Like that part of you that loved so deeply, so completely – and semi-obsessively – peaks around 17 and then is in a slow decline thereafter. I hear this also happens to your taste buds – I guess my love of Sour Patch Kids is marked.
High school was a vivid time. The colors were saturated and sun-kissed. Archaeologists may mistakenly place those years of mine in Juarez or Santa Barbara; Michigan was the primary (only) setting. Embarrassments ran deeper. There were fewer places to hide. On the surface, I hated this portion of my life, no doubt a byproduct of very few friends, a thin wallet and dividing time between bottom tier public education and working at Taco Bell. But things had a way of seeming bigger: blockbuster movies, painful crushes, event-of-my-youth concerts. Hormones oscillated my undiagnosed bi-polar disorder, and there were records that seemed directed by ’80s-era Spielberg himself.
In 1999, the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Phantom Menace” hit the Internet.
This was exciting. We could now consume media through telephone lines at a few kilobytes a minute, while parents worried that every black out from AT&T meant an emergency was imminent. I streamed the whole thing – and by “stream,” I mean I began uploading it in QuickTime and watched as a small gray progress bar eked their way forward at impish intervals. I would hold off on playing until a few centimeters were conquered, then consume at absolutely minuscule, frustrating portions, gleaning what I could until I finally watched all two minutes uninterrupted after an hour and a half. Magic.
“Stairwell would be everyone’s favorite band … if anyone had ever heard them.” That is one reviewer’s way of describing The Sounds of Change, the 2001 release from said band. The album was a complete stumble-upon. Originally released on Takehold Records (re-released on mainstream emo powerhouse Hopeless Records two years later), it was an album that combined pop production with the emotion and luster of third-wave emo acts like Jimmy Eat World and Weezer.
Unheard, I bought the album because I liked the simplistic artwork, a pair of headphones with the coiled-type cord, set on gray with the words “The Sounds of Change” (this being seven years before Obama). There was something compelling – inviting even! – about the headphones just waiting for ears of the musical pioneer – this is the sound of change, after all. The sounds of change, as it turns out, took the best from simplicity – pop structures, a heady romanticism – and combined it with easy-on-the-ears production and rock riffs that would please Dave Grohl.
Frontman Jonathon Caro croons falsettoed emotion without grit or strain, instead shelling his hopeless heart through layered vocals and harmonies (and three guitars), often erupting in melodic cacophony. He’s the classroom Romeo who writes 10 drafts of his love letter before passing it up the desk chain.
The production really is of note here. The vocal layering and panning really drive the hooks stratospherically, giving a soaring, all-out quality to every chorus on the record. Like good pop rock, the choruses are packed to the brim in an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink bombast, retaining cheerful buoyancy that doesn’t break under the weight of its own exhausting formula. True, at times a lead guitar gets lost among the dual-panned gang vocal, 16th-note hi-hat timekeeping and general pulse of this adept quintet, but the created atmosphere (one of headphone-required listening) show how flavorful all the components really are.
The songs sound like they’re written by a hopeless romantic who has never actually had a girlfriend, as only the most non-jaded idealists can imagine love to be. The songs are rendered complete with firework analogies, too. “You set me to the top of the world, breathless with not much to say.” Track four, “What Happen to All the Romance,” prides itself on its own self-inflated chivalry, painting an image of a date ending on a doorstep: “This is where we give a smile and just a kiss goodnight.” No pushing your luck here, not even a swipe at the bra-strap; this is abstinence predicated by true romance (respect), like the talkies from the ’30s and ’40s, rather than fear, judgment or even strict morality. Overall, the optimism props up the triteness on most songs; the real clunker here is “Familiar Streets” with its Apollo 13-lingo (“Attention, Houston…”) to describe, well, something ambiguously bad but less severe than orbital catastrophe, until trailing out with a cringe-inducing, “All systems go.”
So what exactly are the sounds of change? I remember playing the album to my band mates at the time, over the PA system at my church. I called the album “emo,” and Matt, our guitarist – champion of treating all music as old news – was quick to dismiss Stairwell. “Only the guitars are emo. Only.”
This was early 2000, and by “emo” I of course meant “palm-muted guitars but over mid-tempos.” Yes, we were progressing away from punk (“palm-muted guitars over break-neck tempos”) and into the unbridled honesty of a man who seemed to take his cue from Jane Austen novels (“Kiss your hand with permission, to show that you are royalty tonight”). Cue swoons. Brilliant, actually.
But I loved it. I truly loved every facet of this record: the innocence of the romance; the knight-in-shining-armor mentality; the giant choruses. I would finish work at Taco Bell, my crew shirt (always a medium, I looked best in small) was thick with the smell of taco grease and wet with the humidity of industrial-level dish washing. Eleven at night, long past dusk even in the summer, and my car was a conduit, a synapse firing along a neurotransmitter, an idea driven to fruition, a blood-pumping heart. I was some girl’s savior, somehow her deepest desire, some dramatically sensual, noble being. Not well-built or muscular like most men at our high school who filled their time with sports, but the lanky gait of a poet, too sinewy but with the posture of E.T. to protrude a ruffled paunch. She’d play with my hair and press in close, admiring my protruding Adam’s apple – no doubt about it; he’s male.
No, no – fireworks, candlelight and orchestras. Our chemistry goes beyond verbal rapport; it lives in undercurrents, in the electricity of satellite hearts, in the depths of quirky people who hide their fandom from society. We’re feral; we live on humpback whales and clichés, with the Man on the Moon and J.D. Salinger and Robert Smith and skin is perfect and cuticles are always clean. I only play drums in time and light my tree house with rope lights.
Matt wasn’t the only one who wasn’t impressed with Stairwell. I recently found an old, scathing review from 2003 that called the band “pointless mimics,” the album “worth little more than the cardboard and plastic that it’s constructed out of.” (It’s not groundbreaking, maybe, but come on…)
I’m content with the idea that the album mostly played into my own romantic longings, compounded by dateless nights, a good Christian fear of masturbation and probably some youth pastor’s pep-talk on perking wallflowers. But it strikes me as puberty tomes, at best a snap shot of young love, and maybe a little too calculated in its own sincerity. But I really loved it. I felt every note, and the sound elevated my pores just as the carbonated message flooded me with hope.
So why does it scare me, then, that my canned intellect may never truly appreciate some moving work of critically accepted art at the same level of my 16 year-old love of the mediocre? Why do I feel like I am missing something, more so every year? Because I can practice detachment alongside my experienced demur? Because I don’t have time for daydreams that don’t end in sexual caressing, spending as much time fantasizing about not having student loans?
And yet, this is progress: when you don’t lift the plate and lick it clean because it’s not age appropriate.
Most people would agree that “The Phantom Menace” was a terrible movie, but the trailer was pretty great. We had less media access then. We had unrealistic expectations then.
But isn’t the love beautiful, albeit misguided, the love of an imitation or poor representation of its craft or genre? “I’m always dreaming of perfect weather, where the harmonies can dance forever.” I’m with you, Stairwell, even if just to hear that flying guitar solo one more time.