This post was originally published in November 2014 on The Hooded Utilitarian as part of a roundtable on The Best Band No One Has Ever Heard Of. The index to the roundtable is here. It is re-posted here with a few revisions.
I wonder if what makes a collection of songs “the best you’ve never heard” is the fact that no one’s heard of it. Case in point, the band Thumb of the Maid and their 1998 album of the same name. As far as I know it is some flash in the pan local band from California, but I have such a deep personal relationship to the album from repeated listening over 10 years, that it feels like my little secret. It is a record I can mine for likely previously unheard songs to put on mix tapes (even though I haven’t made a mixtape in years), but more importantly when I listen to it I have deep emotional reaction to its sounds. I am alone in the world with it.
Here’s the thing about Thumb of the Maid and their self-titled album, I know next to nothing about them or the record. I mean, I know it was released by Deaf Khan Records, and that the guys behind it are known as the Moore Brothers. These days they make records under that name, but I’ve listened to a tidbit of the more recent stuff now and then, and nothing is nearly as compelling as the 15 songs on Thumb of the Maid. There are 16 tracks, but I almost always skip the first one, “I Love Your Loneliness” It just doesn’t do it for me and seems to lack the weirdo charm of the rest of the songs. It is just a little too straight, a little too transparently trying to be an American take on 60s Brit Pop in the 90s.
No, as far as I’m concerned “Hey Twelve” is the real first song of the album, and it only gets better from there.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. How do I know about Thumb of the Maid at all? This dude. He was a friend of a friend who I helped get a job where I worked and then we became friends and he hipped me to this record. I think he worked at Amoeba Records with one of the Moores. This was a guy who first played me shit like Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Yankee Foxtrot Hotel, but who I also geeked out with about Grateful Dead bootlegs (could talk for hours about that May 9th 1977 Buffalo War Memorial show), and with whom I was a part of a collective of four DJs called “Sugar in the Raw,” who played at parties and switched off in pairs for a regular gig in the city, playing mostly hip-hop, R&B, soul…sometimes we’d throw in some dancehall, roots reggae and even fuckin’ Billy Joel. This was back in the early 00s. So we shared a taste for a wide range in music. I don’t remember what he told me about it—he just told me to listen to it and I did, and I have never regretted it.
The songs on Thumb of the Maid—I only recently learned it is a reference to a lyric in Joni Mitchell’s “Trouble Child,” off Court and Spark—have a simultaneously raw and meticulous quality. Each track is a perfect little package of shifting rhythmic structure undergirded by two guitars and bass, but also with expressive drumming. They are threaded throughout with bizarre lyrics, some kind of sub-psychedelic nonsense that nonetheless evokes meaning through their sometimes strained delivery and slightly off-key harmonies. Thumb of the Maid often strikes me like it emerged from a garage built in a place where the love-child of Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and some of the lo-fi elements that make Neutral Milk Hotel so compelling, all spliced with the ubiquitous influence of the Beatles.
Perhaps the mash-up of influences I hear is not making the music sound appealing, but I am struggling to find another way to describe it. There is also tension between snark and earnestness that emerges from the strangeness of the lyrical content and the tone of the singing. There is a youthfulness that is evident in the youtube videos of their 1998 appearance on a cable access show that justifies the roughness around the edges. I listen to this record and I can’t help but admire these kids, even if they are middle-aged men now.
Take the beginning to “Hey Twelve.” It opens with an uneven number of its opening little lurching rhythmic rifts before the lead vocal comes in a lyric, what’s it say? I don’t know. It sounds like “I spider-grafted!” Or maybe he’s singing “I photographted.” (putting a ‘t’ in a word where it doesn’t belong). It sounds like that’s what he’s singing the second time around, but honestly it doesn’t really matter. The brightness of the lyric, the way the song jumps from part to part—including a bridge that echoes that lurching opening and its catchy refrain, “That the bomb goes…!”— the singer’s voice inexpertly extends the syllables at the end of words in a cascade, the overlapping voices for the outro—it is a great first song for a record.
And speaking of overlapping voices, I love the way the Moore Brothers (sometimes aided by the rest of the band) layer their voices and sing in close but subtly different, sometimes dissonant harmonies. It sometimes reminds me of XTC or in the case of one of my favorite songs “The Axe” like Thom Yorke before Thom Yorke.
“Freaks in the Pond” (above) is like post-punk Moody Blues with prog-rock time changes and a coda that breaks into an unexpected Latin feel. “Forever is Already There” is an attempt at a ballad that breaks charmingly under the weight of the quirky earnestness of its lyrics that sports nearly a minute long instrumental intro despite the whole song being under three minutes long. I can’t not like it.
“105” is probably the best song on the album. The way both the lead vocalist, and the backing vocals he is layered over, warble “One-Oh-Five! I don’t wanna hear about your future plans!” are what sell it for me. It is just so damn catchy. The verses resound just the right amount of foppish attitude, as when the opening lyrics describes, “Pinky under tongue like a thermometer.”
“Julian Blood Boy”—which sounds like They Might Be Giants via R.E.M or something—is grounded by a fantastically elegant but strong bass line, allowing the bizarre lyrics to float high above with their voices.
You can just listen to “Episodes” (above) from when they lip-synced songs on a Bay Area cable access show and hear for yourself. If you aren’t won over at 1:19 when the “Please be a pal of mine” change comes in, then I fear you might not ever be convinced, which is a shame. All I call I can suggest is to play the video again, but close your eyes, don’t let their dorky bouncing white boy energy dissuade you. Instead, listen to that restrained Johnny Lydon screech the lead Moore brother lets out twice in each verse (as when he sings, “What would it prove?”), and the soothing way they sing the word ‘sodes the final time, reinforcing the feeling that all these songs sometimes give, that the sounds of individual syllables are more important than the meanings of the words they inhabit. Maybe that’ll make a difference.
You can watch and listen to a faux performance of the sweet “Apples in Stacks” on youtube as well.
Thumb of the Maid fills a strange musical niche for me. I like to think I have a pretty wide-ranging taste in music, but truth is I am pretty conventional in my likes. I don’t have many, if any, claims to super obscure shit as my favorite all-time records. I mean, those are easy: Songs in the Key of Life and Sign o’ the Times. Maybe Amnesiac, Revolver, Fear of a Black Planet and XTC’s Skylarking. I am not a collector of the rare when it comes to music, but I don’t know anyone else besides the guy that introduced me to it who has even ever heard of this record. I have never gotten anyone to take it seriously. Furthermore, it seems politically inert—probably because so much of the lyrics seem like nonsense, affecting knowledge rather than undermine its own strange sonic logic with pretentious messages. All music is political, of course, and I could criticize this music from the perspective of having the privilege to eschew politics altogether, but ultimately that is not much of a criticism, except in terms of being just part and parcel of the political economy of white rock acts. As such, I can only write about the way it makes me feel and the aural pleasure of their highly structured but straightforward two to three minute songs.
There is something pleasing about a song like “Seagirl” that lets the slippage between “seagirl” and “seagull” become a beautiful sonic ambiguity. It is reassuring to hear the sweet expression of love(?) in “Mannequin Witch”—the album’s last song—when they sing in delightful harmony, “And if I walk to your house / I’m going to take my time” while wondering if the beloved might be a “mannequin witch”—whatever that is. It is a great last song, ending with a fading reverberating hum.
The thing about an album like this from the perspective of a listener like me, is that despite the secret world I feel it brings me to I still want other people to hear it like I do.
I don’t know why it should matter. And, anyway, some part of me fears that exposing other people to Thumb of the Maid might undermine my relationship with it by opening up the possibility of criticisms I don’t want to hear. I certainly doubt this post is going to do much to make this little record into an underground classic. Rather, if I can persuade one or two people to seek it out and listen as openly as I have, I can only hope they come to understand its pleasures as well.