Friday, March 16, 2018

Certain Songs #1156: The Miss Alans – “The Shiny Unfeeling” | Medialoper

Album: Smack The Horse
Year: 1990

I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die

Things were not good with The Miss Alans in early 1989.

Sure, Manny had recovered better than anyone could have hoped from being knocked off of his motorcycle by a woman who missed a stop sign on Labor Day weekend 1988 — and I’ll write more in-depth about this when I get to “Angel Death Blues” — but he still had a long way to go. For one thing, there was a hole in his memory on how to play some of the newer songs, and for another one, it wasn’t clear he even wanted to re-learn them.

Because these types of events have a tendency to make people focus on what they’re doing with their lives, The Miss Alans took a good hard look at where they were, and the fact was that they’d much of the previous year working on an album — they’d recorded nearly two dozen songs — that was both unfinished and increasingly moving away from the jangly-guitar rock at which they were best suited to play.

So they had a meeting at their practice space in the Wilson Theater and the upshot was that Manny, Jay and Ron wanted to get back to their roots and abandon the Your Favorite Graveyard Picnic Talk album, but Scott wanted to continue on, probably thinking that it would be a shame to have done all of that work without having anything to show for it.

Every band goes through this, of course: that’s probably the second hardest thing about being in a band, keeping everybody going in the same direction. (The hardest thing is keeping everybody from killing each other.)

When the meeting ended, nothing was resolved. Scott said he needed some time to think, and while The Miss Alans weren’t broken up, per se, they were the kind of limbo that usually leads to a break up through inaction: there’s nothing on the horizon to work on and the spell that binds a band together often ends up dissolving under the weight of real life.

So after a couple of weeks of limbo, Scott called Manny out of the blue — that’s how we used to communicate back in those dark days — and they met at the practice space. Which is where Scott showed Manny the new song he had written: “The Shiny Unfeeling.” As Manny recalls it, he added his bit, they hugged and the Miss Alans had life anew.

His life
Your life
My life
Look away now

“The Shiny Unfeeling” is my favorite Miss Alans song. But it’s not just my favorite Miss Alans song, I think it’s one of the best jangly-guitar rock songs ever written, up there with “Eight Miles High” or “Talk About The Passion” or “A Million Miles Away” or anything else you’d care to name.

Just the cold opening with Scott & Manny singing counterpoint against each other over a single guitar is a signifier of the decision they made in early 1989. For one thing, vocally, Manny hadn’t yet been heard on a Miss Alans recording, and so to have his voice be the first thing you heard on Smack The Horse — the first thing that most people would ever hear by The Miss Alans period — signaled a whole new direction for the band.

Slowly, inexorably, “Shiny Unfeeling” builds through the first verse, slowly building, but to what, exactly? To whatever the Miss Alans had decided to become.

(His life) So for it is time
(Your life) Making the way
(My life) Stealing from caring
(Look away now)
(His life) To ship ladybug mine
(Your life) Especially hers
(My life) They’re coming to feel you
(Look away now)
And see you
For your worth
They say-say-say
His hands to hold
The father’s in line
The choirboys sing
They’re coming to save you

And then there’s a pause, like they’re gathering their strength, and the Miss Alans all look at each other and explode into a glorious technicolor morass of jangling guitars, rumbling bass and pounding drums. Every single time I hear it, it’s fucking chill-inducing.

Listen to just how intertwined Scott’s and Manny’s guitars are, glimpsing infinity with every single note embracing and complementing every other single note; dig all of the percussion that Ron has layered on top of his drums, and Jay’s aggressively melodic bass part (which I still think is mixed too high) (sorry Jay!) moving the whole thing inexorably forward.

All will have to worry
’cause Jesus I see you
Running backwards through my arms
The will and the women
They’re slipping through my hands
And the screams of children
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die
I hope I don’t die

During the second chorus, Manny comes back for the counterpoint vocals and does a sly bit extending them but skipping a “look away now,” while Scott is screaming about Jesus running backwards through his arm and then after a bellow of “Jeeee-sus!” it’s suddenly the sound of Miss Alans — the new sound of the Miss Alans — being driven inexorably forward by Ron’s ride cymbal until one after one last “Je-Je-JEEE-SUS” they collapse into the coda, as over just the guitars Manny sings one more time.

His life
Your life
My life
Look away now

And then Scott comes back in:

(I) His life (I hope I don’t die)
Your life (I hope I don’t die)
My life (I hope I don’t die)
Look away now

Until they finally collapse together.

On Smack The Horse, it’s beautiful and exquisite, but live — as captured during the March 30, 1991 show that produced All Hail Discordia! — “The Shiny Unfeeling” could be all of those things, as well as transcendent. Not just because of the pauses before the chorus, which allowed me to leap as high as I could before dancing and singing to the chorus, but because the ending on the record wasn’t the ending during their live shows.

Instead of collapsing for good, Manny starts singing the “His life, your life” part as Scott joins in, switching up “lies” for life” and then, as Jay and Ron come back in, at first with a build, then with their full power, they switch it up. Scott’s singing the “His life, your life part” and Manny’s singing “I hope I don’t die” — and brother, we’re glad you didn’t — eventually Manny & Scott stop singing long enough for Manny to lead them home with a chordal guitar break, and some asshole would scream “ALL RIGHT!” while the rest of the crowd applauded.

I love this version nearly as much as the original version, because while the vocals might be rougher and the guitars might be less precise, that long cathartic ending just kills me every single time.

“The Shiny Unfeeling”

“The Shiny Unfeeling” recorded live at the Wild Blue, Fresno, 3-30-1991

“The Shiny Unfeeling” performed live at Fulton 55, Fresno, 12-22-2017

Shiny Unfeeling – The Miss Alans 12/22/17

What a night.

Posted by Kirk Biglione on Saturday, December 23, 2017

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