Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Celebrate Leap Day With Chisel!

Sometimes spring is just as much a state of mind as a season and today was one of those days. Chicago may have had an historically warm winter this year but that doesn't mean that it was an easy one. Personally speaking, this season has been more than its usual grind. So it was without shedding a tear for my beloved snow that never fell, that I awoke to nearly 60 degree temperatures with a smile on my lips and spring in my step. On these early spring-like days I'm a sucker for two things - driving with the windows down and relentlessly energetic music. So with my trebly speakers blaring out the open windows, I headed off to work this morning, my ears full of Chisel and my head full of Leap Day cheer.

Early Chisel has always given me an instant energy boost. There's something about these recordings' lo-fi guitar, full-throated choruses and refreshingly earnest excitement that lifts the heart and lightens the feet. I was agonizing over which song I'd highlight today before I realized that having your own blog means nothing having to say your sorry, so you'll get two classics. They come from Chisel's debut long-playing release, 1995's Nothing New (it's officially an EP but at 12 songs including an uncredited Who cover, it's funcitonally an album), which collected their early singles and stray tracks from the band's early South Bend period. The whole thing is a slice of buzzy mid-90's indie heaven but "Innocents Abroad" and "Bliss" in particular stand out for their hooks and guitar work.

"Innocents Abroad" leads off the album and it's immediately clear why. "I turned blue just waiting for / and I don't wanna wait around anymore" Ted declares over a couple tinny, crunchy guitar chords before the band fully kicks in with a "come on, yeah yeah". Leo does his best to distill the energy and optimism of youth into music with entreaties such as "time to kick off sheets / get out the house / and get in the street" and "we can plan out our escape and still have time for coffee on the way" that sound almost impossible to resist. The rhythm section punctuates his points, but it's Leo's voice and guitar that carries the musical load with open chorded runs punctuated by energetic, punky downstrokes between verses and choruses propelling things forward in a headlong rush.

As a night person rarely able to muster more than a wan smile before 10 AM, it's saying something when I tell you that the song's optimism is infectious. Leo's like a little kid who wakes up early on a Saturday morning full of joyous energy and immediately starts jostling his friend to wake up and join him. "We're all here and where are you" he asks before answering "you're sleeping in and missing out". Halfway through the song you're ready to apologize and buy the guy another latte. The caffeinated air is enhanced by his biting guitar cutting like a sonic scythe through you mind, leaving you disoriented but amp'd up. It stands the test of time however as the guitar work and optimism still manage to shine through on this acoustic version recorded two years ago.
"Innocents Abroad" rushes past like a shot of espresso - quick, exhiliarting and to-the-point. "Bliss", on the hand takes a similar formula of upbeat lyrics mixed with driving, alternately punky and expansive guitar work but stretches it out with nearly double the length. The song opens with a guitar intro, with Leo playing the same riff three times, each crescendoing more energetically and expressively than the last, almost as if clearing his throat before the band falls into a steady, palm-muted lockstep for the verse.

If Ted was an overactive kid in "Innocents", he's moved on to slightly cynical, advice-dispensing older brother in "Bliss". "Take you time / do it right / it's not impossible" he notes "and starting small might be the key". Although this might be standard-issue, but solid D.I.Y. scene advice, he then takes it to the next level "I used to bulls-eye / womp rats in my / T-16 back home" he continues "and there not much bigger than me", reasoning that if Luke Skywalker could take down the Death Star, we can all do what we have in front of us. Let's just pause for a moment here. I'll wait. What you've just witnessed, dear reader, is the best Star Wars reference in music history and it deserves to be acknowledged. OK, moving on.

In each verse he deals with a problem - a breakup, a jerky kid, etc, and ends resolving the issue by dismissing it and moving on to the redemptive chorus. The buildup after each verse involve Leo wringing every sonic pyrotechnic possible out of his cheap guitar, building up each musical release with a blur of impossibly fast shredding that mental images of sparks flying off the pick guard until the chorus hits. "It's a different kind of feeling" he yells over the racket, reveling in the freedom of letting his problems go. We can see the same joy he felt in "Innocents" (ie. "makes me jump and touch the ceiling") only here it comes from rejecting things holding him back and reveling in his own freedom ("and if I fall, well then I fall"). It's sentiment that's tailor-made for that adolescent/collegiate part of that is constantly looking define our identity, particularly through righteous rejection. At times we all need that quick ego-boost to remind ourselves what the point of it all is. And never has it felt better than screaming along with Ted on one of the most satisfying kiss-off lines ever set to music.

"I heard you party wasn't such a Goddamn thrill!"

Innocents Abroad - Chisel  Buy Nothing New [EP]
Innocents Abroad [Live Acoustic] - Ted Leo  Support WFMU
Bliss - Chisel

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