By Courtney Harrell
By Kyra Scrimgeour
By Jena Ardell
By Mary Willson
By Bree Davies
By Tom Murphy
By Tom Murphy
By A.H. Goldstein
During his interview with Westword, New Bomb Turks vocalist Eric Davidson interrupts his frenetic monologues only long enough to take quick slurps from what must be his twentieth cup of joe that day. But caffeine isn't the only explanation for the frantic pace of Davidson's music. He and his cohorts (guitarist Jim Weber, bassist Matt Reber and drummer Bill Randt) admit to a propensity for speed that has defined everything from their recordings to their gigs, which pick up more momentum than a runaway boulder heading for a coach full of tourists. But with Scared Straight, their third release, the Turks have slowed down enough to disassociate themselves from the brittle, humorless genre that is hardcore punk. And as a result, they've hit their stride.
The evolution of the band mirrors the development of a more expansive approach to songwriting and music-making. "On our first record, we were very drunk," Davidson concedes. "And that's fine. But we probably played a couple of songs way too fast, which got us lumped under the hardcore tag--and we never really thought of ourselves as a hardcore band. Some of the lyrics are good, some are just tossed together, but you can't really hear them anyway, because the music is too fast."
These qualities are also present on the Turks' second album, Information Highway Revisited, but at least the players, who met as English majors at Ohio State University, grapple in a more overt way with the dilemmas presented by velocity. According to Davidson, "I was writing those lyrics right when I was actually loving college--my last three quarters. I had some great teachers and really started getting into my writing a little more. I was writing record reviews for different magazines and stuff, so I had all these ideas just flying around, and I tried to fit them all in. They're hard to sing sometimes, because when we play live, invariably the songs get a little bit faster. I had to learn to find a middle ground--kind of emotional and simple but fitting in a lot of thoughts."
The ideas that made their way onto Straight, the act's first release on Epitaph, aren't necessarily of a lyrical nature. Breaking faith with their ex-manager's counsel to "stick with what you know," the Turks have begun to incorporate songs and sounds into their oeuvre that fall outside punk's tried and true (and often redundant) format. It's something Davidson's been itching to do for quite some time. "On our first album, we recorded a song called 'Last Lost Flight' that was like a Fifties doo-wop sort of thing with a fast ending," he explains. "We put it out as a B-side because it was funny and we liked it a lot, but we didn't think it fit on the record. And then we did a song called 'My Hopes Are Copacetic,' which was my lame attempt at coming up with an Otis Redding kind of soul ballad. We recorded that and used it as a B-side, too. People were coming up and saying these were some of their favorite songs of ours."
Moving such material off B-sides and onto an album is only one of the changes that distinguishes the new disc; just as important is a willingness to diversify that breathes life into a musical style deep in the throes of rigor mortis. For example, "Wrest Your Hands," the Stonesy brawl that finishes the CD, is the product of improvisation and disparate instrumentation that the band was able to attempt thanks to its decision to record Straight closer to their Columbus, Ohio, homes. "We had to get the first and second records done in five days," Davidson says of their earlier efforts, "and we didn't have the money to be flying back and forth from New York and Austin and hiring studio musicians. So it had to stay pretty basic." But this time around, the Turks set up camp at a low-rent studio in Cleveland, where the performers could take their time without breaking the bank. Better yet, the facility was close enough to Columbus that musician friends who live there were able to commute to it. "We finally got to put some horns and piano on some songs," Davidson points out--and these additions elevate several of the CD's best cuts. On "Professional Againster," the combination of frantic piano and Davidson's yelping vocals turn the tune into a hooch-fueled bang that could make Jerry Lee Lewis's wives turn in their graves. Likewise, the horns heard through "Cultural Elite Sign-up Sheet" provide Who-like power rather than comic relief, thereby giving Weber's guitar something to scrawl against.
These signs of growth render the New Bomb Turks more interesting than the majority of their brethren. But their appeal runs deeper than that. Although they're unmistakably punky, they share more in common with the Ramones than they do with the poker-faced punks canonized by Maximum Rock and Roll during the past decade.
"Growing up in the Eighties, I didn't at all get into Chain of Strength and Youth Brigade, because it was boring," Davidson reveals. "It was all too fast and too macho and heavy. There was no trickery in it--no action or air in the songs." Among the Cleveland-area acts he most admired back then was Death of Samantha, which he describes as a cross between Roxy Music and the Sex Pistols. "What impressed me was their sense of humor. The drummer would come out on a pogo stick. He was this big fat guy, and here are these hardcore fans who are so serious--who think they've seen it all and that they know about death and anger and betrayal and government oppression. And a guy on a pogo stick pisses them off? I thought that was so fucking great!"