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"Been broken down too fucking long . . ." — Source Victoria, "Punch to the Nose"
On the surface, there's not much connecting those two quotes beyond pent-up frustration and a throaty delivery. The first rant comes at the climax of the 1939 Frank Capra film in which Stewart, as Montana Senator Jefferson Smith, goes on a 23-hour filibuster to expose the Washington graft and greed that were costing us the Land of the Free. The second comes from the climax of Source Victoria's debut album, The Fast Escape, and was written by Brendan Murphy at five in the morning while watching, yep, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on TV and getting steamed at how uncannily present life in America was imitating Turner Classic Movies.
If you want get downright Capra-corny about it, after Murphy left Phoenix (and music) behind in August 1998 to move to Boston — a city where he didn't know a soul — to study law, he still continued writing powerful songs like "A Punch to the Nose" (and the balance of this album) with no notion of them ever getting their day in court, so to speak. It's as if the voice of Jimmy Stewart, dried out with bicarbonate of soda to sound hoarse, was trying to tell Murphy that music could also be a long-abandoned cause worth fighting for.
The Fast Escape, however, is no political manifesto. It's a beautiful narcotic that allows you, the lucky listener, to sail for the better part of an hour above Murphy's roughhewn voice as it recounts the uncomfortable truths, the impossible personal entanglements, and even the marginalized discordant background noises of everyday life that make this music so compelling and universal. Among Murphy and the four other members of Victoria, they've logged countless hours listening to their share of dream pop, ambient pop, slowcore, sadcore, and Xanaxcore (okay, that last one isn't real, but just watch how fervently even a made-up music category catches on). Yet The Fast Escape delivers Low to Sigur Rós-worthy atmospherics, and rocks mightily with pop hooks you don't have to tax your imgination to hear. In fact, "Until We Break" could easily replace that Keane song that isn't really in any films, but which you hear in a ton of movie trailers because it's like Instant Emotion in a Box.
If you saw only one Source Victoria show last year, the December 21 CD-release party was one helluva capper for a year that saw the group working with Grammy Award-winning engineer Chris Testa (Dixie Chicks, Jimmy Eat World), and sharing stages with the likes of The Format, Reubens Accomplice, and Jim Adkins of Jimmy Eat World, all of whom showed up that night to complete the mutual-admiration society. Adkins, an old friend of Murphy and former roommate of Source Victoria everythingman Aaron Wendt, joined the band onstage for a blistering version of "Opportunistic," a song for which he did an early mix. Of Source Victoria, he muses, "They just keep getting better. The new song they played at the CD-release show was absolutely A-plus. That one is going to be a monster of a tune. I am very happy to see all those players kicking ass."
Of the hiatus that led to Source Victoria, Murphy says, "I dunno why I stopped playing music. We're getting into Dr. Phil territory here, I was just dating some girl and I just wasn't playing music. I was kind of isolated from folks. You know how that goes. Sort of lost perspective."
Helping maintain perspective now is Aaron Wendt, who has known Murphy since he was 18, and who — besides being in dozens of bands — has garnered a rep as a musician's musician and a perennial "fill-in." In the past few years, he's played second-chair guitar on Jimmy Eat World's Bleed America tour, plucked interim bass for Reuben's Accomplice, banged away as fill-in drummer for el oso negro, and subbed on four-string for The Format last year so that its regular bassist could go on his honeymoon.
He'd also been busy with Ticker Tape Parade, which officially ran out of confetti in Little Rock, Arkansas, at the conclusion of the group's last tour. "We're all still good friends. But as a band, we didn't feel like continuing to eat dirt sandwiches to enable the touring that seems to be required of a 'baby band,' so we decided to hang it up," Wendt says. Suddenly with time on his hands, he offered to record Source Victoria.
"The idea was to not put any limits . . . on the recording of this record. We'd take as much time as we thought we needed to record the record they wanted to record," Wendt says. "As an engineer, I'm definitely average to below average, but I knew that if I could get average-sounding takes of great performances, we'd have a great record. Awesome guitar tones don't make great records — great songs and inspired performances make great records."
Wendt joined the band toward the end of the recording process. "Aaron really makes a great addition because it helps expand the sound," Murphy says. "He can play keyboards up there, he can do noises and more fully realize what's on the record and what we're doing now."
Dr. Phil questions aside, none of the downbeat misery that seems to link these tracks together appears on Murphy's persistently grinning face now. Whatever caused him to stay away from music for long stretches is a distant memory. He's happily married, playing music with old friends, and finally getting some much deserved attention for his music.
"Now I have a better idea of what I want. It's bittersweet that we're getting recognition now rather than when we were in our 20s. But the music wasn't as good as it is now. And I guess I have low self-esteem because I never pictured myself when I was younger getting a deal. I just always played because I loved it," Murphy says. "And songwriting comes easier to me now because I've been working at it. When you put 100 percent into something and that fails, what do you do? I guess that's the practical side in me that I made sure I had something else going on. So if nothing else happens, oh, well, I didn't invest my entire life on it."
Ironically, he has made an album that captures the desperation of not having anything or anyone to fall back on. What do his law colleagues make of his other vocation, the one where he gets to say "You lied to my face" with a backbeat behind it?
"To people in my professional life who are taken aback, I explain it as, 'You like to play golf and watch football on Sundays. Well, I like to go to rehearsal on Saturdays.'"