Issue #31: Frisbie by Heavy Vegetable
August 29, 2016
Released In September 12, 1995
Released By Headhunter Records
Biting my lip, nervously looking across the darkened room to a man I had met only a couple of weeks prior, I dropped the needle down onto the record. It’s a slow open, I said, twirling my hair as the metronome guitar chimes out of the speakers. The first of the 28 tracks composing this album plays deviously slow, dreamily half-open, and we spent the first minute in silence before “Cotton Swab” breaks more into the fractured melodies that will follow. I am tense, watching him listen; I have only played this, the first album I bought on vinyl, for two people in my life. One became a good friend (our own sweet Drew) and the other became a boyfriend already faded into rarely revisited memories, but both were unfamiliar with the album, and here I stood again, unwrapping a piece of myself in 33 1/3 RPM. Earlier that night, swaying self-consciously in the stage lights of Clair Morgan (whoop whoop Shannon!), trying to nonchalantly look pretty even in the dark, I had leaned in to his arm, told him this sound reminded me of one of my favorites, invited him into my house for the first time to play Heavy Vegetable’s Frisbie.
Years prior, riding sticky hot on the bench seat of a car named Shirlene, my boyfriend played cuts from this album on a beat-up old tape he’d hauled down to Alabama across five years and as many states. Struck then by the classical phrasing often found in the tracks, the time signatures that range away from the standard 4/4, I listened with awe. This was my first prog rock, my first blend of punk and jazz and pretty and heavy that jumps frenetically but never without purpose. Tracking down this vinyl was not easy; he didn’t remember any of the members’ names, Heavy Vegetable had no Wikipedia page, no tracks listed on YouTube, no band site even from a fan. Maybe a year later, and I found a two-record set of Frisbie and The Amazing Undersea Adventures Of Aqua Kitty And Friends being sold on eBay by a dude who either worked at Cargo or knew someone who did. A decade happened somehow after that, ten years of this record playing in the background of an eventual marriage to that boyfriend, years of hearing it while we cooked or helped our first, then second, daughters take their first steps and play make believe. Walking sadly out of that house, armed with the certainty that comes at the end of a lovely but finite relationship, I took books and clothes and a small handful of the records we’d collected, this one coerced with the surrender of twenty others.
Playing, then, over the speakers came the mix of genre that Heavy Vegetable consistently interweaves in their music. The voices of Rob Crow and Eléa Tenuta sound angelic amidst off-kilter lyrics that smack more of They Might Be Giants than the complicated punk/jazz arrangements would suggest. Songs like “Spatula” move playfully into “Jackie Chan Is A Punk Rocker,” super fun lyrics set against spurts of rapid drums and razored guitar, but stand up against the vulnerability found in “Sad Mud Song,” held together by those voices and the freedom of experimentation characterizing the album.
Playing, too, over the speakers were years of my life unfurling backwards into the dark. Albums like this, that form the soundtrack of your life, can never be just played. They inform the expression on your face, the familiarity in your fingers and toes as you tap out those little bits that you wouldn’t hear on the first, second, third listen. When I played this album for him, I wasn’t showing off my record collection, trying to impress this quiet, intense bassist leaning, arms folded, against the doorway to my living room (okay, maybe a little bit). Standing there, I was twenty-two years old, unsure but rabid about music, playing an album hunted down after hearing it on an old mixtape in my boyfriend’s Buick. The man I had met a couple of weeks prior, the man I’m going to marry next summer, looked up shocked at me across the dim room, said, “I know this guitar, this voice — this is Rob Crow, from Pinback, one of my favorite bands,” and saw me, saw the whole of me.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
One of the few pictures of the band online making their photo presence as brief as their songs.
I know about Heavy Vegetable — they’re the first Rob Crow band. Rob Crow is a guy from the San Diego post-hardcore scene who has been making waves in a variety of projects over the past 25 or so years. He’s showed up in a lot of places (that’s him yelling “Aloha, suit up!” on the chorus to “Luau” by Drive Like Jehu, for example), but he’s never really established any one of his projects as “the definitive Rob Crow project” in the same way that, say Pantera is the definitive Phil Anselmo band, or EyeHateGod is the definitive Mike IX Williams band. I think if there’s a place to start with Rob Crow, it’s probably Pinback, the project he started in the late ’90s with Three Mile Pilot bassist Armistead Burwell Smith IV. But Heavy Vegetable was his first major group. I heard their name a lot back then, when teenage me was super-invested in the whole post-hardcore world and was steady checking out rad San Diego projects like Three Mile Pilot, Drive Like Jehu, and Antioch Arrow. (Editor’s Note: Antioch Arrow coming up in Issue #35!) Back in the ’90s, you couldn’t hear a band if either you yourself or someone you knew didn’t own one of their records. And so I hardly heard Heavy Vegetable — the closest to a record by them that could be found anywhere in my friends’ collections was the Headhunter cassette sampler someone got from a promo bin at a local record store. The Heavy Vegetable contribution was “St. Livingston,” a 60-second track from their first album. I assumed it was too short to be representative in any real way, but my current encounter with 1995 follow-up Frisbie is teaching me that minute-long songs are pretty much par for the course with this band. Frisbie‘s 28 songs are over in 45 minutes, allowing for less than two minutes per song. Considering the relatively sketched-out ideas here, and the way they flow together over the course of half a dozen or so songs, this sometimes feels more like a long orchestral piece broken up into a series of movements than a collection of individual compositions meant to be taken on their own. In that way, this album makes me think simultaneously of Guided By Voices and Sebadoh at their tape-loopy, experimental peaks (for GBV this is Bee Thousand; for Sebadoh, I’m saying it’s Sebadoh III, though Weed Forestin’ is also a strong pick), and of Mike Watt’s recent “punk operas” (The Secondman’s Middle Stand, Hyphenated-Man, etc). What I’m hearing from Rob Crow, though, has much more of the melodic post-hardcore vibe that comes through on his later Pinback releases — leavened, however, with a goofy sense of humor that results in tributes to Wesley Willis and Jackie Chan. But what really sticks with you here, and what seems the strongest foreshadowing to the heights later scaled by Pinback, is Crow’s melodic sense. This is bolstered by his sharing lead vocal duties with Eléa Tenuta, who adds a great contrasting texture to Crow’s sweet tenor on many of these songs. I’d still say Pinback’s Arrive Having Eaten is the definitive Rob Crow work, but honestly, the melodic sound and free-flowing ideas of Heavy Vegetable are sure to provide an excellent diversion for those who seek more of the same radness they’ve found in Crow’s other projects.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
Heavy Vegetable are by far the most obscure band we’ve covered here on OYR. Having never heard of them, I turned to Google for research and came up with… well, nothing. They have a two line Wikipedia entry and not much else. You won’t find this record on Spotify and it’s all just a bit mysterious. So without any background info, I was flying blind when listening to Frisbie this week. The greatest compliment I can give Frisbie is how much it reminded me of Weezer’s debut album. The way guitarist and lead singer Rob Crow arranges songs is very reminiscent of Rivers Cuomo’s early work. Just listen to “Crash” and try to tell me this would feel out of place on The Blue Album. There’s a frenetic, raw energy to the songs as they come and go in the blink of an eye. The album doesn’t give you a chance to breathe, but it feels like that was the intention. Heavy Vegetable want you to hear everything they have to offer and I can only imagine live performances of Frisbie were something to behold. Crow and Eléa Tenuta vocals complement each other very well and the whole record is a tight, affable affair. Heavy Vegetable’s Frisbie is entirely up on YouTube if you’re struggling for a way of listening to it, and you really should as it’s an excellent piece of mid-’90s indie rock that stands alongside its contemporaries of the time.
James Peart (@choccyr)
Fascinated Binger Of Musical Zeitgeist
Before I put this album on for the first time, I took a look at the track list. Two things immediately jumped out at me. First, Track 9 was called “Intro“, which cracked me up. And second, the album came in at under 46 minutes, but was 28 tracks long. Was this going to be some lightning fast hardcore or… actually, that was the only possibility my brain came up with. Well, it’s not lightning fast hardcore. It’s something way better than that. It’s all the emotions. Just every one of them. This is an album where every track gets immediately to the point at hand. And then it moves on. There’s “Sad Mud Song” which has the incredibly relatable hook “It doesn’t help to admit that I get sad, but I get sad.” Later, they bring their voices together for the deliciously vengeful “Spatula.” It was possible that this kind of frenetic emotion hopping would come off feeling superficial or unfocused, but it’s quite the opposite. This band is so tapped into their emotions that they can flit back and forth and all around, like tiny balls of light, will-o’-the-wisps, ever-changing and enticing us to follow them. And so we do.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
Boy-girl vocals in pop bands are Melissa catnip. I don’t know why I like it so much, but it has always been one of my “things.” Heavy Vegetable’s 1995 record Frisbie features Rob Crow from Pinback and Goblin Cock (I just wanted to work this band name into my review) and Eléa Tenuta (both also in Thingy together) providing the sweet, sweet harmonies. It is bizarre that I never crossed paths with Frisbie before, given my penchant for ’90s math rock, but where Polvo sounded like they were hitting every note so hard for several minutes at a time, Heavy Vegetable is overall more delicate, quickly moving through staccato rhythms, barely touching down before moving on to another two minute song. The brevity of the songs on Frisbie is both the band’s strongest and weakest skills. To make such an impact in two minutes is phenomenal — “E/Or” changes several times, before ending with the line “bow is red and you are blue / you hate everything and I love you too” repeated a cappella in really gorgeous harmonies. The next song, “Mushroom Boy” starts out fast and heavy, and the jarring feeling you get between the two songs is unusual and special. I do think that 28 tracks is too many — even though the album is relatively short, you get a bit of whiplash while going on the ever-changing journey for even 45 minutes. However, the intricate songs of Frisbie are so interesting that it won me over and earned its place in your ’90s math rock playlists.
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Poor quality, but hey — you get the idea.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Just like a rousing game of frisbee. This has all the stark sadness of Eric’s Trip infused with a dash of post-punk freneticism and warm angularity. The acuity of the harmonies alone are enough to slice through your skull and heart. With 28 songs, the album feels more like a dubbed tape compilation for a friend, but yet it courses with remarkable fluidity (something I rarely see done well outside of Rafter’s Sex Death Cassette). Bits of sardonic wit a la Frank Black visit from track to track as delicate and pastorally twee phrases walk hand in hand with dimed fuzz pedals. Hovering in the center of the ’90s, the arrangements are the epitome of intense heart-on-sleeve sonic scapes akin to Sebadoh and Bedhead. Both warm and bleak, these unadulterated songs sound like the product of Electrical Audio. I hear the same upbeat melodies I know from Rob’s later project, Pinback, but these are grittier, hit harder. There’s a percussivity to the vocal phrasing that darts and mingles with the rollicking guitar lines, melding into the song rather than sitting on top. Frisbie is truly emblematic of a nascent indie sound that would blossom subsequently. If you ever want to know how wonderfully beautiful the “indie sads” can be, just put “Sad Mud Song” on repeat and crank until the world around you dissolves. P.S. Mad points here for the homages to Wesley Willis. Hopefully the future will hold such tributes to Rob Crow.
Matt Klimas (@nearcticfauna)
Surveyor Of All Things Fuzz
I like Pinback and Rob Crow just fine, but I’m not a part of the cult following. I guess I just missed the boat. Frisbie was an enjoyable listen, if for nothing else, another trip to the ’90s underground. “Radio” with its list of great bands like The Residents, Captain Beefheart, and The Shaggs that the radio doesn’t play, reminds me of other underground songs like “Punk Rock Girl” by The Dead Milkmen. Seems pretty strange now, but at the time it was a good way of letting people know what to check out, or sometimes just a way to let people know you were cool enough to know these bands. I particularly love the tribute to Wesley Willis, and this is my attempt at being cool, slash, alerting you to check him out. At 28 songs you might think this is a Minutemen record but with Sonic Youth harmonics, backwards vocals, and talking parts blended in girl/boy trade off vocals. If you’re into Speedy Ortiz and want to investigate their roots, Heavy Vegetable is a fine place to start.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
I tend to think of Moby Dick as the gold standard for form reflecting theme. The book’s big. The whale’s big. Tada! (I tend to think Melville could have achieved the same effect in a less punitive way by making, like, one chapter really long, but whatever. I’m not sure I actually finished it. I was a terrible English major.) The form of Frisbie is immediately striking — all those sub-two-minute tracks, others under one minute — and whether or not Heavy Vegetable was trying to use song length to communicate something, I’ve found meaning in the idea that they’re playing with depth’s relationship to substance. It’s a little like walking down a busy street. How many people do you pass or make snap judgements about without considering the vast ocean of experiences, fears, thoughts, and traits that brought them into contact with you? You could spend a lifetime getting to know any one of those people. I feel that same way about “Sad Mud Song,” which would be easy to zoom through only noting the main lyrical idea, “Doesn’t help to admit that I get sad / but I get sad.” But the song has a downward, darkening trajectory that mimics, via more and more distortion, how sadness can start with a simple idea and then drift further and further away from reality until you’re in an emotional state that’s unrecognizable from the one in which you started. It’s a really thoughtful, eventually loud illustration of something that I often experience quietly and internally. Yet again, form speaking to theme. And Heavy Vegetable achieves that effect without being punitive! Hear that, Melville?
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Frontman Rob Crow, who would become known for his work in Pinback, Physics, Optiganally Yours, and Thingy (with Vegetable bandmate Eléa Tenuta).
Frisbie is a fantastic album, especially for those of us with short attention spans. 28 songs. 45 minutes. One of the easiest listens I’ve had in a while. But there’s a method to the herky-jerky nature of the album. I think Heavy Vegetable want to leave us wanting more — which is weird to say about a 28-track album, but it’s true. Who wouldn’t want more of the jubilant bounce of “Crash“, or it’s immediate counterpart “P.O.E.?” Many of my favorite DJ’s from the ’90s developed a similar style in the New York clubs — only playing a verse, or even less, of our favorite records, moving throughout the crate with reckless abandon. However, this technique keeps the crowd guessing, and there’s never any downtime. Frisbie plays in a very similar fashion. Just as you’re acclimated to the groove, they switch it up in an instant. And I like it like that. On top of that, the vocal work on “Sad Mud Song” is just sick. I absolutely adore how they elected to sing along with the guitar note bends. Fantastic. The only confusing part is that I can’t figure out why they misspelled “Frisbee,” at least according to my spell check. What am I talking about? By the time you get through “Dental,” it should be pretty clear that these guys are a little bit off… not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
They say history is written by the winners, but which winners? For example, it’s easy to say the ’90s were defined by Nirvana’s rock takeover, Portishead’s textural revolution, Mobb Deep’s noir realism, or Beck’s cut’n’paste slackers — and you’d be at least partially right. But all those sounds transcended their era and are just as relevant now. Or you could turn to the Top 40 chart toppers (ignoring for a moment the Venn diagram that puts Nirvana in this group as well) and point to them as emblematic. But I would argue that Billy Ray, Mariah, Whitney, and the Spice Girls are so of their time that they are stuck in it, like Herman’s Hermits is stuck in the ’60s. So if you want an “Exhibit A” to illustrate what the ’90s were really like, look no further than Heavy Vegetable’s Frisbie, a band I never heard of until this week (although frontman Rob Crow’s other band, Pinback, did make an impression), and one still so obscure that I had to listen on YouTube. From the “can’t be bothered” casual virtuosity to the snotty attitude, and from the math-punk-pop vibe to the frisbee catching dog on the cover, this album has more than enough geist for the zeit. While I’m not sure there is one truly memorable song here, that may only make it more valid as an exemplar of its decade — because you have to actually listen to it instead of relying on your memory. So get started. Your time machine is waiting.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
Carly Rae Jepsen and Britney Spears both dropped albums this weekend. If you know even the slightest thing about me, you’ll understand that that’s basically like Christmas and the Super Bowl landing on the same day. Pulling me away from my presents was a tall order, but once Frisbie revealed its own charms, it was a welcome distraction. Heavy Vegetable were propulsive as hell on this record, rocketing to rocketing from track to track with a reckless abandon that I admired. Eléa Tenuta and Rob Crow are the rare tandem where I actually equally dig both vocalists, and their chemistry here was outstanding. Frisbie is kinda like flipping through the channels late at night after having way too much caffeine. A track starts, and you to start to figure it out, groove with it, and then you immediately snap to the next track. It’s fun and thrilling and a little chaotic, and full disclosure, it gave me a little bit of anxiety and I had to bail towards the end of the album. But I’m more than willing to give it another chance, on another weekend, when its ADD is not mixing so zanily with mine.
Josh Buck (@altq42)
Devout Pop Music Purist
I’m kind of scared to go into my attic these days… because I’m afraid of what might be missing. Well, missing is not the right word, and I’m also getting ahead of myself. See, I like to keep my house pretty organized. It drives my wife up the wall, but I can’t help it. Everything in its right place is just a soothing idea for my cluttered mind, both musically and in reality. But the downside is I end up purging a lot of things over the years, boxes of old junk I know I don’t need anymore. Sometimes I get a bit overzealous, and I might have purged something years ago that is pretty much irreplaceable. It’s an old 100 CD storage drum, completely full of burnt CDs from the time period of 2004-2006. Half of the discs are full of grainy wrestling matches from Japanese arenas and American bingo halls, while the other half are full of mix CDs probably warped by how many times I listened to them. There are tons of obscure bands on there, ranging from Action Bag to The Murmurs, and this is where I got my first introduction to Heavy Vegetable years ago, specifically “Head Rush” which opened one of the first and best mixes I put in there. Listening back to Frisbie (almost a well-crafted mix CD in its own right) takes me back to that time of musical discovery, where I found so many great bands with their own unique sound. I’d bet money Pinback and Thingy were on some of those CDs too, but it was Heavy Vegetable that stuck in my memory and Frisbie shows exactly why. The shared harmonies of Rob Crow and Eléa Tenuta are truly radiant here and help safely guide you through the sometimes treacherous song structures, making it all seem inviting, not intimidating. As the songs shift through key changes and bounce across time signature, there is a charm there that was missing from the scene at the time, making an end result that was closer to accessible than the vast majority of their contemporaries. It does get daunting at times, mostly due to its length and demented pace, but it’s rewarding from start to finish and an amazing record truly found off the beaten path. That storage drum may be long gone by now, but at least I have Frisbie to remind me what it felt like and offer some new musical encounters.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Here’s To Almost by Feral Conservatives
Chosen By Doug Nunnally