This album was difficult for me to write about, for personal reasons that i will mention shortly.
First, a little history. Rodan are one of those bands that more people have heard of than heard. I was certainly in that category until i picked this up. You see, Rodan existed from 1992 to 1995, and after their breakup the various members went off to do tons of other things that, ultimately, became more famous. Bassist Tara Jane O'Neil has a successful solo career. Jeff Mueller and Jason noble, both of whom played guitar and added vocals, went on to Rachels, June of 44, and Shipping News (all of which i have enjoyed), as well as several other acts. The band had a few different drummers, who were also in several later acts.
Rodan is like the foundation, the birth of math-rock. They released one album, one cassette album, a few singles, and a few songs on compilations. I have never, in my life, seen a Rodan release. Ever. This stuff is impossible to find.
So as soon as Fifteen Quiet Years came out, i wanted a copy. But i couldn't find it in any local record store, and ordering sweet, delicious vinyl is a little pricey, so i hesitated.
And then in November i broke down and ordered the record as a birthday treat for myself. And i listened to it at home, loud, and it was awesome. And the vinyl came with a download that included the record with 10 bonus live tracks! I downloaded that and put it on my phone. A few days later i was at work doing the normal bullshit i do to earn money (i drive a mouse and stare at a screen), and i put the record on and listened through headphones.
After a while i thought, "i should read up on Rodan". I wanted to know the exact history, which i admit i was a little fuzzy on at that point.
In the Wikipedia article was this line, "[Guitarist/vocalist Jeff] Mueller and [Guitarist/vocalist Jason] Noble started Shipping News in late 1996 and continued to perform with that until Jason Noble died from synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer that attacks the body’s soft tissue, on August 4, 2012."
Noble is dead? Really?
A few times in the early 2000s i went to see Shipping News play at The EARL. I have one review online, but i know i saw them a few times. The band liked playing The EARL because they were friends with EARL soundguy Curt Wells, who i also knew. And so, several times, i ended up standing at the back bar at The EARL drinking beer with the band and Mr. Wells, just talking about music and life in general. They were really cool guys, and i liked chatting with them.
In fact, the last time i saw them i had taken the MCAT that afternoon, so i was sort of mentally brain-dead. The band asked me to hang out after the show -- we used to sit at the front bar and continue our conversation late into the night. But that day i was so exhausted that i told them i couldn't.
And then they never came back on tour again. And i never really thought about it. Until i read that sentence. Jason Noble died, and i had no idea. I remember standing at The EARL talking to him. He was a really cool guy, and his passing makes this world seem smaller somehow.
So, even though this record is awesome and i love it, there is a hint of melancholy in it, and that made it kind of hard to review.
But music criticism is a cruel, heartless business, and the malevolent invertebrate that i work for insisted i finish this, so here goes.
Fifteen Quiet Years is not an album per se. Fifteen Quiet Years collects old 7"s, compilation tracks, and a Peel Session onto one convenient slab of vinyl. The bonus live tracks were chosen by the band members as some of the best recordings of the band they had heard.
This record starts with Darjeeling, kicking the record off like a classic grunge tune, a hint of Dinosaur Jr in the thundering drums and the wail of the guitar. It gets pretty rocking, then bass goes all crazy and we are in math rock territory.
Milk and Melancholy steps it up, a voice bellowing while guitars pick along. This is exactly what you think a band from Louisville, KY would sound like. There are hints of Slint, and the music ebbs and flows between slow parts with the voice almost whispering and loud parts with him bellowing.
Tron is fuzzy fast punk, the voice gravelly as the band tear through it. Shiner is even angrier, punkier, except the rhythm is a crazy thing and Tara Jane O'Neil's bass rumbles angrily.
Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto is a crazy rock tune with Tara Jane O'Neil reading a strange poem or something. This sounds like an early Kim Gordon led Sonic Youth tune. Exoskeleton is creepy tune, the guitars and bass tinkling along.
Those first six songs were collected on a limited edition cassette called Aviary that Rodan released in 1993. The remaining three tracks on the record are from a John Peel Session they recorded on 23 July 1994. The three songs here were songs that Rodan had written on tour, and the band imploded before they could be recorded in any other format than this Peel Session. That is damned shame, as these are interesting songs.
The session starts with another Tara Jane O'Neil song, Sangre. This is a very pretty tune, with guitarwork that is surprisingly melodic in parts and then in other parts jerks around like your typical math-rock tune.
Big Things, Small Things is another typical math-rock tune. One of the vocalists recites a little poetry, just some spoken word behind the music. O'Neil plays a catchy riff, and Noble and Mueller's guitars chug against each other in a way that The Purkinje Shift later exploited.
Before the Train clocks in at 10:45, and is exactly what you expect from Rodan. The entire song surges and flows in weird ways, the whole band embracing a mighty riff that throbs unexpectedly, moving back and forth in that complexly undanceable math rock format.
And that ends the record, the last and final testament of a little math rock band from Kentucky. It's great stuff, if you like that sort of thing.
Now, there are 10 bonus tracks, live versions of many of these songs, including two different versions of Big Things, Small Things.
There is one tune, Wurl that is not listed anywhere else on their discography but gets two live versions. One from The Flying Squire in Danbury, CT is a little rough of a recording, while the other version is from Our House Cafe in Costa Mesa, CA and is flat and plagued by crowd conversation. I think the Danbury recording is better of this great math rock tune, the guitars grinding along as the rhythm section pounds away.
The other two live versions that i think work best both come from The Black Cat in Washington, DC. Tooth Fairy Retribution Manifesto rocks louder here than the recorded version, and Big Things, Small Things is just awesome, the band really tearing at it. It helps that The Black Cat show was pretty well recorded.
Your mileage may vary on the 10 live tracks, but i like them. Sure, some sound a little rough around the edges, but that's what you get with old recordings of bands that existed before everyone had a digital recorder in their pocket. They capture the spirit of the time, these old tinny recordings. I used to trade these things on cassette, so perhaps i have a nostalgia for them that other listeners won't.
Either way, Fifteen Quiet Years is a great testament to an obscure yet influential band. If you enjoy math rock, you need to track this down.