July 15, 2019
Released On September 15, 2017
Released By Say-10 Records
You may have never heard of Choke Up. At this point, they’ve been together for 10 years, but if you don’t live in the Allston neighborhood of Boston, it might be hard for them to come across your radar. In fact, it wasn’t until 2015 when the band properly released their first album, Black Coffee, Bad Habits, and it was there that the band really hit the mark on who they are and what they sound like, setting the stage for another great record a few years later: 2017’s Stormy Blue.
To know Choke Up is to love Choke Up. Here in Boston, we all know them through one way or another, but in the rest of the world, we know them by the vibrant and captivating characters that exist in their song lyrics, specifically on Stormy Blue.
How do I sum up Stormy Blue? Well, how do you explain the sonic difference between this record and the one before? How can a band still be the same, yet release something so different… while also not being that different? Maybe there aren’t answers, but whether you’re starting with this record or you’re coming to Stormy Blue after experiencing Black Coffee, Bad Habits (which I highly recommend), just know that Choke Up has created a true journey, one that’s best described as Back To The Future.
Yes, that Back To The Future.
In 2019, Choke Up exist as a band that released Black Coffee, Bad Habits, but when Marty McFly hits 88 miles per hour and travels to November 5th, 1955, Choke Up exist as a band that released Stormy Blue. It’s what a hardcore/post-punk band sounds like in 1955 at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance, and while it might excite people, it could also leave them a bit confused back then. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet… but you kids are gonna love it.”
Like Back To The Future, the story of this record is charming, fascinating, and stirring. The records’ lyrics will paint a picture in your head so vividly of characters weaving through scenes of diners, leather jackets, old classic cars, and fireworks as they take walks on the pier and dream of one day leaving their small town. All of it comes together in classic story fashion, albeit channeled through the forceful spirit of a great punk band.
In a very David-Lynch-circa-Lost Highway way, I often find myself listening to this record alone at night, speeding down the highway with only my headlights in sight, screaming “Hallelujah, nothing left to lose / Got nothing left to lose but you” as “Blue Moon” fills the sound in and around me.
It’s records like Stormy Blue that make you truly feel music in your heart.
Boston hellions, mixing the defiant idealism of punk with the wistful spirit of Americana.
A few years ago, someone handed me a copy of Choke Up’s first album, Black Coffee, Bad Habits (figuratively, it was a digital copy). I was expecting to absolutely adore it, much in the same way that I adored a record like The Future Is Cancelled, but as things would have it, the album never really stuck with me. But I didn’t hate it and I remember thinking that it had hints of great things to come so I would keep my ear close to the ground. That… did not happen. Stormy Blue came out in 2017 and this past week has been the first time I’ve listened to it. Oops. While Choke Up flew off my radar, they didn’t lose any of the things I liked about them. They even added some new tricks that are very up my alley. There’s been a rising trend in punk rock to adopt elements of Americana, superimposing romantic small-town imagery over dirty power chords, and I’m a sucker for it. (This is not a “new” thing: X has been doing the rockabilly thing since their inception and Mike Ness is just one song about being a cowboy away from being Jon Bon Jovi, but it’s been happening more and more in the last 15 years, approximately coinciding with the release of The Gaslight Anthem’s Sink Or Swim. But I digress.) When I hear the repeated references to a Jenny, the slow twang of “Arcade On The Pier” or the opening lyrics of “Joyride” I feel like I’ve been well acquainted with Stormy Blue for years, having it accompany me on many-a-road trip. Hell, “Joyride” even name-drops “Thunder Road.” How do I not already have some of these lyrics tattooed anywhere on my body? I think one of my biggest gripes about Black Coffee, Bad Habits was that sometimes it felt its 14 songs meandered and it felt too long. With Stormy Blue, I feel like it’s over before I realize it and I have to start it again. And on that note, let me hit play once more.
Ever since I looked at the back of GZA’s Liquid Swords for the first time, I always read track lists before listening to albums. I feel like it’s a great opportunity to glean some sort of meaning from the album, that is, if the artist actually intends to project some sort of meaning from the song titles and their sequencing. Sometimes, I guess I end up projecting my own meanings onto an album based on a track list; listening for clues to make my theory come true. Just reading the track list for Stormy Blue got me excited. It reads like an outline for Dazed & Confused. Think about it: it’s a story of one night, a “Saturday Night,” where the characters go on a “Joyride,” throw back some “Blue Moon” while cruising out to a field party at the “Borderland.” Along the way, they might stop off at the “Arcade On The Pier,” where they pick up their crazy friend who drags them out to the “Roadside Graves” to set off “Fireworks,” and then it’s “Full Bloom To Bedlam.” Then, our protagonist gets leveled with disappointment by the girl of his dreams (“Level Me“), and everything’s okay again by “Sunday Morning.” That’s just how my mind works, anyway. And to my enjoyment, much of the album actually plays out that way (take a look at the lyrics on Genius), especially on “Sunday Morning” where “a fading parade of bad ideas burns out madly and disappears / The anger that drove you and I here is a trail of smoke in the rear view mirror.” I love when that happens.
There’s a sense of impossible exhaustion throughout Stormy Blue. It’s like the whole record is mile 25 of a marathon, but the band has to power through and finish. “We’ve come this far, so we’re gonna finish this motherfucker” or something akin to that. And I guess when you’re outrunning your past — or trying to, anyway — you’re likely to get pretty tired. Not even Springsteen himself was able to do it. (By the way, it’s near perfect irony that his breakout album, and probably his defining song, was about running away from his home only to be defined by it because of that very song.) And then there’s the other half of running away: what you’re running towards. I like the idea of running towards (not down) a dream, a place that only might exist. In that way, I think of “Run To The Sun” by N*E*R*D. That is to say, running towards the Sun is on the same level as trying to find a dream in real life. But I get it. There’s a sense of freedom in constant motion, a sense of purpose in always moving. It’s nicely summed up in two tracks whose lyrics seem to be of a pair: “Oh, and you ask me if I’m scared, goddamn, I’m scared of everything / But what keeps me up at night is settling” and “But it’s hard to put a price on independence.” I dunno if any of this is coherent, but I do know that somewhere and somehow there’s a point that I’m trying to arrive at. Maybe one day I’ll get there.
Capturing the ennui of the heartland & big city with explosive energy & pensive melodies.
Chris didn’t belong in our town. He came from Florida, a place I’d never been to and only knew as hot, home to Disney and inhabited predominantly by elderly Canadians. In this case, however, Chris’s parents brought him north for the summer and dropped him off with his grandparents and a brand-new Ford Bronco to keep him entertained for the summer. We were happy to make his acquaintance at a local skate spot. He introduced me to Dinosaur Jr. as we drove around our small fishing town in his Bronco talking about music and skateboarding. We told him that our favourite local punk band was playing at a venue just outside the town that very evening. He didn’t hesitate — he offered to pick up myself and a handful of my closest friends so we could all attend the show. It was as awesome as we hoped. Indie punk rock blasted out of cheap amplifiers piled at the back of our local rec center. Wall-shaking distorted guitars from people we knew as high school buddies emerged as the wail of rock idols we happened to share Math with. On the way home, we talked excitedly about the show and Chris became distracted as we rounded an unusually tight corner. It was the sort of corner that anyone locally would have known to slow down for but Chris approached it at an impossible speed, driving a Ford Bronco. In those days, the Bronco had a reputation for a thin wheelbase and a resulting instability at high speeds. It flipped over with ease, a simple, indisputable act of physics and we rolled several times before crashing into a nearby ditch. The roof was crushed and the glass from the windows rained down around us all before we came to rest. Immediately we climbed out of the wreckage and I distinctly recall picking tiny glass shrapnel out of my scalp as we assembled ourselves safely away from the wreck. Down in the twinkling hulk of a perversely warped carriage, I could hear the sound of a guitar solo wailing. One of the neighbours must have called the police because emergency crews eventually arrived. Miraculously, nobody was seriously injured. Chris was most concerned that he was going to be in serious trouble for wrecking the brand-new Bronco. We never saw him again after that summer.
I bring this up because what strikes me about that night is the wide range of emotions one can feel within a single emotional context. Whether it’s nostalgia for a moment, an evening, or an entire summer, it’s impossible to describe how I remember that event in a single emotion. In that way, our memories have something in common with a great record which explores a range of emotions — a record like Choke Up’s Stormy Blue. Was it the elation of moshing to the distorted guitar of our favourite high school punk band, the terror as our world rocked into a life-threatening tumble, or the sadness of arriving home, sitting down, and taking stock of the evening? All of these points are hit on Stormy Blue and throughout its run-time one gets the sense that it was approached with a larger context in mind. There’s a sincerity in the vocals, a genuine truth to the lyrics and some powerful post-punk melodies which begin in the opener and pop up routinely throughout the experience. Listening to it brought me back to the highs and lows of that summer, and this incident. I don’t know what happened to Chris, but I imagine that wherever he is, he’s still listening to great music. I hope he’s heard this Stormy Blue.
“To know Choke Up is to love Choke Up.”
Back by popular demand (OK, zero demand whatsoever), it’s the return of the classic running-inspired Off Your Radar blurb! Saturday marked the start of my family’s annual week in the Outer Banks, and I spent part of Sunday afternoon running on the beach and unexpectedly obsessing over the concept of texture. Why? For one thing, running on sand is a precarious study in stability. Veer too far from the water and you’re fighting through every dry, unstable step. Too close and you’re trudging through sludge. And you can’t just run in a straight line; you’re constantly reacting and adjusting. Almost right away, it struck me that Stormy Blue is its own study in texture — and a brilliant one at that. Whether you’re looking at vocal intensity, songwriting, guitar sounds, dynamics, or any other measure, Choke Up shows just how texturally diverse a rock album can be. In “Joyride” alone, you have quiet and loud, stops and starts, words sung softly and screamed, crunchy power chords and a solo as cleanly rendered as the famous one in “Sultans Of Swing,” multiple changes in pace… it’s an incredible display of variety. And when you zoom out and look at Stormy Blue as a whole, that variety is still there. I love “Arcade On The Pier,” not just for the story it tells, but also for the way that it never takes a turn for the anthemic; the vocals are more reserved — distant even, with extra reverb — and they never boil over. In that case, the lack of dynamic extremes provides the dynamism. It goes to show how songs are moving targets, and how rendering them faithfully and optimally means modifying your approach and recording with great sensitivity. I have a feeling the Choke Up gang would make for good beach running buddies.
Reading the title of this album and then looking at the cover, I half expected this would be a jazz record. I like it when artists in one genre give subtle nods to another, and the vintage artwork that represents this record is a perfect example. Musically, this piece covers a lot of ground in thirty-three minutes. What I first thought was a punk rock album after listening to the opening track, turned into an indie record on the second, and then folk rock on the third. The shifts in genre felt cohesive and purposeful, while the vocal style provided a consistent thread to line all of the tracks together. As someone who has to learn a lot of songs a lot of the time, I instinctively got a little bit excited when I saw the short song lengths. What a change from back in college when I thought that if your songs weren’t pushing seven minutes, then you weren’t a true artist. There is truly an art to brevity, and that art is rooted in strong dynamic arrangements, and of course, strong songwriting. The most memorable lyrics came in “Full Bloom To Bedlam,” where the atmosphere of the tracks and the idea put forth by the words link up in a very effective way. “Effective” might seem generic, but sometimes it’s hard to describe why a feeling hits in the right way. Artists know and listeners know, but sometimes rather than explain it, it’s best to just acknowledge it. Hats off to Choke Up.
The one thing life does better than anything is keep you guessing. Sure, you may have a routine down in your everyday life, knowing where you’ll be at an given time and what you’ll probably be doing. But even in those strict confines, it’s the little curveballs life throws that keeps you guessing. A longer commute because someone decided to switch lanes at the wrong moment and cause a fender-bender in rush hour. A crappy coffee you drink reluctantly because they put too much (or too little) of the sugar and creamer you asked for. A prolonged afternoon smile because your partner sent you a short, affectionate text right after lunch. Who knows what we’ll experience every day? You might put on Stormy Blue and think you know how everything’s going to play out after the one-two punch of “Saturday Night” and “Joyride.” Doesn’t make it any better or worse — you’ve just heard enough music to know what’s coming next. That was me, about a dozen listens ago. And while I was mostly right about what to expect from the record, it was the little things that caught me off-guard, just like in life, and made my routine listening experience different and one-of-a-kind. I was not expecting “Fireworks” to follow the emotional range of an actual firework display: anticipation, reflection, liberation, and fascination. I was not expecting the random swing element of “Roadside Graves,” often bookending some cathartic rock vocals. Gave me the image of a punk rock kid running away from home and stumbling upon a black-tie ball or something. I was not expecting the bass to bobble around the low end all alone in “Sunday Morning” and usher in the glorious outro of this record. And speaking of glorious, I know for sure I was not expecting such an infectious and cathartic chorus to come out of “Blue Moon,” the album’s crowning achievement. Sure, it had been building for the entire song, but man alive, that’s one punk rock chorus I can’t get enough of. This record may be full of running away from an old life and into a new life, but it’s also a great example of how life always keeps you guessing, with little things that add up to remarkable moments that could never be replicated.
Ventilation: Da LP by Phife Dawg
Chosen By Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford