Libations Unlimited: Phoenix 1997-1999
While Phoenix is nationally known for many things--excruciating heat and a sadistic sheriff among them--a stellar music scene doesn't make the cut. Save the Meat Puppets and Gin Blossoms, virtually no Valley bands have cracked Top 40 radio or become household words--and not for lack of trying.
Of course, commercial success these days is a crown of thorns. Since you won't find truly original music among the Offsprings and Matchbox 20s of the world, it can start to feel like an insult to have your songs rub shoulders with theirs on the FM airwaves.
But even the more satisfying options--widespread indie acceptance, or, hell, a decent record deal--have generally eluded Valley bands, and even when they have gotten signed to a respectable (or once-respectable) label, indie or otherwise, lackluster backing has nixed any remote chance at even marginal success. Just ask Trunk Federation, One, Dead Hot Workshop, the Pistoleros or the Refreshments.
But an optimist might look at it this way: Maybe it's a kind of blessing that Phoenix hasn't left an indelible impression on the national scene yet. Maybe it's just an Old Faithful of creativity waiting to spew.
Libations Unlimited: Phoenix 1997-1999 is the second release by Sentry Press, a label that basically consists of one guy, Mike Hoober, who came to the Valley by way of Pennsylvania two years ago. It's a collection of some of the best Valley bands (according to Hoober) over that time period.
Though he's only lived in the Valley for a short time, he's managed to find quite a cross section of styles in what many may regard as a sterile scene. And, with the exception of Jimmy Eat World--who currently are fighting (and beating) the Phoenix curse on Capitol Records and who lend an instrumental track, "Ramina," to the collection--all of the bands are unsigned, or signed only locally.
Hoober's formal label venture, Corrupted Image Records out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, was punk-oriented, but he branches out on Libations. Of course, it's debatable what "punk" really is these days anyway. In fact, "corrupted image" is a pretty apt way of describing what's happened to the genre.
For the sake of argument, I like to think it's the definition the venerable Mike Watt once gave in an interview when describing his old band, the Minutemen. "Punk," he said, "is whatever we made it to be."
That said, the thesis here is that every band on the record is a variation of punk, since they all support a D.I.Y. ethic--plugging away at clubs and making records at home or at studios where friends work to take the edge off the price tag. That they do it in various styles, including traditional hard-core (Death of Marat), emo-core (Reuben's Accomplice, Chula, Fucking Thunder, Jimmy Eat World), swing (Exit 56) and surf (The Medieval Knievels, Markdowns), among others, is inconsequential. And, even within those styles, there's a pushing of the envelope; no one really stays within the limits of what that music is considered to be.
Libations begins and ends with the same sentiment--the always original, always irreverent duo Lush Budget Presents The Les Payne Product, as their irrepressibly weird selves on the first track "Frenchy," and with some Reuben's Accomplice compadres as Emo Camaro with "The 16th Chapel of Anti-Camaro." The latter is an orgiastic medley tribute to some sexual mojo that has something to do with dwarfs called Anti-Camaro, highlighted by various vignettes--including one satirical (and very funny) takeoff of TV evangelism, which includes the hilarious, a cappella "The Donkey Song of Blessed Necessity"--climaxing with a Primus-like instrumental jam.
If you got all that, and you can sit still long enough to get through all 12-plus minutes of the track, it's quite entertaining. Perhaps the worst thing you can say about the collection of tracks between these Les Payne bookends is that much of the music is derivative of something identifiable.
That's not necessarily such a bad thing. It's hard to find any music at this stage of the game that doesn't wear its influences on its sleeve. And, in the case of the local acts represented on Libations, this is one pool of influences that's deep enough to dive into.
Two of the CD's best tracks also are two that most clearly evoke those influences. Chula's "The House, The Car and The Honeymoon" is a pop-punk, bitchy tribute to an ex-boyfriend that almost out-grrrls Sleater-Kinney; and Reuben's Accomplice's wistful emo anthem "New Jam City" is a poppier incarnation of emo raiders Christie Front Drive or The Promise Ring. Other strong offerings evoke the experimental math rock of June of '44 (Sea of Cortez's tense "It Can't Be Hard to Fly a Plane, Lots of People Do It"), any number of surf influences (Markdowns' sexy, saxophone-inflected "Supernova," Medieval Knievels' cartoon-riffed "Steam Boat Willy"), neo-swing (Exit 56's stompin' "Five Five Nomad") and traditional dirty punk rock (the sloppy fun of The Thundercats' "French Song," and the old-school sentiment of Malcontents' "Stupid Little Girl" and "Straight Home" by Thee Oh No's).
If these tracks don't make Libations Unlimited the absolute definitive collection of sounds from two years in the life of the Phoenix scene, it's not their fault. It would be a near-impossible task to accomplish such a thing, and Hoober's modest aim--to present a fair representation of some really fine independent music originating in the Valley--is accomplished.
This compilation won't earn Phoenix a reputation as the next New York, Seattle or even Chapel Hill. What Libations does do, in most respectable fashion, is ultimately more important: prove to the locals--and anyone else who's willing to listen--that the Valley music scene has a lot more to offer than its oft-misleading reputation would lead you to believe.