The Beloved Dallas Rock Band’s 1998 Opus Is One Of North Texas’ Greatest-Ever Albums, And A Release That Few Beyond The Band’s Biggest Fans Duly Appreciate.
A drum fill, a cymbal choke.
A grunt, a call to action and a count off.
Then, fitting for an album that references a nuclear weapon in the title, an explosion.
So begins Tripping Daisy’s third studio album and undisputed 1998 masterpiece, Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb. An introduction that’s equal parts casual and confident, studio chatter preserved and presented to the audience as one last chance to catch their breath before they embark on the journey of a lifetime.
What follows is a 15-track odyssey through space and time. A sprawling opus enhanced by the contradictions it contains — joyful spontaneity plays across meticulously plotted arrangements, a palpable sense of optimism juxtaposed with a longing for a past that now lies beyond our reach, if it ever existed at all.
If you’re of a certain age with so much as a passing interest in local music history, you’re familiar with this story: Local band explodes off the strength of their debut record and unparalleled live show, signs to a major label, experiences minor national success with a catchy earworm single, but ultimately falls short of the mainstream domination all parties had been anticipating.
Against the backdrop of these unfulfilled expectations, the band — Tim DeLaughter, Wes Bergerren, Mark Pirro, Ben Curtis and Philip Karnats — heads to upstate New York to begin work on their third full-length, buoyed by a promise from their actively imploding record label to not interfere with that process.
They emerged with a miracle.
* * * * *
Jesus Hits was released right as Island’s parent company, Polygram, was purchased by Seagram Co. — a massive corporate shuffle that no doubt either ended or altered many bands’ careers. All of Polygram’s subsidiaries were now in the unenviable position of validating their existence, and Island was no exception.
So with the band’s and the label’s backs against the wall, Jesus Hits was designated as the savior of both.
For Tripping Daisy, it would prove the band was more than “I Got a Girl” and establish its members as true artists, pop visionaries. For Island, and its newly installed CEO Davitt Sigerson, the inevitable success of the record would catapult the label back into solvency just in time to satiate the profit lust of their new parent company.
In conversation with the Dallas Observer‘s Robert Wilonsky, Sigerson went so far as to forecast that the minimum amount of copies sold for Jesus Hits would reach 500,000 — double the total of Tripping Daisy’s previous record, I Am an Elastic Firecracker. Even more boldly, he predicted that the album would end up platinum.
To Island’s credit, it honored its promise not to interfere with Tripping Daisy’s creative process. The label agreed to release the six-minute, multi-movement “Waited a Light Year” as the first single.
Had the label been in better financial shape, perhaps its would’ve been able to support the band and promote the record in the necessary ways to manifest Siegeron’s sales predictions.
Unfortunately for the band, Island Records and the world at large, Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb did not sell 500,000 copies. It did not even match the 250,000 copies sold of its predecessor, either. It was released, abandoned by Island’s brass, and quickly went out of print until the band re-released it on vinyl in November of 2020, a full 22 years after the fact.
* * * * *
In the years following the commercial disappointment of their crowning artistic achievement, Tripping Daisy was beset with tragedy. Founding member Bergerren was lost to a drug overdose before the completion of the band’s final, self-titled record. Mired in grief, the surviving members scattered, decimated by the incalculable loss of their friend and collaborator.
Tripping Daisy was over. Karnats and the late Curtis would go on to help form The Secret Machines. DeLaughter and Pirro, along with original Daisy drummer Bryan Wakeland would re-emerge a few years later as the Polyphonic Spree, a project that inarguably surpassed Tripping Daisy in terms of popularity and name recognition.
But something else happened in the two decades between Jesus Hits’ initial release and modern day. Despite being virtually unable to purchase, people kept finding this record. Its legend grew, passed down from older siblings or cool aunts and uncles, burned copies trading hands — half-real, half-myth.
Tales of its brilliance rode like whispers on the wind, its spectre hanging over Deep Ellum as a reminder to those in the know that whatever creative heights they aspired to, the current ceiling was an out-of-print record by a band that had long since broken up.
On some level, the potency of art can be measured relative to its mystery. The less we understand about how something was done, the more captivated we are by it. The looser our grasp on what something is, the more it is able to become.
By this metric, Jesus Hits will be forever vital, urgent, magical. You can spend your entire life in a recording studio and not be able to reduce this album to tracks on a grid. You can study songwriting and composition for just as long, and be no closer to understanding how these songs were made. You can listen to this album a million times — and its fans certainly have — and still not know what DeLaughter is saying one hundred percent of the time, or whether a single part was performed on guitar or synth or by voice. There are so many layers and interwoven melodies present at any given moment — surrounded by bleeps, bloops, shrieking guitars and call-and-response vocals drenched in effects that render them unrecognizable.
The final result is a piece of work that to this day lives and breathes, and evolves with every listen. It is a celebration of life that packs a hundred years of living into every single second of its runtime.
* * * * *
Among the more remarkable qualities about this record — and there are many — is that, over 15 songs and nearly an hour of runtime, there is never a wasted or dull moment. There is no filler, nothing you’d remove, nothing you would wish to re-sequence.
It is presented to us as a fully formed and perfect thing. From the opening ode to self-empowerment “Field Day Jitters”, with it’s big-cat battle dueling guitars and frenetic, pounding drum beat to the Brainiac cover/tribute that closes things out, the tension continues to build without ever being overwhelmed by the more dissonant elements swirling within it. “Waited a Light Year,” which begins with a soft, wistful yearning, gradually builds to an outro that is at once harmonious and discordant — a chorus of ba’s and la’s raining down on us alongside a trumpet so haunting it might’ve been played by a ghost, with disparate elements dancing together, delicately, over the heaviest section of the record.
Knowing that your mind was just fully fucking blown, the band pivots to the most conventional and accessible song on the record, one that was later resurrected and covered by the Polyphonic Spree — the second single from Jesus Hits, “Sonic Bloom.” Here, DeLaughter sings sweetly about the nature of love while the band enthusiastically assumes a supporting role, letting one of his career’s finest melodies reveal itself, unchallenged by the instrumentation.
Just when you’ve gotten comfortable and might have even assumed you’ve seen the last of the album’s wild changes of direction, we get hit with the stylish, country-tinged mid-tempo rocker “Bandaids ™ for Hire,” a song we cannot talk about without taking a moment to talk about Bergerren. The song is not the best showcase for his virtuosic technical ability — there’s “Prick” on Firecracker for that. It isn’t necessarily the best example of his incredible ear for melody, either, which is on display in almost every other song in the Daisy catalogue.
But there’s something about the way he leans into the country influence on “Bandaids,” the subtle twang in his response lines that fill the space between DeLaughter’s melodies, which demonstrates his versatility as a musician and his importance to the band. Without even considering the profound grief that surrounded the band, it isn’t surprising Tripping Daisy opted to break up rather than continue in his absence. His guitar work is so fundamental to what makes Daisy special, bouncing between three or four genres in a single song, sowing maximum chaos but never allowing the train to fully derail. While DeLaughter is playful, Wes is mischievous, and it’s the combination of the two, and their relationship to one another, that propels the Daisy into legend.
By the fifth track, the rollicking, shit-kicking “Mechanical Breakdown,” it becomes clear to the listener that the band is not interested in staying in one lane for long. DeLaughter snarls and screams while Karnats and Bergerren fill the space around him with chaos. Curtis, who arrived at the studio three weeks into tracking and made his (often iconic)contributions on the fly, pounds the living hell out of the drums. Pirro, usually the straight man whose tasteful bass parts grounded the band’s antics into some version of our own reality, distorts his instrument to affect a carnal rumble that feels legitimately dangerous.
“Your Socks Have No Name,” a melodic masterclass that offers as good a showcase of Tim DeLaughter’s genius as you’ll ever find, carries us into the middle section of the record, with abstract lyrics delivered via evolving hooks over two different time signatures.
“Geeareohdoubleyou,” a standout even by this album’s lofty standards, represents the past, present and orchestral pop future of Tim DeLaughter’s artistry. It’s essentially four songs in one, and a lesser band would’ve been happy to follow just one of its many threads to their logical conclusion. The soft, McCartney-esque Mellotron verses are interrupted by bursts of the band at their biggest and heaviest, the chorus of voices and brass that implore the listener to “grow!” foreshadowing the future of the Spree. The final movement of the song takes the shape of a wide-open anthem, ending abruptly on an exclamation point that leads directly into “New Plains Medicine,” a personal favorite for its unworried embrace of jubilant mayhem. Here, we’re treated to an onslaught of indecipherable vocals stacked against one another, with none quite lining up but forming a perfect whole just the same.
On most records, by most bands, “Our Drive To The Sun/Can A Man Mark It?” would function as the undisputed centerpiece around which the rest of the album was sequenced. On this song, DeLaughter’s voice floats sweetly on top of a track that alternates between contemplative melancholy and undeterrable optimism, offering the listener a moment to consider the multitudes within our own hearts.
As we enter the home stretch of Jesus Hits, the band takes a moment to breathe. “Human Contact” begins with a softly strummed acoustic guitar underneath a gentle reminder from DeLaughter about the cruciality of connectedness. Several minutes of patient, sonic world-building pay off beautifully with an outro that subverts the vulnerability of the song with a melody delivered via a forbidding whistle set against disembodied feedback grounded only by a determined bass line.
“Pillar” follows, luring us into a sense of false comfort with the frontman’s untreated voice cooing a sing-song melody over a gently plucked acoustic section that takes an immediate right-hand turn into baroque surrealism. In a sly bit of sequencing — perhaps a wink to the eternal return — the track dissolves by fading back into the soundscape that launched it, which in turn operates as the intro to the next.
“8 Ladies” is a triumph of power-pop that, if stripped of its cerebral bookends, would be as close as the band got to it’s Elastic Firecracker-era sound. The atmosphere of those sections, simultaneously serene and unhinged, could only have been summoned by this band at this moment in time, vaulting the song itself, and one of DeLaughter’s most urgent pop melodies, beyond what came before it and out of reach of what might follow.
Except, in this case, what follows happens to be both the best song on the band’s best record, a designation that would be impossible to make were it not so undeniable, and arguably the best song of their entire career: “About The Movies.” You’ll have no harder time reconciling the brilliance of this record with its total sales than you will during “About the Movies.” It’s the purest distillation of everything that makes this record great — all-time hooks both enhanced and obfuscated by studio experimentation, ambitious arrangements, the willingness to create soft spaces that allow your emotions to grow while never residing in them for so long that you forget how hard the band actually rocks. It’s life-affirming, nostalgic and full of hope for the future, but unafraid to mourn what was lost to the past.
Every trip has a come down, and it’s only with time and through earned experience that we learn how to manage our descent. “Tiny Men” is the pitch-perfect follow up to “About The Movies,” respectful of the emotional journey but unwilling to let us wallow as prisoners to it. The audio equivalent of dilated pupils affixed to the hypnotizing glow of television static, our minds are mush and the Daisy, even at this late moment in the record as the sun disappears over the horizon, continues to stomp, to push and pull, to build and break. To interpret Tim’s lyrics is a fool’s errand, and any earnest attempt to get closer to how they apply to his emotional truths would assuredly rob them of the power they have in the abstract. But, knowing the context of the band’s troubled relationship with their label, “Tiny Men” does read like the most literal song on the record. “Tried hard to make it, ’til making it got worse,” DeLaughter sings with a shade of desperation, before he embraces the uncertainty with “I hope it gets better.” Who among us hasn’t shared that same hope?
The final track, one song built from covers of Brainiac’s catalog, “Indian Poker Pts. 2 & 3” fulfills it’s dual purpose as a tribute to the Ohio band’s legendary front man Tim Taylor (who tragically lost his life in May of 1997) and as a fitting coda to the equally legendary album it is tasked with closing. Brainiac’s influence is felt throughout this record, as important to its creation as Brian Wilson or Marc Bolan or anyone else the band members themselves hold up as heroes. That they would conclude the document that stands as the best representation of their own brilliance with a tribute to a fellow sonic traveler is the perfect final twist on an album defined by them.
* * * * *
Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb documents five people at the height of their creative power, alive with possibility and totally in sync with one another, exhilarating and triumphant.
A technicolor fever dream that shouldn’t exist at all, it speaks to all versions of living — traveling comfortably through diamonds and dirt, the high fashion of denim with frayed edges. It is the soundtrack of a junkyard pick-up truck on the dirt roads of Denton, and a sound barrier-breaking interstellar rocket ship that just reached the edge of our galaxy.
In less able hands, it’s easy to imagine an album this ambitious, with as many wild tonal shifts as it has, losing its cohesiveness. Perhaps the greatest testament to the artists’ genius, however, is that it doesn’t. In fact, such a concern never enters the listeners’ minds as a possibility.
To the people who know and love this record, it’s one of those pieces of art that help us define ourselves. A reference point, a totem, a secret language through which friendships are built and hearts break and mend.
I remember once getting high in a parking lot with a friend, listening to “Waited A Light Year.”
I remember putting “About The Movies” on a mixtape for a girl I liked.
Life itself is so often uncertain, fluid and unstable, but Jesus Hits Like The Atom Bomb is forever — a solid thing you can reach out and touch to calibrate yourself, to remind you of where you’ve been and where you’re going.
This record should’ve surpassed even Island’s most fantastical projections. That it didn’t is nothing short of gross malpractice on the part of the people tasked with promoting it.
As it stands, a record that should belong to the world mainly belongs to us, its most ardent of fans. Surely that in part contributed to their reticence in returning to this material until they briefly did so in 2017 and then again in 2019.
If I’m DeLaughter, Pirro or Karnats — Daisy’s last surviving members — I don’t know that this fate ever becomes an easy thing to accept.
As a fan, though, you hope they’re able to take comfort in the profound impact this record has had. For those lucky enough to have heard it, loved it and personally felt seen by it, Jesus Hits Like An Atom Bomb will forever hit.