ARTIST: The Karl Hendricks Trio

HOMETOWN: Pittsburgh, PA

ALBUM: Declare Your Weapons

RELEASED: February, 1998

LABEL: Merge

FILE UNDER: Indie Rock

The break-up song.  The mere mention of this oft-trodden ground conjures ham-fisted metaphors and those Max-Martin-slick, on-the-nose pop anthems that drunken coeds holler from the moonroof of a white limo.  The break-up is now and always has been the pizza of song topics – a reliable standby to fill the space where your verse and chorus go. But in the hands of the right songwriter, it can transform into something stirring, universal and forever. 

The trick is twofold: You have to live it.  And also you have to be talented.

When I hear “Since U Been Gone” do I picture Kelly Clarkson, cheeks stained with mascara, emerging from a cocoon of heartache to shout her freedom from the rooftops?  No.  I picture two middle-aged white guys in a Swedish studio counting their kronas while an engineer works the pitch-shifter. Do I believe Gwen Stefani was sad about Tony Kanal?  Sure.  Do I believe Gwen Stefani has the poetic arsenal and imagination to meaningfully capture that sadness in song?  No.  I am positive she does not.

But when someone breaks the heart of a genius, a song often follows that puts us right there, in those moments of reflection and regret and anger.  We walk with them on the beach, destroyed in the wake of a failed marriage.  We sit with them in quiet as they blame themselves for the loss.  And – as in the greatest break-up song of ALL TIME – we soak up their vitriol and relive their betrayal.

Filed under “angry,” right next to “Don’t Think Twice” is my all-time favorite indie rock break-up song, “The Worst Coffee I’ve Ever Had” by criminally underrated Pittsburgh songwriter Karl Hendricks.  As with Silkworm or Dinosaur Jr., Hendricks is a disciple of the Crazy Horse/Big Black/Gang of Four school of “loud and hollow” – where songs are left blissfully uncluttered, giving those booming drum hits and feedback ample space to breathe.  In fact, Hendricks was often – unfairly – lumped in with J.Mascis, as sort of Dinosaur adjacent. And while the two clearly share a love of crunch and volume, J.’s marblemouth nonsense was never a match for Karl’s candor and literacy (not surprisingly he’s a published author and adjunct professor at the University of Pittsburgh).

This song – as raw and emotive and anything tracked in the 90’s alt. rock heyday – finds our narrator on a futile quest for a decent cup of joe, against the backdrop of a relationship in bitter collapse.  I rank the final verse here among the most poignant, poetic, acerbic and accurate bank of lyrics I have ever heard:

She never even gave him back the ring/and you never realize there’s nothing you wanted/until you’ve gotten everything/So let’s go to the toilet, throw up our dreams in turn/but first put that coffee in a thermos, it tastes like shit when it gets burned!

Goose pimples every time.

(Two quick notes: 1. Not long ago, Karl was diagnosed with oral cancer.  A number of Pittsburgh area fundraisers + a GiveForward campaign appear to have a raised real money to help him fight it, but I cannot find an update on his current condition.  Anyone?  2. If you go to the iTunes store and try to buy this song, you will instead be buying “Magnificent Obsession” by Lambchop (eh). Both songs were released on the same label at roughly the same time, but the main reason for the mix-up is that iTunes sucks shit.)