Quarantining The Past: Chavez’s ‘Ride The Fader’

    There’s been plenty of bands from the ’90s that have reunited and gone on tour and released reissues and been celebrated all over again and all that mess. But there hasn’t been a quieter, not-quite-reunion than Chavez. Hell, their career-spanning compilation Better Days Will Haunt You came out five years ago. And there’s been little in the way of exposure for the band since, with the exception of a few shows here and there, up until its surprising appearance on Fallon.

    But if the band’s return has been understated, our celebration of it should not be. Any chance to come back to Chavez is one worth taking. When you compare them to bands like Pavement or Archers of Loaf, a return for Chavez feels necessary. Those other groups had long first runs — we got to see them develop and grow, got to see them wear down with time: in essence we got to see their full arc. Chavez, on the other hand, left us with two albums and one EP in the span of a couple of years, and few bands (no matter how short lived) have left us wanting more. That’s because their 1996 swan song, Ride the Fader, is one of the finest, most inventive,  and more curious rock records of the decade. It was an ending, but it felt so much like a beginning, like a band finding its stomping stride.

    That’s not to undersell their debut, Gone Glimmering. Frontman Matt Sweeney is a indie-rock guitar hero for a reason. His crunching tone, echoed by Clay Tarver’s equally dense overdrive, was basically a trademark right out of the gate. But Ride the Fader is one of those watershed moments for a band. Remember last week when we talked about the two sides of the Smashing Pumpkins — the hard-rock edge and the watery gossamer? Well, Chavez have those two layers too, but they lay them on you at the same time. The results are huge sounding and leave plenty of room for experimentation and augmentation we never got to see from the band.

    The album opens with the sound of a roller coaster, the cars clicking slowly up the incline, moving towards that stomach-dropping descent. It’s that moment where “Top Pocket Man” rumbles in with all the band’s force behind it. Tarver’s guitar jangles while Sweeney slices through with the razor-sharp chaos of his riffs. “Can you keep the pressure tight around you?” he asks, as if he’s summing up the band’s tension perfectly. The band’s strength comes in trying to reign in things far too big to contain. Those guitars, James Lo’s taut drums, Scott Marshall’s beyond-low-end bass — it all just feels like too much, like this overwhelming sonic surge.

    You can feel that compressed size all over the record. The chords on “The Guard Attacks” are distorted nearly into white noise, but behind it one quick-fire note repeats over and over again, tying it down to the song. “Unreal is Here” starts with a moody hush — and Sweeney’s clearest singing on the record — but blooms into a tangle of thorny vines, the guitars swell and run tandem with the deep buzz of the bass, and Lo takes over the song with his unapologetically loud cymbal work. The claustrophobic, circular riffs of “Tight Around the Jaw” feel clenched to snapping. “Cold Joys” fashions the group’s rock fits over something a bit looser, and shows a barely-there funk to the album’s sound. Even the piano-y “Ever Overpsyched” has a slight grind to it, even as it comes off as some overcast lullaby.

    But all of this brilliant shrieking works because it plays against Sweeney’s voice. It’s quietly the most compelling instrument on the record, a high, sweet keen that melds into this thick sound rather than bleating over it. His guitars shred, but his voice coats over any jagged edges. It shifts these otherwise fiery rock songs into something moodier and more complicated. As guitars build tension at the start of “New Room” with their repetition, Sweeney’s breathy vocals comfort you, pull you in close, so that none of this sheer volume feels confrontational. In fact, Ride the Fader is amazing because it’s got all the bile of the rock records of Chavez’s contemporaries, but there’s a confessional stillness under it all that makes it really resonate.

    Few records will break your heart this convincingly while they simultaneously rattle your ear drums. Ride the Fader does just that, and the scary part about it — what makes it a bittersweet masterpiece — is that it felt like the band hadn’t quite realized the power of this sound yet. That they were just starting to test its limits. But in the end, this sweet and punishing sound proved more the latter than the former for the band. The recording sessions were, according to Sweeney, his worst recording experience ever (and he was in Zwan with Billy Corgan, remember), and the short-lived tour after album’s release didn’t provide any relief. Sometimes it’s the best things we do that run us down, and that’s what always made Chavez such a compelling story. They didn’t burn out; they stopped short.

    But now they’ve played on TV, and there’s talk of new material forthcoming from the band. This is the kind of reunion we should be looking for — a chance for an unfinished story to continue to be told, to see the next unknown chapter. I, for one, can’t wait to hear it. In the meantime, while you wait, go back to Ride the Fader. On that record, there’s nothing to not be amazed at.