Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Reviews from the Attic: Minutemen - Double Nickels On The Dime

Minutemen Double Nickels On The Dime [SST]
Released: July 1984

Back in 2005, hot off the heels of recording a 6-song EP with my band at my parents house in Woodstock, NY, we caught the attention of someone relatively important in the music industry through a mutual friend/family member. Whether or not this introduction was the result of nepotism or the fact that we really were that good has yet to be determined, though I’m still hoping for the latter. I did however get the opportunity to speak to this guy on the phone over a period of about six months as he remixed our EP us all the way out in Los Angeles (we never actually met in person). The idea was to eventually shop the EP around to his friends and hopefully procure us a record deal. That never happened.*

But those series of phone calls often just turned into hour long conversations about our mutual obsession with music. Everything from Hüsker Dü to Dylan to Gang of Four to Led Zeppelin, we’d often go on long tangents about what each artist meant to us, and I would also get some great stories about his actual encounters with some of them. Though the most important band I can think of that I was introduced to as a result of those conversations was the Minutemen. When they first came up, I was embarrassed to admit that I had of course heard the name, but hadn’t been turned onto them yet. Sometimes you just need someone whose musical taste you deeply admire to recommend new music to you or you just sort of shrug it off. So somewhat authoritatively, I was told to go out and buy Double Nickels On The Dime immediately, a command I followed pretty much instantaneously. Thank god.

When you hear about a particular band belonging to a specific scene, especially when that scene is hardcore punk, you are most likely going to envision in your head what said band might sound like. All I had heard of the Minutemen was that they were hugely influential in the '80s underground punk scene, their bass player was incredible, and their singer tragically died in a car accident. But when I first listened to Double Nickels, I was expecting something more or less similar to the Descendents or Black Flag, considering those were the groups they were often lumped in with. My preconceived idea of their sound also had to do with the fact that the majority of their records were released on the iconic punk label SST.

So to say I was perplexed the moment “D’s Car Jam” began playing on my headphones the first time I listened to DNOTD would be an understatement. It was, and not to sound hyperbolic, one of those “I’ve never heard anything like this before!” type moments. They sounded like a weirdo-jazz band playing what they had envisioned to be punk music, without ever actually hearing it. And in hindsight, that might have been the Minutemen’s approach. Between D. Boon's signature twangy guitar sound, Mike Watt's ridiculously innovative bass playing and George Hurly's spastic, yet controlled drumming, Double Nickels On The Dime showcases three extremely talented and well-versed musicians; aspects not particularly present nor required in typical punk music. But their pure aesthetic and concept of making music was arguably more “punk” than anything else going on at the time.

On this album they did of course sound like what you’d expect from a punk band at times; songs like “This Ain’t No Picnic,” which describes the day-to-day struggles of blue-collar life, and “The Roar of the Masses Could Be Farts” could just as easily have been covered by their peers in Black Flag, and that’s precisely what made them peers. But just imagine for a second Greg Ginn (or any other punk guitarist) attempting to play “Cohesion” and have just a fraction of the amount of heart it has when played by the amazing D. Boon. The fact that the Minutemen were capable and willing to insert a classical guitar interlude four songs into their double album pretty much sums up everything about Double Nickels On The Dime. You never know what's around the corner, but fuck if it isn’t done with 110%.

Not only do each of the 43(!) songs catch you off guard, the long track listing of the album never comes off as a hogwash of half-baked ideas, hastily thrown together just to compete with Hüsker Dü’s double album Zen Arcade (which at the time had recently been released on SST as well, though this album actually was a half-joking response to that). If you've seen the excellent Minutemen documentary We Jam Econo, then you know that Boon and Watt, though best friends since childhood, would often get into heated arguments over the writing of their music. As goofy as their lyrics could be at times, they really took this shit seriously. This isn’t Guided By Voices and this isn’t Bee Thousand (not to take away from the greatness that masterpiece); all of the songs on DNOTD are meticulously composed, each instrument given its own succinct purpose within the song’s structure. Let's also not forget that the Minutemen could also be funky as shit. "The Glory of Man" could just as easily have been a Gang of Four track, and anytime "Viet Nam" comes up randomly on my iPod, it's hard not to picture the very hefty D. Boon dancing from one side of the stage to the other. 

It's practically impossible to write a thorough review of Double Nickels on the Dime and mention what's great about every single song on the album, but just to name a few of my favorites: "Toadies," "There Ain't Shit On TV Tonight," "History Lesson Pt. 2," "June 16th," "No Exchange," "Corona" (used as the theme song of MTV's Jackass), "Jesus & Tequila,"... there's just too many great fucking songs on this album. Shortly after obsessing over DNOTD (at least initially), I remember seeing the cassette version at my friend’s apartment and excitedly told her how I had finally gotten into the Minutemen, and in particular that album. She just shook her head, not out of disappointment for how long it took me to discover it, but out of pure love for it. “It just keeps going, and going… and going,” she said. Forty-three songs total, in a roughly 80 minute listen. A double-album by anyone’s standards. And easily one of the most defining and important albums of the decade. 

*It's okay, we're still going strong and have our first full-length LP coming out on July 1st!


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