Monday, December 1, 2008
Victoria's Real Secret - Pasta
Victoria’s Real Secret (“VRS”) was the precursor to the later, better known band, Sweep the Leg Johnny (“Sweep”). VRS featured the creative nucleus of Steve Sostak on vocals and Chris Daly (aka “CD”) on guitar. Ryan Hallford supplemented this pair as a hybrid “lead” guitarist and occasional vocalist. Marty (Master of Time) Mennes on drums and yours truly, Wil Freve on bass rounded out the lineup. We played as VRS during our sophomore year at ND (1993-94). This band was young, inexperienced... metaphorically in its adolescence. The members brought some semblance of individual talent, though admittedly less than we all thought (save, perhaps, for Ryan). We shared a love of playing music; however we lacked a cohesive creative direction. Each of us attempted to pull the band towards our individual musical interests and styles; our songs reflected this, becoming syntheses of many rock ‘n roll styles including indie, alternative, progressive, punk, blues, and classic rock. Everything we did was a new experience, and frankly, a musical experiment. VRS developed a reputation as a unique, eclectic, and stylistically diverse band.
Fifteen years later, I listen to some of VRS’ songs and instantly remember the individual who crafted the song’s main concept, and the creative battles that ensued. Albeit counter-intuitive, I personally believe this stylistic tug-of-war became the primary strength of the band. The resulting musical library was a melting pot of musical genres, styles, and influences. In the end, we all agreed that whatever musical styles would be combined within a song, they would be done so with intensity. This became the unifying concept for our music. Perhaps it was this intensity, and our predictable unpredictability that shored up a consistent (and passionate) following for VRS’ live shows. Although I look back on our music and think it unpolished, and sometimes clumsy, it represents a musical time capsule that appropriately captures our early development as musicians. Much like reading a term paper written during high school, listening to Pasta reminds me how green we were, and how much we grew in the years to come.
It has been ten plus years since I last listened to this album. One thing in particular struck me when hearing it again: I loved the layering and interplay of the guitars in this album. Both CD and Ryan complemented each other extremely well. From their styles and training right down to the gear and stage presence, each brought unique contributions to the band. Although I generally consider our VRS compositions to be of lesser “quality” than those of Sweep, being able to play with a tremendous guitar duo was a definite bright spot of my experience with VRS, and something that was noticeably missed with Sweep.
Track 1: This album starts with the driving and energetic song, “It Depends.” VRS did its best not to have a consistent, signature “sound;” although, if we did, this song embodies what that would have been. After a brief guitar introduction, Marty, Master of Time, reveals the songs true tempo with a punishing, percussive barrage. CD kicks in with the song’s primary guitar rift, and he is eventually mimicked by Ryan (playing it with a blues-twist, of course). These crunchy, Marshall-produced power chords are underlain with a bouncy, octaval bass line that has an annoying habit of falling one chromatic step short of the root note... an unexpected juxtaposition of indie-rock accidentals with major-scale, blues chords. For this song, VRS borrowed from traditional blues theory, then sucker punched it, turned up the tempo three notches, ran away and never looked back.
Track 2: The album starts in fifth gear, but “Stained Glass Window” dramatically downshifts, showcasing certain band members’ “emo” influences (in fact, the song’s name is a tribute to Buffalo Tom, who had a knack of randomly naming their songs). The songs ethereal introduction begins with Ryan’s restrained and melodic guitar part accompanied by CD’s screeching background guitar and my harmonic tappings (inspired by Alex Lifeson’s harmonics in the song “Red Barchetta”). When the drums and bass finally kick the song into full swing, I still get chills down my spine. The song progresses through a fairly conventional song structure, rewarding the listener with variations of the main melody and some notable textural breaks. When the song resolves back to its final chorus, this transition feels nothing short of triumphant (Marty’s syncopated ride cymbal is like icing on the cake). I always loved this song...although it is more a “mainstream” than we were used to. This song has an organic quality and just seemed to “work.” During the creation of this song, our musings were operating at a higher level, and it felt like the song wrote itself. The end result was, in my humble opinion, powerful and expressive. My biggest regret of this song was trying to cram too much into my bass part. I learned later in my musical study to appreciate moments of understated bass and the incorporation of rests and silence. Used appropriately, these concepts can be powerful additions to a song, augmenting rhythms and varying texture. I wish I recognized this better before recording this song; the end result might have been very special.
Track 3: “Why Ask, ‘Why Ask Why?’” begins with an obviously Chilli-Peper-esque bass introduction. Although I love the funk & slap style of bass, this song represents the one time Steve and CD let me bring (ehh... bastardize) that style into one of our songs. What can I say... we made the most of it and had lots of fun with our funky selves. Eventually all of us indulged our funky sides and viewed this song as a welcome departure from our other work. My favorite part includes the popping and tapping bass breakdown in the middle of the song, followed by a tidal wave of distortion and percussion that crashes in, culminating in a blistering guitar solo by Ryan. As a side note, at the end of his solo, Ryan was unhappy with his track and he casually slid his hand up his guitars neck, thinking he would be re-record the solo. CD and Steve liked the way this sounded and eventually persuaded him to keep this in the recorded version.
Track 4: “Backwards” is the final song on the first side of the album. This song mimics the mellow feel of “Stained Glass Window,” but in my opinion falls short on energy and intensity. When I first heard CD’s guitar part, I thought it sounded like a rift that The Edge from U2 would play. Therefore, as a quasi-tribute to that band, I modeled my bass line after Adam Clayton’s simple, legato style. I don’t regret experimenting with our music, but with such one must expect a few failures. In my opinion, this song is the weakest on the album. It has an overly simplistic structure, a completely uninspired bass breakdown, and an incredibly misplaced distorted guitar part at the very end of the song (every time I hear it, I think of the old theme song for “Entertainment Tonight”). This song had potential, but overall, it severely underachieved.
Track 5: “Proper pH” thankfully picks up the tempo on the second side of the album. This work features lightning fast guitar riffs, alternating tempos, and a pulsing, intentionally staccato bass line. There’s a lot of dynamic variations in this song, and at times the bass switches from being intensely “in your face” to being a rolling, subdued ditty, on which the guitars gradually rebuild the song’s intensity. I feel obliged to point out that the slowed bridge portion of this song was intentionally crafted to be “cheesy” and “poppy”... a satirical counterpoint to the unconventional remainder of the song. After hearing many fans’ critiques of this part, I am convinced that the members of VRS were the only ones that were “in on the joke.” This song is a fitting introduction to the second half of the album, and provides a representative foreshadowing of the tempo and dynamic changes that would eventually become mainstays of Sweep.
Track 6: The final three songs on the album are older songs whose creation predated my time in VRS. When I came aboard, I was asked to respect their original bass lines, so these remained largely intact. The first song, “The Green Iguana,” needs to be listened to, as no description will do it justice. I might futilely try to describe it as acid-numbed Primus meets Pavement, getting their asses kicked by a speed metal band strung out on cocaine. The inspiration for the song came from Steve’s pet iguana, and he penned lyrics that contemplated living life crawling around like an iguana. It’s weird. Just listen to it.
Track 7: “Been Around the Block” has a straightforward song structure like “Backwards;” however it triggers a more effective emotional response. I’ve always been a fan of hypnotic grooves, and this song brings a Fugazi-like bass line that tries its best to get your head subtly bobbing. For this alone, I enjoy this song. Although I’m not crazy about the guitar’s flange effect on the recorded version, I think this helped the mood of the song when played live. Given this song was a remnant of Schwa (that’s a whole ‘nother review), VRS sure got a lot of mileage out of it.
Track 8: “Fish” is another one of the first songs written by VRS. Steve conceived the song’s lyrics to chronicle the cyclical romance of two of the band’s close friends. It contains poppy and lively guitar with some acoustics layered in. The rhythm section pushes the tempo, but generally allows the guitars and vocals to carry the song. Although a simple composition, this was just an up-tempo song we always had fun with. Ryan throws in an over-qualified guitar solo to complete the song, and thus, the album. I feel that ending the album with such an early song was an appropriate reflection of how the band started, and an acknowledgment of how far we had come.
In conclusion, Pasta was a joy to record. Not all the songs were first rate, but it’s a good demonstration of the diversity of styles, tempos, dynamics, textures, and moods that VRS brought. More than anything else, I remember VRS as a band that was FUN to see live. We always had a great time stirring the audience into a frenzy and playing off each other. This album is a product that I feel is still pretty unique, and I’m thankful for having my experience and memories with the band. Questions or comments? Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Wil Freve
Victoria's Real Secret on MySpace