By Steve Wilson
I called them the “Crayola Kids.” They were Eighties young adults who came of age in the Seventies. Weaned on punk-rock singles from England, and American radio rock too, they identified with punk’s alienation; but as suburbanites and small town kids, their relationship to punk’s aggression was once removed.
Scores of bands fit into the “Crayola Kids” construct, R.E.M. being a definitive example. Michael Stipe’s initially indistinguishable lyrics irritated me as they charmed a generation. I now recognize them as the embodiment of a certain soft focus generational rebellion (we made our peace, I was eventually a fan). Behind it all was a Peter Pan sensibility, a willed innocence that implicitly rejected the surrounding ugliness of America in the age of Reagan.
In Kansas, a band from Wichita called the Embarrassment were manifest of this sensibility; it was certainly post-punk, while it also anticipated the whimsically withdrawn ethos of bands like Pavement. The Embos, as fans knew them, were a band that gave small town kids the courage to present their inner oddball to the straight world.
The music expressed a poetic appreciation for quotidian beauty; their best songs were about the little moments in life – being haunted by a television person(ae) (“Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face”), we-may- never-pass-this-way-again reverie (“Wellsville”), or reflected a snarky distance from a hipster embrace that would, of course, try to seduce them (“Celebrity Art Party”). Part Pistols, part Wire, part David Byrne’s strained larynx, with a dash of Devo’s wired ironies, the Embarrassment had some great tunes, the best of them compensated for the consistently brittle sound of their recordings.
Both Goffrier and the Embo’s Brent “Woody” Geissman defected to Boston from Wichita in 1986. Geissman played drums for the decidedly more classic-rock based Del Fuegos; Goffrier initiated collaboration with guitarist Gary Waleik, a veteran of Boston’s hometown heroes the Volcano Suns.
They first teamed for the song “She’s Fetching,” released on their 1987 album Heavens. It captured something immediate and fresh. A foot to the floor mid-tempo rocker, its chorus positively soared. “She’s Fetching” was an offhand, oblique tribute to a young woman’s emerging powers. It mirrored the duo’s sense of its own emerging force.
Some of their earliest material, like “Faith Healer,” from their first ep, 1986’s Boo-Boo, would not have sounded a bit out of place on an Embarrassment record. But Waleik’s collaboration made Big Dipper very much a band. And the power of the rhythm section (bassist, Steve Michener, arrived from the underrated Dumptruck, and drummer Jeff Oliphant) gave them a muscularity that underscored and empowered their regular dude (lack of) pretenses.
Big Dipper’s short career is best served by Merge Records’ comprehensive, three-disc retrospective Supercluster. Released in 2007, it culls their best material and adds some unreleased gems, recorded in the aftermath of their anticlimactic major label swoon Slam (Epic, 1990).
Time has not been unkind to Big Dipper. Crashes on the Platinum Planet, the new record, and first Slam, delivers in fits and starts, but ultimately wins you over. Missing from much of this new music is the angst-flushed rush that characterized songs like “Faith Healer” and “Younger Bums.” More of these songs reflect the endearing charms of “She’s Fetching” and “Bonnie” – offhand reveries, heroic in their plain humanity.
Crashes opens with Goffrier’s “Lord Scrumptious,” sounding akin to Andy Partridge’s fanciful tales, a parable about a power mad, Koch Brothers-like soul who “licked the tectonic plates,” but who “can’t fix the hole in his heart … this time.” The band sounds instantly like, well, Big Dipper.
Waleik’s “Robert Pollard” is homage to a favorite songwriter (actually, it’s a mutual admiration society – Pollard’s a Dipper fan, and designed Crashes’ album cover). If you’re honoring the Bach of pop melody you’d better come up with a good tune. And Waleik has. The lyric name checks Paul McCartney, the Newmans (Randy and Colin), among others. “A rising chorus that opens wide” sings Waleik, indeed capturing the deceptively simple essence of Pollard’s talent.
It takes a listen or two, but I eventually realized that Oliphant’s vocal turn (he also sings the stock crash ballad “Market Scare”) on the whimsical “Princess Warrior” is in fact a portrait of a cancer survivor. It sneaks up on you, and heartwarmingly so. Sometimes Big Dipper courts the clever too hard; other times their charm lies in their indirectness.
Halfway through Crashes, it’s hard not to sense that this is the work of a mature band, in good ways and bad. The material and performances are admirable, some of them sublime, but it’s hard not to hear them as subdued. By track seven the dueling guitars of “Pitbull Cruiser Blues” sound just a little undercut by the band’s Steely Dan funk. But then there’s a subtle shift in the tone of the album.
“Forget the Chef” has the bittersweet lilt of a “Meet the Witch” or the Embos’ “Elizabeth Montgomery’s Face” – instantly appealing, sweet without sentimentality. Then things get more aggressive. “Joke Outfit” storms forth with a “London Calling” certainty, Goffrier and Waleik’s guitars twined together on the breaks. The promises of love dashed are tellingly sung in the repeated refrain “When you can’t find anything bad to feel she’ll come to mind.”
“New Machine” features interspersed radio broadcasts, raw, sinewy vocals, and rage barely contained. The lyric shares some of the same econo-eco rage of “Lord Scrumptious,” Goffrier signing, “What do you give a machine who has everything?” Here, Big Dipper sounds as young, irritated and certain as nineteen year-olds.
Crashes close with a vocal version of their previous instrumental track “Guitar Named Desire.” This time with the expanded title “Guitar Named Desire: The Animated Sequel.” Waleik carries the potential for a guitar as girl metaphor about as far as it can plausibly go, making the “’63 Blond Epiphone” sound like Brigitte Bardot or, on a more contemporary tip, Lea Seydoux. It’s a very Big Dipper-like conceit, bordering on silly, but pulling back just enough to be endearing.
In 2013, reunited after over twenty years, Big Dipper continues to spin gold from the notes on the margins of life’s book of the everyday. With their modestly powerful vocal performances, guitar heroics for those who shun guitar heroics, and proper, but primal rhythmic lurch, Big Dipper remain “Crayola Kids,” talking back in quiet, secret tongues to the tyrannies of complacency and the mundane.
Big Dipper Crashes on the Platinum Planet is released by Almost Ready Records