Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars," by Edie Brickell & The New Bohemians

I remember a pointed conversation with a classmate in high school about Edie Brickell & the New Bohemian’s debut, Shooting Rubber Bands At The Stars. My friend owned the cassette and let me borrow it. At the time, I was most familiar with the line from the band’s 1988 hit single, “What I Am,” ubiquitous on top 40 radio at the time: “Choke me in the shallow water, before I get too deep.” I suspected the rest of the album would be filled with similar light-hearted, boho charm, and I was right: Rubber Bands features quirky rock and playful, hippy-dippy lyrics – an utterly joyful rumination on the intoxicating mix of thrill and terror that comes from being young, unencumbered, and navigating life for the first time.

Texas-born, Brickell’s career has been, in fact, a study on how life seems to work: a combination of talent, hard work, and hoped-for strokes of good fortune. At a bar one Saturday night while attending art school, Brickell was reluctantly cheered onto the stage to join the house band for a few numbers. Suddenly, she found herself fronting the New Bohemians. It wasn’t long after that the group wound up in a recording studio making their 1988 debut album. The dreamy aforementioned lead-single reached the upper end of the pop charts, propelling this word-of-mouth album to multi-million sales by the following fall.
I rushed back to school the next day to expound upon the sheer joy of listening to this great record. After hearing my review, my friend blinked a few times, frowned, and said, “Well I hate it.” I was stunned. Humph! She clearly didn’t understand this album. Looking back, it makes sense. My friend was studious and practical: an album titled after the fruitless activity of projecting plastic objects into the atmosphere would be of little value to one so pragmatic. And I have to admit, my friend even made me wonder if Rubber Bands would be a silly, flash-in-the-pan for me, too.

It’s been over twenty years later, and I can definitively say that she was completely wrong about this remarkable album. Far from a silly flash, it has, indeed, warranted repeated listens over the years: first on my copied cassette, then on my own purchased vinyl, which I lost in my senior year of college, bringing me to replace it with a CD copy a few years later, and now, Rubber Bands comes to me on my trusty, well-worn iPod. The album has not only remained fresh for me all these years, but has continued to grow more endearing as the last two decades have quickly slipped by. Rubber Bands was the perfect, left-turn album for that cheesy moment in late-80’s pop music history, when top 40 radio was dominated by the likes of Paula Abdul’s mousy, made-for-MTV dance numbers and Milli Vanilli’s sterile, also made-for-MTV, fake-model posing. (Author’s note: Kids, MTV used to play music 24 hours a day. True story. Look it up). Brickell’s lilting, country-girl voice on Rubber Bands was a breath of fresh air, and in it’s own way, the album broke new pop territory.

The music on Rubber Bands is airy, malleable, and vibrant, like it’s suspended on air (or rubber bands?). It’s soft and relaxing throughout, yet crisp and punchy in the right places, taking the listener, in some moments, to the backyard dance, while in others revealing quirky observations of the world around us: charming and captivating, beguiling and mysterious. The themes on the album, written mostly by Brickell, run the gamut of what you would expect from a young, twentysomething idealist: friendship (“Circle”), love (“Love Like We Do,” “Nothing,” and “Now”), self-discovery (“What I Am,” “Beat The Time,” “She”), romance (“Air of December” and “Keep Coming Back”), and utopian mediations on how life works (“The Wheel”).

The album closes, not with a crescendo, but more quietly, with the sweet, whispered lullaby, “I Do.” This charming little album closer finds Brickell accompanied only by a solitary, acoustic guitar, singing to a new friend, one who clearly and completely understands her. “It’s not emotion that I feel for you,” she sings, “It’s not devotion that I want. I want someone to follow, who doesn’t lead the way. I want someone to listen, who won’t repeat what I say.” Finding such a friend is one of life’s rare and surprising gifts: just like this album.