Big Air’s Rob Dobson rises from the ashes of The Fire Tapes

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Charlottesville’s band to watch, Big Air, will unveil its first EP, Buds, at a cassette release party at 
the Southern. Charlottesville’s band to watch, Big Air, will unveil its first EP, Buds, at a cassette release party at the Southern.

As the line-up of the excellent local rock band The Fire Tapes disintegrated last year, bassist Rob Dobson began looking for a new musical outlet for his songwriting efforts. He found a collaborator in drummer Greg Sloan, who currently holds down the kit for Ha-Rang and Dwight Howard Johnson, and the duo formed Big Air (which I initially misheard as “Big Hair,” although it’s not that kind of band), which played a handful of local gigs over the past couple of months.

I caught one of its sets a few weeks ago (opening for Speedy Ortiz at the Tea Bazaar), and though I’d been a fan of Dobson and Sloan’s individual past efforts, I was impressed by how great the new act is. Big Air was easily the highlight of the evening’s four-band bill. Whereas The Fire Tapes played country-tinged shoegaze rock, and Dobson’s previous solo efforts had been low-key, confessional singer-songwriter material in the sensitive Elliott Smith vein, Big Air defines itself in a fuzzy, high-energy barrage of endearing shout-along grunge pop.

The stripped down arrangement (just guitar, vocals, and drums) suits it perfectly, and the simple setup allows both members to master the material, leading to strong, solid performances in which they can knock out impressive numbers without needing to pause and reconfigure in between.

Dobson has also learned how to yell, and his distortion-heavy buzzsaw guitar riffs serve his angry, dismissively cool songs. The blend of simple, catchy melodies and messy, energetic rock owes a lot to grunge-era college radio stalwarts like Dinosaur Jr. and Superchunk, with a sly pop punk sensibility that hints at Guided By Voices, The Exploding Hearts, or a pre-major label Green Day. Big Air has quickly become the band to watch in Charlottesville.

Next week, Big Air will release its debut EP, a seven song cassette tape entitled Buds, issued by local WarHen Records. It was recorded last summer, engineered by Dobson, his former bandmate Mark McLewee, and label co-head Warren Parker. It’s remarkably cohesive and confident, considering that the recording sessions happened only a few weeks after the band’s formation and before its first live performances.

Dobson overdubs his own bass parts, and multi-tracks his vocals throughout, harmonizing his distinctive high-pitched yowl with a more mid-range deadpan. It fills out the band’s sound well, and the clean, efficient mix of rambunctious fuzz suits its material perfectly.

The strong A-side rips through four short, catchy-as-hell numbers (the first three, “Cemetery With a View,” “Spot to Hang,” and “Barking Dog,” are particularly excellent) at a Ramones-level pace, while the B-side slows down to close out the track list with two mid-tempo songs “Out of This World” and “The Black Gate.”

The subject matter sticks to universal themes of adolescent angst. “I woke up to the sound of a barking dog,” Dobson sings on one track. “We’re all alone in a parking lot / but I can’t speak your name.” Two separate songs mention being 17 (though both band members are closer to 30), but there’s enough cryptic sarcasm to keep the band from being mistaken for an emo group or a Warped Tour act.

At less than 10 minutes on each side, the tape is over before you know it, but the A-side is so damn good you’ll want to flip it and press play. The cassette is wrapped in a suitably simple two-color j-card designed by Thomas Dean (whose own long-running aggro-garage act, Order, also boasts Dobson among its notoriously unstable membership).

Big Air’s debut release will be available at the show at the Southern on February 7 with Eternal Summers and Borrowed Beams of Light.

Borrowed Beams of Light is the firmly established arch-pop project of Adam Brock, whose whimsical, psychedelic songs can be enjoyed on two EPs and two full-lengths, the most recent of which is last year’s On the Wings of a Bug.

The band’s live line-up varies slightly from show to show, but is invariably a local supergroup drawn from Brock’s pool of collaborators that includes Corsair’s Marie Landragin and Jordan Brunk, Weird Mob’s Dave Gibson, drummer Ray Szwabowski, and occasionally Nate Walsh, Brock and Brunk’s former bandmate from their college days in The Nice Jenkins.

Eternal Summers is a Roanoke-based trio that has spent the past five years making some of the best indie rock from anywhere. They’ve released a steady stream of material, drawing a trajectory from the Breeders-esque garage-pop to the Cure-influenced brooding, but the music has remained reliably excellent throughout. The upcoming album, The Drop Beneath, will be released next month on Kanine Records. Advance previews indicate that it might be the band’s poppiest and most professional offering yet.

When was the last time you purchased a cassette tape? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

  • Steve Ashby

    Ricky Lee Jones’ “Cowboys” or Peggy Lee’s “The Peggy Lee Songbook: There’ll Be Another Spring,” both circa 1990.

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