14 September 2009

WANNABES- "Dead True" b/w "Itchin' Jenny" (1992/ Biffco Records)

Wax. So a few weeks ago I decided that the act of walking into one of NYC's remaining few record stores and buying a 7" that I was either entirely unaware of or something unique/ funny would be excellent fodder for a little feature to be done here. Plus, hey, it's not much but patronizing record stores is important.

I'm not sure what ended up happening to my old turntable, so getting the new one has been some slight delay. That being said, I have stocked up on some stuff that I think will, at the very least, be fun to write about. Fun to read about is another story altogether (it always is).

My first selection is (technically) the b-side of a single from a band called The Wannabes. I came upon the Wannabes while sifting through the "indie" bargain stuff at Bleecker Bob's. As you can see above here, it was labeled by someone, somewhere as being "GRUNGY TEXAS." Christ, man. Sold!

Near as I can tell, this is the Wannabes Myspace page. Of course, owing to their status as an underground rock band, a name like the Wannabes- it could be anybody. However- the bio starts by describing them as "Austin’s favorite band to see when nobody else good is playing," and goes on to describe their beginning: "crawled out of the DFW mid-cities in 1985 where nobody good was ever playing with the help of founding members and childhood friends, Jennings Crawford and Hunter Darby." That sort of feels right. Plus- when you hear the song- this band is from Austin.

And so it is right- here they are on AllMusic- which, in their overview, mentions this very single. It's actually sort of important info- AllMusic lists "Dead True" as the A-side, which is news to me since both sides are labeled "B" (cute) and "Itchin' Jenny" - the song I'm going to look at- is so clearly better. Either way- they mention it came out in 1992, and I can report from the label that it was on Biffco Records, possibly a one-record storefront. There is, however, a British label called Biffco that put out the Spice Girls records among others. Doubt it's the same one.

I think the story of this find is that ridiculously perfect classification Sharpie'd on the front- "GRUNGY TEXAS." Grungy actually might be a bit of a misnomer- they're closer to something like the Replacements sloppiness and who-gives-a-shit vibe (present more early on for them) plus something off of Nuggets- garagey, catchy, simple riff-rock- but it's the "TEXAS" that nails it. This is a Texas band.

It starts with that early-90s indie driving rhythm and strumming- there's some really cool second-guitar stuff on the opening riff, which is what makes this promising from the get-go. The danger for a band like this, honestly, is that they start drifting into Soul Asylum territory- which is a really inauthentic bar band sound. There's something about the buoyancy of the riff that makes it mostly immune to going too far in that direction, though. Or, likewise, making it sound too BUZZ BIN or, yeah, "grungy." It's a nice balance of sounds- even some Neil on the crashing open chords.

I love a great guitar sound, and "Itchin' Jenny" has a really great, sharp guitar sound, especially in the few parts where they stray a bit from pub rhythm and into some dueling guitar parts. They're spare enough that you know these guys were worried people would think it indulgent, which is a shame because they're good at it. Maybe there's more of it on the rest of their catalogue.

This is a really dynamic, well produced little song. Turns out, as I'm just now discovering- it was produced by a guy named John Croslin, who went on to work with Guided by Voices, Spoon, and Mates of State. Sort of not surprising- it really does sound that good. I was expecting something considerably sloppier, like it was recorded in someone's shed or something.

The vocals really aren't much to get excited about- the slacker-sneer of that time. The lyrics are mostly mumbled throughout but what you do get is fun, and pretty clearly not the point. I like the vocal parts too, right down to the intentionally dodgy stabs at harmony.

So "Itchin' Jenny"- the far superior b-side to the plodding "Dead True"- is a really solid rock-n-roll song, deftly maneuvering over it's three-and-half-minute lifespan around every pitfall you'd expect them to stumble on as the song starts. But it rocks, it moves, and then it ends. Can't complain about that.

But you know what I like to think about? I like to think about what kind of journey the Wannabes had. These guys met in high school- they're amazing when they're in their niche- they weren't great guitar players, but they could catch fire with that casual, insistent stomp. I bet they got on stage every single night and just killed it. They were a band that seem to inherently understand what it was to be "in a band," in terms of chemistry and direction. They were obviously a live band- they relied nearly completely on dynamics- but they have a sound, an identity. This is what can be truly exciting about independent American music- the way this band can be such unknowns up East, but are likely still legends in Austin. They're one of those great "scene" bands- the ones that open for everybody and have the local sound boiled down perfectly. "Itchin' Jenny" is on a lot of jukeboxes down there, I promise you, and not too many up here. That that sort of provincial gap can still exist is fun to me, for some reason.

Now, if you Google "Itchin' Jenny," besides a lot of links describing it's use as slang for female genitalia there is this account of a reunion gig for the band in October of '01, a positive review:

While the evening clearly belonged to the Wild Seeds, the Wannabes and the Rite Fliers turned in solid, enjoyable sets as well. The 'Bes opened with two new tunes but then stuck to their own classics, to the delight of their loyal following (not coincidentally the same audience as that for the Seeds). "Itchin' Jenny," "Every Star Mary," "Boxing Manual" and a ferocious "I Am God" displayed their easy mastery of melody and louder-than-God crunch, and set closers "You May Be Right" (yes, the Billy Joel song) and "Glandma" proved that punk rock doesn't have to be anarchy to be exciting.

That last line is very, very true and a great observation (about this band especially). Then, a listing for the 1992-93 Austin Chronicle (the newspaper that "discovered" Daniel Johnston) "Austin Music Awards," (awards that are a pretty big deal locally in Austin) where "Itchin' Jenny" came in as the third best single of the year, behind only Arc Angels' "Sweet Nadine" and Ricky Broussard's "Angels Cry."

Here's the song to listen to- check it out!


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