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Medicine Ball: Sandwich Full of Lies

Medicine Ball Live
Medicine Ball Live at the Midlde East, Cambridge, Ma

Medicine Ball originally came to my attention in 1989 or so by the means of a demo tape (handed to me by Jon Hardy of the Bags) and a series of live shows that they played in Boston during that time. It is from this demo, with original guitarist Peter Phillips, that the track “Sissy and Me” was selected to appear on the Where’s Stanton Park? compilation. Their sound at the time was a dense guitar driven attack. Their songs were longer and slower than many other bands at the time, and showed just a hint of the intricacies that were to develop later on. This was not the Seattle sound. Alas, this lineup of the band was not to last. Sometime in 1990, Peter left to join Six Finger Satellite and Evan Williams (x-Plan 9) was recruited to fill his place.

It is with this second lineup, that the band recorded Sandwich Full of Lies. They released it on their own Irregular Records label as an LP (no CD) in late 1991. I got a copy of the album shortly there afterwards and one Sunday morning, severely hungover, put it on to listen. I listened to it three times straight!

So, yeah, I liked the record pretty immediately, but unlike many albums that please immediately, this one also grew on me. There was something extra to this record. The guitars had this interplay that you don’t hear too often. Or, as I originally stated in a 1992 catalog, “Maybe the best chemistry between guitarists since Television.” They weren’t using the simple block chords, or rhythm/lead combo that most bands employ. Instead, they constructed a more melodic style that relied on parts that intertwine quite well with one another. Mark Stone added to this contrapuntal melange with his fluid bass lines.

But many a band can play their instruments, or play well together. The trick, with a band like this is to come up with material that works with this style of playing. Medicine Ball had already been used to playing longer, mid-tempo songs that took their time to build to a frenzy, and back down again. Not the sort of thing that works universally in a club setting. This approach, however, worked perfectly on Sandwich. The band had mastered the art of bringing a song from a sparse beginning of a voice and arpeggiated guitar to a crashing conclusion with everything full on. This is best exemplified on the track “Spot.”

One of the strengths of this record is that each song has it’s own personality yet fits in with the rest of the record. No one song is going to be the “hit” of this album though. These songs are deeper, and take some careful listening to draw out the hidden gems. It starts slowly: you start by latching on to a riff, then a song, until finally you realize that you can’t stop thinking about the album. I first remembered “Lucky” with it’s tremolo guitar in waltz time and middle section that picks up the energy.

“Rocket,” closing out side one, is perhaps the closest thing to a hit on this album. It starts out anthemetically with a descending chord pattern, building into the first verse with a wah-stoked guitar motif. The verse breaks down to a simple descending riff which contrasts with the vocal melody nicely. The chorus picks up in tempo and intensity eventually building to a middle section that has the guitars playing call and response with each other. Finally the song ends with resounding crash. I remember going to Providence to see them play after this album came out at the club (coincidentally) named the Rocket. I got there early and heard them from down the street sound-checking the song. And boy did that sound good! I got real excited!

Nearly every song on this album has this sort of complexity, yet never strays into pretentious territory. They just rock. In fact even the slowest, quietest song on the album, “Spot” builds in tempo and intensity by the end. This album is a classic example of a band being much more than a sum of it’s parts. It a snapshot of an incredible moment in time when the band was firing on all cylinders and perhaps didn’t even know it as they recorded this album. In fact, this is one of those rare moments, when the record is indeed better than live. While I saw them play material from this album live, it never quite capture the magic of these 40+ minutes in vinyl.