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D+: Mistake

Anthony C. Bleach



Label: K
US Release Date: 2002-10-01
UK Release Date: Available as import

It's tempting to imagine late '80s and early '90s indie/alternative rock as being one big old happy family. Let's take two of the bands canonized recently in Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life: Dinosaur Jr. and Beat Happening. In the mixed-up, shook-up world of the (admittedly amorphous) scene, we'll call them Uncle It (screwy Addams Family reference intentional; J. Mascis is one hirsute bohunk) and Uncle Carbuncle (screwy nonsense rhyme also intentional; BH can just be that kooky), respectively.

While the former showcased the red-hot white-light guitar blasts of Mascis, the latter was arguably the lovechild of Olympia, Washington's Calvin Johnson. Both bands were (in the case of Beat Happening, are) ostensibly collectives. On the early BH releases, for example, only the band members' first names were provided, and while it was clear that Johnson's death-coach vocals gave the band its signature sound, Bret (Lunsford) and Heather (Lewis) definitely added to the musical stew, whether its ingredients were cardboard-box drums or slightly-tuned guitar.

Things on the Dinosaur front weren't so cheery, though. Their first record, 1987's You're Living all Over Me assigned (gasp) instruments to its members, although it was clear that Mascis was running the show. Knowing what happened with the band and Mascis' ego (the former imploded, the latter exploded), the words on the record accompanying the haunting and experimental "Poledo" -- "recorded on two crappy tape recorders by Lou [Barlow] & Lou alone in his room" -- come across as sadly prophetic.

Jump in the wayahead machine a bit and Barlow has Sebadoh, touted by many as the band for whom we can blame music journalists for the term "lo-fi," not to mention the Folk Implosion, who gave Larry Clark's 1995 film kids its unlikely teen anthem "Natural One". Meanwhile, BH (avec Lunsford) keeps churning out records, each one progressing in joyful pubescent cacophony to their last full-length, 1992's mature teenage symphony to god, You Turn Me On.

Not to be outdone by the relative inactivity of BH, though, Lunsford formed D+ six years ago. Like in his other band, Lunsford's shares camp counselor duties with two other fellow Washingtonians: Phil Elvrum (from the Microphones and Old Time Relijun) and Karl Blau (from the jammy Captain Fathom). So, if we extend the family metaphor, Sebadoh/Folk Implosion and D+ are cousins. And, to use the dreaded word mentioned above, both trundle around the lo-fi track. However, (and to throw yet another metaphor into the mix), Lunsford plays Cousin Country Mouse to Barlow's Cousin City Mouse.

Mistake, D+'s third record, is loose like a pair of corn-husking coveralls yet polished like a Sunday-best suit. The record busts out of the gate like a duck-hungry hound, with the title track, a messily tight barnburner. Exciting things on the record as a whole, unfortunately, go downhill from there, but there are some amazing bright moments. For example, the vocals on "Are You Done" resurrect the Beach Boys as an Appalachian barbershop trio. "Megadose" is a moonshine-fueled yowl for love; its guitar strums like the taunting lover for whom Lunsford pines. "What's Not to Fall in Love With" is the morning-after Iowa-sun hangover: woozy harmonies, stuttering acoustic guitar, and muted drums. And "Take You for Granted" would sound great as a crackly 78-rpm platter; that is, until the achingly beautiful strings take the singer to his personal heaven. The song (and the record) concludes with the clatter of the musicians putting away their gear.

Lunsford's deadpan vocals take some getting used to; their treble would be no match for Calvin Johnson's bass, but their wide-open naivete softens their bitter taste, as do the lyrics that yodel forth from them. And while the instrumentation is always great, it, too, is strangely difficult to swallow. (Another review could probably be written on who could conceivably write better songs: Elvrum -- definitely no slouch in the always-mind-bogglingly-good Microphones -- Johnson, or Lunsford himself. But there's no need to set up imaginary fights between band members; if you'd like to read about a real band fight, check out Azerrad's chapter on Dinosaur Jr.)

It's disappointing to think so, but, like the corn from the fields in which Cousin Country Mouse lives, there are an awful lot of tough husks to peel through on this record to get to the sweet vegetables within.

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