The Gravel Pit, Silver Gorilla (1999)

[13 October 2006]

By Justin Cober-Lake

This is rock, and it’s all about the big things: the guitar hooks, the power chords, and the rampaging organ, of course. The Gravel Pit rocked; the Boston band came at you with hammers and beat their catchiness into you. But this is rock, where it also takes the little things to distinguish your sound. The Gravel Pit were craftsmen, dedicated to having everything just so, and exactly theirs. On “When Will Our Bucket Come Up Dry”, the group sets up a 1950s “Oh-oh, oh-oh” only to turn it into a “why-aye-aye-aye” that starts, instead of ends, a phrase. On first listen, it’s fun and surprising; on second listen, it’s smooth and fun.

On Silver Gorilla, they nail that sound that’s comfortable yet wholly their own. The Elvis Costello comparisons they inspired early on in their career are almost too easy to bother with, especially at various points on the enjoyable The Gravel Pit Manifesto. Just a few years later, though, they sat perfectly on their own aesthetic. They drew from power-pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and new wave, but they turned it into something specifically Gravel Pit, balancing heavy guitar and a variety of organs while Pete Caldes beats his drums with a barfly’s lust.

The group further distinguishes themselves by being weirdoes. If not quite the people who didn’t have friends join them at the lunch table, they were the sort of people who kept their friends in spite of/because they made sculptures out of their salisbury steak and mashed potatoes. One of the album’s standout tracks, “Where the Flying Things Go” opens with “If I could fly then I would fly to all the places where the flying things go.” The song might be about something other than wishing to be a flying thing, but even if it isn’t, why would you care when the Gravel Pit have practically gotten you airborne (even if it’s to go to Corsica and Indiana)?

That physical displacement might be the symptom of a deeper ontological crisis. (This is rock, and the great questions of Western metaphysics contract to two-minute-and-fifty-second bursts of yelps and meta-philosophical disdain for art.) It’s hard to tell what anything is on this album. Is the tree on opener, “I Climb (Up His Tree)”, a plant or a penis? What, you ask a simian/lover-type, has the essence of wood? On “Free to Be Me and Thee”, is the narrator free to be more than one person, and if he’s free only to be himself, is that really freedom? Even the guest spots raise questions: What are Aqua Vulvas and why does Kid Nietzsche sound so familiar? (This question leads to a noirish maze.) There are puzzles here, and only one answer: more organ and heavier riffs.

Sound heavy? It isn’t, because it’s too much fun, and the metaphysical musings mean little amid the musical mastery. The Gravel Pit are having fun; occasionally oblique lyrics are part of the game but not the center of joy. “Favorite”, for example, is the essence of a guitar-pop single, with its instantly memorable chorus (“You’re my favorite, favorite”), excited drumming, and bouncing bass. You could sing along gleefully whether or not you wonder if there’s a comma in that chorus line.

The band keeps it moving, too, so you’ll never have time to do anything short of a living-room jig. “Bolt of Light” insists on this notion, explaining that “You can travel through time at the speed of light / Through the sea at the speed of sound”. Before you worry if this travel involves some sort of speculative science, it doesn’t. It just involves subtle background harmonies, smart song structure, and another memorable refrain. And a bass that’s apparently wobbly from velocity experiments.

But that might just be convincing you that these guys are serious, and they mostly aren’t. Who else would plop down three tracks under a heading “An American Trilogy” but, rather than chasing Philip Roth or bowing to Elvis Presley, they instead confess to being inspired by the pretentiousness of Spinal Tap? And to relating the work to Citizen Kane and polysemous lyrical content?

And none of this play really matters in the face of the core piece of knowledge: The Gravel Pit write good songs and perform them well. This is rock, after all; it’s best not to think about it too much.

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