In recent interviews with various band members , the 1995 record Ursa Major has emerged with what seems to be an unofficial “favorite” status. Released on Atavistic records after three records in four years with Atlantic, Ursa Major is a departure from the grungier early days of the band and urgent guitar driven pop of El Moodio. The band, released from the Atlantic contract and with no plans to return to the major label world or big tours, made a record that would see the expanding musical interests of individual members come together to create new sounds.
At the end of the final road trip promoting El Moodio in 1993, there were a lot of reasons to pull back from the incessant touring and promotion that defined the Atlantic years. For one, we hadn’t achieved the commercial success necessary to justify toting a toddler around the world in vans and Dutch bicycle seats. Nobody wanted to end the band—we felt we had made a great string of records, and we continued to draw good crowds and critical support. It was still fun. With touring over indefinitely, I went back to school to get teacher certification, Janet sunk her energy into the next Freakwater record, and Doug was getting Tortoise off the ground. By mid 1994 though, a new batch of songs emerged and we began to record at Idful with Brad Wood. Atavistic records, which had been behind the Making Like a Rug video, was very interested in working with us again. Wink came up from Louisville and we began to create the record in the studio. This was unlike any previous record because there really wasn’t much rehearsal or workshopping of songs—this one was a studio record, and we built the songs as we went along leading to the experimental elements that separate it from previous records.
The record begins with History of Brokeback, a McCombs generated instrumental with changing time signatures that would signal to any listener that eleventh dream day was not looking to join in the Wicker Park frenzy that was swirling around Liz Phair and Urge Overkill. The mood of the song shifts back and forth from ominous to upbeat, and while it may be one of the more complex songs in the edd oevre, it is very hooky in its own way. And the title was a precursor to one of Doug’s future bands.
Occupation, or Not begins with acoustic guitar and brushed snare, another departure from the usual full-on assault of electric guitars charging out of the gates. This is my castle, this is my home. Revolution always looms. The first words of the album perhaps summarizing the fact that things were changing. A shakeup was surely due. The guitar solo is not a solo. A slide scraped across distorted strings. No bombastic ending.
Flutter is a mother’s love letter to her son, a musical one at that. You are the most beautiful angel I have ever seen. Once again, this was a softer kind of pop song, with rhythmic complexity and strings. Atavistic also shot a video for this at Logan Auditorium (and yes, John McEntire on drums!)
Orange Moon closes out side one with a more typical edd sound, although this is one of the first songs with a nonstandard tuning. 3 chords soft louder loud soft loudest. The lyrics for this one might sum up my prevailing mood at the time. As I started working toward a new career in teaching, I wasn’t far removed from the life of a touring rock musician, with the attention and perks that went along with that. At the same time, Wicker Park where we all lived, was blowing up as the hottest scene in the world. The sky is for sale by the chunk. I didn’t have regrets about dropping out, but at the same time I felt betrayed by how Atlantic failed us. But the moon that I held has been foreclosed it’s not for sale. I felt conspicuously absent from the hoopla and somewhat hurt. I’m not sure how the others in the band felt, but they were in the process of creating new genres of music. I seriously had no desire to be back in it—the major label thing was a game that got old. No wish to wish upon that star it seemed too empty it seemed too far. So really, it’s about wanting something, but knowing that you don’t want it ultimately. I was no rock star, not even in my imagination. The moon is fake it floats in space blank witness night it’s made me crazed. The final refrain “They won’t let it go” has a couple of possibilities—it calls out the labels as overlords—the band works for them, and in the long run all the people surrounding the band make their money. The bands are product with a limited shelf life and can be easily replaced by the next big thing. I was more than hurt on this song, I was pissed. And I totally let it go after that song.
Taking Leave was written and recorded after Ursa Major was done. Wink had gone back to Louisville. Hey—you write a new song and it’s your favorite. Tomorrow looms oddly again—another lyric that places me in an awkward state of being. I’ve shown that I can take a punch. It has me worried. See—I’m not hurt! But maybe that’s because I’m numb. Oh no, the beginning of emotional withdraw! I love this song—the way Janet and I weave vocals in and out, Doug on a six string bass. We recorded this after Brad left for the day. McEntire and Casey Rice ended up being creative forces in the studio!
Bearish on High was originally called Orange Moon. It has the line, orange moon I pine for you. The typeset instructions got screwed up and instead of wasting album sleeves, we decided to switch titles. No big deal, the themes are pretty similar. I believe there is a feeling of defeat. I resolve to erase that thought. I was definitely grappling with the career change. You can watch the sun set in the west and wonder when it ever left. But I was happy, going to school, working at the Rainbo, and playing lots of tennis. I can’t remember what I found so ironic at the time, but I was confident enough about life that it had me shouting it gives me faith!
Nova Zembla, title provided by Nabokov, who I was newly discovering, was perhaps the only between song noodling that ever made it to an album. Wink provides the clean guitar acrobatics as well as the storm clouds that roll in.
Blindside comes out of the chaos– a slow build up of dark clouds leading to the storm. He knew he should go inside. He knew what was coming down. The only solo on the record, but not really a solo. Maybe an allusion to the gang violence that surrounded us in our neighborhood. Maybe more hedging against emotional investment. Maybe both.
The record closes with Exit Right, pretty apt stage direction for getting off the big stage. On your knees you never beg, you just get used to being closer to the ground. A humbled exit, but pride intact. One of the few songs where Janet sings my words. The chords and melody were hers as I recall.
A right different record by what precedes it.
And the start of a band with very different work habits.
There is a part of the Ursa Major story that has been untold to this point, and it concerns a certain Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon, a “brother” of mine who I resemble in so many insane ( or sane perhaps) ways. He had better hair.
Wink had been a member of edd since he took over for Baird halfway through the Lived to Tell tours. He was a demon on guitar, the kind of player who I imagined had actually made the deal at the crossroads. He was incredibly good on stage and in the van and after the show, an all- round great band and travel mate. Oh, he had his moments (the nickname ‘El Moodio’ was mostly bestowed on Wink because of his horneriness born out of fierce self-hatred– I fell under the blanket of the nickname due to my shared July moon child birthday and own spells of anguish), but Wink had made playing in the band really, really fun.
But what had made Wink so great on tour doing a live show was a bit out of skew with where the rest of us were coming from recording Ursa Major. Without a doubt, and I let him know it emphatically, I think Wink’s playing on the record is great and adds immeasurably to the songs. He was inventive and cunning with his Stratocaster. There were a few instances though, where Wink played fairly straightforward parts, that although technically great, were too “rock” for what we wanted for the songs. He was not in town for the mixes and we made group decisions where parts were cut.
When Wink heard the mixes he was livid. I can only imagine the curses that were uttered. Wink wrote a letter, several pages long that outlined his outrage. He gave us three choices– I only remember 2 of them—the third may have included a horse’s head:
Completely remove his parts from the record. Sever him from band. Die.
Keep his parts, but pay him as a session musician ( since this is how we had treated him).
We decided to keep his parts, which we loved, and paid him the rate he had calculated. It was less than Nashville scale. We parted ways.
We released the record to much interest, and took great pleasure in the shows to follow. Our only band issued 7” came out –Orange Moon/ I Got a Thing (Funkadelic song with Wink out of his maggot brain amazing) City Slang put the record out in Europe.
We enlisted several guitar players over the years to stand in the shoes of Wink O’Bannon. Ira Kaplan was first and came into town for a show at Lounge Ax. Ira also joined the band for a short tour of Europe to promote Ursa Major. As great as all this sounded, we failed to lure him full time.
The vinyl seems to be out of print on Atavistic, but there are many ways to listen to the record in the digital world. We invite you to do so and judge for yourself.