by Donny Doane
Whenever I start a new project I always wonder if this is the piece where I’ll get all H.P. Lovecraft on everyone’s ass. Well, sadly for all the goths out there, this isn’t the one. Why? Because there’s nothing frightening or morose about St. Paul indie-rock outfit Hockey Night. No, they are only scary in a Lola Heatherton kind of way. The rank sickness of the moldering universe doesn’t seep through to cast its dead light upon a glowing world when I listen to Hockey Night’s soon to be released sophomore effort, Keep Guessin’, and the spirits of the night dance not to lumbering minor key malaise but rather to magical flutes, lyres and perhaps a zither or two for good measure. This is the summer where the lowly flip-flop stomps the mighty Doc Marten, where a fun and energetic local band kicks overly serious musical mopesters to the curb. There’s nothing dark about Hockey Night’s music, and this is precisely its operative virtue.
Download an mp3 of Hockey Night’s song “For Guys Eyes Only.”
listening to their aptly titled Lookout!Records debut, I’m suddenly transported.
No longer am I in the tense present, but back in the basement of the Salvation
Army shooting pool in the late ’70s when the portable radio was EVERYWHERE
and the deejays were as cheesy as some of the stuff they were spinning. These
were the years when a Farrah poster hung in every home, skateboards filled every
yard and the weed was prehistoric. Between the ages of 10 and 13 kids go through
a lot of stuff they don’t understand and can’t do anything about.
Back then I was too young to be a music snob. Music was my tonic, my escape.
It helped me deal with frequent relocation, day camp nightmares and the shocking
rematriculation into the Catholic school system. That old Lloyd’s AM/FM
radio and the game room jukebox were among my closest friends. Little did I
know it would be the beginning of an exciting and rewarding “career.”
So what if I was grooving to Nazareth, Kansas, Boston and Head East? There was
still Bowie, Bruce, Black Sabbath and B.O.C. But until I owned an actual stereo
or made friends with someone who did, I didn’t have much choice.
Oddly enough, my relationship with the Hockey Night dudes began two blocks from
the aforementioned Salvation Army, albeit some 25 plus years later. I’d
always see these young guys in the bar playing Manfred Mann and Supertramp on
the juke. Given that most of the songs they were selecting had originally been
recorded around the time they were conceived, I surmised that they were in discovery
mode rather than on a nostalgia kick. Oh my, but if it didn’t warm my
cold, cold heart to hear cool youngins who were obviously in a band embracing
that shit. Because let’s face it, most of said shit could be pretty fucking
corny, to say the least. But that’s not to say there aren’t any
golden kernels to be gleaned from the bulk.
Hockey Night are master gleaners, and although they cull sounds from ’70s
and ’80s AOR, they set them to their own unmistakable current post-millenium
prerogative. Even the indie-centric influence of the ’90s takes on a more
classic than contemporary feel. And while I won’t completely dismiss the
Pavement comparisons, neither will I wholly honor them. Where the latter’s
sonic surface was more often cracked and strewn with dirt, rocks and twigs,
Hockey Night’s deck is smoothly and cleanly swept.
Hockey Night is essentially the brood of vocalist/guitarist Paul Sprangers,
and his ever evolving, sometimes rotating cast of co-conspirators. In the early
days, Paul and friends Scott Wells (guitar) and Alex Achen (drums) began their
musical journey together kicking around in the Red Wing-based garage band Renegades.
On the side, Sprangers started doing Hockey Night as a poppier, more experimental
alter-ego. As time went by, Renegades were eventually absorbed by Hockey Night
in what could be described as some form of musical Darwinism. Rounding out the
roster are current bassist Zack Rose and gregarious drummer Adam Harness (that’s
right people, TWO drummers).
the help of big name producer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Phish, Chavez, Low) the
boys have crafted an outstanding record with which to fuck the world. Keep
Guessin’ is sunny and fun. It smirks and winks. There are no furrowed
brows or arched lips. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t rock, though,
because it certainly does. But it rocks in such a way as to be lovingly respectful
and reverent to the muse.
Just in case the generous helping of hooks weren’t enough, the songs are
held fast by hoops, hasps, clasps and mousetraps. At times their compositions
evoke some fanciful musical carpentry based on an odd geometry where things
don’t necessarily need to be perfectly square to succeed. Yet however
off-kilter their joinery, it all fits together soundly with strange dadoes,
weird miters and crazy mortices. As if making a record like this weren’t
ballsy enough these days, this writer believes that nationally reknowned indie
label Lookout Records decision to sign them was an equally bold maneuver.
Known largely as a major-indie punk label that concentrates on cultivating San
Francisco area groups, Lookout! acted as nursery to such higher profile acts
as Green Day and The Donnas. With Hockey Night, however, they have the feather
of a different bird in their cap. They’re punk because they aren’t
punk. Hasn’t anyone figured that one out by now? It’s in your head,
not on your body. Once a uniform has been issued and embraced it becomes standardized
and lacks the vitality of the original mission statement. You no longer own
the attitude, it owns you. That doesn’t sound very punk, now does it?
All Ray Davies needed to say was, “I’m not like everybody else.”
It’s pretty simple stuff. Just be it. Screw the prescribed accouterments.
Oh, and unlike The Donnas, these guys weren’t synthesized in some secret
Hollywood lab. They’re real dudes!
With that said, let’s take a little look at some of Hockey Night’s
curious offerings from their new 11-song LP, in no particular order. “Saturday
Night Gallop” sets off at an insistent rhythmic throb whose barely subdued
majesty finds itself somewhat restlessly between a haughty trot and as it’s
title implies, a giddy gallop. The shift from modern sensibilities to the rapture
of Thin Lizzy is remarkably seamless. Paul and Scott’s harmonizing lead
lines are the lighter than air element by which the song takes flight, while
the rhythm section acts as the tethering influence to prevent them from suffering
the fate of Icarus. Like many songs on the record, it skips and bounces along
like carefree kids playing hopscotch and 4-square.
The resigned, bittersweet melodies of “This Peaceful Year” could
probably find their way onto both an old Pink Floyd and an early Wilco record,
as well as in the repertoire of late great local Yankee Southern Rock band The
Youngers. “Renegades” comes off as a slightly misty-eyed look to
their past that has an even more accelerated poignance given their present situation,
regardless of how old the song might be. At times Sprangers’ vocals assume
the glottal scrape of J. Mascis, though not as frayed or wounded. And lyrically,
his poetry veers from the obtuse, Beat-like “We’re making fantasy
art from the gossip” in the opening “Get Real” to the more
concise sentiments found in “Greet the Dawn,” where “We raise
our swords to champion the dying” is reminiscent of Robert Pollard’s
drunken nobleman best.
Sprangers lives in NYC, the rest of the band live here, so when they’re
not on tour, you can find them at the bar ravaging several Heggies pizzas. In
fact I’m willing to bet that the lack of Heggies back East brings Sprangers
back more often, so once the last slice is dispatched, it’s time to let
fly with the shizzizz. As always such foolish activities are always accompanied
by a great deal of laughter and perhaps nearly as much lying.
Pulse: So where did Hockey Night come from?
Paul Sprangers: You mean the name?
Pulse: Well, no. I mean, we can get to that later if we even need to.
I don’t think that’s really an issue. A name’s a name. If
if works, it works. That’s all it really has to do. It doesn’t have
to be witty or clever. If it works, that its primary function. But no, I believe
Adam told me the three of you are from Red Wing.
Alex Achen: We played together in high school. Paul and Scott started Renegades
with a couple other guys and eventually I started playing with them on drums.
It was the three of us. Two guitars and drums. Then we all went to college and
Paul started doing Hockey Night on his own, and he did an EP and then Rad Zapping,
which some of us played on kind of. With this album it’s more of a band.
But definitely Paul did a lot of the first Hockey Night stuff.
Pulse: So he’s pretty much...
Adam Harness: The meat and bones.
Pulse: And as you mentioned there was kind of floating cast during the
Scott Wells: Just whoever was playing, you know.
Achen: Mostly the floating members have been bass players. We’ve
had a lot of bass players.
Wells: It was pretty much just Paul, and once he was done with school
he moved back here and Renegades became Hockey Night. When we did the
Rad Zapping tour, it was as Renegades doing Renegades songs and then songs off
the record. So when we got back we decided to leave Renegades behind.
Pulse: So it’s an amalgamation of the two?
Well, Renegades were just different. Hockey Night was Paul’s songs, whereas
Renegades were us and this thing we’d been doing forever that was way
scrappier. So now it’s just kind of a reconciliation of the two. There’s
the wild high school punk thing and Paul’s pop songs.
Pulse: Where’dja go to school?
Pulse: Right on. And the rest of you?
Achen: I went to the U of M.
Harness: I went to Harvard, man. Sorry.
Pulse: So how has signing to a label changed the band or your lives?
Sprangers: It hasn’t really changed things at all. They’ll
put out the record and get it in stores and we’ll continue doing the exact
same thing we’ve been doing. We have a manager who comes and goes independently
of the label.
Pulse: Did you guys book your tours in the past?
Sprangers: No, our manager has.
Pulse: So you’ve had him for awhile then?
Sprangers: Yeah, since we started touring. I tried my hand at it once
and it was a disaster.
Achen: The tour that involved if I recall correctly, waking up in the
front seat of my mini-van in a Wendy’s parking lot in only my boxers that
had Coke poured in the crotch.
Sprangers: Yeah, those were good times. But I never guaranteed they’d
be great times.
Achen: That was intense.
Sprangers: It was like 10 days, three shows. And you know what? The shows
weren’t that good.
Achen: We once played a Battle of the Bands in Fayetteville, N.C., that
Mike [manager] had to pay $25 to enter us in. It was at a skate park and it
was so weird.
Sprangers: Also, I don’t mean to belittle the label because it’s
a huge deal, they’re awesome people and they’re helping us a lot,
but nothing’s really changed as far as...
Wells: How we operate.
Achen: It’s still gonna be tough.
Sprangers: Yeah, it’s really hard, but it’s just another
resource we can utilize that’ll help us keep doing what we’re doing.
It’s an amazing label that from what I can tell is pretty down to earth
and organized and they’ve been around for awhile which is important.
Yeah, they’re very established and you’re part of a respectable
roster. Either way, you guys should be proud of yourselves. You deserve it.
I find it a rather curious decision on their part because a lot of independent
labels tend to foster a regional or house sound like Amrep or SST.
Wells: Absolutely. That’s what we all think. It is very curious.
Pulse: Okay, dudes we’re running out of tape. So when we gonna
hear some .38 Special?
Harness: Did you read that shit?
Pulse: What shit?
Harness: Some article that said we sound like a terrible version of .38
Pulse: No. But I recently read a review on howwastheshow.com from last year
that was quite favorable.
WELLS: Yeah, yeah. That was really nice. But there are quite a few bad
reviews, too. Which is good.
Pulse: Well, if everybody’s kissing your ass you have to ask yourself
just what the hell you’re doing. I mean there’s as much validation
or maybe more in pissing somebody off, you know.
Oh yeah. But no, I’m just saying. There are some really good bad reviews
on the web, so feel free to check them out.
So once again, there it is. Rock ’n roll is like pizza. You have your
crust, your sauce, your cheese and your toppings. All you need to do is apply
a little heat and it’s all good. And if my predictions are correct, I’m
thinking that the next pie Hockey Night bakes will be loaded with J. Geils,
Saga and a heapin’ helpin’ of Donnie Iris, all set atop a Sonic
Youth crust. ||
Hockey Night play the CD release show for Keep Guessin’ on
Sat. July 16 at Big V’s with Troubled Hubble. 9 p.m. 21+. $ 5. 1567 University
Ave. W., St.
Paul. 651-645-8472. Find out more about the Hockey Night
on their official website at HockeyNightMusic.com.
Head on over to our mp3
page to download hundreds of tunes, including Hockey Night’s song
Guys Eyes Only.”