Friday, May 1, 2009

Chisel. 8 A.M. All Day (Gern Blandsten, 1996)

"You're solid gold now, but they'll still be a show without you."

Before he developed into one of indie rock's foremost purveyors of thoughtful, stunningly accomplished, expertly crafted guitar pop, Ted Leo headed up DC's oft-overlooked neo-mod-punk outfit Chisel, a burning ball of hopped-up zealotry and blistering hooks. Though not as expansive or ambitious as Leo's later work with the Pharmacists, Chisel was solidly top shelf, and stood out from the pack of early '90s punk poppers due to an abundance of style and clever concepts, setting the foundation for Leo's subsequent sound and establishing the Jersey troubadour as a talent to watch. Listening to Chisel, you can hear the bright days ahead.

The trio (Leo on vocals and guitar, Chris Infante on bass, and John Dugan on drums) first coalesced at the University of Notre Dame, where Leo, Infante, and Dugan bonded over a love of nervy post-punk and brash Who-, Jam-, and Faces-flavored mod abandon. Leo was a veteran of the New Jersey and New York all-ages punk scene, while Dugan had been playing in DC hardcore bands since high school. In 1994, after Infante had been replaced by Chris Norborg, the group relocated from Indiana to the nation's capital (Dugan was do-gooding at Amnesty International at the time), and soon ensconced themselves in the city's then-flourishing indie scene, falling in alongside such titans as Fugazi, Jawbox, and the Dismemberment Plan and building a reputation for bracing, galvanizing earcandy.

Over the course of their too-short career, Chisel released a bunch of singles and 7"s, an EP (1995's Nothing New), and two LPs, 8 A.M. All Day and the 1997 swan song Set You Free. Introductory full length 8 A.M. All Day is their strongest collection, a slashing, crashing set of tight-fitting and well-turned-out garage mod mayhem, bursting with memorable melodies and insistent riffs that manage to capture the cool essence of '60s and '70s rock-n-soul without sounding goofy or stale or slavish. Throughout, Leo's fleet-fingered axemanship is on full display, and his fervent tenor -- occasionally joined by Norborg's infectious background harmonies -- wraps the tunes in a palpable enthusiasm. It's nervy, electric, and invigorating music, guaranteed to break a sweat and wear out your dancing shoes in the best Northern Soul-cum-Jersey Turnpike tradition.

Nearly every song here buzzes with raw pop power, as the band pushes the limits of the three-piece setup. Leo's guitar playing is, as always, incredible: the sound he coaxes out of just six strings is consistently surprising, blending choppy, chunky chording with bursts of blazing fretwork. "Hip Straights" blasts out of the blocks with violent strumming and soaring backing vocals, the skewed main riff bouncing off the rhythm section to excellent effect. "The Dog in Me" is a reluctant anthem and tuneful mea culpa, riding a lovely crunch, while "Your Star is Killing Me" stomps and swaggers and points fingers, frantic distortion and running-scared treble framing Leo's sadly accusatory pronouncement of, "And I'll always be thrilled, and you'll always be the one who's thrilling me/ But if I die unfulfilled, I want you to know that your star is killing me."

Elsewhere, the serpentine melody of "Looking Down At The Great Wall of China" captures the structure's vast, winding ways effortlessly. The LP's title track is a lilting pearl, and one of the best numbers on the album, as Leo pleads and cajoles behind a jittery, buoyant instrumental, finding space to stretch out and open up while retaining the thrilling claustrophobia that defines the band. "Citizen of Venus" is almost impossibly catchy, built around a downbeat wavering between stomp and glide; the solo that breaks through at the 2:30 mark is a heartstopper, further testament to Leo's abilities.

In their time, Chisel were a welcome dose of levity and fun in what could be an overly-serious DC scene. By placing post-punk and hardcore in a mod and soul context, Leo and his accomplices created a thrilling and exciting sound with a debt to the past but an eye on the future. And a decade-plus down the road, 8 A.M. All Day sounds as quick-witted and spit-shined as it did the day it was released.