I still remember where I was when I heard that Kurt Cobain had died. My family was on vacation at a resort in Mexico and a gal that I had met on the trip walked out into the sunlit afternoon of April 8th, shaking, and said “Kurt’s dead”. It wasn’t exactly a surprise (several botched attempts at taking his own life in the previous months sadly prevented that), but the shock was palpable nonetheless. We returned home to the states on the 10th amidst the flurry of tributes and ongoing MTV coverage. It still didn’t feel real. That Tuesday, after I got out of class I moped into the local record shop where I worked to pick up the album I had been looking forward to for months: the second album by Antioch, California’s Overwhelming Colorfast. I had initially become a fan of the band through a less-than-legally obtained copy of their decent self-titled debut and its leagues-better promo-only EP, “Bender”. Cobain on the mind, my excitement was dampened and I dutifully bought the cassette, threw it into my off-brand portable cassette player (a Walkman being a dozen dollars or so out of my price range) and pressed play. And I was underwhelmed. Opener “Toss Up” was melodic but ultimately boilerplate punk and its follow-up just sounded tired, like IT didn’t even want to stick around to find out how it ended. So, I turned it off and sulked silently home.
Sometime later that week, I was on the bus ride home from school and I put on my headphones. Having forgotten that it was in there, I pushed play again on “Two Words” and was greeted by the dreamy fade-in of “Sidestick Eyepoker”, a song that had more in common with shoegaze and dream pop than the hard pop and punk-indebted music the band typically traded in. And I was hooked. The melancholy chug and slur culminated in a double-time bridge with OC leader Bob Reed imploring “no one says you had to smile when you gave in” and it was like being hit with a brick to the chest. This perfectly encapsulated the way I was feeling – sad about the loss of an important artistic voice and equally angry and frustrated that he couldn’t find a way out of it. From that point on, I listened to the album with new ears. Reed’s songs touched upon almost every corner of alt rock and pop, ping-ponging from hard-edged rockers like “Four Square” to more pop-minded fare like the stellar “Every Saturday” (a logical choice for a single) and “Roy Orbison” (a knowing nod to the original “lonely one”), and taking detours into straight-up Meat Puppets worship (“Shadows”) and sludgy noise (the harrowing “Hogabanoogen”). Here was the last 10 years of alternative music culture thrown into a blender and spit back out in 14 perfectly-formed musical nuggets (the album is 16 songs long, but I still hold that those first two tracks are a bit undercooked). Gone is the evenly balanced production approach that the renowned Butch Vig had on the debut; in its place is a raw fury and verve courtesy of Kurt Bloch, longtime stalwart of the Northwest musical scene and guitarist extraordinaire in the Young Fresh Fellows and Fastbacks. And this is very much an album produced with an ear for guitar. The rich tones he pulls out of Reed’s and co-guitarist Torg Hallin’s axes are nothing short of brilliant, each fuzzy note perfectly pitched to deliver what the song needs. An excellent example is album stand-out, “Buffalo Toy” – beginning with what sounds like a 4-track recording of Reed playing and singing alone, the song bursts into the hi-fi first chorus like Dorothy bursting into Oz, all Technicolor guitar squall and overdriven leads. By the time the coda has Reed pleading in his Bob Mould-like wail “Would you pick up the phone and please call me…pick up the phone, pick up the phone!”, his and Hallin’s guitars snake around each other in a solo that sounds like something straight out of the Dinosaur Jr. songbook. Breathtaking.
Needless to say, Cobain’s death cast its pall, but eventually life went on. “Two Words”, however, kept me in its thrall and it means as much to me today as it did 19 years ago upon its initial release. It remains an undiscovered gem and though Reed would go on to make one more album with a reconstituted cast of characters as the Colorfast, this is my vote for his masterwork. Music is inherently personal and subjective, and it’s something that at its finest can inspire awe and act as a safe haven in dark times. This is that album for me and my greatest hope for those who feel similarly is that they find their own “Two Words” when they need it most.