by Jeremy Levine
The Madding Crowd/550 Music
Nobody who had a VH1 subscription in the early 2000s was unaware of “Absolutely (Story of a Girl),” the one-and-only hit by Nine Days, a Long Island-based pop/rock group. To this day, if you play the track in a room full of twenty-somethings, every single person will know every single word. Still, most of those twenty-somethings won’t remember the band’s name, and even fewer will recognize The Madding Crowd, the album the song came from.
Which is a shame, because The Madding Crowd is 00s pop/rock in the best possible way, a more heartfelt Vertical Horizon, a more nuanced Blink-182, a less pissed-off Green Day. The Madding Crowd is not chock-full of three-minute radio bait; some of the arrangements are ambitious for a scene dominated by likes of Third Eye Blind and Blink-182.
The first five tracks are straight enough, including the aforementioned “Absolutely,” with acoustic guitars and synthesizers laying percussive backgrounds for the verses, with a wash of distorted guitars and drums for the chorus. Cue a guitar solo before the last verse, and you’re good to go. To be fully honest, any of the first four tracks could have been as popular as “Absolutely.”
But then things get weird. “Sometimes,” the fifth track, is nearly five minutes long, with an extended and repeated chorus and a long, spacey outro.
With “Bob Dylan,” the sixth track, it becomes evident that the group is trying to do something different. Beginning with the sound of a needle scratching a record coupled with a complicated drum opening and the sound of a DJ scratching a presumably different) record, the tribute to Dylan begins with a muffled first verse, then a very long chorus that sounds like it was lifted right out of the first half of the record.
The bridge opens with a blast on a harmonica and then a sample of Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue.” The bridge is similar to the chorus, but then the first line of the first verse comes in, then a guitar lick, a lot of feedback, drums playing straight eighth notes, another version of the bridge, then back to the regular chorus, then back to Bob Dylan singing. It might be one of the weirdest minutes of 00s pop, but it works. The energy created by these different parts in succession is hugely powerful. Nine Days throws typical form out the window and spends the back half of the track just trying things, and it not only creates a completely uniform piece, but you don’t even notice how strange it is until you really listen.
The following track, “257 Weeks,” is propelled by a gooey piano riff and a gritty vocal performance. Then you have “Bitter,” probably the most ambitious track on the album, a slow-burning ballad that begins with an electric guitar/vocals pairing reminiscent of Aerosmith’s “Dream On,” but it veers away as bass and drums slide in unobtrusively for the second verse. Strings come in after the first chorus, then piano, and by the time we’re at the bridge, we’re firing on all cylinders. As the pop/rock ballad genre necessitates a slow bridge, “Bitter” obliges, only to be led back into the heavy chorus by, of all instruments, the vocals. Brian Desveaux masterfully transitions from falsetto to the gritty vocal style that marks the final chorus. Then, with an anomalous two-minute instrumental outro, most of which is led by the aforementioned strings (which are usually underused in this genre), the track comes to an end.
Then there’s the antithetical “Back To Me,” which opens with those same harsh vocals over the now-familiar distorted guitar, and the significantly more majestically mellow “Crazy,” whose slow tempo is somewhat complicated by an overly-busy rhythm section in the chorus. John Hampson, the smoother of the group’s two singers, serves as a cleansing presence between “Back To Me” and the disaster that follows.
It is on the penultimate track, “Revolve,” that Nine Days seems most susceptible to the scene: choruses must be big, they must be noisy, they must have extra instruments. The Madding Crowd’s masterclass on instrumentation is perhaps enhanced by this overly-busy track, reminding us of where so many bands of this era ended up going in every case. “Revolve” is definitely the record’s biggest clunker, a predictor of Fall Out Boy, essentially a boring punk imitation that eleven-year-olds definitely loved.
Luckily, “Revolve” does not lay The Madding Crowd to rest, as we are left with “Wanna Be,” a quieter, Desveaux-led track that doesn’t build up at all, but barely stays above a lullaby for its six-minute run-time. It’s a nearly-perfect final track, not necessarily trying to impress us with an arrangement like “Bob Dylan” or “Bitter,” but simply bringing the album to a satisfying conclusion.
Unfortunately, The Madding Crowd never got noticed. It was certified gold within six months of its release, but never became a staple. It’s a symptom of the genre; once the group got shoehorned into “Absolutely,” it fell into music video hit territory, not band-to-become-invested-in territory. Albums were not (and are still not) the dominant commercial format, but still provide us with ambitious art. The well-understood disconnect between artistic merit and commercial success is clearly at work here: The Madding Crowd’s front half is radio bait and the second half, the half for people with slightly longer attention spans, is largely free of attempts at hits, favoring more complicated writing. The disregard for the album format is then partially what allowed it to thrive. The Madding Crowd went gold largely on the strength of “Absolutely,” letting the band let loose on the deep cuts. It’s a shame that very few people noticed, but maybe that’s the way it was meant to be.
Jeremy Levine is a senior at Clark University and Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper The Scarlet. He also works at the Clark Writing Center and Admissions Office and is delighted to have interned for The Worcester Journal this semester.