Fingers in the Spokes, Shop Class Guitars
By October of 1995, Hootie and the Blowfish’s Cracked Rear View had solidified its crown as the top-selling album of the year, and was well on its way to selling a staggering 16 million records.
On the other side of the moon, Red Red Meat released Bunny Gets Paid.
This was just a year after the band put out their first Sub Pop record, Jimmywine Majestic, an album that fit—albeit a little awkwardly—within the loose, distorted rock sound the label was known for. But that album also made its own mark, particularly on standout moments like “Braindead and “Moon Calf Tripe”, revealing a sound that had different roots than the grunge movement, and a heavier gravity than many in the boom crop of mid-‘90s indie rock bands.
But despite that album’s distinct and brash sound, it didn’t lay any hints for what Bunny Gets Paid would become. This album can be just as fuzzy and hard-hitting as its predecessor, but it has a bravely untethered sound, one that indulges in clutter at times but lives and breaths deeply, from the belly, in space. If the sound of Jimmywine Majestic was a rickety boat thrashed about in a storm at sea, then Bunny Gets Paid is the tatters of driftwood left in the aftermath, incidentally snagged together, never to wash ashore to be reassembled into something new.
On every Red Red Meat album, Tim Rutili’s guitar is the foundation for their sound. But on Bunny Gets Paid, the rest of the band manages to distance itself from Rutili a little. They don’t seem so tied to the buzzing clang of his guitar. And while they can’t quite escape the gravity of his playing, they orbit it at a beautiful distance on this record, giving these songs a size and breadth and then injecting that size with mysterious puzzles of sound.
“Carpet of Horses” starts the record with Rutili right up front, chiseling out deep, tense notes on the guitar and letting them throb. But there’s an amplifier’s insistent hum behind him, left on but unused in the corner somewhere, and the subtle plink and brush of Brian Deck’s drums. These pieces are so quiet you feel them more than you hear them, but it makes Rutili’s song sound stretched and aching, translucent in spots and still thick and hidden in others.
But as soon as the song fades, someone plugs into that humming amp and they launch right into “Chain Chain”. The guitars here are tangled and sinewy, growling under Rutili’s smokey groan. After the insistent quiet of “Carpet of Horses”, Red Red Meat use this song to remind you they are a rock band, and their sound can pour down on you. Drums thunder, acoustic guitars twang their complaints while tuned-down electric guitars burst with drunken rumbles of distortion. It’s a big-ass, crank-your-speakers rock song, but under the volume there is something searching and broken, bone-felt and hurt. This is the tumbling low isolation, the access road running under the astral plane of all things high and lonesome.
And after the shrill, buzzing, twangy, brilliant mess that is “Rosewood, Wax, Voltz + Glitter”, the middle of this record delves deep into that tumbling isolation. “Buttered” is another of Rutili’s bluesy slow numbers, but once again he’s lonesome but not alone. Violins curl out long, cringing notes that rise and fall over a sea of pulsing feedback and squalling noise. But the song never quite fills out, probably because Rutili’s clamorous chord phrasings end up creating more space than they fill in. He pulls the same trick on the muddy hush of the title track. The time between sliding riffs from Rutili’s guitar seems endless and goes unfilled, even as Deck thumps on spare drums off in the distance and Tim Hurley strums out some chords in subtle waves.
The heart of this album, often quiet and spare, feels like the fallout left in the wake of “Rosewood, Wax, Voltz + Glitter”, but they don’t lose sight of the fuzzy grind that shapes so much of their best work. “Oxtail” sounds like an old reel of classic rock left to decompose in its can on a shelf somewhere for a few decades, and “Sad Cadillac”, though anchored by a stubborn repeating piano line, is soaked in airy buzzing, each note hollowed out with treble. These songs push at our expectations, forcing us to go along with the band, rather than the band going along with what we’re used to hearing. The distortion on “Oxtail” is beyond grimy, pushing level needles into the red, forcing the song out of balance. And “Sad Cadillac” gets crowded with voices as grainy backing vocals rise and overtake Hurley’s grim mumble.
And all this noise is in service to words we can never quite get. Rutili’s lyrics are confusing, full of patchwork phrases and unfinished thoughts and, on record, often very difficult to hear. The liner notes provide the lyrics, but they come in hand-written scribbles, with no punctuation or separation between one song and the next. You can make out lines like “Fingers in the spokes” and “shop class guitars”, but they won’t reveal some full meaning. Reading the lyrics won’t help you. And that’s good.
The folks at Sub Pop thankfully kept the liner notes intact on this reissue without providing a more understandable lyric sheet. Because to be able to read the lyrics, even while you listen along, is beside the point. You still won’t understand everything Rutili is singing about, no matter how hard you try. Because Bunny Gets Paid avoids direct interpretation. There is no basic this-means-that equation to these songs, lyrically or otherwise. Even when you catch a line like “Kiss your mouth to shut you up,” that more blatantly hints at some of the album’s themes—contact as a way to disconnect, the blurred line between the end of love and the beginning of pain—it still doesn’t lay its intentions bare.
This is not music that will be understood easily, or even fully, but instead it is music that is deeply felt. Bunny Gets Paid is the rare kind of album where you can listen to it 100 times and you might just hear, and feel, 100 different things. There’s signs of blues and Americana and classic rock, but they’re so spare and so deeply embedded in the band’s sound as to be afterthoughts. To try to explain this sound is not only impossible, it is completely unnecessary. There is no other thing to call this music. It is purely Red Red Meat.
As if to prove that they can do just about anything and not just pull it off but stagger you, they close Bunny Gets Paid with “There’s Always Tomorrow”. The song was originally sung to Rudolph by his lady-friend reindeer Clarice in the claymation Christmas classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But where Clarice was offering comfort, Rutili and the band are resigned to melancholy searching, to eternally being misfits. There is a sliver of hope in his weathered voice, but Rutili sounds too tired to commit to it just yet.
It’s a strange way to end a record that is so abstract and tangled with sounds. And in the hands of lesser bands it would sound cheap and too easy. But when he utters that last line, “Tomorrow is not far away,” and then the band clangs bleary-eyed through the last final notes, it is as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll hear on record. The final hum of an amp, still left on in the background, is the last ringing in our ears, the fading remnants of an album that has taken us over, wrapped us in its thorny vines and scratched us raw, dosing our blood with traces of its infectious poison. When you listen to Bunny Gets Paid—not just hear it but really listen to it—you’ll give yourself over to it. The unknowing that comes along with this album, the mysteries of word and sound that can never be quite solved, become a comfort and not a barrier as you get closer to them. Like so many other canonized rock albums, Bunny Gets Paid doesn’t do all the work. You have to shoulder some of the load. But once you do, the returns it yields are immeasurable. And like the other albums that reward you so well for your participation, this album deserves to be called a classic.
The bonus disc included in this deluxe edition serves as a decent companion to the album. A demo take of “Chain Chain’—called “Chain Chain Chain” here—shows the song’s, and the album’s, quiet beginnings. “Words” is a pulsing, arena-sized guitar track and, as a more direct cousin to the complications in “Oxtail”, is a nice complement to the album. Long-time fans will be happy to hear the previously unreleased “Saint Anthony’s Jawbone”, and the trashcan percussion, echoing horns, and bleating guitars do not disappoint. But, in the end, the extras are just that. The album itself is what matters, and Brian Deck’s light-touch remastering—that brightens the sound not to clarify these songs, but rather to sharpen their edges—honors the record’s sound, and his old band’s murky intentions, brilliantly.
It’s been 14 years since the original October 1995 release of this album. And now, you can buy Cracked Rear View from dozens and dozens of dealers through Amazon for one cent. Meanwhile, Bunny Gets Paid is getting the deluxe treatment from Sub Pop and being introduced to a new, soon-to-be grateful group of fans.
In the end, time really does tell the story.
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