Sunday, May 5, 2013

M. Colvin

The early 90’s saw a huge “changing of the guard” musically. There were ‘hair’ metal bands that saw a glorious run of success in the previous decade, now clambering for some revised sense of purpose, as a new wave of dirty looking and even more unpolished sounding bands began to cram the airwaves and MTV. They didn’t have to like it, but the fact was that they had become mostly obsolete by 1993, maintaining their core following while saying goodbye to mainstream (and fickle) audiences.

There were a lot of bands being signed by major record labels at the end of the eighties who had no real connection with the vain, misogynistic ‘Hair’ metal lifestyle, and record companies had not yet seen that there was gold to be mined in a popular Northwest mecca. The Houston market had seen the rise of a venerable and majestic sounding group of artists that were honing an ‘otherworldly’ sound- full with melodic hooks, harmonic vocals and guitars that were full on, as they vacillated between clean and distorted tones. Everyone in the Houston area had caught on to the band King’s X and by 1998, they had released their second album to much critical fanfare.

Galactic Cowboys were another Houston band that utilized a lot of the same musical styling as Kings X, and in 1991 released their debut for Geffen Records. The same year that Geffen released an album by a band called Nirvana. The Cowboys were lost in the shuffle.

Ask any band and they will tell you that following trends is a death sentence. Music is emotive and should not rely on flashy image and a shimmering veneer. If you could see the early ‘Seattle scene’, you would know that they did not possess the sharpened, pretty and sometimes manufactured look of the latex and leather wearing ‘Hair Bands’. The early ‘grunge’ bands hadn’t even been labeled yet and they were a product of their environment. Dirty, unkempt; wearing flannel because it was cold- not because it was cool, and tattoos that looked like they were solicited in prison! The Galactic Cowboys held true to their metallic shifts into clean and lush sounding harmonies without notice of anything outside of their musical vision.

In 1993, they released what I feel is the most underrated album of the early nineties: “Space in Your Face”. The thematic space musing from the first album starts out the album and the main driver in the overall tone was Monty Colvin’s thick, but precise 12 string bass onslaught. It opens up your auditory senses immediately, and you know you didn’t just pop Warrant’s new cassette in your deck (yes we still used cassettes in 1993!). There is no doubt in my mind that he was interval in the shaping of the immense sound on this record. Let’s look at his technique, his resounding presence and his trademark lyrical humor (Why not, doesn’t have to be all bass, all the time).

I spent many hours researching the origins and intricate details of “Space in Your Face”, regardless of the fact that I have listened to it no less than 1,00,030 times (not an exact #). How can someone memorize every affect and every taut musical tempo change and not really feel like he knows the bass playing? Colvin was unique in that he chose to use a 12 string (Hamer, I believe) bass on the entirety of this recording. By 1993 I had been playing bass for about five years and only recently updated to a 5 string bass (a Peavey Dynabass- who’s the man?), so comprehending 12 strings of anything was hard getting my head around! But for a majority of beginner and intermediate bassists, a twelve string bass is an anomaly and probably not something you’ll even find at the local music store. The 12 string bass has the standard four strings (E,A,D,G) and then has two high (what are essentially) guitar strings doubling the original bass strings. What comes from this conglomeration is a massive booming tone that is so full it allows the guitar to be stringier and branch out from the major or minor chords the song relies on (think Cheap Trick). And at times, the tone of a 12 string bass sounds like an amped up muscle car with the exhaust purring and you can hear that in the arrangements from this recording. Puurrrrrrr…

Applying the use of this, Monty Colvin turned many of these already complex arrangements into an exercise in forced precision. Utilizing a pick, he propels the opening pattern (triplets, for you music nerds) of track two “You Make Me Smile” and as the tempo moves to double time, the song breaks into a ‘thrash’ style riff that is teetering on Anthrax style precision, but with the difficulties of keeping that 12 string playable and sounding good. If you don’t believe me that no effects pedal can duplicate the tone of a twelve string bass, then check out the note run at .46 seconds, when they drums and guitars drop out and it’s just Monty. You just have to hear it to believe it.

“Circles in the Fields”, is a sarcastic poke at desperate sycophants and their sad attempts at re-creating alien visitations in the cornfields of our American Midwest (complete with a lumbering tractor, sputtering off at the close of the song). The up-tempo thrash is again apparent here and the use of the 12 string to lay down a foundation for the aromatic blues of guitarist Dane Sonnier. When the bass and guitar are doubled in the airy bridge- they ascend together in a way that the aliens themselves might decide to return with them- to sing harmony on the chorus! I think this song is a great representation of the overall sound that the Galactic Cowboys achieved on this album. The following cut “If I were a Killer” also utilizes a unique build in the bridge section (layering of sound, as they call it), with the bass, guitar and the dynamics slowly growling back into the cathartic finale, and complete dissolution at the outro.

The last track is a good example of Colvin’s wit and sarcasm coming through lyrically (he wrote a majority of the lyrics). Sure, it’s got a thick slab of a meaty bass intro, and yes, there’s a super revved up thrash style breakdown with tempo changes intact. It’s the lyrics of the clueless (Colvin goofing on himself?) protagonist within the song who wonders where the girls he mused over in High School have gone. The comical poke ends with the aimless daydreamer (Colvin himself) calling old girlfriends and they have no idea who he is, and are ambivalent to say the least. He is a major musical talent and the sense of humor is a nice touch. Haven’t we all thought of our High School sweetheart now and then?!?

“Space in Your Face” seems hard to locate, as it is neither on iTunes or Rhapsody, but please make a concerted effort to find it. The recording is a rare musical gem amidst a sea of flannel and stale Aqua Net fumes.

Often “Unheralded”, but no longer overlooked…

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