Monday, 15 July 2013

Craps - Big Dipper

 Indie rock in America has always gone hand in hand with student life. Band's are often formed whilst their members are studying at university and college radio stations, often far more relaxed when it comes to playlists than their larger, commercial counterparts, were often the first places to hear new and exciting bands. Some of the most fertile indie rock scenes in the USA started out in college towns. It's of little surprise then that a city such as Boston, where there is over 100 universities, would play host one of the most diverse and fruitful scenes.
     In the 1980's Boston's hardcore punk bands gained a reputation as being particularly ferocious but it wasn't until the late 80's and early 90's that Boston's more melodic bands started gaining more widespread recognition. The Pixies, Dinosaur Jr and The Lemonheads are just some of the bands that came out of Boston's historic streets, each of them with their own individual sound. Unlike other regional American scenes of the time (Seattle, Washington D.C etc), where there was a specific “sound” all the Boston bands sounded different from each other. Whether it was the feedback-drenched wall of noise produced by Dinosaur Jr or the sharp post punk of Mission of Burma, each band's style set them apart from the others. Whilst this lack of congruity between acts created some of the most individual and interesting bands of the era, it has also lead to the Boston scene being somewhat under-recognised as a whole. Dinosaur Jr and The Pixies went on to international fame and fortune, becoming huge in the wake of the Alt. Rock boom in the early 1990's, though by the mid 90's both bands had imploded. But whilst they were touring the world and selling thousands of records, bands like the Blake Babies and Big Dipper, were operating under the Radar.
        Big Dipper was formed in 1986 by ex-members of The Volcano Suns (guitarist Gary Waleik and Bassist Steve Michener) and The Embarrassment (guitarist and vocalist Bill Goffrier) as well as drummer Jeff Oliphant. After playing only a handful of shows around the boston area, they were sent an unsolicited contract by local label Homestead Records and in the next following year. released a mini album, a full LP and a single. Though their first album “Heavens” is a fine record and 'All Going Out Together' could be the band's greatest song, the real jewel in the unrecognised crown of Big Dipper is 1988's “Craps”. Whilst you would have thought that the band deserved a break after it's prolific second year, to my mind it seems that it only spurred them on to produce the finest work of their short but bright existence.
        The band's self-depreciating, wry sense of humour is evident even in the title and vegas inspired cover of the album. They are openly admitting, that an album that contains psychedelia infused pop songs about dead presidents, aliens and excessive house parties may be somewhat of a gamble, or maybe even just crap.
        The opening track, 'Meet The Witch', wastes no time introducing you to the record's sound. Distorted but jangly guitars, huge amounts of space in the mix and smart, irreverent lyrics. 'Ron Klaus Wrecked His House', is a high point for the album, the band and possibly Homestead Records entire output. The story of how Goffrier's old Embarrassment bandmate managed to cause huge amounts of damage to his house to get himself evicted and get out of the lease, makes for a particularly involving song as it details the destruction. It's a song that leaves you with an indelible image of the party and the ensuing damage and the big, catchy, harmonized chorus will remain stuck in your head for days as will the guitar line that almost seems to serve as a musical metaphor for each smashing window.
        The overarching theme of “Craps” is that the songs all seem to tell stories. Whether or not the band believe these stories to be true is pretty irrelevant really. 'Semjase' for example is based on the claims of Billy Meier, a Swiss farmer who gained a small amount of fame in the 70's when he revealed that he had been visited by aliens over a period of years. Big Dipper don't really seem to be fully convinced and the song pokes gentle fun at Meier, choosing to tell the story from his point of view, asking the cosmic visitors to come back and prove the doubters wrong. On a coincidental side note, for a song about extraterrestrial visitors, the intro bares a strong similarity to the piano from the X-files theme by Mark Snow.
        For all of the wry smiles and playful joking that the album contains, Big Dipper know how to construct a good tune. Memorable guitar riffs abound throughout “Craps” and the melodies have a habit of working their way into your brain and just sitting there for a week or so, to the point where you'll find yourself humming the melody to 'Hey Mr Lincoln' without realising it. Produced by longtime Bob Mould associate Lou Giordano and Paul Quick Kolderie, the record sounds big, echoey and full of room to breath. So much so that it brings to mind the fields where “The grass is growing sideways” in Semjase. There's nothing claustrophobic about the record. It's relaxed, informal and friendly and instantly accessible.
        In 2008, Big Dipper got some of the posthumous recognition they deserve in the form of a brilliantly put together career spanning anthology released by Merge records. All the records they released on Homestead are included in the 3 disc set as well as a collection of unreleased tracks that were recorded just before the band's demise. The only noticeable absence from the collection is 'Slam', the band's major label debut. Not particularly loved by fans or the band (if the liner notes of 'Supercluster' are anything to go by), 'Slam' performed poorly enough for Epic records to drop Big Dipper in 1991, as they were just 1 album in to a ridiculous 8 album agreement. By 1992 the line-up had gone through several changes and the band had disintegrated. However in 2008, with Merge records on the up and up at the time, “Supercluster” gained the band more attention than they had received when they were still active. They even had a hand full of tracks used in the RockBand video game. This resurgence of interest lead to the band performing a handful of reunion shows and in 2012 releasing a 4th album. 'Big Dipper Crash Lands On The Platinum Planet' picks up almost exactly where they left off 20 years ago. Still full of the wry charm that made Big Dipper's other albums so accessible, 'Platinum Planet' sounds like the band never went away.
        If you're struggling to find an original copy of “Craps” on vinyl, “Supercluster” is still available from the Merge Records website. Disc 2 of the set contains “Craps” in full as well as demos and unreleased songs from the album sessions.

1 comment:

ward in SC said...

Great overview, great album, great band. I'm going to go listen to some 25 year old records now...