Thursday, August 30, 2007

Vegetable Kingdom

From The Vegetable Kingdom EP and In the New Old-Fashioned Way

I’ve heard many writers say that it is among their most gratifying moments when people come to them with completely viable interpretations of their writings that were unintended when the work was originally written. Although Seth Timbs probably grew tired of being asked if this song was about growing marijuana when it became a very minor radio hit in some places, I’ve always felt he wrote so much more than he was aiming for when he penned this opus that would get its own EP to help secure some radio play while the record, where it had a prominent place in the track-listing, was facing all the slow-downs that mire every record that I’ve known to be released out of Nashville.

One night at the Boro in 2000, Seth introduced it as, “a song about love and death down on the farm.” (In the video below, from 10-10-97, Seth says it’s about unrequited love.) He later told a friend of mine that it was in fact about a farmer whose wife had died, and the man couldn’t remember whether he had killed her or not. I was always pretty sure of this, as it is stated plainly, “Up on the weather vain/ down in the well/ Maybe you drowned there/ Or maybe you fell.”

But this song always resonated with me as it covers so many universal human feelings so ambiguously in just four minutes and sixteen seconds. Within that short time, we hear about love, life and death (and the circle of life implied within a kingdom of vegetables), memory, loneliness and alienation in such a way that the song could really be about any one person at some point in his or her life. The best part of the song, like so many Fluid Ounces songs, is the bridge, which includes some of my all-time favorite Seth Timbs lyrics:
“I wish the rain would come
And wash this dustbowl town away
Leaving rock and clay
A place to build the interstate.
The trees are bare
The crops have shrunk
Afraid to show their face in podunk.”

These uniquely American lines give a sense of longing and detachment like something out of a Steinbeck or Hemingway novel, the kind of strange things one’s mind can dream up while staring out the window of a car on a long road trip. And how many times have you heard the word “podunk” used in a pop song?

This song is also among the many “say hello” songs in the Fluid Ounces canon, and as many times as I’ve heard it, I still stop and think of the first time I heard it most every time. I knew the song existed because I frequented the Spongebath Records website throughout 1998-99, but I never stopped to listen to it. Instead I went to see the band on January 29, 2000, since they were sharing the stage with my then-favorite Spongebath band, the Features. I had bought and listened to Big Notebook for Easy Piano the week before to acquaint myself with the band, but sadly all I really remembered about them was the song “Record Stack” and that I liked the CD well enough to stick around after the Features played. After a brief intro, the band went straight into “Vegetable Kingdom,” and as Seth was welcoming us all into the Vegetable Kingdom with the debut of a new guitarist and bassist that night, it was like he was personally welcoming me into the most affecting music I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in my life. Never have I reacted so personally to a body of music as I have to Fluid Ounces, and I credit “Vegetable Kingdom” as the song to truly pull me into these wonderful musical places.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Three Times a Week

For the next few weeks, I've decided to bite the bullet and put out a blog entry three times a week as I am wanting to go ahead and build up an archive here and while we are still building an audience. So expect another post every Saturday for the next few weeks.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Not One Reason

From the yet-to-be-released Instant Nostalgia

As a contrast to “Tricky Fingers,” I wonder if Seth Timbs knew he was giving the world what seems to be its last Fluid Ounces song on April 8th, 2006, when the band debuted this song at the Boro on a warm Saturday night.

With its piano intro that would mislead the un-trained ear to believe the band’s about to start playing “Vegetable Kingdom,” Seth then belts out, “Iiiiiiiiis theerrrrre” (live, Kyle Walsh then taps out one of the catalog’s fastest four-counts to align the band as Seth finishes his question) “not one reason I can give to show my love is real, my words are heartfelt?”

In the song, “Make It Through” (which appears on The Whole Shebang), the lines are sung, “There’s nothing of me that isn’t yours/ Still tryin’ to find a little bit more.” “Not One Reason” seems like an off-shoot of that lyric as Seth sings, begging and pleading, “What more can I give?” The song employs lots of court room imagery, including, “I knew a girl just like you/ who played the judge and jury,” and “so take me off this witness stand.” The speaker can give no reason to show that his love is truly genuine, and even though he speaks of it with conviction, he can do nothing to prove it beyond what he’s already offered: himself.

What I love about this song is that it exudes a playfulness, a flirtiness, even though the speaker is “hanging by this thread.” I also like that it still seeks to ask questions about love itself rather than define what the love is in songs like “Crazies” or “Smitten.” It’s fast, it’s spilling over with good feelings, and it’s danceable and fun, with a toe-tapping quality reminiscent of In the New Old-Fashioned Way and the earlier Fluid Ounces songs.

If the final score were tallied in the now-completed Fluid Ounces canon, songs of heartbreak and despair would probably out-number songs of contentment and happiness by about 3:1, but I think Seth and Tha B leave the faithful followers with the best feeling possible when they close the canon with a record that has as many upbeat, happy songs as Instant Nostalgia, including this one, “How to Be Happy,” “It All Looks Good to Me,” and “Till the Danger’s Past,” which over-shadow the sadder songs on the final record to end it all on a good note.

And who knows? Maybe thinking that this song is the last is a bit premature…

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Tricky Fingers

From Big Notebook for Easy Piano

If a pianist were to describe the sound of a car wreck or a person falling into deep water in the most consonant way possible, the opening lick to “Tricky Fingers” would be how I’d imagine it would sound (though I’m definitely not a pianist). And with the jarring urgency of a car accident, Seth Timbs baptized us all into the world of Fluid Ounces with this being the first song that he actually wrote for the project.

True, “Sick” and “Record Stack” are older songs, written and played for Ella Minopy, the fore-runner to Fluid Ounces, but they are songs arranged on guitar. Seth had developed some great chops over the years, but it seems he tried to keep the piano equal with the guitar in arranging everything for his songwriting ventures before Fluid Ounces. But with “Tricky Fingers,” it’s like we’re being smacked in the face with the piano, as if Seth is telling the world, “We’re a piano band, dammit!”

Seth has maintained an amazing consistency in the tone of his voice since recording the band’s second album. Anytime I see them live now, I could swear he could go right back into the studio and re-record the vocals to all of In the New Old Fashioned Way exactly the same as the first time. But what amazed me when Seth and Brian Rogers broke this song out in their “Half Ounce” duo set in January 6th, 2007 (presented below for download, though performed sans the record's classic intro), was how easily Seth could turn on the exact same tone to sing this song very close to the way he did when Big Notebook was recorded. He was just a kid back then, and he sang it like a kid. If you compare it to the three Ella Minopy mp3s that have surfaced, or if you’re lucky (or un-lucky?) enough to hear the Seth Timbs and the Mad Hatters demos from ’91-’93, you’ll find that “Tricky Fingers” is a bridge between vocal stylings of the past and the piano-based future that would define the sound for his next ten years of song writing.

The other standard established here that is a hallmark of Fluid Ounces’ music is the idea of the up-beat song that does not necessarily reflect happy subject matter. Exclaiming that, “Life is such a permanent gyp!” and pointing out that, “Everybody seems to be too drunk, so everybody stays…” could never have been said with more excitement in such a seemingly feel-good song. And even though Seth goes as far in the upbeat direction to sing, “If you’re happy and you know it/ it just gets better from here,” it almost feels like a death sentence in light of the rest of the song.

On the other hand, stating that, “It just gets better from here,” also serves as a great jumping-off point for a great band and so many great songs that would follow this one.

Download Live mp3--courtesy of Fluid Ounces! (but recorded by yours truly)

Monday, August 20, 2007

Show on the Road

From Foreign Legion

Looking over the enormous canon of both released and un-released Fluid Ounces songs, there are so many that leap out and say, “Hello there!” With only five full-length records, one B-side record, and one EP, they all seem to say hello over and over again with so many songs on each that could easily be the intro track to its own record. I decided that the journey I’m embarking on of writing about each and every Fluid Ounces song is best represented by “Show on the Road,” though.

Probably written in ’98 or ’99, but most certainly before the release of In the New Old Fashioned Way, this song is about the band at its most optimistic point in its career, building a local following and at the same time turning toward the possibility of national success with a tour including Chicago and South by Southwest during the spring of 1999. The band was getting its first real radio play with “Vegetable Kingdom,” and everything seemed to be looking up.

Starting with a strong guitar riff, “Show on the Road” quickly warms up to a good temperature of rock. I’ll admit that it’s not my favorite Fluid Ounces song: I usually don’t like songs in which singer/song-writer Seth Timbs sings falsetto, and I never really liked the melody of the chorus. It’s an extremely rare moment in the Fluid Ounces canon when the rhythm of the lyrics, the melody, and the musical structure don’t exemplify a perfect cohesiveness, as if any other note anywhere in the chord would bring it all down like a deck of cards. “Show on the Road” has a few of those moments when it doesn’t seem to work so perfectly.

But what this song does better than any other Fluid Ounces song is to capture the spirit of so many young men setting out to make a name for themselves by playing music in local scenes across America. (Witness Seth’s more typical view on the subject in “Poet Tree,” the song immediately after “Show on the Road” on Foreign Legion.) “Are we covering ground, or is the world moving under us?...Are we the kings of the Earth/ Or will the world make fools of us?” are lines that hint at the truth for all the musical acts I’ve seen venture beyond the Tennessee state lines: that the feeling of having conquered Nashville or being really good performers or songwriters determines little in the long and rocky road to fame or even recognition, that it seems to be little more than a crap shoot as to whether a capable act can actually “make it.”

I’ll also add that the classical-esque piano lick just after Seth sings, “getting smaller in the distance,” was the first thing I found to celebrate when I first listened to the record (and it was only three minutes into it).

I felt this song was the best to inaugurate what I hope will be a regular feature (I already have the next 19 or so entries well under way) to incite discussion about my favorite band of all time. The video below was recorded at the Boro on October 27, 2000, and is followed by the band giving a brief commercial for Miller High Life beer. Sorry that the video quality is so low: I PROMISE I have much better goodies to come (this was the only video of this song I had).
And so, fans and other interested parties, “Let’s get this show on the road!”

And with much better quality, here's a better live version from '99!

Sunday, August 12, 2007

History of the Band

Seth Timbs had been writing his own songs on both guitar and piano for years. He had already accumulated a rather large back catalog when he was faced with the sudden break-up of his band, Ella Minopy. Not to be put down, he joined with Ella’s bassist, Ben Morton, as well as Elijah Shaw and local music legend Sam Baker (of the band Speake, among others) on drums to form a new band. His long-time collaborator, Brian “Tha B” Rogers briefly joined Self, the new band with Ella’s drummer Matt Mahaffey, but it turned out he fit better playing guitar with Seth. The new band called itself Fl. Oz. (going by “Fluid Ounces” would come later when people didn’t get the band name in its abbreviated form) and began playing and recording in 1996 in Murfreesboro and Nashville, TN on the newly formed Spongebath Records.

Their sound was catchy piano pop, influenced by the likes of Elton Jon and Randy Newman, and with their combined love of jazz, they created a very energetic sound with (mostly) upbeat tempos and complicated chord progressions. With this line-up, they recorded their first two releases, Big Notebook for Easy Piano and The Vegetable Kingdom EP. Their following in and around Nashville grew, and the band began touring around the country, especially after scoring a minor radio hit with “Vegetable Kingdom.” In 1999, just before the release of the band’s second record, In the New Old-Fashioned Way, drummer Sam Baker left the band and was replaced by Justin Meyer. This line-up began working on the third record.

Brian and Ben then left in 1999 around the time the band parted ways with Spongebath Records. They were succeeded by Doug Payne (on guitar) and Jason Dietz (on bass). Justin moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 2000, and Elliott Currie took his place on the drum throne. This line-up continued working on the third release, called Foreign Legion, which was completed sometime around January of 2001.

Trev Wooten took over the bass duties in March of 2001, and Sam Baker re-joined the following May as the band prepared to promote the release of the new record. The band was then signed to Cutti Records in Japan and began scoring success overseas. Seth Timbs made several trips to Japan in order to promote the music, and he took the whole band with him in February of 2002.

After that, the band essentially broke up as Seth moved to Los Angeles and the other members went on to other projects. Seth recorded the fourth album, The Whole Shebang, with Spike and Mallets drummer Kyle Walsh in hopes of releasing it in Japan. Instead, the album was released nationwide by Murfreesboro-based Vacant Cage Records as Seth returned to Middle Tennessee. Upon his return, Seth re-formed Fluid Ounces with Brian Rogers back on guitar, Brian G. Pitts on bass, and Kyle Walsh on drums.

Fluid Ounces continue to perform locally and doing some promotion for the limited release of their fifth full-length record, Instant Nostalgia.

About the Blog

In 1998, film critics and the general public strangely turned to Roger Ebert and wondered what he was thinking when he claimed that the film Dark City was one of the best films of the year. It hadn’t done well at the box office, and the rest of the critical community offered mixed reviews of the film. So when the film came out on DVD, an entire commentary track was given to Roger Ebert to explain point-by-point, moment-by-moment, why he considered this film to be such an achievement.

It is probably not disputed that I am the biggest Fluid Ounces fan there is, and I’ve sat quietly by without making my case as to why the music is so great for too long. Admittedly inspired by Crimes on Paper, Jakob Dorof’s blog on every Self song (and to a lesser extent, Pop Songs 07, which is about every R.E.M. song), I am beginning the long journey to blog about every single song in the Fluid Ounces canon.

I hope to shed some light on how this music has led me to react so personally to it all, as well as to explain how these songs have helped make up the [beware of cliché] soundtrack of my life (you can read more about my life here). It is also my hope to create a single fan-generated web resource about the band. If I can generate some discussion among their all-too-fragmented fanbase and maybe win over a new fan or two, I won’t complain about that either.

I will update this blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. There will be lots of downloads and videos to help our readers and visitors on their journey as well.

Purchase Fluid Ounces mp3s Directly from the Band!