Ego Summit

The Room Isn’t Big Enough(Old Age No Age 1997)

Many of my formative years were spent in a sleepy college town near Pittsburgh. It was during this time that my older and wiser friends instilled a deep love for the musics of both Pittsburgh and its close neighbor, the state of Ohio. It was a hard sell to a young man who used to look to Melody Maker and the NME for musical discoveries, but it wasn’t long before they had me thinking that the Bassholes, Speaking Canaries, Guided by Voices, V-3, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, Don Caballero, Karl Hendricks Trio, etc. were the bee’s knees and that my prior loves were a bunch of flimsy powder puffs. To be honest, there was a grit and ramshackle charm to all of the aforementioned bands that opened my ears to musics far less polished than my dainty ears were accustomed. I guess one could make the argument that other midwestern cities harbored bands who excelled in the art of the artless, unpretentious pop genius, albeit in a mangled form. It may be a broad and possibly offensive generalization, but the similarities are not surprising since these musicians were probably bored by the same things, listened to to similar records and rounded up fellow weirdos to pass the time making music. I rarely, if ever hear modern music that sounds like anything from this era because its best bands were products of a certain time and place that is hard to imitate or improve upon.

Despite my gushing like a Twilight fan, I am far from an expert on the backroads of both locales. Therefore, It took me more than ten years to discover what may be the best American rock albums of the 90s. Man, even I think I am being a bit hyperbolic as I type those words, but I have listened to this record dozens of times in the past year and it is such a bitter, misanthropic listen that it kind of sticks to you like tar after a few listens. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of really vulnerable man feelings being expressed here. A lot of material deals with fucked protagonists trying to make sense of love, disappointment and their direction in life, but maybe that is because Jim Shepherd of V-3 is involved. That man always knew how to make the ugliest sentiments somehow sound uplifting in a damaged way that made you wonder if you related a bit too much to his worldview. 

Now, what in the hell does Ego Summit have to do with Pittsburgh? Well, absolutely nothing, but I’m always looking for a way to piggyback my own backstory into these piddling reviews. However, Ego Summit were as close to a supergroup that Ohio could muster in the mid 90s. I am biased in this praise since Don Howland(Bassholes), Jim Shephard(V-3) and Ron House(Great Plains, Thomas Jefferson Slave Apts) were three of my favorite songwriters at various points in my life. They were joined by fellow stalwarts Mike Rep and Tommy Jay and their one and only album, The Room Isn’t Big Enough, somehow accommodates their divergent styles and tastes into something that is cohesive despite sounding as if the wheels may pop off at any moment. 

The opener “Beyond the Laws” epitomizes why I love this album so. The opening riff is one part Stones boogie, one part extended psychedelic jam before Ron House goes off about some nihilistic vision quest where he is going to go beyond the laws of man and hope that someone reels him back in before he goes too far. If that wasn’t morbid enough, Jim Shepard’s “Illogical” follows it up with a confused anthem that kind of breaks my heart despite its anthemic qualities. It is ultimately about a man who finds the entire world around him to be illogical and all too easy to throw away. It is even sadder when put in context of his suicide in 1999. The rest of The Room Isn’t Big Enough lets in little sunlight as subsequent tracks champion the numbing of all feelings and emotion, the futile nature of domesticity and loathing of the American dream. These are sincere expressions of disillusionment with life, country and lasting relationships with all women. The malaise and deep dissatisfaction with life in a decaying city located in a fucked up country permeates each song and it kind of drags you down into the mire. When listening to Ego Summit, I guess you either thank your lucky stars that life hasn’t crushed you in such a manner or embrace their misanthropic musings as gospel from those who got stepped on just like you.


Today’s Active Lifestyles (Merge 1993)

Throughout my college years, I despised the Grateful Dead. However, I was enthralled by the words used by my hippie friends when describing their music. I wanted to love a band whose music inspired others to enthuse about each rambling lick as if it were a sentient entity. They argued over which version of Dark Star flowed the best and I felt as if my collection of indie-rock and punk records just laid there like a dead fish in comparison to their heroes.

Thankfully, my hippie friends were a bit hipper than their drug rug wearing brethren and we shared a love of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Zappa, John Coltrane and Can. Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation was the one communal love that provided a forum where opposing sides could sing “kumbaya” and find an indie-rock parallel to the Dead that appeased us in the same manner. By no means am I lunkheaded enough to suggest one remotely sounds like the other, but Daydream Nation’s long, meandering riffs reminded us both of the controlled sprawl that made both bands so wonderful when they navigated their own respective mazes.

Years have passed and now I behave like a fucking Ratdog fan and listen to XM Radio’s Grateful Dead Channel for non-stop bootlegs and Pigpen anecdotes. What in the hell happened to me? As I aged, the Dead made sense once my life slowed down to a country trot and Jerry Garcia’s Run for the Roses album suddenly sounded like a stellar soundtrack to a lazy afternoon. Man, I guess this is all a long-winded way to telling y’all that I just really like music that is structured, but always on the verge of slowly falling apart.

The last phrase is why I somehow found that same strand in Polvo’s Today’s Active Lifestyles. It’s an album that tiptoes through the tulips. It has an urgency, but sometimes gets totally lost when expressing it. I regularly listen to instrumental passages over and over because they reveal additional nuances every time they unfurl. More importantly, Daydream Nation and Today’s Active Lifestyles remain special because they perfectly capture that magical vibe those hippies spoke of so reverently. I feel like I am getting all cosmic on your asses here, but that’s the kind of mood I am in at the moment.

It’s a shame that Polvo never quite recaptured the lackadaisical magic of Today’s Active Lifestyles. They were at their best here because they perfectly achieved a balance of loose and taut here. One guitar played a tightly wound punky riff while the other would play a loosey-goosey one that veered all over the road. This dynamic lends even their catchiest moments a ramshackle charm. For example, “Tilebreaker” is an anthemic pop song at its core, but they play it as if they were four wobbling hubcaps ready to fall off at any moment. However, “Time Isn’t on My Side” may be the best song they ever recorded even if it isn’t totally indicative of their other tunes. It is one of the few songs that captures the woozy ambience of Alex Chilton’s Like Flies on Sherbet except Chilton was actually trying to sound like red hot mess. This tune eclipses that since Polvo kind of couldn’t help but sound like a series of beautiful mistakes. Today’s Active Lifestyles is perfect because it sounds raw, unplanned and ecstatic. It’s the musical equivalent of the taking the scenic route home while speeding down every sudden turn and dusty road.