Roads to Space Travel
with Slow Jets and Squeaky
The Covered Dish, Gainesville, FL • April 22, 1999
Nathan T. Birk
Some people would call this an indie-rock show; others wouldn’t. Whatever your point of reference may be, it all boiled down to one thing: Baltimore vs. Gainesville. Guess who won…
Representing Baltimore, Slow Jets were up first. The trio, oddly enough, condensed more sonic angularities and pop hooks into one-to-three minutes than most bands deem fathomable, or even logical, for that matter. Not unlike early Wire, Slow Jets built upon edgy, nervous repetition, oh-so-slightly syncopating any rhythm ripe for a disjunction. Seamless execution, however, made the feat look effortless and the pedigree natural; hence, when the band wanted to, it could shift tempos and time signatures like nobody’s business. To top it all off, the trio’s Weezer-ish melodies possessed just the right balance of catchiness and skewedness, sidestepping dippy pop convention in the process. Respectably, Slow Jets maintained a no-frills presentation but looked far from resigned; basically, it was a fitting reaction to the disinterested, eight-people-strong audience typical of the Dish at 10 PM on a weeknight. Even with nine songs, the trio’s set seemed criminally short — call it compactness of design.
Also representing Baltimore was Roads to Space Travel, perhaps Slow Jets’ more “rock” cousin – and that’s not only because Slow Jets’ bassist, who bore a strong resemblance to the character Cameron in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off , was also RTST’s nimble-fingered guitarist. Being that RTST just released a fine 7″ on the hip DeSoto label, the majority of the small audience (thirty people tops) seemed to be interested in the band solely because of the whole label tag. Solidifying the fact (at least for the night’s show) that Baltimore post-punks really dig that Wire-esque repetition, RTST locked down groove after minimalist groove, picking up a full head of rock-powered steam at times, jerking ‘n’ writhing around like neurotic robots at others. Much like Slow Jets, RTST’s guitarist favored high fretboard workouts and, unlike the clean twang of the former, that warm, mild distortion only hollowbodies can provide. Roman, also the trio’s bassist, possessed a smooth vibrato not unlike Peter Gabriel’s, but with a bit more bark ‘n’ bite. Halfway into the set, he switched to guitar, and that’s when things simultaneously coalesced and became more abstract. By the end of the fourth song (eighth overall) of the dual-guitar attack, RTST had erected an amazing crescendo of trebly distortion, seemingly composed of layer upon layer of eardrum-shattering feedback and tremolo — an overwhelming but enjoyable violent trance. The band then followed that up with its theme song (“which everyone should have,” Roman said), a stuttering, abstract duckwalk vaguely reminiscent of Shellac, minus the Albini influence: the epitome of authentic “math rock,” if you will. Through the whole set, however, RTST’s songs maintained a quirky pop consciousness, but with such high-brow inclinations as theirs, it would stand to reason that they were essentially anti-pop anthems — nothing like subverting the norm, eh?
Speaking of the norm, Squeaky, Gainesville’s only entry for the night (locals Rhudabega canceled), closed the show, with the audience since thinning to half that present for RTST. Things were looking up when the quartet kicked into its first song after a torrent of feedback; sure, it was total Daydream Nation -era Sonic Youth worship, but it could’ve been worse. Unfortunately, it did get worse. It became painfully apparent that Squeaky, despite having released a couple of CDs, was a band that merely played for its friends, which was the whole of minuscule audience at that point. With such predictables as the bassist and two guitarists chiming in for every chorus, rudimentary and cliché uses of feedback, and those textbook, god-awful “emo” breakdowns, Squeaky even drove its friends to cover their ears, and that wasn’t just because the band was so ridiculously loud. Quickly moving from Sonic Youth-worship to Mineral-worship is a pathetic, reprehensible action, but Squeaky proved it was possible. “Let’s get tough on emo-indie-rock!” — all: “okay!”; maybe if you got tough on your girlfriends you wouldn’t be so goddamn whiney. If you’re having a barbecue in town, I’m sure Squeaky would play for it.
So, if you’ve kept track (or have immense powers of deduction), Baltimore spanked the pants off Gainesville — it was that dramatic. Then again, so was my scurrying off after learning Squeaky was the last band to play. Thank God for indie-rock!