I'm driving to Arlington to visit my friend for the last time. Tomorrow she will die, which is something I've been trying not to think about since I heard the diagnosis a year ago. But things have gotten worse fast, and now the magnificent woman I once knew is sinking into a fog of pain and morphine. I drive down Interstate 30, listening to the same song:
"The end's not near. It's here."
The song is by The New Year, and it's all the things I need it to be right now: sad, intimate, haunting, maybe even hopeful. It has restraint, which I need, too, just a simple, lovely piano with Matt Kadane's flat, doubled vocals working eerily against the lyrics, the calm broken by a blast of distorted guitar. This is the first song by The New Year to use piano, and in all its hushed beauty it hearkens back to Matt and Bubba Kadane's early work in the influential '90s band Bedhead, except I'm not thinking about any of that right now. I'm thinking about how the song settles something inside me, how I will press repeat until I park my car outside my friend's house, slowly take my keys out of the ignition and walk inside to hold her hand for the last time. The end's not near. It's here.
It's impossible to talk about The New Year without dwelling in the past. The music that Bubba and Matt Kadane made as part of Bedhead is the metric by which every song they write now is judged--they are slammed for being too similar, slammed for being too different. "We kinda can't win," says guitarist/sometime vocalist Bubba Kadane (who still lives in Dallas while brother Matt moved to Boston). "It clouds everything we do, for good or bad."
So we must talk about the past, which begins more or less in Dallas in 1991, when the two brothers form a group, along with drummer Trini Martinez, guitarist Tench Coxe and bassist Kris Wheat, a band whose creeping tempo and intertwining guitars help form the blueprint for a generation of so-called slowcore musicians. "Basically, I wanted this band to be Bedhead," Pleasant Grove's Marcus Striplin once told me. And he wasn't alone. Like Velvet Underground and Uncle Tupelo, Bedhead was one of those bands that didn't sell too many records, but the ones they did sell landed in the hands of future musicians and rock critics.
I wasn't one of them. My friend, the one I was telling you about, and I needed our music at full throttle back then. We needed to dance and knock over chairs. It wasn't grunge. God, no. By then, that music was a mockery of marketing and dirty hair. And that's one of the reasons Bedhead, with its quiet, deliberate sound, made such an impact. But she and I didn't have the patience for such a slow burn. We wanted Prince and the Ramones and the Violent Femmes. We wanted music that slapped us around a little, music to scream in a fast-moving car.
It's hard to imagine a Bedhead sing-along. The band's albums are the kind of artful, lingering constructions that seduce musicologists. "They were/are such a unique musical entity," a friend and fellow music writer recently told me in an e-mail. "The 'slowcore' tag is a misnomer, 'cause they rock like hell compared to bands like Low. It's just that a lot of it is so subtle. Kris Wheat's once-every-five-seconds tambourine shake at the beginning of songs was badder than the baddest bass line ever."
Here's how Bubba Kadane explains the band's influence: "We were playing on bills with these total punk bands. Everything was hard, fast, loud. We'd show up for shows, and we'd be thinking, 'How can we do our set list to play all the hardest, fastest stuff we can? 'Cause they're gonna kill us.' But we couldn't adapt, so we would just say, 'Fuck it, let's do the set we were gonna do.' And all these punk rock kids would love it. We opened for Fugazi in '93, and these punk kids would come up to us for years after that, telling us how much they loved the show."
Over time, the landscape shifted. On the strength of albums like 1994's WhatFunLifeWas, Bedhead became the headliners, and their openers adopted a similar slowed-down sound. A cultish fan base formed around the group, but at the height of their popularity and creative prowess, the members disbanded.
In 2001, under the name The New Year, the Kadanes released Newness Ends, produced by indie legend Steve Albini. It's a brooding album, inspired partly by Matt Kadane's divorce, featuring a new lineup--bassist Mike Donofrio, local heavyweight Peter Schmidt, who filled in on guitar for Bedhead in the '90s, and drummer Chris Brokaw, of the influential bands Come and Codeine (recently, Macha's Josh McKay joined the band). But despite a few up-tempo numbers, The New Year is more a new start than a new sound.
As Bubba says, "There wasn't some big dividing line between the albums."
Last Thursday night at the Gypsy Tea Room, a few hundred people gathered to see the band open for Tortoise. The set started on a shaky foot, and only seconds in, an audience member mysteriously collapsed and had to be carried out. But after a few songs, the guys eased into a steady smolder. The crowd was transfixed--and yet, I had to wonder: What had become of the group's hard-core local fan base, those who used to pack the clubs? Did they not know about The New Year? Or had they simply grown too old for smoky rock clubs on a weeknight and graduated to families and day jobs?
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Growing older is a subject The End Is Near talks about repeatedly--the way we lose control of things, how our lives and bodies decay. And so you'll understand why I keep returning to my friend, whose raspy, strained breaths stay with me as I listen to track 5, "Disease": "I don't know about heaven/But our bodies are all going to hell." Or perhaps the best song on the album, "18," a song about death and regret that ramps into a full-blown sonic maelstrom as it nears the end. "This is something you should know," the song intones. "There's no escaping getting old. But did I hear it when I was told? When I was 18 on the outside?"
I should point out that the album isn't all morbid. "Sinking Ship" is about the monotony of social pretense, and "Chinese Handcuffs" sketches the portrait of a fractured relationship. But there is something dark and downbeat throughout, which isn't to suggest the album is despairing. In fact, the splendid burst of sound at the end of "18" seems more like a battle cry against our frailty.
"When you're playing, and the sound is completely surrounding you, and it's loud, it sometimes seems like you're reaching people who aren't here anymore," Bubba tells me at one point. "Just a particular stage on a particular night when it envelops you completely, you feel like the music is going someplace else. Like there's something to be accomplished by doing it. I really can't explain it."
Neither can I, but maybe I know what he means. Maybe it's like the time I brought some old music to my friend's house. She was pretty lost at that point, but the music pulled her out a bit, and she mouthed the lyrics: "At first I was afraid, I was petrified." It's Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," something obvious and fabulously upbeat. Or maybe it's like the way I needed music on the car ride home, because I wanted something sad and strange and new. Or maybe it's something entirely different. I don't really know. But a shiver passed through me as I heard those first notes, the notes that haunt me still as I write this: "The end's not near. It's here. "