The Scene Is Now - "Full Fathom Five" (Tonight We Ride)
The Scene is Now is a band that a lot of people (myself included) were familiar with primarily because Yo La Tengo covered “Yellow Sarong” (from The Scene is Now’s first album, Burn All Your Records) on Fakebook. Philip Dray and Chris Nelson, two musicians originally from Minneapolis who had both moved to New York, started The Scene is Now after the break-up of Information, a no-wave band that Dray and Nelson played in with Rick Brown (later a member of Fish & Roses and Run On). They recorded three full-length albums in the mid-to-late 1980s: Burn All Your Records, 1986’s Total Jive, and 1988’s Tonight We Ride (they also released a cassette-only album, Shotgun Wedding, after Tonight We Ride). And although Bar/None released a best-of compilation, The Oily Years, none of their albums had been widely available on CD before now – slightly surprising, given The Scene is Now’s ties to Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Mofungo, and others.
An Australian label, Lexicon Devil Records, is now re-releasing all three albums, starting with Tonight We Ride. Chronologically backwards, but it actually makes a lot of sense to begin with the last album. It’s the most polished of the three, with a line-up of Dray and Nelson and regular members Jeff McGovern and Dick Champ but also Tony Maimone from Pere Ubu and Will Rigby from the dBs. (In an interview with Perfect Sound Forever, Dray attributed the improved production values to his and Nelson’s growth as musicians, abetted by the contributions of Maimone and Rigby.) The gloss on Tonight We Ride clarified the band’s larger project, which deconstructed standard rock and roll tropes, either by pairing disparate musical ideas in the same song or by juxtaposing a rather straightforward melody with bizarre lyrics. They borrowed text from Donald Barthelme for the largely instrumental “Tofu Golf Course,” appropriate since lyrically The Scene is Now seemed to share Barthelme’s scavenging approach: Tonight We Ride also borrowed lyrics from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for “Full Fathom Five.” The songwriting was straightforward but slightly fractured: “Moonlight Broil” has a Tin Pan Alley swing, except for a horn section that is never quite in tune, and “Dinah Shore” and “Bucket” both sit somewhere between atmospheric rock and roots music, anthems played at the wrong speed. And while it is their most professional-sounding album, The Scene is Now still liked to breeze through different genres without paying heed to their own musical limitations: the album’s final song, a bouncy piano-driven song called “Tin Roof,” was apparently written as a disco song.
Tonight We Ride is not a lost pop classic, but then again I suspect that it wasn’t re-released as a collection of would-have-been, could-have-been radio hits. It’s a worthy artifact, however, of a band that diligently created music in such contrast to the commercial new wave and underground rock bands of their day. If you were curious to know what Ira Kaplan was talking about, here’s the chance to find out.