“In [producer Jim] Dickinson, [Alex] Chilton would wage his rebellion on the classic power pop image Big Star had attained. 3rd, also known as Sister Lovers, was that darkness rendered full blown. There is nothing celebratory going on here. Chilton’s senses of faith in the salvation of rock, the redeeming value of critical praise, or commercial success, probably seemed like ‘oh so much crap’ at the point of this recording. As a result, he performs the music on Sister Lovers as if he had nothing to lose.”
— Rick Clark, liner notes for Rykodisc reissue of Big Star’s Sister Lovers
Handful of Fog is Metal Feathers’ Sister Lovers. It’s a bleak mess of a record, lo-fi to a fault, deliberately damaged, druggy and defiant, yet gorgeous in places and capable of delivering rock kicks to the ass of anyone who doubts they’ve got any fight left in ’em.
Like Chilton’s Big Star at that stage, Jay Lobley’s Metal Feathers has produced two great records adored by critics and ignored by almost everyone else. Big Star was down to half its original four members by then. Metal Feathers is down from four to three, but it’s more problematic than that, because the one who’s gone, drummer Althea Pajak, was also Lobley’s wife.
Jay’s brother Derek has all but abandoned the Ace Tone organ to handle drum duties, and Jason Rogers is still playing bass. But let’s not bullshit about it. This is not a positive development for the band. Pajak’s departure has drained all the playfulness and light from the music. Contrary to what you may have been told by Portland’s “arts and entertainment authority,” this is not Metal Feathers’ best album. It is their worst album. Granted, it’s still cooler and more compelling than most of the indie rock made in Maine, but that doesn’t mean much in terms of audience or commercial success, both of which Metal Feathers will continue to lack.
So what’s the story with Metal Feathers now? Jay Lobley addresses that question on the opening track, “This Band is a Secret,” and the answer is: none of your fucking business. As he overdubs the last word of the title over and over again atop a train wreck of abrasive guitar and off-kilter drums, the listener gets the message loudly, if not clearly.
The next track, “In the Moon and Still,” further muddies the water. It’s got a beautiful, shimmering guitar line and a dreamy atmosphere, but I’ll be damned if I can understand two consecutive words Lobley sings due to the echo-heavy vocal effect and all the noise and clatter he’s heaped on the mix.
“Dreary Beats” is true to its title, but at least you can make out (most of) the words, and there’s a riff to hang your hat on. In the days of Lobley’s previous group, Cult Maze, this would have been one section of a dynamic, amazing song. Now it’s a trudge down a dead-end.
“Rotten Cop” is one of several tracks that redeem Fog. It’s got one of the best riffs Keith Richards never wrote, and one of the few bona fide choruses on the record: “Tell me you’re a rotten cop / I tell you I’m just a hooker at the bus stop … I wanna push you in the dark / I wanna pin you down in the bed of my heart.” Great lines, but Lobley delivers them like he’s just been roused from a stupor and forced to sing them at gunpoint. The third time around, he just gives up on the last part of the chorus and mumbles “blah blah blah blah…” as the song clanks to a stop.
The haunting ballad “I Hold Her Up” is devastating. “My girlfriend’s blonde, she’s kind of dirty / We like to smoke hash and kiss real slowly,” Lobley drawls as it unfurls. “I hold her up when she is low / and she will never ever let me go.”
Side two offers the hardcore knock-off “Witch Tricks” and the revved-up “Sparkle Motorcycle,” which inject some sorely needed energy into Fog, but that side’s also weighed down by a pointless instrumental (“Skull Session”) and an odd mash-up that links the dread-filled “West End Blackout” with the end of an epic downer called “Chains.”
The last track, “She Had Her Doubts,” has another great Stones-y riff, no chorus, and some genuinely unsettling lines like, “The first time that she made him cry / it hurt her so much more than him / she wrote it down with some scissors on her arm.”
So yeah, you can say there are still some raw nerves firing in Lobley’s brilliant brain. He could apparently care less if you hear this song, but he’s left the door open a crack, and if you step inside Fog, you’ll never forget you were there.
— Chris Busby
Handful of Fog is available on vinyl and cassette only at this point. Check Strange Maine and Moody Lords. The MP3 of “Rotten Cop” was removed from this post at the band’s request.