Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Waycross-self titled; self released 1998


Cities are damn weird places, and as regards San Francisco, this is doubly true. A tiny geographical area that is stuffed with people, it's a place that is full on quick transitions. One minute you're in an affluent  neighborhood, and the next you're walking past bodies, maybe living, maybe not, and crunching on used dope needles. It can be pretty jarring on the psyche. 

In light of that, a fair amount of the art and music that comes from San Francisco can have a certain dark tinge. Think of the brooding soundscapes of Toiling Midgets or the nihilist lyrics of Flipper. People in the City that are awake to this darkness, or have been affected by it need to find outlets for it. Some of those people are musicians; some of those musicians' work is going to reflect it.

A case in point is Waycross, a San Francisco band that emerged in the late 1990's. As Disaster Amnesiac recalls it, they were a pretty big deal in their home town, and deservedly so. The sound on their first, self-titled CD is one that is drenched from top to bottom with reflections of the environment from which it arose. As such, it resonated with people there. 

It's fitting to speak first off of the lyrics. Often intoned in duo by Caroleen Beatty and Sunshine Haire, they tell eloquent stories of relationships observed to be in bloom or in decay and everywhere else on the spectrum. It's not listed who wrote lines such as "lovers of art who gave you the message/you neglected to use the proper inflection/you're loveliest when you're perfectly still" on Lovers Of Art, but  whomever it was that did, credit them with superb powers of observation. Every time that I hear this song, I marvel at the sharpness of its insight. Waycross is filled with great lyrics such as that, or "the world's hungry and mean/and it's waiting for me" on Tips For Travelers. Suffice it say that you're a fan of poetry, you'll find tons of great verbiage here, and so much of it seems to reflect the lived lives of people in San Francisco. The harmonies achieved by Beatty and Haire as they deliver the words are subtle and quite lovely. They must have spent a ton of time honing them. There is a richness to them which makes hearing even the harder edged lyrics a beautiful experience. Beatty's voice, when solo, is like a Punk Rock Patsy Cline, never histrionic but powerful in its confident understatement. 

Along with their entwined vocals, Haire and Beatty also pair their guitar sounds on Waycross.  Beatty holds down the rhythm with clean tones and lines while Haire adds deliciously smudgy slide and echoed reverb. It's the latter sound which feels like the band's secret weapon. As Disaster Amnesiac has listened to this disc over the years, I've often been able to see the fog of San Francisco rolling down over Twin Peaks, or the gleam of sunset in the Mission, or the otherworldly glare of the Outer Richmond in July. This is large part due to the creative sound colors that Haire coaxes from her axe. They are often just unhinged enough to take the sound to those surreal spaces for which the electric guitar seems to have been almost exclusively designed. Just as with their vocals, this guitar team clearly spent a ton of time setting up a unique musical dynamic for their band, and in Haire's case I imagine there was also plenty of it spent in solitude, working out unique ideas.

One aspect that defines a band is its rhythmic feel. Think about groups such as the Ramones, Iron Maiden, or Black Flag. Regardless of how one might feel about them on an aesthetic level (Disaster Amnesiac enjoys them all), one must admit that they have distinct ways of shaping the rhythms of their songs. This quality is also the case with Waycross. They mostly stick to a loping 12/8 form on Waycross, which is held down tightly by drummer Bruce Ducheneaux and bass player Doug Hilsinger. This feel often has me thinking of hikes up the hills from Downtown or SOMA and up into the Western Addition. So often the faster Thrash rhythm is upheld as being indicative of the San Francisco environment, but that's probably because of speed; I never tried that shit, but I did a ton of walking around those 7 Hills, and Waycross brings those memories back. Hilsinger made hugely psychedelic guitar sounds with Bomb and Gift Horse, and it's really fascinating to this listener that he switched over to the bass for his duties within Waycross. He proves himself to be just as adept with four strings as six, and his booming fat tones set up and underscore the riffs really well. From the interactive and involved playing within the arrangements, it seems unlikely that Hilsinger saw playing the bass as any lesser of a role than that of guitar. Bruce has a great bass drum feel and gets pretty intricate with his cymbal beats, all the while managing to remain locked in with and supportive of Doug, Caroleen, and Sunshine as he does it. A fine drummer he is.

Taken as a whole, the Waycross sound is a deep and swirling fusion of Rock, Punk, and Country, one which manages to transcend these influences in shaping a singular musical band voice. The unique and mysterious lyrics, the great harmonized vocals, the creative instrumental playing: it all adds up to a solid document of musical ideas worked upon and realized. Disaster Amnesiac sees Waycross as a defining document of a specific time in the life that strangest of cities, San Francisco. Willing to bet that there are others out there that would share this opinion as well.

Above: Waycross set list, probably from Bottom of the Hill ca. 1999


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