Why Popstars Can’t Dance

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This is the first compilation I’ve had to address here. It re-raises questions of organization, which I had not previously answered in consistent fashion. Some compilations I had organized by the name of the issuing party (like my Mojo magazine comps, or the Parasol label’s Sweet Sixteen albums). But I also had the Victoria Williams charity album Sweet Relief under the “S”’s, by virtue of its title, and also the Creation comp The Patron Saints of Teenage was filed under “P.” The problem is I don’t really know these albums by their titles. I am more apt to think about “that ska comp from Mojo.” Pushed to make a decision, I think alphabetically by title makes the most sense – and if that forces me to learn the titles, then that’s fine.

What I Think of This Album

I really like the Slumberland label, though I have to say I find this compilation from 1994 a little disappointing. It’s fine, and there is some good (and rare) stuff here, but it doesn’t blow me away like I expected it to. I am not really sure why I keep this – I guess I just like that it’s a document of the scene from the early ‘90s, even if it’s not terribly compelling. There are twelve artists represented, eleven with two songs apiece and poor Jane Pow with just one track. The album is also almost evenly split between American and British acts.

Honeybunch was a Rhode Island band featuring future members of the Magnetic Fields (Claudia Gonson) and Velvet Crush (Jeffrey Underhill/Borchardt). Their offerings are just okay, frankly, but sort of skimp on the melody and with limp tempos. I don’t know anything about the Artisans, who hail from England. “Start Again” is decent, sounding like a mash-up of Heavenly and Velocity Girl. But the gem here is the violin-powered “Tolerance.” Rocketship is a band from Sacramento, or at least in 1994 they were; thereafter, it was basically a vehicle for the work of founder Dustin Reske. An organ, backing “ooohs” and a charming melody bring out the best of “Your New Boyfriend,” though the lengthy, hazy “Like a Dream” suffers from the overbearing organ sounds. The Steamkings have a history back to 1986, but again, this was a new band for me. “Darkest Star” is a ton of fun, refreshing and bright, with some nice guitar work thrown in at the end. “Sad About You,” however, just plods along, and coming so soon after the similarly tedious “Like a Dream,” really hurts the album. Stereolab is the biggest name on the comp; they had roots in the leftist indie band McCarthy. I’ve never been into Stereolab, but “John Cage Bubblegum” is enjoyable, and “Eloge d’Eros” is very cool.

Lorelei is another mystery band, hailing from Arlington, Virginia. “Stop What You’re Doing” is a busy but well-arranged little tune that could’ve used a stronger vocalist singing a better melody; this is 80% of a very good song. The same thin vocals (as well as a too-loud drum sound) plague “Float My Bed,” which is otherwise a decent noise-pop number. Like Slumberland founder (and member of Black Tambourine) Mike Schulman, the Ropers are from Maryland circa 1991, and its main members also spent time in the Lilys. I hope “Blue Sunday” is a New Order joke, but even if not, it’s still a pretty good song. The dark, dense, oceanic “Drive” is a wonderful shoegaze showcase. Singer-songwriter Linda Smith is another discovery. She sounds a bit like Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly), breathily cooing over the brittle “The Real Miss Charlotte”; her whispered counting on the track is a highlight. “There’s Nothing You Can Do About It” is a series of short, sharp guitar shocks that could’ve used more effort.

Glo-Worm is the band that Black Tambourine vocalist Pam Berry formed in 1993. They do a winsome turn on the pretty and lush “Stars Above.” There is nothing about “Tilt-A-Whirl” that is deserving of that title, and I find the melody to be quite unpleasant. The story is that Schulman asked San Jose band Silver to change its name quickly, and they came up with Jupiter Sun. Which is definitely a worse name. But “Headlight Beam Reaction” is a fuzzy yet delicate delight, with some surprising and welcome sound effects coming out of the blue as the song winds down. It sounds like we arrive in the middle of “Violet Intertwine,” which reminds me a lot of Ride (due mostly to the backing vocals and powerful drumming) with a daintier guitar sound. Six-piece band Jane Pow is from England with a birth date in 1988, and their sole offering “Reorganize” is what would’ve happened if second-album Stone Roses got really drunk, stole a keyboard, and tried to rewrite “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” Not a fan. At one point, I owned a Boyracer album. They came out of Leeds in 1990, and are fairly well-known in the indie-pop world. Neither of their contributions is anything special, though “Speedtrap” is at least listenable.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am choosing the Ropers over Stereolab. Each provided two good songs (Jupiter Sun arguably did too but such is life) but the Ropers get the nod because I hadn’t heard of them before.

Release Date

October, 1994

The Cover Art

It’s neither good nor bad, much like the album itself. I don’t really understand the title (the explanation in the booklet provides the unsatisfactory answer “because guilty feet have got no rhythm”). The color scheme is also mediocre. 

The Weather Prophets – . . . Blue Skies & Free Rides . . . The Best of 1986-1989

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Somewhere in the process of researching British indie, I came across both the Loft and spin-off the Weather Prophets. The Loft were one of the early Creation bands, and after an acrimonious break-up, vocalist/ guitarist Pete Astor and drummer Dave Morgan formed the Weather Prophets. I owned a Loft Best of – and while “Up the Hill and Down the Slope” is a marvelous song – I found I didn’t like a lot on that disc. The Weather Prophets, on the other hand, are phenomenal, and I am so glad I own this unassuming beacon of an album. The band released three albums and then Astor had a solo career, before eventually but sporadically reforming the Loft and playing shows as such.

What I Think of This Album

This is not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a nice soundtrack to the conflagration that threatens to consume us from within. A ripe 20 track collection (two of which are covers), this is a refreshing and completely enjoyable document of late 80’s British indie. Pete Astor has a way with a melody, he has a pleasing voice, and the arrangements and guitar playing are excellent.

Highlights abound, including the dusky and demonic “Worm In My Brain” replete with stellar guitar work; harmonium-fueled, syncopated mini-epic “Joe Schmo and the Eskimo”; sax-threaded “Aways the Light”; and hopeless but tuneful “Almost Prayed.” Equally great are the bouncy “The Key to My Love Is Green,” which finds room for a gritty guitar lead; hushed and gossamer “Like Frankie Lymon”; the yearning and lustful “Hollow Heart”; and a driving (ha) “Chinese Cadillac.” The band pulls off a lovely lullaby with “Sleep” and further delves into the sincere on the charming “Can’t Keep My Mind Off You” and poppy, jangle-riffic “You’re My Ambulance.” “Blue Rooftop” is a delightful, keyboard-heavy ditty. Honestly, I love this album. The covers are Robert Johnson’s “Stones In My Passway” and Dylan rarity “Odds and Ends.”

The liner notes include essays and reminisces by Creation head Alan McGee; band members Astor, drummer Dave Morgan, and guitarist Oisin Little; Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers, and novelist John Niven (I think). Darren Hayman of Hefner is thanked for help with the cover art.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitars, by Oisin Little, are fantastic.

Release Date

June, 2004

The Cover Art

This is a bit too naturalistic for me. It speaks of poverty and mildew and resignation. I don’t like how it makes me feel.

The Weakerthans – Reunion Tour

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

Do you prefer music that makes you happy or makes you sad? What if music that makes you sad . . . makes you happy? I like music that makes me happy. The Beastie Boys make me happy (though I admittedly own no Beastie Boys album). The New York Dolls make me happy. The Star Spangles (you’ll read about them someday) and Mando Diao (ditto) make me happy. But the bands that make me sad, well, they’re the ones that are really special to me.

What I Think of This Album

On the one hand, it’s heartbreaking that this excellent outing is apparently the last Weakerthans album. On the other, it’s entirely appropriate and also, in its own way, a reason to be appreciative. The band gave us four wonderful albums – the poetry of useless graduate degrees, dirty slush on your boots, and the drink you don’t need.

The rueful and observant bus driver who narrates “Civil Twilight” expertly tells the story of his empty work life and his equally empty personal life, and only one of those is his fault. There is nice bit of alliteration in the lyric “Confusion Corner commuters are cursing the cold away.” When John K. Samson sings “this part of the day bewilders me,” it lights up my amygdala. A defeated business traveler (or ex-business traveler, really) lays bare his vulnerabilities on “Relative Surplus Value,” while guitars twist and clash and drummer Jason Tait withstands the build-up of lactic acid in his limbs. “Tournament of Hearts” is set at the intersection of curling (yes, curling), a fundraising raffle, and despair, relying again on Samson’s hyper-specific yet universal lyrics and a rollicking backing (with more fine work from Tait). When Samson declares “Have to stop myself from climbing up on the table full of empties to yell / ‘Why? Why can’t I draw right up to what I want to say?” it’s enough to bring a self-knowing lump to my throat.

The sequel to Reconstruction Site’s “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute” appears in the form of the tragic “Virtute the Cat Explains Her Departure,” and I really don’t enjoy listening to this song, because the feels are too intense. And I know that it’s a fictional cat, and I don’t even like cats, and just . . . fuck you. The backing vocals of “Sun In An Empty Room” absolutely make this thoughtful (but really, every Weakerthans song is thoughtful) piano-driven number about the spaces we abandon a small charmer, and “Night Windows” is similarly winsome. That both songs uncharacteristically employ chorused backing vocals is not a coincidence. Also, those two song titles are borrowed from artist Edward Hopper, who was name-checked on Reconstruction Site’s “(Hospital Vespers).” “Bigfoot!” is a gentle, sympathetic tune, with some mournful horns, much like “Hymn of the Medical Oddity” (which has zero horns); they communicate a shared examination of the need to be acknowledged and remembered. The title track is a meticulously constructed multi-tiered cake made of keyboards, glockenspiel, flute, and drums that hints at the end of the band. “Utilities” extends the dependency on keyboards to the point of experimentation, before falling back on the familiar ground of guitars. Only “Elegy for Gump Worsley” is a dud.

I hope Virtute is okay. I really do.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Civil Twilight,” a song of and for the lost and lonely.

Release Date

September, 2007

The Cover Art

Pretty good. This is a piece by artist Simon Hughes, a Winnipeg native. It is somehow heartwarming and hopeful even as it communicates danger, isolation, and death.

The Weakerthans – Reconstruction Site

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

Being a literate, intelligent songwriter can be a liability. I can see how people find John K. Samson and his bandmates to be insufferably pretentious and affected, even if I disagree with that characterization. As a culture, we find it acceptable if not admirable to flaunt physical beauty, wealth, athleticism, and even pedigree, but god forbid someone publicizes that they are well-read or interested in serious topics. We have been conditioned to think of intellectualism as something that should be hidden. The Weakerthans rebel against such notions. They both openly telegraph their influences and inspirations – every CD booklet contains multiple quotes from poets, novelists, and academics – and write songs that are unparalleled in their poetic elegance. They take in, and then they give back.

What I Think of This Album

This is my favorite Weakerthans album and also their best (and I am not confident those two things are always the same). The band mostly abandons the slower tempos, opting for more upbeat grooves pretty consistently. This is particularly effective on songs that they might have been tempted to present in less energetic fashion on earlier albums, notably on the three tracks that define the album:  “(Manifest)”; “(Hospital Vespers)”; and “(Past Due).” The three share a melody, and each is a sonnet. Thematically, they detail the interactions and thoughts between a hospitalized cancer patient and their visiting loved one, as the former passes from life into death. “(Manifest)” boasts an emotional trumpet passage from Rusty Matys, while “(Hospital Vespers)” is set to a backwards musical track, and “(Past Due)” rides an omnipresent background hum with intermittent steampunk percussion.

In addition, the uneasy meeting of the historical and the post-modern is humorously recounted in the tom-rolled, guitar-stabbed “Our Retired Explorer (Dines With Michel Foucault).” The band takes a sepia, alt-country path through the “New Name For Everything.” The best song ever from the point of view of a cat is the only way to describe the heartfelt, sympathetic “Plea From a Cat Named Virtute” (which recycles a lyric from debut album Fallow’s “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist”). Another conflict is examined in the lilting, backwards ode to the band’s hometown of Winnipeg, “One Great City!,” which notes “The Guess Who sucked / The Jets were lousy anyway.” Martin Amis is invoked in the delicate “Time’s Arrow” and James Agee is straight up quoted in the booklet on “The Prescience of Dawn.” Muscular “The Reasons” celebrates a healthy relationship (what?!), with syncopated drum hits throughout (but especially at 1:32) that inflate my tiny heart. The title track, full of lap/pedal steel, reminds me a bit of The Long Winters, packed with careful details and redolent of pathos. “Psalm for the Elks Lodge Last Call” echoes the sentiments of the three sonnets.

As on the first two albums, Canadian poet Catherine Hunter is quoted in the booklet, this time in connection with “Uncorrected Proofs,” which offers some surprisingly metal-ish guitar leads. Sarah Harmer (Neko Case) sings on “Benediction,” and Christine Fellows (also a creative writing professor, and spouse of John K. Samson) plays the piano on “Plea From.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Plea from a Cat Named Virtute” is truly a beautiful, funny, and touching work of art. It’s one of my favorite songs ever.

Release Date

August, 2003

The Cover Art

I find this immensely disturbing; I don’t like looking at it. It is by Canadian artist Marcel Dzama (whose work has also served as album art for Beck and They Might Be Giants).

The Weakerthans – Fallow

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I have seen the Weakerthans live once. I saw the ad in the paper (or online (whatever)), and decided not to buy tickets in advance. The (new) Bottom Lounge holds maybe 500 people (? – I am bad at that) and I figured, “who the hell even knows the Weakerthans?” The good news is, I was wrong – it turns out a lot of people even know the Weakerthans. The bad news is, I was wrong – it turns out a lot of people even know the Weakerthans and thus the show was sold out, save for the higher priced VIP seating option. This was problematic. I had no objection to spending the money to get it – I had already sunk costs into arriving at the door, I very much wanted to see the band, and I had no real confidence that they were going to tour again soon. The obstacles were that I bristle at the notion of VIP seating, and also that such capitalist price structuring (to say nothing of the labeling) runs counter to the Weakerthans’ principles as well. I paid the extra money. The VIP seating was an elevated, enclosed platform at the back of the venue with cushioned stools and a private bar. I don’t usually drink at shows, I like being close to the stage, and I don’t think anybody who doesn’t need to sit should ever sit at a rock concert. So, basically I paid for amenities that added no value to my experience, but that’s okay. I got to see the band and I helped fund a venue that does a good job of bringing in acts I like.

What I Think of This Album

The personal is political is poetical. John K. Sampson leads his bandmates through what is essentially a series of short stories set to music. Sampson’s voice and vision thoroughly dominate the album (and the band), as does his history in lefty punk band Propoghandi, and his fiercely Canadian pride. The booklet opens with a quote from Manitoban intellectual, novelist, and poet Catherine Hunter reflecting on the difficult nature of existing, paired with a quote from British Columbian writer and academic Tom Wayman about the individual and collective strength of the downtrodden. The booklet ends with informational text about anarchist and socialist press and literature. In between are twelve clear-eyed vignettes about small moments and big ideas, whose lyrics are printed on top of graphics of a Winnipeg street map.

Some songs are spare (“Illustrated Bible Stories for Children”; “The Last Last One”) and some are more enthusiastically indie-pop (“Diagnosis”; “Wellington’s Wednesdays”). Meanwhile, the lyrical references meander from Milton’s Samson Agoniste to disco group Boney M. to P.G. Wodehouse to New Order’s “Temptation.” I have a preference for the faster, poppier songs. “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist”  brilliantly captures the dreary intersection of interpersonal relationships, political consciousness, and the practical realities of getting through the day:  “Leave the apartment to buy alcohol / Hang our diplomas on the bathroom wall / Pick at the plaster chipped away / Survey some stunning tooth decay / Enlist the cat in the impending class war/ Let’s lay our bad day down here, dear / Let’s make believe we’re strong / Or hum some protest song.” Drummer Jason Tait beats the hell out of the kit on this number. Guest Roberta Dempster adds some welcome backing vocals on the tunefully desperate “Letter of Resignation.” The highlight is the nervy, throbbing “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” a half-sad ode to seeking solace in live music (and specifically at Wellington’s, a punk club in Winnipeg that closed in 2001). The frustration of an inability to connect comes through on the heartfelt “Greatest Hits Collection.” And there is an appealing muscularity to the story of a solitary person coming to a solitary end in “Anchorless.” But don’t sleep on the quiet tunes, as “None of the Above” is sweetly sad, and “Sounds Familiar” is evocative, intelligent, and lyrical. “Letter of Resignation” and “Anchorless” had appeared on Propaghandi releases.

The Best Thing About This Album

The incorporation of the lyrics from “Temptation” – possibly the very best New Order song – into “Wellington’s Wednesdays” has been known to make me smile broadly.

Release Date

1997 (Canada); 1999 (U.S.)

The Cover Art

Simple, but effective.

The Weakerthans – Left and Leaving

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

The Weakerthans are apparently quite popular in their native Canada. The neighbor to the north is reasonably well-represented in my collection. Besides this band, there is Neil Young (obviously) and Leonard Cohen and Cub. I have a couple of Sloan albums, as well as one by related band the Flashing Lights. The New Pornographers. Tegan and Sara are Canadian, as is Alvvays. No Rush or Tragically Hip for me, though.

What I Think of This Album

John K. Samson’s fundamentally humane songs are communicated through detailed imagery and from an unflinchingly proletarian perspective, bringing grace and dignity to the dispossessed – whether it be of emotional, existential, or remunerative satisfaction – and the downtrodden. As usual, this works best when the rest of the band – now augmented by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Carroll – provides a robust backing to match the emotional intensity of the lyrics.

So, go forth and celebrate the pumping “Aside,” in which the narrator self-assesses “Rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony / Get clobbered on by courtesy / In love with love and lousy poetry.” Similarly, “Watermark” throbs with compassion, as Samson speaks of “the metal of those hearts you always end up pressing your tongue to” and offers to “scrub that brackish line that you got when something rose and then receded.” A relationship is explored in agonizing detail in wiry “This Is a Fire Door Never Leave Open,” whereas homelesness is observed in “Exiles Among You.” Among the slower songs that work is the glowing coal of “Pamphleteer,” with which its kinship to Warren Zevon’s “Mutineer,” evolves to become something about much more than handing out Marxist literature on street corners. “Without Mythologies” is equal parts sparse and majestic, punctuated by massive tom hits, while Samson spits out lyrics that are once impressionistic and grounded in a very physical reality. And the title track aches beautifully without ever being inaccessible. “My Favorite Chords” is mostly acoustic guitar but employs an upbeat melody and typically fascinating lyrical nuggets from Samson. And while I don’t much care for “Elegy for Elsabet,” the solo is pretty cool.

The booklet is once again littered with quotes, the source ranging from Marx & Engels to Canadian literary figures Catherine Hunter and Alden Nowlen to labor activist Ralph Chaplin (who designed the IWW black cat symbol) to poet W.H. Auden. Drummer Jason Tait is credited with playing the switchblade, and I’m not sure how I’m supposed to listen for that. A few songs sag a bit, making this indeed an “imperfect offering,” but I’m not so sure that we deserve better.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Aside,” though I don’t feel strongly that it’s that much better than several others here.

Release Date

July, 2000

The Cover Art

I don’t like it, but it works. It’s got that random, elegiac, mysterious, detailed quality that matches the feel of Samson’s lyrics.

The Waxwings – Shadows of the Waxwings

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

I bought this album twice, but I wish I hadn’t had to buy it at all. The first time, I purchased it out of loyalty, and this was the Schnitzel Records release (with alternate cover art). Then, I found the original Bobsled release, and swapped that in for the first copy, even though by that point I knew I didn’t like it. As has already been discussed, I am inexplicably obsessed with the Bobsled album releases. The Waxwings released a third album – which I also bought, and that one was even less impressive than this one. The band came out of Detroit and lasted from 1997 until about 2005. Main songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist Dean Fertita joined the Queens of the Stone Age thereafter, and eventually formed the Dead Weather with Alison Mosshart (the Kills) and Jack White. Fertita went to high school with Brendan Benson, and each has played guitar in support of the other on tour. I still find it shocking that the band that created one of my favorite albums ever also made this, possibly the worst album in my collection.

What I Think of This Album

It is unclear what the actual title of this album is – either Shadows of or Shadows of the Waxwings (it’s a Nabokov quote, in any event), and that mystery is emblematic of the greater confusion that infects this effort. The band seems to have completely turned their sound inside out. The chiming guitars are nowhere, and the harmonies are largely absent; also, the songwriting is a shadow of what it used to be. Similarly losing his mojo is Bryan Hanna, whose production on Low to the Ground was outstanding; here, the sound is grey and muddled, and the added flourishes of horns and strings are not well integrated into the mix. There’s no way around the reality that this is a massive disappointment. Even after cutting the band loose from the unrealistic expectations generated by Low to the Ground, there is still no reasonable defense of this album.

The gentle (and nicely titled) “Brilliant Grey” is the best song here – charming and intricate, though the sound has been asphyxiated and the drums are too loud. “Clouded Over” sounds like a pale imitation of the debut’s songs, and it’s one of the stronger tracks here. Closer “What’s Needed Now” is actually not bad, with a swirling atmosphere and intriguing, anomalous harmonica part, though it’s a bit too long for such a plodding tempo. “Look Down Darkly” maybe could have been salvaged with a little more effort, though the last two minutes are pointlessly self-indulgent. The band splits the difference on “Fractured,” which again could have germinated into something cool, but the guitar sound is all wrong (and the drums are mixed way too loud). The bridge of “Wired That Way” holds some promise, but the rest of the song is a turgid affair. Also, “Rifle Through” is just okay – again, taking a steep nosedive towards the end. The thin ballad “Almost All Day” is pummeled lifeless by an obtrusively busy and unreasonably loud drum part. “Blur to Me” is just awful – marred by a bluesy, macho guitar sound that wouldn’t have even made the cut on the second Stone Roses album. The trite psychedelic guitar sound and distorted vocals of “Crystallized” make for possibly the worst sounding song of the batch. Neither good nor bad is “Into Tomorrow,” which would have qualified as only a B side a few years earlier. Jessie Greene is credited with strings, though it is unclear if this is the same Jessy Greene of the Jayhawks and Geraldine Fibbers.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Brilliant Grey” is undoubtedly the only song on here that’s worth a damn.

Release Date

May, 2002

The Cover Art

Even the cover art is a let down. The pinstripes and vintage camera seem like they could have led somewhere interesting, but the framing is all wrong and the monochrome palette doesn’t work. The colors on the font are fine.

The Waxwings – Low to the Ground

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I believe this was my first Bobsled records purchase, almost certainly picked up after I read about it in Magnet magazine. Label honcho Bob Salerno gets a production credit, though I think that was more of a Warhol-Velvet Underground & Nico type arrangement. It’s worth mentioning that Bobsled was a joint affair by Salerno and Jeff Slay (Bobsled = BobSleigh = Bob + Slay), and Slay appeared to be a very silent partner whereas Salerno was definitely not silent. Just as an example, not only did Salerno get a production credit, he is listed as a co-arranger; gets credit for additional guitar, percussion, and waves; and receives sole credit for mixing. I think this was the best Bobsled signing, and if the relationship hadn’t fallen apart and the band had maintained their quality, I think the label might have stuck around longer.

What I Think of This Album

From the opening drum hits of “Keeping the Sparks,” this sounds like it’s going to be something special. The production by Bryan Hanna is out of this world – the universe of tones comes through with brilliant clarity and vibrancy. This is one of the best sounding albums I have ever heard, ranking with the Breeders’ Pod. Beyond that, the album is a tapestry of Byrdsy/Beach Boys harmonies and Byrdsy jangle, with a heavy dose of . . . well, Byrdsy psychedelia. Some of this reminds me of what the Beachwood Sparks were doing around the same time, especially on the lush “Sleepy Head” and countryish “Firewood.” Vocalist and lead guitarist Dean Fertita wrote most of the lyrics and guitarist/vocalist Dominic Romano wrote the lyrics for two songs; I assume they each sing their own songs, but the voices aren’t very distinguishable.

One of the highlights is the astonishing “Untied,” about which every element is superb:  the harmonies are glorious; the flourishes like the maracas and phased effects are divine; the guitars move from gritty to jangly and back with panache; the tempo shifts are natural and organic; and the melody is first-rate. Official opener (read on) “Keeping the Sparks” is a pop masterpiece – joyous, hopeful, and expertly played. The gentle guitar figure in the bridge, augmented by sweet harmonies, and then broken up by a blast of distortion, is fucking heavenly. To be sure, “Into the Scenery,” with its concrete-breaking drums, spiraling guitar lines, and sighing backing vocals, has a claim to best song on the album, also. The chiming but jagged guitars on “Ten O’Clock Your Time” rapidly give way to a transatlantic-telegraph-cable-thick bassline and a flurry of handclaps, and I swear to god I almost pass out from happiness every time I hear this. “While You Spiral” is a rollercoaster ride, propelled by Kevin Peyok’s bass part and punctuated by James Edmunds’s thunderclap drumming, all held together by the impeccable harmonies. Acoustic “Different Plane” is like the best campfire song you could imagine (assuming someone brought along a lap steel).

At almost nine minutes, “It Comes In Waves” is where the band fully explores its psychedelic side, though without abandoning its fundamental jangle-pop roots and harmony-rich approach. Basically, its a normal pop song, with a country-druggy, chorused guitar-exploring coda that lasts for about 5 minutes tacked on, and it fucking WORKS. The remaining tracks – “Fragile Girl,” “Sleepy Head,” “Firewood,” and Kinks-like “Low Ceiling” – are also winners. The liner notes credit Greg Frey with production on “Next to Nothing,” which is a hidden track BEFORE THE FIRST TRACK. Honestly, this is one of my favorite albums ever.

The Best Thing About This Album

So much here is right, but without the production by Bryan Hanna, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as much.

Release Date

May, 2000

The Cover Art

I like this a lot, but maybe that’s just carried over from my abiding love for the music on this album. I like the torn page scheme, the color palette, the washed out image, the massive amount of text, in different fonts, and, of course, the STEREO tag at the top.

Washington Social Club – Catching Looks

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Another random budget bin pickup, I am 90% certain I got this at Hi-Fi Records in Chicago. As usual with these kinds of things, I don’t know much about the band. They came out of D.C. in 2002, and this was their first of two releases. They opened for the likes of Hot Hot Heat and the Hold Steady. The foursome was made up of vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Martin Royle, bassist Olivia Mancini, guitarist Evan Featherstone, and drummer Randall Scope.

What I Think of This Album

This is a fun album. It’s pretty much just that simple. The energy on this is off the charts, propelling catchy, scrappy songs that revolve around a strong rhythm section and Martin Royle’s appealing yelp.

The pop-punk of “On the Inside” is taken to another level altogether with the “run for the hills” shouts at the end. “Are You High?” rides a wave of harmony vocals, a bouncy bass, and insistent drumming. The best song is the randy “Breaking the Dawn” with variations of the irresistible early line “When you turned on your radio / Your radio turned me on” – the harmonies, the martial drumming, the needle-nosed distorted guitar lead veering into slight feedback, and Royle’s adenoidal vocals engage in a sweaty dance in the basement. The attempt at emotional poignancy on “Dancing Song” is unnecessary but doesn’t hurt what is a blast of guitar pop, with some great bursts of vocalization at the end. “Simple Sound” is appropriately titled – another fine pop song. “Dead Kid Song” isn’t terribly special but closes strong, and while I don’t love “Backed To the Future,” the chorus is fantastic, with some nice bass work, as well. I detect a slight Jam sound to my least favorite song, “Modern Trance,” but I am not sure I can explain it – this sounds like a deep cut on The Gift. There is a nice change of pace with the acoustic guitar and vibes arrangement in “River and the Road.” As much as I like the bass lines, something about the tone doesn’t seem right.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Breaking the Dawn”

Release Date

2004

The Cover Art

Big ol’ “nope.” I’m not sure what the goal was here, but either that goal was misguided or the execution failed.

The Wedding Present – Singles 1995-97

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 8)

I don’t understand the single. It’s a vestige of a long-gone era. Long live the album. Bands should just wait until they have enough songs for a proper album, and if they have songs left over or songs that they didn’t deem good enough? Well, they can put those on later albums. No one’s going to listen to me, of course, and while I appreciate that eventually some record company comes in to make money off the resulting compilation, usually that compilation is poorly handled.

What I Think of This Album

This is a confusing hodgepodge (big fucking surprise), and while it doesn’t necessarily suffer for it, a listener may be robbed of a better experience because of it. The centerpiece of the compilation is the clever Mini album, which was in fact a mini-album of 6 songs. It was also a Mini album in that, in keeping with its British namesake, each of those songs was somehow automobile-themed:  “Drive;” “Love Machine;” “Go, Man, Go”; “Mercury;” “Convertible;” and “Sports Car.” How could the record company could bury this charming exercise in the middle of a comp? Following the Mini album are four songs from the “2, 3, Go” single as well as the five songs from the “Montreal” single. And serving as amuse-bouche of sorts to Mini are the A and B sides of the “Sucker” single; the “Jet Girl” rarity; and a contribution to a Tom Waits covers album. Among the various B-sides are acoustic versions of other songs on this same album, and two live tracks of songs from George Best and Bizarro.

The odd and angular “Sucker” barely sounds like the Wedding Present, and more like a Fall outtake. It’s not bad, it’s just disposable. The same is true, unfortunately, of the cover of Butterglory’s “Waiting On the Guns.” This is a very poor start to a very good album, but things improve dramatically with “Jet Girl,” which sounds like it came from the Watusi sessions. Key to its appeal are Gedge’s excellent lyrics, as well as the harmony vocals from Jayne Lockey, who sings on all songs and plays bass on some of them. The mind-blowing cover of Tom Waits’s “Red Shoes By the Drugstore” is gritty and menacing, with a bass line so aggressively taunting that it might as well pull your pants down and laugh at you.

This brings us to the amazing Mini album portion of the comp, a resounding success mostly because Gedge is at the top of his game, going all in on the automobile metaphors. The music, however, cannot be overlooked. “Drive,” in fact, features a high-octane distorted guitar part. “Love Machine” has lovely background vocals and Gedge sounds appropriately anguished, as the band bashes about in midtempo (with a nice, subdued instrumental passage). “Go, Man, Go” is touching, with a muscular groove serving as the backdrop to a great vocal melody. A Seamonsters-like crawl dominates (most of) “Mercury,” which is only 26 layers of distortion away from having been on that album. The wittiest number is “Convertible,” in which Gedge seeks to seduce a new conquest despite already being attached (“Oh yes, her / I’m still with her / But I guess I’m always convertible / Just flick the switch and I’m yours”), only to be shot down by Lockey’s character:  “Yeah, you were just saying . . . / But I’m afraid you’re not staying / Because I’m not as naive / As you believe.” A warm organ, layered male and female harmonies, and sprightly drumming make this one of the best songs of the Wedding Present’s career, and definitely of the back half of their classic period. Drummer Simon Smith flexes his muscles on “Sports Car,” and likewise someone (Darren Belk, I guess) does a fine impersonation of Seamonsters-era Peter Solowka.

“2, 3, Go” is, oddly, also automobile-centric, and pretty good, at least in the chorus. The xylophone/vibes on the acoustic version of “Jet Girl” are giddily adorable. The harmony-threaded rave-up “Up” is a nice little gem. Gedge delivers one of his best ballads with the vulnerable and sorrowful “Montreal.” Lockey sings lead on the acoustic version of “Sports Car,” working an effective transformation. There is an exciting enthusiasm to “Project Cenzo” that does not quite manage to steamroll concerns about the lackluster songwriting. The cover of the Cheers theme song – yes, “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” – is entertaining once. And I certainly will never turn down a live version of “Brassneck.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Convertible” races straight down the dragstrip of my heart.

Release Date

October, 1999

The Cover Art

This is a neat, cotton candy abstraction, and certainly unusual for a record company compilation. I also like the superimposition of the text and fonts – it has a very 4AD/v23 feel. Where the record company did skimp was on the booklet. The liner notes on the inside are printed (if I can use that word) in verrrrrrrrrrrrry faint white ink on a black background and are essentially invisible. I could no more tell you who designed this cover than I could traverse the Sahara on rollerblades.

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