The Boston Phoenix October 26 - November 2, 2000

[Music Reviews]

| clubs by night | bands in town | club directory | pop concerts | classical concerts | reviews | hot links |

The harder stuff

Chelseaonfire and Seventeen

Cellars by Starlight by Brett Milano

chelsea on fire

If you saw Chelsea on Fire in their early stages, odds are you were either fascinated or scared. In my case, it was a bit of both: this was as angry a band as I’d seen in years, fronted by two severe-looking, shaven-headed women playing the snarliest power chords they could devise. But the heart of the sound was Josey Packard’s voice — the sound of nerves being scraped raw and a broken heart being stomped on. When she broke into a scream, which was often, it was both fearsome and oddly beautiful.

Flash-forward to the present and things are a little different after five years. There have been a few cosmetic changes: Chelsea on Fire are now Chelseaonfire — they just liked the looks of it better, Josey says over beer at the Middle East. The bassist formerly known as Amy has decided to reveal her full name, Amy Di Sciullo — “I only held off because I was afraid people would mangle it,” she explains. (Say “Shullo,” first part like “should.”) Original drummer Adam Simha has been replaced by Rachel Fuhrer (another drummer, Jen Chouinard, came and went in the interim). The two frontwomen tend to smile more often, and their buzzcuts have grown out into a look that’s a bit softer but still striking and dramatic.

As is the music on Chelsea’s third album, Middlesex County (on their own Slo-Bus label). It’s still got rage and snarls, but it’s also got a pile of hooks, a great guitar sound, more polished harmonies, and the occasional acoustic guitar. In other words, they’ve got that elusive thing called maturity, having learned to say as much with nuance as they once did with a full outburst. Consider the heaviest track, “Biter”: like many Chelsea songs, it’s about the dark corners that get exposed when love breaks down. But the sound is almost funky, with an up-front bass line and a guitar part that builds slowly to a big chorus riff. And though Packard never breaks into screams, she sounds positively sinister in a bluesy, PJ Harvey way. So it’s more tightly constructed than Chelsea’s earlier songs, but it elicits the same kind of shivers.

Elsewhere the sound ranges from Ramones-style three-chord punk on “Short-Sighted” to pure, harmony-driven pop on “Just To Prove It.” Their first recorded cover, Neil Young’s “The Needle & the Damage Done,” is even more ominous than Young’s original — it’s how the song might have sounded if Young had put it on Tonight’s the Night instead of Harvest. Listen carefully, however, and you’ll detect a more hopeful tone: the relationships they sing about are messy but not necessarily doomed. It isn’t the first time they’ve come up with a lyric like “I am nothing/I am a whore/There is nothing that I would not do anymore.” But it is the first time they’ve put lines like that into a love song instead of a hate song.

“Good Lord, it’s happening to us,” Amy says in mock despair about the idea of growing up. “We’ve got jobs and we’ve got girlfriends,” adds Josey. “This [the band] is what we do and what we do well. It’s not like every song is still saying, ‘I’m gonna explode and burst like an atom.’ So I guess we are growing up — mellowing out, though I hate that idea.”

Or maybe it’s just that their lives were saved by rock and roll. They’ve started on their second European tour — this one arranged by a German promoter who took a shine to them last time around. Just before leaving, they packed the house at their CD-release party upstairs at the Middle East.

Along the way their audience has expanded from the mostly gay and female following they started with. “We stole our first mailing list from the [political action group] Lesbian Avengers,” Amy admits. “So a lot of those girls came to the shows, but it eased out over time. I know for sure that a few of the biggest fans we’ve got now are guys. When we play Meow Mix in New York [the club immortalized in the film Chasing Amy], then we’re a gay band. And we still flyer at gay clubs, but we’ve pretty much thrown ourselves into the rock scene, which is where we’re happiest anyway.”

The music on Middlesex County shows the effects of a string of acoustic shows they played between drummers — that was where Packard and Di Sciullo realized that their harmonies were one of the band’s main assets. It also shows the effects of some serious thought about reaching a wider audience.

“We were able to separate ourselves from what we were doing and see what provoked a response,” Josey says. “There are a few nods you can make in the songwriting process — for instance, repetition in the right measure. We used to intentionally bastardize any catchy things we were doing, because we thought that wasn’t rock. Now if we’re writing something in a major key, we don’t push it into a minor so it can be dark. So it’s partly saying, ‘Okay, we’re not afraid of hooks and we’re not afraid of sounding pretty.’

“As far as the darker things go, we definitely feed off that side of the psyche and go to that well to drink often. On the other hand, there are a couple songs here that are extremely positive. When you can lean toward happy and joyful without sounding like cotton candy, that’s a special thing. You can always count on a tiny percent of the population who are obsessed with local-style rock, but we want more people than that.”

Does Packard believe they can still plug into the earlier, most angst-ridden material? “Sure, those songs meant something to us back then, and they mean something different to us now. That’s not a bad thing, just a matter of finding different parts of the songs to fit into. Of course, it also depends where you are in your monthly cycle.”


SEVENTEEN. The album is called Bikini Pie Fight! (Xoff/BMG), and the cover art features three models engaged in the title activity. Song titles include “Porno Getaway,” “Return to Disco Mountain,” and, my personal favorite, “Mountains, Literally Mountains, of Coke.” All of which might lead you to conclude that Seventeen are some kind of punk-rock joke band.

Hold on just a minute, say the group’s members, who are serious about having fun. “They’re already comparing us to people like Ween and the Presidents of the USA,” notes lead singer Jon Baird over coffee at the 1369. “I admit we’re no strangers to buffoonery, but that’s not what we want to put up front.” Making matters worse, word’s gotten out that two of the band members (Jon and lead-guitarist Jason Adams) went to Harvard, which has never been known as a rock-and-roll hotbed. Jon acknowledges as much: “That makes people think we’re into some witty, cerebral thing. But then, I’d make the same assumption — ‘They’re from Harvard? Those assholes. And those other two guys that hang with them have got to be assholes too.’ ”

In fact, Bikini Pie Fight! reveals a band that’s more into hooks than yuks. The real attraction is a big, punchy guitar sound (Letters to Cleo bassist Scott Riebling doing his best production job yet) and songs that are well-constructed enough that they don’t sound funny until you read the words. The best joke on the album isn’t one of the more outright ones but a small R.E.M. jab that occurs during “Newbury Windows”: in the middle of a hopeless pledge to an unattainable girlfriend, the singer blurts out, “I lose my religion but I can’t seem to get you to notice.” As Jon explains, “Our platform is totally anti-pretensions, so we couldn’t resist skewering them a little. We’ll probably hit Radiohead next.”

 It’s also hard to avoid making nasty jokes when you’ve spent much of the past year in Los Angeles getting courted by labels. “You’ve gotta love the whole West Coast style — everybody’s a cokehead with big hair,” notes Jason. “You go to a club and everywhere you go, there’s another velvet rope leading to another room. You keep thinking that eventually it’s going to lead to one guy sitting alone in a closet.”

It’s ironic, then, that they didn’t get the record deal until coming back home to Boston, where producer J. Scott Benson struck up a distribution deal between his own Xoff label and BMG, using a Seventeen demo as a calling card. As one of the perks, veteran engineer Ron St. Germain (who’s done Jewel and Soundgarden as well as Herbie Mann’s “The Hustle”) was brought in to mix. “He was great, a total New York guy,” notes bassist Chris Baird. “We loved that he wore the same leather pants for two weeks.”

Do they ever get tempted to match a serious-sounding song with a serious lyric? Not really. “The studio’s really boring, so we’re always trying to crack each other up,” Jon points out. “One guy will introduce an idea and the rest of us will fuck it up. One time Jason wrote a song and asked Chris and me for a lyric but said, ‘This can’t have any goofy stuff about townies and stalkers.’ So we said, ‘Sorry, then we can’t help you.’ ”

Besides, he adds, Seventeen’s members have seen their share of angst. “Like, my brother and I used to be totally sensitive to poison ivy. I just don’t think that would make a very good song.”

The Cellars by Starlight archive

[Music Footer]