The Stairs: Miraculous Happens

Miraculous Happens
The Stairs
Access to Vision
7 Oct 2003

Some people achieve great things. The Pyramids. The double helix. King Lear. The abolition of slavery. Relativity. Admittedly, those are examples of some pretty rarified shit, while achievement for the rest of us is measured in more modest terms, but what they all share is a drive and a vision, an exceptional tenacity. When humans assert their stubborn love in such a way, miraculous things may, and often do happen.

So, the Stairs were this half-assed band from the unfortunately named Dedham, Massachusetts. They went through a couple name changes, played stuff even their friends were largely indifferent toward, recorded on boom boxes and four-tracks, and generally hung around in an unfocused, vaguely creative fog. Until Ryan Walsh applied for, and won, a local Arts grant, that is.

Then, everything changed.

Miraculous Happens is the result of that very specific, delineated $10,000 award (1. It had to comprise original songs, yet feature other Dedham-area musicians, 2. Local elementary schools would compete in a “draw the Album Cover” contest, and 3. A documentary of the entire process would be filmed and shown on a local cable channel before the album’s release).

Community, in other words: two years and seven locations worth of stubbornly creative, self-deprecatingly obsessive outreach condensed into 80 or so minutes; Crayola kids, high school marching bands, choirs, every damn logistical nightmare thing. All of which is great and shit, but (um) how does it sound? Well, it sounds messy and spirited and sprawlingly maladroit, which are good things. It sounds as if a bunch of music geeks wanted to create the ultimate mix tape from all their geeky touchpoints, weaving the Flaming Lips with the Smiths via Guided by Voices, attaching jazz codas to surf pop, ’60s psychedelia to country, sitars to saxophones, Moogs to movie samples, tubas to toy pianos.

And somehow it works.

There are great songs (opener “Forty Two” is summer-sensation über-slick horniness, in every sense; album standout “Carpenter Ghost” is plaintive and sincerely moving in its unaffected chamber-pop anthemic amateurism; and even Bob Pollard would likely kill, or at least down a few more beers, for a glimpse into the parallel-world gonzo-rock process that birthed the breathless, fervent “Queen of Mixed Signals”); good songs (the laconic fiddle-sway of “Most Valuable Pop” sounds like the Waterboys if they’d recruited Neil Young’s messed-up kid brother instead of Mike Scott, and “Car” will remain infuriatingly lodged in your synapses as securely as any unfeigned bubblegum doggerel ever, while “Quiet Girl” is festively translucent like the unsatisfied ghost of Band-Aid); odd or indifferent songs (“I Am an Exit” is frankly bizarre in its obvious Morrissey references, and yet still manages to be strangely compelling, especially when the choir kicks in, and “Rain Falls on Sabrina” plays mischievously on the boundary between jazz torch lament and ridiculous kitsch); and even bad songs (the Beatles-esque “She’s a Butterfly” is much closer to Private than Sergeant Pepper, and how does anyone even half-sane honestly describe the freakish “Iodine Bible”?).

Long, wild, artless, and warmly vehement; in the final analysis, ratings of good, bad, or indifferent seem arbitrary and ultimately irrelevant — mean-spirited, even. I mean, really, how do you argue with such ardent sentiments as: “we’ll make him sing, we’ll make him belly laugh / We’ll stay and wallow in the golden aftermath” (“Quiet Girl”)? Or alternately not relax in the inclusive acoustic glow of closer “Let Me Sleep”: “You may have work to do / But my job is you”?

And, sure, though the flaws are worn without guile, and the missteps trip each other like lovable loser-dorks in the sack race on Sports Day, the great achievement of this record is its large heart, its mad ambition, its fusing of sheer gawky collective love with a potluck semblance of celebratory sound that still resonates long after the last cartoon heart, birdcall, and trumpet note has ascended and popped in the freezing evening air.