All musicians have skeletons in their closets — sometimes it’s dressed up like a thrift-store display mannequin wearing knitted cardigan sweaters and beat-up Converse sneakers. In the case of a working man known as Steve (last name withheld), his closeted musical entity was known as Sweet Steve, and his college friends included Chris Manak (better known as Peanut Butter Wolf, Stones Throw label head). Between 1998 and 1992, while Steve and Manak were attending San Jose State University, they were deejays and music fans who had a band called Baron Zen. During these years, Steve made several recordings, mostly a la Siamese Dream — that is, featuring only himself on all the instruments. Peanut Butter Wolf compiled the best of those songs, which showcase the diversity of music these college students were influenced by: hip-hop, punk, soul, even Katrina & the Waves.
At the Mall doesn’t succeed in a traditional “great songs meticulously arranged with a great flow” sense; its success as a disc relies heavily on its history. It’s that Salvation Army-draped junk-nugget factor that really makes it shine. Take the scads of 45 rpm soul records Sweet Steve and Peanut Butter Wolf collected when they were eleven years old, throw them into a blender with Big Black and Public Image Ltd., and you have a wonderfully gooey vinyl soup of adolescent naiveté and profound existentialism. What makes At the Mall most interesting is how progressive it all sounds, considering the context of what was happening in music at that time: hair metal, new-jack hip-hop, the inevitable rise of grunge. There are moments on this compilation where Baron Zen is foreshadowing the Joy Division-aping generation of the early millennium. (In case you didn’t get the hint from the sound of the music, the members covered the group’s “Walked in Line” to push the facts forward.)
The lazy, thrown-together “Fucking Bored” defines this record to a tee: slacker guys screwing around with songs, coming up with industrial versions of Debbie Deb and Katrina & the Waves, but mostly having a great time. It’s never overly serious, nor is it the sound of a band with its sights set on world domination. At the Mall isn’t the kind of record that leaves you feeling inspired to plant a tree or chain yourself to a bulldozer; it’s more of a “drop your pants and wave your penis(/vagina) around in circles in a public place”-type of inspiration. It just goes to show that your middle school English teacher just might have some interesting skeletons in his closet — or, at least, that he knows a lot about Joy Division, hip-hop, and soul records.