The Presidents of the United States of America (1995)

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Apologies for not keeping up with the blog; lately I’ve been spending a lot of my spare time following this election, which has left me simultaneously captivated and horrified.  My God, remember in 2012 when “binders full of women” was a month-long story?  Nowadays a gaffe like that wouldn’t even make the news; everything is moving so fast.  It’s enough to almost make you feel bad for Hillary Clinton – can you imagine spending your entire life dreaming of making a presidential run, only to wind up having to go against Donald freakin’ Trump?  Or holding 12-hour practice sessions for a debate, only to get on stage and literally be called the devil within five minutes?  Of course you can’t feel that bad for her; she’s essentially being gifted the presidency despite being a not-very-good candidate.  But we know where the blame lies.

With that in mind, let’s look at some great presidential administrations from the past.  The Presidents of the United States of America, like a lot of 90’s borderline-novelty acts, made it big thanks to being at the right place and the right time, along with some undeniably catchy tunes.   They were exactly what people wanted to see coming out of Seattle in the early 90’s; a band that rocked but wasn’t so damn mopey.  Back then you had this emerging scene of “alt-rock” which was just another word for “goofball music” – music for a (mostly younger) generation that preferred whimsy over weariness.  Y’know, the Mountain-Dew-and-Goldeneye generation.  This included some emerging acts like The Barenaked Ladies, Cake, and Moxy Fruvous, plus vets like They Might be Giants.  Maybe you could throw Weezer and Beck into this category as well.  If you were around 10 years old at this time then no doubt you remember this scene well.
The cool thing about the Presidents was their simplicity – they never did come across as the type to really want to show off their eccentricity or their talent, maybe because they didn’t have a whole lot of it.  Their one gimmick was in their instruments; both Chris Ballew and Dave Dederer play these six-stringers with both bass and guitar strings, meaning they can both handle either part.  Not only does this simplify things a bit, it also puts them in a strange tuning, which explains the unique and wobbly sound they had (check out the nausea-inducing bassline to “Dune Buggy” for proof).  No particularly complicated riffs here; mostly a surplus of power chords, similar to the first Weezer album.  Sometimes there is a touch of funk (“Boll Weevil”) or bluegrass (“Back Porch”), but it’s all bent to the Presidents’ unique sound.  The vocals are equally limited, though that’s a good thing, since it makes the songs easier to sing along to.

Which I always do, of course, at least if I’m home alone or in the relative seclusion of my car.  This was the second CD I ever bought, after all (the first, oddly enough, was Ghost in the Machine by The Police), and I’ve probably heard it upwards of a hundred times.  I even remember the stickers; “Original 4 million selling album!” “Featuring ‘Peaches’, ‘Lump’, and ‘Kitty’!”  That last one never quite made it (if you’ve heard it, you can probably guess why), but the first two were absolutely unavoidable for a time.  “Peaches” was the one song everyone in my 4th grade classroom loved; “Lump” is about as perfectly constructed as a dumb little rock song can be.  Hard to live up to those, though I’d argue “Boll Weevil” is just as good; shame they never released it as a single.

As for the album as a whole – if you haven’t heard it, you can pretty much extrapolate what it sounds like from the singles.  It sounds good, but it’s sort of a ramshackle affair; you can hear a lot of studio chatter, some obvious bum takes and mistakes that got left in anyway (“We’re Not Gonna Make It”), and no studio tricks other than a few quick cuts and some overlapping monologues on “Back Porch”.  It sounds like it was all recorded in a single session, and who knows, maybe it was.  It’s not really a great album; things peter out after track 9, and there just aren’t enough funny moments.  But they do rock the whole way through, and only let one song hit the four-minute mark.

Regardless, the album is still classic, at least among boys of a certain age.  Likeability and catchy tunes go a pretty long way it turns out, and their second album sold over a million copies despite not having any hits nor being very good in general.  By ’98 they’d called it quits, only to reform a year later and release an album that nobody heard – shame too, cuz it was quite good.  Guess it was too soon – they still release “comeback” albums every five years or so which tend to draw a decent amount of attention, good enough to make their reputation as a nostalgia act feel a bit unfair.  Their fans still remember, though – I saw them live in 2007, surrounded almost exclusively by men in their early twenties, each of whom had been waiting half their lives to shout out the words to “Kitty” without fear of their parents walking in.  The band played along, trotting out a setlist heavy on their debut album, and quite frankly they were every bit as awesome as I’d hoped.  At the very least, they were Presidents we could all be proud of.  Thank you, and God Bless America.

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