Love is Against the Grain

Dime Store Prophets (5 Minute Walk Records)

The question of “Why wasn’t artist X more popular/ successful/ appreciated in their time?” isn’t a new one. These debates have been raging among hardcore music aficionados for decades, around bands from Big Star to the Ramones, from The Prayer Chain to Poor Old Lu. But in the case of San Francisco’s Dime Store Prophets, the question seems especially apt. In 1995 the ground was tilled and ready for a band like theirs to take root and flourish, yet they came and went in the blink of an eye, leaving behind only a pair of very fine albums to be remembered by.

1995 was, of course, the year that Christian rock — long an occupant of the darkest closet in the smallest room of the music industry mansion — finally kicked open the door and announced itself to the world. Jesus freaks flooded the US airwaves; for most of that year you couldn’t turn on a pop station without hearing a single that had originated in the Christian market. And even if the artists leading the way weren’t necessarily the best representatives of the creative explosion happening underground, for a band like Dime Store Prophets taking the first steps in what they surely hoped would be a long, prosperous career, I have to imagine it seemed like anything was possible.

Their ultimate failure to catch on more widely wasn’t due to lack of commercial appeal. The band — Justin Stevens on vocals and rhythm guitar, Masaki Liu on lead guitar and production, Sam Hernandez on bass, and Phil Meads (later replaced by Joel Metzler) on drums — offered a pleasantly rootsy, occasionally jangly spin on Americana, providing just enough crunch in the guitars and yowl in the vocals to qualify as alternative. It wasn’t a new sound; by the middle of the decade you could hear it all over mainstream radio and MTV. The band wouldn’t have sounded out of place alongside mid-90s hit makers like Gin Blossoms, the inescapable-in-’95 Hootie and the Blowfish, or the Crow(e)s, both Black and Counting. But in the perpetually three-years-behind Christian rock market, simply achieving potential musical relevance — with a debut album no less — was a victory in itself.

The thing is, Love is Against the Grain wasn’t your typical debut album. Dime Store Prophets were one of those rare bands that emerged on the scene fully formed, with the confident sound, musical chops, and perspective of a much more veteran band. Throughout its 12 songs and 62 minutes, Love is remarkably consistent in tone and quality. The band is tight, the songwriting assured, and the arrangements sophisticated. There are missteps here and there, but none fatal. In short, the result is easily one of the best Christian rock albums to come out of 1995, which would place it high on the list of all-time great Christian rock albums.

Opener “Feels Like Rain” sets the tone for the album, balancing Liu’s twitchy Telecaster line atop Hernandez’s rolling bass, both riding the nimble groove supplied by Meads’ drums. Stevens, fiery out of the gate, keeps the listener off balance by juxtaposing apocalyptic images of “doomsday rocket scientists” and air that “smells like religion” with sparingly deployed philosophical interjections like “If truth is all so relative then why do we still reach?” The band builds and releases the tension effortlessly, dropping the tempo in the bridge only to bring it back up again for a stomping finish. “Rain” is one of the album’s many musical high points, answering the question, “What if U2 had recorded Achtung Baby in the style of Rattle and Hum?”

(The U2 comparison comes up frequently throughout Love: in Stevens’ howling vocals, which sound a bit like Bono crossed with The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson; in the ring and chime of Liu’s minimalist guitar compositions; and in the solid, un-flashy drums and bass, which brings to mind the most tasteful qualities of U2’s rhythm section.)

“Hitler’s Girlfriend” follows, and might be the high water mark of not just the album, but the band itself. Here, Stevens shows off his gift for lyrical and vocal phrasing, transitioning from a gentle croon to hurried speak-singing as the ballad moves from plaintive verses to a rousing, emotive chorus. “I’m not myself ‘til you are you,” the singer wails, as if trying to raise the song’s apathetic narrator off the couch with the power of his voice alone. The corrosive effect of apathy in an imperfect world is a frequent target of Stevens’ lyrics throughout Love, and it’s to his credit as an artist that he is able to stay on this theme without ever coming across as preachy or holier-than-thou.

The rest of the album mostly follows the pattern established by the first few songs, alternating breezy, mid-tempo rockers with the occasional slow-burn ballad. The sing-along “Hobo’s Jungle” is a highlight, as is the strutting, funky title track, which features an extended middle section that allows the band to stretch out and show off its chops.

The album isn’t perfect. “Love Song 58” is doomed by drippy lyrics; an inventive arrangement is not enough to salvage eye-roll-inducing lines like, “When we kissed in the sky / we could hold the world by the wings.” “Baby’s Got a New Dress,” which simmered with intensity to my teenage ears, now seems bland and overcooked. And although Stevens is unquestionably in the top percentile of Christian rock lyricists, his zingers are occasionally more clever than insightful. But these are minor quibbles toward an album that still sounds fresh twenty years later.

What happened to the band post-Love is predictable but no less disappointing. They managed only one more album, 1997’s excellent, equally durable Fantastic Distraction. Fantastic Distraction was released on SaraBellum Records, a 5 Minute Walk imprint apparently intended — like Tooth and Nail’s BEC Recordings — to package the label’s most marketable acts (among them the late, lamented, and un-Google-able Model Engine) for wider distribution. Early copies of the album even included a postcard encouraging fans to help increase early sales numbers by spreading the word to their friends. It wasn’t meant to be; the band folded, and — like so many others in this series — faded into obscurity. In the end their lack of commercial success probably came down to simple, small record label economics. If the odds of “making it” in the music industry are roughly the same as hitting a moving target with a dollar bill in the middle of a hurricane, the advantage will always go to those who have the most ammunition.

Twenty years on from its release, the legacy of Love is Against the Grain is a familiar story to those familiar with the fate of Dime Store Prophets’ mid-90s Christian rock contemporaries: mostly forgotten, completely out of print, and nearly internet-invisible. You won’t find their albums on any of the major streaming services, and anyone hoping to hear the record for the first time (or, like me, for the first time in a very long time) will either have to track down a used copy or settle for Youtube clips. It’s a shame. A debut album as strong as this one deserves to be celebrated with deluxe, re-mastered anniversary editions, not written up by a random internet bozo neck deep in a nostalgia binge. But I digress.

I was only 15 in 1995, still a year or so away from discovering most of the Christian rock that would come to define my high school years. But in 1997 my friend and I had a radio show on WBCR, the campus radio station of Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. We were only high school sophomores, but it was summertime, most BC students had retreated home to their moneyed families on the coasts, and the station manager was desperate for content. He gave us a two-hour slot on eight Wednesday afternoons in July and August. We were ecstatic.

The loose theme of our show was Christian alternative rock (which, thanks to the internet, we had recently discovered and become obsessed with), with exceptions made for “ballpark” bands like Jimmy Eat World and Sunny Day Real Estate. My more extroverted friend did most of the on-air talking, but we split the play list evenly, swapping songs as fast as we could pull the discs from our overflowing Case Logic CD binders. Were we nerds? Yes. Did we care? No. Did a few Tooth and Nail CDs go missing from the station library? I can neither confirm nor deny. We had a blast. (Your DSP connection: The one and only phone call I ever received while on air was from a girl wanting to know what the last song we played was. That song? “Hitler’s Girlfriend.” That girl? My now-wife. Just kidding. But wouldn’t that be amazing?)

Word of the show soon spread: from our friends, to their parents, and throughout our (very conservative, very fundamentalist) Pentecostal church. A few enjoyed it; most ignored us. Which was fine with me. I never really fit in there, my more reserved, contemplative demeanor — to say nothing of the many extreme philosophical differences — being a terrible fit for a place that valued shallow, outward demonstrations like “running the aisles” and “speaking in tongues.” Looking back, that summer hosting that silly show was one of the few times from the years during which I identified as a Christian when I felt comfortable in my own skin.

But not everyone was a fan.

Sometime near the end of our run, the church secretary tuned in to the show while the pastor was working in his office. I wasn’t there to witness his reaction to our selections, but I like to imagine that scene from That Thing You Do where the band’s family dances around the appliance shop the first time their single gets played on the radio — only the exact opposite.
It must have made an impression on him, because that night at Bible Study the pastor made his opinion of our show clear. He didn’t point fingers or name names, but in my mind there wasn’t any confusion as to who he was referring to when, after a particularly dusty wheeze through “The Old Rugged Cross,” he offered a rebuke that forever seared itself directly onto my brain: “Some Christian music out there,” he said, pausing to leave room for an implied “so called,” “is like a cool drink of water from a filthy glass.”

If his goal was to make me feel like a rebel for the first time in my young, sheltered life, he succeeded wildly. And you know what? I liked that feeling. It would be disingenuous to pin my gradual move away from the Church on just one moment in time, but I did learn something important that night: If I really had to choose between the Church and this one thing — music — that I loved, that brought a little bit of joy to my life and made faith relatable to me in ways that 16 years of Sunday School and youth group had failed to do, well… It wouldn’t be a difficult choice.