In the average indie record store’s cutout bin, you’re likely to find more releases from Zero Hour than from any other record label. It seems that during the mid-‘90s, this label cornered the market on vaguely dissonant yet pleasantly indistinct jangle-rock injected with liberal doses of estrogen. Although there were exceptions (the scattershot low-fidelity experiments of Space Needle, the lovesick noise-pop of the mighty Boyracer), the music that Zero Hour chose to release fit into a narrow niche that was already going out of style. Couple that with its rich owners’ horrible business sense (after all, this WAS the label that gave Stewart Anderson a gold card for Boyracer’s “expense account”), and what you have is a roster full of bands that even the most enthusiastic indie-rock train-spotters managed to forget about. Do the names Kittywinder, 22 Brides, Grover, and the Dirt Merchants mean anything to you? My point exactly (although I still believe that the Merchants’ lone album Scarified is quite underrated). The reason why I’m telling you all of this is that upon first hearing “Isn’t That the Way,” the second track on Bostonian outfit the Verona Downs’ latest album, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of thing that Zero Hour would have put out back in ’95.”
All of the ingredients are firmly in place: a steady yet understated rhythm section, clean and leisurely strummed guitars, a weepy violin, and sweet ‘n’ sour coed harmonies. The guy does his best Lou Reed sing/speak while the girl sings like she spits out honey instead of saliva. Before you think I’m damning the Verona Downs with faint praise, let me say that this band has what most of the Zero Hour bands lacked: solid hooks. There are at least three of them on “Isn’t That the Way,” one of them a beautiful breakdown that slows the song down to a crawl in order to showcase guitarist Greg and bassist Lori’s vocal chops. Almost every song on this record has a chorus that will get stuck in your head, although occasionally it’s for the wrong reasons. Repeating the same sentence over and over again, as the band does on “The Anti-Dance Death Song,” can make a song more annoying than catchy, but fortunately this mistake isn’t made very often.
The jam snippets that the band occasionally inserts between tracks are as compelling as the proper songs, and they give a very necessary window into the band’s creative process. “We believe in the power of the demo,” they proudly assert on their Web site, and it shows. Although far from a jam band, the Verona Downs are more than willing to let an idea or riff linger longer than most bands would. The longest songs are grouped toward the end of the record, a strategy that didn’t work very well for Mandarin, but reaps major dividends here. This is because the band has a sound pretty enough to get lost in. At their most upbeat (“Blue Noon”), they’re as propulsive and
angular as Versus. At their most mellow (album highlights “Feelers” and “Salma”), they resemble a male-fronted version of the greatly missed That Dog. (By the way, Anna Waronker, as pleased as I am to have a solo album in which you pose nearly nude on the cover, I would still trade all 500 copies I bought of it for another That Dog album. Please, gorgeous; I’m BEGGING you.) At their most meandering (“Green Yellow Red,” which instrumentally is little more than one shimmering layer of guitars on top of another), they’re like Yo La Tengo improvising a soundtrack to REM sleep. They know their mid-‘90s alt-rock well. Who NEEDS trendy Pitchfork “dance-punk” when the music sounds this good?
Lyrically, the Verona Downs touch on love and all of the confusion it brings. “Isn’t That the Way” rebukes people who get off on breaking other people’s hearts. “Blue Noon” gets even more specific regarding a lover’s lack of commitment: “You act like you were 24 going on 7…I want you to know me like you know your own shadow. A couple of days, and you’ll be running off.” On “Feelers,” Greg wishes to be the center of someone else’s life, only to acknowledge later on that his wish is having the opposite effect: someone else is becoming the center of HIS life. “Orbiting shapes my life,” he sings; “It’s all I can dream of.” In “Salma,” a new relationship isn’t a cause for celebration, but instead a source for boasting: “Let that be a lesson/Do not go to them/Let them come to you.” I read one review of this record in which Greg’s singing was described as joyless, but I disagree. He definitely doesn’t sound like the most excitable man in rock, but his slightly flat singing perfectly expresses how truly mundane these romantic dilemmas can become in people’s lives. Besides, Lori’s sprightlier voice jumps in often enough to keep the music from sinking into doldrums.
It’s probably a good thing that I Listen Thru All the Breaking Oceans is a record out of its time. There aren’t as many bands out there making music like this now as there were ten years ago, which enables the Verona Downs to stand out a bit more. Also, I’m giving Rhubarb Records the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they have better business sense than Zero Hour. This album is too good to linger in the back of some cutout bin five years from now.