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“Dolby’s Rupees: Moth – ‘Burning down My Sanity’”


The Wikipedia page on Moth’s ’02 album Provisions, Fiction and Gear is a rather slipshod expedition. The “Writing and Composition” section, to wit, which is indeed way lengthier than I’d expected it to be (as is the rest of the article), begins with a quotation to which is attached no source. Now, obviously, the reader naturally assumes it’s Moth lead singer Brad Stenz, whose name I scrolled up to “Personnel” to find.

And it’s funny because really, my whole fandom of this band Moth, which began in 2002 when I heard “I See Sound” on some late night talk show as a high school senior, has been one big house of cards. Like Califone, they’re a band I adore and which also I can’t seem to sell anyone else on, for the life of me. My initial impression of them was sort of one third enthusiasm, one third genuine emotional connection and the final third entailing something approaching disbelief that I were actually hearing a mainstream rock band [1] profess this level of intensity and purposefulness, in the days of Three Doors Down and P.O.D.  

Sometime about two years ago or so, I think, I retrieved this band from my mental warehouse with the thought that, Oh yeah, they kinda rocked. I gave Provisions, Fiction and Gear a chance (of course having not had the luxury of streaming contemporary to its release) and actually decided that it was a classic album. None of the songs really stood out because they were all equally great — proviso of intense, crisp rocking that sidled as something stylistically comparable to Weezer but with more rhythm, more pain and really more general gusto in every sort.

The particular track I’ve chosen for this revisitation to my “Dolby’s Rupees” series (please forgive the awkward title… a “rupee” is a unit of currency in India and sometimes I think it’s kind of funny to be awkward) tended to slowly bubble to the forefront of my psyche, upon several listens to this album, expeditions intermittently ancillary to my tenuous ability to discern between these suckers. For one thing, it’s got a chorus that’s incredibly simple, sort of like a like gem in my musical pallette known as R.E.M.’s “Talk about the Passion.” And along the lines of how I took so long to get into this album, I was at the point in my life where I was just discovering The Who, also with a perhaps unfortunate weakness for R.E.O. Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes,” to the point where I didn’t really necessarily NEED the Moth album in my life. But along the lines of “Burning down My Sanity” actually boiling and reducing its own figment down to a theme suggesting a nursery rhyme level of simplicity, the other music which I was encountering and which was causing a sea change in my mind tended to favor similarly staunch, grand and simple changes like “Baba O’ Riley” [2]. 

“Burning down My Sanity” saunters in at track four on Provisions, Fiction and Gear. This is a fact that both seems significant for some reason and also seems to elude poignancy, for the fact that really the only other track four that’s of PARAMOUNT importance to me I can think of off the top of my head (other than “Talk about the Passion,” I guess) would be Califone’s own “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades,” off of their 2006 masterpiece Roots & Crowns. “The Eye You Lost in the Crusades” tiptoes in almost ambiently, with Califone’s stock, gentle folk-rock rubric guiding the proceedings, but still, somewhat like Moth themselves, manages to wield this emotion that’s both curiously powerful for the volume and also unmistakably, ardently TRUE, as in rendering the authenticity of it in the listener’s mind utterly undeniable. 

Both tracks are eccentric, too, in their own way, Califone’s for time signature and probably a lot of other quintessentially-Califone types of reasons, and Moth’s for the fact that the entire first verse, which is like a minute long or so, consists just of Brad Stenz listing different parts of his body that are “on fire.” But Brad Stenz, you can’t write a whole verse that’s just like “My hands on fire / My face on fire”! But guess who didn’t get the memo about that rule and who grafted a musical morsel completely full of tension and unease, an unease that seems to erupt into orgiastic flames of denouement in that great chorus.

And for the chorus to stand in such contrast to the verse parts of Stanz and company’s creation is only appropriate, especially when you observe the myriad left turns this cut takes in instrumentation. The verse itself is made up of many, separate “guitar modules,” so to speak, distinct segments that sound almost completely unlike all the others. Those drums are another story, which are so machine-like and almost robotic that they seem looped and programmed (though “looping” and “programming” aren’t included in the personnel, so I’m to gather that they’re actually organic drum playing), but the mutually exclusive guitar duality in the verse alone is a pretty original production tactic. For most of the way, the song is steadied along by the strummed, acoustic rhythm guitar that’s got sort of the feel of a campfire, a simple, unassuming fabric. But when the verse has just about dissipated into the refrain, this other, snazzy, funky axe comes in, in exact concordance with an upturn into falsetto on the part of the vocals. See why this album took me so long to get into? It’s like their deliberate goal is to foster listener disorientation but this is also an element that gives the music an infectious, zealous and hence meaningful quality as well.

The chorus then issues itself in with a different aesthetic entirely, a simple chord progression and a glossy rudiment that you might not even notice as Moog synth (with that second, electric rhythm guitar retained), if you’re not in sharp wits. That is, I have to admit that I, myself, didn’t even notice it the first eight or so listens, in full disclosure. 

And what’s even WITH those vocals? They’re so beautiful and bizarre I almost don’t even want to comment on them in any wise but I will ’cause you know the world might end soon or whatever: but there seem to be two separate tracks, one the original, bare and organic vocal recording which is to make a late entrance, four bars into the chorus, in dissonant, half-screeching form. The other is the auxiliary track to which the mix switches right away with the first utterance of “The girl combusts all over me” [3] and is swathed in copious, lambasting distortion, which seems in its own way to ingratiate itself to this high-tech zeitgeist in rock [4] in which it’s essentially embedded, bulwarking this band’s m.o. as puerile, boyish lusting supported by production which erects itself as being of entirely Herculean depth. 

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[1] I know The Strokes and The White Stripes are mainstream but I tend to think of them as underground since the exact propagation of their word and hype tended to come to me from word of mouth, rather than radio or MTV.

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[2] Like I said, I was just graduating high school, and so maybe at the exclusive point in life of enjoying this song, both semantically and artistically. 

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[3] Interestingly, Stenz said, according to Wikipedia, that this song was meant as a “positive” statement, though it certainly doesn’t always seem to holistically resemble one! 

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[4] Remember the DJ scratches of bands like Smash Mouth and Incubus as well as the proliferated pedal arsenals of the average grunge outfit. 

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