November 26, 2012

Reviewed: Big Dipper, Banquet Hall

Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planets' second track should have been its first. It's a lament, but also a prayer of sorts to activate the muse for this, the first new Big Dipper album in over 20 years (sort of) - hoping for "voices that guide a rising chorus that opens wide!" So goes Gary Waleik's "Robert Pollard," which worries that a classic era of songwriters like namechecked Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Jagger-Richards, and Newmans both Randy and Colin, is coming to end and all hope lies with Guided By Voices oracle Robert Pollard (who also created the album's cover art) may be the last man standing to carry the torch. The merits of that argument are called into question by its very existence as "Robert Pollard" is catchy as hell.

But maybe not as catchy as "Princess Warrior," drummer Jeff Oliphant's highly hummable tribute to cancer recovery. The refrain's plead "help me get back on my knees, I'm begging you, begging you please" is as big a hook as they make 'em. The album covers some wider ground too: Goffrier's "Joke Outfit" has biting guitar and smiting lyrics, and his "Hurricane Bill," "Pitbull Cruiser," and "Happy New Year" are grand, smooth pop. Waleik's "Sarah and Monica" recalls Dipper's longtime (and perhaps over-estimated) association with scientific and extra-terrestrial imagery (c.f. "Lunar Module," among others), but is as much a memory of summers past spent under "constellations in summer skies," though it does ask "is memory matter, in that it can be destroyed?"

Big Dipper Crashes On The Platinum Planet is everything we'd hoped it would be. Full of catchy hooks, idiosyncratic playful guitar jousting, and that essential silliness that make the band what it is. That latter bit may be the most important. Whether it's oddball characters called Lord Scrumptious, or the way Bill Goffrier hesitates while reaching for a high note in your face, or the way his guitar jabs in response to Gary Waleik's, Big Dipper continues to remind us that this whole music thing is supposed to be fun.

The self-recorded album out this week (very limited blue vinyl available here and signed CDs here) is their first since their 1990 major label debut (and finale) and their 1992 breakup. This reunion run started in 2008, when Merge, doing a great public service, reissued the band's Homestead catalog (an EP and two nearly perfect albums), along with a revelatory collection of an album's worth of material recorded but never released after the band's very short major label tenure. That collection, and the band's joyous reunion shows, hinted at what they were still capable of. Now we know for sure.

This is just the latest in a great classic Boston rock renaissance that I've talked a lot about in this space. These last few weeks alone have seen reunions of legends Human Sexual Response (who played literally every song they released in their short 80's run) and 90's indie pop favorites Fuzzy, who played a birthday show for one of their guitarist-singers, along with Tanya Donnelly playing a few Belly hits with Buffalo Tom as her backing band, along with the latter running through a few of their biggies as well.

This isn't just about reunions, though. I always closely associated Big Dipper with their contemporaries The Cavedogs as they trod the same boards around town and were in the same rough neighborhood of 'pop,' but the latter with their own bent and a bigger rock sound and more 12-string jangle. Like Big Dipper, the Cavedogs had their own flirt with the majors that led to their downfall. Their guitarist, Todd Spahr, spent the 90's leading greats Merang and then The Gravy before pulling up stakes and moving to Los Angeles. Save a couple of Cavedogs reunions (like this one a couple of summers ago), we haven't heard from him in awhile.

He finally resurfaces as a member of Banquet Hall, along with a couple of other Boston transplants. Rick Shaw, a criminally under-appreciated songwriter that some called the Godfather of the Northern Worcester County post-punk scene (by 'some' I mean I called him that) when he fronted his early band, Navy Blue Nuns (grab their great compilation here) before leading a couple of quality Boston bands like The Meltaways and Krebstar, handles the other guitar and Paula Kelly, who cut her teeth in cult legends Drop Nineteens and remained a prominent scene figure throughout the late 90's and early aughts, plays the bass and does some arranging as well.

After grinding it out in L.A. clubs for a few years now, the band has just released their debut album, What Could Possibly Go Wrong?, which is the sum of its great parts. Right off the top of it feels so great to hear Spahr's playful jittery guitar chords on leadoff track "Stars After Stars" and Shaw's pop classicist approach to "Puppets," with warm lounge harmonies from the Watson Twins. Later, Spahr's "Urban Renewal" betrays an Elvis Costello influence wrapped in a cozy acoustic guitar, Shaw's "Bells On" is the kind of heart-on-your-sleeve pop song that Boston songwriters (like, say, Buffalo Tom) seem to do so well, and the band resurrects an old Merang single to great effect with lost classic "Drunk and Quartered."

Here, have a listen:

-Michael Piantigini

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Banquet Hall: Facebook | Bandcamp

1 comment:

vikkitikkitavi said...

Thanks for turning people on to "What Could Possibly Go Wrong?" It's a great album.