On The Dandy Warhols’ Dandys Rule OK by Scott Wordsman

dandy_sized

My parents liked music, but they didn’t love music—didn’t seek it out like how my brother or some of my high school friends did. So while I wasn’t initially exposed to Neil Young, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, and other singer/songwriter greats, I grew up on family-friendly punk and new wave: The Ramones, Blondie, Dire Straits, B-52s, and (90s) R.E.M.—solid stuff, but nothing vibrantly eclectic or critically exalted. At the time, my grade school classmates were bopping their bowl cuts and ponytails to ‘ N Sync, which my dad didn’t make an effort to expose me to. Instead, he would blast ELO’s Out of the Blue on car trips and grocery store runs. His favorite song was “Turn to Stone,” a hit back in its day, and kind of a melancholic track at that. Picking up pizza from Torvino’s in Ridgewood, I’d ask to hear “the good song,” and when it’d play, my brother would strum the air-violin while my dad would belt the song’s call-and-response verses in a strangely capable falsetto.

In middle school it was tough to distinguish what I liked from what was cool. (What I think is cool and what is cool still eludes me.) Nevertheless, these would conflate, depending on to whom I was talking or trying to impress. After school I’d hang out with these kids who rode skateboards, stole valve caps off cars, and listened to whichever bands had the most repulsive album titles and song lyrics—a kind of art in itself. I’ll never forget the hot flash of embarrassment when, from the backseat of my dad’s ‘93 Corolla, I handed him the Insane Clown Posse record a friend had lent me. The disc wasn’t in the stereo for more than a minute before my dad slammed eject and mock-whipped the thing out the window. A couple weeks later, one of the skateboard kids cracked his skull open riding off the roof of a concession stand. Around this time I stopped listening to Insane Clown Posse and Limp Bizkit, let my skateboard rot in the rain, and began feeling less self-conscious about being seen with my mom and dad at the mall.

*

My theory on albums is they usually fall into one of four categories, sometimes overlapping, sometimes finding homes in multiple classifications. There’s the pop album, the critically acclaimed album, the cult classic, and the guilty pleasure. (I’m trying to decide if anything save for a Pet Shop Boys record fits into all four.) When an album satisfies at least one of the distinctions, it finds a sustainable audience, and thus becomes something: a cultural artifact or piece of kitsch. Yet when an album satisfies none of the above, what becomes of it?

One such album is The Dandy Warhols’ 16-track debut LP, Dandys Rule OK (Tim/Kerr, 1995), which, despite being buried under 22 years of relative obscurity, due largely to critical neglect, remains one of the 90s’ most stark and sonorous collages of sound. Think a mellowed-out Foolish (Superchunk), a more capricious Going Blank Again (Ride), with mood shifts and sensibilities reminiscent of The Swirlies’ first LP, Blonder Tongue Audio Baton. Critically, the aspects of the craft for which this Dandys’ record is lauded involves its broad scope, allusions to artists via song titles—”Lou Weed,” “Ride,” “The Coffee and Tea Wrecks” (T. Rex?)—and competent dalliances with jangle pop, grunge, shoegaze, and noise rock. This was the record that also launched the Dandys into a short tryst with Capitol Records. In spite of mixed praise and hints of promise, the album never found its niche, nor has it received internet resurrection through Tumblr or Reddit, in the vein of, say, Neutral Milk Hotel.

The Dandys, if you’ve forgotten or never cared, are turn-of-the-century Portland’s most self-mythologizing/self-destructive psych-pop quartet. Upon signing with Capitol Records in 1996, the band released two well-received LPs, The Dandy Warhols Come Down (1997) and Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia (2000), proving they could churn out hits while sticking vigilantly to their alt-psych ethos. However, after the ho-hum reception of their subsequent Capitol release, 2003’s synthed-out Welcome to the Monkey House, the Dandys either got very bored or very stoned or both and ended up pulling a Wowee Zowee, releasing Odditorium or The Warlords of Mars (2005) on their own terms, as well as on their own label—Beat The World. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan rebuked the album with a 1.2 rating, professing that “only the truly earless would mistake this assortment of bloated in-jokes and interminable, sub-song drones for some kind of masterpiece.” While there are, in my eyes, some real gems on the album, no song stands out as a hook-laden, radio-friendly hit. Thus, by the time that Earth to the Dandy Warhols fell from orbit in 2008, critics paid little mind, and the Dandys, who had all but written a ticket to their own carnival of obscurity, have been left out of the mainstream realm since.

*

I got into the Dandys in late high school, after my dad bought Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia after hearing “Bohemian Like You” in a phone commercial. Although Thirteen Tales is, charts-wise and critically, the band’s masterpiece, I came to view Dandys Rule OK as my album—it was imperfect, scattershot, and drearily beautiful  As a teenager, becoming enamored with an unpopular record was a fairly isolating experience. Most kids I knew were super casual music listeners, and even my friends, some of whom now have bands, were heavy into classic rock, ska, or mid-aughts emo-revival: bands with either large fanbases or years of accumulated lore. At that time, in my suburban NJ town, there was no one else around me with whom I could share my love for this record. Even my dad, I came to realize, didn’t care much for the Dandys; he would play Thirteen Tales in his car only every so often, almost always skipping through to “Bohemian Like You,” to which he’d listen a few times over, only to grow bored and hit eject. Liking this album, I came to realize, was my first brush with artistic autonomy, a test of what Robert Christgau might refer to as engaging in “serious psychological calisthenics.”

As far as the record goes, its 74 minutes trace a skittish arc, which focuses more on track-by-track genre compartmentalization and less on establishing one underpinning “sound,” refuting Dan Magers’ quip that “an album is a heartbeat obliterated in repetition.” Although some songs employ the Dandys’ tactic of droning on forever—perhaps frontman Courtney Taylor-Taylor’s way of saying, “yeah, our songs were never meant for radio anyway”—each song does its own thing and does it well.

Album summary: a mock-effete talkie intro by deadpan hypeman “Thomas Pancake” ushers in the brit-poppy, hypno-drones of “The Dandy Warhols’ T.V. Theme Song,” whose inscrutable lyrics and melange of “ba da ba’s” make for a sunny and psychedelic takeoff. “Ride,” a titular nod to the English shoegaze band, bleeds into “Best Friend,” whose sleepy, fuzzed-out sound trumps Toni Braxton’s song of the same title. “Not Your Bottle,” the world’s dreariest party anthem, is the sonic approximation of a smoke-filled room where the stereo is up so loud and you’re so high that you’re not sure whether you can’t hear yourself speak or if, in fact, you’re not speaking at all. Taylor-Taylor’s lyrics edge toward sharp and deft, especially in his characterization of the partygoers: “Philip wants to be a rock star / but he’s a bit uptight / so he brings his favorite bettys / with a bottle full of whiskey / and he sits on the couch all night.” A mid-90s slacker-stoner banger if ever there were one.

“Tony, This Song is Called (Lou Weed),” tongue-in-cheeks every Lou Reed riff and lyric hummed-up by the man himself (RIP). “Nothin To Do” is noisy and power-poppy, while “The Coffee and Tea Wrecks” remains soft and caffeinated, its verses infused with vaguely Eastern-sounding tunage; a gritty guitar solo ties a bow on the track. “Genius,” the album’s emotive gem, is next, and kicks off a handful of sludge-slicked grunge tracks. Its forlorn electric strums hedge toward a screech of feedback; Taylor-Taylor, all the while, croons (unironically): “Darling! You give me the rope, I’ll hang myself / It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out / Don’t have to be fucking brilliant to see / I’m not as smart as I seem to be…” A downer, for sure, but also a possible elegy for Kurt Cobain, the Dandys next-state neighbor and recently deceased.

“Dick” is filler, but “Nothing (Lifestyle of a Tortured Artist For Sale),” not only has the best title on the record, but also the strongest, meta-ironic lyricism. Cradled in a nest of MBV-esque distortion, Taylor-Taylor’s vocals come through in a half-hissed whisper. “You want for nothing / That’s what you decide/ …You all want nothing / That’s you inside.” This, interpreted by most, is the singer’s rebuke of his soi-disant pseudo-bohemian contemporaries: those cashing in on contrived maladies. But on a deeper level, maybe it’s Taylor-Taylor who’s the artist for sale, and this song is but a pronoun-shifted admission of his acquiescence to the man. 

“Just Try” is essentially “Nothing’s” foil and b-side, as the wall of sound has come down, and in its wake is a Beatles-esque acoustic ballad; lyrically, its imagery is pretty, albeit vague, yet Taylor-Taylor’s ululations in the last minute-and-a-half push the track into the ether, cementing it as one of the record’s most rending and best. On deck is “Grunge Betty,” a springy, jangle-pop jam, while the next three songs comprise a prelude and finale to the exit-piece, “A Fast Driving Rave-Up With the Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes,” which, like its name confirms, is sixteen minutes of sprawling, ethereal, gaze-laden bliss. Some reviewers have given this track flack, noting its unjustifiable interminability. I think it’s a fun one, but I’m all for the Dandys and their whatever-man-we’re-here-to-rock ethos. “Rave-Up” is one to move around to, for sure, but it’s perhaps better suited for their later, space-themed albums.

*

I’m not sure how or why I grew attached to this album. I guess, like any piece of art to which we cling in our formative years, listening to it “brings me back.” But it’s different than that. This isn’t my “favorite record”—a title which shifts, in my ears, from year to year–but it’s the first record in which I felt an emanation of something distinctly human. The droll lyrics, the fuzzed-out solos, the meandering, imperfect arc. I loved The Offspring’s Smash when my dad would play it, but I knew why I loved it, each song flowing effortlessly into the next. I couldn’t articulate what I wanted, but I know it now: I wanted to be jostled and jarred awake; I needed crunchy feedback, the whoosh of pedaled-out sounds. Dandys Rule OK gave me this, and it let me realize that it was okay to enjoy something not because it was what someone else deemed unequivocally good, but because its meld of flaws and refinements were just right for me. There’s an entry from Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s, a book of epistles to the fast food chain, which best supports the claim that what is critically sound may not necessarily spell satisfaction in the soulful sense:

“I don’t think Wendy’s coffee has such a good taste. This is not to say I don’t like it. I like it very much. Its poor taste keeps my intentions clear; I drink coffee for the enthusiasm-prod, not the taste. The taste, when it is too pleasant, can distract one from what matters most—the deep writhing jolt. Of course, some taste is necessary so that the jolt seems, at bottom, inadvertent.”

Hence lo-fi over hi-fi, B-sides over A-sides (at times), and, to the chagrin of most people I’ve met, Coors Light over craft beer. That aside, I do believe it’s best to gravitate toward art that fits your inclinations as opposed to art that someone at Pitchfork, Poetry, or Beer Advocate decided was worthy of their time. If there’s a platitude I can deliver from this, it’s that you have to learn to be your own critic before you decide to seek out the approval of some austere critic-god. How else to authenticate your artistic autonomy? And what’s less cool than convincing yourself you like something not because you do, but because you think you should?

Selected tracks:

“Not Your Bottle” Dandy Warhols:

“Bell” Swirlies:

“Foolish” Superchunk:

“It’s a Fast Driving Rave-Up With the Dandy Warhols Sixteen Minutes” (live):

~~~

Protein Delta Strip

None of my exes are distant memories
in the way they should be. We’re friends
on Snapchat and Facebook, which distorts
the nature’s-course amnesia embedded
in loving someone one day, repressing
them the next. Jill and I had wine and
pizza. She took me home but we didn’t
hit the bed, just slept together
in the REM sense. Waking up
and going to brunch is basically
a second date, she said. I said
this to a friend a few weeks back
and played it off as my own thought.

*

We walked out of the house
to a kid running fast as fuck. We
yelled, Do you want a shot. He
turned around, took a shot, kept
running. Some days disobey
their logical progression in ways
you can almost begin to taste.
I disobey my predilections
by convincing myself they don’t exist.
I got heartburn pre-the-binge-eat.
My hair is going, going, gone. Bad
things have additives the good things
scorn then borrow. But you know this
and know this isn’t the end of the song.

*

You can be whoever you want
but you can’t be who you aren’t.
Deep down is a cliche I’d stay
away from if I had more to say.
Deep down I’m scared of dying alone
differs from Deep down I’m scared
of spending thirty to forty years alone
and then dying. Each day I pretend
my terminus is a little farther away.
What age do you consider old?
How has this changed
with each year you’ve aged?

*

I treat my love life like a tragicomedy
to which I’ve memorized the ending.
If your dreams don’t scare you
we’re on the same page. I spent
a whole month constructing an idea
of happiness around an outcome
which never even almost surfaced.
Sophie studied psych and liked
the bands I liked. I drained two beers
before we met, slipped on snow and
hugged hello. I push everyone I love away,
she said, then lit a cig for just a drag.
I push everyone I want to love away,
I would’ve said. I just didn’t know it yet.

 

imageedit_5_7385371055Scott Wordsman’s poems and criticism appear in The Rumpus, Colorado Review, THRUSH, Forklift/Ohio, and elsewhere. He teaches at LIM College and William Paterson University.

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