comes off as – and I’m going to echo Elvis Costello again, but only because he nails the idea (and with apologies) – “the album came out like someone doing a bad impression of us in 1978.”

To be clear, that is a man passing judgment on his own stuff and, therefore, totally within bounds. Here, I only want to borrow the sentiment that, if a band does the same thing too often, even a good song like Zucker’sBelieve Me Never” can come out flat.

For anyone wanting The Fastbacks at their best, I’d go with Very, Very Powerful Motor. First, sure, it helps I heard it first and/or that most of those songs are my favorites by the band. Of course it helps. Still, Very, Very Powerful Motor answers every quibble above – whether about switching down the tempo (“Last Night I Had a Dream That I Could Fly”), or constructing a too-perfect template for the sweet spot of their sound (“Apologies”; also, why is this not on every compilation I have like “In the Summer”?) – while also serving up a genuinely quality odd-ball like “What to Expect / Dirk’s Car.” (And...I'm the only guy who remembers that one...shit!)

I doubt that The Fastbacks have another reunion left in them (2011 – 1979 = 32 years, and that’s just in musician time!), but I’m also not sure they need to come back and carry on. Even if you count just their inception to the first breakup (2002), that’s 21 years of playing music in front of crowds. Moreover, power pop resurfaces all the time (great example), and will keep resurfacing for as long as any three-piece band wants to play some kind of up-tempo rock. The Fastbacks came close enough to fame that they could tickle its belly for a couple years. They never climbed up top for The Big Ride, but they put some good songs into the world and gave hundreds of thousands of people a good evening during that long run.

And that’s a career in my book. Yeah, they’re hard to find, but a lot of the songs linked to above are really worth the listen. So, enjoy ‘em before they’re gone. Even the internet can forget things. And I never even mentioned the thing with their drummers....

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