Radio Flyer - In Their Strange White Armour is the sole release from one of the very first post-Hoover bands, recorded in one week in 1995 and released by Polyvinyl Records in 1997. Like Regulator Watts, Radio Flyer featured Hoover guitarist Alex Dunham and his tortured vocals. Unlike Regulator Watts, however, Radio Flyer was not just a traditional DC-sound production, bringing in as its three other members musicians from Chicago post-hardcore acts Gauge and Sweater Weather.
A lot perhaps can be told from geography: According to Polyvinyl, the suddenly formed group "descended upon Chicago" in April of 1995 to write and colloborate on the songs of the album. After six days, they drove to Arlington Heights (VA?) to play their sole live show. The album was recorded the next day, and Dunham went back to DC. The serindipitously created album still stands as a uniquely accomplished example of post-hardcore, although some critics play up the D.C. angle...
"The '90s D.C. emo/post-hardcore sound worked like this: vocals were spoken and screamed, hyperactive bass lines carried the melody, musty guitar screeches countered the bass and vocals and the drums thwacked loudly on the off-beats. Radio Flyer, a mid-'90s Washington D.C. emo supergroup led by former Hoover/Regulator Watts frontman Alex Dunham, embodied that paradigm perfectly. Although obscure everywhere else, this album had great impact in D.C., where it wielded enormous influence on later bands such as Engine Down and Sleepytime Trio."
(Yancey Strickler, from the eMusic Post-Hardcore Dozen)
Regardless of where it came from, In Their Stange White Armour stands on its own merits. It is 90's emo, or at least one of the (probably better) aspects of it. It's also a cracking good listen. Epitonic put it best when they say: "To describe Radio Flyer by tossing around a few band names and turning on the blender only tells half of the story, to understand the complete work you just have to listen"
Radio Flyer is also the brandname for a popular American toy company and, specifically, their historic little red wagon. The lower picture above is a panel from Calvin and Hobbes, the Bill Watterson cartoon that hardly needs an introduction for most people, American or otherwise. (If you're not one of those people, here's the Wikipedia page). There's nothing in particular in that cartoon to relate to Radio Flyer, although I did try and work in a joke about Gravity Records.
Nevertheless, from one cultural icon to another (drastically more obscure) one, there is a common thread of childhood memory. Josephlovesit from Geek Down is bringing Radio Flyer home with him to CT and says "the name alone is enough to get my emo-nostalgia sense up". Hopefully there are plenty of romantic-idyllic backwoods in Connecticut to put the harsh mathy-ness of the post-hardcore Radio Flyer into perspective...
"Calvin’s wagon is a simple device to add some physical comedy to the strip, and I most often use it when Calvin gets longwinded or philosophical. I think the action lends a silly counterpoint to the text, and it’s a lot more interesting to draw than talking heads. Sometimes the wagon ride even acts as a visual metaphor for Calvin’s topic of discussion.
Calvin rides the wagon through the woods, bouncing off rocks and flying over ravines. When I was a kid, our backyard dropped off into a big woods, but it was brambly and swampy, not like Calvin’s which seems to be more like a national forest. I was not a real outdoorsy kid, but occasionally I’d tramp out through the brush to map a pond, or to try to see unusual birds and animals. Calvin’s woods is important to the strip, because it’s the place where Calvin and Hobbes can get away from everyone and be themselves. The solitude of the woods brings out Calvin’s small, but redeeming, contemplative side."
(Bill Watterson, The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book)
And now, on the third attempt, on to the actual music... In terms of style, Radio Flyer's sound is kind of a halfway-house between the heavy raucousness of Regulator Watts and the downright emo-ishness of Hoover. In their Strange White Armour, with its winding, lilting journey across the sounds of post-hardcore is reminiscent of the sweep of Hoover's Lurid Traversal; but like Regulator Watts's New Low Moline, the album starts off with a balls-out rocker, 'Allied'.
The emo-ishness kicks in with the second track, 'Ice Cream Cheater', starting slow and building up, with Dunham screaming "you... CHEATER!" by the end of five minutes like there's no tomorrow. Childhood memories? Perhaps, but bad ones. The lyrics and the song titles are pretty obtuse, things like 'Six Year Ballet' and 'Salty Lollipop' not giving much away on first glance. The 'title' track, 'R is for Rocket' (reminds me of the little red wagon), has the phrase 'in their strange white armour' whispered ominously over its quiet, echoey parts. And there are a lot of those in this album; sparse, lethargic in pace, but illustrated with richer guitar work by Dunham than, on balance, one finds in Hoover.
To be quite honest, it took me a while to like this album. At first it seemed too empty, too slow, when what I wanted was the tension and bombast of Lurid Traversal. The truth is, In Their Strange White Armour is a different album - very and obliquely different. Radio Flyer's sound is about a richness and melody, albeit drenched in distortion and mathiness. The track that got me into this album was the centerpiece, '(312)', a deceptively simple build-on-the-volume post-hardcore song with one of the most gorgeous guitar lines you'll ever hear in a D.C. band (pace the fact that we've already established Radio Flyer are more Chicago than D.C.). Yancey Strickler returns to the theme of the D.C. sound in his extended review of the album:
"Considering the uniformity and camaraderie of the D.C. scene at the time, virtually any combination of Dischord and De Soto players could have done much the same, with much the same results, which may be why In Their Strange White Armor exhibits — and, in some places, defines — the classic D.C. sound of the era. Opener "Allied" opens furiously with guitars shrieking like sirens before Dunham, cocksure and throaty, yelps in approval; "(312)" rivals any post-hardcore composition with its cloying guitar chime; and "Swollen Buffet" exhibits the disgust its title implies with a Potomac-rippling shout-along chorus."
To return to my own difficult appreciating this album, it was perhaps a case of misunderstood identity. Being told in reviews how emblematic and, hell, paradigmatic this album was, I forgot to take it - and this is a point I wish to keep on pressing - on its own merits. This rather confused review I posted on the eMusic entry I think testifies to that, and how I gradually came round to loving the record:
"This record sounds to my ears quite similar to bands like Fugazi and Drive Like Jehu – stuff that gets called “mathy” and “angular”. It’s an aesthetic which I’ve often found somewhat harsh and unforgiving. However, Radio Flyer has a fair degree of smoothness as well – albeit in a convoluted, twisted sense. Overall, it’s more pleasurable to listen to than most math rock. There is a notable beauty and affection in songs like “(312)” with its delectable guitar line, or in the gentle lead-in to “Six Year Ballet”. A definite for any particular fans of Alex Dunham’s work, and a maybe for anyone interested in post-hardcore in general."
In there is evidence, of my younger ignorance (well, a couple of years ago), but also a developing sense of In Their Strange White Armour's richness and deep melody - its 'notable beauty' - and, of course, the genesis of my interest in the Hoover genealogy.
My second discovery of Radio Flyer was just something that happened - to be clichéd, it was something that 'clicked' - and suddenly I was in awe of the sound of this album; literally every note, every beat was golden and somehow transfigured. It may have been something to do with '(312)' and the way that guitar 'chime' just surfaces in the rhythm of the song, over and over. Or it might have been the abrasive, echoey scuzz of 'R is for Rocket', the start-stop destruction of 'Swollen Buffet'... it could have been any of it.
In the end, Radio Flyer has it all: but most particularly, it has that richness, affection, searing post-hardcore sounds and heartbreaking lightness of touch which makes it one of Alex Dunham's best works - not to mention the other luminaries he works with here. Emo bedamned - this is just good music.
One of the most inventive - or probably, the most inventive - music reviews I ever read was this one of Hot Water Music's A FLight and A Crash (coincidentally, my most favourite album ever - probably) which doctored a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon so perfectly it's unreal. Check out Calvin's Dad's line - "Does that mean they sound like Pennywise now?".
But for the moment, here's the rest of this strip. The little red wagon is a really consistent feature of Watterson's work, although taking the form of a sled or toboggan in winter:
"While the ride is sometimes the focus of the strip, it also frequently serves as a counterpoint or visual metaphor while Calvin ponders the meaning of life, death, God, or a variety of other weighty subjects.Most of their rides end in a spectacular crash when they ride off a cliff, leaving the sled battered and broken, and on one occasion, on fire in winter. In the final strip, Calvin and Hobbes depart on their toboggan for possibilities unknown."
R is for Rocket...