The Stan Marsh Award for an Album so Beautiful that Talking About It Made me Want to Throw up, So Instead I Shut up
By Christopher Alexander | 19 December 2008
Pray For Scars
(Don Giovanni; 2008)
The Asbury Park Press used to be an independently run paper, and a damn good one. Before it was swallowed by the Gannet Chain sometime in the nineties, the foldout TV guide ran a sidebar every Friday or Saturday night called “Killer B’s.” I’m sure there was one like it in every local paper. Whoever did this section (the graphic, like it could be anything else, was that of a Honeybee with a television box for its head) made sure everyone in Monmouth County knew when the Roger Corman marathon was; the two times a night that The Last Man on Earth could be found; when someone was daring to show Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! Kill!. My dad always viewed it as a failure that I never quite followed in his fantographic footsteps, but I don’t know: rock n’ roll came calling, I keep telling him. (“Hey, at least now we have booze,” I say. He grunts and turns Sean Hannity up.)
Rock n’ roll came calling for the four Monmouth County transplants of New Brunswick’s Hunchback, and it turns out they’re the sons and daughter that my dad never had. On their previous album, they turned “The Last Man on Earth” into one of the best Ramones songs never written. Pray for Scars turns the pop-punk down (although it’s still there: check “A Year and a Day” and the stupendous “Inside Out,” sung by the band’s drummer, Miranda), but the B-movies never stop. Most of all in the vocals of guitarist Mike (all last names are Hunchback in their universe), who sounds like he’s impersonating a fourteen-year-old impersonating someone emotionally disturbed, some half-formed character suffering from an abbreviated childhood of extreme isolation and trauma. It’s goofy and gets to be more than a little distracting, but it’s completely fucking awesome: “Is it too much to ask to put down the scalpel / and just hold you?” he sings in the beginning of “The Doctor,” next to a surf riff gone horribly wrong (and, when the band kicks it in, like maybe someone in Scratch Acid had written it). “Is it too much to ask, since I’m killing myself by cutting you up?” I mean, who says that, and in that tone of voice, with a straight face? Someone who has this kind of whiplash band behind him, recalling by turns Murder City Devils, the Jesus Lizard, Bleach-era Nirvana, and the earliest Mudhoney. It can only be described as unhinged precision, whenever it occurs: in the 11/8, hairpin bombast of “All that Fear Allows,” the out of time pop sludge of single “Werse Houses,” or in the lumbering, cavernous gut-splatter that kicks off the album, “The Bells, The Bells.” Like the Misfits at their best, Hunchback are simultaneously taking the piss and true believers in this horror business stuff. Their completely wacked out cover of Christina Aguleria’s “Beautiful” illustrates the point perfectly.
Hunchback called it a day in November, and I’m a poorer man for it. Not just professionally—I passed on reviewing the record, thinking it not right for CMG’s audience, and while the decision was not helped by the abysmal sound quality of the mostly ADAT recordings, it’s one I regret. But personally, there are few bands who’ve meant as much to me as Hunchback in the last few years. Live, the band was as good as any that I have ever seen; they were seriously Fugazi or Godspeed You Black Emperor calibre, and it pains me that I’ll never get a chance to be a part of the audience for something like that again. Permit the reviewer another anecdote: Bruce Springsteen’s famous “the future of rock n’ roll” tag came from his future manager, Jon Landau, at the time (1974) well known as a rock critic with Rolling Stone and Boston’s The Real Paper. Less known is that Landau made his famous proclamation while reeling from a divorce, feeling his age, and disenchanted with the state of pop and rock music (this was the seventies, after all). “On a night when I desperately needed it,” he went on, “Bruce Springsteen made me feel like I was listening to music for the first time.” I quote that because that—like I was listening to music for the first time, falling in love with the world again, rediscovering the reason and the very essence of what makes life pretty fucking awesome, that somewhere no matter how old you may feel or how far gone you may be or how far you may have strained from whatever principles you once held that may have proved unworkable or maybe just inconvenient the world was in fact still recreating itself everyday, and I don’t even know how to even begin to tell you how unbelievably filling, ecstatic, and hopeful that is—is exactly how I felt at every Hunchback show I ever saw.