The Gerbils Are You Sleepy?

[Hidden Agenda; 1998]

Styles: indie pop
Others: Elephant 6

Dear TinyMixTapes Board of Directors,

As a reviewer, I took the training course and I read all the necessary packets, but I must admit I’m still having difficulty with one of my reviews. I would’ve just posed this question over the phone, but your secretaries hung up on me once they found out I wasn’t in any way connected to the Arcade Fire.

But here’s my question: I know that a mediocre album deserves a 2.5 (as per chapter 3 and the example of late-period R.E.M.), but what about a mediocre album with three of your favorite pop songs of all time? Are each of those songs worth one whole point? Does an album that induces indifference except for 10 brain chemical altering minutes deserve that much special attention?

I’m reviewing the Gerbils and their 1998 classic (well, classic for me because of those three songs) album Are You Sleepy? and that’s exactly the problem I’m having.

The Gerbils are an Elephant 6 outskirt project. All three core members used to pick up instruments for the now defunct 3-random-worders Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control but then came together in the early 90s to record their own poorly recorded Byrds meet K Records brand of indie pop.

Are You Sleepy? was their debut, and being a high schooler in love with both Elephant 6 and internet shopping at the time, I ordered it off without hearing anything beyond that musical cult’s stamp of approval.

And I’ve always thought pop was pretty emotionally straightforward. I mean, this is the genre that has the word ‘love’ in half of its hits and the phrase ‘dance closer to me’ in almost as many choruses. But from the first listen to Are You Sleepy?, the Gerbils proved to me emotional bareness and innocence still had another level to go.

“Fluid” is that proof. Pure and simple it’s one of the best pop songs ever recorded. Three minutes long and built on warbly feedback, amateur pop riffs and I-hope-I’m-playing-this-right drums, “Fluid” literally makes me stop breathing every time I hear it. I stop my lungs mostly for Scott Spillane’s beautifully simple lyrics: “Your tongue tastes like a tongue / And your lungs breathe just like lungs / But your voice gives me goose bumps when you call my name / And I want to goose bump again.” He sings
these lyrics like he’s shyly confessing to a crush who doesn’t even know he exists. It’s totally unconfident and totally beautiful, one of only three pop songs I’ve ever heard to straddle that line perfectly. The other two, as I’ve mentioned before, are also on this album.

“Sunshine Soul” follows the same musical rules as “Fluid,” making beautifully warbled and awkward singing come alive through lyrics expressing what I wrongly thought to be clichés.

But “Crayon Box,” the emotional heart of the album, scrapes away another layer, telling the story of heartbreak so real that it name checks lovers leaving each other behind at Portastatic and Sebadoh shows. And trust me, the Gerbils are not dropping names for hipster cache. If anything, such indie hipster specifics make the listener flinch with pity for the pathetically honest Gerbils.

An unknown woman takes over vocals for this track, and I’m totally convinced this is an actual story from her life. There is just no way someone could sing something as bare and cringe-worthy as “You left me behind again / I feel so empty” without meaning it. It’s a line that would make the audience snicker if you read it from your notebook at an open mic night. It’s total submission to song as feeling, making it the kind of song that makes you remember you’re alive because the turmoil of being human has been shoved into your ears for the last three minutes.

And the rest of the album? Eh, I dunno. It’s enjoyable but I’d rather listen to innovators like Olivia Tremor Control or Neutral Milk Hotel instead of the Gerbils milquetoast brand of '60s pop worship.

So, in conclusion, the album itself does necessitate a 2.5. But three times the Gerbils transcend their own genre restraints (heck, any genre restraints) to use music as a force to show pure emotion. I’ve been listening to “Fluid” at least once a week for the past six years and I still identify that song with real, innocent love.

But I want to rate it fairly and give the readers a chance to make their own choice. I don’t want to 5 a basically mediocre album just to force people to listen to three songs. Do I want to do that? Are these three songs that important?

1. Sunshine Soul
2. Is She Fiona
3. Crayon Box
4. Penny Waits
5. Fluid
6. Wet Host
7. Glue
8. Ted Doesn't Mind
9. Walnuts
10. Lead
11. Grin