Monday, February 9, 2009

Jonathan Fire*Eater. Tremble Under Boom Lights (The Medicine Label, 1996)

"We were the princes of the diamond district/ When every caper made it in the paper."

There are few albums that have excited me upon first listen as much as Tremble Under Boom Lights. A stone indierock classic, this sophomore release from the much-missed NYC-via-DC neu-garage upstarts Jonathan Fire*Eater packs more energy, swagger, and good ideas into its five tracks and 22 minutes than most outfits can hope to conjure up over entire careers. Everything about this album sounds and feels right, the embodiment of effortless rock 'n' roll cool and fuck-it-all abandon.

Jonathan Fire*Eater were five kids who met at elite DC prep school St. Albans in the early 1990s. Though enmeshed in the city's rich indie and hardcore scenes, JFE eschewed the more doctrinaire and dour aspects of bands like Fugazi and Hoover and instead embraced a preening, hedonistic approach that owed more than a little bit to the Nation of Ulysses and their frontman, hypercaffeinated lothario Ian Svenonius.

JFE released three LPs before dissolving: the good but unfocused eponymous debut in 1995, the blinding Tremble Under Boom Lights in 1996, and the intended-breakthrough-that-never-really-went-anywhere Wolf Songs for Lambs in 1997 on major label DreamWorks. JFE were supposed to be the next big thing, and listening to Tremble Under Boom Lights, you can see why. Unfortunately, they couldn't capture that album's power a second time around, and they ended with more of a whimper than a bang. Which is way less than these guys deserved.

On Tremble Under Boom Lights, JFE nail their formula: take pounding, tom-heavy beats, lock in some tribal, pulsing bass, add liberal doses of soul-damaged funhouse organs to the hooky, tremeloed guitar attack, and top it all off with the irresistibly melodramatic, pouty, rasping vocals of singer Stuart Lupton (now of the Child Ballads). Technicolor narrative lyrics about collapsed starlets and lecherous undertakers never hurt, either. Tremble Under Boom Light's songs feel like cinematic shorts, painting images and scenarios with considerable detail and vibrancy, creating little worlds in the verses and choruses.

Take deliciously sinister leadoff track The Search for Cherry Red, a near-perfect rock song. The stabbing organ/guitar riff and massive echoing drums frame Lupton's gasping, hallucinatory tale of depraved Hollywood scenesters and deluded jet trash. "In Hollywood, I caught the phone call/ That made my heart and limousine stall/ You'd fallen down in the hotel hall again/ A little drunk from the Warners' Christmas ball," Lupton sneers, before advising, "Lock yourself in your hotel room/ I'll take the next flight and be there by noon." The song builds to an exhilarating rave-up, the rhythm section pushing ever onwards as the guitars twist and snarl, finally collapsing in an exhausted heap.

Though the rest of the album can't quite compare to the epic burner of the opening tune, it tries its damnedest. Make It Precious sways and raves, arch and impeccably attired in rich, echoey chords. The creepy sweet Give Me Daughters is a
punching, bucking ode to fatherhood, blessed with a see-saw organ riff and the rousing refrain of, "Give me daughters/ And make them one two three/ I will raise them/ They will look like me/ And when they send, send me away/ Well, I will always pray for a happy birthday." "Beautician" prowls under spy-theme melodies, and closer "Winston Plum: Undertaker" is a cracked character study, a low-key meditation on a nightmare awash in sweeping gestures and spacey sentiment.

Jonathan Fire*Eater seemed destined for great things. Alas, they ended up being a case of brightest stars burning half as long. But before they flamed out they gave us Tremble Under Boom Lights, for which we can be eternally grateful.