Last week I spent a lot of time listening to Minus the Bear. I’ve only ever had a burned copy of their CD Highly Refined Pirates, and listening it to work was very amusing because the song titles pop up automatically, and I hadn’t known what they were before. But I spent some time thinking about “Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” and mentally comparing it to other songs on similar themes, and how they relate to my life. So today I am gonna chart out a review and comparison of three fabulous songs about Americans wandering about the world, a world they might not really belong in. This is a subject that is of considerable personal interest. The contenders (though I’d love to hear more suggestions of similar ones) are: “Eurotrash Girl” by Cracker, “The Ballad of the Sin Eater” by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and the aforementioned “Absinthe Party…” by Minus the Bear.
“Eurotrash Girl” · Cracker · Kerosene Hat, 1993
First off, I have to complain that this song is incredibly annoying to listen to on CD because it is a hidden track, which was sort of cool in 1993 but absolutely pointless now. But that is not really a fair way to start…
I have known this song for a long time. Twelve years! Kerosene Hat was one of the first fifteen or twenty CDs I ever bought, and after all this time it holds up amazingly well. I think Cracker are underrated and underappreciated by critics and hipsters alike, so I need to give them some serious props. I’ve seen Cracker a few times live, and they put on a fun show too.
Cracker / photo by Jay LaBonte
“Eurotrash Girl” entered my life before I’d ever been to Europe, before I really knew what “Eurotrash” meant, before I’d ever slept in a fountain. It was a little hard to relate to, and came across as a bit élitist to me, like a whiny story for rich college kids who’d had the chance to spend summers abroad. And I still have some of the same feeling when I listen to it now; certainly it is a weaker bonus track on the CD than “Ride My Bike.” “Eurotrash Girl” is Cracker at their smarmiest, and it can be a bit hard to take. I’m tempted to echo Tyler Durden and ask, “How’s that working out for you, being clever?”
Cracker also can be kind of annoying when they become too country, and this song is pushing it a little. I’m not crazy about the performance or the guitar leads by Johnny Hickman, and I bet Lowery could do a better job alone.
On the other hand, the deadpan delivery about “my angel in black” is just hysterical. You listen to this song enough, and you start to think that maybe underneath the sarcasm, this guy really is wandering across Europe looking for a girl, like a lovelorn character in some lame teen movie. There is that aimless-drifter vibe that sort of suits my life, that unending quest for a Grail that we all know doesn’t really exist. Europe is a fantastic place to experience ennui and Weltschmerz, to roll cigarettes in the shadows of gorgeous cathedrals, to laugh bitterly at life’s absurdities, to get more confused than you were before you came.
“Ballad of the Sin Eater” · Ted Leo and the Pharmacists · Hearts of Oak, 2003
At first glance “Ballad of the Sin Eater” seems like the same basic song as “Eurotrash Girl”, even kind of a rip-off. Plus, it appropriates the stupid power-chord melody of Sonic Youth’s “Youth Against Fascism.” But like any great rocker, Ted Leo knows how to take a bunch of old ideas and combine them in an interesting and idiosyncratic way. In his hands, a tale of wandering takes on ambiguous metaphysical proportions that are, honestly, a little beyond my understanding.
Seriously, you could write a college English paper about this thing. Is Ted discussing anti-Americanism? You would think so from the chorus. Is he telling something semi-autobiographical, about a journey to gain certainty, to overcome his “manifestations of doubt”? Am I just imaging that voice that seems to whisper “cocaine”? Now me, I enjoy this kind of thing, but even by Ted Leo standards, this song is a little hard to follow — abstruse, as Ted himself might say.
Ted Leo / photo by Janelle Gunther
Luckily, though, this song also rocks. Once you throw your hands up in exasperation at trying to understand, they are in a convenient location from which to make your favorite rawk-appreciation gestures. And I for one cannot get enough of that astonishing line, “Mother Russia, she laid her pontoons on down so I crossed over if you know what I mean.” I don’t know what he means, but I love it! Keep bringing me weird allusions and bizarre innuendos, Ted!
In the end, the main difference between these first two songs is that “Eurotrash Girl” is just a vague plotline and amusing concept on which we could hang anything we like. Anyone who has had a similar experience can relate to it in some way. “Ballad of the Sin Eater” is a much more interesting song: more rockin’, more exciting, more intelligent. I much prefer it, but its limitation is that it is only about Ted Leo and the mind or soul of Ted Leo; it is interesting but I can’t really find anything there to relate to. It’s interesting to notice the difference, as I try to write my own songs. I love this song, but I can’t really wax poetic about it or insert my own experiences into it…
But if I were writing an English 101 paper about this song, my thesis would be: “In ‘Ballad of the Sin Eater,’ Ted Leo grapples with issues of uncertainty and self-doubt, using the form of a light-hearted travel narrative to express not only his personal failings but also the failings of twenty-first century America.” Then I would turn up the CD and rock out as I typed up five to seven more pages of such pseudo-intellectual bullshit…
“Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse” · Minus the Bear · Highly Refined Pirates, 2002
About a year ago, I finally tried absinthe for the first time. It was gross. It didn’t inspire me to do anything artistic except maybe cough in arpeggios. So I hope that in this song, when they sing about “let’s get a bottle and drink alone tonight” they are talking about the red wine and not the absinthe. I can hardly imagine anything less romantic than sitting and drinking absinthe with somebody, no matter how cool the bottles look.
Still, being disillusioned with absinthe doesn’t make “Absinthe Party” any less killer. See, this song just happens to hit my nostalgia-meter in multiple places at the same time, sucking me into a time machine and spinning me back a few years, leaving me to spy on my younger self. We’ll always have Paris, but the Paris of 1998? I never expected to go back there…
Partly it is the music that is so nostalgic to me. Discovering Minus the Bear was kind of like catching a coelecanth. It just seems like some sort of cosmic oversight, that such a band could still be alive in the modern world and making vital, passionate music, albeit music that is drenched in the spirit of mid- to late-’90s underground emo and math. This is the music of my college days, updated just enough to show that, hey, these guys do have a pulse. But instead of sounding behind, Minus the Bear have managed to perfect that style and make it timeless.
I never really was an emo kid, particularly; I didn’t grow up in a punk/indie environment and I never looked far beyond the radio for music until I was finishing up high school. But once I left for college, my discoveries in underground music made a perfect and exciting soundtrack to all my new experiences as a pseudo-independent young adult. By the time I decided to cross the sea and study in Germany for a semester, I was immersed in punk-influenced music. I still remember which CDs I took with me to Tübingen: Kerosene 454, Fugazi, and Jawbox all made the cut. I had one of my first conversations with one of the Germans living on my floor because he was listening to the Van Pelt; I remember listening to the hip local radio station and hearing the Sorts and the Make-Up.
As a result, my first experiences of Europe were set to an indie and post-hardcore soundtrack: listening to Don Caballero on my walkman while staring out of train windows into the Rhineland; skimming through bins of used CDs in Lübeck and pulling out a DM5 Spinanes album; brooding over Weezer lyrics while walking to classes in a medieval castle; trying to explain Hüsker Dü lyrics to my friend Luke as we complained about how the Eiffel Tower was not black — it was all just a big lie… like everything else in life…
“Absinthe Party” is such a close match to the music of 1998 that it could pretty easily pass as a Promise Ring song, only with better singing, better musicianship, better lyrics, and some neat-o electronic effects thrown in. MTB strike me overall as a grown-up and much-improved version of 1998 emo, with a sense of humor that classic emo never had. Their lyrics are still heartfelt, but with a healthy dose of adult cynicism that fits the times better and also appeals to me more.
The lyrics to “Absinthe Party” don’t betray a full narrative, but they strongly evoke the true feelings of a young American visting Paris. It’s all a little too overwhelming for a 20-year-old. You end up feeling lost in all that culture, and guilty for not caring enough about it, and worried about those you’ve left behind in America, and very happy that you are old enough to drink in Europe so that you can drown those complicated feelings away.