- Avoiding the easy road: June of '44.
When the book on '90s rock is finally written, a couple of names are going to come up over and over as the inspiration for all sorts of sensitive, SG-wielding members of Chain Wallet America: Slint, Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, Jesus Lizard, Rodan, Fugazi, Hoover, Drive Like Jehu, Unwound. These are the extraordinary bands (however aurally dissimilar) that defined semi-popular guitar punk in the first half of the '90s, an International Marshall Half-Stack Underground that got in the van and did it for the kids. These are the bands that inspired a youth too hip for Nirvana but not for big hooks, who would never use the word "grunge" in conversation, but adored a good riff all the same. They were the sound of young underground America: usually white, but not always; usually middle class, but not always; often as much female as male; sometimes tattooed; often geeky. Independent of Mr. Cobain's efforts (or maybe because of them), 1991-1994 was a fairly amazing time to be in love with the sound of guitars.
Rodan and Hoover were the most blatantly victimized by far, and more derivative and uninteresting contemporary punk is directly attributable to their albums Rusty (QuarterStick/Touch and Go) and The Lurid Transversal of Route 7 (Dischord) than anything else. Both were short lived, but Hoover's thick chords and basement screams can be found etched on the eardrums of late-century punks across the country. Those same kids found Rodan's brand of majestic loud/quiet, King Crimson thunder much easier (and probably more fun) to play than Slint's. These were great bands, but they spawned an almost unbelievable amount of lousy rock, especially Hoover.
So it seemed like something of a historical inevitability that guitarist Jeff Mueller (ex-Rodan) and guitarist/trumpeter Fred Erskine (ex-Hoover) would find themselves in a band together by 1995. Calling themselves June of '44, after letters Henry Miller wrote to his wife, they were joined by drummer Doug Scharin (ex-Codeine) and Sean Meadows (ex-Lungfish). They are their era's Blind Faith, a band with a heritage so weighty there was no possible way they could be more than the sum of their parts.
And for the most part, they aren't. To their lasting credit, they resisted the urge to simply rehash their past, trading in a youthful urgency and raw power for more studied composition and structure. In a world of Hoover/Rodan tribute bands, June of '44 ignored the easy road. While all of June's albums are deftly played and occasionally energetic and rewarding, their more relaxed, streamlined vibe can be, well, mighty dull.
The group's newest collections, Anahata (QuarterStick/Touch and Go) and the EP June of '44 (Konkurrent/Touch and Go), accentuate both its strengths and weaknesses. Anahata integrates keyboards, strings, and vibes into songs both choppier and more measured than previous efforts. The playing is uniformly excellent (Scharin is one of rock's best unknown drummers), but not in the service of any particularly dynamic ideas. Earlier June of '44 records could at least be counted on to deliver a precise whump, but Anahata breaks the juggernauts into tiny pieces. The rhythmic dexterity of "Equators to Bipolar" shows flashes of what June is capable of, and "Cardiac Atlas" drums up an impressively frothy head of free-floating menace. Even the more "experimental" passages, which usually mean more spacious, dubbier structures, and seemingly random trumpet insertions, are poor substitutes for an honest roar. June of '44 builds too much space into Anahata, and the album ends up moving slower than an American League ball game.
But the EP In the Fishtank shows that there's still a great rock band somewhere in June of '44. The EP will be released in October by Konkurrent, a Dutch label that invites touring bands to lay down a quick set of songs in their studio, not unlike BBC DJ John Peel's sessions in England. In that setting, June delivers a disc as good as or better than any it has ever released. "Modern Hereditary Dance" and "Every Free Day Is a Good Day" bring the noise with an energy their studio albums need desperately. Of course, a career full of dynamic innovation is a lot to ask of any musicians, and the guys in June of '44 have certainly done their share. Hopefully, the Konkurrent sessions are a sign that June has finally gotten the balance right.