Mother / Menthol
Colin Koteles: Drums
Joel Spencer: Bass, vocals
Balthazar deLey: Vocals, guitar
Hometown: Champaign / Chicago
I don't usually like to deface my belongings with stickers. Therefore, when I do afix one to something I own, it says something about the depths of my approval for the thing represented. Since childhood, I can only remember making the following exceptions to my dislike of stickers-
1. A "Kerry '04" sticker on my car during the '04 campaign season.
2. A Maple Leaf Legacy Project window decal I acquired in Ypres, Belgium that resides on my vehicle still.
3. A Zapruder Point sticker on the inside lid of my work toolkit.
4. A Mother sticker I put on my leather jacket in college.
Mother was formed in 1991 when then Hum bassist deLey decided he wanted to lead his own band and play guitar. They soon began playing around the midwest, and inevitably followed their Champaign brethren (Poster Children, Hum, Honcho Overload, etc) down the mysterious pipeline that connected Champaign and Athens, Ohio where I saw them several times (the night my band opened for Mother and God & Texas ranks as the highlight of my musical "career"). Their music is perhaps best described by deLey in a 1995 interview with Rational Alternative Digital:
"It tends to be a high minded, very loud, mildly pornographic rock that's basically aimed at sort of well-read, literate type people who've been obviously drinking. I think that about spells it out."
They sounded like a sped-up, postpunk ZZ Top and were absolutely flawless live- the first time I saw them, their first song stopped me mid-sentence and I stood captivated throughout the rest of their set. They were able to graft literary, even poetic lyrics onto unironic, unpretentious amped-up boogie rock in a way few others could even conceive of, much less pull off.
They released a crappy sounding 7" before heading to the legendary Ardent studios in Memphis to blast out "Gold Record" in three days before Christmas 1993 (and a single day later for mixing). The results are mixed- the performances are naturally excellent but the sound, especially the drums, suffers from the haste in which the record was made (the guitars sound great, though). For bands on a limited budget, there's always the trade-off of spending more time in a cheap studio, or less time in an expensive one. Mother had gone the budget route for their 7" with less than stellar results (both songs were re-recorded at Ardent for the CD), so it's natural that they'd want to try the other route- this isn't a criticism of the band, just an observation of the perils and pitfalls of indie rock.
Ultimately, "Gold Record" was good enough (along with constant touring) to snag the band a deal with Capitol records. At this point it was discovered that Mother was a common band name, so for legal reasons the group changed their name to Menthol. The self-titled "Menthol" CD came out in 1995, the year the band moved to Chicago. The album finds Menthol refining and expanding on their style- hooky guitar rock with wordy lyrics that demand repeated listenings to begin deciphering. While it lacks some of the bracing immediacy of "Gold Record", "Menthol" makes up for it with improved sound and more diverse arrangements. "Menthol" wasn't just one of the best records of 1995, it's better than most of the records released since.
The group continued to tour extensively, but eventually finished a followup album in 1998. Capitol balked when they heard it, and eventually dropped Menthol. The band spent the next four years fighting to get their record back, and eventually issued a re-recorded version of the album, "Danger: Rock Science!" in 2002 (thanks in large part to Engine Studios manager John Humphrey, formerly of God & Texas- see the "mysterious pipeline" comment above).
In 2003 I came across a copy of the CD, which I didn't even know was out, in a used CD store. It'd been eight years since I'd seen anything about Menthol, and I'd assumed they'd broken up. I was elated- I ran to the register, paid, and immediately ran out to my car and put the disc on. I wasn't even remotely prepared for the sounds that came out of my speakers. I ejected the disc, assuming there'd been a mistake and the wrong CD had been placed in the jewel case. No mistake- Menthol had taken a serious detour.
"Danger: Rock Science!" sounds like Devo or Gary Neuman outtakes- it's absolutely nothing like anything Menthol had done before, and even deLey's singing is unrecognisable. It's almost like a parody of early '80s synth "new wave" music, except that a parody would be funny. The extreme overemphasis on annoying, gimmicky production tricks takes the focus away from the songs, which is usually a sign of deficient songwriting, a malady Menthol had not previously suffered from.
Let me make something clear- I'm not upset at Menthol for changing their style (I've always defended an artist's right to follow their muse, even if I don't like it- something I call the "Neil Young Rule"), I'm pissed off they made an unlistenable sonic abortion out of what could have been another collection of superior rock tunes. Like the synthpop it attempts to recreate, "Danger: Rock Science!" is as valueless and disposable as tinsel- all flash, no substance, so in that respect I suppose they succeeded completely.
Menthol have a website, which doesn't seem to have been updated much in the last year. There is a link to a 2005 Chicago radio broadcast though, which reveals the band playing material from "Danger: Rock Science!" in a manner similar to the Cars- still synth heavy, but not half as annoying as the album. Through this it's possible to tell that there were, in fact, good songs on that album buried under all the trash.
On the broadcast, deLey mentions the band were then (11/05) working on a new EP, and there are mp3s of new material on the website (only one of which seems to work- "Bavarian Girl"), but to my knowledge no further Menthol releases have surfaced. "Bavarian Girl" is ambient, shoegazery pop unlike any of their previous work, but unlike "Danger: Rock Science!" it doesn't drown in bad production cliches- it actually sounds pretty cool. I look forward to hearing any future music from Menthol, whenever and whatever it may be.
From "Gold Record", 1994
Still in print! Click here to order
Stress Is Best
From "Menthol", 1995
(out of print)