Some Thoughts on the Value of Music: Revisiting The Sainte Catherines’ Dancing for Decadence

If you’re like me and grew up listening earnestly to all kinds of music, there are certain records you came upon in the process of your musical education that left an indelible impression in your psyche. Their unique mood and aura you came to associate with a certain defining period of your life, and so every time you hear them anew it inevitably triggers an endorphin-choked wave of nostalgia.

Across my complete musical gamut–from Pink Floyd to Pixies, from Pennywise to Pavement–I have records like that; the associated memories are so powerful it’s impossible to wrench them away from the music. I feel that way, say, about …And Out Come the Wolves and Dude Ranch. Is ‘Ruby Soho’ that good? Beats me, but hearing it transports me to such a golden and untroubled mental garden, I couldn’t care less if Lester Bangs himself came back from the grave to expose how it incontrovertibly is the worst song in punk rock history. It would remain just as powerful for me.

Then there are those even rarer and singular records that transcend your mood, your feelings, and whatever phase of your life you are going through; records whose resonance is DNA-deep and will never change inside of you: they will remain just as jarring, as inexplicably enthralling as the first time you heard them, not because they bring back fond memories of youthful days, but rather because the magic of these records is above your memories, superior to them, reaching to a higher, more discerning, more perceptive region of your cortex that overrides pretty much everything else. They are the truly timeless albums.

Every music aficionado, after years of obsessive listening and pondering, can point to a few such records. But it’s not a title that is lightly bestowed; it comes at the end of a long process of personal canonization, after you’ve left an album lying fallow for a couple of years, long after your initial love affair with it has gently mellowed–you put it back on only to discover that nothing has changed: its visceral power has remained unaltered, and that realization is oddly reassuring.

I feel that way about Songs of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits’ Closing Time. I feel that way about Ok Computer and Sigur Ros’ Agætis Byrjun, about Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness and PJ’s Ten. I feel that way about Punk in Drublic, Let’s Talk About Feelings and, more to the point, The Sainte Catherines‘ only Fat Wreck Chords release Dancing for Decadence.

In talking about Dancing for Decadence, it doesn’t suffice to say that it was in my opinion a comparable if not superior record to many of its brethren circa 2006. Hot Water Music’s The New What Next comes to mind, and obviously Leatherface’s Dog Disco, also Good Riddance’s Republic, Off With Their Heads’ From the Bottom, and D4’s CIVIL WAR. Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate all these fine records immensely, but the comparison is meaningless; it’s the synaptic connection I have with that album that renders all the others inconsequential.

Sure, all these albums have common elements, whether it’s gritty vocals, driving distortion-heavy guitars overwhelming the whole sonic surface, a melodic sensibility coupled with a hardcore aesthetic, or a DIY ethos, and sure it bothers me a tad that in the pantheon of that specific punk undercurrent the above-mentioned records stand as exemplars of the genre while Dancing for Decadence remains an underdog of sorts, a fan favourite perhaps, one of those OK releases from that year.

‘I’d Rather Be Part of the Dying Bungee Scene’ is not just an OK song. With its lyrics both bleak and brave, the perfectly balanced melodic hardcore structure, and the ever-surprising arrhythmic measure in both verses, it stands, both musically and lyrically, as perhaps the most memorable punk song about the emotional harshness of being in an underground DIY punk band. And if that one isn’t enough there’s always ‘Emo-ti-con: Punk Rock Expert,’ which delivers with Hugo Mudie’s raw gravelly voice a few lines certainly all too familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled making music: ‘You’re losing money. You’re losing me. You’re losing friends.’

It doesn’t suffice to mention the lyrics in passing. Mudie is a sensitive, sincere and thoughtful lyricist, and Dancing for Decadence is filled with little gems of that sort:

‘What about being poor as a stand?

What about being proud of being fucked?

I don’t like what’s pretty, I like what’s real.

What about finding beauty where it’s not supposed to be?’

We can’t just hear Mudie’s lyrics with detachment, or try to ignore them; they’re delivered with such urgency, and the music is so enmeshed with the message, so goddamned honest and raw and overflowing, it can’t do otherwise but move us to a shared understanding. It’s a rare thing in punk. Hell, it’s a rare thing in rock & roll and pop. It’s a rare thing in music.

But in the end it’s not about the objective quality of each song, about their value as art, or about the rightful place of that colossal album in the Punk Rock canon. This piece isn’t just about The Sainte Catherines or one of their records. Sure, I think Dancing for Decadence was (and is) an underrated record by an outstanding punk band, but it isn’t so much what I’m getting at. It’s about the power of music to move us; it’s about the uncanny effect that a bunch of songs with a distinctive sound organized in a certain pattern can have on us; it’s about how certain records set everything right in our heads whenever we hear them.

It seems simplistic and cliché, but sometimes these simple ideas turn out to be the ones that truly matter. Music isn’t merely fodder to superimpose on the white noise of our mundane lives–well, some of it is–but has the power to shift our perception and turn a dull forgettable day into a once in a lifetime event; when we put them on, these mystic records become the soundtrack to the Hollywood super-production of that very instant, unfolding right before our eyes, and starring our own ecstatic selves, fully aware and blazingly awake through the music.

Everyone should have a few special records like that.

So then to the Saint Cats:

Thanks guys, I owe you a beer and a hug, at the very least.

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