By Noah Hubbell
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We've all been duped at one time or another. At some point, everyone has made a serious error in judgment when purchasing music, whether or not he'll ever admit it. It's a common story: A really cool-sounding song that grabbed you the first three and a half times you half-heard it on the radio starts to wear thin the moment you've plunked down your $17.99. At least you can scavenge the jewel case once you've properly disposed of the Vanilla Ice insert.
Hot Water Music seems to work in just the opposite way. Once you've brought one of the act's discs home, it sinks roots into your CD player; an act of God is almost required to extract it once it's spinning. Known for its blistering but intelligent punk songs, heavy with distortion, and howling, unforgiving vocals, the Gainesville, Florida-based band got started in 1994 and has released six full-length albums since then. After a brief hiatus in 1997, which was called a breakup at the time but lasted less than a year, Hot Water Music returned in 1999 with No Division. That record perforated eardrums in all the right circles, and the band earned itself a spot on last year's Warped Tour, with acts like Snapcase and Alien Ant Farm and that perpetual whipping boy for all punk fans older than fifteen, Green Day.
A Flight and a Crash, Hot Water Music's first release since signing with punk heavyweight Epitaph, has been well received, though some have questioned the album's turn toward slightly more tuneful, less straightahead punk songs.
"A lot of that has to do with the fact that we're better at writing songs now, kind of textbook songs, more along the lines of Bruce Springsteen or something like that -- as opposed to what people were expecting," says bass player Jason Black.
That's not to say that Hot Water Music is starting to put out music that sounds anything like Jersey's most famous son; A Flight and a Crashcontains no ballads, nothing about screen doors slamming or being born in the USA. Rather, Black believes that he and the other bandmembers are at a level of songwriting and playing skill where their imaginations are no longer constrained by their abilities. Besides, never changing means never growing, either.
"We've been doing it for over seven years now...I mean, if we keep [making] the same record over and over, it's going to get real boring real fast -- for us, anyway," Black says. "The thing we try to explain to people is that you're allowed to like one [record] more than others, you know? We'll put out other ones you might not like as much as this one, even. They're all a little different, and...it's always going to be that way with us, I think."
The fine line between keeping longtime fans happy and playing from the heart is a difficult one to navigate. But the players' confidence in what they are doing lends them credibility, and it translates into music on the CD; there is nothing calculated about it. The songs still come from a place that is dark, emotional and real. Now as much as ever, Hot Water's music challenges us to look within and confront ideas and feelings most of us routinely shut off or bury under noisy and distracting layers of the modern world: work, television, shopping, Prozac.
On songs like "Sons and Daughters," Hot Water Music cuts through those distractions and addresses the self-delusional nature of life in modern America: "Still we're all under lock and key/Who are we but savages hooked on accessories/Numb and dumb to what else we could do or be."
And truthfully, in the case of Flight, the alarmist cry of "Not the same!" is somewhat overwrought. Some of the tunes are slightly more melodic, but the band has not gone Vegas, by any means. The songs are still hard-edged, centered around the raspy vocals and distorted guitars of Chuck Ragan and Chris Wollard and laid on top of a firm and brawny rhythm section anchored by drummer George Rebelo and Black's bass.
"[Flight's] not really that much different, to us," says Black. "It's also hard for us to be super-objective about it, though, since we wrote the songs. It's got better production. We just had a better recording situation; we had time to spend on the record. We probably did a lot of stuff that we would have done on a number of past records had we had the time and the know-how to do it. The differences that people are taken aback by are things that we've wanted to do for a long time."
Touring constantly is also something the band has done for a long time. Hot Water Music is currently on the five-week Plea for Peace/Take Action tour, an annual event designed to raise money for various worthy causes.
"Each year they do a benefit tour and a benefit compilation, and this year it's for the National Hopeline Network, which is a suicide-prevention [organization]," says Black. "They're trying to get a bill through Congress to have suicide-prevention funding be part of the child health-care bill."