From Foreign Legion
In my mind, Foreign Legion tells a story: it starts out in exposition about a musician and then descends into a story of his terrible break-up. Just when things look their worst, the protagonist meets a great girl and reaches a state of contentment, ending the story on a high note. Then, as the denouement, he goes stark raving mad. There are two interludes in the story, however, when the songs move from first to third person, and we are introduced to some completely separate characters in their own strangely-related narratives. The second interlude is “Encyclopedia Brown,” whose story loosely parallels a lesson that our protagonist has perhaps learned as he has been hurt by a beautiful woman and learned to be more careful with the fairer sex.
The first interlude in the overall story is “Sugar Mama,” a “torrid, torrid song,” as Seth Timbs once described it, which hints at a sense of desperation in both of its characters that parallels the story arc of the entire record. The song starts out with one of the jazziest moments on the record, which is indicative of the shift in sound following the previous two records, which were laden with lots of jazz-influenced moments and arrangements, moving toward the heavier chord structures and fewer toe-tapping moments of the last three records, as the rest of this song exemplifies, especially in its bridge.
In “Sugar Mama,” we are introduced to a college-aged pizza delivery boy from a “bong and basement world,” who has a chance encounter with a middle-aged woman to whom he delivers a pizza and ends up having a Mrs.-Robinson-type affair. Our awkward delivery boy is “young enough to please her lonely curiosity,” while she is, “old enough to be his every dream.” The song climaxes (literally) during the magnificent and epic bridge, when sexual tension gives way to coitus for our star-crossed lovers, both asking themselves,
“Was it as good as you’d have it to be?
Was it as good as that?
Was it as good as you thought it would be?
Was it all that?
Was it as good as you’d have it to be?
Was it all that?”
The layered vocals, piano solo, and lead guitar doubled with “doo doo doo” slow down as we return to a pensive reality, jarred back into it with a “jiggle and slap,” and the realization that there may be ulterior motives involved on the part of the unknown partner.
This “scene from a spring break movie,” and later, “b-grade movie,” treats its subject matter like American Pie in some places, with some of the most crude sexual references you’ll ever hear in a Fluid Ounces song. On the other hand, the song is oddly sympathetic toward the older woman, who has no husband (anymore) and no children. She wants to be a girl again, understanding the plight of so many single, middle-aged women in America. The story here is morally ambiguous, but even though we presume the relationship ends as the delivery boy “leaves the apartment with a complex,” and probably never sees the older woman again, the outro of the song, which reprises the musical theme from the bridge, implies that this experience was a positive one, somehow rejuvenating our middle-aged heroine into feeling, “twenty-one again,” with its ambiguous coda, “and that’s old enough.”
This song was played live in 1998 and ’99 (the video is from spring of 1999 in Grand Rapids, Michigan) and was already regarded as a “semi-old tune” when the Doug Payne era began in January, 2000. It was retired and never played live again after Justin Meyer left the band in the summer of 2000. I was sad to see it go when the next line-up emerged a few months later, but I knew it was not gone forever since I’d heard the recorded version of the song over the PA at Sebastian’s while attending the final Self show before Matt Mahaffey moved to Los Angeles (and boy, did it make me want to get a copy of it!).
I have always really liked when songwriters make it a point to give you a sense of place in their songs. With bands like the Minutemen and Sonic Youth (as different as I know they are from Fluid Ounces), I love that they repeatedly make it a point to remind us the listeners of where they live and how it influences them. Mentioning that, “this only happens in California/ this never happens in Tennessee,” gives us a little sense of that, although I think Seth better accomplishes this same point in his music by referencing several phenomena that could only occur in the Bible Belt (“potato salad days,” “Sunday go to meet in dresses/ open button for playfulness,” etc.).