Various Artists

Working Holiday (Simple Machines 1994)

If the Dischord label was the role model for indie labels in the 90s, Simple Machines was the smaller, but equally idealistic sister to its more established role model. Established by Tsunami members Jenny Toomey and Kristin Thompson in 1990, Simple Machines were a welcome addition to the DIY ethos that propelled indie-rock until the Nirvana induced hangover and resultant major label feeding frenzy that neutered it. However, they helped the careers of such bands as Grenadine, Scrawl, Monorchid, Franklin Bruno, Ida and others along the way. They walked the walk and talked the talk as they even puiblished a handbook for aspiring label owners to guide them along the way.

The Working Holiday comp is the result of a series of split 7-inches that were released each month in 1993. The roster of contributors provides a snapshot of the musical scenes as it compiled tracks from Scrawl, Versus, Lungfish, Codeine, The Coctails, Eggs, My Dad is Dead, veronica Lake, Nothing painted Blue, Lois, Small Factory, Jawbox, Crackerbash, Grifters, Crain, Pitchblende, Superchunk and a few others. It was the crowning achievement for the label which slowly shrunk due to sales and the eventual dissolution of Tsunami.

Even if all of these band names sound like gobbledygook to you, you should check this out for the opening track by Scrawl entitled “11:59 It’s january” which sums up all that is depressing about New Year’s Eve, regret and misguided love in a single song. This may be indulgent, but I love the lyrics to this that I’m posting them here.

january came too soon/some alcoholic holdays without you/if you are you/you are anyone I wish I knew/and tonighti wish i knew everyone of you/tonight first champagne means old acquaintances are far apart/Tonight auld lang syne means leave before the kissing starts/Last year went down the drain/they all do really so why complain/drink a cup of kindness yet/drink a cup to our regrets/Ooh, it’s Januaryx3

11:59/87654321 midnight/was it a good year/do i really know because it is behind me forever/it was a good year because year because it was a bad year/this year could only be better/repeat chorus of It’s January/Who are you or anyone I wish I knew/Tonight i wish I knew every single one of you/Tonight I wish I knew/ chorus of It’s January, then tasteful guitar solo.

Sorry for my jumbled effort at transcribing the lyrics from the cd, but it is one of the most heartbreaking songs I had heard at the time. It delves deeply into one of those moments where a perfect storm of location, time and hard luck coalesce into a second where you reevaluate your life and hope for the best. Your moment may not have been on New Year’s Eve, but we’ve all had them. This is why Scrawl hold a dear place in my heart.

I’m off on a tangent again, but 70% of this holds up 15 years later and it embodies an ethos that is as worthwhile today as it was then.

Small Factory

For if You Cannot Fly

When I teach my struggling students how to write a descriptive essay, I ask them to pick a single adjective to describe the object or being that will be highlighted. Then, I request that they provide three points or arguments that prove this quality can be justified in their essay. If I was split down the middle, and my sterner half asked my floundering half to write an essay about For If You Cannot Fly, I would quickly pick “bittersweet” as my magic word.

My reasoning lies in the fact that this band seemed to epitomize the creative and emotional hangover that can happen when the “sunshine and lollipops” ethos of twee no longer fits and a major label knocks on your door and demands more than this. Their debut I Do Not Love You wasn’t exactly packed with “Kumbaya” moments, but tracks like “Keep on Smiling” and “I’m Not Giving Up” as well as their earlier singles pointed towards the sanguine sounds associated with their contemporaries. However, it seems like band seemed stressed, depressed and somewhat bitter by the time of its follow-up.

For if You Cannot Fly begins with the refrain “The Last Time I spoke to you, I said some really mean things/ It didn’t feel good but I felt better” and goes on to state “i’m not done, I’m having too much fun.” There is a bitterness to the lyrics on this album that points towards the reasons behind the dissolution of the band and the sad, self-destructive undertones to many songs. The chorus to “Hi, Howard I’m Back” includes the chorsu “I’m going to drink until I fall down” and describes a drunken soul who dreams about holding a lost lover. If you listen closely, this is a really depressing album.

It isn’t all razorblades and Draino. I always naively bonded with the song “Versus Tape” as it proclaims the joys of listening to a beat-up Versus cassette tape and how “that tape is the world spinning round.” Yes, it is equally naive to believe the truthfulness of this verse, but it resonated with how I would wander the streets of Western PA with a walkman and get so passionate about the albums that whirred in my pocket. It is idealistic, but it perfectly distills how a love of music can empower you for a moment or a lifetime.

Overall, For If You Cannot Fly is a subtle bummer, but includes enough glimmers of hope to open your eyes to the bittersweet qualities of our lives. Just dig beneath the surface and listen for the deeper meaning behind this album.