The Capital Land Crate Digger: Radiator Hospital’s “Torch Song” (2014)
Review and photograph by Ross Marvin
The Capital Land Crate Digger brings you reviews of vinyl obscurities found for $10 or under at Capital District record stores, thrift shops, garage sales and junk emporiums. The vinyl archeologist behind this column is Ross Marvin, an English teacher and music enthusiast who lives in Saratoga County. Ross has over 1,000 pieces of vinyl, is running out of shelf room, and can be found getting his fingers dirty in a box of records near you.
Try to remember a perfect, exuberant night.
Stumbling over a pile of beer cans that clutter your porch, you tumble out the back door of a nearly dead house — the type of dilapidated place you know you will never live five years from now. Behind you are your best friends. Guys and girls — none coupled, but all in love. You amble down the street to the bar with the best trivia and the cheap pitchers. A good jukebox means more Clash and less country. Someone at the table has an idea for a magazine. The person next to you is starting a punk band. The art student wants to paint the bass drum. Films, books and music all get discussed — the things that High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon taught all of you to appreciate.
And then you enter back into the night, taking the shortcut home across the college campus in town. Careless, you stop to roll in the giant leaf piles left behind by someone with more responsibilities than you. You wrestle with the girl you love, laughing joyously. Victorious in stealing a kiss, you take in the smell of her fresh, powdered cheeks while warming your cold nose with her human heat.
I’m not exactly sure how many times Radiator Hospital’s Sam Cook-Parrott sings the words “friends” or “love” or “feel” or “dream” on the band’s superb 2014 release Torch Song. No doubt these words are commonly found in popular songs and could even be classified as the MOST common words that appear in pop along with “heart” or “baby.” But in combination with bouncy pop-punk guitars, male/female traded vocal lines and Cook-Parrott’s unusual vocal delivery, Torch Song becomes an atmospheric record, one that to this listener evokes the very essence being a 20-something boho sharing the rent with your pals and staying up all night making art.
For a long time I never understood the label “College Rock” but if ever a band deserved that label, it may well be Radiator Hospital. I swear this record does something transformative to my brain, taking me back to the big house I shared with my best friends at Union College. The summer barbeques, the sweaty band practices. Making each other laugh and searching for new bands and girls to love. It comes back clearer every time I take Torch Song for a spin. Not surprisingly, this was also a time of heartbreak and longing in my life, long before I met my wife and learned anything about real love.
And so part of the appeal of Radiator Hospital is their youthful charm. Cook-Parrott is 24 years old and sounds like it. This is okay. We live in an era where youth is power — what’s the sense of being beyond your years? Though the title of the album is Torch Song you get the feeling that the “boxes full of clothes and records” and the late-night phone calls, and the letters, and the mix tapes that occupy these songs will get these through. Plus when that fails, there is “Annie,” “Mikey and Jon” to help out in true Gen Y, supportive group-hang style.
Hailing from Philadelphia, Radiator Hospital is just one of the many projects that occupy Sam Cook-Parrott, who is undeniably a central figure in an indie-renaissance in the City of Brotherly Love that is no less newsworthy than Chip Kelly’s no-huddle, up-tempo Eagles’ offense. On set closer “Midnight, Nothing,” Cook-Parrott sings, “We weren’t really talking about anything; we felt pure and unadulterated,” which perfectly sums up the record. Where the actual words sometimes fall short on the page, there is never the lack of FEELING when the needle finds the groove. These are songs about love and longing and unrequited love. They are songs of adoration for the “Venus of the Avenue” and “The Honeymoon Phase” and “The Fireworks” of a relationship that sometimes misfire.
Detractors may call Cook-Parrott a second-rate Jeff Mangum (and it is On Avery Island-era Neutral Milk Hotel that Radiator Hospital recall more than anything else), his best tunes show his vast capabilities and the promise he does have as a lyricist. Like Dylan on “Positive 4th Street,” when Cook-Parrott is bitter, he finds his best voice. “Cut Your Bangs” beats up its subject with lines like, “You say you’ll cut your bangs, I’m calling your bluff. When you lie to me it’s in the small stuff.”
Another theme that runs through Torch Song is the male and female voices that converse in call and response, often missing each other’s points when communication breaks down. On side one guitarist Cynthia Schemmer sings “Fireworks,” and on the flipside Cook-Parrot sings “Fireworks (Reprise).” The conceit here is that a couple is in conversation. Where the lyrics are mostly the same in the two songs (same openings, same chords, same choruses, same repeated outro), the lyrics divide when the couple looks at one another, giving the listener some perspective on how much might be misinterpreted and lost in translation. Where she sings, “You looked at me like I was your answer,” he sings “You looked at me like I was your way out.” Still, at the end of the song the couple feels “a little spark” that suggests the physical feelings of love and the desire to avoid loneliness often supersede true understanding between men and women.
Also appearing on the album are Katie and Allison Crutchfield, major players in the emerging Philadelphia indie scene. The Crutchfield sisters, Cook-Parrott and Torch Song producer Kyle Gilbride at one time all lived together in a house, throwing parties and playing basement shows. Torch Song shows the influence of this scene. On the more sprightly songs like “Leather and Lace,” “Five & Dime” and “Bedtime Story,” Cook-Parrott’s songwriting recalls Allison and Kyle’s power-punk-pop band Swearin’. Of course, Swearin’ also recalls many great ‘90s indie acts, especially Superchunk.
Perhaps the most appealing quality of the Philadelphia scene is its positive gender politics. Coed bands are the norm, and the male and female voices and characters stand as clear equals. While the music may belie a familiar ‘90s sound, that impression is at odds with a much more contemporary vision of rock n’ roll. Katie Crutchfield, who lends her vocals to “Blue Gown” and “Five & Dime” on Torch Songs, is the first of the Philadelphia crew to breakout in a big way. Her band Waxahatchee had its fantastic third album Ivy Tripp released by indie-giant Merge this spring. It feels right that one of the Crutchfield sisters would crossover before Cook-Parrott, who has been content staying out of the limelight — even playing bass for Waxahatchee on a tour last year. But, Cook-Parrott’s star-potential is bright — one that should find him a home alongside Waxahatchee on a bigger indie label. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Team Love in New Paltz (where Cook-Parrott played a show with Team Love locals Quarterbacks last year) snatches him up before another indie giant has the chance. Regardless of the label, Sam Cook-Parrott is a songwriter on the brink and Torch Song is hardly the swan song for Radiator Hospital.
1. Leather & Lace
2. Blue Gown
3. Cut Your Bangs
4. The Eye
6. Venus of the Avenue
7. Five & Dime
9. Bedtime Story
10. I’m All Right
11. Honeymoon Phase
12. Sleeping House
13. Just May Be the One
14. Fireworks (Reprise)
15. Midnight Nothing
Essential Cuts: Cut Your Bangs; Fireworks (Reprise); Leather & Lace; Bedtime Story
Best Deep Cut: Sleeping House
Scratch and Skip: The Eye
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