Has it really been five years since "Dissed and Dismissed" came out? The Hockey Haven still sells Miller High Life in a bottle for $3.50 so I might not be the right guy to ask. I do know that if you leave the Haven and take a left you can reach the Pacific Ocean and still hear the guitar solo from 'November Rain' coming out of the jukebox, floating through the fog like a Marlboro Butterfly. Fine, I'm exaggerating. Miller High Life is $3.75 now, so maybe it has been a while.
But what an album that thing was. An instant classic, the moment when a brilliant original brings all the style and chops honed from years of dedication to bear. It was punk but also weird minimalist pop. It was from the underground yet bore none of the insecure posturing or slavish stylistic adherence that many in the musical margins mistake for creativity. No, this was proper music made with incredible technique and panache from a classic recipe of drums, bass, double-tracked vocals, and about 4 multi-tracked guitars. Chord changes, songcraft, "Pro Gear, Pro Attitude", except this was a $300 Epiphone playing through a $200 solid state Crate amp. Word around town he recorded it in two days? The content analysts soiled their $120 sweatpants and excused themselves from their cam sessions, leaving no tip. They wiped cheeto dust on their Forever 21 denim jackets, hit the keyboards, and launched the Bay Area guitar wizard off his stool at the Hockey Haven and into the algorithm. Only a pair of smoking Sambas burnt to the bar floor remain.
But after a few years rampaging across the country along the publicist-punk tour circuit, the songwriter packed up his guitar, walked out of the Hockey Haven, down the the hill to the ocean and took a left, headed south to the West Bay. Sometimes on this route you can see Old Man Neil broken down in his hemp powered Rolls Royce, screaming into a wired-up banana for a tow-truck. Neil saw something back in the ‘70's. Dave Chappelle saw something in ‘04. What had Tony seen? Was it ten-thousand dune buggies carrying ten-thousand followers with 140 characters? What do you say when strangers recite your twitter feed to you at the $5 hardcore shows that used to be home? "Sorry, you've got the wrong fool. I'm Rick James, bitch."
Whatever it was that's kept him wandering the coast these last five years has also kept him away from the Hockey Haven, and that's a damn shame because this new album, "KILL THE LIGHTS", would be perfect for the patio back here. Gone are the breakdowns, the riffs, the slams, the solos, all the complicated moves Tony made look so effortless for us only to have them meme'd back to him since "Dissed and Dismissed." Don't get it twisted, the guitar is an absolute delicacy throughout this 10 song, 14 minute jewel of baroque Bay Area folk pop. But it's precise, clean finger-picking of Paul Simon's most intimate acoustic work and George Harrison's silky slide lines at his most troubled. The clean solo that emerges near the end of "Look Inside Your Mind", the album's haunting, four-movement lullaby to isolation, glides like Kirk Hammett with the graceful power of BB King. It's one of the closest approximations to the technique and beauty of figure skating you're likely to hear in modern music. It shockingly reminds us of the utter lack of basic musical craft that has infected the majority independent artists in the modern music-as-content paradigm.
Elsewhere, "KILL THE LIGHTS" boogies with refined psychedelic rock. Organ, mellotron, and 12-string guitar propel the rock numbers "Jasper's Theme" and opener "Nothing I Can Say" into the realm of TURN TURN TURN and the Reigning Sound. Highway 650 Riffivisted? "Afraid To Go Outside" is like ELO if you traded the perm and hairspray for a skin-fade and jug of Carlos Rossi. But as breezy and beautiful as this gorgeous, sophisticated demonstration of songcraft is, the mood is dark and starkly troubled. We could all grin along with "Nowhere Left To Go", but the lyrics of "KILL THE LIGHTS" speak to a harrowing new world without any answers that don't involve living a lie. "When you look inside your mind, nobody can see you"...."There's no such thing as time and the world seems so unkind"...the lyrics to "Before You Go" in their entirety:
Can I stay with you before you go?
Because my house is not a home.
We're both living so alone.
'Cause I'm waiting for your call
But you don't see me at all
Back here on the patio at the Hockey Haven, I CAN almost see Tony's laughing face, teeth red with wine. We used to work at the theatre across the street. I always thought it shamefully indicative of the world we live in that our finest songwriters and guitarists couldn't even call in sick from bagging popcorn for seven people on a Tuesday screening of the Lego Movie. But after hearing KILL THE LIGHTS, I know for a fact the way we treat our artists in the United States is truly an unforgivable societal tragedy. Some bald, Swedish kleptomaniac techie who discovered David Bowie at 26 can make billions selling other people's tracks and my man Tony can't even afford a Miller High Life at the Hockey Haven? But it's cool, I just checked the chalkboard. Turns out Miller is still $3.50 after all. I'll buy.