Cap’n Jazz broke up in 1995. In 1998, Jade Tree Records released this, Analphabetapolothology, a 2-disc retrospective collecting all of the band’s recorded output, including some unreleased studio and live recordings. And now, in 2010, fifteen years after the band’s dissolution, Cap’n Jazz has reunited for some anniversary shows, continuing the recent trend of burying the hatchet to tour behind material released years earlier. It’s gotta be for the money – how do musicians these days even make a living other than by touring? Downloading has made the album almost obsolete. (Crazy folk like myself enjoy the palpability of a release, but given the choice between shuffling through boxes full of CDs for what I want to listen to and the portability of most of my collection my iPod? It’s an easy call.) And everybody’s doing it – Pavement, Pixies, Soundgarden, My Bloody Valentine, The Vaselines – the list grows ever longer. So now that (relative) unknowns Cap’n Jazz are in the mix, who’s next? New Radiant Storm King? Number One Cup? Rainer Maria? The Flying Karpophalous Family Trio?
Despite the question of the validity of the reunion, the heyday of Cap’n Jazz was highly interesting, mainly because the band was so young and was writing songs that went beyond what their capabilities should have been. There are a lot of “shoulds” so far – let me explain. The years 1989 to 1995 were littered with hard rock, grunge, and punk, and the small trickle of challenging underground music that made it through the dense web of self-important garbage found purchase in relatively few high school students, myself among them. So seeing local bands play anything but interesting and challenging music (and being part of some of them myself – though I’m not including Tetsuo’s Head in that, thank you very much) left me with the impression that I was either in the wrong town (which was correct) or that I had to be older and wiser to understand how to compose more interesting music (which was not). Cap’n Jazz was young, sure, but their output was far from pedestrian.
There are quite a few descriptors that could peg the band sound-wise – indie, punk, post-punk – but there is a melodic quality to the music, even as the guitars are often distorted (though not highly compressed – the distortion is mostly dry, and is possibly even the guitar amps’ built-in distortion). The composition is squiggly, squirrely, and non-linear, with barely a verse-chorus-verse structure to be found. The band barrels from one song part to the next, often changing tempo or time, and the guitar leads and chord changes are fairly advanced for this style of popular music. The energy level remains high throughout – you can imagine the band bouncing, jumping, or hopping in ecstacy on whatever stage they’re playing (can you ecstatically hop?) – and a strong sense of youthful exuberance pervades the recordings. In fact, Tim Kinsella’s voice is all youthful exuberance – there’s very little restraint on it as he yelps over the songs, racing them to the finish line. When he’s not yelping, he has a gravelly, conversational tenor, fitting in its nonchalance, but emotionally engaging nonetheless. Cap’n Jazz actually bears a great deal of resemblance to early Modest Mouse, who were just beginning to enjoy some notoriety as the former band was fizzling out. Both bands featured precocious, young musicians playing to equally young and ravenous audiences. Both had in-the-red, yelping (it’s the most appropriate word, I’m gonna use it a third time) vocalists, and both played sorta sloppy but passionate, well-composed, instrument-attacking indie rock with slight hints of collegiate emo. Both have quirky and interesting lyrics, suggesting the songwriters are highly literate and well read, yet steeped in their local traditions. These are all good things.
And so this collection is a mostly-wonderful jaunt through Cap’n Jazz’s career. Included is their lone full-length, the WTF-titled Burritos, Inspiration Point, Fork Balloon Sports, Cards In The Spokes, Automatic Biographies, Kites, Kung Fu, Trophies, Banana Peels We’ve Slipped On and Egg Shells We’ve Tippy Toed Over. Right. Makes Analphabetapolothology seem easy to say. Those in the know referred to it as Schmap’n Schmazz, which is equally goofy but more fun to spit at your friends. It’s obviously the band’s career pinnacle, and it features quite a few great songs worthy of repeat listens: “Little League,” “Oh Messy Life,” “Puddle Splashers,” “In the Clear,” and “Basil’s Kite” come immediately to mind. Disc 1 concludes with outtakes, of which a cover of A-Ha’s “Take On Me” is fairly intersting (hard to mess that song up), despite the questionable notes the vocals hit on the chorus. “Forget Who We Are” and “Olerud” are “new” songs taken from their final show in Chicago in 1995, hinting at a bright future the band would never realize. Disc 2 fairs less well, although it starts strong: “We Are Scientists!,” “Sea Tea,” and “Troubled by Insects” were released on the (here goes) Sometimes if you stand further away from something, it does not seem as big. Sometimes you can stand so close to something you can not tell what you are looking at seven inch. “Rocky Rococo,” cute Beatles reference and all, sums up nerdy-high-school-kids-in-a-band life succinctly: “Please don’t push! I’m so scared. Everybody’s so good looking in the republic banana.” There are a couple other decent songs before track 10, a version of “Winter Wonderland” that may be the worst thing I’ve ever heard. The rest of the collection sounds like demo takes, with terrible guitar and drum sounds. And they do the theme song to Beverly Hills 90210, straight up (with samples from the show). Sounds like they recorded it to a boombox though.
I can’t believe I’ve gotten to the end without mentioning that Cap’n Jazz was essentially the launching pad for the entire Jade Tree and Polyvinyl rosters – if those labels decided to maintain a reasonable overhead, they could get by just from managing the backlist of all these offshoots: Joan of Arc, The Promise Ring, Make Believe, Friend/Enemy, Owls, Ghosts and Vodka, Maritime, American Football, Owen, and Vermont. It’s a mouthful, much like the compilation title’s fun with words, featuring variations on “anal,” “alpha,” “alphabet,” “beta,” “apology,” and “anthology,” each pointing to the housecleaning involved in rounding up this career retrospective. Why the apology is anyone’s guess – but the band proved playful and brainy to the last, and Analphabetapolothology serves them quite well.
RIYL: Joan of Arc, The Promise Ring, early Modest Mouse, Archers of Loaf