(Editor’s note: About a year ago, Model Rockets ringleader John Ramberg dropped me a line to let me know that the band was planning a small-scale reissue of this album, which came out in the fall of 1994. Ramberg had apparently appreciated a review I wrote of the disc which ran in the late, great Northwest music publication The Rocket upon its original release; this was just a few months before former Rocket managing editor Grant Alden and I started mulling over the notion of No Depression magazine, which made its debut in the fall of 1995.
Ramberg asked if it would be all right for the band to use that review as the liner-notes to accompany the reissue; I was happy to comply. I’d also had fond memories of the review, in which I’d attempted to capture the feeling of that particular time and place…and to acknowledge the beauty of music, just for the sheer joy that it brings to those who make it, and those who listen.
This review marks the end of the line for the assigned editorial content of the online successor to the departed ND bimonthly magazine. The community site remains active, featuring whatever content its members wish to post, whenever they may be moved to do so; and an extensive online archive of the 1995-2008 print content is scheduled to go up soon. As for the now-shuttered editorial branch of the site…well, this just seemed like a good way to end things – in a way, back where it all began.)
“If you still have a copy of that tape from ’85, send it C.O.D., care of Johnson’s Plumbing Supply.” It’s probably just another line of the song to most people, but this chorus from the Model Rockets’ “Johnson’s Plumbing Supply” struck a chord that went straight to the heart of what music is all about to me. See, 1985 was the year I realized there was more to music than what the classic-rock radio stations had foisted upon me throughout my high school years. It was the year I discovered that real music wasn’t the product of fantasyland superstars in Hollywood studios; it was made by ordinary-Joe bands right in my own neighborhood, in the garage of the house down the street, on the tiny stage of the hole-in-the-wall bar around the corner. When I look back at the bands that changed my life that year, I realize none of them exist anymore. As we all grew older beyond those days of innocent enlightenment, many of them had their shot at the big time, only to butt their heads against the wall of reality and wind up disillusioned. Some resigned themselves to unfulfilling day jobs at bookstores, restaurants, print shops – whatever constituted their own personal version of Johnson’s Plumbing Supply. Of course, not every band doesn’t make it. Though the mid-’80s scene I grew up with in Austin seemed, in hindsight, destined for oblivion, the late-’80s Seattle scene has produced some of the biggest bands of our generation. Even so, it’ll never again be like the old days for them or their fans. They’re either so big that they’re out of reach, or they’ve let success screw them up so badly that they’re no longer the same band. Or they’re dead. All of which makes me afraid to come right out and say that the Model Rockets’ Hilux is easily the best record by a Northwest band I’ve heard this year. This, after all, is precisely that ordinary-Joe garage band that lives down the street. The Model Rockets are at the height of that age of innocent enlightenment – a group obviously having so much fun just playing music that little else in the world really matters.
Granted, they’ve come to that point from a more self-aware perspective. For one thing, these guys aren’t merely bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed newcomers; they’ve all been in bands before, most notably frontman John Ramberg, who earned a modest degree of renown with Stumpy Joe. Furthermore, unlike those bands of ’85, the Model Rockets are living in a world where alternative-rock bands are almost expected to be commercially successful, rather than one in which mainstream recognition was a laughable pipe dream.
Which makes it all the more admirable that they refuse to take themselves very seriously. Ramberg’s songs address the most unpretentious of subjects: getting stood up at a movie theater (“Ditched At The Grand Illusion”), a teenage crush on a pom-pom girl (“Cheerleader”), an ill-fated relationship with an Evel Knievel-esque twist (“Daredevil Girl”). “And now you’re talkin’ crazy, about 20 trailer trucks/I’m running out of patience and you’re running out of luck.” It ain’t gonna change the world, but it sure makes for one helluva fun rock ‘n’ roll tune.
But what really makes the Model Rockets work isn’t so much the lyrics as the music. For all his everyman qualities, Ramberg ultimately stands head and shoulders above the thousands of other kids in garages with guitars because of his innate ability to write a great pop melody. It’s something he hinted at in his days with Stumpy Joe but displays in full force on Hilux, which contains not a single clunker and probably about a half-dozen potential hit singles. From the irresistibly bouncy hook of “Shapeshifter” to the countryish twang of “Hitchhiker Jane” to the straight-ahead power-pop of “Behind That Door”, Ramberg delivers in bundles what the Model Rockets’ peers on the local scene such as Flop and the Best Kissers can manage only sporadically.
One wonders, in fact, what in the world this album is doing on a label as small as Lucky. Kudos to them for putting it out, but it seems a shame that a record as good as this won’t get the distribution muscle of a major label, or at least a larger, more well-established indie. On the other hand, this gets back to the central issue: Why ruin such a beautiful band with something as ugly as a career?
It may never come to that, anyway: Word has it one of the Model Rockets has a decent day job and isn’t interested in going on tour to pursue rock ‘n’ roll as a job rather than merely a way of life. It’s hard to know how to respond to that. On the one hand, Hilux is strong enough that it would seem a pity if these guys don’t give it their best shot going for the brass ring. On the other hand, I remember those bands of ’85, that even the best of them didn’t make it in the big time. And once you begin to set those kinds of goals, you’ve steered yourself away from the reason you started playing music in the first place.
These are the questions I struggle with as I consider the implications of just how good this album is. Then I just forget about it all and pop it back on the stereo one more time until the last song, “Year Of The Sofa”, brings it all back home: “In the year of the sofa, all the clocks ran on love/And no one needed drugs to make it fun/In the year of the coffee table, they put their feet up/And drifted off to sleep, to the radiator hum.”
As I drift off to sleep, the radiator hum sounds a lot like a copy of that tape from ’85. I still have it.
Model Rockets reunion show, Tractor Tavern in Seattle, July 4, 2008.