When I first heard First National Band, I stared at my computer in disbelief. I had found my jam. 27 years into my life... the winding roads of searching had led me to Magnetic South.
jam: music with a perfect sound that precisely fits the listener’s preferences
Okay, so this wasn’t the first time I had found my jam. Ten years earlier, I had come across the electricity of the British postpunk indie disco fad of the mid-Noughties (‘00s). Besides Arctic Monkeys, who were my Favorite Band from August 2005 through July 2015, most of these bands never made my Top Ten. But to this day if someone asks what kind of music I like, I’ll send along a YouTube link to The Futureheads. The musical moment’s power quickly got cut off but I continued to buzz with a resonant charge.
I kept my ear open for other genres or bands that had the same sound or at least the same impact on me -- anything that made my entire brain light up, my stomach fill with butterflies, and my body move around my bedroom in a jittery pogo like the Queens of Noize in the Up the Bracket video. I got into The Who because Keith Moon had a buoyancy similar to Arctic Monkeys’ drummer. Pulp attracted me through the commentary in Jarvis Cocker’s lyrics.
I found Joy Division in my early 20s and became smitten the second I heard Hooky’s bass on Digital. Stephen Morris’s ability to play fast yet slow intrigued something in my gut. I went through several bouts of depression that involved me carrying around Debbie Curtis’s biography of her late husband Ian as a companion. I still call him my soul twin. We both coincidentally became victims of a misfortune with which we were obsessed: Ian obsessively researched epilepsy after meeting an epileptic girl, long before he was diagnosed with the disorder; I was sexually assaulted in my early 20s after spending high school and college being fascinated (like many women) with the psychological trauma suffered by rape victims. It often felt like I had brought it upon myself, that I had tempted Fate, and I wondered if Ian had felt the same way. Ian didn’t survive his depression; he took his own life when he was 23. I worried that my fascination with him would tempt Fate once more. I actually did consider suicide when I was 22 but managed to talk myself out of it. I still find the parallels between Ian and I to be eery.
Joy Division lined up with me so much that for a short period of time I called them my favorite band. But they lacked the joy present in even the darkest songs found by mid-Noughties bands. In Arctic Monkeys’ When the Sun Goes Down, the band keep the listener afloat as Alex Turner expresses sympathy for a young prostitute and anger at her pimp. My listening to Joy Division consequently faded as my mental state improved.
No acts outside those mid-Noughties bands had it. They were the only bands whose appeal wasn’t influenced by my state of mind.
I didn’t know looking him up that Nez’s solo work was going to take me to my new it. Weeks before hearing any of his solo work, I internally declared him my new favorite artist the first time I heard the version of Carlisle Wheeling with Peter on banjo and (as Alex Turner once sang) “without permission my face became wet.” It’s still the prettiest piece of music I’ve ever heard -- but the song was far from being described as my it. Even in that explosive moment I couldn’t know the length of the hallway I was about to find myself traveling or the number of doors it would make available to me. I hadn’t even seen Head yet.
I Googled Nez as part of a small project I began in an attempt to snap myself out of my depression. I had started a list of people in my notebook I’d like to learn about, people I might find inspiring. So far, I had watched documentaries on Jane Birkin and Brigitte Bardot, partly because I was also making a solid effort at finally learning French so I could watch Jean-Luc Godard films without subtitles. I’d been watching The Monkees on IFC and Nez was the one writing songs and making me laugh the most -- so I added his name to the list, along with the other three Monkees.
After a night of listening to his pre-Monkees demos and an afternoon with Wichita, I moved onto FNB.
“This is what all music should sound like,” I said to no one. “I would enjoy all music if it all sounded like this.”
After a few listens to each FNB album, I excitedly scuttled off to Apple Music to find what else I’d been missing out on. Apparently country rock was my jam. I’d probably misjudged The Flying Burrito Brothers almost a decade prior when I looked them up while reading I’m with the Band. Or maybe my music taste had just expanded.
This is what it feels like when your life is about to change.
Nope. Country rock was not my jam. Probably compounded by anticipation, my disappointment actually moved me to tears of boredom after a day of forcing myself to listen to various bands I found online labelled as “similar” to FNB. These bands weren’t similar to FNB at all.
l sat and pondered FNB’s itness. What did they have that those other bands didn’t? They were not mislabeled -- all of these bands belonged under the header “country rock”. Yet the others’ sounds seemed to fit under an umbrella while FNB happily danced circles around them in the rain.
This is a good lesson in the absolute worthlessness of genre when evaluating anything. Genres aren’t good -- artists are good. There’s an overflowing handful of mid-Noughties British raw indie disco bands I find unsatisfying. Usually I attribute this failure to bands who force themselves into a genre/scene by trying too hard to be something they aren’t. But that explanation answered nothing for me here.
I initially determined that Red deserved most of the credit because -- from what I remember -- the music I listened to that day didn’t feature pedal steel.
But he wasn’t it. Or at least he wasn’t all of it.
It occurred to me slowly, via the late ‘70s and early ‘80s once a term had appeared for it. Nez announces Calico Girlfriend at Live at the Palais as “punk rhumba,” which made me giggle the first time I heard him say the phrase. Eventually it dawned on me that this wasn’t exactly a joke. When I heard Grand Ennui at Armadillo World Headquarters I physically transformed into the heart eyes emoji because This sounds like the f***ing Sex Pistols.
FNB aren’t just country rock. They’re one of the first punk bands. Actually, postpunk is a more accurate description of their sound -- they’re a bit too complex musically to be called punk. Just like The Monkees created the first nü rave song -- Star Collector -- long before the first raves, FNB were playing country postpunk years before safety pins became a trend.
I have come to define postpunk -- a uniquely varied genre -- as having the spirit of punk without the musical constraints of its parent genre. I find this spirit especially in Nez’s voice. He’s blamed his accent for being labelled country-- but the defining quality of his voice to me is his ability for expression. Maybe this skill comes from also being an actor, but he can absolutely nail complex sentiments using only his voice. In FNB, I hear a man waving with one hand and giving the finger with the other. He merrily spits out his words (and yodels) with a hint of sarcasm and disappointment.
There is a manic-quality to the punk spirit. How a band expresses this manic-ness decides the other qualities of their spirit. While Joy Division’s energy is supplied by manic depression, FNB’s energy is powered by manic exuberance.
And so, the secret ingredient in FNB -- that Joy Division lack -- is unrefined joy. The buoyancy I found in Matt Helders and Keith Moon is audible in all of FNB. This joy can’t be narrowed to one member or instrument. It’s in every note and beat and syllable of all three albums and the couple of unreleased tracks available. But this happiness is kept from becoming cloying through cheekiness.
FNB finally elucidated that it quality of my jam -- joyful, punk spirit.