It was 2008 and Tony Molina, musically speaking, was a man possessed. That year, over the span of six months, the then 24-year-old songwriter and San Francisco Peninsula native would record three different records at Bart Thurber’s studio, House of Faith. Two of these were with Ovens: their third album (Molina’s personal favorite, it kicks off with “Castillejo Scene”) recorded in February, and an eight-song 7-inch completed in July. The third session became a solo album, his first, called Embarrassing Times. It almost didn’t happen, until, unexpectedly, it did.
“I had these songs that were not totally in the Ovens style,” says Molina. Whereas Ovens, he explains, had a strong influence from classical music (particularly Bach), the Beatles, and Baroque ’60s pop, these new songs were something else. They had more of a woolly ’80s/’90s underground bent to them, channeling his and his friends’ love of bands like Dinosaur Jr., the Replacements, and Guided By Voices. Molina wasn’t sure whether this material would fit on an Ovens record. He demoed several of these songs in an aborted home recording session but didn’t have firm plans for them beyond that.
In May of that year, he got a call from his friend Amir Sberlo, whose band, heavy SF stoner-doom trio Flood, was about to have to cancel two days of scheduled studio time at House of Faith. One of them had just been in a bad car accident and needed time to recover. Sberlo asked Molina if he’d be interested in taking those studio dates off their hands. Without thinking too much about it he said yes.
“I just wanted to go back to Bart’s to fuck around,” he says. “I wasn’t really planning on recording a record or anything but I just loved going there.” He had a few days to mull it over, and decided it was a good opportunity to track these songs of his that didn’t quite fit Ovens: “I was just like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll try this one, maybe I’ll try that one…’”
The night before going in, he asked lifelong friend and Ovens drummer Beau Monnot if he’d be down to go with him to the studio for those two days, despite not having much of a plan. Monnot agreed, and Embarrassing Times is what came out of that session. The results are undoubtedly special. The album has a warm, casual, off-the-cuff charm that reflects its humble origins and provides a compelling snapshot of this moment in Molina’s life and development as a musician.
The original songs on the album are terrific, and will hit the spot for fans of his music. But what Molina feels sets this record apart are the covers, all of which glow with a sweet nostalgia. The choices reflect what he and his friends were listening to back then, as well as some old favorites from high school. He kicks things off with a truncated version of Roy Wood’s “Songs of Praise,” and side two begins with “The Secret of Life” by the Dead Milkmen. It’s a song from that band’s first major-label record, Soul Rotation, that Molina, with a laugh, remembers “blew everyone’s minds” when Monnot played it for their group of friends in high school. (Fun fact: Ovens were originally named the Peels, a reference to the Milkmen’s “Smokin’ Banana Peels.”)
A much different cover closes the record: “She Divines Water”, a Camper Van Beethoven song that Molina says was “[his] favorite song from [his] favorite record” of theirs, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. It’s stirring and heartfelt, and may be the finest cover he’s ever recorded.
You may not know the original as it never saw proper release but “Devil Song” is a cover too. It’s a song by his friend Kyle Spleiss, who wrote it for Molina and Spleiss’s band Telly Savalas. Molina rearranges it into a fuzzy guitar-pop track that has since become a mainstay of his live sets, putting his old green (and now unfortunately lost) Big Muff pedal to excellent use.
At times the album and its sequencing invoke the era of Black Sabbath when that band’s sound seemed to start splitting in two, vacillating between gentle acoustic guitar instrumentals and the heaviest of riffs. This enjoyable contradiction is most apparent in the interludes, both the metallic ones that Molina and Monnot wrote on the spot (“Mighty Chuffed” and “Mid Life Crisis”) and the solo acoustic passages of “Still Lazy” and “Bullshit Riff.” They had a lot of fun recording over those two days but didn’t really know what they had until they listened back.
“When we finished it, I was actually amazed at the results of it,” Molina says. It’s a mix of fragments and full songs that, on paper, might make little sense together but somehow end up making perfect sense to the ear. Molina likens the way he sequenced everything together to what Guided By Voices would often do: taking pieces of varying size and ordering them in a way that, grouped together in the right order, turns them into a larger piece that flows like a song or musical suite.
Shortly after the session, Ovens went on a Pacific Northwest tour with their friends in Grass Widow and the Millbrae Brothers. Molina brought the CD-R of these new recordings with him and was excited to play it for his friends and bandmates who turned out to love it too. It’s a time he remembers fondly: recording music he is still really proud of, getting to take Ovens on tour, and feeling like the band was finally “coming out of the darkness of being a band that only plays [now-closed SF venue] Kimo’s on a Tuesday and no one comes.”
The recordings sat for a while, until Ovens connected with Andee Connors, co-owner of beloved SF shop Aquarius Records, who would release a three-album Ovens CD the following year on his label, tUMULt. (That collection just received a beautiful vinyl reissue on Tankcrimes and is a must-buy if you don’t already have it.) There was some talk of including Embarrassing Times in the CD compilation, but eventually Molina hatched a different plan.
He was reading Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life, and the chapter on Dinosaur Jr. mentions that early pressings of You’re Living All Over Me came with the Sebadoh tape for free. “So then I was like, ‘Dude, let’s do some Dinosaur shit, and I’ll be Sebadoh,’” he remembers. He dubbed 50 copies of the cassette on his home stereo, printed J-card covers for them at Kinko's, and included them with initial purchases of the Ovens compilation from Aquarius.
Other than a subsequent small-scale cassette reissue a few years ago, the album has never been released in any other format. He’s long hoped to release it on vinyl, and this new release marks its first appearance on wax, with updated artwork and proper mastering giving it the treatment it deserves.
How does he feel about Embarrassing Times fifteen years later? “It’s one of my favorites,” he says. “Maybe just the fact of how it was made… it was kind of accidental, but it gave me incentive that I was like, ‘OK, maybe I can make another solo record someday.’”
It would be another five years before he’d write and record his breakthrough second album, Dissed and Dismissed, but Embarrassing Times, despite not being quite as widely heard, is a great, endlessly listenable debut and a critical piece of the puzzle for fans of Molina’s music.