Dumptruck – D is for Dumptruck

Dumptruck
D is for Dumptruck

The band Dumptruck had a decent run at popularity in the mid- to late-80s, putting out some albums that caught the attention of the college-radio crowds. Some commercial alternative-rock stations also noticed the band, and so despite the rather odd name, the band sold some records and made a name for itself.

Those later albums, Positively Dumptruck and For the Country, had the ring of fairly mainstream indie rock (at the time). Containing nothing too adventurous or edgy, these records had their charms and a couple of greats songs apiece, certainly, but they don’t seem to stand the test of time.

And then there’s D is for Dumptruck, the band’s first album, which was hard to find even when the band was at its height of popularity. It was released on a small-time label (run by Mark Mulcahey of Miracle Legion, who played drums on this recording). It was recorded in a demo-type studio, so the production could be a lot better. It’s from a band that probably didn’t excite many people with its later albums, and those later albums certainly would not have made much of an impression on the hippest post-punk kids of the day. Why would anyone want to hear this record now?

D is for Dumptruck, recorded in 1983, stands out as a real milestone for the New England alternative-music scene of the early 80s. Around that time, you had some real talent starting to coalesce – Dinosaur and Throwing Muses were going to challenge some of our preconceptions about rock forms, while Miracle Legion, Winter Hours, and the Lemonheads (among others) were going to follow more conventional forms but still issue some must-have recordings. I would put D is for Dumptruck-era Dumptruck squarely in the first pile of artists, the ones who made you listen to music differently because their sound was practically alien for the times. A couple of these tunes even show a Mission of Burma influence.

In 1983, Dumptruck’s sound combined angular (but sometimes melodic) guitars, deadpan vocals, and less-than-virtuosic musicianship, and somehow Dumptruck invested the whole thing with an intangible and indescribable tension. It’s dark and unsettling somehow, but it’s hard to say why. It might be the way the guitar and bass seem to go in and out of favor with each other (sometimes harmonizing, sometimes competing for the melody a la Unwound and Sonic Youth, sometimes just sounding out of sync). It might be the way the vocal delivery – pretty flat but with unexpected intonations – and the lyrics – fairly ordinary, usually non-rhyming, and sometimes not honoring the boundaries of the music’s verses and choruses – call attention to their own oddities.

Many of the tunes hew to minimalism. “The Haunt” keeps to a simple formula and melody, gathering a kind of mysterious sadness around it. “How Come,” the lead track, begins with an arrhythmic beating of the drums that picks up some speed before it locks into its form. The vocals creep in with such phrases as “I can’t decipher any of the sounds / For they’re incoherent / And garbled in a way” and “It doesn’t always happen / Only at certain times / Now is not one of those times.” The words don’t quite sync with the music, forcing emphasis on syllables that wouldn’t be emphasized ordinarily. It’s a little disconcerting, and it continually happens across the songs here. It’s a conceit that other aspiring post-punk bands might have been wise to try because it just works with this kind of music.

“Swirls Around,” coming midway through the original album, finds the band pounding as furiously as most any other band of that time. The heavily distorted, wah-wah guitar sound on this track would later become a staple of J Mascis’ recordings. The structure and delivery of this song echo the Miracle Legion wailer “Against the Wall” from its first release (no surprise, as drummer Mulcahey went on to front that band).

Each original-album track has its moments, and Rykodisc has augmented the collection with a few live tracks as well. The live versions of the album tracks show Dumptruck more energized and also a little more confident than it was when it recorded the album cuts. Some of the live versions also show the artists reinterpreting their sound a bit, adding a tinge of the countryish/folkish sound that appears on their later records.

Ultimately, this album wins because it conveys such an air of detachment and alienation without self-consciousness. It’s a little creepy, a little standoffish, and a little subversive. It’s also unlike any other album I can think of – approximating the vibe of Modern Eon’s Fiction Tales without the keyboard underpinnings. It’s actually a remarkable thing that this same band went on to put out an album like For the Country, where only one song – “Wire” – bears witness to this 1983 recording. This reissue is like an old friend coming back to town after a long hiatus, still looking ragged and upset and troubled after all the years. It’s great to have it back!