Ohio music occupies many disparate nooks within the collective imagination (so please pardon the, um, encyclopedic nature of this blurb). You’ve got your influential hip-hop visionaries from Bone Thugs-N-Harmony to Camu Tao to Kid Cudi, minds that turned their genre sideways. There are funk powerhouses like Zapp and the Ohio Players and R&B superstars from the Isley Brothers to John Legend. We’ve generated at least two spastic post-punk totems in Devo and Brainiac and classic rock pillars aplenty from the James Gang to the Pretenders to the Black Keys–not to mention that ’60s pop-rock bop and unofficial Ohio State football anthem “Hang On Sloopy,” probably the definitive Ohio song if we’re being honest.
The state’s been given sad tributes by both its native sons (Mark Kozelek) and foreign onlookers (Neil Young). It’s produced jazz titan Rahsaan Roland Kirk, jam-band royals O.A.R., country iconoclast Dwight Yoakam (and Rascal Flatts, who are whatever is the opposite of iconoclastic), dourly majestic indie rock luminaries the National, industrial arena rock champions Nine Inch Nails, folk legend Phil Ochs, and genre-agnostic pop hit-makers Twenty One Pilots. Just last year the emotive corner of the DIY scene yielded a triad of wonderful LPs by All Dogs, the Sidekicks, and Saintseneca. But even if we left it there, we’d be leaving out the version of Ohio music history that rings truest for me.
That’d be bleary, boisterous punk and garage rock, the type of skuzzy dive-bar music perfected by the overeducated and underemployed. So what if it kinda sorta maybe traces its existence to That State Up North? Ohio’s been doing it real good since at least the mid ’70s, when that whole Electric Eels/Rocket From The Tombs/Dead Boys/Pere Ubu axis got kicking and Mike Rep recorded his legendary “Rocket To Nowhere” 7-inch. A similarly skuzzy spirit has animated everyone from Death Of Samantha to Gibson Bros. to Scrawl to New Bomb Turks to Guided By Voices to Cheater Slicks to El Jesus De Magico to Wussy to Obnox. And around the time I moved back to Columbus after college, nobody was doing it better than Times New Viking.
TNV were art-school kids who played primitive pop songs with feral immediacy. They prized feeling over execution and sometimes seemed to spend more time perfecting their ideologies than writing their songs. But damn, they wrote some awesome songs. Often they were breathless, violent outbursts–“Lion & Oil,” “Devo & Wine,” the prodigiously titled “Imagine Dead John Lennon.” Always they sounded like pop crawling out of the primordial ooze, barely formed entities slathered in sonic filth. And although their lyrics tended toward the oblique, when they wanted to get a point across, there was no mistaking it. The big climax of “My Head,” the best song they ever wrote, features Adam Elliott and Beth Murphy howling, “I need more money ’cause I need more drugs!”
Times New Viking are an exceptionally Ohio band largely thanks to explosive rippers like those, but the most Ohio song in their catalog is a droning, mid-tempo sing-along called “Move To California.” Like most TNV tracks, there are lots of ideas swirling through “Move To California,” but most obviously it’s rebuking the popular notion that an Ohioan’s truest happiness and fullest potential are waiting out of state and that home is nothing more than a dreary dead end.
So many Ohio creatives believe they have to flee to New York, L.A., or Chicago or else wither away. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that results in significant brain drain around the state. But the community TNV sprang from–particularly the bands orbiting Columbus Discount Records–maintained a worshipful respect for the musical history before them. And, spurred on by forebears like Ron House and Mike “Rep” Hummel, these musicians rightly saw themselves as an extension of that history. Their scene understood not just the possibility but the value of building something great at home.
“Move To California” is one of the greatest things they built. Guitarist Jared Phillips opts for finesse over power, conjuring a hypnotic groove out of cycling low-end notes. Murphy’s keyboard and Elliott’s drums eventually congeal into an anxious churn, their vocals arching over top with images of existential despair. “And a cup of tea can not comfort me,” Elliott and Murphy wail, wobbling in and out of sync. They muse on the inevitability of death and the way bad weather casts even our most valiant efforts in a hopeless light. And then they cackle at the idea that the West Coast’s abundant sunshine will allow any real respite from those ominous vibes: “We’ll just move to California,” goes the deadpan chorus. “I’m sure you’ll have a better time.”