On the strength of its anthemic, jangly single "Dizz Knee Land," Puzzle—the 1992 debut of Los Angeles alt-rock trio Dada—sold more than half a million units. But it was gold before it sold a single copy.
It's easy to see why the song was a hit. The call-and-response couplet lyrics referred to a popular Disney commercial in which someone asks, "Hey, Joe Montana! You just won the Super Bowl—what're you gonna do now?" To which, Montana replied, "I'm going to Disneyland!" Dada turned the catchphrase on its head, applying pre-Morrisette (read: actual) irony to illuminate its silliness. What rich football player really goes to Disneyland after winning the Super Bowl? How/why do ordinary people, whose personal victories and bank balances pale compared to Montana's, relate to this marketing hogwash?
In Dada's song, a real regular Joe recites a litany of deeds: running away from home, crashing the car (again), robbing a grocery store, flipping off President George, tossing a fifth of gin, getting cuffed again, shooting a gun into the night, watching a good man die and getting kicked out of school. After each, singer-bassist Joie Calio intones, "I'm going to Dizz Knee Land"—first in the pensive voice of a wayward soul, then working up to the defiant shout of an idealistic iconoclast. This, while singer-guitarist Michael Gurley's brilliant but simple riff does likewise, starting thoughtful on two lightly distorted strings, intensifying with dirty double-stop bends and then culminating in the bright, triumphant ring of a six-string open chord.
Wayward Joe's voice, though, is curiously similar to our own because we all feel like winners trapped inside losers. That's what Puzzle articulates so well.
I recall the night I finally tracked down a copy of Puzzle. Sitting in a mall parking lot, I ripped away the cellophane and jammed the cassette into my tape deck, hoping Dada's 11 other songs spoke similarly. The first 50 seconds of "Dorina" consist of Calio's pumping, rumbling bass and drummer Phil Leavitt's metronomic beat driving beneath a bluesy, noir-ish solo from Gurley, who sings this tale of a Bukowski barfly haunted by a "pretty little ghost." The song flips between moody verses where Calio sings a spectral "oooo-ooooooo-oooo-oooooo" in the background and Gurley rides his whammy bar to create his own ghostly moans, to manic instrumental freak-outs where Gurley really throttles his Stratocaster.
As opening numbers go, "Dorina" is a doozy. You experience a survivor's tortured existence, where wistful daydreams are constantly interrupted by a waking nightmare. The conflicting emotional tones should make a confusing opening salvo. But as the cassette reels spun, Dada, a trio of jazz-caliber musicians, proved shockingly adept at telling satisfying, cinematic stories with words and music. With each successive song, you become immersed in a world where the characters' plights seem ripped from your subconscious.
In the spacy rocker "Mary Sunshine Rain," a guy come to grips with the fact that a beguiling woman whose affections came and went with the weather appears gone for good. The airy, bucolic "Dog" waxes existential and philosophizes about the afterlife, leading into "Dizz Knee Land," then giving way to "Surround"—more pining for a lost love, whose imprint is everywhere. The paisley acid trip "Here Today, Gone Tomorrow" revisits the wayward self-styled iconoclast on a surreal, existential road-trip from the celluloid dreams of Alex Cox and Trent Harris, and goes on to score with a kindred spirit—who could easily be Ms. Sunshine Rain—in the swinging rave-up "Posters."
In the profoundly sad, orchestrally enhanced "Timothy," we encounter a Steinbeck-ian character, a spiritual sibling to Suzanne Vega's "Luka," who hides the sad truth about his drunk dad and beleaguered mother in a string of grandiose lies. The carefree "Dim" finds its protagonist seeing the bright side of a rent relationship, asking only that she leave a picture on her way out. The funky "Who You Are" glorifies a woman—a muse—more desirable than all your favorite things. "Puzzle" goes on another moody midnight drive, exploring the cognitive dissonance of a failing relationship. Finally, "Moon" ends the album on a righteous bummer, meditating on that moment when you realize you had a chance to fix everything wrong with your life but you didn't take it.
Puzzle is an emotional rollercoaster. The songs are sincere and vivid, evoking a spectrum of emotions, asking questions and providing no answers. But in doing so, they make one overarching statement: Life is a puzzle, a series of queries destined to go unanswered, but we continue to ask anyway. Along the way, we encounter crazy characters and mine them for insights, only to find they're no more enlightened than we are. So we make our choices and live with them, for better or worse, and try to have a good time in spite of things. Speaking of which: What time does Dizz Knee Land open?