17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
I’m not sure if we’d coined the term “Dairy Rock” by 1989, but the staffers of 90FM were definitely devoted to it by then. That was the all-encompassing name we gave to the music that derived from our home state of Wisconsin. There was no unifying scene like the one that was then just developing up in Seattle, so we used it as a blanket term that could cover the bluesy pop of Paul Cebar and the Milwaukeeans, the funked-up punk of the Tar Babies and the yearning Americana of the Spanic Boys. The only necessary common denominator was some amount of time spent toiling in America’s Dairyland.
As I mentioned recently, Couch Flambeau was one of the Wisconsin bands for which we had a particular affinity. They played a nicely loose brand of punk rock and could flash enough impressive musicianship to prove that their messiness was a choice rather than evidence of shortcomings. They were fun and playful. Maybe most distinctively, they had a bratty sense of humor that we related to for some reason (it’s a real mystery, I’m telling you). “My Baby is a Nut,” for example, takes the midpoint of its cool jazz riffing on the questionable balance of the singer’s girlfriend as an opportunity to slip in a little skit featuring an supposed exchange between the two, the fairer member of the duo played by another band member adopting a spectacularly phony female voice in the finest Monty Python style. The girlfriend’s insecure laments about being unattractive are met with bolstering reassurance by the singer until he concedes “Well, okay, you’ve convinced me. You are maybe a little homely, but I still love you.”
That track got plenty of play off of Ghostride, the full-length album that would prove to be the band’s last. Released on their own It’s Only a Record Records label, it managed to be both fully characteristic of the band and filled with unexpected little musical angles. A song like “Picasso’s Mailman” merged the oddity of its lyrics with music that was crept along hinting at how it might burst forth, but ultimately remaining tightly coiled and fully under control. On the other side of the spectrum, there was “My Ward, My Award,” a song that revels in big, blasting guitars played with abandon. That was the track the DJ who presided over the heavy metal show played any time he substituted on a general programming shift. (The DJ in question had an amazing ability to follow the station’s program clock to perfection while also honing in on the handful of tracks in rotation and the stacks that could make the show sound like an edition of Metal Thunder misplaced in the schedule.) Couch Flambeau’s punk brashness could still be found all over the record–songs like “Scene Report” and “Summer Vacation” come to mind–but their was a welcome breadth to the release. They weren’t maturing necessarily, but they seemed newly open to experimentation in how they shaped their music.
Given that this was the end of the run for Couch Flambeau in terms of creating new music (it seems they’re still around and play live from time to time), maybe Ghostride was a sort of last ditch effort, a stab at expanding beyond the cult following that may have gotten them plenty of drunken affection from sweaty barroom crowds but didn’t really put beer brats on the Smokey Joe. In the end, their music was probably too weird and wonderful for mass consumption, even with the occasional boon of national exposure. A song like “Just Kidding” (“Some people think that they can say anything/ And then erase it with these two words”) may have found its place on the playlist at our station, but it, like much of music on Ghostride, didn’t fit into a nice little box. It was both sincere and snarky, and even most college programmers were likely to gravitate to music that conveyed their own youthful ennui and angst a little more directly. When it came right down to it, Couch Flambeau never had a chance.
I may be projecting somewhat, but I feel like we knew this was going to be the last Couch Flambeau record, that they had nowhere else to go musically. There’s nothing particularly valedictory about the album, except maybe the concession about the pains of being in an underground band on the song “We’re Not So Smart.” That song had already been kicking around for a couple of years, so it was hardly a fresh sentiment inspired by pending resignation. Maybe we had heard some sort of rumor at the time or drawn a conclusion from some details about the band’s support of the record. I recall hoping for live dates that never seemed to arise, but that could be apocryphal too. Maybe they actually played every tavern, VFW, deer blind and ice shack in the state, promoting the record with all their might. Whether we knew it or not, Ghostride was the last new Couch Flambeau record that would land in the station’s mailbox. Luckily, we gave it robust airplay in accordance with a celebratory approach to an era’s end. I know this for sure: we wouldn’t have wanted to close the book on the band in any other way.