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.

Thee Speaking Canaries

Songs For the Terrestrially Challenged (Scat 1995)

Going to college outside of Pittsburgh in the early to mid-90s was a fruitful and educational time for me. Yes, there were boring discussions of teaching pedagogy as well as exciting ones about Faulker and Walker Percy, but I still treasure the musical education shilled out by the many wise souls who took me under their musical wing. Plus, the added bonus was the local music scene populated by Don Caballero, Karl Hendricks Trio, Hurl, Blunderbuss, Shale, Watershed, Swob, Davenport and those times i saw Aus Rotten in a basement without ever knowing that filthy punks held them in such high regard. Today, my love for most of these bands is rooted in nostalgia instead of a current appreciation. However, one band still piques my interest and provides something new to enjoy with each successive listen. I guess it is fitting that this band is The Speaking Canaries since this lineup included Damon Che of Don caballero, Karl Hendricks and Noah Leger of Hurl.

I liked their debut, Joy of Wine, but Damon Che reshuffled the deck a bit and reconfigured the band in a new light. If you only know Damon Che from his drumming on Don Caballero’s albums, then it’s a bit of a shock to see how much his guitar playing suggests a combo of mid-90s indie-rock via Sonic Youth as well as the prominent influence of one  Eddie Van Halen. Where their debut cut to the chase, the followup takes more epic, overblown pathways as the band delivers so much more drama and pathos. There is a lot of anger here, but not in a raging manner where screams equal emotional release. In fact, the lyrics sometimes rely on throwaway lyrics and humor to mask emotions that do not bubble to the surface until we hit the climax of each track.

To be honest, time hasn’t been entirely kind to this album, but there is something about it that suggests a moody late night reflection on your regrets and woes with incessant riffs to lift it all beyond the mundane. In fact, Damon Che’s guitar playing and strangled vocals give the lyrics an added weight even when the actual words fail to match the intended frustration and hurt of the lyrics.

The opener “Houses and Houses of Perfectness” is the perfect union of Che’s riffing and angst. Initially, my young mind couldn’t wrap my brain around the Van Halen influence, but years have passed and it all seems perfect to me. I still am drawn to the imagery of this song and how it describes how someone can waltz into your life, shake it to the core and cause pain. He sort of portrays himself as the victim of this behavior, but it seems like he’s been the perpetrator more than the recipient.

“Our War on Cool pt. Two” is another highlight as it digs deeper into the alienation and pining that forms a core of many of the songs. Yes, the flippant side of the song advocates a “War on Cool” but it is really about a man who has lost his partner in crime. However, he’s angry because knows that they share little in common other than a desire to stir shit up in every direction.

Overall, Songs For the Terrestrially Challenged doesn’t sing to me like used to, but it does contain four or five songs that beat much of what was recorded in the mid 90s. Plus, its odd mix of Van Halen, Don Caballero and Sonic Youth still bear little resemblance to anything recorded since. It wasn’t groundbreaking, but it sure was different and worth your attention.