A Chico mix
Ten great homegrown songs that define this musical city
The discussion started with a casual Facebook post by CN&R Arts Editor Jason Cassidy: “What’s your favorite song ever by a Chico band?” (See Arts DEVO) After getting 500-plus replies in just 24 hours, it was apparent that we’d struck a chord within the local music and music-loving community, and so we decided to keep asking. We reached out to all the youngsters and oldsters, and all the hippies, punks, indie-rockers and just-plain-rockers we know in order to track down Chico’s best songs. We weren’t looking for personal favorites; we were looking for those quintessential songs that best represent a wide variety of artists from our storied and eclectic music scene over the past few decades.
With this “top 10”—plus the 40 more in the accompanying playlist (see “Plus 40 more,” page 21)—we are not trying to present a definitive list of the “50 best Chico songs.” Rather, we hope to offer a sampling of some of the greatest songs written right here, songs that deserve a spot on the local soundtrack. Enjoy.
Note: Song dates are for earliest known recording.Pages Turn (1985)
On their self-titled—and only—album, the members of mid-1980s “college rock” trio 28th Day captured a singular brand of jangly garage-pop that was at turns sunny, dark, energetic and chaotic, and preserved what turned out to be a brief yet very special time in Chico’s music history.
The big argument for the best of the album’s seven songs is between the two most poppy numbers, “Pages Turn” and “25 Pills,” sung by bassist Barbara Manning (who would go on to enjoy an internationally acclaimed solo career) and guitarist Cole Marquis (who would start Chico supergroup The Downsiders), respectively. But the ridiculously infectious melodies and Manning’s soaring vocals on “Pages Turn” make it impossible to resist.
“I distinctly remember 28th Day playing that song and all of us collectively realizing we were causing a crowd reaction for the first time as a band.” That’s 28th Day drummer Mike Cloward, and it’s a testament to the song’s immediate likeability, from the moment Marquis rings out the first reverb-y notes of the main riff and Cloward taps the song in before locking into his signature head-nodding surf-rock beat. But the stars are the melodies—the main guitar riff, Marquis’ solo and Manning’s confident yet relaxed vocals, especially on the chorus, where the song’s title is repeated four times in four different melodies.
Not only could this be the best Chico song ever, but for a “split second,” as Pitchfork critic Philip Welsh noted in 2004, it’s possible that 28th Day was “the best band in the world.”
—Jason CassidyHey Emilie (1993)
The Mother Hips
Like a train clickity-clacking down wooden tracks unaware of its upcoming derailment, The Mother Hips’ classic tune “Hey Emilie” starts picking up steam around the 2:12 mark—the boilers, loaded to the hilt with coal, cause the engine to combust and the tune takes a radical turn, becoming something else entirely, a down and dirty grunge.
“Hey Emilie” is not bound and constricted by time; it is as lively and devastatingly original in the 21st century as it was in 1993 when it was released on the band’s debut album, Back to the Grotto.
Song craftsman Tim Bluhm reveals that, “Emilie was an old woman who had written into Dear Abby. She was complaining about hearing the sound of bacon sizzling and the sound of freight trains in her head.” An even deeper look into the real-life Emilie reveals that she was afraid that she was going mad. Anyone who attended a Hips show in ’93 in Chico knows that with the exquisite beer, psychedelics and music, sanity was at a premium. More so, the triptych that “Hey Emilie” takes us on, off the cliff and back to the groove, weighs in at 4 minutes and 45 seconds. And that, folks, has always been the power of The Hips; the ability to take us on a fantastic journey and land us home safely, under 5.
—DNABlank Page (2013)
Surrogate is a full band, but it is frontman Chris Keene’s brainchild, brought up in the indie-rock paradigm of the late aughts that was exemplified by the likes of Death Cab for Cutie. “Blank Page,” the lead song on the band’s latest album, 2013’s Post-Heroic, best embodies everything great about Keene’s songwriting and Surrogate’s sound. Keene has an impressive résumé, and arguments could be made for many of his songs being “the best”: Post-Heroic’s “Lovers” is a moving pop-rock snapshot of married life, and “Whiskey (Vomiting Words)” off 2009’s Popular Mechanics is pretty much demanded during the band’s barroom gigs.
Listen to “Blank Page,” though, and try to argue that it’s not a masterstroke. Note the impeccable production quality when the drums kick in; the intelligent dynamics in the addition and subtraction of guitar, bass and synthesizer; the tightness of the band as a whole; Keene’s delicate vocal timbre and uncanny sense of melody; and the bittersweet lyricism common to Surrogate’s music. It’s a song about writing songs, and much more. Keene sings: “I’m afraid of a blank page/sitting quiet and desperate/Creation’s a slow fade/to exhaustion and old age.” But the main sell here is that it rocks, with a bridge filled with gargantuan, wide-open guitar noise and crashing cymbals, perfectly contrasting the catchy, head-nodding verses. So much yes.
—Howard HardeeAll My Friends Are Fish/Pony Made of Ice (1988)
The Downsiders, a supergroup of sorts that ruled over Chico in the late 1980s/early 1990s, comprised both sides of Chico’s musical personality: the noisy and the stoney. Like the punk-rockers, they weren’t shy about getting loud and dirty, and like crews in the jam scene, they were open to exploring. But when The Downsiders jammed, they borrowed way more from the open-tuned weirdness of Sonic Youth than the groovy noodling of The Dead.
The two-song suite “All My Friends Are Fish/Pony Made of Ice” from the group’s second album, All My Friends Are Fish, was The Downsiders’ 11-plus-minute magnum opus, on which all their sonic powers were brought to bear.
The “Fish” half is the heavy side, a hectic, driving psychedelic jam with guitarists Cole Marquis and Jeff Tracy dueling with fuzzy, chiming guitars during an extended intro before things calm down enough for Marquis’ vocals to float in. Then, for the “Pony” half, the fish grows feet and hits the ground, languidly trying to get its legs as the guitars float in the distance and the band delivers a series of dynamic lulls that burst into a gallop every time Marquis shouts out, “So, I took a ride!” And we come back and reset during each break and anticipate bouncing back in when the bright swirling melody calls.
—Jason CassidyShut Down (1996)
Deathstar bridged the gap in Chico between the epic sonic sprawl of bands like The Downsiders and what would become the more abbreviated, punchy and Deathstar-influenced indie-rock of Chico in the late-’90s (see Either, Micro-Magnesia, etc.).
What makes “Shut Down”—the first song on the band’s Strikes the Earth EP—so profound is its immense mapping within a 3:32 time frame, burgeoning with enough ideas for 20 songs by a lesser band, yet still delivering with melodic post-punk immediacy.
Deathstar was a band whose three parts drew attention to their individual movements—never predictable, but always coalescing in blasts of unadulterated adrenaline. Guitarist/vocalist Kelly Bauman dabbled in alt-tunings, making one guitar roar like three. This allowed bassist Ken Lovgren to create fluid, always morphing bass lines that veered from the chords’ root note in search of other dynamic touchstones, while the canvas was stretched tight and held firm by the inventive drumming of Jim Rizzuto. There are some traditional markers—repeated verses, anthemic riffs—but as transcendent as these pieces are, it’s the song’s breakdown at the 2:02 mark that builds to nonpareil climactic sendoff where all three players push and pull its breathless boundaries, working together in an ecstatic tangle of noise and precision.
—Conrad NystromLooking Glass (1984)
Spark ’N Cinder
Spark ’N Cinder fans have danced to drummer/singer/songwriter Jimmy Fay’s song “Looking Glass” for four decades. One newer band member first heard it as his mother twirled with him in an infant backpack at one of the longest-running (40 years!) Chico band’s shows.
An intuitive chord progression and melody as sophisticated as any Lennon and McCartney composition, “Looking Glass” seduces the listener with a melancholy minor mood and hints of Irish and Gypsy music, resolving on a major chord just when the ear expects the opposite. (Bang. Hook!) It’s a deceptively simple love song, with the memorable line, “You don’t need a looking glass/I’ve got a mirror for you.” However, few knew Fay was singing about cocaine addiction. The subtle reference to mirrors for snorting powder (carried in any college girl’s purse in the 1980s, according to Fay) is a pithy comment on the strung-out.
Imagine an African band from Mali playing reggae; that’s the groove Fay was channeling. When sax player Phil O’Neill sang the high harmony, the Jersey-style Frankie Valli doo-wop influence emerged. Like all great songwriters, the more you dig down, the more you discover.
Treasure hunters: vinyl version, Fay on vocals (1984) and CD version with Fay on mandolin, Gina Tropea on vocals (2001).
—Peter BerkowHence the Box (1992)
Spewing out four albums and a smattering of cassettes and 7-inch singles between 1985 and 1992, Vomit Launch arrived with a proto-indie-pop style all its own and kept refining it through seven years of steady gigging, touring the Western U.S. and recording.
For a band with great moments that were so disparate—from the gorgeously melodic “Pretty Paper” to the hilariously self-deprecating punk-anthemic “Theme Song” (“I threw up in a cat box/I woke up in a rat box”)—it’s difficult to pick a quintessential “greatest” song from among the dozens of jangly guitared, wandering-bass, drum-driven tunes that provided the infrastructure over which vocalist Trish Howard (née Roland) floated and occasionally shouted fragmentation-bomb lyrics.
That said, “Hence the Box,” the lead cut on the band’s final, excellent album, Dogeared, strikes a perfect balance. The 3-minute cardio workout blasts off with Lindsey Thrasher’s chiming guitar and Larry Crane’s bass chords before kicking into a propulsively unified blend of treble-y strumming, hyperkinetic bass and drummer Steve Bragg’s locomotive percussive power. And Howard’s voice delivers a peculiarly melodic blend of languid yet vehement emotion in her declaration of stalker-like devotion to the person she tells, “You think you do me favors to let me play in your yard/You keep your toys stacked neatly and hence the box.”
—Carey WilsonChristmastime Is Here (Again!) (2009)
The Yule Logs
The Yule Logs formed in earnest 11 years ago, dubbing themselves “the hardest working band in snow business.” And they still are. But The Yule Logs are also one of the best rock bands in Chico—period—be it on Dec. 25 or a hellacious, fiery hot Fourth of July afternoon.
It took a few years for The Logs to finally make a record, and the quartet’s 2009 self-titled debut delivered some outstanding British Invasion-inspired nuggets with a nod to kids and a wink to their holiday-sapped parents. From it came the band’s first single, “Christmastime Is Here (Again!),” a jangly jingle that would have been a sock-hop and jukebox staple in 1965. Fortified by an airtight rhythm section, the song kicks off with surf guitar before vocalist Marty Parker imparts allusions to Nat King Cole, eggnog and festive sweaters with nary a drop of irony (thanks, maybe, to Grandpa Joe’s “flask of Jack”). It’s a great rock song regardless of the subject matter.
The Yule Logs are now one of the longest-running bands in Chico, having logged plenty of great originals and choice covers in the process. “Christmastime Is Here (Again!)” probably exemplifies the band best: Fun, funny, but also dead serious when it comes to the holidays and rock ’n’ roll’s heyday.
—Mark LoreHigh Sierra (1981)
One casualty of the digital revolution is locally produced television. Sure, there’s still local news and cable access, but there was a time when limited network programming created shared community experiences and made regional celebrities of late-night horror hosts and other colorful characters.
In the North State, we had The Moriss Taylor Show, which featured musical performances of standards and songs penned by its host. From 1956 to 1995, it aired every Sunday on KHSL, and for most of that time was filmed in a studio at Fourth and Wall streets in downtown Chico. Taylor also hosted a weekly radio show from the 1940s until his retirement—from The Blaze 103.5 FM—in 2013.
Longtime locals might remember Taylor’s one-liners and the cowboy costumes worn by him and his rotating backup players, which included local legends such as Charlie Robinson and the occasional moonlighting local ringer. The show’s most memorable recurring moment was its closing tune, Taylor’s “High Sierra,” with its syrupy-sweet steel guitar poured over a trotting clip and centered around Taylor’s silky-smooth voice as he sang, “High Sierra, skies of blue/Whispering pines, remind me of you.” The song can easily pass for a Gene Autry or Roy Rogers hit and remains a timeless tune that’s carried generations of Chicoans away to the green meadows and sparkling streams of our nearby mountain range.
—Ken SmithGlorious (2009)
“Glorious,” from the band’s debut CD, All the Way, is the quintessential MaMuse song, featuring two singer/songwriters at their buoyant best. Delivered by Sarah Nutting on lightly strummed mandolin and Karisha Longaker on grooving stand-up bass, with back-and-forth harmonic vocals by both, the song evokes a beautiful and clear-eyed appreciation of the goodness in life and the natural world, offered with an essence of universal spirituality: “I’ve got good friends to the left of me and good friends to my right/Got the open sky above me and the earth beneath my feet … Oh, what a day! Glorious!”
It’s a sentiment that threads its way through the songs on all four MaMuse albums, from the similarly themed “Hallelujah” (which the group performed live on NPR’s Prairie Home Companion in 2012) to “Natural Order” from 2010’s Strange & Wonderful.
MaMuse’s music is some of the most original and captivating in the history of Chico’s scene. The stripped-down, emotionally evocative brand of soulful folk could even be heard as a kind of guiding soundtrack for much of Chico’s new generation of bike-happy, eco-conscious and music-loving progressives.