Melissa Godfrey (not her real name) was a cool girl. Despite being a cheerleader and one of the best-looking girls at Northside Junior High, she was always nice to a dorky kid like me. Melissa would try to make conversation, but I had a problem: I knew that underneath her clothes, she was completely naked. Melissa was one of the first people about whom I realized this, and it left me speechless. Too bad Rat Jackson was not around to give voice to the surge of testosterone flowing through my cerebral cortex. The band’s Midnight Get Right is pure-bred rock n’ roll of a pedigree which reaches back past the Troggs and up through the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Screaming guitars and thumping bass lines would let you know exactly what the songs were about if the thinly veiled allusions in the lyrics left any room for doubt. All of this are delivered by a talented, tight band with both a swagger and a wink which let you know that this is all in good fun.
Being young and wild is good fun until you realize that staying young and staying wild are perhaps diametrically opposed, and besides you are acting like an ass. Somewhere around 1998, I realized I owed Melissa a letter, but in the Internet’s infancy there was no hope of finding a current address whither to apologize. The only thing to do was to go forward and perhaps be less of a jerk. This, as Ryan Sheffield and the Highhills illustrate, is easier said than done. From the very first line of the album Head for the Coast, Sheffield explores how it might be that he knows he wants to grow up but is still not sure how to go about it. His subject has strong potential to get moody, yet is countered by a bright acoustic power-pop sound. The space between who Sheffield is and who he wants to be is filled in with Bryan Highhill’s menagerie of instruments, including but not limited to trumpet and flugelhorn. The best tracks on the record have Sheffield, like Scrooge on Christmas, singing with the hope that he might actually be able to pull off being a decent human being.
Not that even Scrooge kept to all of his good intentions, despite being highly motivated on that morning. Sometimes life intervenes, and in Maps Upon the Sand, Eliza Bell cleverly illustrates the unpredictability of life in general and relationships in particular. Plan all you want, but the tides are guaranteed to change and wipe out your scribbled schemes. Not to be deterred, Bell (who has also released recordings under the name Eliza Rosbach) uses her lyrics to make a raft of realistic optimism for riding the waves and exploring new shores. Her smoky voice invites you sit next to the wood stove amid finger picked guitars and clawhammer banjo to share stories for an evening. With a frontal lobe developed enough to listen, I can hear what in Bell’s songs Melissa might have been saying back when we were Northside Vikings, or what my sweet lady may say tomorrow. And if, after a sip or two of moonshine, one thing leads to another, there is nothing wrong with that. As Bell points out, “Living in love is not living in sin.”