It happens exactly three minutes into "Ay Distress," the first song on No Silver/No Gold, the Baptist Generals' first album for Sub Pop Records. Singer-songwriter Chris Flemmons wails into the silent night, going out on a high note of sorts: "Cover up the light," he cries. "You can dream it right." He could be Blind Lemon Jefferson standing on a Deep Ellum street corner or a broken-down Civil War vet sinking in Reconstruction. Or a member of The Band trying to channel either, or both.
And then it comes: The familiar chirrup of a cell phone cuts into the scene like a butcher's blade, as out of place in the band's sepia-toned sound as a pair of Nike Shox in a period Western. Given the title of the track, and the timing, it almost seems planned. Wouldn't be completely inappropriate, since Flemmons is moaning on about people living the wrong way, missing the song their heart is singing. The phone ringing? It's called irony, folks. Look it up. But then it becomes frighteningly clear this prop was not in the shooting script.
"Goddammit!" Flemmons screams, dropping his guitar, heading into battle. "Oh God!"
The Baptist Generals perform March 7 at Muddy Waters.
"Stop the tape," someone says, but no one bothers to. The track isn't quite finished.
"Fuck!" Flemmons continues. "God!" A kick punctuates the short sentence. "Damn!" Another kick.
"Hey, hey, hey," one of his bandmates says, trying to calm him. "It's OK."
But it rarely is OK when listening to No Silver/No Gold, an album recorded with less fidelity than a celebrity marriage. Set against a bare backdrop of spare strumming and train-a-comin' taps, the disc is a place where "blood satisfies the way it moves to other places/From the inside to the outside to the cold, cold ground" ("500 League Reunion March (In a Plymouth)"). Where dreams are just that ("All your dreams/Though you might want them to be real/Are going south," Flemmons sings on "Diminished"). Where love is "a murder/It's a theft of the blood and breath" ("Burning"). And alcohol covers everything and everyone like the morning dew. Though Flemmons' explosion at the end of "Ay Distress" is the most violent, tinier bombs detonate throughout the album, the kind that break hearts and spirits.
At the moment, Flemmons' cell phone is giving him trouble again as he recalls how it gave him trouble before. It's fitting. He's trudging through the ice and snow that trapped him in his Denton home for the past few days. Also fitting, what with the frigid futures many of the characters in Flemmons' songs face.
"Doing something live, usually you have one chance to get it right," Flemmons says, explaining why that version of the song ended up on the finished album. "And we did two more recordings of it, within a couple or three weeks of doing that. But when it was all done, we were replaying the tapes, and it was like, 'Man, you know, I really like this version a lot.' And we kinda liked the destruction that takes place at the end of the song." He laughs. "I didn't think the phone was out in the garage when we were recording; I thought I'd left it in the house. And we're all listening in headphones while we're recording. All of us can hear what's going on while we're recording. I just knew that that was the one, you know? And then the damn phone rings. I just lost it."
Things have been looking up for Flemmons since then. Last year, Sub Pop signed the group, giving the Baptist Generals and No Silver/No Gold a stepladder out of obscurity. The label rose to prominence in the early 1990s, and though the luster has dulled somewhat in recent years, it remains a name that opens doors and ears. Sub Pop contacted the band a couple of years ago, not long after the release of its debut EP, 2000's Dog, a disc that found gospel amid the grime, out of step but still ahead of the pack.
"They talked to us for a long time," Flemmons says. "And we didn't know what we thought of Sub Pop at first. You know, just the history that they've had. We told them 'thanks' and 'let's talk to each other still.'" And that was it.
Even after Dog wagged Sub Pop boss Jonathan Poneman's tail, the band had planned to put out No Silver/No Gold on Matt Barnhart's Quality Park Records, the same Denton-based label that issued Dog. But after laboring over the album throughout the summer months of 2001 and the winter ones of 2002, after recording and re-recording, after putting in so much time and toil, Flemmons wanted a ticket into a game Barnhart's small concern couldn't quite afford.
"Well, it's not like we didn't know," Flemmons says. "Once we actually finished working on the album and, you know, we thought we had something with the album--because it took forever to get something that we were happy with. At least we could say, 'OK, this is the next album. Now we can get it out of our hands.' We came to realize that Matt Barnhart wasn't gonna be able to service it the way we wanted him to. It wasn't like it was a surprise or something. It was just like, all of a sudden, that seemed to matter. It was like, 'Jeez, man, you know, it sure would be nice if this thing had better distribution,' and all that. I mean, Barnhart's one of my best friends, you know, so he wasn't shocked at all. It was no surprise to him at all when I told him I think we're gonna see what Sub Pop says."
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By the time Flemmons reconnected with Sub Pop, the label's payroll had grown to include a number of bands similar in sound and spirit to the Baptist Generals: Iron & Wine, Samuel Beam's one-man choir of angels; Holopaw, the answer to the unasked question, "What if Radiohead formed a country band?"; and the Fruit Bats, whose Sub Pop debut is due later this year. When Sub Pop first reached out to Flemmons, he wasn't sure where he fit in on the label's indie-rock roster. After hearing the new additions, he still wasn't sure.
"I wasn't aware that it was so well-developed, that they'd been signing all those people," he says. "I had no idea. I mean, it seems like they signed so many people just doing the same type of stuff almost, in such a short time. I was like, Jesus. I couldn't figure it out, you know? I was wondering how it was that we got signed. I was one of the last people to contact him. Iron & Wine, I think it was last spring that they met that guy. The Fruit Bats, I think they'd been talking to them already. I'm glad that we're there, but I've got a feeling that they've probably had enough of acoustic whatever." He laughs.
He's joking, but maybe Flemmons is right. Maybe Sub Pop is just throwing anyone who makes rustic and rural records against the wall, seeing which one will stick. Maybe he got lucky, and just happened to have the right sound at the right time. Maybe, maybe, maybe. It's hard to believe any of that after listening to No Silver/No Gold. It pulses with the kind of real heart that most albums lack, breathing and bleeding, crying and cursing, drinking and dying. (You can hear a little bit of everything on "Alcohol (Turn and Fall)"--the best--and, in a way, worst--song on the disc.) There's melody among the maladies, but it's still a tough listen. Not surprising since Flemmons wrote the songs while recuperating from surgery, and recovering from the loss of his father, Jerry.
"I started out trying to write something that wasn't so bleak--and at points, it's not so bleak--but it's still just emotionally exhausting," he says. "I'm always stunned when people say they've listened to this thing over and over again. I'm like, why would you do that?" He laughs. "This isn't a repeat listen. How could you do that? I just really don't want to make an album that kinda tears me up just to try and get through. Next album, I'd like for it to be kinda happy." He laughs again. "But it probably won't be."