The Mojo Wire prematurely stumbles into sophomore slump on their sprawling, schizophrenic second album.
Stop me if you think that you've heard this one before: a confident, well-oiled machine of a rock band comes off a banner year full of a whole new set of wild ideas that they're just dying to impress upon the wider world, and in the process of actually recording anything and everything they can think of (usually under the guise of "progress" or "growth"), the earnest, lovable, and hopelessly deluded young men instead cough up a formless gob of tunes that makes everyone wonder what the big deal was about them in the first place.
Okay, well, maybe that's not exactly what happened, but it's the best description that fits around the genesis of Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor, the second Mojo Wire album, released hard on the heels of the first one, and giving off a distinct whiff of undercooked tunes slathered in a myriad of gooey sonic effects. The collection can't seem to decide what it wants to be- Rock or prog? Blues or psychedelia? Stripped-down, disciplined writing, or free-form freakout? Any real explanation would ultimately offer up more analysis than is deserved, but since a few of these songs were actually good, and many of the rest have gone on to become bigger and better things, it's worth another look and listen to see how things really ended up this way.
Rocket Fuel's split personality may be no more than a product of overenthusiastic experimentation, but its overall feel is much closer to the actual mindset of the band at that time. Every song on Battery Acid Blues had more than a year to develop before their final incarnations in late 1997, by which time the Mojo Wire had wholly absorbed itself in the nth-degree ethos of Isla Vista. The old 12-bar tunes were now being accompanied by all sorts of bizarre effects pedals, multiple (and often backwards) tape loops, and extensive multitracking. In short, the Mojo Wire had discovered their navels, musically speaking, and they set about contemplating them as often as possible.
The album is probably best characterized as two mini-albums welded together; the first half is uptempo, surfy-blues that swings along to the same groove that electrified the band's debut. In fact, most of the songs on the first side- "Rocket Fuel Malt Liquor", "Margarita", "Jackson Hammer's Theme", "Trash and Trouble", and "Evil Train"- were written either at the same time or shortly after the songs from the first album, around mid-'97 or so. The tunes for "Run From Me" and "Blackout Baby" also dated from the Clap days, and were further tinkered with as time went by. The rest came even quicker, as Adam, Bryn, and Keir explored the full range of their new toys, and the music for "Kid Icarus", "Under The Sun", and "Wound Down" was all recorded at the Bedrock in demo form by the end of the year.
The unfettered experimentation that Adam, Bryn, and Keir indulged in was definitely a result of their bacchanalian surroundings, but the music they were listening to made much more of an impact, especially Radiohead's recently released OK Computer. That landmark album wasn't so much of a direct, immediate influence, but the explosion of sonic possibilities achieved on that disc definitely inspired the Mojo Wire to find out exactly how much they could do with what they had at their disposal. Adam's cello swaying its way through "Kid Icarus" and Keir's echo-bass guitar powering "Under The Sun" led the way, and almost every song (except the instrumental title track) has some sort of treatment on the vocals, guitars, bass, or keyboard. The band later admitted that they'd probably gone overboard on most of these (Adam's voice probably didn't need thick layers of reverbed chorus on "Run From Me" or "Margarita"), but many times the effects worked well almost in spite of themselves (again, Adam's voice treated with gain on "Trash And Trouble" takes him deep into Wolfman Jack territory).
Work from that point on, however, was relatively stifled, and as sometime drummer Brandon Klopp was less and less able to help out (most his live drum machine tracks came from two long Bedrock jam sessions), the other three Mojos had to piece together their new songs in fits and starts. "Blackout Baby" is actually done over the drum tracks for the Battery Acid song "Stay With Me", and "Drown the Heart" has no percussion on it at all (though for that song it didn't seem to matter). The more scattered things seemed to become, the more Keir seemed to want to get a handle on everything and organize it into some sort of presentable form. Adam and Bryn were agreeable- hey, why not release another record?- but that very impulse to complete things quickly and effectively doomed the whole collection, especially when it came to what Keir thought was his strength: lyrics.
Lyrics weren't much of a problem for the album's first half, which, with the probable exception of "Run From Me", pretended and postured at nothing more than they seemed to be. The problems came with the unrealized, clunky metaphors of the second side's songs, which seemed to want to pass themselves off as Major Statements of Profound Importance. Strong bits of music that could have (and, years later, eventually did) end up somewhere meaningful instead seemed to grasp at Significance without actually saying anything, and great tunes like "Kid Icarus", "Under The Sun", "Blackout Baby", and "Wound Down" became hobbled by their sub-par, self-absorbed, and sloppily incomplete lyrics.
Ultimately, the album seemed to base itself on a juvenile idea, but it was still a uniquely Mojo one: the disc's concept attempted to cover the arc of a hangover, starting out strong and crazy only to end up pathetically crashing and burning in a haze of foggy excess. Not exactly a profound, or even uncommon, observation in a town known for partying, spoiled rich kids, but for better or worse that was the only glue holding together the widely disparate songs that the Mojo Wire had come up with. Part of the impetus to keep going after that, in terms of songwriting, was to simply supersede Rocket Fuel with songs that were a little more well-developed.
Eventually, these songs slowly slouched their way towards completion one way or another, mostly in concert: "Run From Me" was revived for grittier, louder live performance in 2001, and "Margarita" remained a live Mojo hit to the end. "The Worst Way" also served as a non-descript live workhorse, and "Kid Icarus" and "Wound Down" often provided a break between the heavier numbers as well during the '99 and '01 shows. The two least-developed lyrics, however, took the longest to mature, and did so for another band: "Under The Sun" experienced a glacially-paced four-year rebirth as the Honey White song "The Lightning Rod", and "Blackout Baby" endured a similar wait before finally resurfacing as Honey White's "Blacking Out", both with little trace of their heritage as part of the red-headed stepchild of Mojo Wire albums.
Play this album (with 4 bonus tracks!):
The whole band was asked a series of questions for this piece that pretty much used none of them, so I've decided to just run 'em all here. Enjoy:
Who are your influences?
Bryn DuBois (vocals, guitar): Jeff Buckley, The Mermen, and Eels, to name a few.
Brian Wolff (guitar): Pink Floyd, Neil Young, Radiohead, Pearl Jam.
Keir DuBois (bass guitar): Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello & The Attractions, Morphine, U2, the Police, Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven.
Bill Fedderson (drums): Weezer, The Roots, Coldplay and 311 (yeah all the big names).
What style do you consider your music?
Bryn: I always have difficulty narrowing the description beyond "Rock". But we love sounding big & echoey, so maybe "Epic Rock" works. Or "Epic Rock That Rocks!!" Maybe.
Bill: Obivously we classify ourselves as EPIC underwater garage geek squad rockers on too little drugs!
Brian: Epic underwater garage geek squad rockers on exactly the right amount of drugs. Except Keir, he needs more drugs.
Keir: I'll also have to go with the "epic rock" tag. Our stuff is pretty personal but we dress it up in enough pomposity that people usually think we're egomaniacal instead of hypersensitive.
What makes you guys different from any other band?
Bryn: The fact that we all live in different cities and still manage to rock. And that Billy is secretly a Drumbot 3000x from some awesome rock future. Not many of them around today.
Brian: I don't know about that one. But we've got unusually diverse styles, tastes, and localities.
Keir: Our ability to play a good tight show with minimal rehearsal. Doesn't happen every time, but when we do pull off a great gig after only one hour of practice over the last couple of months, we feel pretty cool. And surprised.
Bill: Our dedication to sincerity can sometimes outweigh our egotistical rocker stances!
What is your favorite song that you have written?
Bryn: Island Fever. It feels like it has the right amount of groove, rock, and epic size.
Brian: Blacking Out, because we're all being very creative in our different ways.
Keir: The Lightning Rod. It's from our first CD and not on the new one, but we recently destroyed and then rebuilt it musically from the ground up. Miraculously, it survived, so it earned a gold star from me.
Bill: I'd say Shipwreck but nobody knows about that, so I'll say Sean Goes To Africa.
What inspires you?
Bryn: Going to a really awe-inspiring show. When I see a band at the top of their game it inevitably makes me want to play too.
Brian: Effects pedals!
Keir: My bandmates' playing. These days I'm happy to simply come up with a killer bass line and/or sharp lyrics to attach to the great tunes they constantly
Bill: I get inspired by my bandmates, and by fast cars, and by getting older, and by every girl who has ever said she likes drummers when she didn't know I played drums.