September 11, 2001 was supposed to be the average Tuesday. Some friends and I were hotly anticipating the next day’s drive to New York for the CMJ Music Marathon. Ever the record obsessive, I was also hotly anticipating hitting the record store for New Release Day, a weekly event that carried a great deal more weight fifteen years ago. With the mp3 in its nascent form, one had no choice but to hit the shop on Tuesday, in order to pore over what they hoped would be their new favorite record.
Of course, we didn’t get to New York. Our loss of a trip to New York was trivial compared to what happened to the people here. We were, however, traumatized at our proximity to the disaster. Treated like local celebrities for the next few weeks. Everyone wanted to feel a part of the 9/11 attacks; my friends and I were the closest a lot of Kalamazoodians got to the tragedy.
After the phone calls came, regarding the attack (we din’t have a TV), I did the only thing I knew to do. I went to the record shop. Tears in my eyes, I put my money down. I tried to disappear into the numbing calm of music, to keep me anesthetized from the horror of what was going on in the real world. It’s something I’ve spent a lot of my life doing. I do it less now.
Here is another look at four records that were released on September 11, 2001.
Bob Dylan’s Love And Theft
One had reason to hope that the follow up to Dylan’s sublime Time Out of Mind (rightly touted as his best album since Blood On the Tracks) would approach the majesty of its predecessor. Dylan HAD been laying low for most of the 90s, after all. It wasn’t too great a stretch to hold onto the hope that he’d stockpiled a few gems, to complement songs like “Not Dark Yet” and “Make You Feel My Love.” What’s disappointing, then, is that Love And Theft, aside from the heartbreaking “Mississippi” (itself a leftover from the Time Out Of Mind sessions) doesn’t sound like much of ANYTHING. Not thematically bold enough to hold up to the weird Christian-era Dylan, too moody to stand next to the fat-and-happy era of John Wesley Harding and New Morning, and yet not bombastic and just plain bad as the early 80s headscratchers Knocked Out Loaded and Empire Burlesque, Love And Theft is disappointing in that it just kind of isn’t anything to write home about. After a dissatisfying experience with Daniel Lanois, Love And Theft marks the beginning of Dylan producing his own records, under the pseudonym Jack Frost. And, unfortunately, that decision to produce his own records may be what’s cast a pallor of “meh” over Dylan’s career, over the subsequent fifteen years. I hold on to the hope that the world will get one more magical record out of Bob Dylan before he leaves us, but Love And Theft marked the beginning of a long era of boring records.
Ben Folds’ Rockin’ The Suburbs
Ben Folds went solo after his Five felt their Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner brought the band to its logical conclusion. Nerds all over America were stoked to pore over another album of hyper-literate, snarky-as-fuck piano rock. The Five’s breakthrough, Whatever And Ever, Amen was revelatory upon its release in 1997: What had “begun” with Nirvana had been carbon copied and castrated to the point that the power trio of Folds, bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee was a surprising shot of punk rock in the complacent bicep of the US alternative rock-buying audience. Rumor indicated that Folds played almost all of the album himself, that guitars and synthesizers were on board for the first time, that this was a bold new direction for Folds. Surprising, then, in retrospect, that the moments on Rockin’ The Suburbs that work best are the most straightforward: the furious piano work and doo-wop chorus on “Zak and Sara,” the duet with Cake’s John McCrea on “Fred Jones Part 2,” closing ballad, “The Luckiest” (the earliest inkling of a snark-free Folds). The title track, the last Folds composition to chart, to date, is an embarrassingly dated swipe at the day’s Nu Metal craze. Based around an electric guitar and keytar, Folds all but disses Fred Durst and his ilk by name. He would go on to make a few albums of syrupy ballads and out-of-the-box covers, some which worked (“In Between Days”) and some which didn’t (“Get Your Hands Off My Woman”), before the Five reunited in 2011, but never quite reached the gloriously snarky heights of the early BFF days.
They Might Be Giants’ Mink Car
It’s hard to be a They Might Be Giants fan. It’s hard to explain to people exactly what their appeal is. The author remembers seeing their animated approximations on an episode of Tiny Toons in 1993, and realizing that music was something he could pursue as a method of personal expression. He pored over the band’s first four albums, and taught himself to play guitar by playing along to their fifth. The band’s more remarkable traits include their ability to hop seamlessly between genres: a country song will be followed by a three chord punk stomp, which will be followed by an a capella number sung by a basso profundo singer the band hired for the occasion. Another trait is the presence of two singer/songwriters in the band, both named John. One is more prolific, and one is more business-oriented. Neither John has a conventionally-pleasing voice, and neither John could have made a career without the other. Those first five almost perfect albums (along with a wealth of B-sides) combined with an exciting live show helped the band develop a rabid cult following that will seemingly pore over TMBG’s slightest move. The late 90s were hard on the band, though, and after the often-dismissed-but-not-without-its-charms sixth album, 1996’s Factory Showroom, They Might Be Giants went five years without a proper studio album. A cobbled-together live album, solo projects from both Johns and the mp3-only Long Tall Weekend compilation (search your heart, you know it to be true) kept the band in fighting form, but one can imagine the fever pitch that surrounded the impending release of Mink Car.
And, it’s weird, because Mink Car is not without its charms. There’s the mutant punk of “Cyclops Rock,” the perfect marriage of TMBG to Soul Coughing on the M. Doughty sung “Mr. Excitement,” the weird skronk of “I’ve Got a Fang” and “Wicked Little Critta.” “Man, It’s So Loud In Here” is the band’s first attempt at writing a big dance number that rivals the big dance remixes of their earlier songs. And. It. Works.
But Mink Car as a whole sounds like seventeen songs that all try to operate independently of each other. It sounds less like an album than Long Tall Weekend, and isn’t helped by the fact that several songs on Mink Car (“Older,” “She Thinks She’s Edith Head”) are done better in earlier versions, on LTW or elsewhere. It would be the beginning of a decade of They Might Be Giants records that were not…bad, per se, but were…directionless. Too much of that early quirkiness went out the window, the band spent a lot of the 00’s sounding too much like a traditional rock band, and didn’t quite hit their stride, again, until Nanobots, in 2013.
The Moldy Peaches’ S/T
Okay, the author did not run out to buy The Moldy Peaches’ lone album on its release date in 2001. Okay, the author did not hear about The Moldy Peaches, or antifolk, until over a year later, when he was a recent and scared transplant to New York City, and picked up Rough Trade’s Antifolk, Vol. 1 compilation on a whim, at the Times Square H+M. But, in a spooky coincidence, the band that wrote a song called “NYC’s Like A Graveyard” happened to release their one album on the date the Twin Towers fell, and changed the face of New York (and the US) forever.
The Moldy Peaches have always felt like the world’s best-kept inside joke. Their songs are playful, catchy, funny and absurd. Singers Kimya Dawson and Adam Green sing the kind of blank, dadaist poetry that would become Green’s trademark on later solo records. The instrumentation is sparse, sometimes poorly played, always poorly recorded. And yet, the occasional blistering guitar solo rears its ugly head. Among all the fart jokes, there are moments of earnest encouragement of individuality (“D2 Boyfriend”) and sweet love (“Anyone Else But You”). On “Downloading Porn With Dave-O,” the Moldy Peaches sound like an honest-to-God RAWK BAND.
The Moldy Peaches were one and done, preferring to move on to solo careers in which Dawson offers lo-fi and intensely wordy songs of empowerment, and Green has grown into a kind of blank-eyed crooner, like a young Scott Walker singing Billy Childish poems. Each of the other members has their own prolific solo catalog; Brent Cole with the bands Berth Control and Candy Boys, Steven Mertens in the Gnomes and later Wild Bee; Toby Goodshank released a staggering 25 solo albums between 2001 and 2012, and Jack Dishel records under the name Only Son.
And, while the Moldy Peaches record has stood the test of time as a solid half hour of entertainment, it stands as a mere calling card for the music that happened alongside it in the antifolk scene of the early 00’s. To really understand what that scene was/is about, one has to fully immerse one’s self in it. And, so, while The Moldy Peaches still entertains, it also beckons. Which may have been the point, all along.