Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Spiral Jetty
Art's Sand Bar

Released 1987 on Incas
Reviewed by Rev Matt, 01/11/2000ce

Time: A Saturday Night in 1986
Place: Court Tavern, New Brunswick, NJ

It was the basement of a courthouse watering hole that served as the headquarters of the music scene that surrounded Rutgers, the state university of NJ. It had been two years since The Smithereens had reinvented themselves as a New York City band and surrendered their position at the top of the pecking order in this local scene whose musicians had dreamt might become the next Athens, Georgia. Two other bands which had vied for the throne had broken up in the past year, leaving Spiral Jetty, New Brunswick's perennial support act, with the top spot for the time being.

While being at the forefront of a music scene that boasted no signed acts might sound a little like being "the leading hitter on the UK national baseball team" the position had its perks. First was the right to a monthly Saturday night gig at the basement club. Second, the band would be the first choice to open for any national act that played at Rutgers. And, third, the local college radio station, WRSU, would go out of their way to promote the heck out of any album this band released. In order to take advantage of this third perk Spiral Jetty had to come out with an album quick. So in August of 1986 this "finese trio" (singer and guitarist Adam Potkay, Bassist Andy Gesner and drummer Dave Reynolds) which had been dismissed by some as Feelies sound alikes booked sixteen hours of overnight studio time at Hoboken's Waterfront Studios for $20 per hour.

Everything about art's sand bar, from its simple dark blue and orange cover to the stripped down with minimal overdubs performance, reveals a band where each member has just bet their security deposits on the hopes that a self-pressed, self-produced album might get them into the top fifty on the CMJ charts and the possibility of being the opening act for someone like The Violent Femmes. The mood of the entire album reflects both their modest dreams and the pressure of knowing that a blown session will yield nothing more than a useless demo. The stakes were high and both Spiral Jetty and the staff engineers at Waterfront delivered.

Art's sand bar opens with a slow, meandering single note guitar solo that reminds you of a guitar student trying to learn a Tom Verlaine solo. But there is a beauty in the simplicity of Adam Potkay's guitar as well as some deception. The listener never knows what to expect next. Like a baseball pitcher lobbing lollipop curveballs outside the strikezone, Spiral Jetty sets the listener up for the fastball. Never overpowering, Spiral Jetty catches you off guard with fast strumming and tom-tom runs that paint the corners of the plate. And that's the beauty of Spiral Jetty. They are not pop craftsman, lyrical poets, crackerjack soloists or funk groove meisters and they never attempt to overcome the listener through sheer sonic force. It is through subtle changes of dynamics and tempo along with tricky arrangements that Spiral Jetty makes the listener guess what's coming next. They set you up for the all out wall of sound power crash but come at you with the slow fadeout instead. And when they do pull out all the stops the band never loses control, due to a rhythm section who, on a good night like this, are right up there with Les Patinson and Pete DeFreitas.

One can search anals of rock music for a band who played with as much finese as Spiral Jetty and come up empty. It would be another five years before Nirvana would amaze the jaded alt rock vets with a similar exploration of contrasting levels of speed and volume within the same song. The difference is that Spiral Jetty did it without fuzz boxes, distortion and wah-wah pedals, reminding the listener of how Buddy Holly and the Crickets might have sounded if they had come along after The Velvets, Modern Lovers, Television, Feelies and the Bunnymen. And Adam Potkay has put away childish things like teenage alienation and self-pity, approaching themes of unrequited love like the grad student he was at the time. The closest he gets to Cobain's tormented psyche is in "Bad Thoughts" when he shouts out "There's a gun to your head and the gun is your head."

The standout cuts include the opener, "Big Down Hill Racing", the wonderfully naive "Keep it Alive", the angry "Bad Thoughts" the feedback laden "Hey Joe" and the finale "And the Beat Goes On." The rest of the cuts aren't bad either and for the listener to get the full effect the album should be listened to in its entirety.

Art's sand bar did not propel Spiral Jetty into national or even regional recognition. They retained their position in the New Brunswick music scene until Adam Potkay finished his disertation and went off to greener pastures as an English professor at some small liberal arts college. But many respected bands who had ten times the production budget never released an album as good as this one. It is redemption for any struggling band that ever put out money they didn't have to spend for an overnight session in a twenty dollar an hour studio. If you can find it consider yourself lucky.

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