In Chuck Klosterman’s book “Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs,” there’s this great essay that posits Billy Joel as a rare phenomenon in popular music: He is great, but not cool. Who else, Klosterman wonders, has so qualitatively mastered his chosen field yet so thoroughly embodies lameness?
I couldn’t help thinking of it Saturday when I wandered into my neighborhood watering hole (namely, Rumba Cafe) hoping to hear something new. I have to admit that Coal Fired Bicycle struck me as profoundly uncool — not Billy Joel uncool, but uncool enough that I was immediately biased against them to an entirely unfair degree.
And while they aren’t Billy Joel great either, this band of buddies restrained and reformed the part of me that expected to spend 350 words mocking them. They weren’t as rapturous as the bassist’s broad, giddy smile suggested (every note a masterstroke!), but their performance elicited a lot more excitement than I expected after judging them by their cover. I’m not ready to call them up to the majors, but they have the potential to wreck shop in the farm system.
Coal Fired Bicycle’s version of rootsy alt-rock hearkened back to a time when jangly underground music was known as “college rock,” particularly the Midwestern melting pot ramble popularized by Camper Van Beethoven. That group’s REM/Americana mashup allowed them to unfurl in a few different directions, and its descendants in this band continued that tradition.
Among the ingredients Saturday: shimmering guitar effects, jazzy organ grooves, rhythms ranging from bluesy rumble to syncopated punk rave-up. The violin did a lot to distinguish this from your average early-alt-era homage. The vocals cast them in the unfortunate light of post-grunge bar-band warblers like Seven Mary Three, though frontman Daniel Sherwood’s songwriting redeemed that aspect of the band to the point that I could envision Coal Fired Bicycle getting spins on the 1998 version of CD101. With more people in the room, pints to the sky, these could have been Pogues songs.
They were at their best when dredging up chaos, when everything was full blast and the melodies competed with the noise. Fortunately, that happened more often than not, and, yeah, it was kind of great.