I’m a big John Reis fan. He produced one of my all-time favorite albums (Superchunk’s On the Mouth). One of his bands, the now-defunct Drive Like Jehu (guitar and occasional vocals), is a progenitor of the oft-maligned-but-still-kicking “math rock” genre, complex songs with dual guitar craziness that puts the bulk of today’s “emo” pretenders to shame. His other band (and current primary creative focus) Rocket From The Crypt (vocals, guitar, and bad-ass attitude) has far and away been my favorite live band of the last five years, and their recent “Cut Carefully and Play Loud” 12” EP made my best of 1999 list. Reis (better known to RFTC devotees as Speedo) clearly knows how to rock. In fact, his newest side project band, Hot Snakes (a reunion with DLJ and Pitchfork vocalist Rick Fork), just released the excellent “Automatic Midnight”, which swirls together elements from both Jehu AND Rocket in a way not at ALL how I’d have pictured such an amalgamation.
With both RFTC’s recent output (the above-mentioned EP and numerous 7” and compilation releases) and the Hot Snakes debut right after that, I’m surprised at the timing of this Back Off Cupids album, which essentially is a John Reis “solo” album, a collection of mostly instrumental-only recordings circa 1994 that, for lack of an external point of reference, sound a lot like a quieter, more contemplative Drive Like Jehu. One might easily imagine (without any evidence to support the claim whatsoever) that a percentage of these tunes were originally intended FOR Jehu, in their pre-fucked with, pre-Jehu-ized state—from Reis’s mind to your ears. Lots of chords, lots of guitar-bass interplay, lots of structure. As a guitarist, Reis continues to excel. I don’t think he has ever missed a note or a beat.
I kinda wish these songs HAD been Jehu-ized, put through the ringer of a real band’s dynamics and idiosyncracies and creative squabbles. For the most part, there’s little here that’ll make me pull this album out on a regular basis. None of Jehu’s musical sparks you’ve never quite heard before, none of RFTC’s anthemic, almost-excessive hooks, nothing that’ll make me stand up and go “YEAH” like Reis has made me do (and continues to make me do) time and time again. The closest Back Off Cupids gets to these moments is on “Trivial Pursuit,” where a bevy of trumpets and strange stereo sound effects propel the track forward, and on the two tunes where Reis finally deigns to lay down some trademark raspy vocals, right smack in the middle of the album. “A Strong Maybe,” with few modifications, could fit right in on one of RFTC’s more angular indie short-players.
But for the most part, it’s almost as though the Back Off Cupids is Reis’s measured attempt to make his version of “veg-out” music. You know, kick back after school, work, you name it, pop the Back Up Cupids in the stereo, read a book, stare into space, whatever. The more I think about it, the more I cotton to this characterization. Where Reis’s other bands COMPEL you to pay attention, Back Off Cupids is content to hover just under your radar, drifting in and out with a cool phrase, an understated yet brain-sticky series of chords, and that’s not all bad.
So why put out this record now, 6 years after it was recorded and lost in the shuffle of his other bands’ releases? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s not a drag to listen to, but for Reis, whose sheer volume of recorded output is impressive, it ultimately comes off as third-tier material. It doesn’t help that there’s been some strange explosion of just this sort of moody, atmospheric instrumental music lately, which for the most part is just d r a g g i n g me down. Well, maybe Back Off Cupids was MEANT to get lost in the shuffle. Reis completists will want to grab this, but neophytes need first worship the altar of Jehu and RFTC. Then, if elated but exhausted, pay a call to the Back Off Cupids at the end of the day. You know, to wind down, John Reis style.