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Big 7-Inch

A love song to the calming joys of the small-format record

By Gabe Meline

Jitters, jitters everywhere! It's October, and whether you're following baseball's postseason or the presidential campaign, there's more than enough tension to go around . . . and around and around. Everyone's got their personal brand of anxiety relief while the anticipation builds and the leaves fall, but for my money, nothing compares to sitting down with a pile of 7-inch records and spinning away the "wrong war, wrong time, wrong place" blues one song at a time.

Remember when Clinton had just started his first term and the Phillies were playing the Blue Jays in the Fall Classic? Back in 1993, the debut 7-inch was considered a rite of passage for local bands, a valuable proof of validity. Seven-inch's were so popular that even people without record players harbored small collections.

Only 10 years later, a 7-inch is generally viewed as an unmarketable curiosity. Almost no one buys 7-inch's anymore. Financing a 7-inch means having to be totally cool with taking $1,000 and lighting it on fire. Most bands will tell you that it's the stupidest thing they've ever done.

I don't think it's stupid at all. One 7-inch has more soul in its tiny, 45-RPM grooves than a million CDs stacked back-to-back. My overcrowded 7-inch shelf is filled to the gills, because a tiny little record can have incredible style, invention and posterity. Stuffed into a plastic bag with a folded-up Xeroxed cover, a 7-inch says, "Hey, I don't look like much, I know. But gimme a few minutes, and I'll show you what I got."

Luckily, this year there's been a local resurgence of interest in the neglected format. For the first time in years, four local bands have released 7-inch's. So let's raise a glass to music, to unwinding and to the bands who have passionately kept a fledgling format alive.

There's something about politically charged hardcore and the 7-inch that go hand in hand, and Black Box's self-titled 7-inch comes with a full-color poster folded inside--a thrown-together collage of war scenes, government officials and chagrined businessmen. But this isn't an election-year special. Black Box have been championing political causes for years, and in the case of lead singer Ben Saari, decades.

The lyrics to "T.S.A." read like a to-do list for Saari, whose free time is spent volunteering with Food Not Bombs and needle-exchange programs such as the Sonoma County Hepatitis-C Task Force. "I'll see you under the bridge Tuesday morning at four / When we're pasting up posters exposing their war," he sings. Later, a song called "Peace" turns the term on its ear from a foreign policy goal to a domestic policy failure.

At the beginning of side two, Saari paints a picture of Santa Rosa as Anytown, U.S.A., a place where once-idealistic and inspired kids now complain about their hometown as they get older and more stagnant. The solution from Saari, whose fellow band members are all at least 10 years his junior, is to listen to and cooperate with the new generation. The plea is more than reasonable, and the song, "Where I'm From," demands just under two minutes of your time.

The dedicated lovers of vinyl at Petaluma's Pandacide Records have proudly released a 7-inch split between the Velvet Teen and Santa Cruz's Sin in Space. Filling out the Velvet Teen's A-side is "Code Red," a heretofore unreleased crowd favorite, as well as a meaty cover version of the Tones on Tail hit "Go!" In a coup for the 7-inch format, both songs are unavailable on CD.

It's the cover song that wins out here, a full-bore rave-up complete with wood blocks, gang-style vocals and the fuzziest bass tone this side of Grand Funk Railroad. After the lulling hypnosis of the full-length Elysium, this is fresh air, and putting the needle on "Go!" will explosively kick off any living-room dance party.

Invariably, there are classy options available with records that just don't exist for CDs. The Velvet Teen/Sin in Space record even takes advantage of the vinyl format by inscribing a secret message into the unused vinyl near the record's label on each side. Also, the double-sided aspect assists Logan Whitehurst's stunning jacket artwork: on one side, a Tommy-gunned piano is overturned and spilling out bloody innards, and on the other, a boa constrictor gobbles an enormous can of mushroom soup.

With two 7-inch's now under their belt, Cotati's Rum Diary have learned how to package their vinyl with the same spellbinding knack they use to hypnotize crowds. Last year's LP version of Poisons That Save Lives came in a die-cut, hand-silkscreened jacket, and now, for a 7-inch split with Desert City Soundtrack, the craft turns interactive. The record's cover is a vellum sleeve bearing the image of Bigfoot, and behind the transparency, the consumer has a choice of two environments: Bigfoot in Antarctica or Bigfoot in Mendocino County.

The Rum Diary's A-side, "Carl's Lament," is a pensive, funerary composition of echo effects and overlapping vocals. The tempo is so slow you'll check to make sure your turntable is set at the right speed. Out of the speakers flows a hallucinatory soundtrack, an audio companion for the surreal film images that dance behind the Rum Diary on a screen in live performance. For the 7-inch buyer who listens at home, playing with Bigfoot will have to suffice.

Capturing the vitality of a live band between the grooves of a record may be a lost art, but Ashtray's self-titled 7-inch hits the nail on the head. Ashtray's proudest moment may very well be performing earlier this year inside America's largest coffee pot, Bob's Java Jive in Tacoma, Wash.; putting out a solid, raw and successful 7-inch comes in a close second.

Ashtray's shows are carefree celebrations of ramshackle punk-rock energy where no one is immune to an obscenity-filled ribbing. Likewise, the 7-inch features vocalists Sarah-Jane Andrew and Dave Wiseman trading off animated male-female barbs, as on the song "Joe Morato Bomb," whose lyrics threaten to enlist a drunk friend to piss in your bed, beat you in the head and have sex with your little sister. I'm not sure that KZST will be interested in adding it to their play list anytime soon.

The most notable aspect of Ashtray's 7-inch, though, is a valuable example of not taking itself too seriously. In between the crooked handwritten lyrics and goofy cartoon caricatures of the band on the back cover, its message is that art doesn't always need to imitate life. It can be a distracting mockery of life, an entertaining reprieve, and that's just what this October is crying out for more than anything.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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