A few things you should know about Avail.
Slicing through a leafy swath of trees, the freight train tracks snake along the edges of the muddy James River. From this little patch of greenery in the heart of post-industrial Richmond, Virginia, the rails run to the blue ridge hill country, through sleepy towns like Roanoke and Lynchburg, before splintering off to points all over the south.
When the graffiti-covered trains aren’t thundering along, every hour or so, it’s nearly silent. No honking cars, no bustling crowds, no TV sets or blaring radios. The birds eek-eek-eeking overhead are about as loud as it gets. You can find Avail singer Tim Barry here frequently, striding along the rails, his canine companion Zeke at his side. It seems like a strange spot for a punk rock hero-type to hang out, but if you know Avail it makes sense. Figure it like this: the band typically spends a third of the year jammed in a smelly-ass van, driving from dingy bar to dingy bar, playing loud music for loud people. When they get home, Barry and company want a little solitude.
Not surprisingly for an inveterate road warrior, stories of travelling and returning home feature prominently in Barry’s lyrics. There are allusions to hometown characters and landmarks, mentions of trips up and down the Interstate, and many, many references to stowing away on freight trains. In a lot of ways, a voyage through Avail’s sonic landscape is like a journey across the country via boxcar: the terrain changes constantly, but seamlessly. Three-chord thrash morphs into sing-songy pop punk then slows to a growling mosh before breaking into a 70’s rock-sounding chorus. It’s this ability to destroy genre barriers without sounding contrived or schizoid that’s become Avail’s trademark.
You can probably trace Avail’s musical approach to the time and place the band started. Flashback to the late 1980s: Avail is just getting out of the garage. They’re living in an outer suburb of Washington, D.C., 90 miles north of Richmond. Founding member Joe Banks is on guitar, Barry is playing drums, Beau Beau is driving the band to gigs and ‘dancing like a Ritalin kid’ while a couple of other long-gone dudes round out the picture.
The fabled D.C. hardcore scene is factionalizing. Ian MacKaye and the old guard are fusing rock and funk and reggae with power chord punk, and people are calling it ‘emo’. Meanwhile, across town, a new generation of straight edge kids are throwing all-day mosh-a-thons. At the same time, a huge thrash metal scene is going on and punks are going crazy for Slayer and Nuclear Assault. The Avail guys are into all of it and even end up playing shows for all three sub-scenes. In 1990, the band gave up on the D.C. area, moving into a low-rent, 100-year-old brick rowhouse in Richmond and regrouping with Barry on vocals. From there, Avail got serious about world domination, touring relentlessly and releasing four acclaimed studio albums (Satiate, Dixie, 4 A.M. Friday, and Over the James) for Lookout Records, before recording One Wrench for Fat Wreck Chords. In addition to veterans Barry, Beau, and Banks, the current lineup consists of bassist/surfer/Bob Villa-wannabe Gwomper and drummer/mural painter Ed Trask.
For the new 12-song disc, Front Porch Stories, Avail approached things a little differently. They went with a new producer, a mixing board guru named Bryan Paulson, whoï¿½s worked with Beck, Husker Du, Wilco, Slint, The Replacements, and Dinosaur Jr. They also tried out a different studio, a Richmond joint called The Sound of Music, which is co-owned by Cracker frontman David Lowery. And they slowed their recording schedule drastically, spending a month locked in the studio laying down tracks and geeking out over mixes.
The end result is the best sounding Avail record yet.
Songwise, it’s pretty much classic Avail. The tunes go from Ramonesy (‘Done Reckoning’) to chugga chugga (‘Gravel to Dirt’) to anthemic (‘East on Main’). The fellows say they just wanted to make a record they liked and didn’t give a fuck what anybody else thought. Chances are, though, that plenty of other people will dig it, because, at a time when the airwaves are clogged with get-rich-quick emo bands full of phony angst, Front Porch Stories is an authentic offering from an honest band.