One of my criteria for a “life-changing album,” as I outlined on Monday, was that the album permanently alters the course of everything you seek out going forward. In other words the albums of your life are necessarily shaped by your life-changing albums because the latter influence your overall taste directly. Talk about altering the course of my tastes: Drive Like Jehu destroyed rock music for me.
I heard both Jehu albums around the same time, must have been 1994 or 1995. And to my mind they had perfected rock music. Post-Jehu, whenever I heard a new band that was trying to play fast and/or loud, it felt limp. I just turned it off and put on Jehu. For about a decade—literally!—I never once felt the need to purchase albums by rock bands (particularly new ones). Perhaps it’s not coincidental that the most typical brand of indie rock during those ten years was the nascent genre of emo, which was ridiculously in debt to Jehu, among other bands (too, all those spazzcore bands, largely hailing from San Diego, who also owed much to Jehu). Lots of people credit Rites of Spring as being the original emo band, and I won’t argue against their influence; but Jehu had a significant impact as well, in the form of the octave chord.
Much like Slint inspiring a myriad sub-par post-rock acts to abandon upstrokes, Drive Like Jehu neutered the power chord. The crunch of the power chord felt almost amateur compared to the sharp-edged attack of the octave. The worst (and most prevalent) emo bands took as their template the inward-looking lyrics of Rites of Spring, the song structures of Orange County pop punk, and the octave chord of Drive Like Jehu.* You might see, then, why I felt this music paled in comparison to Yank Crime. These bands missed everything else.
And it’s the everything else that made this album so important to me. Like Spiderland, Yank Crime’s brilliance did not dawn on me immediately. I had a nearly identical experience with “Luau” as I did with “Washer.” I owned the album for more than a year already. I knew that I loved it—its pure adrenaline was undeniable—but one day I was on a long drive, alone, listening to “Luau” for the umpteenth time when I noticed that, hang on a second, this song has a guitar solo! It kicks in at the 7:35 mark and it is 90% feedback. In the 1960s I guess Hendrix was giving people the same epiphany, and in the 80s (and 90s) I’d guess Thurston Moore was doing the same, but it was John Reis’s solo in “Luau” that blew my mind, and I can pinpoint that revelation as the exact moment I figured out what kind of guitar player I wanted to be. The epiphany was two-fold: 1) that noise can be manipulated into melody, and vice versa; and 2) that making music is a lot more primitive than I’d ever truly grasped. Technique, in the traditional sense of the word, doesn't mean much. Scales, speed, dexterity—it's irrelevant. That's not to say that a Ramones-like approach to punk is some kind of ideal. What Jehu taught me is less naive, more intuitive. The great guitar players in my book concern themselves with the sound that comes from their instrument, and the emotion evoked by that sound. To try and parse that concept any further is to undermine what the instrument is capable of. If you're Drive Like Jehu, you can do a guitar solo that is nearly all feedback and sounds like gamma rays from a 1950s sci-fi flick. If you're U.S. Maple, you can detune your guitar and play whatever fucked chords you want. If you're Mick Turner of the Dirty Three you can leave the flash to your violinist and set the tone of each song through your fragile, muddy chords. (For further proof of Turner's brilliance, listen to Cat Power's Moon Pix and ask yourself why that album is still her best: it's those fragile chords, and it's Turner, not Marshall, playing them.) These are some of my all-time favorite guitarists, and to my ears what they all have in common is an approach to the guitar that respects the sounds it is capable of creating, rather than any kind of presumptions about their technical skills as guitarists.
Slint taught me something sophisticated about songwriting—how to apply sound to song in a meaningful way. Drive Like Jehu taught me something much more primal but no less significant: how to relate to one’s instrument; how to extract sound from an instrument rather than simply “play” it.
Next up: Low.
[*Caveat: I know Jehu didn’t invent the octave chord. In fact the template for the entirety of Jehu’s sound seems to have been set by a 30-second snippet of Television’s “Marquee Moon”—tune into that song at 8:10 through 8:40. But Jehu took that single moment and turned it into their driving aesthetic; and it’s that aesthetic that influenced everyone post-Jehu.]