A band with nothing close to a hit still offers a compelling case as one of the best bands of the '80s and beyond.
"And after all this time, so strange to hear your voice …"
If there is a more fitting first line for an album, I've yet to hear it. Or rather, it would be fitting if one hadn't kept up with Dumptruck through the long layoff after its 1988 masterwork, for the country. For anyone who did keep up, it likely seems odd that Rykodisc saw fit to release a best-of for the band.
Of course, this isn’t a "best-of", it's "a collection" – it says so right there on the cover. If it was a best-of, it would include about half of the band’s second disc, Positively, its third disc for the country, in its entirety, and a smattering of tracks from the band's four other discs.
Dumptruck's story, for better or worse, begins and, at least for most people, ends with for the country. There are those who will argue that it's not one of the 10 best discs of the 1980s, but those people are wrong. Making things all the more interesting is the fact that there is no reason for the disc to have been as good as it was. The band had lost a key member with the departure of singer-guitarist-songwriter Kirk Swan. It recorded the disc across the pond with Hugh Jones, who had produced such uncomplementary acts as Echo and the Bunnymen, Modern English and Simple Minds. It was on a small label with big ideas that had tried and failed to break bands like the Lucy Show and the Jazz Butcher.
Despite, or perhaps because of, that turmoil, the band turned out a classic. Remaining songwriter Seth Tiven found a way to fuse the band's previous Television-inspired guitar fury and prototypical college rock sound with more organic elements lifted from folk and country. The result was a fresh-sounding amalgamation that served as an unacknowledged blueprint for the alt-country movement that sprung up five years later.
There are many reasons to recommend the disc. Start with Tiven's bittersweet lyrics and the guitar interplay between Tiven and newcomer Kevin Salem. Then there is the tight yet nimble rhythm section that leaps from the lapsteel lilt of "Going Nowhere" to the insistent fury of "Island" (both included here). There isn't a weak song in the bunch, which makes what happened next all the more disappointing.
The band garnered considerable attention for the album, earning lavish praise and actually selling a few copies. Larger labels noticed, and, according to reports (including one in the liner notes of long-delayed follow-up Days of Fear) a giant mess ensured. Long story short, the band's label, Big Time Records, tried to negotiate a buyout with a larger label, but was doing so after it had unknowingly let Dumptruck's contract lapse. The solution? A lawsuit against the band, of course, to the tune of $5 million. There is no quicker way to stop a small band's career in its tracks, Dumptruck can assure you.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed, but not before all of the band's momentum was gone and much of its fanbase with it. That's not necessarily a signed death warrant, but it's close. Aimee Mann is perhaps the best example of an artist transcending such woes, but Seth Tiven isn't a statuesque beauty with friends in Hollywood and a fluke Top 40 hit on his resume. He's a scrawny guy from Boston (and later, Austin) with a raspy voice and a penchant for feedback and pedal steel guitar. In short, under the best circumstances he wasn't going to generate any hits.
Still, one can't help but wonder "what if" when hearing this new collection. Were the tracks in chronological order (which, maddeningly, they are not), listeners would hear a band that grew to take on its own sound over the course of its first three discs, then resignedly retreat to a place between the second and third for its fourth, fifth and sixth. As such, hearing this bolsters the argument that the band was robbed a potentially more prominent place in history thanks to its run-ins with its label.
As mentioned, the disc opens with "Still Been Had", a song that could have been seen as a perfect kiss-off to the whole Big Time situation, had it appeared on the band's first disc after the mess was cleared up, Days of Fear. Instead, it is found on Terminal, the band's fifth disc and the one offering the clearest sign that Tiven's talent wasn't used up by the lawsuit and its aftermath.
Days of Fear, represented here by two of its strongest tracks, just seemed tired and, go figure, a bit defeated. Terminal, on the other hand, feels like a fresh burst of energy and a proper follow-up to for the country. It's a ballsy blast that strips away the subtleties of for the country in favor of a bracing vitriol. The three tracks, including the title song and "Daylight Falls", are among the best on the collection. Had this been a timely follow-up to for the country, there is little doubt that Dumptruck would be much more well-known, and perhaps a still-viable entity, today.
That disc was followed by Lemmings, an album most notable for the fact that it contained a bonus disc of vintage live tracks culled from shows in support of Positively and for the country. It's not a bad record, as evidenced by "Stars Grow Colder" and "Too Many Times", but like Days of Fear, it lacks the vitality of the band's best moments.
With The Long Haul, Dumptruck's legacy, such as it is, is fairly well represented. It could stand more selections from the band's three best discs, fewer from its tentative debut, and perhaps a rarity or two for those of us who own the entire back catalog. Then again, this isn't for us. It's for those people who maybe remember reading a positive review or two about the band and have some disposable income to burn. If those people exist, they'll find a solid album that ought to prompt them to drop a few more bills on the meat of the band's catalog.