Monday, May 6, 2013

Letter to Hope

I have referenced it several times over these many posts over the years, either via journal style entries or through short stories, but the early 90s was a terrible time for me. Besides dealing with my own fairly serious health crises, I lost my mom to cancer, lost two friends to suicide, and frittered away what may have been my best shot at love. It didn’t help that this all went down during the emotionally charged age of the early twenties, when pretty much everything that happens in life seems way more epic and significant than it really is due to a lack of experience crossed with heavy doses of uncertainty while trying to find a direction with life. These are things that we all experience.

The main way I have always chosen to deal with personal crisis is to turn to music. It has always been my sanctuary. I rise with it when I am on a high, maintain with it when things are running along routinely, and wallow with it when times turn rough. Writing about Jawbreaker with the previous post (Ache), a lot of those powerful and dark memories that coincided with that band’s existence have returned to the forefront of my thoughts. So too has much of the music that I discovered during my efforts to track down every single song that Jawbreaker released. Not only did that great band release four amazing albums, but they routinely put some of their best songs onto different punk compilations from around the country, so I had to track those down too. It was through these that I ran into the frighteningly prolific and always thought provoking J Church (from the legendary 17 Reasons Mission District 7” boxed set), the tumultuous buzz saw shred of Radon, the politically fueled Strawman, among many others. However, it was hearing the early Husker Du - like magic of Spoke’s “Descant,” (from the 1993 Allied Records’ amazing compilation: Music for the Proletariat) that inspired me to check out more from them and would lead me to find great solace, comfort, and joy in their words and sounds (little did I know then, that I already had this song on a spilt 7” that came sleeved in a comic book from a year or so prior).

It’s always a little discouraging when you get all excited to listen to a new CD from a newly discovered band and the credits in the little booklet state this about the band: “Spoke was Chuck Horne, Scot Hagel, and Jonathan Resh.” Sadly, by the time Spoke’s first CD Done, a 1994 collection of their three 7” singles and a couple of compilation offerings, the band had split. This is a massive shame, because these early recordings from this Florida trio show a huge amount of promise. All three members sing and write songs and this versatility is what seems to drive my love of punk rock trios (which would be a list way too long to bother to provide). Done, as a whole is, not surprisingly, a little scattershot, considering that it’s a compilation of their earliest songs. The metal tinged opener “Anithistamine,” which makes using an inhaler for an asthma attack sound like breathing in napalm on a battlefield (“clenched fists grind down abraded eyes”) before relief finally comes (“I cannot prove how my misery’s removed”). Similarly, “Harsher Winds Fall” and “Crushed” come along later in the proceedings with a striking metallic influence, which isn’t really my thing, but they are decent songs. “Harsher Winds Fall” addresses the sad fact that racism continues to be an issue in these times over some tight riffage, while “Crushed” is a short burner with abstract words that effectively convey the feeling of being trampled by someone you hold dear. Other than these small examples of a metal side, Spoke seem to have brought to the table more of a punk rock aesthetic. Their heartfelt and sometimes roughly played songs remind me of the early Lemonheads as fronted by Ben Deily (Spoke was also recorded by Tom Hamilton, who recorded those first three Lemonheads releases) and when Jonathan Resh takes over the lead, he has a gruff, yet spot on vocal style that reminds of Bob Mould during his Husker Du years (check out the chorus of “Prey” or the aforementioned “Descant”). What really made these guys always stand out for me amongst the rolling drums fills, buzzing guitars and mid range exploratory bass lines they provide are their powerful lyrics. Having said that, there are two instrumentals, “Mareado” and “You & Joy” that are downright harrowing and exhilarating. They tackle politics (“Descant”), racism (“Harsher Winds Fall”), religion (“Prey”), prostitution (“Dark City Sister”), and of course many matters of the heart. Just try to get the repeated refrain from the wistful love song “Just a Thought” out of your head (“she’s a rose in a pond of water”).

Luckily, Spoke left us with an actual debut album All We Need of Hell (the title fittingly taken from the Emily Dickinson poem “Parting”) that was also released posthumously in 1994. The liner notes provide that two of the songs included were written in memory of two different people lost and that loss is reflected all over this massive 19 song album. It is those two heart wrenching songs that provided the understanding comfort I needed to help with my losses. “Letter to Hope” instantly became one of the most powerful songs in my collection with its poetic imagery, swiftly shuffling music, and Resh’s mournful, angry and lost vocals. Just hearing the song now makes tears well up in my eyes (“and though I still stand unresolved / and though her world came to an end / and though she can’t be seen again / the ink bleeds forth from the pen of what once was / I’ll soon send my letter to hope”). Likewise, “Lil,” the other tribute, uses sparse lyrics to create a powerful scene of uncomfortable uncertainty (“close the light / but I don’t want to go to sleep / pace in circles / talk to myself”) over nervous and naked guitars before exploding in a cascade of frustrated noise after the narrator decides to self medicate to ease the pain (“behold the scythe / it tears a patched quilt of life / let’s spill the medicine and drink down good night”). The musically similar “80 Percent” (a song that provides an imaginary soundtrack opening for a short story I wrote: Kim the Waitress) powerfully addresses regret over a failed relationship with some serious self realization (“but I know an assurance of perpetual love was quite impossible / when only 80 percent of what she wants can I fulfill”). I’m not sure what it is, but I seem to be drawn to emotionally devastating songs, but their impact on me often is increased in a punk rock framework. Maybe it helps to swallow the rough message when it’s combined with some sense of release. The busy “My Eyes” arches and races through it’s tempo, but still smacks you across the face with a scene of inner turmoil for the narrator as he encounters someone who has used him, but he still yearns for their love (“my soul’s been yours to lose / my feelings fall to you / so what will you do? / I want to see you all the time”), while the wistful and dreamy “Crazy” finds joy with the early stages of a relationship (“I have lost all control of my heart of which you stole”). The powerful short story inside of the “Celebrated Summer”-like “Porch” seems to introduce us to some lifelong friends who are ready to embark on their life’s travels (“and the world spins on axis with little assurance for us all / but the steps between our home and the cold world bridge each day in time”), while the hard charging “Ruptured Seam” allows some real catharsis within its ranting toward breakdown in two minutes. This album is not all deadly serious. The opening instrumental “Sculpture” eases us into the odd “Gordon Johnson.” I’m not sure who he is, but according to the song “he blows.” Also, “Inga” opens with hysterical psychotic sounding laughter before merging into an atmospheric instrumental roll with haunting vocals expressing a longing for an inflatable doll. There are also two fine covers of two influential bands: Wire’s comeback song “Ahead” (1987) and a drastic reworking of Minor Threat’s “Salad Days” (1985). I could go on and on, but I will take a breath and relent. This is an amazing album that has been virtually unnoticed from its time of release and especially since, which is a tragedy. I am not doing it much justice here, but I urge you to give this short-lived band a try via their one time label No Idea Records. You can track down Done here and All We Need of Hell here.

Spoke "Letter to Hope"

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