A Good Year For Bad Days: The Pain And Pleasure Of The Refreshments

I came of age listening to the Refreshments, which was pretty challenging, since they only put out two albums before breaking up and no one else had heard of them. Lead singer-songwriter Roger Clyne has since moved on to a new band, but those first two albums stand out for so many reasons. Taken individually, they're solid pop-rock albums, but combined they form a larger emotional whole that Clyne has never quite been able to recapture: They're about a relationship, specifically the first rush of happiness and then, later, the sad dissolution of something that was supposed to last.ffbig.jpg The Refreshments' first album, Fizzy Fuzzy Big & Buzzy, is a potent mix of post-grunge pop-rock that mixes humor and heartache in equal measure while charting new territory in a genre that could be called Southwestern Rock. The single "Banditos" found some purchase on college radio, but anyone judging the band solely on the merits of that upbeat tale of robbery south of the border is missing out on the bigger issues tackled by lead singer-songwriter Roger Clyne. Album opener "Blue Collar Suicide" was a tongue-in-cheek look at the trappings of a dull relationship, but the second song hinted at the yearning that would become a hallmark of Clyne's writing: "European Swallow" roils around with a sensual spoken-word pair of verses before bursting into the chorus with "I'd do anything for you / Anything that you want me to do / It's just gonna take a little more money." By the time the album eases into "Down Together," Clyne has calmed down enough to sing about the defiant attitude of young love. "Whoever said there's nothing new under the sun / Never thought much about individuals / But he's dead anyway." This sentiment is the quiet thread pulsing at the heart of the album. As Clyne moves through the obstinate loneliness of "Mekong" and the desert desolation of "Don't Wanna Know," it becomes clear that the songs spring from a place of youthful arrogance, an almost palpable belief in the endless possibilities life can offer. Even if he's gonna be sitting in the same bar a year from now, he doesn't want to hear about it; things are bound to change. The punk-tinged rockabilly of "Girly" is a distant cousin of country-rock, with Clyne's swaggering heartbreak belying the optimism that swims underneath: "Beat me till I'm black and blue," he tells her, then says they can do it all over again. The album is the beginning of a relationship, full of hope and positively carefree when it comes to dealing with what will be guaranteed heartbreak. bfbig.jpg The band would only record one more album before disbanding and leaving Mercury Records, and their sophomore effort, The Bottle & Fresh Horses, was a marked step forward for Clyne's style and writing. Everything about the album feels louder, older, as if Clyne's done too much living since the first album and come out the worse for wear. This is where that guaranteed heartbreak comes into play. Right off the bat, Clyne sets a darker tone with "Tributary Otis," singing "Well I've traveled / And I've seen the things I build working / Workin' to bring me down." The punky swagger of "Preacher's Daughter" gives way to the outlaw longing of "Wanted," but on "Sin Nombre," Clyne offers up his saddest, loneliest protagonist yet:

Cracked throat, my canteen's dry Rain won't fall from an empty sky, so I whisper Hail Marys ‘til the sun comes up ... Well I did before what I'll do again So forgive me father if I have sinned, but the old wood cracks before it bends Now don't tell me that part of the story when the cowboy falls in love When he traded in his pistol and his saddle and the stars above When the candle’s burning down, when midnight comes around Know the best that we could hope for is to be laughing when we finally hit the ground

Everything's different here for Clyne, and the battered maturity aids his songs. "Dolly" juxtaposes an upbeat veneer with a bitter warning for his ex to stay away. But with the back-to-back "Good Year" and "Fonder and Blonder," Clyne fully opens up and pours on the genuine heartbreak with deceptive simplicity. They're both about bitter endings, but by repeating lyrics from the earlier album's "Down Together" in the jaded "Fonder and Blonder," Clyne both concretizes the world of his songs and drives home his point that all good things come to an assured end:

Well who said absence makes the heart grow fonder In all the pictures that you send me now Your hair seems to get just a little bit blonder Cars break down and people break down and other things break down, too I felt somethin' slip when you left on your trip And now I think I'm breaking down on you

The hell of it is that Clyne isn't singing about being done wrong or even cheating. Things just ended. Versions of the same character dot the rest of the album, from the drunken cuckold of "Horses" to the just-friends loner of "Broken Record" and, finally, the troubadour stuck in a bar who can't seem to drink her off his mind. By the end of the album, Clyne has completely moved away not just from the overeager sound of his earlier work but also from its naïve worldview. The world is still full of life, and even love, but it's a dark, deadly place to live.