Translate Slowly: 30 Years On

by Rob Caldwell, written for this website, June 2015.


Singer/Songwriter Ryan Adams writing in 2011 about Translate Slowly: “I think pretty much my first three years making music was trying to emulate the cool and laid back vibe of this band. When they went for excitement it was still so believable and the melodies and the rushing tones would drag me in. This record starts and it sounds like you entered a surprise party. Never leave home without it. Endlessly great.” [Read his full comments]

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1985 release of the Reivers’ first full-length album, Translate Slowly. Of course, they were called Zeitgeist then. An apt name, as Translate Slowly really did capture the “spirit of the times”. It wasn’t the spirit of the mainstream times, though. The radio was playing “We Built This City” by Starship, the Miami Vice Theme, and Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”. Percolating underneath this gauzy and often plastic surface was a different, diametric scene which Translate Slowly helped spearhead. It was called “New Sincerity” in Austin, but other cities around the country had their own similar scenes. There was Athens, GA with R.E.M. and Let’s Active, Atlanta with the Swimming Pool Q’s and Guadalcanal Diary, L.A. with Downy Mildew, 10,000 Maniacs from Jamestown, New York, and many others. One thing they all had in common was a youthful vigor and enthusiasm and a desire to create music that was a little more roots-oriented, guitar based, and idealistic.

Signed to Atlanta’s DB Records in 1984, Zeitgeist began work on Translate Slowly soon after their debut single. John Croslin remembers, “The recording started at a place called Rollingwood Recording on Bee Caves Rd. in Rollingwood, Texas, which is itty bitty and right over the Colorado River from Austin. We did a few songs there – one of them was ‘Hill Country Theme’, and then the studio closed down. The guy who owned the studio then opened a studio in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin and called it Europa studios and we resumed recording there. Even before that, we recorded “Without My Sight” at [co-producer] John Viehweg’s house when we were recording the ‘Electra / Freight Train Rain / Wherehaus Jamb’ single.”

translate cassette2The gripping “Araby” leads off the album, and one couldn’t ask for a better opening track. Announcing its arrival with urgent guitar and drums, the intensity of mood is continued with the opening lines “Is it worth the admission / oh my love fogs up the glass”. The James Joyce short story the song references concerns a protagonist who promises the girl he’s infatuated with a gift from the fabled market of Araby. When he arrives at Araby, however, he becomes disillusioned with the market and with his idealized vision of love itself. Croslin sings “I press my heart into your hands as my gift from Araby”, giving the story a slightly different twist. At the risk of sounding a bit corny, that line can also be read as a declaration of intent for the album itself – the band is giving us their heart in these songs.

“Cowboys” follows and is like a sigh of relief after the urgency of “Araby”. It’s relaxed and sober, Kim Longacre’s vocals coming to the fore for the first time and giving the album an additional texture – different from and yet complimenting Croslin’s. The two trade vocals on most songs, sometimes with Longacre contributing wordless vocals to the instrumentation, and other times with her taking the lead.

Zeitgeist was a literate band (their later name, the Reivers, was named after a Faulkner novel after all), and referencing Joyce is just one example. The lyrics on Translate Slowly are often abstract and poetic, and attention is paid to how the words and music fit together. Lines like “It was yes, yes, yes in the freight train rain / I was calling, I was driving, I was training incognito low / Yes it’s heaven’s best in the freight train rain” might not always make obvious sense, but they just sound right in the context of the song. (And that “yes, yes, yes”, maybe another nod to Joyce? In this case Molly Bloom’s soliloquy at the end of Ulysses.)

The title song contains the line “In these times that we have / Translate slowly”. In retrospect, they almost seem to be saying it’s important to savour the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times they were in when they made the album. To take it all slowly and enjoy it while it lasts. I’m sure that wasn’t on their minds when they wrote the song, but looking at it with the benefit of 30 years, it does add an extra layer of interpretation.

The songs, of course, were the main reason people connected with the album on its initial release, but another part of the equation was the fact that it was “honest music by regular folks”. In a way, Zeitgeist was going back to a folk tradition, even though they weren’t playing folk music. Though all four band members were very adept at their instruments, they weren’t virtuosos, so the music was approachable and the songs could conceivably be learned without undue difficulty. As well, the recordings have an air of informality, down to the unedited out studio laughter that closes “Freight Train Rain”.

Even the album cover is unassuming. A double exposure picture taken by Leslee Samuelson of a small group of people (not the band) in a Georgia high school gymnasium, it was a photo a friend of the band happened to have. It works well, though, as the ghostly figures echo the “geist” (German for ghost or spirit) in ‘Zeitgeist’ and they’re sort of appearing/disappearing – translating slowly into or out of the picture.


The back cover photo is one of the most unlikely band portraits ever to grace an album. It was taken by someone just credited as “Tracey” at Croslin’s apartment on Kirkwood Rd. in Austin, as the four sat around drinking beer and playing Pinochle. Like the front cover, it’s an evocation of the DIY aesthetic common to the “alternative” music scene at the time. It’s wholly without artifice, but is also frustrating as it only provides a glimpse of the band, as if someone glanced over while walking by. Croslin, the defacto leader of the group, is barely even in the picture (though, coincidentally, he symbolically “holds all the cards”…hmmm)!

Translate Slowly was received well, some of the press quotes including Jody Denberg in Texas Monthly writing “Translate Slowly is a good way to ‘turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream,’ as John Lennon once sang” and High Fidelity magazine proclaiming “Translate Slowly is a surprisingly good record. Zeitgeist has expertly balanced its sense of longing with two fervid guitars; these 12 sweet tunes move on a swift wheel.”

The album and its reviews were strong enough to garner the attention of a few major labels, I.R.S. (the Police, the Go-Go’s) reportedly one of them. The band eventually signed with Capitol, but not without some hesitation in leaving DB. As Croslin said at the time in a Rolling Stone article on new bands, “Independent record labels don’t tell you to cut your hair different or to wear neato New Wave earrings.”

ZeitgeistBefore the successor to Translate Slowly could be released, though, the band had to change their name due to another band already called Zeitgeist. Amusingly, leftover DB Records copies of Translate Slowly with the Zeitgeist name were stickered “Now known for some reason as The Reivers”. The name change was also inconvenient for Capitol, as they had to sticker the new album, Saturday, “Formerly known as Zeitgeist from Austin, Texas”. Then again, there were questions about the Zeitgeist name even before it was changed, as Croslin says in the same Rolling Stone article: “People can’t pronounce it. But the main problem is that people think we’re stuffy or an art band, which we are not.”

Besides being important to a whole 1980s jangle-pop and alternative (there’s that word again) music consciousness, particularly in Austin and the rest of the South, Translate Slowly was an influence on 1990s stars Hootie and the Blowfish, who covered “Araby”. Ryan Adams has spoken about his love for the band and that album, as well. Steve Kilbey of the Church commented in a 2004 interview on Austin radio station KUT, when asked about Zeitgeist, “I thought, first of all – what a great name, which is German for spirit of the age, or spirit of the time. And then someone at Capitol gave me their album and I really, really liked it.”

Translate Slowly still holds up today. The songs still turn up occasionally as well, with “Araby” used in the recent Emma Watson film The Perks of Being a Wallflower. The instrumentation and production is not dated either – there are no synthesizers or drum machines. The album wasn’t caught up in the sound aesthetics of the 80’s, so is more timeless. Guitars, drums, bass – still, and always have been, all the foundation a good rock band really needs.

They were a band named for the spirit of the times and Translate Slowly is a record imbued with that spirit. Looking back on it now, John Croslin sums it up: “It was a fun time. We were young and confident and having a blast, and I think you can hear that.”

Read more about Translate Slowly here on the website: