The Verlaines – Juvenelia

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 1)

This is technically part 1 and for now the first Verlaines entry, but its the most recent of my Verlaines acquisitions and this post post-dates the other Verlaines posts, so I’m not going to say much in this section and the usual part 1 narrative will be found in one of those later/earlier posts. I’d been hoping to acquire this for some time and am really happy that I finally did! It’s an excellent album that makes me appreciate the Verlaines even more. I need to get Hallelujah All the Way Home.

What I Think of This Album

Once again, a comp whose composition is frustratingly not well explained in the liner notes. As far as I can tell, it consists of the Ten O’Clock In the Afternoon EP (six songs) plus the “Death and the Maiden” single (b/w “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me”), and then three songs that were part of the legendary Dunedin Double EP, recorded by Chris Knox (and which also included the Chills’ first recordings). That adds up to 11 tracks, spanning 1982-84. Which means there are four bonus tracks:  the “Doomsday”/”New Kind of Hero” single from 1985 and live versions of “Instrumental” and “Phil Too?” Of course, these Flying Nun-released songs are all intermingled on Juvenilia and not presented in their original order.

Does this sound like a complaint? I suppose it is, but I can overlook the bewildering decision to not provide an accurate history through the sequencing because the music is so damn great. Even as Graeme Downes humbly details the band’s naivete and inexperience (they did not know what overdubs were or what mixing was at the time of their first recordings), the songs betray his talent as a songwriter and arranger as well as the band’s enthusiasm, charm, and bravery.

The three Dunedin Double tracks from 1982 were the band’s first recordings:  “Angela,” “Crisis After Crisis,” and “You Cheat Yourself of Everything That Moves.” These songs definitely show promise. ”Angela” boasts a warm melody, pleasant jangle, some odd arrangement choices, and an inventive drum pattern. “Crisis After Crisis” is a clear-eyed response to a haughty ex, brimming with great lines. And “You Cheat Yourself” is a slow burner with desperate vocals from Downes.

A few months later saw the release of the inexplicable and stunning “Death and the Maiden” single. Indeed, “Death and the Maiden” somehow avoids several potential pitfalls on the way to becoming a standout early track. Among other things, referencing poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud would be pretentious enough without also naming the song after an artistic motif juxtaposing death with the erotic (there are tons of Death and the Maiden paintings, including by Edvard Munch, Marianne Stokes, Egon Schiele, Evelyn DeMorgan, and Henry Lévy). Also, the song incorporates at least three different time signatures, including a waltzing circus organ bridge that *should* derail everything. But no, this all works and it’s a fantastic fucking song. Downes explains that each chorus features fewer and fewer voices so it sounds prettier and cleaner as the song progresses (and by the end, you can indeed clearly hear bassist Jane Dodd’s previously buried harmonies).

B-side “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” would end up being rerecorded for Bird Dog. Once again, Downes’s smarty pants approach – C.D. being a reference to Claude Debussy and Jimmy Jazz a nickname for James Joyce (and alas, not a Clash reference) – fails to get the better of him. While the album version may document technical improvement, including prominent use of brass, this rougher and more straightforward single thrums with youthful energy, unspooling in a way that seems like the song will never end and leading you to hope that it won’t. 

The six songs on the Ten O’Clock EP – variously reported as being released in 1983 and 1984 – make up the plurality of the comp:  “Baud to Tears,” “Pyromaniac,” “Joed Out,” “Burlesque,” “Wind Song,” and “You Say You.”  All are fantastic.

The lyric “he hasn’t got a shit show” appears in “Baud to Tears” and it makes me wonder if that terminology (one of my favorites) is used differently in New Zealand. More important are lyrics like “you’ll never spend a season in hell / If you lie in bed all day / And you won’t ever see anything beautiful again.” I have to assume the Baud in the title concerns Baudelaire but I am too uncultured to know how (I also have to assume at the same time that this is not a song about modems).

“Pyromaniac” benefits from the same sense of urgency that drives most of these tracks. I tend to doubt Downes’s protestations of amateurism, as the playing is uniformly very good and the songwriting is inventive and sophisticated. “Joed Out” is an uncharacteristically straightforward love song, approximating the kind of work the Go-Betweens regularly produced (is it bad form to compare a Kiwi band to an Aussie one? Am I offending both in the process?); it also provides the title of the EP on which it originally appeared. The acoustic solo at the end is lovely.

The opening line of “Burlesque” tells you all you need to know about this track:  “One day you’ll be dying of triple-throat cancer / Ha ha.” This unusual and unsettling song shudders along thanks to drummer Robbie Yeats’s syncopated pattern, with an ominous and mocking organ serving as your guide.

“Wind Song” is an atmospheric marvel, augmented by a variety of children’s toys (and Downes’s oboe) and elevated by Dodd’s heavenly harmonies. Truly beautiful. For a band that didn’t know about overdubs, this is some amazing work. Downes adds violin to “You Say You,” a song about empathy in a small bedroom that sounds like it is about murder in a gothic mansion.

The “Doomsday” single is energetic and lushly jangly, with a surprising (and lengthy) instrumental outro. B-side “New Kind of Hero” rises above it bitterness thanks mostly to Dodd’s harmonies. “Instrumental” is exactly that, and a lot of fun – who needs lyrics? “Phil Too?” is frantic and that is cool for what it is but this is easily the weakest song on this comp.

Jane Dodd (the second (?) bassist in the Verlaines) had been a founding member of the Chills, along with her sister. She also played in the Able Tasmans and designed the artwork for several Verlaines and AT releases. She is now a celebrated jewelry artist. The Verlaines went through many drummers but their second (also ?) – Alan Haig – was also a founding member of the Chills.

The Best Thing About This Album

Wow. Hard to say. I guess the fact that Downes and company were able to come out of the gate so strongly and overcome logistic obstacles on the way to turning into a phenomenal band.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

Ok, so this is the slipcover for the CD release. The actual art on the CD is the same image but the background color is a greenish-yellow and the other colors are also altered. The band name is difficult to make out and the album title is basically indecipherable, and for those reasons I don’t really care for this art.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Echo & The Bunnymen

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

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked, and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and sumptuously produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is in keeping with the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in deFreitas and Pattinson not well represented in the mix, but Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable.

A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a whispered, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is gorgeous.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbin pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones.

Echo and the Bunnymen – Echo and the Bunnymen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and lushly produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context of the albums that came before that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is also true of the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in drummer Pete deFreitas, and Les Pattinson’s bass is not well represented in the mix, but Will Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable. A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a quiet, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is stellar.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbijn pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones. The font is excellent; not sure why “The” is capitalized.

U2 – The Joshua Tree

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

This album was huge. I think there was a year in high school when, on any given day, at least three kids were wearing this concert t-shirt. Suddenly, everybody loved U2. Kids, adults, critics, mainstream press. The Joshua Tree sold over 10,000,000 copies in the U.S. The album struck the right balance in many ways:  artsy but still rock; socially conscious without being preachy; moody while still loud; spiritual but not overtly religious; a celebration of America’s mythology but from an outsider’s perspective. Some of my love for it has waned – it lacks the personal resonance for me that a lot of the best music offers – but I still like it a lot. I wish I could have gone to the concert.

What I Think of This Album

There is no serious debate that this is the best U2 album. Cinematic and compelling, the band turned The Unforgettable Fire inside out for this follow-up. Sporting a much more organic sound, The Joshua Tree” retained the spaciousness of the previous album as well as its textures, but avoided any true experimentation. Shit, “Running to Stand Still” is basically “Bad,part two.

Starting with some frankly weird acoustic bluesy string bends, “Running” is at heart a piano ballad, lovely in its delicacy and affecting in its starkness. The introduction of Larry Mullen, Jr.’s rumbling, oceanic drums and Bono’s falsetto crooning add drama and depth. There are shades of Lou Reed in Bono’s spoken delivery. The band appropriates folk protest music on “Red Hill Mining Town,” which incorporates gospel sounds as well. Similarly, “Trip Through Your Wires” combines gospel with the blues, with an interesting autoharp part played by producer Daniel Lanois and a respectable harmonica from Bono. The yelping from Bono, though, I could do without.

The elegiac “One Tree Hill” – somehow both a tribute to a deceased friend and a political number about the Pinochet regime in Chile – depends a great deal on Mullen, Jr.’s skillful drumming and the alternating use of Edge’s guitar and a separate string arrangement. Closer “Mothers of the Disappeared” is the track that most evokes the sound of previous album, with a gauzy, hypnotic patina coating the gentle undulations, anchored by a fuzzy drone of a rhythm loop; it is a stunning, moving piece of work paying tribute to the lost generations of Latin American children, murdered by their own governments (with the backing of the U.S.).

Then, of course, there are the hits. Notably, these anthems manage to avoid bombast and instead unfurl into open and expansive soundscapes while remaining intimate and personal. “Where the Streets Have No Name” relies on an impressionistic swell of keyboards complemented by the Edge’s delayed guitar arpeggio, augmented by the insistent contributions of bassist Adam Clayton and Mullen, Jr., and capped off by a truly excellent performance from Bono. Really, a perfect opening track. The band doubles down with the spiritual questioning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” bringing in a considerable soul/gospel element. Not to be overlooked are the slippery bass part and another fine performance behind the kit from Mullen, Jr. Finally, the tormented romantic troubles of “With or Without You” are made poignant by the Edge’s ghostly work (plus a repeating riff and a closing pattern) and Bono’s skilled use of his vocal range. All of these songs are verifiable smashes, and the fact that they don’t overshadow the other strong selections is a testament to the quality of the album.

Honestly, though, there are weaknesses. The harried and shimmering “In God’s Country” is almost U2-by-the-numbers, presaging the overbearing schtick of Rattle and Hum, but managing to not stick out too badly from the rest of the album. There is no positive spin to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which is AWFUL, and would be reintroduced in an even worse – somehow – live version the following year. “Exit” is downright embarrassing, not to mention simply boring.

Brian Eno co-produced with Lanois, and Flood (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey) engineered; Steve Lillywhite mixed some of the tracks.

Tidbit:  Kirsty MacColl (spouse at the time of Lillywhite) sequenced the album, being instructed only on what the first and final songs should be.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am going to give credit to Larry Mullen, Jr., whose drumming I never really paid attention to before.

Release Date

March, 1987

The Cover Art

Anton Corbijn again, this time trying his hand at a panoramic camera, and the story is he didn’t know how to use it, resulting in a sharp background and a blurry foreground (at least on the original CD release). The cover art for the original vinyl/CD/cassette was different for each format, but reissues of the CD used the vinyl cover. The vinyl art is much better than the original CD art (which is a blurry, vertically distorted crop of the art shown here, and with a lot less negative space at the top and bottom margins), more closely making a visual connection between the image and the music.

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 Verlaines – Bird Dog

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

Another excellent New Zealand band, the Verlaines are the most highbrow of the lot, which means they also stand the most to lose. Singer and songwriter Graeme Downes was an academic who specialized in 19th century symphonic music, and specifically was an expert on Gustav Mahler; he eventually became a lecturer at and then head of the music, theatre and performing arts department at the University of Otago, where he taught courses on musicology and composition. He named the band after poet Paul Verlaine, for goodness’ sake. The band’s lineup varied greatly, and the sound eventually stripped away the orchestral trappings, but almost no matter which album you listen to, the Verlaines make some great music. Downes stepped out of the public eye after a cancer diagnosis in 2020.

What I Think of This Album

This album is the sonic equivalent of one of those growth charts that you keep in pencil on a kitchen door jamb – with a couple of exceptions, Bird Dog gets better with each tune.

This is certainly true for the first five tracks, as excellent songs (angular and dramatic “Take Good Care of It,” which somehow folds in some avant-garde piano strumming – yes, piano strumming; bass-driven and grey “Just Mum”) are stacked on top of a great song (thrummy “You Forget Love,” featuring angelic harmonies from bassist Jane Dodd and guest Caroline Easther), which rests upon the shoulders of a good song (the spare “Makes No Difference,” complete with flugelhorn), culminating with the glorious, keening howl of “Slow Sad Love Song.”

There is some regression with the somber jazz of “Only Dream Left,” but things pick up again with the bouncy “Dippy’s Last Trip.” Tim Dodd – likely relative of bassist Jane – plays the piano on this and one other track. The wonderful title track is a feverish, surreal tale of frightened preachers, a dog-skin coat, and imported German beer.

“Icarus “ disappoints (Gregorian chants? really?), but colorful closer “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” is phenomenal, ending in a cinematic burst. Okay, so maybe not like a growth chart, but maybe a spin class workout.

By the way, “C.D. Jimmy Jazz and Me” is about Downes palling around with Claude Debussy and James Joyce in Paris . . . but it doesn’t sound like it. That’s the key (it probably helps that what Downes actually sings is that the three of them “fucked off to Paris to write of the sea”). This could all come across as stodgy, pretentious crap particularly given the tuba, bassoon, strings and horns – but it absolutely is not. It doesn’t sound like rock, certainly, and it’s barely pop, but it’s still incredibly melodic and somehow both straightforward and complex at the same time. Downes not only sings and plays the guitar, harmonica, and piano on this, he also is responsible for all the oboe parts.

Bird Dog is the second Verlaines album; I’ve never listened to the debut. Obviously, this is a Flying Nun release.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Slow Sad Love Song” is a killer track.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

Honestly, probably the darkest, saddest cover art I’ve ever seen. Don’t do this to me, the Verlaines.

The Connells – Boylan Heights

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

One of my law school roommates was moderately into the Connells. He had gone to Duke for undergrad, so perhaps that’s where he encountered them. He and I also shared liberal values. My other roommate was a Republican, and he and I had no shared musical tastes. Who ended up being the better friend and roommate? Not the dude from Duke. I, of course, was an immature and impatient, barely-human creature at the time, so I don’t blame anyone for not vibing with me. I think he is a professor now. I still give Andy shit about being a fucking Republican.

What I Think of This Album

The Connells pull off the opposite of the sophomore slump with Boylan Heights, generating an album much better than the debut. Whereas as previously the band sought to convey drama, they never earned it; here, they sound more organic and believable.

The lengthy Celtic intro of “Scotty’s Lament” is very awkwardly grafted on the rest of the song, Mitch Easter falling short of the standard George Martin set. Also, the deep-timbred (and treated?) backing vocals in the verses are hella weird. Fortunately, the rest of the album avoids such problems.

Keyboards-as-strings add some emotion to the serious “Choose a Side,” though the vocals in the chorus help keep things from getting too somber. “Just Like Us” is a fine piece, where the band finally gets everything right. The production touches on near-majestic and almost-instrumental “If It Crumbles” are effective and pretty. “Pawns” is another keeper, with some interesting vocal lilts from Doug MacMillan.

The trumpet on “Over There” makes it one of the two best songs on display, though the chart could’ve used a little more variety, as guest Bill Spencer simply plays the same pattern over and over. The odd time shifts of “Elegance” don’t work for me. The chorus of “Home Today” is the saving grace of a song otherwise weighed down by pedestrian verses; the lengthy Celtic-influenced solo is a bit much (though I appreciate the wah-wah intro). Instrumental “OT2” (that’s supposed to be “squared”) is a decent little tune.

Finally, “I Suppose” is the cream of the crop, perhaps the first great Connells song, with a wonderful melody, reflective vocals, and some excellent guitar work, and the final “Boylan Heights” part of the song is almost a whole other song in itself.

The album is named after a neighborhood in Raleigh, North Carolina, and was produced by Mitch Easter (Let’s Active). Easter’s bandmate in Let’s Active, Angie Carlson, played the Hammond organ.

The Best Thing About This Album

“I Suppose” takes me all the way to Boylan Heights.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

This might be one of the worst album covers I’ve ever seen. Dingy, disorienting, decayed, difficult to discern. Not one thing about this works. What the fuck is going on with the headgear? Why did this band of twenty-somethings dress like 40 year old dads for the photo shoot? What is with the design elements on the right and left margins? And the twigs or whatever towards the top. Jesus. This is a fucking disgrace.

Close Lobsters – Foxheads Stalk This Land

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I only learned of Scottish band Close Lobsters in recent years. The Wedding Present covered them, and both acts were on the legendary C86 compilation. I finally decided to take the plunge and am very happy that I did. Close Lobsters are considerably more than just another indie pop band, capable of many moods and tones, while sticking with a consistent, core sound. The five-piece emerged around 1985 and ended up releasing three albums, though the third came out in 2020, over 30 years after the second. The story is that the band couldn’t decide between naming themselves the Close or the Lobsters, and decided not to choose at all.

What I Think of This Album

A mere ten songs is not enough to do justice to the skill and artistry of Close Lobsters. Perhaps due to the democratic tack they took as to songwriting (four different combinations of band members composed the songs), the tracks can’t be pigeonholed. Mixed in with the caffeinated bass and the bright guitars is an adventurous sense of melody and a not-insignificant penchant for psychedelia. It may be my imagination, but sometimes I think vocalist Andrew Burnett sounds a bit like the Church’s Steve Kilbey – certainly both bands share an ability to incorporate multiple ‘60s influences.

The excellently-titled “Just Too Bloody Stupid” quickly breaks free from its indie pop shackles, with the song developing in unexpected ways. Clever “Sewer Pipe Dream” doesn’t need its surprising fuzzy chorded solo in order to be great, but it certainly helps. The paisley sound of “I Kiss the Flower In Bloom” is as unmistakable as it is irresistible.

The chiming, intertwined guitars of propulsive “Pathetique” are a highlight, and their lyrical interplay on the shape-shifting “A Prophecy” is majestic. There is a cinematic quality to the enthusiastic “In Spite of These Times,” which could otherwise be an Aztec Camera song. I have no idea what a foxhead is, but the title track elides explanation and simply but sunnily offers its declaration against a bed of jangly guitars. If you don’t sing along to the “yeah yeah yeah”s on “I Take Bribes,” you need to see an audiologist right away.

The band throws one final curveball when it gets anthemic on the almost-eight minute “Mother of God,” which kicks up some hellacious noise. The drumming by Stewart McFayden is first-rate throughout, and bassist Robert Burnett (sibling to Andrew) handily leaps over questions of nepotism. The guitars of Tom Donnelly and Graeme Wilmington readily should be better known.

The album was produced by John Rivers, who has worked with Talulah Gosh, Love and Rockets, the Pastels, the Jazz Butcher, Yatsura, and the Loft.

The Best Thing About This Album

I want the spiky, crystalized rush of “Pathetique” injected into my veins right now.

Release Date

1987

The Cover Art

I dig the pink, but that’s about it. I don’t hate the other elements, but I don’t think they work very well.

The Wedding Present – George Best

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The Wedding Present is one of my favorite bands. David Gedge is a brilliant songwriter, whose conversational, naturalistic lyrics deftly explore every hidden corner of the romantic psyche. And the music! Starting out as a rapid-fire jangle band, they got progressively louder and darker, and then took a left turn to a more American indie sound. Each incarnation sounded great (though last album Saturnalia was just okay (and I mean, last album of the classic period – I have no truck with post-Cinerama Wedding Present)). Apparently, Courtney Love slapped Gedge while backstage at the Reading Festival after asking him if he was friends with Steve Albini.

What I Think of This Album

George Best was the Wedding Present’s debut album, and immediately demonstrated that they were a force to be reckoned with. Gedge’s strangled vocals may not be for everyone, but they tell mesmerizing stories of love, lust, betrayal, and obsession. The guitars strum about a million miles per minute – scores of British orthopedists will someday reap the benefit of the recording and live performances of these songs. And the song titles:  “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft,” “Anyone Can Make A Mistake,” “You Can’t Moan, Can You?,” “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm,” not to mention singles “I’m Not Always So Stupid” and “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?”

Nearly every song rushes by in a manic jangle punctuated by resounding snare and tom hits. While the Weddoes’ lineup changed a lot over the years, Peter Solowka was in charge of the guitar sound during the best of their classic period, and he is on fire here, spitting out biting leads and also helping spin the web of 100,000 strums that serves as the foundation for each song. Too, drummer Shaun Charman (and on the bonus tracks, the even-better Simon Smith) mostly eschews cymbals for a machine gun beat-heavy approach. The speed of the playing on tracks like “All This and More,” “Anyone Can Make a Mistake,” and “Shatner” is a testament to the band’s early frantic approach. Perhaps it was with a knowing wink that they included a (sped-up, of course) cover of “Getting Nowhere Fast,” by Girls At Our Best! on this album.

But all that jackrabbit jangling and boomy drumming wouldn’t have amounted to half as much without Gedge’s lyrics. “Everyone Thinks He Looks Daft” is a hilariously petty and immature swipe at an ex’s new beau, delivered between desperate attempts at casual conversation; the bass line is as sticky as napalm, and the whistling always makes me smile. “My Favorite Dress” is a sharply detailed exploration of betrayal and heartbreak (“To see it all in a drunken kiss / A stranger’s hand on my favorite dress / That was my favorite dress, you know”).

“Shatner” is an attempt to rescue someone from an abusive relationship that namechecks Captain Kirk in an unexpected way, while “Don’t Be So Hard” explores when one party in a relationship cruelly takes another for granted. “Give My Love to Kevin” is apparently sung from the point of view of a paired-up woman’s jealous lover (“And what does your mother think? / I just can’t bear to imagine you sharing your bed with him”). Each track brings a new and original perspective to unflinching tales of romantic desperation.

The bonus tracks on this disc are a treasure as well, appending nine songs to the original album (four from the “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” single and the other five from the “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?” single). “Nobody’s Twisting Your Arm” features exceptional drumming and a fine set of lyrics from Gedge as a bitter, luckless suitor (“And when I called your house / I’m sure your sister thought that I was someone else / I heard a laugh down the phone / And the answer came that you weren’t at home”) while “I’m Not Always So Stupid” is a charming and heartbreaking admission of obsession (“Every time a car drives past I think its you / Every time somebody laughs I think its you . . . Each time the doorbell rings it might be you / Each letter the postman brings might be from you”) – those initial snare triplets (and the floor tom hits that come later) kill me every time.

Add the classic “Why Are You Being So Reasonable Now?,” an acoustic version of “Kevin,” a French translation of “Reasonable,” and some other good songs and this expanded reissue of George Best is unstoppable. Amelia Fletcher of Talulah Gosh/Heavenly/Marine Research/Tender Trap sings unimpeachable harmony on some songs, including the unusual cover of “Getting Better All the Time.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“I’m Not Always So Stupid” is pure brilliance; everything about this song – guitars, drums, lyrics, melody, singing – is perfect.

Release Date

October 1987

The Cover Art

I admit that the relevance of 1960s and ‘70s Manchester United and Northern Ireland football star George Best is lost on me, but it is still a fairly iconic image. Plus, green is my favorite color. I also like that there is no title on the cover – we’re just supposed to know that that is George Best and that that is therefore the title.

Billy Bragg – Back to Basics

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Where to start? I worship Billy Bragg, an exceptional songwriter and admirable activist. He basically writes two kinds of songs – love songs and protest songs – and does so with aplomb. His lyrics are witty, insightful, humane, and heartfelt, and his melodies are second-to-none. His chunky, ragged guitar playing is passionate and inspired, and his thick Essex accent is absurdly charming. I first came across Bragg through my friend Duke, who loaned me – many, many times, until I finally bought my own copy – Back to Basics freshman year of college. I was immediately captivated and became a devout fan. I admit that Bragg’s more recent work does not do much for me, but his early string of albums is as gem-filled as a British dowager’s heirloom necklace.

What I Think of This Album

This is a record company compilation of Bragg’s first three official solo releases:  (mini) album Life’s a Riot With Spy v. Spy; album Brewing Up With Billy Bragg; and EP Between the Wars. Those first two albums can be found more easily now, having been re-released, but back when this comp was issued in 1987, they were difficult to track down. Whatever the impetus, this is a fantastic collection that speeds through 21 tracks in about an hour; this early material is really Bragg at his best, when he discovered the inflection point between folk and punk and sat there and demanded to be noticed.

Appropriately enough, things kick off with the seven songs that comprised Life’s a Riot (though they are slightly resequenced, probably to better effect), which is basically just Bragg singing over his own often-loud guitar playing. Right off the bat, Bragg unexpectedly offers up a hand of friendship on the vulnerable “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” before transitioning to a sensitive but sharp critique of the British school system and capitalist structures – Bragg, as it turns out, was effectively shut out from higher educational opportunities due to his performance on an entrance exam – on “To Have and Have Not” (“All they taught you at school / Was how to be a good worker / The system has failed you / Don’t fail yourself”). A leftover from his earlier band Riff Raff, “Richard” is a black-and-blue romance (“You helped me build this bed / But you won’t help me sleep in it / When I fall between you and the wall / Our titanic love affair sails on the morning tide”). Jay Bennett, who helped (future Bragg collaborators) Wilco make its great leap forward, was previously in a band called Titanic Love Affair, named after this lyric.

The song “Lovers Town Revisited” (yes, he has an original “Lovers Town”) tells a story, in under two minutes, of a disillusioned, shy, and quiet loner looking for love. Next is the song that should have made his career (the first time):  “A New England.” Quoting Paul Simon (from “Leaves Are Green”) and wistfully cutting ties with the erstwhile object of his affection (“I loved you then as I love you still / Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill / I don’t feel bad about letting you go / I just feel sad about letting you know”), Bragg crafts a catchy, realistic tale of surviving unrequited love. Kirsty MacColl had her biggest hit with this song; Bragg wrote two extra verses for her version (she consolidated them into one). The final song from Life’s a Riot is “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty,” a feminist takedown of beauty/gossip magazines. So over the course of the first seven tracks, Bragg firmly establishes himself as a vital, smart, caring, and tenacious artist.

The remainder of the album – mostly the eleven tracks from Brewing Up – only reinforces this notion and demonstrates even further growth and nuance. Witness the polemic against the right-wing press of “It Says Here;” the bleakly comic anti-war and anti-capitalist song “Island of No Return” (“I never thought that I would be / Fighting fascists in the Southern Seas / I saw one today and in his hand / Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham”); and the allegorical love-as-battle masterpiece “Like Soldiers Do” (“No one can win this war of the senses / I see no reason to drop my defenses / So stand fast my emotions / Rally round my shaking heart”). Bragg apes Chuck Berry on “From a Vauxhall Velox” (“Some people say love is blind / But I think that’s just a bit shortsighted”) while also borrowing the song title from Dylan, pulls some Eddie Cochran moves on “Love Gets Dangerous,” and channels Bo Diddley on “This Guitar Says Sorry.”

Also excellent are “Strange Things Happen” and “A Lover Sings,” the latter with a soulful organ part and a surprising lyric about “your tights around your ankles,” but the true highlight is the deeply affecting lovelorn tween – sensitive enough to quote the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” – of “The Saturday Boy” (“She danced with me and I still hold that memory soft and sweet / And I stare up at her window as I walk down her street / But I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh / And she never came to the phone, she was always in the bath”); the trumpet part on this is exquisite.

The final three songs are all political in nature, inspired by the UK miners strike of 1984-85, and all will make you pull on your Doc Martens and start researching “how make molotov cocktail” on the internet. You will definitely need a lyric sheet, as Bragg’s accent is as thick as a milkshake-airbound-for-a-fascist and he tends to pack a lot of syllables into a short space. I will love this album until the day I die.

The Best Thing About This Album

I could just say “The Saturday Boy,” which will rip your heart out, but the fact is that the best thing about this album is Bragg’s lyrics. He is masterful.

Release Date

May, 1983 (Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy); November, 1984 (Brewing Up With Billy Bragg); February, 1985 (Between the Wars); July, 1987 (Compilation)

The Cover Art

I can’t be objective. I love this album so much. I like the use of the blocks – they are a clever play on the title – and I like the cover art of the original releases on the top row of blocks.

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