A New Dayton Renaissance
by Kevin J. Elliott

Like many mid-sized Midwestern metropolises, Dayton, Ohio is usually seen as a locale low on cultural cache. While that may be a theory held by those who consider the Buckeye State flyover fodder, Dayton wasn’t dubbed the Gem City simply to increase tourism. Sure, there’s not a whole lot going on there most of the time, but if you look back over the years there have always been extreme peaks of creativity. It starts with the Wright Brothers and moves on towards the Ohio Players, Zapp and Roger Troutman (and the entire Dayton funk scene), Toxic Reasons, Dementia Precox—and then a gold rush occurred. The mid-90s saw the rise of the Breeders, Braniac, Swearing at Motorists, and most notably, one Robert Pollard, whose Guided By Voices lay the groundwork for indie rock in the 21st century. But you know that story already. Somewhere there’s a book waiting to be written that will document all of the great overlooked bands who made sparks in the shadow of Pollard’s empire in those halcyon days. Dayton was a fertile scene. What prompted that machine to shut down at the turn of the millennium is up for debate. Whether it was the closing of Trader Vic’s and the Hills, the tragic death of Tim Taylor, Kim Deal packing up for the west, or maybe just Do the Collapse, the music wasn’t launching off the tarmac of Brown Street like it used to. I’m not expert on the matter, as I’ve been out of the area for years now, but there have been few Dayton bands in the past decade to really hang a thrill. (Whatever happened to the Gluons?)

Of course, this isn’t an insult to those who have soldiered on through the rubble. Anyone who got a smidgen of the manna that would permeate the city on a night GBV or Brainiac took the stage at the Canal Street Tavern, the Sub Galley, Newspace, a warehouse, a supper club, or even a post office, if memory serves correct, can tell the difference between then and now. Except now there seems to be some incredible headway being made. Pollard never left, and while he’s writing some of his best songs in years with the old gang, it seems perfectly normal for the locals to ceremoniously dabble with his formula to establish a punchier, more buoyant version of that band and the former scene as a whole.

Perhaps the Smug Brothers are the perfect example of that current mode. The lineage is certainly there, as drummer Don Thrasher has played on a number of legendary Dayton recordings. Admittedly mid-fi and somewhat indebted to ’93-era GBV aesthetically, their most recent release, the Treasure Virgins cassette (Gas Daddy Go), is just that: the cobwebbed basement on Titus Avenue being regularly maintained into the ’00s, the equipment updated, and the songs as short and sweet as “Echos Myron.” The difference is a tune like the infectious lead track “Stand of the Square” has the levels raised, the accoutrements removed, and an obtuse id sharpened into classic angles with handclaps and a bit of shimmy. “Solar Party” rings true like one of those scant acoustic nursery rhymes Pollard would haphazardly cut and paste onto a B-side (that you’d replay a million times over), but is turned into a well-attended backporch jamboree as recorded by a gaggle of bright-eyed Nashville kids raised on traditions of Pavement. Sure, Pollard’s influence is strong here, but what guitarist and vocalist Kyle Melton does with that mettle is fresh and inventive, if nostalgic for brief flashes. It makes sense then that the Smug Brothers were originally founded by Melton and Darryl Robbins, whose Motel Beds were cut from the same pop tapestry indicative of Dayton bands.

My first encounter with Motel Beds came in the form of a live show. It was a raucous affair, with big, giant melodies played with big chunky riffs by guys who have all survived and thrived as veterans in rock of this ilk. So it was a pleasant surprise when I first heard their sophomore record, the recently released Tango Boys (No More Fake Labels). Again, the ether of GBV is indelible. Where once Pollard strived to stretch his love of the British Invasion and psychedelic pop over his records, Motel Beds sound fully formed, like a band where every tentacle among Robbins, Paul John Paslosky, Tommy Cooper, Ian Kaplan and Tod Weidner has prints all over the music. There’s muscle and half-drunk whimsy in “Fake Army” and “Lit Eyes” that might suggest late-night at Pollard’s clubhouse, but that’s where it stops. Like the Smug Brothers, there’s only a surface buzz of looking back. From there it’s a golden dawn and the sound of new beginnings in Dayton. Motel Beds swim in the Beach Boys’ endless summer harmonies, wrestle with The Kinks with a scrappy vigor, strut like the Stones, swoon like the Everly Brothers, and in a duet with Kelley Deal on “Tropics of the Sand,” perform as stardust cowboys draped in the haze of dirt-weed bong hits. For both Smug Brothers and Motel Beds, having arguably one of the most prolific songwriters in modern times around the corner is not seen as an albatross when it comes to making exciting new music, it’s more a badge of honor. And like that man and his band, whom I’ve mentioned too much already (apologies), the best quality among this renaissance of the Dayton scene is that these are records you wear thin while giddily yearning for what comes next.