Johnny Thunders – So Alone

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

After the Heartbreakers disintegrated, Johnny Thunders (John Anthony Genzales) remained in London and embarked upon a solo career that began with So Alone in 1978. Thunders would release a total of six albums into the late 1980s, and he performed live in various guises; he also lived in Europe for many years. Thunders died in New Orleans in 1991, though the cause of death – leukemia, overdose, murder by overdose – remains unclear. Mink DeVille leader Willy DeVille was living next door to the hotel in which Thunders passed away.

What I Think of This Album

While I had heard of “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” I had never heard it completely until I bought this album. I had heard snippets, most famously on an episode of The Sopranos. On the one hand, even now, I don’t think enough people appreciate that song. On the other, I don’t think even those people who do give the rest of this album, which is packed with a slew of fine originals and covers and bursting with impressive guest appearances, enough credit.

Overall, this ten-song affair isn’t that far removed from the New York Dolls, while also displaying new sides of Thunders’ repertoire. So it’s not surprising to hear a cover of Shadow Morton’s “Great Big Kiss” (a hit for the Shangri-Las), which the Dolls played and also incorporated into their own “Looking for a Kiss;” a reworked “Subway Train;” Dolls B-side “Downtown;” and a revamped version of “Chatterbox” called “Leave Me Alone” here. But these tracks aren’t simply old hat for Thunders and his pals, who inject the songs with attitude and joy. Note the campy interplay between Thunders and Patti Palladin (Snatch, Flying Lizards) on “Kiss” and the critical sax work of John Irish Earle.

The revelations are the slower numbers and genre exercises. Who could’ve predicted a cover of the Chantays’ surf instrumental “Pipeline?” Also noteworthy is the open-mike style jam on “Daddy Rollin’ Stone,” an Otis Blackwell song featuring vocals by Thin Lizzy’s Phil Lynott (second verse) and Steve Marriot of the Small Faces and Humble Pie (third verse).

Obviously, ballad “Memory” is a classic, brimming with poignancy and regret, to say nothing of those nasty little slides and that thrown-in “okay.” The bluesy “Ask Me No Questions” continues the reflective mood. And “She’s So Untouchable” is an unheralded love song, with more fine sax work from Earle. 

“London Boys” is a rejoinder to the Sex Pistols’ “New York,” a feud between that band and the Dolls, instigated by Malcolm McLaren, who managed both. Oddly, Steve Jones and Paul Cook play on the track.

The all-star contributors here include Peter Perrett and Mike Kellie of the Only Ones; Steve Nicol of Eddie and the Hot Rods; Walter Lure and Billy Rath of the Heartbreakers; Chrissie Hynde (vocals on “Subway”); and the aforementioned Lynott, Marriott, Palladin, Jones, and Cook.

Production duties were handled in part by Steve Lillywhite.

I have the 1992 reissue, which tacks on four bonus tracks. Two are from the album sessions, and two are from singles. The title track was left off the album, as was T. Rex cover “The Wizard.” The B-sides were “Hurtin’” and “Dead or Alive.” The B-sides are pretty great and the cover is lighthearted fun; I don’t much care for “So Alone.”

The Best Thing About This Album

I mean, it’s impossible to not choose “Memory.”

Release Date

October, 1978

The Cover Art

Pretty much perfect. I love everything about it.

Tullycraft – Lost In Light Rotation

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

There are good Tullycraft albums and great Tullycraft albums. This – the band’s sixth studio offering – is one of the great ones. What is surprising is that it appears to be their penultimate one, as the band has been silent since 2017’s The Railway Prince Hotel. Surprising because the band seemed to be evolving and growing and on the cusp of something more. Much like fifth album Every Scene Needs a Center saw more creative arrangements, here the band incorporates a trumpet, ukulele, and keyboards on multiple songs to broaden and diversify their sound. Too, the decision to work with Pacific Northwest legend Phil Ek (Built to Spill, Modest Mouse) to mix the album speaks to larger ambitions. Finally, Sean Tollefson abandons bass duties for the first time ever in order to focus on his vocals, particularly the more intricate interplay with co-vocalist Jenny Mears. All of this suggested a rising trajectory, so for it to seemingly come to an end is not what I expected.

What I Think of This Album

Six years separate Lost In Light Rotation from its predecessor, and the quintet sounds completely reenergized and refreshed. Every Scene Needs a Center was certainly a good album (with some great songs) but whereas that work sometimes (and oddly) indulged in B-movie imagery (e.g., vampires, werewolves, UFOs, fanged bats, goths), here Tullycraft focuses on buffing and shining their indie pop songs – with the usual subject matter of love, bands, and obscure references – until they gleam.

Frenetic opener “Agincourt” offers the lie of “I used to be clever / But it didn’t last,” even as Sean Tollefson spins out creative and charming couplets while reveling in thrift shop finds and lost love’s binds. The triumphant trumpet at the end is pure majesty. Tollefson and Jenny Mears collaborate a little more closely on the fizzy “Queenie Co.” The xylophone and various guitar tones that color the rambunctious title track demonstrate that Tullycraft is not messing around; you may dismiss indie pop as light and insubstantial, but this song is one of many that should prove the genre is capable of depth, complexity, and musicianship.

A hypnotic bass line anchors “Westchester Turnabouts,” on which the band slows down slightly and gives ample room to Mears. She bursts forth on “From Wichita With Love,” as they create a surprising medley with 1958’s “Do You Want To Dance?” (also covered by the Beach Boys). The hilarious refrain of “Shut up / Shut up/ Shut up” is but one small element of what makes “Elks Lodge Riot” such a fun, memorable song, with drummer Jeff Fell adding rapid fills throughout. The story of a failed band, as told on “All Tic, No Tac” is poignant and inspiring. The band rocks out on the celebratory “Dig Up the Graves,” on which Mears’ double-tracked vocals are a thing of beauty, and the subtle trumpet in the background is perfect.

Handclaps and an organ transform “Wake Up, Wake Up,” which is actually relatively sedate, and a ukelele is the foundation for the tender “We Knew Your Names Until Your Heart Stopped.” Mears’s powerful, clear vocals on “Heart” make it sound like she is auditioning for the next incarnation of the New Pornographers. Closer “Anacortes” (with a throwaway reference to Squeeze) is an ideal bookend to A-lettered, geographically-oriented opener “Agincourt,” giving you everything you could want from a Tullycraft song. 

The Best Thing About This Album

I should appreciate that this is the last great Tullycraft album.

Release Date

April, 2013

The Cover Art

Again the product of band member Corianton Hale, this simple but effective t-shirt would make a great birthday present for me, if anyone is so inclined.

The Tyde – Three’s Company

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

There is a fourth Tyde album, and it is unfortunately titled Darren 4. Unfortunate because that is a terrible title, and also because it deviated from the pattern of the first three albums. I don’t think either the Tyde or Beachwood Sparks are still active. As a bit of trivia, Dave Scher ended up playing keyboards for Interpol on their live dates in the late 2000s.

What I Think of This Album

Keyboardist Ann Do Rademaker once again demonstrates that she is this band’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, guitarist Darren Rademaker writes songs that combine pop, indie, and country rock and perfectly evoke the sunny California origins of the band, but Do provides the essential new wave flavor. And to be fair, I can’t overlook power pop legend Ric Menck (Velvet Crush) on drums and the guitar work of Ben Knight, who crushes it on “Brock Landers.”

Still, listen to the album a few times and it’s clear that Do Rademaker is essential to the band’s sound, from the gentle, flute-like lines on ballad “Separate Cars” to the squiggly additions to bouncy “Do It Again Again” to her head-to-head battle with Knight on “Brock Landers” to the analog sounds that fill out catchy “Too Many Kims.”

The band stretches out a little on the sunset-and-surf “Glassbottom Lights,” and it adds a blue-eyed soul touch to “Ltd. Appeal.” Album highlight “County Line” sounds like a power pop take on a lost Beach Boys song, and you will be bopping all the way to the coast as you listen to it. There is an appealing crunch to “The Pilot,” which has the unfortunate task of bridging the twin missteps of “Aloha Breeze” and “Don’t Need a Leash.”

There are two remixes included, one of “Glassbottom Lights” by James Figurine, who is better known as Jimmy Tamborello (the Postal Service), and this is actually a pretty good dance version that improves on the original. Meanwhile, the enigmatic Nobody remixed “Don’t Need a Leash” and this song definitely did not merit a repeat appearance (though the noise-ish additions to the slow fade out are pretty cool).

Conor Deasy of the Thrills makes an appearance as does the bassist from Maroon 5 (yep) and Nelson Bragg, who played with Brian Wilson.

The Best Thing About This Album

Ann Do Rademaker’s magical fingers.

Release Date

August, 2006

The Cover Art

This makes me think of a colorized x-ray of a surfboard, which it is definitely not. Too much white space, and the offset art bothers me.

The Tyde – Twice

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t remember if I learned about the Tyde or Beachwood Sparks first. Regardless, I ended up getting rid of that second Beachwood Sparks album (despite an excellent cameo by J Mascis on “Yer Selfish Ways”) and keeping my two Tyde albums. The Tyde originally consisted of three Beachwood Sparks members – bassist Brent Rademaker, guitarist Dave Scher, and Christopher Gunst (who played guitar with Beachwood Sparks but drums in the Tyde) – along with brother Darren Rademaker and his former spouse Ann Do, as well as guitarist Ben Knight. Gunst left after the first album and was replaced by Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck, while Scher was demoted to guest by the second album. The first three Tyde albums, by the way, are titled Once, Twice, and Three’s Company. I only ever listened to the second and third ones.

What I Think of This Album

I like how California can be the home of hardcore punk like Black Flag and Fear and also the birthplace of laid back, surf-focused bands like the Tyde (to say nothing of other Golden State variants).

“Shortboard City” sounds like something the Flying Burrito Brothers would have come up with if you’d locked them in a room with the entire Jan and Dean discography for a week. Like the best songs on this album, it has the loose, raggedy feel of people who are playing music simply for the fun of it. The rueful, ruminative “A Loner” succeeds in large part due to Ann Do’s keyboards and Darren Rademaker’s laconic vocals.

I have a difficult time not thinking of Herman’s Hermits when I see song title “Henry VIII,” which is otherwise an uptempo, jangly slice of pop with sardonic, almost Lou Reed-ish vocals. “Go Ask Yer Dad” is a lush and snappy country-rock number (despite the new wave keyboards), while “Best Intentions” is a fatalistic but generous ballad about human frailty, combining country-rock with spacey atmospherics (not unlike Beachwood Sparks).

The band mixes a British indie sound with their country inclinations on “Crystal Canyons” (featuring nice organ work from Do). “Takes A Lot of Trying” is a prophetic title, as this annoying blues-rock distraction fails epically. “Memorable Moments” marries Rentals-keyboards to jangly guitars and a pulsing bass, with an appealing melody and Rademaker’s warm vocals.

There is a bitter undercurrent to ambivalent “being in a band” song “Blood Brothers,” which is gently brooding until Rademaker turns up the intensity towards the end with some emphatic emoting. The British influence arises again on shoegaze-inspired “New D,” which ends the album with droney panache.

The three recording engineers share a complicated history:  Anton Newcombe (Brian Jonestown Massacre) and Hunter Crowley both played with the Warlocks, while Rob Camranella/Campanella was also in the Brian Jonestown Massacre.

The Best Thing About This Album

The mix of country, surf, and British indie.

Release Date

2003

The Cover Art

This works for me in a serious way.

Tullycraft – Disenchanted Hearts Unite

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

I spent a month in El Paso in 2021. I was putting in twelve hour days six days a week, living in a hotel, and eating unhealthily, but doing very rewarding work. I had a twenty to thirty minute commute and on my days off, I drove even more to get in some sightseeing (e.g., White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns). At some point, Spotify offered me a Tullycraft tribute album, and I accepted. It had some great covers – Bunnygrunt’s “Not Quite Burning Bridges,” Sprites’ take on “Wish I’d Kept a Scrapbook,” and “Rumble With the Gang Debs” as interpreted by Fishboy. But three songs really grabbed me:  “If You Take Away the Make-up (Then the Vampires They Will Die),” (by L.A. Tool & Die), “Fall 4 U” (courtesy of the Special Places), and most of all, “Our Days In Kansas” (wonderfully done by Darren Hanlon and Rose Melberg (Tiger Trap, the Softies)). I played those three songs on repeat for maybe three weeks straight, any time I was in my rental car. I ended up altering the lyrics to “Kansas” to make it apply more to someone I could not stop thinking about (any more than I could stop listening to those songs). I know it was unhealthy, but I was stuck. God, I am so lonely.

What I Think of This Album

A magnificent achievement, this is a glorious indie-pop album bursting with melodicism, filled with warmth and wisdom, and generous with the surprises.

I need to start with “Our Days In Kansas,” which references Soviet experimental aircraft, raves, the Kansas University fight song, and disco, via couplets that leave you in awe. It also features at least four shifts in feel (including one stark change from a waltz to 4:4 time), but is always catchy and endearing, with wonderful group harmonies (including from recent member Jenny Mears). The bridge, though. Jesus. The bridge sideswipes you with a shocking lyrical reveal that renders the song a completely different shade of sad.

“Fall 4 U” is sweet and swoony, with call-and-response vocals between Sean Tollefson and guest Jen Abercrombie (Rizzo); the squiggly and bleepy keyboard backing is unexpected. Opener “Stowaway” immediately reveals the importance of adding Mears’s vocals, which create a much richer sound (and serve as a soothing counterpoint to Tollefson’s less professional singing). Meanwhile, closer “Secretly Minnesotan” boasts perhaps Tollefson’s most winsome vocal ever, with some impressive guitar work, plus wonderful harmonies from Mears (and a sort of New Order melody at the end).

“Every Little Thing” is full of sonic details and brimming with confidence, and “Leaders of the New School” is convincingly heart-breaking and self-flagellating. “The Last Song” is thematically too close to “New School” to justify sequencing them together, but the arrangements and feel are very different, enough so that each song can exist on its own merits. The relatively subdued “Polaroids From Mars” is an excellent deep cut, easily on par with the more uptempo songs found here. “Rumble With the Gang Debs” is an odd, borderline silly tune but completely enjoyable, while the rapid tumble of “Building the Robot” is endearing and exciting.

“Molly’s Got a Crush On Us” is a barely reworked cover of BMX Bandits’ “Kylie’s Got a Crush On Us,” but again, the female harmonies are fantastic. Meanwhile, “Girl About Town” is a cover of song by Welsh indie band Helen Love (though Helen Love is also a person in the band Helen Love).

The Best Thing About This Album

Obviously, “Our Days In Kansas.”

Release Date

May, 2005

The Cover Art

Backing vocalist on “Fall 4 You” (and future lead guitarist) Corianton Hale won an award for the design and layout of the album. I do like the vertical lines and the colors, as well as the fonts and the “stereo” graphic.

Tullycraft – Old Traditions, New Standards

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I had read about Tullycraft many times before I got around to purchasing some of their eight (!) albums; I will probably end up getting them all. This is a band that seems designed specifically for me to fall in love with. Tullycraft is from Seattle, and they formed in 1995, with Sean Tollefson (bass/vocals), Gary Miklusek (guitar/vocals), and Jeff Fell (drums), and by the end of the next year, they’d released a number of singles and a full-length album. Indie-pop fame followed, and the rest is history largely unknown to the public. Miklusek left the band and Chris Munford joined, and a number of other co-vocalists and guitarists have come in and out, but Tollefson appears to be the heart and soul of the band, and Fell has been around for all but the most recent album (in 2017).

What I Think of This Album

The first thing to know about Tullycraft is . . . well, no, the first thing to know is that they are a fantastic band. The second thing to know is that Sean Tollefson’s boyish, almost nasal, definitely amateurish vocals are not for everyone, and if you can’t get past that, you’re probably not going to be able to focus on the high quality of songwriting (and to a degree, the skilled musicianship). Once you accept that Tollefson’s vocals are actually a plus, you can revel in the clever lyrics, tuneful melodicism, playful energy, boundless sweetness, and intense dedication to indie pop and, fundamentally, self-acceptance.

Instant indie-pop classic “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About” is as good a summation of the band’s aesthetic and raison d’etre as any words I could write. The tune is a misguided but sincere attempt to woo the object of the narrator’s affection away from her boyfriend with a mix of references to obscure indie-pop artists and the repetition of the withering put down of the title. In this song, there are mentions of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Halo Benders, Nothing Painted Blue, Cub, and Heavenly. And those are just the ones whose albums I own. I left out the Orange Peels, Lois, the Pastels, the Crabs, and the Bartlebees (the last two being bands I’ve never even heard of). We are not done yet. The song also names more mainstream bands like the Breeders, Green Day, U2, Weezer, the Lemonheads, and even Sting. To the extent this sounds incredibly annoying, it is actually catchy as all get out and ridiculously charming. If it sounds like something you would enjoy, then you need to buy the entire Tullycraft discography (and keep an ear out for celebratory song “Twee,” which contains even more opaque indie references).

The subtext of “Pop Songs,” and as communicated by the band’s other work, is the confidence to love what you love unabashedly. Thus, “Josie” is about the leader of Josie and the Pussycats deciding that she “wants to be in a punk rock band” and that she will let her bandmates “know when it’s punk enough.” Robynn Iwata of Cub sings on “Josie,” and producer Pat Maley adds some keyboards.

There are also more or less straightforward and utterly guileless love songs, like “Willie Goes to the Seashore,” “Sweet” (which will melt your heart), and “Meet Me In Las Vegas.” And Tollefson broadens his horizons with ditties like the unexpected “Superboy & Supergirl,” which offers empathy to the beleaguered heroes, and more lyrically abstract songs like “Wish I’d Kept a Scrapbook” and “Dollywood,” the latter featuring some impressive guitar work from Mikulsek.

Even a deep track like “Then Again, Maybe I Don’t” is bursting with surprises, including an infectious chorus, a punk intro/refrain that won’t quit, and a creepy whistling interlude. This track contains guest vocals from Susan Robb (Incredible Force of Junior). Tullycraft puts their money where their indie cred is by covering the Bartlebees (“Miracles Are Hard to Find”) and the Judy’s (“Mental Obsession”). The Judy’s were an early ‘80s trio from Texas who played with the B-52s, the Talking Heads, and the Go-Go’s, and whom I will probably have to check out. The Bartlebees are a German band formed in 1990. An interesting note is that Chris Munford guested on the Bartlebees cover, and by the time of the next Tullycraft album, he was a full time member.

My version is the reissue on Darla (which does not appear to add any extras). My ONLY complaint with this album is that I wish there had been a lyric sheet supplied.

The Best Thing About This Album

The fresh and fearless approach.

Release Date

1996 (original); 1999 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Meh. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it.

The Treasure Isle Ska Albums Collection

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The liner notes here are pretty good; this is a Doctor Bird release, that imprint being part of the Cherry Red label, which normally does a very good job with box sets. The booklet tells the story of Duke Reid and the Treasure Isle label, and has some great photographs, as well. There is a very good chance that there is significant overlap between this set and the other single disc ska compilations I own (mostly This is Ska! and This is Ska Too!) but I am pretty sure it doesn’t render either of those completely redundant.

What I Think of This Album

Look, I don’t know how to review this compilation, which is a double disc set of four albums, plus over fifteen bonus tracks. I should probably designate it as a “box set” and thereby excuse it from the purview of this truly idiotic blog. But I keep it in with the regular albums in my collection, and not with the box sets.

The first disc compiles The Birth of Ska (1962) and Latin Goes Ska (1964) – and the track listings appear to be complete. Meanwhile, the second disc contains The Skatalite, whose 1964 incarnation is not fully reproduced here, and Don Drummond Greatest Hits, but the track listing is not consistent with what is on the original 1969 release. BUT, I suspect that there was overlap between the four albums so the compilers just cut what would have been repetitive tracks from the second disc.

This also confirms that despite the credits, this is basically (but not exclusively) a huge Skatalites collection. I am certainly not going to discuss the 58 tracks here, but I will note that one of them is called “I Want My Cock.” If you like ska, this is a pretty awesome package (ahem).

Trivia:  Don Drummond was convicted of murdering his girlfriend, Anita “Margarita” Mahfood (herself a songwriter and performer, as well as a dancer and actor) in 1965. Drummond had severe mental health issues and was sent to an asylum upon his conviction, where he died four years later.

While the Skatalites’ roster is a difficult thing to pin down, several legendary members have passed, like Tommy McCook (1998), Rolando Alphonso (1998), Lloyd Brevett (2012), and Lloyd Knibb (2011).

The Best Thing About This Album

58 tracks of classic ska.

Release Date

1962 (Birth of Ska); 1964 (The Skatalite and Latin Goes Ska); 1969 (Don Drummond Greatest Hits); 2019 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Not terribly innovative, but I guess it’s nice to see the original album art.

Trash Can Sinatras – Weightlifting

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

Three members of Trash Can Sinatras toured the U.S. in 2018, and I went to one of those shows (which was focused on the Cake and I’ve Seen Everything material). It was an acoustic show, and I have to assume I was looking at Frank Reader, John Douglas, and Paul Livingstone, but I guess I don’t really know. It was a subdued, laid back affair – I think I was sitting the whole time – but I was glad I finally got to see (three-fifths of) the band.

What I Think of This Album

The missing “the” from the band name was probably the least controversial change the quintet had to weather by the time of this fourth album. In the intervening years, their U.S. distributor refused their third album (A Happy Pocket); their label Go! Discs went under shortly thereafter (after Polygram purchased a majority stake); and the band had to sell their Shabby Road studio and declare bankruptcy. It took eight years after Pocket for this album to appear; it was the first Sinatras album released in the U.S. in over a decade. The band financed the album themselves, with assistance from the Scottish Arts Council.

There is probably a reason the first cut is titled “Welcome Back,” and that it forcefully jumps out of the speakers, with a muscular sound not really heard on previous albums. As a declaration of a comeback, it is fairly convincing. The Aztec Camera comparisons from the debut reappear on “All the Dark Horses,” which sounds like one of the better tracks from the Stray-era (particularly the mandolin-like guitar part).

Among the few other uptempo tracks are “Freetime,” which features some quality guitar work, and the stinging “It’s A Miracle,” on which the band throws in timpani and strings. The rest is slower stuff, some of which I honestly just skip. Fellow Scots Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) adds vocals on ballad “Got Carried Away,” which is appropriate, as much of this album sounds like the sibling of his band’s Songs From Northern Britain. “A Coda” is delicate and fragile, with a lovely vocal from Reader (who goes by Francis in the credits this time) and some overdubbed speak-sing that works very well.

The production on “Country Air” saves what otherwise might be a too-sleepy, bland number. Similarly, the gentle wah-wah of “Leave Me Alone” complements Reader’s plaintive, resigned vocal. The title track – relegated to the final slot – offers up optimism and some nice vocals, with unusually present bass and drums for such a light song, but this is sort of a middling track. The album is not an essential, but it will prove satisfying for true fans of the band.

Andy Chase (Ivy) mixed the album.

The Best Thing About This Album

The fact that the band found the wherewithal (spiritual as well as financial) to make this album.

Release Date

August, 2004

The Cover Art

Yeah, I approve. Splashes of color, good use of shadow, nice composition.

The Trash Can Sinatras – I’ve Seen Everything

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

Yet another album I bought twice. I remember seeing the Trash Can Sinatras listed in the 9:30 Club’s weekly ad in the City Paper (the alternative newspaper in Washington, D.C.) when I was in college. I did not go to that show. I can’t remember why, but it is very likely because I was so disappointed in this second album. In retrospect, that was dumb, but I was a dumb kid (and still am). 

What I Think of This Album

There’s nothing wrong with maturity. It’s just that it’s not much fun. And that’s the big knock against an album that is in some ways richer and more substantial than Cake. In the three years since the debut, the band grew up (and also replaced bassists) and it shows. Recorded again at Shabby Road, the quintet exudes confidence across a diverse collection of songs, none of which relies on the bright enthusiasm and energetic immediacy that characterized the first album.

Many (too many) of the Everything tracks are subdued, and probably four of them should’ve been cut entirely, and they do not mesh well with the better songs, leaving an album that lacks vision and density. This is a disc that requires a bit of work on the part of the listener.

An even greater effort, though, is required to decide whether the title track or “Bloodrush” is the best song here. Any band would be envious of either, and it’s surprising that this pair nonetheless fails to make the album cohere. “Bloodrush” is, as its title conveys, a thrumming charge through the swaying fields of pop, with invigorating guitar lines (that could’ve been higher in the mix) and a drumbeat that won’t quit. “I’ve Seen Everything” is more relaxed but arguably brighter, with a guitar sound that approaches the jangle of the early days, though that comparison is undone by a wonderful trumpet and a complex, gorgeous melody that seems to never stop unfolding.

“Hayfever” sits a notch below, which means it is still pretty goddamn good. After a rush and a push and a shove from piano and drums, the song gets swept up by a strong current of strings. There is a tension between lightness and dark – the strings take on an ominous cast while the piano plinks dangerously and Frank Reader’s delivery of “Hello, I’m Harry” sounds more threatening than friendly, but the song still feels uplifting, and the drums at the end are a rockin’ revelation. Opening track “Easy Road” begins deceptively, with a simple acoustic guitar. It then blossoms into a colorful orchestral pop track over which Reader lays down a soulful vocal.

“Killing the Cabinet” finds the band flirting with experimentation. The seemingly straightforward song adds some angular guitar and possibly a backwards guitar and devolves into a repetitive, mantra-like coda with a distorted guitar part, all of which threatens to fall apart. Also, I swear I hear strings and horns but there are no credits for either on this song, but I suspect the string sound is just the lush harmonies (sometimes stacked to the rafters, with more than one countermelody going) and the horn is just a guitar tone?

The band adds some unexpected muscle to “One At a Time,” an angry piece with a sawing lead guitar line, and while this is a great song, it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the album (it would instead sound perfect on an early Idlewild album). That’s six strong tracks . . . that are less than half the album, and are diluted by the slower, quieter songs that surround them.

All momentum generated by the opening trio is canceled out by “Worked a Miracle” – folky and spare and not compelling – and the mercifully brief minor key guitar picking of “The Perfect Reminder.” In the four songs between “Cabinet” and “One,” the band again slows and quiets things down. “Orange Fell” is actually a very pretty song with a very good arrangement, and it even gains some energy partway through, but it can’t quite distinguish itself from the surrounding, lesser songs. “Send for Henny” suffers from the same fate as “Orange” – this is a good track that probably comes across as blander than it would without the songs around it.

Like “Iceberg,” for example, which is as ponderously slow as its titular object (there is definitely backwards guitar here, wasted on this frankly pointless track). Some people really like “I’m Immortal” but the song feels too gossamer to me (even though the bass does some admittedly nimble work). “The Hairy Years” has some nice harmonies, and is generally a pleasant if completely unexciting tune. “Earlies” is even less interesting.

Ray Shulman (Gentle Giant) produced, and he also did work for Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen), the Sugarcubes, and the Sundays.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t choose between “Bloodrush” and “I’ve Seen Everything.”

Release Date

May, 1993

The Cover Art

I find this art – by guitarist John Douglas – to be very disturbing. It literally gives me nightmares.

The Trash Can Sinatras – Cake

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This is one of those special debut albums whose stature is increased by virtue of the inability of the band to match it again. Like with Aztec Camera (with whom The Trash Can Sinatras share many characteristics) and the Stone Roses’ debuts, the first Trash Can Sinatras album arrived with a fresh, joyous, and self-assured sound, for anyone who was paying attention. And like those bands, the Scottish group was never able to achieve such heights again, even though they have survived to this day and released a great deal of very good music. Obviously, living up to the hype of a near-perfect debut is impossible. Roddy Frame willfully chose to alter his sound, ostensibly to avoid being pigeonholed. The Roses (whose debut appeared a year before Cake) found themselves differently victimized by the fame their first album produced – upon choosing to sign to a major label, their original indie label would not release them from their contract. Two years of legal battles hobbled the band, and their second album arrived a full five years after the first one. The expectations were Himalayan . . . and the Zeppelin-influenced blues rock that the band offered up resulted in Kashmir-sized disappointment. The Trash Can Sinatras endured their share of misfortune as well, but the simple reality is that every album that they managed to release since Cake has not come close to replicating its shimmering beauty.

What I Think of This Album

This is a gorgeous, harmony-rich, jangly delight, with pristine melodies and guitars that ring out across the Atlantic. The comfort the band felt working out of their own Shabby Road studio (nice) comes through on the confident delivery of these ten tracks. The stars are vocalist Frank Reader (who sounds a great deal like Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera) and guitarists John Douglas and Paul Livingston, though the entire band (including drummer and John’s brother – another sibling band! – Stephen Douglas and bassist George McDaid) deserves praise.

“Obscurity Knocks” was a hit and rightly so. Sprightly and bouncy, the song only gets better as Douglas and Livingston strum their way to the chorus. With a touch of brogue, Reader delivers wordplay (“snug as a thug” and “looking at my watch and I’m half-past caring”) that nonetheless speaks to longing and frustration (“Know what it’s like  / To sigh at the sight / Of the first quarter of life? / Ever stopped to think / And found out nothing was there?”). The guitars spring to life, ripe with jangle, and the harmonies rise and Reader emphasizes key lyrics and downplays others expertly. There is some xylophone which shyly pokes out at critical moments, and this is one of my favorite things.

Strings introduce the lush “Maybe I Should Drive,” which again offers up fun with lyrics (“I said ‘your hardship’s / Only one of a fleet’ / That didn’t go down well” and “If you’d spent your life in the last lane / You’d have an accent to grind” and “I can see for miles / But all I do is watch the time”). Meanwhile, the jangle is set on rapid (is there a banjo in there?), and the robust harmonies give support to Reader’s enthusiastic vocals. Irresistible “Circling the Circumference,” with a guitar sound that reminds me of “Fairground” from James’s folky Strip-mine, a plethora of inspiring “ba ba ba”s, lyrics like “a straightforward answer is out of the question,” and a somewhat unconvincing scream buried in the mix. The final song that makes up the top tier of Cake is “Only Tongue Can Tell,” which demonstrates that the band is not done with lyrical dexterity (“And if the matchmaker calls / Hand in hand / With the catch of the day / I’ll rise to the bait”), nor has it set aside the dextrous guitars or dispensed with the rich backing harmonies.

Complementing this enviable 40% of the album – ample reason to own it – is another couple of very good songs. “The Best Man’s Fall” starts out as a delicate ballad but shifts gears as the harmonies kick in; the harmonium or accordion (or whatever) is a nice touch, as are the percussion flourishes, to say nothing of the mournful cello in the background. Ironically, “Even the Odd” does not feature witty turns of phrase, but it still provides a great melody, a soulful vocal from Reader, an unusual smattering of controlled feedback (which should not fit in with the rest of the arrangement, but works anyway), and an even more unusual bridge (that definitely does not fit in and almost derails the tune).

“January’s Little Joke” probably needed a little more work, as it is not sure what it wants to be and as a result is not enough of anything. Acoustic “You Made Me Feel” gets by on Reader’s excellent vocal, with supporting cello and piano. “Thrupenny Tears” derives from High Land, Hard Rain-era Aztec Camera, though it lacks a bit of fire. “Funny” is the only song that completely fails.

Several of the songs were produced by John Leckie, who also happens to have produced the Stone Roses (and also Radiohead, XTC, and Public Image, Ltd). Other tracks were the handiwork of Roger Béchirian, who has worked with Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Rockpile, and the Undertones. And the inimitable Audrey Riley (the Smiths, the Cure, the Go-Betweens) contributed strings on several tracks.

The Best Thing About This Album

The wordplay, natch.

Release Date

June, 1990

The Cover Art

It’s nothing special but it is far from bad.

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