On Second Thought
Scud Mountain Boys - Massachusetts






for better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.

Maybe it's a coincidence that the Scud Mountain Boys' inebriated masterpiece of melancholy, Massachusetts came to my attention when I was myself living in that awful state. By that, of course, I mean those three awful states: inebriation, melancholia, and Massachusetts. Maybe it’s this cosmic concurrence that makes it resound so deeply. But I think not.

Massachusetts is a long, languorous, slow ride through a parched suburb of the heart where you "take it easy" because you don't have any choice—life is just too damned bittersweet to rush. It opens with the following cheery image: "They pulled her from a ditch last night / Somewhere down on 95 / On the wrong side of the road / Found a needle and a pipe," and it doesn't get any brighter. All of the characters in Massachusetts are wasted. They smoke, drink to excess, and get high as a matter of course, not as an excuse or badge of pride. It's a big part of what provides the atmosphere for the emotionally-damaged goings-on here. It also gives us a wasted pace to keep time by—when the relentless, lugubrious tempo is leavened by the occasional fast number ("Penthouse in the Woods," "Van Drunk," "Cigarette Sandwich," and… that's all of 'em), it's nearly always followed by one of their darkest, slow-burning end-of-a-cigarette songs. The headspace of the long-term chemically-induced emotional burnout has rarely been so carefully delineated.

The melancholia that runs through Massachusetts is far from petty sadness—happy and sad are cartoon emotions when put up against the complex, variegated joy, ennui, and misery on display. Sure, songs like "Big Hole," "A Ride," or "Glass Jaw" open up to reveal lyrics as naked and pained as anything: "it feels like years since I've even felt a thing," "how come I get the feeling a part of me is dead," and "I've been down before / I'm no stranger to the canvas," respectively. But the breathtaking, mellifluous vocals of Joe Pernice, caught in a perpetual stasis between boyish yearning and aged regret keep this ship adrift in the sea of beautiful, rather than pitiful, sadness. Never self-centered enough to blot out hope, never gleeful enough to keep the weariness at bay, it's a resigned, stirring sigh of a voice that warms the cockles even as it chills the bones. No matter how darkly-hued the psychodrama, no matter how bad the narrator has fucked up, his breathy tone tell us it's worth all the purple pain in the world simply because these are the things worth living and dying for.

It's unlikely that the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism will be filling up Joe Pernice's inbox at any point soon, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more accurate, unflinching portrait of the emotional travails of a region’s residents than the one painted here. Bruce Tull's wailing lap steel evokes the brisk mountains and sere cornfields of Western Massachusetts, not the dusky hollers and rolling, forested hills of Southern Virginia or Eastern Tennessee. The resounding, reverb-caked acoustic chords of Massachusetts, as sweetly country-rock as your playworn copy of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, have more to do with a Northeastern hipster mentality than any kind of California pan-regional chic. The Pioneer Valley, where these lads hail from, is a strange melange of lower-middle class grunge and artsy funk, where it's as likely that you'll spot a fratboy as a dreadlocked trustafarian—and then see them grip hands and exchange an eighth of hydro. The Scuds fit this dynamic perfectly—the sound of what happens when you run out of that killer weed, and have to get, like, a job and shit.

Unfairly overlooked in the Ryan Adams / Wilco-inspired "alt-country" feeding frenzy of the Millennium's turn, Scud Mountain Boys delivered a particularly Northeastern spin on the hallowed blend of country and rock. While Joe Pernice may have turned his gaze from this kind of Americana with the more pop-inclined Pernice Brothers, Massachusetts is still required listening for the dissolute and the damned.


By: Mallory O’Donnell
Published on: 2006-11-02
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