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Smoking bands
Officer May conjure Nirvana; the Explosion help others help themselves

Thereís nothing like the tingly thrill of listening to a band who canít quite hold it together, whose music seems continually on the verge of disaster. The new Officer May album, Smoking in A Minor (on the NYC indie Ace Fu), feels like the lucid moment just before a car crash when everything in your field of vision freezes, frantic and clear and inevitable. Itís a holy-hell tantrum clocking in somewhere between the ugliest parts of Nirvanaís In Utero and the heaviest parts of Shellacís At Action Park, its jerky, serrated guitars and blustery backbeats coalescing, almost by accident, into cancerous, scorched-earth anthems. " I knew from the start the world would only break my heart, " singer/guitarist Chris Warren seethes on the curdled, fuming " My Heart the Boomerang. " " The only thing that I can do is to try to fall apart on cue. "

Falling apart on cue is not as easy as it sounds, and itís been a while since anyone has done so as compellingly as Officer May, who play a record-release party this Friday at the Middle East. From the way Warren delivers the line, you understand heís being sarcastic ó he sings at the line as he sings it, contemptuous of his own lousy predispositions, and of yours, too. But you also understand that heís, somewhere beneath the surface, genuinely heartbroken. How does he pull this off? Well, you might say he sings it exactly the way Kurt Cobain, the last guy to walk that tightrope, would have. There are moments on Smoking, and on Officer Mayís debut, Helping Others Help Themselves (Random Noise Records), where Warrenís vocal resemblance to Kurt feels uncanny: that raspy wheeze with a drawling, hicked-out sharpness to it. " Thatís just ícause I was sick when we recorded the album and I lost my voice, " he says. But what about the last album? " I was sick when we recorded that one, too. " Later, heíll mention that one of his first bands, in junior high, recorded at a studio in a bowling alley, " and my voice sounded exactly the same as it does now. "

The point here isnít the resemblance ó (when Warren isnít going out of his way to disguise it, itís too eerie to be forced, so Iím convinced itís entirely a coincidence of biology) so much as what he does with it. Officer May donít sound anywhere near enough like Nirvana to raise your suspicions that theyíre angling to be the next Vines; the nicest Nirvana song Smoking will ever remind you of is " Radio Friendly Unit Shifter. " But itís also worth pointing out that Warrenís sarcasm ó in which the meaning of a line depends as much on his delivery of it as on its content ó is very much Kurtís sarcasm. The first, oft-quoted line from Helping Others Help Themselves ó " I want to be the leading cause of cancer " ó was very much Steve Albiniís sarcasm, smug and bitter. But the sarcasm of " My Heart the Boomerang " ó a characteristic so pervasive on Smoking as to render the quoting of its lyrics useless ó is something different. He sings panic and boredom in the same breath, and his sarcasm is a more or less constant state of mind ó the thing being said and its antithesis lock into a kind of emotional paralysis. Even in those moments where Warren isnít being sarcastic, these moments of paralysis are what concern him: " I want it so bad I can taste it/I want it so bad I almost hate it, " he sings on " The Big Bang. " Caught up in the musicís starts and stops and missteps, in its beautiful mess, is a fugue state forged in the singerís inability to reason: in the space between the wanting and the not wanting, the believing and the not believing, the feeling and the not feeling. And the way he sings it tells you both that everything matters and that nothing matters. Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

More so than any surface resemblance, what most reminds me of Nirvana in Officer Mayís music is the impression of someone whoís profoundly uneasy in the world, even if heís hard-pressed to say exactly why. " Itís like if you go into a Store 24? " , Warren explains as we sit with drummer Jared Croteau and bassist Mike Sanders over beers in Allston. " Thereís like this empty sucking feeling? íCause thereís all this merchandise everywhere, and itís just crap, everythingís like bigger and better ó supposedly ó but itís just garbage, yíknow, and just walking around, seeing trash everywhere, and you canít see the sky ícause thereís wires humming, telephone wires, and Coca-Cola cans and banana peels. And boredom and indifference everywhere, just sucking you in. Thatís why the bandís cool, hopefully ó just a way out of being bored and indifferent about life. I mean, itís like all there is either way. "

Smoking in A Minor was honed in relative isolation ó Warren and Croteau grew up together in the backwaters of New Hampshire, and though theyíve lived in Boston on and off for a couple of years, theyíre still something of a mystery here. Helping Others Help Themselves was recorded and pressed with $2000 from Warrenís college fund; it received almost no distribution (except for once when they accidentally left a bunch behind at a gig), and the band subsequently broke up when the original bass player quit. Warren credits his roommate Kevin Micka ó the drummer for the instrumental outfit the Common Cold who produced both Officer May discs ó for encouraging the group to stay together and introducing them to Sanders, a Berklee-trained bassist who has, in his own words, " whipped them into shape. "

Warren still seems mystified that Ace Fu signed the band out of the blue ó they concluded the deal in mid December, began recording three days later, and handed in the album just after New Yearís ó and heís even more puzzled by a recent Alternative Press review that awarded the album five out of five stars. Heís now 22 years old (in 1993 he would have been in middle school), and a certain fatalism about rock celebrity has been seared into his consciousness. " Saw your heroes and look how they turned out, " he sings on " Obscurity Rules! " " If they couldnít take it, how are you supposed to make it now? " " That songís kinda funny, " he says. " Like, itís got an exclamation mark in the title? The idea was that there are guide lines to follow for being an underground band. I thought of it that way first: the rules of staying invisible and Ďhip.í But then it turned into wanting to disappear, and being let down by your heroes, or whatever.

" My goal is to write the noisiest, weirdest pop song that I can. I like to make weird riffs catchy, somehow ó I mean, I love rock and roll. Iíd like to surprise people a little, or something. As long as itís dangerous, somehow. I donít know exactly what I mean: thereís just something, like a feeling? Not like just a commercial to sell your record, just because thatís what bands do? Iíd like to stir something up. But I donít think ĎObscurity Rules!í is gonna be climbing up the Billboard charts any day now. "

Officer May celebrate the release of Smoking in A Minor this Friday, May 2, at the Middle East, 480 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square; call (617) 864-EAST.

THERE ARE PLENTY OF FUN WAYS to blow a major-label advance, but there arenít many smarter ways than the one the Explosion have come up with. Although the band had started their own label, Tarantulas Records, before signing with Virgin late last year, theyíve now been able to kick the operation into high gear. The labelís two previous releases were a single by the Tonsils (a side project for the Explosionís Sam Cave and Dave Walsh), and an quickie Explosion/Tonsils split single. But the labelís third release is definitely its most high-profile. The first of Sick of Modern Artís two discs is an EP, the Explosionís long-awaited follow-up to their Jade Tree album Flash Flash Flash, and a precursor to their Virgin debut later this year. It showcases Bostonís best punk band doing what punk bands do best, as loud and fast as possible. One song, " Bullet 15, " sounds catchy; the other four could give a shit. Thatís a fine ratio in my book.

Even more impressive is the second disc, an 11-song Tarantulas-label compilation with tracks by such underappreciated locals as 33 Slade, the Cignal, hardcore loonies the Panic, and synth-punks the Faux as well as ready-to-break friends including the Bronx, whose furious " Kill My Friends " comes off like a cross between New Bomb Turks and the Dwarves. The Bronx, who recently signed a big-money deal with Island, will have a Tarantulas EP out soon; the Faux are already selling theirs at shows. Even without the out-of-town guest stars, this already has a line on my vote for local compilation of the year. And philanthropy aside, the EP makes good business sense for an indie band headed into the major-label maw. If the Explosionís Virgin record kills, theyíve already got a stable of talent on hand to bring along for the ride. If they bomb, theyíll still have installed themselves as the nexus of a vibrant, unheralded wave of underground punk.

Issue Date: May 2 - 8, 2003
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