Up here in Boston, we’re in the midst of a 90’s music renaissance. Or so I’m told. Sometime a year or two ago, the local press wrote enough about this purported revival to power a hot air balloon, and they flew that baby as far as it would go. Meanwhile, as a recent transplant to the area, my head was still spinning from the variety of sounds and the supportive communities built up around them in this one city. The notion that one genre had taken over as the only scene in town didn’t make sense.
And, just to be clear: “the 90’s” aren’t a genre.
I point this out because it seems to be the only label anyone could find for homegrown favorites The Dirty Dishes. A quartet with bona fides from Berklee College of Music, the band first came to my attention when I saw them open for Autolux in August 2010. Lead singer and guitarist Jenny Tuite had me clinging to her siren voice while waves of rock, metal, and fuzz buffeted me from all sides; and there were shipwrecks to show. Later, at their merch booth, I got to chat with Socrates Cruz, a Harvard grad and local musician and music promoter who at that time was running an underground concert venue out of his Allston home, where The Dirty Dishes were repeat performers. Apparently they had a serious following, only about a year and a half since playing their first show.
So here’s what I came home with that night:
The ’09 debut EP that they refer to as In the Clouds features arpeggiated riffs, fierce drumming, and a healthy mix of cleanliness and dirtiness. Plus, the breakdowns are wicked fun. (I’ve applied for a student permit for saying things like “wicked pissah” and order “cawwwfee” at Dunkin Donuts, but the ID hasn’t come yet.) But through it all, Tuite’s plush, vespertine melodies pass undisturbed, as if taking no notice of their chaotic surroundings.
Have you ever been on an airplane with a veteran pilot who flies you smoothly through a thundercloud? You can see the dark and lightning but can’t feel the turbulence. That’s what it’s like to crawl inside her vocals. Of course, as the band plays on, you’re welcome at any time to grab a parachute and jump, taking your chances in the thin air. Sometimes you’ll get the clouds, sometimes you’ll get the storm.
If you want to know how that feels, you’ve got two options: take a listen at their bandcamp, or read the reviews. Let’s see what those say. Apparently these guys are RIYL… Smashing Pumpkins, Pavement, Deftones, My Bloody Valentine, Stone Temple Pilots, Dinosaur Jr., Nirvana, or Fugazi. Catch the common thread? That’s right, The Dirty Dishes sound exactly like the whole 90’s! (This is my sarcastic face.)
We resume the story. The band was pretty pleased working with prolific mixing engineer Keith Freund (founder of Fix Your Mix), and would again, but was less pleased about recording pell mell in various basements and sometimes in the back of a van. For their next effort, they wanted the full studio experience, and a $1,700 Kickstarter campaign helped make that dream come true. Touring, including trips outside Massachusetts whenever possible, never really took a backseat, and The Dirty Dishes’ following continued to expand. The only signs of growing pains were a change in drummer (the great Mike Thomas replacing the great Kevin Lynch) and a hold put on Tuite’s solo project, Cloud Cover.
The next time I saw them play was August 2011, though I wish I hadn’t waited so long. (By the way, it’s easy to get fooled into thinking these guys are just “a shoegaze band” when you see them live, because that’s exactly what Tuite does. But the rest of the band does not hesitate to rock, and their music is so much deeper than that.) After the show I had no trouble finding guitarist and synth player Alex Molini outside the venue, where I congratulated him for a solid show (there was a hi-five involved) and asked when we’d see new material in disc form. He said all the tracks had been laid down but that they had no idea how long it would take to finish producing.
The answer came in the winter. I preordered ASAP, giving happily when asked to name my own price. Finally, earlier this month, a bundle of joy appeared on my doorstep.
The Most Tarnished Birds (bandcamp) doubles The Dirty Dishes’ published catalog from five songs to ten. Track 1, “Hush”, fits perfectly with what came before. There’s wind, there’s hail. There’s an occluded front. All of nature seems poised to unleash itself upon you; and it does. Later, in “Break”, you have almost no chance of finding the elusive 5/8 beat and must hold on tight—because whether you know it or not, you’re only in the eye.
The band also advances their art and explores new musical territory. “Gaze” lets Tuite freak us out just a little bit as her glossy voice begins to creak and succumb to the eerie guitar, playing on all the trust we’ve built up as that voice guided us through storms past. Its chorus, along with several other songs on the EP, features melody of a more traditional rock style than most of In the Clouds. “Bloom” and “Blur” actually come across as potentially accessible to a much-expanded market. These encroach on the kind of dream pop made profitable by The Silversun Pickups and others, perhaps including recently the very digital M83. By the numbers, the songs on The Most Tarnished Birds average around 3:28, some thirty seconds shorter than the debut EP and perfectly scaled for radio.
Of course, we’re still kept on our toes. Just as the earlier “In the Clouds” (the song) tripped up stoners with an abrupt cutoff, perhaps heralded by the mid-song lyric “But then you’ll bolt awake,” here the unprepared get shaken by the surprise psychedelic freakout bridge in “Bloom”. There are a lot of clever elements to catch on repeated listens, from Jay Marcovitz’s bass ranging from sweet to static, to little bits of taped sounds, to the cheeky self-reference near the top of the album when the siren sings, “We’re in the clouds now.”
Tomorrow I’ll be at another Dirty Dishes show as the open for Cloud Nothings. Already this month, the Boston group has played three sets at SXSW (their third appearance at that festival, if I’m not mistaken)—including one as part of Cruz’s “Boston in Austin” showcase—and seven other shows across six other states. Not bad for a local act! But, especially with the networking opportunities SXSW represents, there’s a palpable hope in this town that The Dirty Dishes aren’t going to be local for long. They’re ready for success on a grander scale, and we might not be able to contain them for much longer. One way or another, they’re bursting out of Boston.