Cheap Trick – In Color

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

My theory is that Cheap Trick is the band KISS wanted to be but couldn’t. I say that knowing almost nothing about KISS. I still think it’s a good theory.

What I Think of This Album

While Heaven Tonight is the best Cheap Trick album, In Color is my favorite Cheap Trick album, and probably also their most fun and free-spirited work. Unlike the dark and messy debut, this album views primary songwriter Rick Nielsen’s melodic sensibility as a strength to be emphasized, not some embarrassing feature to be covered up or apologized for. Accordingly, In Color is a heady mix of power pop, glam, and hard rock, all cleanly presented by producer Tom Werman. 

There are at least five great songs on this record. My hot take is that the studio version of “I Want You to Want Me” is a million times better than the live Budokan version. It’s not even close. The original is a nearly perfect pop song, with a pristine guitar tone, some great string bends, a jaunty old-timey piano, an irresistible rhythm, and Brill Building lyrics. And fingersnaps. 

If I’m being honest, “Downed” is a better song than “I Want You To Want Me,” even though I feel more of an affinity for the latter. “Downed” is a darkly glittering power pop song wearing hard rock armor, with some psychedelic flair. Robin Zander interprets a set of lyrics about confusion and hopelessness with a hint of malice. The whole thing is a colorful windmill powered by Nielsen and Tom Petersson’s chord changes.

Bridging the gap between the overt prettiness of “I Want You” and the density of “Downed” is “Southern Girls,” which boasts a first-rate melody, a great beat from Bun E. Carlos, Zander’s impassioned singing, handclaps, a critical piano part, and I think a guitar playing a harmony tone behind Zander’s vocals (though it may be some (artificially?) held out “ooooh”s). Throw in a hard rockin’ bridge and you’ve got an expertly constructed and arranged song.

On par with these three standouts is singalong “Come On, Come On,” which is somehow equally evocative of the ‘50s and the ‘70s, as if Chuck Berry had joined Sweet. The band goes back to basics on the straightforward “Clock Strikes Ten,” which is exciting and loud and just plain a blast to listen to, even if it is kind of dumb.

A couple more tracks are really good, as well. The thunderous “Big Eyes” succeeds because it pairs its heaviness – and sort of metally guitar solo, to say nothing of Zander’s gritty take – with a winning melody. Considering that it lasts not even two minutes, the glammy “Hello There” makes a hell of an impression, setting the tone for the rest of the album with an energetic, melodic, and tough sound.

Nielsen gets a showcase on “You’re All Talk,” which is not much of an actual song. It’s  basically just a bluesy groove over which Nielsen can show off. Frankly, it reminds me of ZZ Top. Similarly, it seems like “So Good to See You” was specifically designed for Zander; regardless, it’s among the weaker songs here. I think “Oh Caroline” doesn’t work at all – this is basically filler, though Zander layers a nice whine onto his voice.

Producer Werman has a long history of working with metal and hard rock bands (Blue Öyster Cult, Motley Crue, Twisted Sister, Molly Hatchet, L.A. Guns), though apparently not without complaints that his results are too polished.

The band supposedly started re-recording In Color with Steve Albini in 1997 and whether the recording was ever completed, it was never officially released.

My reissue adds instrumental B-side “Oh Boy,” two demos, and two live tracks. The demo of “Southern Girls” is less glossy than the final version, and upon hearing it I can understand why some might have preferred that In Color have been more carefree and natural. I can’t fault Werman for adding some sheen, but the rougher version has a lot of charm, too. The demo of “Come On, Come On” leads me to the same conclusion. The live version of “You’re All Talk” is exactly what you’d think it would be. The live version of “Goodnight” is just “Hello There” with different lyrics – silly, but not offensive.

The Best Thing About This Album

The appreciation of and reliance on melody.

Release Date

September, 1977 (original); 1998 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Sigh. Very disappointing. The good-looking band members get a magazine cover shoot, complete with motorcycles, leather jackets and cowboy boots, while the freak and the shlub are hidden on the back cover, upside down for some reason, and, in a final emasculating twist, on bicycles. I do like that Nielsen is wearing a Cubs cap.

Close Lobsters – Forever, Until Victory! The Singles Collection

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

So, I was reviewing the first Close Lobsters album and I liked it so much I decided to order the second one. Which I also liked – though it is a more difficult listen – so then I decided to order this singles collection. My decision-making is not always great. Not even close. But I feel like I made the right choices this time. There is a post-reunion album that I almost certainly will pick up, too.

What I Think of This Album

If you are a Close Lobsters fan (which you should be), this compilation is indispensable. It gathers all the band’s singles and EP tracks from 1986 to 1989 (except for one B-side and a single issued on a label other than Fire). Almost none of these 19 songs was included on either original studio album, so if you squint hard enough, this is almost a double-album of material that could have been a third studio release. Right?

Much of this sounds more like the songs of Foxheads Stalk This Land than it does the darker songs of Headache Rhetoric, but there is a fair amount of diversity in any event.

Debut single “Going to Heaven to See If It Rains” flowers in full jangly/psychedelic glory with a great sing-speak vocal that plays off the music brilliantly. Someone (as on so many releases, the liner notes here avoid all critical information) sings a very pretty harmony on “Never Seen Before,” on which Andrew Burnett unleashes some Morrissey-esque yelps and trills, but is most notable for the cool drum pattern. The Wedding Present covered “Let’s Make Some Plans,” and it’s easy to hear how the guitar sounds attracted that band, though the original is far more delicate and pristine.

Much more aggressive is “Nature Thing,” proving that there was more than jangle to these lads. I can’t believe “Skyscrapers of St. Mirin” (what a title) was relegated to a B-side; this is a pounding tune with a thick bass, perfectly placed frenetic strumming, and a winning melody. The masterful “From This Day On” is an absolute pleasure, with a rubbery bass line and a FANTASTIC instrumental interlude. The gentle “Don’t Worry” reminds me a bit of the Go-Betweens (always a good thing), though with a solo those Aussies would never have attempted.

Fitful “Firestation Towers” is the song that was included on the seminal C86 compilation tape – though this is the rerecorded version. Also in alternate form is “Pimps,” which appeared on the debut (along with the kaleidoscopic “In Spite of These Times”). The gem that is “Boys and Girls” ends way too soon; the deceptively bouncy bass line that dominates the song is by itself better than most bands’ entire catalogues. Listening to “Pathetik Trivia” is like sliding down a rainbow made of guitar strings.

Is it weird to sequence the three covers in a row? I’m not sure. I don’t hate it. The jangly, caffeinated version of “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” neatly substitutes Nikki Sudden for Johnny Rotten, and the band does right by Leonard Cohen on a mellifluous rendering of “Paperthin Hotel.” They go super-obscure with a cover of “Wide Waterways” – a song by England’s Glory, the band Peter Perrett was in before the Only Ones. None of England’s Glory’s music (dating from 1973 or so) was officially released until 1989. Research indicates that the track was originally titled “The Wide Waterway.”

The Best Thing About This Album

Maybe “From This Day On,” but I could probably draw a song title out of a hat and agree with it.

Release Date


The Cover Art

Excellent. The monochrome aesthetic always pleases me. The women with the drawn-on Dali facial hair and the berets are playfully seductive. The pointilist/Lichtenstein style is also a favorite of mine, and the different colors for the album title works exceptionally well.

The Cure – Wish

What I Think of When I Think of Artist (part 5)

I finally saw the Cure live for the first time well into the 2010s. They closed down one night of Riot Fest; under city ordinance, outdoor live music needs to end at midnight, otherwise the organizer/host of the event gets heavily fined. The Cure played a tremendous set, with considerably extended versions of several of their songs. They ended the show at midnight on the dot. I’ve never been so impressed in my life. They had that thing planned out to the second, and they stuck to it perfectly. Make no mistake, the Cure are fucking professionals. The Cure is still a going concern, but I haven’t much cared for their work since the early ‘90s.

What I Think of This Album

This album is a lot of things. It is the final album with drummer Boris Williams. It is the last album with guitarist Porl Thompson (now Pearl Thompson) for many years. It is the first album with former roadie Perry Bamonte. It is certainly the last great Cure album. What it also is is lacking a real identity. Which is a shame, because it is packed with great songs. This basically sounds like a single disc version of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me (right down to replicating the “heavy guitar opener / light second track” trick) in that it reverts to the psychedelic guitar sounds of that album and continues to trade in darkness and despair, but it lacks the perverse sense of fun that elevated that record. This is all the more unusual because there are – just like on Kiss Me – poppy and even airy songs here that switch up the sound. But Wish ends up being a bunch of Cure tunes thrown together, with no organic cohesiveness; on their individual merits, though, many of them are excellent.

“High” is not frothy, but close; this is a playful, breezy tune that perhaps could have benefitted from cleaner production. Buried in the middle of the album is Brill Building-in-black-clothes “Friday I’m In Love,” in which Smith proves that he can write a classic (and classicist) pop song as well as anybody. He again offers up some rare positivity on the excellent “Doing the Unstuck,” which rocks out, but in a gentlemanly manner. Smith dips into his Kafka to produce the beautifully heartbreaking “A Letter to Elise,” easily the finest moment on this album and a top Cure song. Best Cure drummer ever Williams powers the swirling, moving “By the Edge of the Deep Green Sea,” though we get very close to guitar wankery towards the end – Thompson left after this album to join the Jimmy Page/Robert Plant project, and I wonder if Thompson’s sound was moving in a more classic rock direction at this time. String sounds dominate “Trust,” which could have been a Disintegration track if it had been recorded and produced like that album. “Cut” is a powerhouse offering, with rapid-fire work from Williams and some serious guitar fireworks (wah-wah!) and one of Smith’s better vocal performances (he sounds tired on much of this album). This should have been the first track instead of comparatively tepid “Open.” In fact, additional resequencing could have resulted in a stronger album overall.

As for the lesser tracks, the bongos are a nice touch on “To Wish Impossible Things.” Someone breaks out the wah-wah pedal on the funky and unexpected “Wendy Time,” which seems like it could have benefitted from a more thoughtful arrangement. This track just doesn’t quite work. “Apart” sounds like a Cure song that they have done better before; I would go so far as to call this filler, and it sort of kills the momentum early on. “End” is appropriately as forgettable as “Open,” though definitely a better song. Trivia:  Thompson is married to Smith’s sister, and has retired from music to focus on painting. Bamonte and keyboardist Roger O’Donnell were fired in 2005, though supposedly they remain friendly with Smith (O’Donnell had previously left in 1990 and rejoined in 1994).

The Best Thing About This Album

I wish I could make someone’s “eyes catch fire the way they should.”

Release Date

April, 1992

The Cover Art

I like the color scheme? It’s cool that it takes a second to realize that’s a sand dollar. As for the rest of it, hard pass.

The Cure – Disintegration

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 4)

This album came out when I was a junior in high school, but I did not acquire a copy of it, for reasons that are lost to me, until I was a sophomore in college. It is technically of the ‘80s, but I associate it powerfully with the ‘90s. I think it wasn’t until freshman year that I really fell in love with it. How I got it was that I traded my roommate Jason a copy of the Ocean Blue’s Cerulean for it. Best trade I ever made (I did eventually repurchase Cerulean, many years later).

What I Think of This Album

I think everyone agrees that this is the Cure’s masterpiece, and how could one not? Lush keyboards dominate and slow tempos oppress, with many songs clocking in over six minutes, all the better to take in the majesty unfolding around you. Each song is an entire galaxy, bursting with stars and held together by gravity, and all are part of a discernible universe. This is the Cure on a scale never before attempted nor perhaps even dreamed – the album is an epic, not only in stature but in construction and scope. It may have been born of Robert Smith’s depression and LSD use, but my god, it was worth it.

Opener “Plainsong” (named after a genre of religious chants going back to the early days of Christianity) is effectively the album in miniature, bursting into existence via a Big Bang of keyboards after an agonizing delay of several seconds of quiet wind chimes – where once there was nothing, now there is this. The plodding rhythm knocks you over and holds you down, while the keyboards cascade around your prone form, and Smith’s ghostly vocals swirl above, underneath, and through you. “I think it’s dark.” Yeah, no shit. It is black as the heavens and just as imposing. Immediately following, with a graceful pivot, is the rueful, deeply romantic (dare I say, Gothic) “Pictures of You,” which benefits from Simon Gallup’s lulling and sorrowful bass part and the insistent guitar line from Porl Thompson, before Smith’s poignant lyrics enter. While not as verdant as “Plainsong,” the relatively more breathable second track is clearly of a piece with the opener. Unlike The Head On the Door and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me, here the Cure are exploring different facets of the same dark emerald, avoiding anything that does not correspond to what has already come before in the preceding songs. Those albums were about breadth – this one is about depth.

“Closedown” is a gigantic piece that is arguably the best song on the album, with gorgeous keyboards (note the angelic harmonies), almost manic drumming from Boris Williams, and a thick bass that offsets a delicate guitar part; Smith offers up maybe twenty words’ worth of lyrics, with the devastating closing line “If only I could fill my heart with love.” That appears to be what happens, in fact, on hit “Lovesong,” which is as straightforward as the title indicates. This is a love song, without irony or shading, and if the lyrics might be a bit too on the nose, the band delivers a triumphant performance, led by Gallup’s bass and Smith and new member Roger O’Donnell’s keyboards (including faux-strings and a sort of accordion/harmonium sound). The sinister, almost-gritty rhythm of “Last Dance” is the perfect backdrop to Smith’s exploration of the death of a relationship. Things take a nightmarish turn on the horror movie influenced “Lullaby,” which may be an allegory for drug abuse or child abuse or insert-your-abuse-here, or it might just be a creepy story of a spiderman who sticks his tongue in your eyes and makes you feel like you’re “being eaten by a thousand million shivering furry holes;” what is beyond doubt is that Smith’s whispered vocals, the chilly shards of guitar, Gallup’s unrelenting bass, and the grandiose fake strings expertly frame this disturbing tale. I will admit that this is the one song that sort of feels out of place on this album. Driving, punishing “Fascination Street” finds the band once again nailing the bleak groove – this album is arguably Simon Gallup’s peak (though he has done amazing work on many Cure albums) – and the atmospherics, arrangement and production all come together in a stunning mix. Approaching the classic Cure sound, “Prayers for Rain” is a somber dirge, with heavy, medieval tapestries of keyboards, gilded with guitar filigree, trapping the listener in a thick maze and taunting them with Smith’s half-crazed vocals (“I suffocate / I breathe in dirt . . . . You fracture me / Your hands on me”).

Strap in for almost ten minutes of “The Same Deep Water As You,” which is the equivalent of being slowly and methodically beaten to death with foot-thick manuscripts wielded by a circle of morose monks. This is arguably the weakest song of the collection. That it is followed by a contender for strongest song may be no accident. The title track is an eight-minute juggernaut that obliterates everything in its path, fueled by William’s powerful drumming, a chugging sequencer line, and Smith’s increasingly desperate, impassioned vocals. He sounds like he’s in agony and I am right there with him. You can feel the band losing themselves in “Homesick,” an elegiac number that creates a dour momentum; Smith’s vocals seem gratuitous, as the music does all the work the song requires. “Untitled” sounds almost bright by contrast, and while Williams again hits hard and hits often, the pervading sense is one of gentleness, aided by Smith’s soft spoken vocals.

This may not be the Cure album people like best, and it may lead some listeners to indulge in lazy generalities about what the Cure are and what their music sounds like, but this is the most enduring, substantial, titanic record the band ever made. Kudos to Smith and David Allen for the production. Notes:  “Last Dance” and “Homesick” are described as bonus tracks on my CD because they were not included on the original vinyl pressings, but they are on the vinyl reissues. Lol Tolhurst was credited with “other instruments” but apparently was so deep into alcohol abuse that he did not actually contribute to the recording, and was in fact fired afterwards, with O’Donnell taking his place. Disintegration has sold over 2,000,000 copies in the U.S.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Plainsong” may be the best opening track I’ve ever heard.

Release Date

May, 1989

The Cover Art

Hmmmmm. I think the floral theme communicates the lush sound of the album, and, also, the somewhat claustrophobic feel of the art is appropriate. Smith’s face hovering amidst all that, well, I don’t think that’s necessary.

The Cure – Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Every year, my law school put on a student-run theatrical production (the Law Revue, which is a humorous name, if you go to law school. Maybe). The Law Revue was basically a musical; the writers came up with an original script, including new, plot-relevant lyrics grafted onto existing songs. Those songs could be from the movies, Broadway shows, or the exciting world of rock. For example, the Law Revue song “Civ Pro Wizard” was the Who’s “Pinball Wizard” with civil procedure-themed lyrics. In order to pull this off, there had to be a pit orchestra/band. I was in that pit band for two years. The guitarist in the pit band was named Dave, and he was a huge Van Halen fan (nickname:  “Diamond Dave,” of course). This was disappointing, because it meant we had very little in common musically. Nonetheless, one day, apropos of nothing, he told me he listened to Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me and loudly enthused (David did everything loudly) “it rocks your pants off!” You know what? It does.

What I Think of This Album

The Head On the Door is an essential Cure album. Disintegration is the best Cure album. Wish is the last great Cure album. But Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is my favorite Cure album, and arguably the most representative Cure album of them all. A double-album length monster, this disc is remarkably successful over its 17 (CD) tracks (the CD omits “Hey You!!!”). What’s more, while there are pop songs – indeed, pop hits – sprinkled throughout, this is actually a very dark, surprisingly psychedelic-tinged affair.

Oh, did you think a song called “The Kiss” on an album titled Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me was going to be sweet and romantic? Well, no. The lead song instead begins with an ominous rhythm track before erupting into a blistering phaser/wah-wah guitar workout that goes on for almost four minutes (no wonder Dave liked it), before Robert Smith finally wails “Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me / Your tongue’s like poison” and by the time he is shouting “I wish you were dead,” you’ve been left, like the narrator, nailed to the floor. Things only get more bleak, as “Torture” revels in grotesque imagery while the band creates a massive tornado, perversely adding very poppy horns towards the end.

If I told you the Cure wrote a song about doggy-style sex, what do you think that would sound like? You would be wrong, whatever your answer, because what happens is that Smith howls desperately across impressively piercing guitar lines and stately keyboard chords on the languid but not sexy “All I Want.” Meanwhile, “A Thousand Hours” is a drawn out, self-indulgent cry of despair and hopelessness, which is exactly why I am drawn to it; this is one of my favorite songs on this album and in the entire Cure catalog People may call it self-pitying, but I think it’s honest and gorgeous. “Shiver and Shake” is an aggressive number that effectively matches Smith’s vicious sentiments (“You’re a fucking waste / . . . / Oh, you’re useless and ugly”).

The mood pieces are also very effective, though again, extremely not uplifting. “If Only Tonight We Could Sleep” gets by on Boris Williams’s drumming and Lol Tolhurst’s synthesized sitar, as well as ghostly atmospherics. “The Snakepit” is a more evil reworking of “If Only Tonight” with added sinister guitar and morose monotone vocals (heavily treated), but even if the track betrays some laziness, it still skillfully creates its own creepy universe. The funereal drone of “One More Time” is offset by the hypnotizing synthesized flute part, and some windswept and desperate romantic lyrics. Yes, “Like Cockatoos” is replete with disorienting bird sounds, but more critical is the rhythm section, with Williams doing stellar work and Simon Gallup holding down a driving, obsidian bass part; Tolhurst adds some courtly faux-strings and Smith’s vocals sound like they are coming from the depths of a well.

There is some light peeking out from the thunderheads, though. Synthesized-string-laden “Catch” is a charming, catchy, wistful, and almost gossamer love song – another favorite. Of course, “Just Like Heaven” is a pop masterpiece. With Williams leading the way, each instrument appears in turn (immediately next is the bass, then the rhythm guitar, followed by the keyboards, leading to the lead guitar, and finally the vocals), building on each other to create an inimitable tower of melody. What’s the best part of the song? The descending guitar riff? The simple but memorable bass line? The piano solo? The paired double snare hits? Smith’s upbeat way with lyrics that end in a drowning? The fact is, this is a classic and maybe reason alone to own the album.

Almost as enjoyable is the bright and bouncy “Why Can’t I Be You?,” a song with unusually straightforward lyrics, with nary a hint of tragedy, despair, or loss of self. I don’t think “angelicate” is a word, though. “Hot Hot Hot” may be silly – white boy funk from West Sussex? – but it’s still a lot of fun. “How Beautiful You Are” is an unexpectedly successful reworking of Baudelaire’s 1869 poem “The Eyes of the Poor,” with a great vocal from Smith and nice piano work on the part of Tolhurst.

And the throwback sounds of “Icing Sugar” come across like an alternate track from The Head on the Door (that drumming! That bass!). Much the same can be said for “The Perfect Girl,” which retains that pop-era Cure sound.

I have one complaint, which is that “Fight” is not a good song (lyrically, at least) and a shitty way to end the album; they should have kept the delightfully free-spirited “Hey You!!!” and ditched this song instead.

Trivia: Smith has been open about how “Just Like Heaven” is basically The Only Ones’ “Another Girl, Another Planet” with some left turns thrown in.

The Best Thing About This Album

The best thing about this album is its fundamental Cure-ness.

Release Date

May, 1987

The Cover Art

Excellent. I once met a girl when I was maybe 16 who found this album art very disturbing. I have no idea why. Lips are cool. More lips, please. Note that the album title on the cover omits the commas that are on the spine, and which consensus seems to coalesce around as part of the official title.

The Cure – Staring At the Sea – The Singles

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

The Cure had gone through three, possibly four, and up to five phases, by the time of this release, and for better or worse, much of it is captured on this comp. I can’t decide whether this album works or not, and if not, whether it even could have. The early days of the band were informed by a spiky but melodic post-punk sound (Phase 1). Then came the darkness (Phase 2). After that was an odd period of uncharacteristic single releases (Phase 3), which was followed by the shiny pop era (Phase 4 (or maybe Phase 5?). I am leaving out however you want to characterize what was going on with The Top (The real Phase 4? Phase 3.5?), which was almost, kind of, basically a Robert Smith solo album and also didn’t really sound like anything that came before or after. Actually, the one song from The Top on this comp sounds more like it came from the weird singles period, and I am inclined to view it as part and parcel of that era of the band’s history instead (so, Phase 3). Anyway, this album was a huge hit and for all my misgivings, I’m glad it exists.

What I Think of This Album

Released in six different formats, and with at least two titles, this is a confusing compilation. It packages together almost all of the band’s singles over its first decade. The CD, vinyl, and cassette editions offer the same 13 songs. The vinyl provides nothing extra. The cassette, arguably the edition to own, adds all the band’s previously unreleased B-sides. The CD, though, tacks on four album tracks, except they are interspersed among the singles and so the running order of the CD is different from that of the vinyl and cassette. To add to the confusion, one of those album tracks is “10:15 Saturday Night,” which was actually a single – but only in France, and for that reason (apparently) not included in the original set of 13 found on the vinyl and cassette editions. The vinyl is titled Standing On The Beach. The CD is titled Staring at the Sea. The cassette gives you the best of both worlds, with Side A titled Standing on The Beach – The Singles and Side B titled Staring At the Sea – The B-sides. I don’t know who was responsible for that whole mess, but it is impressively chaotic. I own the CD, so that is what we are going to focus on.

I really enjoy the early singles, and in particular the stirring bass work of Michael Dempsey. “Killing an Arab” – obviously a retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger – is a disturbing anti-song, taking Camus’s extreme exploration of absurdity and turning it (reasonably) into a nihilistic declaration of meaninglessness (“I’m alive / I’m dead”). Dry as kindling, the arid production is highlighted by the most brittle hi-hat hit ever recorded. I don’t think the “Middle Eastern” guitar figures were a good idea, and it’s a little weird to hear to Smith sing in such a matte fashion. That this song was eventually co-opted by racists is not surprising; it created controversy upon its single (re-)release in 1979, and the Cure put an explanatory sticker on the Fiction version (and had a similar sticker on this compilation album, too). The band has since then played the song live as “Kissing a Arab,” “Killing Another,” and “Killing an Ahab,” but also played the original version, too. 

I think “10:15 Saturday Night” is a terrific piece – jagged and spare. The guitar solo is a frenzied freakout that is a much needed release from the coiled tension that leads up to it. I also dig the coda, which seems to have nothing to do with anything but sounds amazing. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a phenomenal pop song. Much as he would do many years later with “Friday, I’m In Love,” Robert Smith takes what is basically a Tin Pan Alley theme and modernizes it. The stinging guitar lead is great, and it’s rewarding to hear Smith finally start to use his voice in a more expressive manner.

Rounding out the set of early songs is the sneering, derisive “Jumping Someone Else’s Train.” Perhaps a bit lyrically obvious, “Train” is still an engaging blast of teenage anger and superiority. Dempsey plays a fluid but sinister line, and props to original drummer/future keyboardist Lol Tolhurst for keeping things together here. So marks the end of the first phase, and arguably the best argument for owning this album (though this probably means I should just swap it out for Three Imaginary Boys).

After this, things get difficult for me, as the goth era gets its due. God help me, I think “The Forest” is boring as shit. It’s not a bad song – the arrangement is fairly interesting (I love a flanged guitar) and the drum sound is odd but works – but it just goes on forever and the bass part is dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull. “Play for Today” – one of the extra album tracks on the CD – is much more my speed, with a great keyboard line and more echoed drums, plus a fine contribution from new bassist Simon Gallup. Neatly claustrophobic “Primary” reminds me a bit of Joy Division, and Smith doesn’t so much sing as half-shout on this dense, thick track, the sound courtesy of the two-bass-no-guitar arrangement, which I FULLY ENDORSE.

I feel like the band is trying way too hard on “Other Voices,” which is even less interesting than “A Forest,” and not a great choice as the third extra album track. On the other hand, there is a ridiculous grandiosity to “Charlotte Sometimes” (which sees a renewed reliance on keyboards) that is no less gloomy than the nonsense of “Other Voices” but wisely amps up the drama. Goth can be tedious or it can be sort of fun, and “Charlotte Sometimes” is the latter. “The Hanging Garden” closes out the dark section of the album, with relentless drumming from Tolhurst and very Grand Guignol lyrics from Smith, as well as an effective use of treated guitars. This song sort of makes me laugh just because it’s so committed to its aesthetic.

The Cure basically fell apart after Pornography (maybe three albums of bleakness wasn’t great for the mental health of anyone involved?), and Smith proceeded to issue a bizarre batch of singles that were fairly alien to everything we knew about the Cure to date. “Let’s Go to Bed” resurrects the angst and anger of the early songs, but the style and sound are . . . quirky. I actually like all the processed elements of “The Walk,” from the cheesy keyboard intro/outro to the hyperactive drum machine to the synthy bass part to the absurd theremin-like sounds. The percussion and synths sound a lot like New Order, if I’m being honest (specifically “Blue Monday”).

I hate “The Love Cats” with white hot intensity, but I will admit I dig the jazzy bass line (this time by Phil Thornalley) and the fake horns aren’t that bad; I guess it’s really the lyrics and cat sounds that I have a problem with. Does he really say “solid gold?” I shudder. Okay, “The Caterpillar” is pretty great (this is the one song from The Top). Andy Anderson kicks ass on the drums and the violin work is a welcome oddity; Smith offers a wonderful vocal take and Tolhurst’s avant-garde piano flourishes somehow coexist with a very poppy melody.

The Head On the Door songs follow, including the “with horns” version of “Close to Me.” Almost any other song from that album besides “A Night Like This” could and should have been chosen as the last extra track on the CD.

The Best Thing About This Album

Fuck it, “The Caterpillar.”

Release Date

May, 1986

The Cover Art

This is obviously not the CD cover (as you can tell from the title). The CD cover is a more closely cropped image of this man’s face. Regardless, a great cover. The craggy-faced gent brings to mind some forlorn lighthouse keeper, watching and waiting and forever alone.

The Cure – The Head On the Door

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was my introduction to the Cure. Well, I was familiar with “In Between Days” and “Close to Me,” but this was the first Cure album I listened to. It was the summer of 1987, so I was two years late, but still – I was 14 years old in 1987. I borrowed the cassette from a girl who was a fellow participant at a two (or maybe four) week teen writing workshop in Dobbs Ferry, New York. We were housed at a private school that I have to assume, from my internet research, is the Masters School. That was also where I discovered the Smiths (by borrowing Louder Than Bombs from the same girl). And I met Ally Sheedy’s mother, who was a literary agent (if memory serves) in Manhattan (well, we all met her, it’s not like she and I had tea together). I hung out a lot with a kid from Denver named Josh, who dipped tobacco, and an Irish-Italian girl named Stacey who commuted every day from Manhattan. Also in the program that year was future author Carolyn Parkhurst. I bought one of her novels by happenstance well into my 30s. Something about her name looked familiar; I did a little research and our ages matched up, so I reached out via email. Voilá – she confirmed that she indeed was at that writing workshop with me!

What I Think of This Album

As far as I am concerned, this is the first great Cure album. I know a lot of Cure fans will take issue with that, but the early stuff is just too oppressively gloomy for me, even as there are individual songs from that period that I like (e.g., “The Funeral Party,” “The Drowning Man”). This album likewise is the first with what I consider to be the classic core Cure lineup:  Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, and Boris Williams (I view Lol Tolhurst and replacements Roger O’Donnell and Perry Bamonte as fungible, neither one individually critical (though I am sure they are all fine human beings)).

Certainly, this was the most colorful, poppy album release by the band as of that time, and saw them expanding their sound and broadening their fan base. Notably, it’s not like Smith abandoned his goth roots – he just found a way to pair up those sensibilities with more accessible sounds. And, with songs like “The Love Cats” and “The Caterpillar” in the rearview mirror, Smith had dabbled in pop before. Accordingly, the shift on The Head On the Door felt organic and respectable. For all the credit Smith is due, though, this album is really Boris Williams’s coming out party. From the introductory tumble on “In Between Days” to his creative work on “Six Different Ways” to the punishing rolls on “Push,” Williams is a star on this.

Beyond these macro highlights, the fact is that the arrangements, melodies, and lyrics of almost each song offer something special. “In Between Days” gives us a New Order-ish two chord structure (i.e., “Dreams Never End”), but with airy keyboards used in a way New Order never has, and with immediate lyrics concerning a regrettable (bizarre) love triangle. Smith deftly incorporates an Asian-sounding keyboard line into the foreboding “Kyoto Song,” with oddly appropriate synthetic percussion hits, and desperately sung lyrics about death-tinged dreams and hangover mornings with anonymous bed partners (or floor partners, as it were). Not wanting to be overshadowed, “The Blood” bursts forth on a bed of flamenco guitar, castanets, and yelps, and the spookiness spikes with a sinister short keyboard refrain. Thompson (I’m assuming) shows off his chops by doing a Paco de Lucia impression on the solo.

My personal favorite song on here – the one I kept rewinding to hear on that cassette in 1987 – is “Six Different Ways.” The fascinating, piano-vamp and synthesized strings intro seems completely divorced from the rest of the song, which is instead a series of keyboard lines and atmospheric, counter melodious pings (though the strings reappear in different form). A huge part of the appeal for young me was the vulnerability of the lyrics and Smith’s vocal delivery; I also like the abrupt ending. Again, Williams absolutely shines on this track. The cascading guitars and pounding toms of “Push” herald a classic; few bands would dare dedicate so much time to an instrumental opening, but I could listen to this forever, the well-deserved, striking centerpiece of the album. Once the band has had its way cycling through the arrangement, Smith gives some faint high-pitched vocalizations before making a more energetic formal delivery. I would give considerable sums to have been in the studio when the “like strawberries and cream” vocal take was recorded.

The sequencer intro, to say nothing of the later-introduced rising guitar line, of “The Baby Screams” is pure New Order, and I don’t see how Smith escapes that charge on this song. That said, the parabolic vocal is pure Smith – “Strike me strike me strike me dead / Strike me strike me dead” is phenomenal. Also, Gallup’s bass line is simple but effective. Speaking of bass lines, Gallup owns the sparkling “Close to Me,” though the percussion is critical (those handclaps!) and of course, the keyboards and Smith’s delivery of (again) sensitive and emotional lyrics are first-rate. This album version lacks the horns of the single.

Relatively lengthy “Sinking” feels like a throwback to the Faith/Pornography era, and it is a perfect closer, ending the album with a sense of gravitas and finality. The supple keyboard washes complement the hypnotic bass, with more Asian elements thrown in at the edges, and Williams again adds some effective fills, all of which serve a simple, direct, and highly emotive vocal from Smith.

There are only two speedbumps on this disc, and they arrive in succession. The best thing I can say about “Screw” is that the distorted bass is like a rusty screwdriver to the gut, but the truth is that this bit of silliness is filler. And the very ‘80s (and surprisingly conventional) saxophone absolutely ruins “A Night Like This,” which would otherwise have been a compelling, anguished ballad.

Kudos to co-producer David Allen for creating space for all the instruments and enabling maximum enjoyment from the careful arrangements (Howard Gray worked on a few of the tracks as well).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Six Different Ways,” though objectively “Push” is probably the best song.

Release Date

August, 1985

The Cover Art

I like this a lot, even the ridiculous font. Vaguely reminiscent of the day-glo parts of the “In Between Days” video, it’s gothic, and disturbing, and slightly funny all at the same time.

Cub – Box of Hair

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

I often think I should make my own Best of compilations for every band I like. I think I could put together an excellent Cub retrospective. I also think I would be a good spin class instructor. My playlists would be awesome. I once abandoned a spin class because the instructor just cycled (hah) through a rotation of three playlists on burned CDs, and one of them was a “patriotic” mix full of country songs, including that piece of shit Lee Greenwood song. No way. No. Fucking. Way.

What I Think of This Album

Consistent with the imagery the title evokes, Box of Hair is a bit of a mess. Cub toughens their sound further, which does them no favors this time. The harder songs are uniformly negligible, even when the band throws in an additional treat, like the musical saw on the otherwise forgettable title track. Thus, tunes like the sludgy “One Last Kiss” and equally muddy “S.G.”, in addition to the well-meaning “Mom and Dad” and the snarling “Freaky,” clutter up an album that contains some great tracks.

The reasons to own this album include the sexually frank “Pillow Queen,” in which Lisa Marr boasts that she is a “good time girl,” “porno star,” and “whore” who wants to “take off this party dress / And go go go to bed for a thousand years” against a bouncy beat and Robynn Iwatta’s distorted chording. More innocent is the gentle “Magic 8 Ball,” a bright exploration of superstitions as predictors of love, complete with an understated accordion part courtesy of Dr. Rob Kozak. “Loaded” thrums along nicely, with a thick guitar/ bass sound that matches the drug theme well, while “Main and Broadway” is a wistful and self-loathing laced look back on lost love. Also, “Way to Go” lopes along pleasantly despite the questioning, hopeless lyrics sweetly sung by Iwata. The country feel reappears more explicitly on “Riverside,” a weepy ballad that is augmented by the violin of Sexy Pierre (that’s what the credits say – I am not editorializing). Someone co-wrote “Riverside” with Marr, but it’s unclear from the booklet who (their initials are S.C.). The one thrashy track that does work is the live version of “Not What You Think” with drummer Lisa G. shouting out the lyrics – it’s fun and goofy; another version of that song is the hidden track this time (not worth the wait).

This could’ve been a great album; I wish Cub had ended on a stronger note but they bowed out with at least three of their best songs here. Iwata went on to play in I Am Spoonbender, while Marr and Lisa G. decamped for Los Angeles and new band Buck.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Pillow Queen,” for it’s take-no-prisoners approach.

Release Date


The Cover Art

Pretty much perfect. The angry kitten is aptly emblematic of Cub’s sound. This was designed by the band and Chantale Elena Doyle.

Cub – Come Out Come Out

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

Cub is one of those bands that brings me as close to pure joy as I can get. Lisa Marr is an underappreciated songwriter, and her ability to craft shiny melodies and write complex lyrics amazes me no matter how many times I listen to her work. She went on to form Buck and then the Lisa Marr Experiment, and eventually moved on to filmmaking.

What I Think of This Album

Cub fully embraces the cuddlecore tag on their studio debut (the term is splashed across the inner sleeve), while simultaneously sounding much more professional and mature. The relative sleekness is simply a reflection of the steep learning curve – guitarist Robynn Iwata in particular shows a lot of growth (she lays down some impressive noise on “Life of Crime”) – and the band’s adoption a more consistently tough, punk-influenced sound (Lisa Marr’s bass presence is significantly greater this time around). But if the genre description and the sound seem at odds, then the problem perhaps is with your understanding of what cuddlecore means.

Smashing misconceptions, Marr writes lyrics infused with darkness – drowning, graves, blood, rot, bullet holes, and, uh, a crocodile attack. It’s all there. Notably, Cub starts to get sexy on this album, too. In addition to noting “you fuck me on the floor” on “Tomorrow Go Away,” the band sings of a girl crush:  “I saw you wiggle like a snake / Hey girl, make no mistake / I like it / Yes, I do” (on pounding first track “Ticket to Spain”). And delightfully fizzy “Your Bed” tosses off the witty, pajama-focused, movie-referencing, gender-swapping, sexually confused lyric “I wanna go / Never stop / I wear the bottoms but you’re the tops / Pillow fights, pillow talk / You be Doris, I’ll be Rock.” As on the Betti-Cola compilation, the songs range from thick, elastic rockers like “Flaming Red Bobsled” to charming dittys to silliness such as Ishtar-referencing “Isabelle.”

The highlights include jangly “Everything’s Geometry” (with a nicely subtle organ part by Lorraine Finch of Hello(Again)), which employs some questionable math, but everything else is perfect about this wondrous song of imperfect love (with a little bass solo!). Is there a better song about being young and in love in New York than “New York City”? No. There absolutely is not. They Might Be Giants covered this with some lyrical modifications. The already-discussed “Your Bed” is undeniably a classic. Also, “So Far Apart” is lovely, with guest guitar from Kevin Rose.

The covers are likewise nicely done. The spiky version of “Vacation” lets the vulnerability of the lyrics come through in a way that the Go-Go’s original chooses not to. And the elevation of Yoko Ono’s supremely tuneful  “I’m Your Angel” seems like a deliberate attempt to rehabilitate the image of a woman unfairly maligned by so many. A hidden track contains a house remix (I guess?) of Betti-Cola track “Go Fish.” This is Cub’s best album. 

The copious thank yous in the liner notes mention Beat Happening, Lois, Scott McCaughey, the Muffs, Ian MacKaye, Rancid, Sloan, the Softies, Yo La Tengo, and Zuzu’s Petals.

The Best Thing About This Album

There is so much good stuff here. “Your Bed” is irresistibly sweet.

Release Date

January, 1995

The Cover Art

I don’t hate this, but I don’t love it. The dominant purple color is cool. The cartoon is by Canadian artist Linda Smyth.

Cub – Betti-Cola

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Cuddlecore was the term bestowed upon Cub, and as usually goes with such things, it is both accurate and misleading. Coming out of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver in 1992, Cub was fiercely DIY and wrote catchy songs that layered innocence and sweetness upon pop-punk foundations. Sometimes. Because Lisa Marr is too talented a songwriter to just do one thing, and Cub was capable of making a racket when they wanted to, so it was not all songs about chinchillas and vegetables, and playing guitar cross-legged on the floor of the stage during live shows. Not only did Marr get down and dirty with openly carnal songs, she also explored all aspects of relationships and heartbreak with clarity and dignity, and was able to get dark and weird on songs like “Go Fish” and “A Party.” There is nothing cutesy about a band that sings “My assassin walks along beside me / He holds a little knife just to remind me / That everything’s precarious / And love is never near enough to save you.” So cuddlecore is a clever and apt moniker, but it doesn’t tell the whole story and worse, can be wielded dismissively. There is nothing about Cub you should write off. The band’s own core was bassist Lisa Marr and guitarist Robynn Iwata, with a rotating cast of drummers that included Neko Case and eventually settled on Lisa G. (Nielsen).

What I Think of This Album

Betti-Cola collects almost all of Cub’s early E.P.s and adds a bunch of new and/or previously unreleased songs, and at 23 tracks, I am at a loss as to why anything was left off. At that point, just tack on the missing (six?) songs.

This collection is a nice showcase of Cub’s talents. There are the melodic, sunny, jangly tracks like “Flying Carpet” and the inimitable “My Chinchilla,” with the classic opening line “Satan sucks / But you’re the best,” as well as the charming “Motel 6” and the gentle kiss-off “Pretty Pictures.” And there is the thick and sinister “Go Fish,” the vaguely druggy “A Party,” and the mournful Man Ray/Georgia O’Keefe/Salvador Dali referencing “Electric Chair.” The band gets vulnerable with the classic pop of “They Don’t” – I adore the way Marr spits out the lyric “pack of lies.” Not to be missed are “A Picnic,” which is sweetly sour, and “It’s True” which is effectively angry against an insistent strum. The trio displays a burst of optimism on the irresistible “Someday,” and “Leapfrog” is a song any band would love to have in their repertoire.

The four covers are almost-neighbor Beat Happening’s “Cast A Shadow,” actual neighbor Windwalker’s brilliantly bruised love song “Backwoods,” a randy take on Daniel Johnston’s “Tell Me Now” (“But if this is really love / Then let’s get it on”), and a bare bones but sugary version of the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl.” The 24th track is a cover of a Cub song by NFA (whom I’d never heard of). Built to Spill also covered Johnston’s “Tell Me Know.” This album was released on the Mint Records label, which was co-founded by Robynn’s brother, Randy. There is a reissued version that adds a few more tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

“My Chinchilla,” by a whisker.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

Somehow the band got Archies Comics artist Dan DeCarlo to create this giddily triumphant cover (though he incorrectly has Lisa playing a guitar instead of a bass).

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