Graded on a Curve:
The Dambuilders, Encendedor

Many may only remember them for their 1994 alterna-hit “Shrine”, but The Dambuilders were much more than just a brief flash in the pan. Their breakthrough album Encendedor holds up as one of the better examples of ‘90s indie-rock at the crossroads of heaviness and melodicism, and with electric violin to boot.

From Boston Massachusetts via Honolulu Hawaii, The Dambuilders were one of many ‘90s bands that chose to explore a vaguely Pixies-like model of volume, distortion, and catchiness. This naturally captured the interest of legions who were burning out with due quickness on all things grunge. But what additionally assisted this band in standing apart from the pack was their commitment to strong songwriting and the powerful violin playing of Joan Wasser. Her ability to provide much of their music with a tough rhythmic bedrock while also adding fleet, at times soaring melodic elements aided greatly in distinguishing tunes that were already much more than just another batch of recalculated Doolittle.

But The Dambuilders started out as a rather different and much lesser affair. Their 1989 debut A Young Persons Guide, essentially a demo by founding members Dave Derby, Tryan George, and Eric Masunaga that managed to get released by the German label Cuacha, found the band examining the milder territories of college-pop; a little bit of Athens and a wee mite of New Jersey with a few innocuous punkisms, some acoustic strum and even a little Camper-esque humor thrown in. By no means an embarrassment, it was however an inauspicious beginning. If it had somehow been the only release by the band they would frankly register as something less than a footnote.

But they bailed on the fiftieth state for Beantown, losing member George and releasing the Pop Song = Food single in ‘91. The same year’s Geek Lust saw significant improvement if also lingering schizophrenia between their older, more polite direction and the lithe beast that was to come; this aura was likely increased by the exit of original violinist Debbie Fox and the arrival of Wasser during recording. After the addition of drummer Kevin March post-Geek Lust things really started to take shape.

Islington Porn Tapes, their last record for Cuacha was released in ’93, and it’s essentially the start of the group’s most productive phase. Different versions of five of Islington Porn Tapes’ tracks comprise the subsequent Tough Guy Problem 10-inch/CD EP and six of the album’s tracks were rerecorded for Encendedor, which found them on the EastWest imprint, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. If this seems like a high rate of song recycling for a band supposedly on the creative upswing, that’s a miscalculation; the year was 1993 and The Dambuilders had sharpened their sound and found their audience through that decade’s indie/alt nexus.

Tough Guy Problem is what really put them on the radar through an association with spinART, a label that was batting a very high indie-pop average with releases from Lilys, Small Factory, and most importantly the One Last Kiss compilation. And as strong as that EP was, it was only a teaser for the bold dynamic of Encendedor. Much of this qualitative leap was achieved through the discipline of live shows, the band frequently traveling the highways of the East Coast to headline clubs and open in auditoriums for larger acts. In the span of less than a year I saw them play four times in Washington, DC and still managed to miss them at a day festival by the Potomac River. Slacker! Encendedor hit the racks during that span and did a fantastic job of communicating onto wax their sheer energy and togetherness as a performing unit.

And energy is a huge part of what makes The Dambuilders’ “middle-phase” so worthwhile. Another way of describing it is urgency; even when diverting into slower tempos and quieter passages the music radiates with propulsion, though it never feels rushed. And Encendedor is a very smart record, not only through songs and collective execution but just as importantly via Masunaga’s bold, clean production and the thoughtful sequencing of songs.

The album opens with “Copsucker,” a mid-tempo instrumental workout anchored by Derby’s very Peter Hook-like bass line and embellished with a methodical rise and decrease in abrasion through Masunaga’s guitar and Wasser’s wailing bow, all while March gives his kit a severe beating. It’s capped with a closing blitz punctuated with truly agitated vocal screams from the violinist, sounding halfway between utter rage and complete terror. Placing this sort of controlled mayhem at the front of an album isn’t a big deal if controlled mayhem is your main bag, but it’s a potentially risky move from a group flaunting a pop-inflected rock sound. That these four pull it off is testimony to not only the high level of their material but also to their acumen in how to craft an album.

And second track “Smell” quickly shows how distinct the band’s music could be, with Wasser’s playing alternating between rhythmic stabs and melodious digressions and Derby’s vocal interjections (at times mildly reminiscent of Shudder to Think’s Craig Wedren) making abundantly clear that The Dambuilders were much more than just a bunch of indie come latelies copping standard issue moves from the post-Pixies playbook. And its lyrics possessed the edgy hostility of sexual frustration (similar to their contemporaries Versus) that set it refreshingly apart from some of the Hello Kitty-lunchbox pleasantries that blossomed in the indie scene of the period.

Drummer Kevin March shines throughout the album, but particularly on “Kill Haole Day” and “Colin’s Heroes.” Heavy but crisp and assertive but not busy, his approach works with Derby’s non-rudimentary bass playing to define the equality of instrumentation on Encendedor. Nobody plays the role of support. In this, “Colin’s Heroes” (which opens side two) provides something of a centerpiece, its dynamic shifts and instrumental windups showcasing the entire band as a finely tuned unit.

If they manage to take it down a few notches on “Slo-Mo Kikaida” and “Idaho” without suffering a loss of intensity, The Dambuilders are at their best when in full-on rocking mode. But these moments don’t exclude the possibility for pop tunefulness, as “Shrine” makes clear. An infectious, discreetly idiosyncratic choice for a single (basically, it lacks a chorus), the track features more percolating Joy Div bass work accented with tight bursts of guitar and violin, and it was just the type of song to create a short sweet buzz in an era where new records were multiplying like Viagra binging bunnies and the possibilities for small, dedicated, organic bands were uncommonly high. The distorted chug of “Fur” closes the album, and like “Copsucker” it ends with the unhinged screams of Wasser. How savvily symmetrical.

For anybody looking for an entry point in the “classic” sound of The Dambuilders, Encendedor is the best bet. Ruby Red from the following year is very good follow up, but beware of their final release Against the Stars, a wildly divergent affair with slickly produced, often techno informed songs that feel derived from a totally different, far inferior group.

Very rarely do bands start out with greatness in their grasp, and it’s just as uncommon for them to end without some precipitous decline in quality. So The Dambuilders are in good company. Briefly flirting with brilliance is the best that most can hope to achieve, and Encendedor easily meets that goal.

Graded on a Curve: A-

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