Feature Article by Ben
A few years ago when I was still writing haiku about CDs that mattered to me, I came up with this one for Breakup Breakdown's She Went Black:
Between Mott and James Sparber
Is a Yes t-shirt
The t-shirt was worn by the singer during a show in Washington DC, and even though they sound nothing like Yes, to me it’s always symbolized what makes Breakup Breakdown so special: behind every great band, there’s a great record collection. And no matter how straight-forward the music seems at first glance, that well of rock knowledge always creeps into the feedback.
The post-millennium music climate was a tough one for rock acts. With music fans jaded by one-trick ponies like Jet and two-trick ponies like the Strokes, uber-trick ponies like Breakup Breakdown have had to constantly play up their strengths in order to snag a jaded audience. On that night in DC the band ripped into "Shiny Eyes" and I remember my old college roommate commenting on his indifference to the music (though it should be noted that he still owned Amy Grant CDs at the time). By the end of the set, however, my friend was thoroughly impressed; song after song, Breakup Breakdown displayed the subtle versatility that has become their trademark. They also tore the roof off the place. Not even the most cynical rock fan could resist it, let alone an Amy Grant enthusiast. So here we are today, and the band has only gotten better.
"Oh my gosh... talk about a blast from the past!" Guitarist Jeff Mensch and organist Allie Langerak are holding a copy of an old Denver Zest CD that I've brought out for show-and-tell. Both Mensch and Sparber did their share of damage behind the mixing board on this blitzkrieg synthbop recording back when Williamsburg was pretty much unknown to anyone who didn't play an instrument. Hold up a magnifying glass to the liner notes and you'll see that it was "recorded at the Come On practice space," Come On being the first band that Sparber and Mensch put together upon arriving in NYC. The two had met in Boston and hit it off instantly. "James was walking down the street in August wearing a suit," says the guitarist with a grin, "I had to know this guy." Clearly these two belonged in the Big Apple. Come On, according to folks who lived through the sets, was the kind of band that you would expect from a bunch of young, garage rock hooligans with loud amps and a lot of alcohol. After Come On came Girl Harbor, in which the wide range of influences lurking beneath the surface began to surface in the music. Their Shine On EP was amphetamine art glam. "Boys in Heat" featured a classic guitar riff, a carnival-ish instrumental break, and enough groans to make Prince blush. Plus, it was the first and only song to ever construct a chorus around Jordan Catalano and the pick-up line, "so fuck me."
A pilot version of the She Went Black EP contained the title song with its Stax/Volt inflections as well as epic feedback fests like "Waiting for the Snow." Langerak's organ and backing vocals were a crucial addition to the new outfit from the start; now when Sparber raised his shot glass of rock to proclaim that everyone was indeed waiting for the snow, a female voice was there to chime in that "it's what we need!" Initial drummer Greg Altman, who treated his maracas like meat tenderizers, was a carry-over from Girl Harbor. With initial bassist Honstetter dressing up like a true scholar of Bowie, the line-up hit the ground with a compelling wallop, but in retrospect it's clear that this was a transitional phase.
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"Blue Dots" displays a band who has embraced a haunted-house New Wave sensibility, with Mensch and Langerak sculpting complimentary parts. Even on "Museum Floor," the sonic son of "She Went Black," there is greater sense of focus in the music. Sparber's focus, on the other hand, hasn't changed too much. He's still seducing brainy rock chicks, the kind that might carry a flask in their purse and "The Omnivore's Dilemma" under the other arm. If Greg Dulli put out an ad for a comic foil, Sparber would fit the bill. The singer is still responsible for bringing the seeds to the songwriting table; rather than bash out a 3-minute arrangement in 30 seconds, the band members take the time to develop each tune's potential, giving each arrangement a unique voice within the context of the set list.
No one is ever going to mistake Breakup Breakdown for stockbrokers at a party, but if there is one thing that they've left on the side of the road with their abandoned vans its intense focus on image that was evident in their old press photos. The core trio of Langerak, Sparber and Mensch have new ways of channeling their energy: a full length record. They've amassed enough studio recordings to complete the "deluxe edition" ten years down the road, but have yet to capture their evolving sound satisfactorily. As I write this, the band has completed a weekend of recording with new bassist Wyatt Tuzo and third drummer Andrew Kilpatrick (who replaced Davy). Each change in the rhythm section has propelled the band further into a realm that they call "controlled rocking." The relentless display of energy is still there within the clutches of a strengthening musical discipline. The band has taken Kiss Unplugged to heart as well, playing acoustic sets at Black Betty on the side (an "unplugged" recording is in the works).
While we wait for the new lineup to deliver their statement of rock in CD form, the Breakup Breakdown live show continues to deliver the goods. To miss one of their performances is to miss an evening more funner than whatever you have planned. Yes, more funner.