“Checklist Before Chicago” by Recess Theory

125. Song No. 1,771: “Checklist Before Chicago,” Recess Theory
From the 27th State, 1999

Falling for Dashboard Confessional led me to discovering and loving Further Seems Forever, which eventually brought me to this split their Carrabba-era incarnation did with Recess Theory. While two of the three FSF songs are from another album, the trio of Recess Theory tunes are exclusive to this six-song split, which inspired one very determined pre-Amazon needle-in-a-haystack search for the entirety of their recorded riches, wherein the independent music store at the heart of my high school experience finally gave me this EP and one full-length argument for why I love little-known bands from Florida and lo-fi albums so impossibly much. (In the time between starting and posting this story, I maaaaay have also purchased the 1998 split EP record Recess Theory did with Reflector because just finding out that the similarly long-quiet Cricket Rumor Mill is putting out their first album in, like, 15 years has me in a gleefully completist mood.)

One of my favorite live-music moments came the autumn after I’d graduated college, when bestie and I were enjoying the openers for another Ben Lee concert and I’d begun to suspect that the same opening-act solo-artist John Ralston was the same lead-singer-from-Recess-Theory John Ralston. I made my way over to his post-set merch table, bought his CD for an autograph and the excuse for conversation, and asked if he had been in Recess Theory, to which he straight-up answered “You’ve heard of that band!?” And, like, there is no underground-music-lover victory like when the frontman of some obscure band is shocked anyone knows let alone loves a mostly unremembered project.

Anyway. I love Recess Theory in all their unpolished, low-mixed glory. The three songs from the FSF split EP are tonally different than those on the same year’s They Would Walk into the Picture LP, with the full-length album feeling a little dreamier, a little mushier but also a little more cohesive than “Checklist Before Chicago” and the other two songs that feel more like standalone singles than part of a bigger musical movement.

But what I love about this song in particular is how perfectly it encapsulated some of the less-than-wonderful things about college that have been overshadowed by my inexhaustible affinity for those four years I deeply loved but also occasionally did things like interfere with my emotional needs and dole out papers and due dates that kept me from spending all my time in the dingy underground newspaper office where my heart was happiest:

And the radio plays what it wants to hear
So I’m out of here
I’m out of here this year
Too much time on my hands?
Too many hands on my time
And I’m running out of time and out of lines
And a college boy should study more
But I’m so bored with teachers that teach summaries
And summarize our lives

For an English major on the school paper’s masthead who haunted the radio station like a perpetually half-lit ghost and never once dated a guy I went to school with so thusly was never quite fully present but always daydreaming about the weekend to blot out the fear that this temporary haven made of adulthood’s freedom without adulthood’s avalanche of responsibilities was always hurtling toward its necessary end, I felt like a lot of those lyrics were winnowed down to be specifically meaningful to me.

Years and year later, a job would introduce me to someone during a work trip to Chicago by virtue of it being the fortunate geographic center between us, who turned out to be one of those friends who meant so much so briefly, whose significance and conversations and instant recognition of a similar soul yielded wise little kernels of growth that have lasted longer than our paths’ intersection was meant to. Knowing damn well that Recess Theory is absolutely not for everyone, I put this song on a mixed CD interspersed with songs about places our shared industry dropped us into at the same time in what I thought was a slyly hilarious nod to leap-frogging our way across the country together without even trying.

I love that a band like Recess Theory — this band that isn’t even on Spotify and has, like, less than 1,500 listeners on Last.fm and whose rarities are only found with stubborn googling and require even having the means to play a vinyl record in the first place — has managed to stay relevant throughout my life, also without really trying. I’ve been thinking a lot about how it’s not actually necessary to outgrow the music you loved in high school and that the songs that stick for decades can, instead, be invaluable evidence of personal evolution, your very own yardstick for comparing where you were then to who you are now. And it’s wonderfully appropriate that this band that I have invested so much of my younger self into getting to know has paid me back more than adequately in an intimate collection of songs that still always feels like home every time, whether it’s exactly how you left it or after doing a little bit of necessary renovation to bring it into the present so it keeps moving with you toward the future.

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