Sunday, July 17, 2011

Water wings

The first time I heard of Alexisonfire I was sprawled backstage of my eleventh-grade drama class, crowded around an archaic boombox as the owner of said device and I avoided watching whatever awful socially-conscious George F Walker scene our drama teacher was reenacting at the time. The sound was dialed down to 1, and he played me the quietest song on the album, "Counter parts and number them." Afterwards, he mumbled something about the muffling killing the sound, but it was plain that he was pretty stoked to be in on the next big thing.

"The only thing I don't know is if its pronounced Alex-is-on-fire or Alexis-on-fire."

I was a music virgin, his initiate into everything from 90s pop punk to Polish death metal. And he was right. Before the year was out, Alexisonfire were everywhere. Album goes gold. Videos all over Much Music. Then came City and Colour. Then Watch Out!, an album I could discuss with teenage girls who "didn't usually listen to that stuff." My excitement at being included (if only by accident) in my first underground discovery gradually dissipated. Being a fan of Alexisonfire became like being a fan of Jack Johnson, and by the time I dutifully picked up and then immediately lost a copy of Crisis in 2006, I didn't even care that I hadn't had time to give the album a spin.

But back in 2002, the band was composed of a handful of 17-year-olds who'd somehow, magically, stumbled upon the right cocktail of disparate elements. Alexisonfire is filled with epic angst (a ".44 caliber love letter" is a subtle message if there ever was one), but it found a way to take that whiny singing and superimpose it over hardcore to make it the kind of shit that guys weren't afraid to have on their playlist. Without proper mixing, perfect timing and an appreciation for melody, lesser musicians could have taken all of the elements of the Alexisonfire album and created unlistenable noise metal, but they didn't. The melodic singing got people who liked heavy music but hated vocal shredding into the genre, and it exploded. It made male music accessible to females, fringe music accessible to the mainstream. However you choose to deconstruct it, the convalescence made millionaires out of a handful of small-town Ontario kids. Moneen, suffice it to say, never found the same kind of success; their sound was decidedly more one-note.

The analogy isn't perfect, but a baseball lineup also has a certain dynamic. Replace Adrians Beltre with Gonzalez and the structure of the Red Sox offense changes; replace Dallas Green with Tom DeLonge and Alexisonfire sounds a little different. The Red Sox are a little bit better because of the switch, and a DeLonge track might have made for an interesting original single, but regardless: every swap or changeover you make tweaks things a bit, until the band or baseball team eventually transforms. There was a tangible difference  between From Autumn to Ashes' sound with and without Benjamin Perry, and everyone knows that the Misfits aren't really the Misfits anymore. The 1998 Yankees were a good offensive team with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada on the roster and the 2011 Yankees are a good offensive team with Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada on the roster, but no one would mistake them for the same team.
One of the truisms of modern life is that younger is always better. At 20 I was nostalgic for fifteen, at 24 I'm nostalgic for 20. In a few decades, if I make it that far, I'll wonder how my twenties brushed past so quickly. This is especially true in music and professional sports. Players fade and "die," to use a term bandied about thoughtlessly in fantasy forums. (Also in 2002, I was part of a baseball forum where fantasy players could list formerly good players who had "died" on them: Juan Gonzalez, the Vaughns Mo and Gregg, Billy Koch. And you know who else was on that list? Darryl Kile.) Likewise, musicians can never live up their youthful successes. In 2011, the Offspring still can't play a song recorded after 1997 without eliciting boos from the crowd. Celebrities age and lose their edge, be it to natural causes or the fat-and-happy factor. It's hard to write protest music after you build a home in Beverley Hills and start voting Republican, and I imagine it must be hard to focus all your energy on winning a meaningless baseball game in August when you know you've already got your $130 million banked.

The second half of the 2011 season features a volatile cocktail of young blood in the Blue Jays lineup. There's an unpredictable violence to a team full of hack-happy young sluggers; explosions like a three-homer inning against Cliff Lee are par for the course, but then so are three-hitters against the likes of CC Sabathia. This is not necessarily  a team that will grind 100 pitches out of a mediocre hurler through five innings, but they're liable to tantalize and excite on any given day. Travis Snider, Eric Thames, JP Arencibia will swing hard, and they'll miss a lot. They'll continue to get exploited and continue to improve. There will be thirteen-run outbursts where the lineup just works; where Rajai Davis will drop down bunt singles and steal runs, Yunel Escobar will work his walks, Edwin Encarnacion will bounce doubles off the warning track and Thames and Snider will hit tape-measure jobs. When this lineup comes together like they did in the first inning on Thursday, it'll be like a breakdown that writes itself off of the opening riff. On the days like Saturday and Sunday against the Yankees it'll be a different story; three-pitch strikeouts and six-pitch innings. They'll sound like some shitty garage band selling songs on iTunes before the bassist learns how to play in time with the drummer.

But, hey. When Travis Snider is winning MVP awards and JP Arencibia is a veteran backup on a pennant winner, we can say we saw them "before they got big."

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