School of Fish
School of Fish
Man, her eyes were sooooo green.1 I plummeted into them every time she crossed my vision that whole day, just stopping and staring, losing thoughts and words. Her name was Jessica, she was two grades younger than me, and on the bus ride back from that Model UN trip to NYC she shared with me the first School of Fish album, on tape, on a shitty third-party Walkman. I fell in love twice that night on Route 95 headed back to central CT; three days later she was my first serious girlfriend and almost 30 years later I’m still listening to School of Fish.
I’d forgive you if you never heard of it. It was 1991, “alternative” was the industry exec buzzword and it was a crowded market. Just a few records that came out that year: Ten (Pearl Jam); God Fodder (Ned’s Atomic Dustbin); Gish (Smashing Pumpkins); International Pop Overthrow (Material Issue); Whirlpool (Chapterhouse); Doubt (Jesus Jones); Mr. Bungle; Trompe le Monde (Pixies); Loveless (My Bloody Valentine); about a thousand others that could be lumped within spitting distance of REM and/or the Cure that, justly or unjustly, nobody has ever heard of – oh, and a minor little record called Nevermind. Amid all of that School of Fish were just another runner in the pack, one more band signed to cash in on that year’s trend. School of Fish had one real single – the moderately well received “3 Strange Days”, which at the time reminded me a lot of Ty Tabor,2 though I don’t think that stands up – and then sank off the charts forevermore (their second record, Human Cannonball, changed personnel and tone and barely made a blip even if I really liked it).
This video is so mind-blowingly, incomprehensibly 90s……
So yeah. School of Fish. It’s an eclectic record. Despite what “3 Strange Days” promises as a single, it’s not really a rock album. It’s not really a guitar-pop album; it’s definitely not a sound record. It’s mostly Josh Clayton-Felt and Michael Ward playing well-crafted, lyrically tight songs over a drum machine (most likely an Alesis HR16 by the sound; Chad Fischer and Chris MacDonald rounded them out live). Some of them are loud, some are pretty, some are mediocre, some are brilliant. It’s what was originally meant by “alternative” – something that’s not what the mainstream charts have on them, something a little hard to define. Its worst moments try to be conventional rock (for fuck’s sake, “King of the Dollar” literally riffs “Satisfaction”, complete with writing credit), its best are fragile, introspective. In a way, School of Fish is the early 90s; its opening lines – “I want to change the way the world affects me / I want to dance in the face of all that could be” – combined with their almost bored delivery could be a summation of Gen X in the Bush (Senior) era: we all wanted things to be different, we just couldn’t figure out what or how or any way to get motivated about it.3
Somewhere in the world
And I’m dancing to
that broken record again
What keeps me coming back to School of Fish is the songwriting. Even when the arrangements fall a bit short or the production isn’t perfect these are just good songs.4 I would have gravitated towards these tracks regardless of where or in what order I heard them. Maybe it’s the breadth of different sadnesses that flow through it. From the worn-out ennui of “Speechless” (“I can’t open my eyes / I’m getting lost in this disguise”) to the coping-challenged emptiness of “Rose Colored Glasses” (“Half alive you step inside your helium balloon / it’s the only way to rise above the room”) to the shy-boy too-late of “Fell” (“Guess I just waited too long somehow / guess I just waited ‘cus I knew I would”) there’s a type of down for every occasion, all dressed up in clever phrasing and well-crafted hooks; as a life-long depressive, that’s worth its weight in gold.
Don’t you know that a painted smile
It don’t turn that easily
And I don’t know where you are now / but what I don’t know can’t hurt me.
Like a lot of good records,5 School of Fish could be completely about its closer. “Euphoria” is the big hurt, the one that’s so bad you just stop feeling. It’s been with me through every truly bad moment of my life and is one of the two best breakup songs I know (the other is The Call’s “I Don’t Wanna;” between them they’re how I survived the only two relationships I regret the ends of). It’s built well; mid-tempo, detached drum machine shuffle opening, soft-strum chords shimmering with chorus, gigantic slide guitar sweeps, huge swell and break at the bridge. It’s deceptively simple – structurally it’s two 8 line verses, chorus, and bridge, a.k.a. pop song 101 – but the way the pieces build from quiet and shaky into the enormous messy reverb of the final chorus is just brilliant.
Jess and I lasted a little over a year; there was some acrimony for more than a while, but she and I are good friends now (and her eyes have stayed blue the whole time). School of Fish as a band got just enough time for a second record,6 but Josh Clayton-Felt didn’t even get another decade. He was diagnosed with aggressive testicular cancer in December of 1999 and passed on January 19, 2000, after less than a month in the hospital (I cried; that puts him in company with Steve Clark, Frank Zappa, and David Bowie as the only musicians whose passing has made me weep). He left behind a small catalogue of solo music, which is good; I recommend his one-man live performance captured as Josh Clayton Felt Like Making a Live Record. As for School of Fish, I still put it on around once a month, though I skip the shitty Walkman these days.
1 – Turns out they were coloured contacts. Might say something about the nature of love, I don’t know.
2 – I was deep into King’s X. Deep.
3 – Maybe that was just me. I can never tell.
4 – Except “King of the Dollar”, which is mediocre as fuck. “Wrong” is a bit of a toss-off, but still has a fair slice of charm.
5 – Not the great records, but the good ones.
6 – Michael Ward eventually wound up in The Wallflowers, and now does a lot of session work.