I had my first broadband line installed in 1999, just in time to surf the wild mp3 frontier in the heady months before the law stepped in and started cutting filesharing services off at their grubby knees. Napster — and later, to a greater extent for me personally, Audiogalaxy — opened the gateway to everything from new releases to vanishingly rare bootlegs, all pretty much no more than a search away. While I spent most of my time searching for rare stuff (I still remember the user who repeatedly blocked me from downloading the Big Trouble in Little China theme song, saying “you don’t deserve it”), I also became a devoted Radio & Records reader during this period, scouring their charts for new singles in search of my next favorite artist and tracking down the songs in question via filesharing.
The scoring percentage on these searches, as you might imagine, was fairly low. I ended up downloading a lot of disposable stuff, but every so often, I’d stumble across something I really liked and buy the whole album. Such was the case with a new artist named David Mead and his perfect fucking gem of a debut single, “Robert Bradley’s Postcard.”
I’m pretty sure I only sought this song out because I was intrigued by its title due to being vaguely familiar with Robert Bradley (and being impressed with Mead’s song-naming chutzpah), but I was floored immediately. What production! What a melody! What a fucking chorus! America, how did we not turn this into a smash hit? I may never stop being pissed off about it. And the album it’s from, The Luxury of Time, is well worth an investment too — from punchy pop anthems to beautiful ballads, it showcases a brilliant songwriter with a the voice of a goddamn angel. I purchased it and watched with dismay as far too few of my fellow music consumers followed suit. As far as I know, the record failed to chart.
Mead was on RCA at the time, and to their credit, the label kept him around for another album. He hired Fountains of Wayne member Adam Schlesinger to man the boards for Mine and Yours, released in the spring of 2001, and the results were more introspective and mature than Luxury without losing an ounce of its pop songcraft. Unjustly, this release suffered the same ignominious fate as its predecessor; by the time he resurfaced for 2004’s Indiana, he was on Nettwerk, embarking on a long run of indie releases that saw him further honing his craft even as his commercial profile continued to dwindle.
It’s a sorry state of affairs, albeit one familiar to any music fan who’s had an inner chord struck by an artist outside the commercial mainstream. It marks the spot where we decide whether we’re going to follow this act on its comparatively lonely journey — and for me, with David Mead, it was never really a choice.
Of course, if you remember the days before keeping track of an artist was as simple as following them on Facebook or Twitter or Bandsintown or…whatever, you know that it used to be maddeningly frustrating. I was a dedicated enthusiast who spent shameful sums on music magazines and trade papers in order to try and keep track of everything, but it often came down to dumb luck. Before the internet, you had to scour Billboard, and not just the features or charts — I remember finding out about Christopher Cross’ Rendezvous record by reading a blurb about him tracking in Texas, buried in the listings where studios posted recent clients.
It wasn’t a lot easier in the pre-social media days. Only a handful of artists had the time, money, or inclination to do a ton of regular outreach, so it could be months or even years after a release before you realized one of your favorite indie acts had put out something new. ICE, a publication that was pretty much nothing but upcoming release dates, was a fairly valuable tool before it folded. These days, Pause & Play serves a similar purpose, but there’s never been any reliable catchall.
All of which is to say that following an artist without a lot of corporate machinery at their back can rapidly become a journey that feels very personal. They’ve got a secret to share, and you need to lean in to hear it. When their music becomes part of the fabric of your life, the degree of ownership you feel increases, enhanced by the illusion that no one else is around. Maybe you become an evangelist for their work; maybe you join a fan forum to debate and discuss its finer points. But underneath it all, no one loves them quite like you. No one feels or understands the music the way you do.
It’s true in a sense, but it’s also self-centered horseshit — and it’s a terrific glue for keeping artists and consumers together, even if (to use a hated business buzzword) it doesn’t scale very reliably. Everyone knows the sinking feeling that comes from an artist you “discovered” grabbing the brass ring, leaving you to share the wonder of their work with millions of latecomers who just don’t get it, man. I adored Aim and Ignite, the record fun. put out before breaking big with Some Nights, and I tried really hard not to become one of those guys after they found themselves with millions of new fans. I’m not sure I succeeded. So it goes.
The point, at least as it relates to David Mead, is this: I’ve devoted a not-insignificant amount of time and energy to finding and absorbing as much of his art as possible. I even bought his kindie record and caught him one night in Nashville, playing covers with an ad hoc band dubbed the Second Chair All Stars. I’ve had my ups and downs with his catalog, but most of his albums served as the soundtrack to pivotal chapters in my life: Mine and Yours was in heavy rotation when I met my wife and realized I could see us spending our lives together; Indiana reminds me of the early days of our marriage, sharing a house with roommates in the Bay Area; Wherever You Are takes me back to the year our daughter was born; Tangerine took me from California across the country to New Hampshire… so on and so forth. We’ve had a long audio friendship, David and me.
All of which is to say that every new release has big boots to fill, which is unfortunate, because for the most part, I find it all but impossible to listen to records the way I used to. Like just about anyone else in their 40s with work and a domestic partner and children, my attention is scattered, and it isn’t helped at all by the sheer volume of instantly available music that’s always just waiting to be skipped or shuffled at the press of a button. I can’t count the number of albums I’ve eagerly awaited, thoroughly enjoyed, and cast aside after a couple of listens. I didn’t mean to, I promise. I feel bad about it. But albums just don’t stick to my insides the way they did before.
This is (part of) why I’m so impressed with Mead’s latest work, the recently released Cobra Pumps. His last album, the crowdfunded Dudes, arrived way the hell back in 2011, and I’d long since started to suspect he’d gotten tired of fighting the market’s indifference and decided to stop putting out new records at all. It was a thoroughly wonderful surprise to discover he had Pumps in the pipeline — and digging into the finished product has been an utter delight.
By Mead’s own admission, Cobra Pumps took a ton of time, persistence, and outright luck. Balancing work and family against the album was tricky. Coming up with funds wasn’t easy. But while there might be a certain element of world-weariness in the lyrics, nothing about this set of songs sounds belabored. From the opening moments of the leadoff track, “Bedtime Story,” you know you’re listening to vintage David Mead — which is to say a beautifully crafted pop record with a slew of moving parts but no wasted motion.
Well, let me begin with a bedtime story
Let me remind you what you came here for
You can forget all the bygone glories
I can’t live up to ’em anymore
I thought I would try something new, I couldn’t refuse
This chance to redeem myself
I know that it’s been a long time since these little rhymes
Were ringing your wedding bells
Well, shit, that pretty much hits the bullseye. With a few lines and a handful of moments, he sets the table for what’s to come in a way that shrugs off two decades of relative commercial disappointment while getting right to the heart of the alternating waves of frustration, despair, persistence, and optimism that fuel the creative journey (especially, perhaps, for those of us who are now Of a Certain Age). I’m hooked.
The rest of Cobra Pumps is just as satisfying. Mead has a brilliant knack for writing catchy uptempo pop songs with smartly layered production, but he’s also really well-suited for beautiful ballads, and that balancing act hasn’t always been smoothly managed on his records. Albums like The Luxury of Time have some really thrilling highs, but they’ve also got their share of chaff, at least comparatively. When he leans too hard on the mellow side (as with 2009’s Almost and Always), the results can get a little sleepy; when he goes all in on the pop anthems, as he did on Tangerine, it can be a little like a sugar rush. Cobra Pumps fits those two halves together about as seamlessly as any album I can remember hearing recently, with a track listing that tacks between tongue in cheek and heart on sleeve so smoothly you might not even notice it. And oh my God, it’s even the perfect length — 10 songs and 35 minutes from start to finish, thank you and goodnight.
Again, while this certainly isn’t what I’d call a heavy record, it’s deeply informed by the pleasures and disappointments of adult life — of coming to understand the value of deceptively small moments, of shedding idealized notions of domestic bliss and appreciating your partner for who they are, of coming to terms with endings and embracing the invigorating rush of new beginnings. It’s all in here, lurking in the grooves of a record that, in spite of its seemingly abbreviated length, has room for all that heady stuff on either side (and in the midst of) a song like, say, “Big Balls.”
That’s a track that hits you in the belly at first; one that sounds like a joke, and not a particularly clever one at that. But its protagonist is filled with unabashed wonder for the object of his affection, a marvel who contains multitudes. Members of Mead’s mailing list received a free download of the entire album, song by song, each cut accompanied with a bit of background text. I particularly loved this portion of the email that came with “Big Balls”:
My first wife was a painter. One day I walked by her studio door and noticed her slathering a canvas in umber. The next day I saw her sponging the umber with a sky blue. The next day I walked in to ask her a question and she was smearing on some streaks of pink with a large flat brush. The pattern continued for a few more days with different colors, no discernible shapes or images to be found anywhere. Finally I asked her if I was missing something. And she told me what an undercoat is.
I find myself underestimating the importance of particular moments all the time, at least while they’re happening. So much of adult life seems mundane, banal, the distance between here and work, pat exchanges with the grocery store check-out clerk. We never know when something seemingly insignificant is layering onto another thing in the process of preparing us for something else entirely.
Motherfucker. The soul of a poet with, as “Bedtime Story” puts it, “a mind like a sewer grate.”
I can’t deny that certain components of Cobra Pumps will probably be best appreciated by listeners at or around the particular bend in life’s road where David Mead happened to be standing when he recorded it. Nor can I deny that as I blunder blindly into middle age, gesturing ineffectively as what feels like yesterday fades into the distant horizon and my own children flit through my fingers and ramble off toward young adulthood, that the records geared toward guys like me tend to carry some extra resonance. (Did I expect to find genuine emotional gratification in the Dave Matthews Band’s 2018 album Come Tomorrow? I did not. And yet.) On the other hand, this is a really well-assembled collection of songs, one whose pleasures are just as potent on the surface as they are if you’re really digging in. Play it a time or two today, and you’ll have its hooks running on repeat in your head tomorrow.
What I’m trying to say is that while your mileage may certainly vary, I refuse to concede that anyone could come away from Cobra Pumps being anything less than entertained. It’s my first favorite record of 2019, and a very welcome reminder that even in the midst of middle age and a digital stream that can feel like a firehose in your ear, I still never know when the right album will come along at the right time and demand repeated listens. Try to make a point of thinking about your favorite indie artists and checking in on them once in awhile — the soundtrack to the next chapter of your life might be waiting.