by David Chiu
“1994–I’ve been here before,” sings the Mysteries of Life guitarist/bassist Jake Smith on the somewhat bittersweet title track from the alt-rock band’s first new studio release in 10 years. To be clear, Smith isn’t exactly waxing nostalgic about the ’90s or great times in general with that particular lyric. Yet the music from the Bad Advice EP recalls some of the finer – even under-appreciated moments from the decade in which modern rock exploded for a period that included such bands as the Mysteries of Life.
Formed by Smith and his wife, drummer Freda Love Smith (formerly of the Blake Babies), the Mysteries of Life released its 1996 major label debut album, Keep a Secret, containing the infectious single “Going Through the Motions.” Since then, the band’s output has been somewhat sporadic but with good reason: the couple settled down and raised their two children, and Freda Love Smith reunited briefly with the Blake Babies in the early 2000s and participated in the group Some Girls with erstwhile bandmate Juliana Hatfield (she most recently published a memoir Red Velvet Underground). Most of all, the Smiths are presently university teachers in Illinois.
But as one could hear from the six-track Bad Advice—which was released kind of under-the-radar last November, and can be downloaded with a suggested donation on Bandcamp—music hasn’t completely been out of the picture for the Smiths. And not surprisingly, for those members who still recall the music of Keep a Secret, there’s a stylistic and sonic familiarity that is evoked by the new EP, with the Jake Smith-penned introspective songs bordering on themes of melancholy and hope.
Twenty years can give a person, especially for members of Generation X, a lot of perspective—and that’s true of the lyrics on the EP. the title song, for example, seems to be a meditation of regret and the direction of our lives take over time(“Never thought we get this far on bad advice,” Jake Smith sings). Another reflective track, the mostly-acoustic and beautiful “Rely on You,” is probably the most aching tune on the record; listening to that song in the car would probably make you want to pull over to the side of the road and have a good cry.
But Bad Advice isn’t just only somber songs. For instance, “I Like You” is both gritty and rootsy complemented with a side of punk/New Wave attitude; it refreshingly recalls a Big Star or Alex Chilton solo song, and the presence of horns gives it a bluesy Stax-influenced feel. “Coat of Arms” is upbeat and driving love song, while “This Evening” sounds twangy and spunky; and the dreamy “Take You Up” is a sweet and slow ditty that perfectly closes the record on a comforting romantic note.
Based on the EP, time hasn’t diminished the Smiths’ ability to play music, even as career and family demands understandably took priority in the subsequent years since Keep a Secret and Come Clean. Jake Smith’s soulful yet detached vocals haven’t weathered, while Freda Love Smith’s drumming still packs a punch. Supported by a fine cast of players, the couple manages to still revive the elements of the band’s previous sound but also keep them in step with today. At a time when other ’90s bands have reunited in recent years, for better or worse, the re-emergence of the Mysteries of Life feels more genuine than calculating. Hopefully the EP is not a one-off thing but the start of a proper full-length release in the immediate future.