It seems a quaint thing to say 10 years later, but in the mid-’90s the advent of e-mail was a staggering advancement in technology. Never mind trading messages with a coworker, you mean I can send notes to my girlfriend, too? Those pre-spam days were simply too good to be true.
For the music fan in me, the most fascinating part of the e-mail explosion was how it was used, almost instantly, for grass roots purposes in promotion. Ladies and gentlemen, I submit: the band list. Every band seemed to have one, even bands that didn’t exist anymore. I joined a bunch of them: Ben Folds Five, Crowded House, even Prefab Sprout had a list. Some lists were fun (BF5, Aimee Mann), while others were so elitist they were laughable, yet very sad at the same time (Jellyfish, ye deserved better).
But the best list, by a country mile, was the list dedicated to Scotland’s Trashcan Sinatras. The sincerity and generosity of that group was unparalleled; if someone saw a few copies of a TCS single, they’d buy them all and sell them at cost to whomever wrote them first asking for a copy, and no one ever welched on their debts. We made mix tapes and sent them off chain style every two weeks, which introduced all of us to countless other like-minded bands. (It was those tapes that started my long and fruitful friendship with Will Harris, one of PopMatters’ finest.) We even pulled together to send the band money, with which they bought some new gear and later admitted they were both deeply flattered and utterly embarrassed by our gesture.
The ugly truth, however, is that when we sent that money, we may have been the only true friends the Trashcans had. They had just released their import-only A Happy Pocket, a lovely album though a glum one, and the boys knew full well they were about to get sacked. Their biggest champion at then label Go! Discs, Andy McDonald, had just sold his share of the company, and the new managing partners viewed the Trashcans as more of a liability than an asset. Sure enough, the band was soon jettisoned, and the future was not bright. Over the next four years, the best the band could do was line up a Japanese publishing deal and a few gigs in Tokyo. They were broke, and their new material, in the form of a 1999 EP, reflected the band’s miserable attitude better than they realized. The prospect of them ever recording another album was somewhere between “Who the hell are you guys?” and “Oh yeah, my mom used to like you”.
Which brings us to Weightlifting, the fourth album that was never supposed to be. And not only is it here, but it’s startlingly good, better than an eight-year-layoff album has any right to be. From the first note of the appropriately titled “Welcome Back”, it’s clear they’ve recharged their batteries, with the band showing a bounciness fans haven’t heard since “Bloodrush”, from their seminal sophomore album I’ve Seen Everything. “I was blind when I dined / Out with the monsters I knew at the time / But now I know better — I’m better, I’m fine”, singer Francis Reader admits. The song reveals two interesting changes in the band this time around. For starters, they seem to be more assertive and take more responsibility for their actions. But the line also shows a concerted effort at lyrical economy. Reader’s turns of phrase on previous albums were of Olympian caliber, but the lyrics on Weightlifting are positively simple by comparison. This is not to imply that Weightlifting’s lyrics are dumb, but rather that Reader has seen the wisdom in the adage that brevity is the soul of wit.
“Freetime” also recalls the halcyon days of I’ve Seen Everything, though this one bears more resemblance to “Killing The Cabinet”, with a much lighter subject matter. Reader ends the song with the simple declaration that “there’s beauty in life. / Yes, there’s beauty in life”. Quite a change of pace for a guy who previously groused about his therapist with the rapist’s heart.
A recurring theme floats through Weightlifting, that of a man who has handled a relationship sloppily and has paid for it dearly. In “What Women Do to Men”, Reader warns his friend that “someone else will meet her / Stay awake and read to her / Someone else will love her”, devastating words to anyone fresh from a breakup. Two songs later, Reader takes him to task again on “Usually”, with the line, “You stand apart at the bar now, drinking the usual / But usually, she’d be buying those for you”. Interestingly, the tense flips from second person to first throughout both songs, suggesting that the narrator may be more alter-ego than a separate person altogether.
That would certainly explain the last two songs, “Leave Me Alone” (originally from the 1999 EP) and the superb title track, where the main character, ironically, rebuffs all attempts by a former lover to reconcile. “The oddest thing of all this time is that I’m not sad at all”, he declares in the former, and going on to back it up in the latter — over the album’s best chorus — with the plea to “say the word and be free / You will find a great weight lifting”. It’s an apt metaphor for the struggles the band endured to get to this point, and the gorgeous melody they wrapped around those words makes it the sweetest rejection ever recorded.
The band’s e-mail list is still alive and well, with list moderator Joe Dimaria now serving as the band’s web site administrator. I have since dropped off the list, but Will is still there, and from the e-mails he’s shown me, a good chunk of the founding listees are still there as well, a testament to the profound emotional connection that the Trashcans’ music has made with their fans. In the end, the true beauty of Weightlifting is that, at long last, the Trashcan Sinatras seem to have found their place in the world, and realize that the world is a better place for them being in it. There’s beauty in life, indeed.