Speed Is Dreaming
by St. Johnny
After Nirvana and Pearl Jam broke big in the 1990s, the feeding frenzy that followed as major labels sought to sign the next big alternative act led to some of the most insufferable one-hit-wonders of that or, really, any era. Remember Dig? Sponge? Seven Mary Three? You’re lucky if you don’t.
But not all of the bands signed in those days were one-note knock-offs of their precursors. Some of the best of them were signed by DGC, a Geffen Records subsidiary that had the good sense to sign not only Nirvana, but also Beck, Weezer, and Sonic Youth. In fact, it was Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore who urged the label to sign St. Johnny, whose debut album, Speed Is Dreaming, is one of the finest – and least appreciated – guitar rock records of the ’90s.
Formed in Hartford, Conn., in 1989, St. Johnny spent its formative years playing loud, sloppy live sets to either hostile or empty venues in its hometown. By 1992, their shiftless brand of fuzzed-out, melodic, guitar-driven rock was all the rage in nearby New York City, where Pavement had recently been signed to Matador records, and helped spawn the dubiously named “slacker rock” genre.
Although St. Johnny lacked Pavement’s effortless wit and style, you couldn’t write them off as a poor man’s version of that band. If anything, they were a poor man’s version of an amalgam of bands: most obviously Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, and, to a lesser degree, Television.
Speed Is Dreaming was released by DGC in 1994. In the first of a series of strategic blunders, St. Johnny supported their first single, the shambling slacker anthem “I Give Up,” with a spectacularly boring video. But if you look past it, you’ll hear a delightfully melodic mid-tempo rock song featuring some uncannily beautiful lead guitar work by Tom Leonard.
While singer Bill Whitten is credited with writing nearly all of the songs on Speed Is Dreaming, Tom Leonard deserves the credit for shaping the band’s huge, buzz saw sound. In an interview a few years ago, even Whitten said “[Leonard] was a remarkable player, and he had an advanced sonic palette to draw from…he was responsible for the gigantic, droning sound that we had.”
Leonard’s often movingly poignant (see “You Can’t Win”) guitar keeps Speed is Dreaming from collapsing beneath Whitten’s tendency for heavy-handed ennui. Whitten (who admits to having been “a horrible drunk in those days”) sings almost every song on the album as if he’s groping in an alcoholic haze. But the brightness of Leonard’s melodies, and the power with which he propels them, acts as a surprisingly effective counterbalance to Whitten’s affectedly blasé attitude. Meanwhile, the rhythm section of Jim Elliott (bass) and Wayne Letitia (drums) wisely stay out of the way, moving the songs along with workmanlike restraint.
Speed is Dreaming, like so few albums by other hastily signed alternative acts from that era, is stunningly consistent. Of its 13 tracks, only two are outright misfires (the lumbering, indulgent “The Devil’s Last Stand” and the tone-deaf “Turbine”); every other track is, to my ears, eminently enjoyable guitar-driven rock that inexplicably failed to impress an audience that had no problem buying up records by Candlebox and Crash Test Dummies.
It seems St. Johnny was too noisy for the mainstream crowd, too poppy for the grunge crowd, and not quite idiosyncratic enough for the folks who were worshiping at the altar of Pixies-influenced guitar rock. Their fatal flaw, I think, was their lack of humor – a crucial, if often overlooked, part of becoming a popular rock band. Even Nirvana, for all of its manic-depressive hand-wringing, knew how to be funny.
By the time St. Johnny started working on its follow-up to Speed is Dreaming, it had parted ways with guitarist Leonard (who after all these years plays in the Pitchfork-approved psych rock band Major Stars), leaving Bill Whitten as the band’s chief creative force. The result was 1995’s Let It Come Down, a misguided attempt to remake the band as a postmodern, genre-crossing glam rock group – slacker rockers with a faux Bowie swagger. Still, the album’s first single, “Scuba Diving”, fared slightly better on MTV than did anything from Speed is Dreaming.
Is Speed Is Dreaming a great album for the ages? Let’s not be silly. But it was a major player on the soundtrack of my sophomore year of college – a time of intense musical discovery for me. Today when I hear it, I don’t just hear Tom Leonard’s gloriously noisy guitars, Whitten’s drunken vocals, and the strangely beautiful music they make together. I’m transported back to the run-down, two-story, five-bedroom house I shared with four of my best friends. I’m in that basement bedroom again, with its fake wood paneling and musty orange carpet, plugging my shitty headphones into my even shittier stereo, discovering over and over again how certain music can make everything around you shimmer. Speed Is Dreaming did that for me. It made the world glow.