Crate-Digging Archive: Chavez – Better Days Will Haunt You

A true Crate-Digging treat – one of my first published reviews, for Daytrotter.com in 2006, presented here with minimal revision. This is the official place for it people! Screw Daytrotter.

(Matador, 2006)

I have to admit, I kind of missed these guys the first time around. I was heavily into the mid-1990s Matador catalog, snatching up everything from Bee Thousand, Palomine, and Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain to Orange, Raise the Plow, and Fantasma. I was immersed. But in 1995, the year the world was introduced to Chavez, I was still a junior in high school, so I guess I can get away with it a little bit – my time was still equally split with Rage Against the Machine and Marilyn Manson, with whom my burgeoning indie fetish targets shared space in my 3-disc CD player. But if a record had that red and white Matador flag, I had to give it a shot. So when I picked up a promo cassette of Gone Glimmering for a dollar (along with a caseless copy of Therapy?’s Troublegum, of course), I figured I couldn’t lose. And after a couple quick listens (it was less than a half hour long after all), I moved on to Superchunk and Yo La Tengo. No biggie.

A year later Chavez dropped Ride the Fader, and it was more of the same. I still bought it (found it used for five bucks – damn!), but somehow I hadn’t gotten my head around them – could be I was disappointed there was only one “Unreal Is Here” on the record, a song whose hilarious video (appended here on the DVD, featuring the band in a variety of jaded rock star settings including ridiculous photo shoots and a helicopter ride to a sold-out arena show) had foretold a mellower, more melodic Chavez. They were still angular and dissonant, but I was still too green to dig any deeper. My copy collected dust, and Chavez dissolved into the alternative rock ether, their entire discography eventually, and inexplicably, going out of print.

But hooray for Matador! Realizing their mistake in letting their highest-selling band’s (you read that right [Ed. note: as of 2006 anyway]) records stagnate in catalog purgatory and online auctions, they’ve re-released Chavez’s entire output in the 2-CD/1-DVD package Better Days Will Haunt You, thankfully giving me the crash-reacquaintance I didn’t know I desperately needed. Among a sprinkle of non-album tracks, disc 1 reintroduces us to the twin-guitar onslaught of Gone Glimmering, a clinic in math-punk. “Nailed to the Blank Spot” is two minutes of pure adrenaline, guitars dissonant and urgent, rhythm section precise – perfect attention-getter. Single “Break Up Your Band” follows with guitarists Clay Tarver and Matt Sweeney, one in each speaker, simultaneously playing the same chiming lead on the three high strings as classically trained drummer “The” James Lo (we are contractually obligated to call him “The”) pounds behind them. It’s only when bassist Scott Marshall fills the low-end silence with immaculately placed distorted bass chords that you realize the power of well-crafted dynamics – what isn’t there can be just as important as what is.

“Laugh Track” and “Ghost By the Sea” start off slower and take longer to get where they want to go, but when they do, it’s worth the short wait. First single “Pentagram Ring” begins side B (of my cassette, that is) even more perfectly than side A with another two-and-a-half-minute guitar freak-out, but this time with pop hooks and a falsetto “ha-ah” chorus. By the time closer “Relaxed Fit” (my personal favorite) rounds out the record, you wonder how anyone who bought Gone Glimmering in 1995 could have possibly waited for the follow-up – the guitar harmony ends the album like the best cliffhanger of the season finale of your favorite TV show (mine’s Lost [Ed. note: dated reference alert! It’s still Lost though.]). It’s so good that the beginning of the following season couldn’t possibly top it.

But then 1996’s Ride the Fader does. “Top Pocket Man” and “The Guard Attacks” are both three minutes of the best of Chavez’s songwriting, but with even more confidence in their craft. The aforementioned “Unreal Is Here” surprises with its restraint. The trifecta of “Tight Around the Jaws,” “Lions,” and “Our Boys Will Shine Tonight” is the definition of musical tension. Gone Glimmering throwback “Cold Joys” transitions into “Flight 96,” a motorik jam featuring a tense high-end guitar maelstrom. Closer “You Must Be Stopped” comes really close to matching “Relaxed Fit”’s urgent departure – how are they going to top that next season? Well, they never do.

Sadly, Chavez ceased their recording career and went their separate ways. Matt Sweeney had the highest-profile gigs as the guitarist for Billy Corgan monster Zwan and half of Superwolf with Will Oldham. (Was I alone in thinking Sweeney’s and David Pajo’s involvement in Zwan would serve as a censor to Corgan’s ego? Was I? [Ed. note: Aaaaaaaaaaahhhh!!!!!!!]) Fortunately, Better Days Will Haunt You serves as the perfect reintroduction to and final document of the band, as well as the medium that negates those out-of-prints.

Oh yeah, there are some extras here aren’t there? They’re nice, but not essential. Debut 7-inch “Repeat the Ending”/“Hack the Sides Away” starts the set with the trademark huge guitars, but without the restraint. “The Nerve” and “You Faded” (“Pentagram Ring” b-sides) follow the Gone Glimmering tracks, but they don’t offer anything new. [Ed. note: “You Faded” has popped up on shuffle a bunch of times over the years, and I love it now.] “Little Twelve Toes” was Chavez’s inclusion on Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks compilation, and is an entertaining oddity with a tight groove, spoken-word verses, and Beach-Boys-style choruses. The “Theme from ‘For Russ’” instrumental appeared on the What’s Up Matador compilation, and “White Jeans” is an outtake that would have fit nicely on Ride the Fader. The DVD includes the “Unreal Is Here” and “Break Up Your Band” videos, the latter featuring the band hilariously uninterested in the male stripping going on in front of them. [Ed. note: you read that right. Male stripping.] Tour diary Boys Making Music…Music Making Men tries but fails to be funny as it follows the 1996 Chavez/Guided By Voices tour. All in all, the extras get a solid B grade for filling in the gaps and completing Chavez’s fine legacy.

[Ed. note: When I initially sent this to Daytrotter, the title of the column was “There Is Nothing to Not Be Amazed At,” an awesome Chavez lyric from “Unreal Is Here.” They changed it to “The What Is Not to Love Review.” Hence my bitterness. (Saith the uppity writer.)]

RIYL: Sonic Youth, Seam, Rodan

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