Sunday, February 14, 2010

Duff Review: The Stress - Muk! Muk!

Free EP download from Community Records or Witty Banter Records

Back in the early 90s, before we had kids, my wife and I would sometimes scrape together enough cash to rent a car and spend a week on Cape Cod at a motel outside of Provincetown. Just before we would head off on our vacation, my father-in-law would always half-jokingly warn us not to stop in Providence, Rhode Island. This from a big Irish NYC public school teacher who taught high school in the Bronx (and I ain't talking Riverdale here). Kids hanging on the street there often assumed he was a plainclothes detective instead of the educator/performance artist he is (they would stage-whisper "Five-oh"--slang for cop--when he passed by).

We figured there must be something particularly--and insidiously--dangerous about Providence if he felt this way (I gripped the wheel a little tighter and drove a bit faster on I-95 until we were clear of the city limits). We later learned that my father-in-law disliked Providence because he had bad memories from his youth of visiting nasty relatives there...

So what possible connection does the aforementioned story have to do with The Stress? Well, they both have a Providence connection (the band calls it home) and are about things not being as they seem.

The Stress are a wonderfully gifted rocksteady group that has a knack for creating catchy, memorable, and upbeat tunes that one might assume are perfect for wasting a day at the beach, or simply getting wasted--you know, good time music (and it is). But focus in on the (biting) lyrics and you'll discover that the songs on this EP are about crushed dreams; economic and social injustice; the hell of other people; and the terrible awareness that death is waiting in the wings for all of us, either as a release from unbearable suffering or an inevitability to outrun as long as possible, in the slimmest of hopes that we can realize our dreams before our time's up. This is rocksteady with an edge.

"It's Like You Say" is one of the mellowest, laid-back tunes you'll ever hear about breaking up. The singer has reached a point where he prefers--actually longs for--loneliness rather than being with this other person: "Sometimes I miss being lonely/Like I've never been lonely/Never been lonely before." And it all boils down to the singer just needing to be himself: "I'd like to be/Everything you want me to be/But I need to be/Everything I need me to be/So run, run as far/Run as far, as far as you can run away/Stay away as long as you can stay..." (This song also contains the first reference to death, the lyric "take me slowly to the end of days...")

Ostensibly, "What Cheer?" is concerned with a homeless man who is struggling not freeze to death on the street, while simultaneously wishing for a release from all his misery. But the song is also a commentary on the extraordinary materialism, excess, and greed of our society--as best displayed at Christmas time--that ignores all the desperate people in poverty in its midst (and one could argue, misses the complete message of the season): "I remember being a boy and all that Christmas joy, but now it's all gone away/And as the temperature drops, no one stops, but the shops are cashing in all day/Hoping that something will keep me warm through the night, so I'll see the morning sky/And at the end there's not a friend by my side, tonight's the night that I die/Take my soul/Take my soul/Take my soul." (And there's the second death reference.) It's a gorgeous tune, all the more so in contrast with its desperate lyrics. And the jingle bells ringing through some of this track are a nice ironic touch.

How often have you heard a rocksteady song (or really any type of song) about NAFTA? The reggae-ish "1994" imagines the impact of this trade agreement on poor farmers in Central America, struggling to survive a system that is rigged against them: "I walked through the hills of my father's land/I washed all the dirt and the blood off my hands/I've watched as this life's made my mother cry/I've watched as the government rolled right over me." Yet where there is life and struggle, there is hope for a better day: "And today we're still farmers and we work just as before/And we wait as we toil for a justice without war/Justice without war..."

The mid-tempo ska track "Bridges" is a clear-eyed assessment of all the relationships in one's life (some you wanna take, some you wanna leave behind: "I've burned bridges before/But I've put fires out/I'm not a dreamer"), while the country-ish, live 'n' lo-fi "Can't Stand Another Day" is a bitter, scathing kiss-off ("Oh, won't you go away?/It's killing me to stay with you/So blue..."--our third death reference, even if it's metaphoric).

I wish "Far Away" had closed the EP, as it's the most bittersweet, yet uplifting (check out the beautiful Heptones-like harmonizing, yo!) and optimistic song about being down on your luck you'll ever come across ("It's funny how I've lost my way/Saved up all my hopes for another day/I've laid down all my cards/Though a worthless hand/And drank all my money, boy, ain't it sick?"). More interestingly, in the chorus of the song, the singer is completely aware that his predicament is of his own doing: "Maybe if I dream I'm far away/We can start again/Maybe if I hide my dreams away/We can live again." It's a truly extraordinary song that contains the perfect sound and sentiment for all of us trying to make the best of things, exerting what little control we really have in our lives. (Enjoy yourself, indeed--"Far Away" contains the fourth and final death reference: "And when it is we should finally die/And all the things you wanted will be owed--goodbye/And all the clocks will turn to a timeless way/And we will never live again in any way...")

There is no excuse not to have The Stress in your collection (for Pete's sake, this is a free EP!). Listen to them everyday! Highly, highly recommended.

The Duff Guide to Ska grade: A


Monumental Tracks said...

Glad you reviewed this. Don't think I would've known about it otherwise - despite being on the Community Records site on Friday to download Fatter Than Albert.

Was digging The Stress on my morning commute!

Steve from Moon said...

Thanks, MT--am glad that you dig The Stress. They are sooo good.


Jeremy Patton said...

Jesse Hayes of The Void Union, Westbound Train and The Toasters, plays drums with the Stress as well...also Mike Mowry is in this band, who first appeared on the Megalith / JumpUp Still Standing comp! hint hint wink wink nudge nudge...