Quarantining The Past: Supreme Dicks’ ‘Breathing And Not Breathing’

    In the 90s, indie rock had its share of eccentricity. In fact, what made it so interesting was that it broke from the norm, right? It didn’t follow the rules. It had a punk-rock aesthetic, but an encyclopedic knowledge of the most vital parts of the history of rock and roll.

    That eccentricity, though, was often contained within the familiar. For all their winking oddity, Pavement still reminded us of our favorite classic rock guitar heroes. As otherworldly as J Mascis’s creaking voice was, his towering guitar solos were exactly the kind of rock showmanship we expected from Dinosaur Jr.

    But there was another band out Dino Jr.’s Amherst, Massachusetts that was odd to the bone. The band was Supreme Dicks, and they gave us all the outlier weirdness of those bands with none of the comforting rock foundations. To listen to Supreme Dicks was (and is), in some ways, an exercise in frustration. I mean, when you’ve got a band with that great name, putting records out on Homestead Records in the early ’90s, aren’t they supposed to snarl and slam? Shouldn’t they burst our eardrums and smash guitars and drive us into the sweet, juvenile pain that is the mosh pit?

    Well, they did none of those things. Heck, they even claimed to get their inspiration from celibacy — how un-rock and roll is that? Rather than shred for us, Supreme Dicks — a revolving set of players focused around songwriters Daniel Oxenberg and Jon Shere — produced these wandering and often difficult collections of lo-fi pop. I say pop loosely, because there are shards of music here recognizable as the beginnings of a pop tune. Really, though, no descriptor can fully sum up what these guys did. All you can say is they were strange as hell, and they were really fucking good.

    The folks over at Jagjaguwar have done us all a favor and reissued the band’s complete catalog in the four-disc set, Breathing and Not Breathing. It comprises their two Homestead full-lengths (1993’s The Unexamined Life and 1995’s The Emotional Plague), the 1994 collection of archival recordings, Workingman’s Dick, 1996 EP This is Not a Dick, and some rarities and unreleased tracks. It’s a glut of music, and as a whole is basically essential indie rock listening. But the two albums on Homestead tell the story of a band who knew exactly what we expected of them and the best possible ways to deny us those expectations.

    The Unexamined Life begins with one of their most fully formed tunes. “In a Sweet Song” is a perfect slice of psych-pop. The guitars twang away in minor notes and faint echo, the drums churn forward in the background, and the vocals are cracked and low in the mix, somehow both strident and unassuming. The riffs may not immediately dig in your ear, but they bloom as they go into something lasting. It introduces us to a powerful yet moody band, one with enough power to fill the arena but too much introversion to pull them out of the basement.

    The second track, “The Arabian Song,” starts with a repeated line — “Something’s burning away at me so deep inside” — that seems to inform all future output for the band. The song devolves into haunting squeaks and squalls. If “In a Sweet Song” stretched out, this one is a black hole, sucking everything in around it and leaving nothing. In two songs, we get the two poles of Supreme Dicks’ sound: gloomy psychedelic layers and huge swaths of negative space.

    The Unexamined Life, however, shows Shere and Oxenberg as confident songwriters and performers. The guitar work here, though seemingly shapeless, dabbles in and twists up folk traditions (see the excellent “John Smith”), psychedelia (“River Song”) and blues (“Garden of Your Past”). In fact, more than their other releases, this album feels like a collection of contained songs. It’s got its rabbit holes, but mostly you can follow the hooks and feel out the vocal melodies, at least for a time. Interestingly enough, of the 15 tracks, five of them contain the word “song” in the title, as if the band is insisting that these aren’t soundscapes or sonic collages, that they are whole, even in their often dessicated states. The last track though, “Strange Song,” gives away that ruse a bit. It runs nearly ten minutes, and it is crashing and raucous and completely untethered. It’s the loudest moment on a record built on threadbare, warbling tension, and it’s also the most shapeless. But, as it turns out, it prepared us for The Emotional Plague two years later.

    The band’s second record for Homestead, which stretches to nearly 70 minutes, throws out the slight list of rules its predecessor had. If The Unexamined Life twisted our rock expectations into something solitary and alien, The Emotional Plague throws it all out the window. The spare vibe remains here, with instrumental opener “Synaesthesia” sounding like your neighbor is playing Velvet Underground records backwards and you’re just catching muffled tones through the walls. “Columnated Ruins/Seeing Distant Chimneys” feels at first like the subterranean folk leanings of its predecessor, but the guitars can’t seem to keep time. They speed up and slow down, and other shrieks of noise and crashing cymbals intrude on the tune. There’s a pretty sweet riff that runs through the song, but it constantly gets derailed by all the chaos around  it.

    This album feels scraped out but somehow epic. Songs like “Swell Song” and “Showered” feel like they’re played out of some huge canyon. There’s gaps in the sound, but they need all the space to get the full impact of the few sounds they do make. Even when the band does expand and fill up space the way it did so well on their first record, they follow the playbook set out in “Strange Song.” Two songs here match its running time — the jagged, spoken-word “A Donkey’s Burial in a Tower on a Mirage” and the moody, crumbling “Porridge for the Calydonian Bear” — and while they aren’t as chaotic, they don’t feel as cohesive, relying less on the bracing power of noise and insisting we follow them blindly into bizarre musical territory.

    In the end, there’s a bit of trust involved here. You may be puzzled by Supreme Dicks at first, but to follow the band to the end of all these noodling, fractured-and-patched-together-again sounds is to be rewarded. The band made music as strange and otherworldly as anyone then or now, and in fact their closest musical cousin might be someone way on the outskirts like Jandek.

    But here’s the thing that makes Supreme Dicks so special: They sound honest. In all this weirdness, there’s not a shred of pretension to it. This feels like the only sound these guys could possibly make, like they’d be making it whether we heard it or not. They’re not trying to shock us or craft some cult of personality; this is just the music they make. It’s probably not shocking to them at all. The feeling that they are discovering these sounds, these misshapen songs, and building them to match some true feeling in their guts is what will eventually win you over. Make no mistake, the other stuff on Breathing and Not Breathing (in particular This is Not a Dick) is plenty rewarding and worth digging into. But The Unexamined Life and The Emotional Plague combine to make some shadowy, two-minded magnum opus of indie rock. If being underground is about not being exposed (as De La Soul put it so well) then Supreme Dicks were as underground as they could be. They didn’t rise to the surface to greet us, they summoned us to dig to them. And, in the end, we thanked them for the dirt under our nails.

    Breathing and Not Breathing, the four-disc set, is out October 18 on Jagjaguwar. The label will also be releasing The Unexamined Life and The Emotional Plague on vinyl for the first time. My recommendation: Get it all.