Theme Songs EP
By Chet Betz | 28 May 2008
Theme Songs is like a No Big Hair archetype. When I congratulated Dirt Dress on making a great record they were all, “how on earth did you get your hands on that thing?!” Shocked, maybe even a little embarrassed, that someone was actually listening to their music. Well, if CMG holds any sway at all (granted, that’s dubious), they better get used to it. Because let me just say it: this record’s even better than CMG’s other pet project EP of ‘08, Ghost Town by Dan Friel. And that wedges it snugly into the second place spot. Remember, Badu is god.
Dirt Dress are far from it; they aren’t god, they’re buddies, and that’s what’s so appealing. It’s like talking about your roommate’s band but just imagine that your roommate’s band is a band that you actually want to talk about. That you want to tell everyone about, in fact. And it’s especially going to seem like I’m talking about a roommate’s band because I could only find out these dudes’ first names. So imagine we’re watching Dirt Dress play and I’m introducing you: That’s Raymond on drums. His playing reminds me of Mo Tucker and that drunk guy Pavement started out with. Simple and sweet but maybe not entirely there. Jose plays bass and rhythm guitar. I know that a lot of us hip kids today often feel like “what the hell’s the point of rhythm guitar” but when I listen to this music I say to myself, “man, I sure am enjoying this rhythmic guitar playing!” The trebly, plucky bass is nice, too. Jose takes the place of Johnny, who the band told me just the other day was the bassist that played and sang some on this here nifty EP that I’m waving excitedly in your face. Noah’s on lead guitar and vocal duties. Noah’s guitar, as with all the band’s instrumentation, has classic tone. On record the production is indubitably lo-fi but in a warm, pure, and pleasurable way, more And Don’t The Kids Just Love It (1980) than, say, Moon Boys (2002). Dirt Dress hail from Los Angeles; it’s to their enormous credit that you can’t tell.
David Goldstein suggests a comparison between Noah’s vocals and that of Gordon Gano’s. Which: yeah, totally. Personally, I hear the passionate disaffectedness of Lou Reed and an attitude that’s too cool (and smart) for school—but in an easy-going sort of way. Like, “nah, I don’t need to listen to Mr. Whiteman talk about the civil rights movement today, I’ll just listen to this Nina Simone record.” I’m reminded of Lou Reed, too, because holy Velvet Underground: after unassuming opener “Patterns,” Theme Songs delivers its very own “What Goes On” with the brightly keening build of “Transmissions.” The part near the end where someone asks “Transmissions?” as if to deride the song’s title and lyrical finish and then Noah deadpans back, “yeah, Transmissions” = brilliant, for some inexplicable reason, and made all the brilliant-er by its being chased with a coda that surges forward on a shifting guitar line and the hi-hat’s ticking linked by crashing gasps. The comparison’s not just to the Velvet Underground but to The Velvet Underground (1969) as the elegantly noisy 11-minute sprawl of “Peter and the Wolf” has some of the same inverted ambition as “The Murder Mystery.” Yet the signature moment of Theme Songs might come with “End of the Line,” where the narrator is a poor man working for “the richest man around.” This narrator notes that his dreams make his employer no money (“just my time”) before finishing the song with a measured outburst of absurd violence: “If I had your money I would go out and buy myself a gun / And I would kill each and every one of your daughters / Because you…never had a son.” These few lines are drawn out over most of the song’s last minute, over what might be the EP’s most pop music, the lead guitar trickling sunlight as background vocals chant, “bang, bang, bang.” It’s like great Frank Black.
A firm plant of the feet can go a long way: even though Dirt Dress are utterly alien to hype and slouch away from the weight of expectation, they tower over much of the current musical landscape by standing tall atop their touchstones. All the bands that Dirt Dress sound like (Violent Femmes, the Pixies, Television Personalities, the Modern Lovers, Pavement, the Velvet Underground) could feel as proud parents, not an MC who’s had a rhyme bitten. But the amazing thing about this confluence of underground styles is that it in no way seems patched together or contrived. It feels like something that makes up the very blood and bones of this band, self-assured and wizened on this their very first release. I mean, check their Myspace, these guys have already played a show on a freaking boat. So Dirt Dress don’t so much sound like these bands as they sound like a contemporary compression of the various abstracts those bands sweated: weariness, humor, nonchalance, wisdom, faithful facsimiles of rock enthusiasm. If there’s a common principle in the forebears of Dirt Dress, I think it’s a wry recognition of zeitgeist as a form of cultural dementia; those artists resigned themselves to that truth even as they used it, sighing as they smiled and vice versa, tongues pushing out little mounds in the side of their cheeks. Created out of a dedication to and unadulterated love for music, those mounds are the bloated bellies from which a young band like Dirt Dress is born, fully formed. Sorry, that was gross.
Due to modest goals, more modest recording, and most modest of all release format (limited run cassette tape, by golly), it’s difficult to pinpoint what elevates Theme Songs from “good” to “great” aside from attributing it to something special in the band and record’s character, a tack that could easily degenerate into a Mims-like thesis of “Dirt Dress is hot because they are Dirt Dress—and you’re not.” Unfortunately, trying to explain that elevating quality is my job, and even in that last paragraph I’m grasping at intangibles, acknowledging that by its very nature this music is nothing new (as much as that is part of the point). Well, thanks to the magic of the Internet, I have a better way. In the interest of getting this fantastic record heard by all five or six of you still reading, Papermade has kindly allowed Cokemachineglow to post the entire EP for download. So do your easy-ass part. If you’re not the kind of listener that lends much credence to the idea of that elusive “it” quality, well, guess what? Dirt Dress have got “it” leaking from every humble pore. Prepare to believe.