Across the nation, local music scenes mourn the breakups of the once-stalwart bands we loved and took for granted. Dependable mainstays who played often and variously: every weekend or at least every other, seemingly too many shows to keep track of, at slick music bars, dive bar, legit “performance venues,” and in some rando’s basement. Bands with modest followings criminally incommensurate with their charisma and talent. Some split up acrimoniously and publicly, move on in separate directions to other bands and projects that, though potentially great, will never be the same. Some fade out amicably in the face of its members’ life changes: jobs, marriages, babies, etc. Some go on indefinite hiatus, leaving small hopes for a reunion or, perhaps more accurately, a recommencement. Some disappear entirely, leaving no more trace than an abandoned Facebook page, an old flyer, a pilfered set list on a fan’s refrigerator.
If we’re lucky they leave behind at least some aural vestiges of their existence, an album or EPs or bandcamp demos. Although none completely capture the sound and feeling of being there live, it’s a tremendous relief to not have to forget and struggle to remember, like little Pete in “A Hard Day’s Pete,” songs as impermanent and transitory as the alcohol-infused nights on which we first heard them.
At the right time or place or under different circumstances, we console ourselves, they could have been huge or had a cult following or at least could have eked out a longer and more sustaining career. Maybe they’d have been better noticed if they lived and played in New York or Los Angeles, scenes whose infrastructure and tidal hype cycles could have given them a leg up. But selfishly, if they had lived and played anywhere but here, in our local scene, then they wouldn’t have been ours.
One particular band I miss a whole lot is The Prohibitionists. They typically described their sound, unfussily, as garage rock. Appropriate, but there are a lot of garage rock bands, few bad and few extraordinary, most merely adequate—it’s a genre that’s easy to do well enough to satisfy inebriated folks looking to rock out to an uncomplicated, undemanding sound on a Friday night. More difficult (and rarer) is for a garage act to evolve past capturing the genre’s agreeably crunchy sound and glom onto its own idiosyncratic identity.
Many denigrate the genre as shortsighted and regressive, bereft of innovation and perfectly happy to blandly recreate overly familiar sounds of the ’60s. But what separates the self-consciously retro cheesedicks from a band like The Prohibitionists is, quite simply, songcraft. While better known California acts like Ty Segall and Thee Oh Sees (both of whom I like—just don’t get me started on how much credit CA gets for its garage scene while smaller but equally vibrant scenes, including Cincinnati’s, are generally ignored by national press) earn acclaim for their prolificacy and eclecticism, The Prohibitionists’ best work accomplishes the meaner feat of defamiliarizing these overly familiar sounds, making music that sounds, even to jaded ears inured with decades of guitar-based pop rock songs, new and old at once.
To wit: I remember hearing “Buttercup” for the first time, being convinced it was a cover of a classic pre-Beatles pop song I’d somehow missed up to that point in my life. The song doesn’t just imitate the structure and gestures of an up-tempo Sam Cooke tune or Brill Building composition (dig drummer Mario DeStefano’s “Be My Baby” breakdown). There are complexities—a yearning, reaching quality in the bassline (courtesy bassist Eli White), for instance, and a sense of weariness in the vocal melody—that lend it a feel both contemporary and timeless.
It’s the kind of song I want to play again immediately after hearing it the first time. Not possible when it was only available to me via live rendition, but luckily it has since been recorded:
Maybe I was inclined to assume “Buttercup” to be unoriginal because of The Prohibitionists’ custom of slipping a perfectly selected cover into most of their sets. Covers from originals bands can sometimes come across as pandering novelties, concessions to audiences putting up the effort to listen to a bunch of other songs they’ve never heard before. But with The Prohibitionists, they always fit in seamlessly. Off the top of my head, I could curate a pretty great mix tape of songs they’ve covered that would also give a pretty good sense of the quality of their originals:
- Jackie DeShannon – “When You Walk in the Room”
- The Reigning Sound – “Time Bomb High School”
- Creedence Clearwater Revival – “Wrote a Song for Everyone”
- Link Wray – “Rumble”
- The Jesus & Mary Chain – “Between Us”
- The Kinks – “Holiday in Waikiki”
- The Replacements – “Skyway”
- The Stooges – “1969”
But The Prohibitionists were more than the sum of these and other influences. I’m talking about synthesis rather than imitation.
Another favorite, “Everybody’s Got One” has a slidey, ringing guitar riff reminiscent of The Nightcrawlers’ Nuggets classic “Little Black Egg,” a title that may or may not be borrowed from the chorus to a Shel Silverstein rarity, and the deceptively upbeat woundedness of Green River-era CCR. The lamenting lyrics, centered on a baseball-card collection-as-life metaphor, examines the compromises of growing up with equal parts compassion and indifference, beginning with singer/guitarist Bryan Sespico’s reflection on a childhood friend who “grew up and I did too / I guess it’s something, something to do.”
Songs from their early Extended Play EP demonstrate their mastery of the garage sound and adept songwriting. “Summertime,” is the best “summer sucks” anthem since Eddie Cochran, juxtaposing the sunny, jangly interplay between Sespico and guitarist Mike Nauman with lyrics about the underexplored isolation and misery of The Beach Boys’ favorite season. “Supermarket” mines similarly bathos, jaunty riffs underlining prosaic observations about city life with hints of dread.
However, the band hit its stride over the years after as they developed new material, much of which ended up on their eponymous 2014 release. “All My Tomorrows” and “I Would I” from that set are great examples of the dynamism of The Prohibitionists’ later work. The former begins slow and almost shoegazey before picking up and culminating in that famous Motown/Bo Diddley-style beat mimicked by tastemakers immemorial from Iggy Pop to Tom Petty to The Exploding Hearts and The Strokes. The latter is a syncopated rave-up that collapses into reverb-drenched Link Wray-style interlude that wouldn’t be out of place in an old western or gangster movie.
And there are songs I might never hear again, never recorded and existing only in my fading memory: “Moving to the City,” “Johnny and the Jammers,” “The Comet,” others whose titles I’ve forgotten or maybe never knew.
Sometimes I worry that artists in the Midwest are at a disadvantage. We don’t see ourselves as provincial or our ambitions as modest, I don’t think, but maybe the rest of the world does—if we really cared about our art, we’d move and try to make it in the bigger scenes of New York, et al. But of course I don’t subscribe to that conventional wisdom. I like the humility and accessibility of my scene, if you want to call it that. In the summer of 2013, The Prohibitionists held a residency at a bar, The Comet, mere blocks from my house, playing there very Tuesday night for a month. What a pleasure and privilege to be reliably in walking distance of regular free performances of one of your favorite bands! Some nights were crowded. Some sparsely attended. They played passionately and generously regardless. We were newly relocated to the neighborhood and maybe that newness is why even now I remember odd and insignificant details: The Comet’s orange light, the guitar bends in the Jesus & Mary Chain cover, my atypical optimism about the value of creativity. I remember pitying friends unable to make it to the show and more than once getting that head tingly feeling you get while reading something profound or walking out of a great movie or auditing a transcendent performance.
In “Everybody’s Got One” is the line “Find the thing that you like best and keep it hidden from the rest.” All too often local scenes, owing to cliquey-ness, ignorance, or just plain unpopularity, keep their best hidden, though we and they would be better off if we didn’t.
What about you? What unknown “local” bands do you miss with all your heart and ears? Comment below, if you want.