John Bellows - "Bare to the Bone" (Clean Your Clock)
There’s the dweebs who find enough friends to start a band, and there’s the dweebs who don’t. The first kind have the opportunity to bury their roots. Think of the Ramones, all frowning, leather and cool, but with comic books and sneakers and airplane glue peeking though. “Everyone’s a secret nerd, everyone’s a closet lame,” Joey sang ... but not until 1984, safely famous, when it was time to remodel a bit to keep up with the hardcore scene.
At the same time, you’ve got Jonathan Richman leaving the Boston suburbs to dog Lou Reed around Manhattan, gathering the confidence to not even try to be cool. The band came after the songs had been written. The weird kid who wrote them comes through intact.
John Bellows seems like the kind of guy who could have used a few friends, but had to figure it out himself. When he sets his mind to it, he can play a pretty guitar and write a pretty song. “Feelin’ Down” is an easy Appalachian blues that may gather some of it’s plainspokeness from his upbringing in Kentucky. Or maybe it’s just ‘cause he wanted to see if he could pull off a pretty, plainspoken song. On “You just got Mutherfucked,” lo-fi power chords rumble as he screams “so fuckin loud blood starts pouring from my mouth.” There’s a drum on the track, and a second guitar, but the massive rock band is mostly in his head. We can see him in his bedroom, but we can also see the big stage that he sees.
More than half the songs on Clean Your Clock break into swearing, like he’s trying to cuss down the claustrophobic walls around him. A more fit personality would stick to the acoustic guitar and emote and converse and confess. Bellows is having none of that. He breaks his voice lower than baritone, raises it to a grating falsetto, switches to banjo, runs the acoustics though distortion. He tries any trick at hand to make his songs bigger. If he doesn’t say much about being a tormented soul in his words, he sure gets it across in his deeds.
He also can push the outsider stance to the breaking point. Singing about an imaginary friend, his simpering could make Daniel Johnston squirm. But like Johnston and Richman, Bellows isn’t trying to share his woe. He doesn’t want your sympathy. He wants you to like his great big songs. For all the dirt and irate grunting, the songs do sound big, and they almost shine. A good show for a the dweeb who just got his first invitation to a party.