Friday, February 17, 2012

The Miss Alans

"I rarely find myself dreaming of Fresno"

In the heart of the San Joaquin Valley a sound was born in the unlikely agricultural hub of  Central California.  In the 1990's a handful of Fresno-based bands emerged.  Adhering  to a shared vision of dreampop and shoegazer glory,  they developed a sound greater than the sum of their influences.

If you're thinking "Bullshit! I never heard of them" trust me, I feel your pain. Failure to  launch is a term that Duke City bands know all too well. Fresno's shoegazers also found themselves strapped to a rocket with nowhere to go.  The Miss Alans..misfired, Sparklejet.. sputtered, Supreme Love Gods..unloved, The Sleepover Disaster.. missed their wake-up call.

Trying to describe the "Fresno Sound" is like trying to describe the sound of the wind. Simply put, it was the music of hazily low-key psychedelic dreampoppers. "A bracing swarm of guitars and off-kilter expressiveness."  A trippy sound that often seemed to wobble like warped vinyl.   "Come as you are" was the order of the day. 

Fresno musicians have been quoted as saying that "Fresno is cultural wasteland" musicians have often said the same about 'Burque. In either case there's an element of truth." Fresno was once ranked dead last in a study of the smartest cities in the United States. I couldn't tell you where Albuquerque placed, but I bet it wasn't much higher up the list

The best description I've ever heard about Fresno and some of its denizens came from an unexpected source, a former Lobo basketball player. Back in the mid-1980's (during the Gary Colson era) UNM traveled to Fresno for game against the Bulldogs. Boyd Grant was the head coach then and the game took place at a dingy arena that reeked of cow piss and sweat, the locals fondly called it Grant's Tomb. 

Needless to say, it went badly for the Lobos. Upon arriving back in Albuquerque the aforementioned Lobo player was asked about his impression of Fresno (I'm thinking it was Kelvin Scarborough) "All their fans had bloodshot eyes and were drinking whiskey from hip flasks" he reported "They were mean, they threw hot pennies and called us every dirty word in the book" 

"I shall hate those Miss Alans!" Mrs. Honeychurch cried  "I hate their 'if'-ing and 'but'-ing" ...

The Miss Alans hailed from Fresno, Ca. but they were of a gentler nature. The band members met  while attending Fresno St. Univ. in 1987.  Along the way, they defied all odds (in Manny's case... death defying odds) The Miss Alans were: Scott Oliver- vocals/r. guitar, Manny Diez- lead guitar, Ron Woods-drums, Jay Fung-bass, the band maintained the same line-up throughout its lifetime.

The name is derived from E.M. Forster's 1908 comic novel "A Room With a View." In that classic novela,  the Miss Alans were two proper and genteel spinster sisters "who stood for good breeding, but had chosen independence."  They're not the main characters in the book, yet they buzz around the storyline like hummingbirds. E.M. Forster's themes of  passive aggressiveness, loneliness, undirected resentment, the pursuit of virtue and self imposed isolation, are also common to those found in the band's lyrics. 

The Miss Alans' music inhabits a place between stark reality and an unseen cosmic dreamworld. The lyrics are cryptic three word lines, strung together by Scott like free form poetry, It's sub genius pop theory, delivered on a platform of ethereal dream pop. At times converging with disquieting moments of truth, that tend to sabotage the illusory happiness of the listener.  

The unambiguous guitar driven music is anchored by  Scott Oliver's muted, wavery vocals. In the proper context, Scott's wavering warble works to perfection. Otherwise, it could be as grating as fingernails on chalkboard. The band's saving grace was Manny Diez's luminous guitar riffs, which more than made up for any of the band's perceived flaws. 

A tinge of country/folk rock influence can be heard through the mix of Scott's peculiar vocals and Manny Diez's shimmering guitar, it betrays the band's roots. Naturally, like so many pop/rock bands of the mid to late 1980's, The Miss Alans took their cue from Michael Stipe and any number of Athens,Ga. bands from that era.  

Scott Oliver elaborates on the band's most obvious influence "I've always thought that R.E.M. is a band that reminds me of our band a bit." R.E.M.'s influence went beyond just music "because, they say, this is where we're from" there's a sense of hometown pride "We don't mind telling people where we're from, we like living here." 

"So for it is time, making the way, stealing from caring"

Starting in 1987, The Miss Alans released several singles and ep's in vinyl or cassette form, but it wasn't until 1990 that their first official album came out.  "Smack the Horse" was recorded at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles in 1989. Produced by Iain O'Higgins it was released on Genius Records (a subsidiary of Rough Trade Records) 

Besides being dedicated to their hometown, they also thank "everyone responsible for keeping Manny alive after the accident." While recording "Smack the Horse", guitarist Manny Diez was involved in a horrendous motorcycle accident. Rushed to an emergency room he was given little hope of survival. He received his last rites as family and band mates gathered around him.

"Shiny Unfeeling" the opening track on "Smack the Horse" which I always thought was about a heroin overdose, could in fact chronicle Manny's near death experience. "They're coming to feel you and see you"  with its sweet harmonies and guitar accents, it glides beautifully  "His hand to hold, the fathers in line, the choirboys sing, they're coming to save you" The overall effect is picturesque and dreamy.

Scott Oliver repeats the refrain "I hope I don't die" while Manny counters with a chorus of "his life, your life, my life... look away now" Death steals all that we care for, "There's a place, lurking beneath"  Manny is loved by many... they refuse to give him up. "cause Jesus I see you, running backward through my arms" Scott & Manny come together for the final chorus "his life... your life... my life, look away now.... I hope I don't die." The result is hypnotic dreampop.

Despite the obvious drug reference "Smack the Horse" doesn't appear to be about drugs. (not in the overt manner of say... Royal Trux) Though, the album is wistful and narcotic, an aural opiate mainlined directly to the brain. "Smack the Horse" sank into a sea of apathy upon its release, the result of Rough Trade's distribution wing going bankrupt. As small consolation, it was rated the 86th. best album of the 1990's by 

 In the Days When We Were Supercharged

The Miss Alan's second album "All Hail Discordia" which was recorded and mixed live in 1991, shows the band flexing its collective muscle. Stripped of his usual forced affectations, Scott Oliver comes off sounding natural and relaxed. Manny Diez, fully recovered from his accident, pulls out all the stops. Putting on an amazing display of string bending swirlies, swerving sweeps, slowdive slashes and titanic thrusts. All played with the becalming effect of a mother's finger to her lips.

The jangle pop and dreamy psychedelia of the first album, was mostly missing from these live takes. "All Hail Dischordia" is controlled chaos, a swirl of distorted guitar, feedback and fetching melodies atop an insistent pulse.  Anyone who bought the album thinking it had anything to do with zen for roundeyes was sure to be disappointed. The album was not an overt or dogmatic attempt to push the Principia Discordia and the philosophy of discordianism.

No longer associated with Rough Trade, The Miss Alans released "All Hail Dischordia" as an indie on Duck Butter Music. There would be a three year gap between albums for the band. In 1994 they signed with Zoo Entertainment ( a subsidiary of BMG) Zoo was home to  Matthew Sweet, Tool, The Pooh Sticks as well as an assortment of indie and hard rock bands. Unfortunately for The Miss Alans, Zoo Entertainment was having financial difficulties. 

Within two years Zoo would merge into Volcano Entertainment, which would be bought out by parent company Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG) The band took advantage of the major label perks, selecting Tracy Chisholm to produce. Recorded in 1994, "Blusher" was their first fully realized album, a true indie rock masterpiece. Medialoper ranked it at # 70 in its top albums of the 1990's list. 

A cohesive and exquisitely crafted album, "Blusher" was sterling proof of the band's continued growth as a unit. Scott Oliver had found his voice as a singer, utilizing a thin whispery tone to full effect.  Manny Diez stalked each song like a sleek panther, deftly pouncing in with layers of reverb and delay. His playing oozes with subtle guitar effects, it cascades and reverberates, breathing life and volume into every song.

"Blusher" is what fans of indie rock absolutely dream of, "a cathedral of cosmic cacophony." Spectacular dreampop, slightly off kilter ghostly dissonance and dreamy yet intense starburst soundscapes. It was perfect in every way, but nobody was buying it. The Miss Alans would soon find themselves parting ways with Zoo Entertainment and going the indie route again. 

Loud is the New Quiet

The Miss Alans recorded "Big Sun" a four-song vinyl 10-inch on Mach Records (1995) and then signed with indie label, World Domination.  In 1996 with Tracy Chisholm back at the helm, they recorded "Ledger" After almost ten years the band's rope  was almost played out.   As a result, "Ledger" though immensely enjoyable and blessed with all the band's familiar trademarks, is dark and subdued.

The album's first track "Broke" opens with Scott Oliver singing "It's over, in the morning, I look at you, it's all out, the fallout... it comes right through." Scott's vocal range (quite limited to begin with) is worn down to a hoarse, raspy whisper. It makes some of the songs (Candy Apple) almost painful to listen to. Manny however, shines as usual. His playing is sparse and vibrato tinged, purposefully accented with spacey languid riffing. "Ledger" was a mature effort, befitting of a band that had played together as a unit for almost ten years. 

The Miss Alans were a favorite of indie film directors as well. Three of their songs found their way onto the soundtracks of independent films: Sparkler Queen (Ledger) was featured in the final sequence of Chutney Popcorn. Sheen (also from Ledger) was included in Mira Nair's The Namesake and Crushed Impalas (All Hail Dischordia) was hand picked by Hal Hartley (Ned Rifle) for the soundtrack of Flirt.

Super 5 Thor  was a short-lived studio project, that included Scott Oliver, Manny Diez and Ron Woods. Super 5 Thor released two albums "Ford" 1995 and "Gazelle" 1997  before disbanding. The band's sole live performance was on the radio for KCRW's Brave New World, hosted by Tricia Halloran.   The entire project was totally experimental, with  the musicians using a number of different effects, instruments  and equipment (such as a Leslie rotating speaker) 

In all actuality Super 5 Thor's music wasn't that different from the Miss Alan's.  By 2000, The band had disbanded, with most of the band members having fled Fresno long before that.  They all returned for a reunion show in their hometown, on Dec. 26th. 2010 at Audie's Olympic. Video evidence shows the band picking up where they left off, without missing a beat.