Friday, June 24, 2011

Blast from the Past: Over the James

Title:  Over the James (Amazon, iTunes, CD Universe,, AllMusic, Wikipedia)

I first heard Avail when my friend Kevin McBride gave me a tape that had The Donnas’ self-titled record on one side and Avail’s Dixie on the other.  I was immediately struck by Avail’s powerful songs that seemed to mix the best of pop punk, hardcore, and working class rock ‘n’ roll (kind of like ALL meets Minor Threat meets Fugazi meets John Mellencamp – the album did close with a killer cover of “Pink Houses” after all).  Shortly thereafter I picked up a copy of Avail’s latest album Over the James at Music Dimensions.  From the first listen I was hooked, an instant fan.  This was two great records in a row; you can’t go wrong with that. 

Over the James worked on the same exact levels that Dixie worked but did it just a tiny bit better.  This mix of pop hooks and sensibilities with melodic hardcore tendencies and southern flair produced an album that from top to bottom was stellar.  From the opening riff of “Deepwood” the closing melodic crescendo of “Fifth Wheel,” Over the James is an album that is as uplifting as it is heartfelt and touching.  The album’s lyrics are passionate and personal and feel like the anthems for the lost misfits and disenchanted, while still finding time to throw in an anthem for their hometown of Richmond, VA (the ridiculously infectious “Scuffle Town”). 

Originally released on Lookout Records in 1998, Over the James was reissued by Jade Tree Records in 2006.  The reissue included new artwork, liner notes, photos, flyers, tracks from The Fall of Richmond seven inch split with the (Young) Pioneers (which included an acoustic version of “Lombardy Street” and a cover of Billy Joel’s “You May Be Right”), and cuts from two compilations (a cover of “Suspicious Minds” from Return of the Red Menace and from Land of Greed World of Need a cover of Embrace’s—the one from Washington D.C. fronted by Ian MacKaye—“Said Gun”).  Admittedly the liner notes aren’t as extensive as I’d like them to be but I tend to geek out over stuff like that. 

Avail is a great band for fans of all types of punk rock; if you like The Bouncing Souls, Minor Threat, Descendents, Dag Nasty, Hot Water Music, Fugazi, ALL, or even bands like Jimmy Eat World then I’d bet you could find at least one song on Over the James that you’d love.  One of Avail’s strengths was that you couldn’t easily pigeonhole their music.  One song is hardcore, one is pop, another rock, and yet another melodic hardcore; there are even hints of country throughout the band’s catalog (which makes sense for those who have followed lead singer Tim Barry’s solo career).  Sadly that lack of a coherent subgenre probably didn’t help the band in the ‘90s when much of the punk rock scene seemed to be obsessively splintered into different sub-scenes.  Personally though, I love that they can’t be easily classified and I just prefer to think of them as a freaking great band.    

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