Heatmiser’s Mic City Son was one of the best indie-pop albums of 1996, hands down. But the mid-’90s were so full of great alternative music that it was easy to miss even with perfect aim, and chances are good you’ve never heard, or heard of, Mic City Sons—or perhaps even of Heatmiser themselves, who disbanded practically before the album was released. You’ve almost certainly heard of one of the group’s two principals, though: Elliott Smith.
The other, Neil Gust, was every bit as responsible as Smith was for the quality of Mic City Sons. They were college friends, then moved back to their Portland, Oregon, home, shared living space, and formed Heatmiser. Gust came out of the closet to Smith. Smith, who was straight, was unbothered by the disclosure, although he later had to keep telling people they hadn’t been a couple. He and Gust were bonded by music, and it’s too bad we don’t live in the alternate universe where these two coequals take Heatmiser to a place of lasting indie esteem, and semipopular success like Spoon has managed to do in this one.
Why didn’t Heatmiser make it? You can poke around online and read how Virgin Records signed the band only actually wanting Smith, who was already two albums into his solo career. After it was recorded, Mic City Sons was immediately shunted to Virgin subsidiary Caroline Records, where the label let the album drown in the high musical seas of 1996. The band promptly dissolved without anyone noticing except Virgin, which had gotten exactly what it wanted. Over the next 18 months, Smith released Either/Or, played “Miss Misery” at the Oscars, and became for a while one of the most celebrated acoustic singer-songwriters in America.
That’s the mini-Behind the Music story for context. In reality, it’s probably much less straightforward and more complicated than that, as life tends to be. It’s hard not to wonder if Virgin was nervous about a gay co-bandleader, even in the generally tolerant “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” mid-’90s. Despite its firmly anti-mainstream orientation, guitar-based indie rock has tended to be either blandly straight or anxiously asexual. This was the generation, after all, that came of age under AIDS.
In Heatmiser’s demise, Gust quickly formed his second band, which he called No. 2. That’s not bathroom humor. The name means just that it was his second band after Heatmiser. More than a quarter-century on, Gust, long since relocated to New York City and environs, has a stout LinkedIn page (Art Director/Sound Editor/Music Researcher), and No. 2 has just put out their third album—their first in 20 years, and recorded over the last three—called First Love.
No. 2, third, First. A little confusing. So is the suggestively hetero-sexy cover photo, which looks like it was meant to appear on the next Lana Del Rey record but was accidentally sent to the wrong Slack channel: female model, cigarette, cherry—first love? (Are we invited to infer a wordplay dig—virgin—at Heatmiser’s villainous label?) Meanwhile, the publicity materials tout Gust’s “queer anthems”. To repeat: much less straightforward.
The music, though, is refreshingly direct. First Love delivers exactly what the mid-’90s did so well: punchy, melodic, great-sounding pop-rock that goes straight (no pun intended) for confessional irony and is too rhythmically propulsive to dwell in eddies of self-pity. The album was produced—really well—by Joanna Bolme of Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, and you can hear the Jicks’ nervy energy throughout.
In First Love, everything is tight, compact, and lean, yet it’s never insubstantial. Gust’s guitar work is unshowy but always right where the songwriting needs it to be, and the rhythm section of bassist Gilly Ann Hanner (Calamity Jane) and drummer Paul Pulvirenti (Eyelids) stays right with him. There’s a little keyboard to add texture here and here.
Although Gust’s voice is no emotional or sonic powerhouse—it’s naturally breathy, which is part of why he and Elliott Smith sounded like born confreres—he sings with a grabby candor and immediacy. “Never make it to the party/ Where all the other guys seem to be”, he fairly pleads on the opening track, and even though he wants to “cry all the way home”, which of course rhymes with “alone”, nonetheless “I’m on a mission/ Come with me”.
Which he makes it easy to do. The urgent, affirming song titles alone do part of the job: “I’m on a Mission”, “Time’s Up”, “Get in Line”, “You Might Be Right”. First Love pulls right up in front of you and wastes no time, like a friend who comes to pick you up for a night out and leaves the car running. The second song, “Ravers in the Sky”, starts: “Ready to go / Start moving / Out from behind / Never felt so alive.” First Love is so reliably raring to go, so constitutionally upbeat—“I was overcome with elation” is the opening line of another song, the infectious quasi-shuffle “A.O.R.”—that its moments of lyrical confrontation, confusion, doubt, and catastrophe can make you do a doubletake: Did he just start the waltzing “Night After Night” with “My first apartment burned to the ground”?
Yes, he did. OK—paying attention. So that when he comes at you a little later with “What are you hiding?/ What are you throwing away?/ What are you fighting?/ What are you trying to say?” those questions hold you to account. Presumably, they hold the man singing to account, too.
Gust is one of so many capable, tuneful, energetic ’90s-vintage rockers who make their living today by doing something other than music—the “first love” of the album’s title, imaginably. He’s returning to music to release, interrogate, and take stock of himself, to lament what’s lost and examine what’s still here, and to return to the universe of sound where he’s most authentically at home. We may not often have heard from him since the end of Heatmiser, but First Love makes it clear that he’s been here all along.