Oh, this town’s got the weight on its shoulders
Honey, this town has got it all.
1. Within a week of moving to Boston in 2000, I went to a show. Punk god Mike Watt in front of an 18+ crowd in a small club* justified coming here immediately, moreso than my freshman 101 classes. I don’t remember who the underbill bands were, though surely at least one of them was local. Despite checking out live music whenever I could, I didn’t pay too much attention to the homegrown talent in those days.
But I started hanging out with some other music nuts who were more plugged in, started listening to the college radio stations pushing local bands and poring over the alternative newspaper that featured interviews and reviews next to the classified sex ads and leftish news articles**. I’d still go to shows for national acts of course but now I’d seek out local bands specifically, sometimes even heading to a national show because of the local act playing early.
I think music like this becomes more personal than movies or TV or books. You can make strong connections with those arts of course, finding the right thing at the right time and having it shape your life or open it up — I was a greedy gobbler of VHS tapes from the numerous(!) independent rental stores in the area during my college years and I can still remember the mind-blowing one-two punch of Barton Fink and Miller’s Crossing — but those don’t live with you in quite the same way. You can check in on a band with more regularity, like a friend — maybe they have something new to say, maybe it’s just good to hear their voice. “Our band could be your life,” the wise Watt wrote in the ‘80s, and for a time you can share your life with a band, see them reflected in your day-to-day as they soundtrack it.
And if you’re hoping to break through your life, level up, take that next step, it’s powerful to listen to bands you know trying to do the same. Several of the bands I was listening to in 2009 were on the verge and making their play, and I was there pulling for them, ready for the people I’d been listening to to find a larger audience, maybe hoping something similar would happen to me. Putting my life to their music couldn’t hurt.
2. An e-mail from Miller to a buddy in June 2009, urging him to come out for a Beatings show:
“Here’s the sell — think of late-period Hüsker Dü, or a bit more obscurely, early Archers of Loaf. Think of whiskey spiked with adrenaline. Think of the Dirty Dozen going to their deaths and taking a whole fuckload of Nazis with them. Think of a thrashing, hopeless din that somehow turns into an anthem of perseverance against all odds.”
This surprisingly holds up rather well (other e-mails from 2009 less so). The Beatings had been playing around Boston for ten years at this point and they were one of the bands I’d become aware of through the local infrastructure — I first heard them on college radio, bought the album the song I heard was on at an independent record store (in the used bin — sorry, guys!) and used the local alternative rag to find their shows. They were excellent on record, if a little indulgent and willing to record goofy sonic experiments/fillers, but they were a powerhouse live, using the guitar/guitar/bass/drums setup like it had never been done before and might be outlawed the next night.
But a decade as a band is a long time. The Beatings started their own record label to put out their stuff and despite good notices and some solid opening gigs, like a tour with McLusky, they were still a regional band. Late Season Kids feels like a concerted effort to grab the brass ring without sacrificing who they were. The little fillers are gone, songs are generally shorter, what’s left is a lean 12-song, 40-minute record that reckons with the dreaded spectre of “maturity” while answering in the affirmative a question posed in one lyric: “Is there anything you’ve got that’s not for sale?/Is there anything you’d do you wouldn’t do for scale?”
That and the epigraph above come from “All The Things You’ve Been Missing,” the five-minute epic at the center of the album. Desperation and action are the yin and yang of many Beatings songs, the feeling that you’ve fallen behind and the fury of flailing against that despair. “Someday, I swear, I’ll make my name out in the streets,” singer Eldridge Rodriguez howls over chiming and thrashing guitars.
That urgency is there from the start of opener “Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained” and its drum intro and rising/falling riff, but it’s tempered by the realization that things do pass. Both “Nothing” and “Missing” have the fist-pumping rock of great singles, but the first official release was second track “Bury You,” a slower song about recognizing how you can’t truly leave a past love behind but you’ll wind up moving on regardless. It’s also the most traditionally-structured song on the record, verse and chorus and heartbreaking bridge, and Tony Skalicky’s dark croon recalls the National and Interpol with less self-pity. It’s a good crossover choice and a cathartic song, one that can grab anyone who’s been there.
After a decade of never giving an inch, the band has the perspective to talk to their past selves and current young people aching with desire: “Lighten up kid, don’t slit your wrists/The way that things have been going, there’s bound to be some give.” What the band nails here is the sadness of being able to look forward and back, where your dreams and regrets are equidistant from your current state, and the tenacity needed to keep going. This, as some astute reviewers noted at the time, is Springsteen territory and it’s a surprisingly resonant fit for the band. They’re in their own late season and living there with grace and vitality. Because they were a rock band with a female bassist from Boston, the Beatings were often compared to the Pixies — a lazy and inaccurate parallel — but final track “Dreams of the Waking” makes me think of Trompe Le Monde’s closer “The Navajo Know” in its quiet conclusion, which manages to be both definitive and elusive. It’s unclear where they’ll go from here, but the album is an honest statement of where they are. That’s the best anyone can ask for, the best anyone can give.
3.Sarah Borges was riding pretty high in 2009, coming off two previous albums of well-received roots/rock/country. Her voice can sound like a bruise or cause one; she’ll show the strain and yearning of lovesickness on one track and shoot down a lame lover on the next. Her band, the Broken Singles, was gig-honed and tight over years of playing clubs from Cambridge to SXSW. And Borges has the country performer’s gift of knowing how to draw from and draw out other material, she has superb taste in covers.
The Stars Are Out, her third album, isn’t a full-on push for the mainstream, but it’s similarly honed like Late Season Kids — it’s a tight ten songs and has more rock-ish leanings than her previous LPs. The lead-off track, “Do It For Free,” is fairly heavy for her, and while she can pull it off, it’s not her wheelhouse. Side two starter “I’ll Show You How” (noticing a theme here?), on the other hand, is a honky tonk raveup with a strutting bass and punchy chorus and raunchy harmonica from Dennis Brennan, a local legend on the roots scene.It’s a hell of a party.
But Borges can pull back too. “Me And Your Ghost,” the song that feels most like a single or a cut playing over a breakup montage that would have viewers looking for Shazam, has Latin-tinged percussion and a ’60s pop vibe, the girl putting on a front while she’s torn up inside. It’s classically constructed too, with strong but brief verses leading to the pre-chorus build-up and a chorus that’s pure country:
Cause I’m tired now watching through the window, standing in the rain.
If you looked up missing in the daily paper, you’d see my face.
Since you been away I’ve been living,
But living like that, you know that living like that’s a shame.
Me and your ghost you know, we can’t go on this way.
And despite the rockers (like the NRBQ cover “It Comes To Me Naturally”), this sadder vibe is the record’s undertow. It comes through strongest in some of her other covers, particularly fellow Bostonian Evan Dando’s “Ride With Me” and Stephin Merritt’s “No One Will Ever Love You,” which feels like the singer of “Ghost” alone at the end of the bar at the end of the night, all too sober and numb — Borges underplays her vocals here and it’s devastating.
Even her original “Better At The End Of The Day” is more a prayer than a statement. The press notes for the album call it an “inspirational anthem” but it rides a beat that I associate with a lot of Boston bands, a persistent and dejected trudge against grey winters and dull days instead of an empowered stride. It’s a beat the Beatings know well: determined without knowing if that determination will be worth it in the end. Or, as Borges puts it: “Oh, I know, life gets harder the further you go/Oh, I pray, it’ll get better at the end of the day.” “End of the Day”and the melancholy (and oddly trip-hop-ish) “Symphony” close out the album, stars out in a dark night. Maybe it wasn’t the way to end a reach for larger audiences but it’s an ending true to the album itself and one that stays with you.
4.Caspian isn’t technically a Boston band. The original members are from Beverly, the North Shore, and they have the sky and the sea in their blood. As a rule, it’s not hard to soundtrack nature with heavy instrumental post-rock, but Caspian channels the power and awe and serenity of natural forces at work with passion beyond providing wallpaper. Their 2009 album Tertia came out while I was reading James Dickey’s To The White Sea for a late, much-lamented book club and they share Dickey’s ability to evoke the connectivity, as well as the otherness, of nature through their medium. Or, as another old e-mail to a buddy about seeing them live put it: “I think they made time stop.”
A group writing seven-minute songs with no lyrics can only break so far into mainstream consciousness, but Tertia was a proving ground for Caspian as much as Stars or Kids were for their bands. After a strong but raw EP and a full-length that honed their sound — loud/soft dynamics, fondness for tremolo and arpeggio, a progressive and symphonic sense of structure — the band tightened their playing and embraced a fuller, heavier sound in the album’s production. It’s a darker, often colder album than their previous work, but it’s a statement that they intend to stick around.
While Caspian’s albums are always of a piece, the flow in Tertia is stronger than before. The opening three tracks in particular merge seamlessly, the chilly atmospherics of “Mie” turning into the blizzard of “La Cevra” building to the absolute beast that is “Ghosts of the Garden City” — thundersnow driven by a relentlessly churning bass riff under a four-note chiming riff, rising and falling multiple times to punishing crescendos. These are all elements the band has used in the past, but not with such skill.
Despite my memories of this as a pure winter album, there is warmth as well. In particular, “Of Foam And Wave” has an uplifting, Friday-Night-Lights-on-steroids vibe as it leaps from peak to peak, but it ends with soft glockenspiel, as if those heights are recalled memories, long in the past. And after the lovely breather of “Consecresence,” the band delivers its hardest hit, “The Raven.” A glittering ice cavern is encased in a molten surface. Instead of creating atmosphere the band is creating a planet.
For years, Caspian would close out its shows with the epic song “Sycamore.” It’s to them what “Mogwai Fear Satan” is to Mogwai. And the surest sign of their ambition here is finally recording it to album, as the finale, of course. Its fragile guitars slowly build to a crushing blast, reverberating as the simple riff rises and falls and somehow harmonizes with the distortion around it. It is mostly slow but never dull: each minute opens the song up more. While some bands tap into the infinite, this is a joyous and sorrowful and loving look at the depths of the finite — in other words, of a life. It’s a different life every time I hear it, and it has often brought me to tears. The song soars as the instruments drop out one by one, except for the drums, where the rest of the band has reoriented themselves, and the song ends with a furious fusillade, a pulse that beats with everything it has until it stops. Nothing compares to seeing it live but the band does everything they can to nail it on record and it ends the album immersing the listener in its glory. The secondary, or tertiary, thought after waking up from its power: This band has arrived.
5. I saw Caspian at their annual New Years’ show in 2009. Notes from that period suggest I had my face rocked off and my ears blown to the next county. The band had been touring relentlessly beforehand and stepped up their efforts even more in subsequent years, earning a fervent following of which I count myself a member, if not an obnoxious evangelist. (“Brother, have you heard the Word of Caspian? Well, there are no words, but hear me out…”)
Their original bassist died suddenly after their third album came out but the band persevered and put out a fourth album, possibly their best, in 2017, with a new one coming soon. They’ve done festivals in Europe and toured China, which is so fucking cool for a band that I once saw blow the doors, windows and walls off a college coffee shop***. They’ve added different elements to their sound — both vocals and synths are more prominent — while still maintaining their intensity and devotion to evoking something real, not using chords and tempo to casually play with emotions. They’re a Boston success story, and if they’re not Aerosmith or New Edition, that’s not their concern.
A few days after that Caspian show, a buddy and I saw Sarah Borges record a live album. This was coming on the heels of a show of hers a few weeks earlier that was one of the greats, the kind of concert that justifies every shitty band you ever sat through. She lit the room**** on fire and everyone was too busy dancing to care. The live recording wasn’t the same — Borges had clearly come down with a cold and despite her best efforts, that spark wasn’t there. It was still fun, but felt like a missed opportunity.
Borges married her guitar player, had a kid, got a divorce. During all this she’s still kept putting out albums and EPs, although she spent a few years concentrating on the kid first. The records are the same mixes of strong originals and smart covers that she’s always done, and she still plays around town and goes on small tours. I think about Dennis Brennan, a Boston institution, playing harmonica on The Stars Are Out, and maybe that’s the path Borges is on — making music, playing her songs in a town that doesn’t break people wide but can, sometimes, take care of its own.
The thing about being on a precipice: you haven’t made your move. That’s not a comfortable place to be, but it is a safe one. I’m not surprised that I come back to this music and the times it reminds me of, before I leapt to where I am today. I’ve had more ups than downs since 2009, when I first met the woman who I married five years later in the biggest, best leap of my life. But I’ve gotten older and slowed down since then, not going out as much anymore, and I look back on this music and the way I experienced it with longing. These songs have meaning and beauty beyond my experiences, but they are mine in a very specific way. I want to hold onto that, and I try not to think of title of the Beatings’ second album: Holding On To Hand Grenades.
Another 2009 e-mail from Miller to a friend:
“Sweetest concert moment of the year: At the Beatings show Friday, they played a guy’s request for his girlfriend’s favorite song — it was her birthday. She proceeded to rock the fuck out. God damn was that a good show.”
The Beatings toured behind Late Season Kids, but then went on hiatus — a situation that grew more serious when bassist/singer Erin Dalbec, the heart of the band, was seriously injured in a freak accident. She recovered, but the band eventually decided to call it quits. After radio silence for years, they played their final concert two months ago.
I’m pretty sure I saw that same couple from 2009 at that final show, holding hands right up front and continuing to rock the fuck out. I myself am fairly sure I headbanged my poor skull into a concussion. There was something more than usual throbbing in my head — a pulse, a wire, a fire, a scream, a band that could maintain an intensity and build on it and open up so everyone there could pour in what they had and make something even greater. A fierce joy, mourning what was leaving and revelling in what was there, burning hot until that final goodbye. Of course the band played “All The Things You’ve Been Missing,” and of course we sang along:
There’s no comfort in reminiscing
Can’t fix it if we don’t know where to start
All the things that you’ve been missing
Aw baby, you’re breaking my heart
*The legendary TT the Bear’s, which hosted all of the bands discussed here and countless others before shutting down in 2015 — the photo of their stage at the top was screengrabbed from their Facebook page.
**Said newspaper, the Boston Phoenix, was immortalized in Joan Micklin Silver’s classic movie Between The Lines, which takes place in the late ‘70s and seems completely contemporary, right down to the paper being on the brink of death — they finally did go under in 2012.
***If Brandeis is listed in any tables of Richter Scale readings, this is why.
****That venue is a bunch of condos now.