Like so many other rock acts snapped up by the majors during the back half of the ’90s, 12 Rods’ contract was supposed to accelerate their already heady velocity. Less than three years after their initial demo recordings, they were the first American band signed to Richard Branson’s new label, V2. They’d spent the intervening time raising a ruckus in their adopted hometown of Minneapolis: topping City Pages polls, landing on radio playlists, scoring an endorsement deal with an eyewear company. An ambitious local fanzine awarded their 1996 EP gay? its first-ever perfect score.
But V2 couldn’t translate that buzz for a mass audience. To the misfortune of everyone involved, 12 Rods were a prog-pop act in alt-rock duds, pairing knotty arrangements and inspired chording with the earnestness of first-wave emo. They were acolytes of XTC—another Branson-signed act—and after the tepid commercial reaction to 1998’s self-produced Split Personalities, 12 Rods followed their heroes’ playbook, hiring Todd Rundgren to produce their next full-length, 2000’s Separation Anxieties, in Hawaii. The album was no Skylarking, but it was a lesson in major-label economics. In James Francis Flynn’s 2017 band documentary Accidents Waiting to Happen, 12 Rods describe paying a third of a million dollars to a laissez-faire producer who spent sessions cracking cans of Foster’s and doing crosswords.
Separation Anxieties was a fine effort despite the circumstances, but the rock pendulum had swung to post-grunge, and soon afterward V2 dropped the band. 12 Rods recorded and released 2002’s Lost Time themselves, then split. The new album If We Stayed Alive does not reunite the Rods—in a Rundgrenesque move, its seven tracks were recorded entirely by multi-instrumentalist Ryan Olcott, the group’s lead singer and lone songwriter—but it posits them as a band better suited for a bedroom-pop age. Everything here is drawn from demos that Olcott rediscovered a couple years ago, and his production pointedly preserves that vibe. The keys and synths were programmed on a digital audio workstation from 1999; the drums were recorded to cassettes on a Yamaha 8-track from the early ’90s. He even worked to shape his vocals into the breathy yelp he wielded decades ago. The result is an atmospheric treatment of a sound—crisply off-kilter, assured but nervy—that the Rods shared with contemporaries like the Swirlies, the Wicked Farleys, and the Dismemberment Plan.
It’s informed by the music Olcott’s been making over the last 20 years: the full-band indietronica of Mystery Palace, the scrambled chillwave funk he’s made as c.Kostra. The live chestnut “Private Spies” is a power-pop ode to Minneapolis scene gossip, with a ’90s sitcom theme for a chorus and a head-cold guitar solo to close. The solo on the languid R&B cut “The Beating” is vintage AOR: a retro feint that heightens the vibe, instead of derailing it. The lyric pivots from what I think is a DJ describing his open relationship (“You can look at me while I'm working/Don't mind if you do/You can touch somebody out there/Looks like you want to”) to a gently chanted tribute to Mill City nightlife.
Even the thorny subject matter is given a similarly shimmering cast. “Comfortable Situation” has a typically sneery Olcott text (“Rock repeats the story/Every time we’re boring”) but keeps cracking its grouchy nu-rock riff open like a geode, revealing a sparkling, pensive guitar figure. Opener “All I Can Think About” starts like a dispatch from the first wave of school shootings—a glum acoustic riff, images of cops counting kids and scouring the gym for guns—before Olcott turns abruptly inward. “Where was I in junior high,” he sighs, ”Then I realized: I could solve any crime/It's all I can think about.” It’s audacious, but it doesn’t play as solipsism, just dream logic. “Hide Without Delay” is all about crime and retribution, flashing the shifting time signatures and stylistic switchbacks of classic Rods before dipping into a hypnagogic state. “Shame on you,” Olcott murmurs over ambient dissipation reminiscent of Separation Anxieties’ “Rock N’ Roll Band.” “Don't you wanna tell me something?” He could be drifting off. He could be dying.
The 12 Rods project, however, is not. Accidents Waiting to Happen interlaced its band history with performances from a triumphant 2015 reunion show involving every former band member. But none of those members—not Ryan’s brother and second guitarist Ev, not drummer Dave King of the Bad Plus—will be rejoining. Olcott has cast an all-new 12 Rods lineup with what the press materials call “new, more relevant musicians from the Twin Cities.” If We Stayed Alive, then, is more than pandemic-motivated housecleaning: It’s a proper comeback. And it’s a stirring achievement for an act that had come so far so fast, only to find itself out of place, and out of time.
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