Washed up and dried out, the Mojo Wire goes acoustic on Seaside Hamlet Skids and flirts with escapism, which doesn’t flirt back.
“Trouble in Paradise” is one of the oldest and most superficial clichés in the history of popular songwriting. Exposing the nasty, poisonous underbelly of some idyllic Shangri-La is thematic gold, and every songwriter gets seduced by its charms sooner or later. Even Randy Newman couldn’t resist it. As a rebellious impulse, though, it wears out pretty quick. Righteous anger and smug superiority don’t have much of a half-life, even if they go down easier with plenty of sweetness slathered on top. For better and worse, that was how the Mojo Wire tackled our third album, crossing escapist disillusionment with loosely-focused surf noir to create Seaside Hamlet Skids.
Bryn, Adam and I were in rebuild/regroup mode during spring and summer 1998, chilling out after the previous year’s frantic activity. Our unfinished second disc stuck out like a sore thumb, and was already aging poorly, so we steadily collected new tunes while spending a few months apart. Bryn and Adam refined several Isla Vista-created songs on multiple Baja California treks, jamming around crowded campfires in the middle of nowhere. Their tunes “Key West Tapwater,” “I Fly Free,” “Baja Blues,” “So Cold,” “The Ratlands,” and “Run Back To Me” told tales of hapless characters seemingly marooned by good fortune and screwed by circumstances. Back in I.V., I hunkered down at the Bedrock to wallow in my own self-absorption after a roller-coaster of personal relationship crises. I churned out questionably sane screeds like “How Far Away,” “Sunset Down,” and (in a marathon six-hour fit of inspiration) “The Shivering Sand,” but dressed them up with bouncy music and pretended that solved my problems.
We had plenty of new material, but lacked a drummer after Brandon Klopp departed for Arizona, so we decamped to O.C. in September ’98 for a session with our old pal Kevin Nerison behind the kit. He helped power us through initial versions of the new songs, and even nailed a frenzied, tossed-off cover of “Wipeout” that proved strong enough to earn its place on the finished album. When we returned to the Bedrock in I.V., however, we struggled to polish off the raw tracks using our rudimentary, self-taught recording skills. School, work, and Isla Vista’s usual social hazards pushed the project into 1999, and by then we’d added two more tunes to the running order: my new ballad “Pisces Lullabye” and a jittery instrumental featuring thin layers of keg-party noise called “Rocked By The Magnum.”
The Narrator Has Three Heads
The songs hung together comfortably as a whole, but each of us used our lyrics to pull the album’s story back and forth between several different moods. Adam indulged in some sun-fried malaise by shamelessly blending Jimmy Buffet with his own pop sensibilities and considerable gift for melody, resulting in arguably his best Mojo Wire song: “Key West Tapwater.” Earning its album-opening slot with a potent pill of casual, indifferent escapism, “Key West Tapwater” condensed the album’s themes into two minutes of snappy verse-chorus-bridge glory. The song’s narrator claims “a life on the coast is a life without cares” but admits that “I don’t know what I’m doing here” before covering that with “but I know I can’t go wrong.” It’s bravado on paper, and similar sentiments pervade his other tunes like “Baja Blues” and “Run Back to Me,” but Adam sang them like hollow real-estate taglines, tourism-office slogans, and Johnny Cash selling greeting card copy, and he totally nailed each one.
Bryn stepped up his game for this album too. He wrote “I Fly Free,” his best song on the album, while stuck in L.A. traffic. A shimmering slice of surf-folk, it dragged a dashed relationship over the coals, with several nods to Paradise Lost for good measure. Another Bryn tune, “So Cold,” began life at the end of our sessions for Rocket Fuel (inaugurating his tradition of starting new strong songs after the record’s done). After that, Bryn sang “The Ratlands” himself, delivering a CB-radio-sounding jolt of cynicism from south of the border. Finally, he commandeered the drum kit for most of the I.V. sessions, bashing out blunt backbeats for seven Seaside songs.
My material gave a (very) slight nod to the Bob Dylan albums I’d re-absorbed during summer ’98. “How Far Away” and “Sunset Down” showed up soon after two awkward back-to-back breakups, feeling more like the holding-pattern Dylan of Another Side than the classic Blood on the Tracks. “How Far Away” compensated a little with a propulsive, bright tune, and some light acoustic guitar from Adam did the same for “Sunset Down.” Conversely, “The Shivering Sand” is an unapologetic lust jingle, driven by a slippery bass riff, a spiraling bridge, and some ice-cold surf guitar. Penultimate track “Pisces Lullabye” is a sincere but turgid mourning song, atmospheric as a Cure B-side and almost as humorless. Bryn played a great slide riff, but that couldn’t save this version of the song from clumsy lyricism and my weak vocal debut.
The Sequence Is The Star
The song sequence itself might be the most perfect of any Mojo Wire (or Honey White!) album, but it also highlights the record’s emotional isolation. Things start snappily enough with “Key West Tapwater,” “How Far Away,” and “I Fly Free,” then take a brief detour into the jittery grooves of “Rocked By The Magnum,” before going back uptempo for “Baja Blues” and settling Side One calmly with “Run Back to Me.” Side Two blasts off with the Kevin-powered “Wipeout” and jumpy surf-funk of “The Ratlands,” then plunges into the minor-key deep end with “The Shivering Sand,” “So Cold” and “Pisces Lullabye” before coming up for air on “Sunset Down.” The overall mood feels tidal, ebbing and flowing up to the final rip current that disproves the final line “nothing so wrong will happen today.” The album’s escapism gets fried, drenched, and tossed in a Rosarito jail cell before cynically curdling into some seriously poisonous denial.
We ultimately showed a subtlety on Seaside that we hadn’t before, but that didn’t survive the transition to actual live shows. The Mojo Wire’s lineup shifted again in fall 1998, when we recruited guitarist Joe Zulli to beef up our sound. He did that in spades with excellent lefty Telecaster power chords, and we were all stoked to turn up the volume and match him. That worked great for our handful of gigs, but when the new Seaside songs got louder and faster they lost almost all traces of the softer/acoustic recorded versions, relegating the album itself to a mere precursor. And maybe it was a precursor after all, despite the perfect sequence and unique position in the Mojo discography. Seaside hinted at deeper meaning without actually delivering any, alluded to historical importance without actually learning anything from it, and permanently imprisoned itself in a state of mind that only thrives on the slow creep of crippling nostalgia.
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