The Shirelles – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

As much as I like the girl-group genre, there are some large holes in my collection. I own the One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found box set, but that’s all rarities and obscurities. I have the Phil Spector Back to Mono box set as well, though I am not sure how complete of an overview it offers of the Ronettes or the Crystals. My Motown box set has some Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and Velvelettes but again, is not comprehensive. I own no Shangri-Las. For the record, I have never liked Diana Ross’s voice and have no intention of getting a Supremes comp. But I am glad I own this Shirelles album. Formed while they were still in high school in New Jersey in 1957, the Shirelles were Shirley Owens, Doris Cooley, Addie “Mickie” Harris, and Beverly Lee. They were signed to a contract by Florence Greenberg, a literally bored New Jersey housewife who, in her mid-forties, decided to go into the music business and started the label Tiara Records. Not the first girl-group, but probably the first girl-group that found major success, the Shirelles worked with Luther Dixon to craft their unique sound. Dionne Warwick sometimes stepped in for absent members for live performances. Harris died in 1982, and Cooley passed in 2000.

What I Think of This Album

This extremely bare-bones budget CD is nonetheless adequate unless you are a very hardcore Shirelles fan. It is disappointing that there is zero information included in the booklet, but hey – it’s got the songs.

The album runs through twelve Shirelles songs, not in any particular order, spanning the years 1958-1964. As far as I can tell, all the chart hits are here:  “Soldier Boy;” “Dedicated to the One I Love;” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow;” “Mama Said;” “Foolish Little Girl;” and “Baby It’s You.”

Notably, both “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Tonight’s the Night” concerned losing one’s virginity, which was risky subject matter back then. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was a Carole King and Gerry Goffin song. Burt Bacharach was one of the songwriters of “Baby Its You.” King Curtis played sax on “Boys.”

Florence Greenberg ended up running labels that released:  “Louie, Louie;” “Twist and Shout;” and . . . uh . . . “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” The Shirelles sued her when they learned that a trust fund she had promised to set up and keep for them did not exist. She passed away in 1995.

Luther Dixon wrote many of these Shirelles hits, as well as “16 Candles.” He died in 2009.

The Beatles included covers of “Boys” (sung by Ringo!) and “Baby It’s You” on Please Please Me.

The Best Thing About This Album

 Fucking all of it. The vocals. The songwriting. The arrangements. ALL. OF. IT.

Release Date

1991

The Cover Art

I can’t believe I actually found this cover online. It’s awful.

Screeching Weasel – My Brain Hurts

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

Dedicated Ramones fans of the highest order, Screeching Weasel have been dispensing bratty, funny, and thoughtful candy-coated punk for several decades. Formed in Prospect Heights, Illinois in 1986, the band was the brainchild of Ben Weasel (Ben Foster) and John Jughead (John Pierson). WIth a rotating cast of other band members, they released two albums before disbanding in 1989 (but not before Dan Vapid (Dan Schafer) joined on bass). They reformed in 1990 or ‘91, resulting in My Brain Hurts, now with Dan Panic (Dan Sullivan) on drums, and then Wiggle and Anthem for a New Tomorrow, both in 1993. After one more album (with guest bass by Mike Dirnt of Green Day), the band broke up again. Screeching Weasel has reformed and broken up many times since then, and has continued to release albums into 2022, with Ben Weasel the only constant member. One band breakup came after Weasel assaulted two women during a show in Austin in 2011.

What I Think of This Album

My Brain Hurts is the first great Screeching Weasel album and not coincidentally, the first one where they embraced the Ramones sound (moving on from their earlier thrash/hardcore style). The classic Weasel/Jughead/Panic/Vapid lineup is here (plus bassist Dave Naked, with Vapid switching to guitar), and they energetically romp through fourteen songs in roughly 30 minutes. If you want an album that includes a reference to an obscure character from The Brady Brunch, presents an elegant and humane summary of comparative religion, namechecks sociologist/psychologist Erich Fromm, empathically extols the benefits of methadone, and provides the unfortunate imagery of “eat[ing] mashed potatoes in the nude,” then this is the record for you.

The first highly promising sign is “Guest List,” co-written by Ben Weasel and Dan Vapid, a tuneful basher that includes lyrics like “I put her on the guest list at the show / And now I get to watch her dance like the other weirdos do.” “Veronica Hates Me” was supposedly a response to Material Issue’s “Valerie Loves Me” and it works as well on its own merits as its inspiration, relying on a call-and-response chorus, some fantastic “oh oh oh oh”s, the excellent line “why the deposition?,” and a colorful organ part in the outro that goes uncredited.

“Cindy’s On Methadone” is a title that suggests either judgment or mean-spirited humor, but it contains neither, as Weasel celebrates Cindy’s recovery and takes to task those who have failed to support her. The seesawing guitar line is great, too. Weasel provides a concise examination of Judeo-Christian and Buddhist beliefs, attempts to reconcile science and faith, and earnestly proposes that “it doesn’t matter if it’s real or not / ‘Cause some things are better left without a doubt / And if it works then it gets the job done” in the surprisingly tuneful and generous “The Science of Myth.” The serious subject matter continues with “What We Hate,” with Weasel again displaying his gift of being able to make lyrics like “the changes that alter us are a product of our own volition” go down smoothly and with fist-pumping enthusiasm. The breakneck pace of the song is truly impressive.

“Teenage Freakshow” is pure Ramones with a Too Tough to Die-era organ part that sweetens this cry of frustration and confusion; as with “Cindy,” the title suggests a far less thoughtful treatment than what Weasel delivers, and the depth of his lyrics continues to be a revelation on the album. The fucking handclaps make my day, as do the subtle harmonies. The band lightens up a bit on the bizarre, fast, funny, and very melodic “Kamala’s Too Nice.”

The Ramones inform “I Wanna Be With You Tonight,” which is equally tender, resentful, and self-deprecating (if not self-loathing), like any song of unrequited love should be. Weasel looks inward again – and once again does not like what he sees – on the title track, which is arguably the highlight of the album, with a great arpeggiated lead line and an absolutely killer outro.

Vestiges of the less melodic past survive in songs like “Making You Cry,” “Slogans,” “Don’t Turn Out the Lights,” and “Fathead,” none of which I care for (though none of which is terrible, either). The cover of “I Can See Clearly Now” comes across as silly and wholly unnecessary filler (the Johnny Nash song was also covered by Jimmy Cliff).

Executive producer Al Sobrante was at one time the drummer for Green Day. Actual producers were Larry Livermore (head of Lookout! records) and Andy Ernst.

The Best Thing About This Album

The intelligence, humor, and fundamental kindness in Weasel’s lyrics.

Release Date

July, 1991

The Cover Art

Every time I look at this cover, I keep expecting this guy to be Ronald Reagan. And then Hugh Beaumont. I consistently laugh when I think of one of these two telling the other “my brain hurts.”

Eleventh Dream Day – Lived to Tell

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

Signed to a major on the strength of their excellent debut, Eleventh Dream Day did themselves no favors by turning in a disappointing second effort with Beet. While Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean wrote lyrics that could easily populate a short story anthology, the music was lackluster and unimaginative. Fortunately, they righted things with the unassuming Lived to Tell. At some point in the band’s history, Rizzo and Beveridge Bean married and had a child – I just don’t know when that happened.

What I Think of This Album

Eleventh Dream Day returned to Kentucky to record Lived to Tell, and that may have made all the difference. While it is not as noisy or dread-inducing as Prairie School Freakout, this third album finds the band on familiar turf, refocusing on their strengths. The songs are compact, melodic, heartfelt, and reflect an organic expansion of the band’s sound. 

Janet Beveridge Bean throws down the gauntlet with the rousing, churning “Rose of Jericho,” a propulsive tune that tells an unexpected story of one Melissa and her inscrutable but unmistakable act of liberation involving a glass vase. Beveridge Bean and Rick Rizzo harmonize on key parts of the verses, and the guitars mimic Melissa’s ascension; the solo at the end is excellent. The Rizzo/Beveridge Bean collaboration “It’s All a Game” incorporates a good helping of pop into the countryish song of a faltering relationship that also features the most overtly Neil Young solo of the album.

Rizzo delivers on the biblically apocalyptic “North of Wasteland.” The guitar solo kicks ass, frankly. As on “Jericho,” Beveridge Bean’s intermittent harmonies add a glistening new dimension. Indeed, the angelic vocals and pretty melody that Beveridge Bean graces us with on “Daedalus” are the biggest surprise of the record. Notably, the band incorporates cello, calliope, and some spoken word/found sound on this excellent track as well.

Baird Figi’s downright demonic lapsteel is the defining feature of the punishing “Dream of a Sleeping Sheep,” on which Rizzo, deciding that contemplating death is too half-hearted, invites it with open arms. That lapsteel, though – Jesus Christ. Similarly intense is “Strung Up and/or Out,” which is unapologetically lacerating. 

Beveridge Bean admonishes someone on “You Know What It Is,” which has a punk intensity even while the guitars practice unusual restraint. The recording of this track sounds out of place with the other songs – it’s thin and distant, which is at best distracting and at worst detrimental. This song deserved better. 

X appears to be the touchstone for the frantic and brief “Trouble,” which is the better of the two Figi-penned songs on the album. Another surprise is the acoustic turn on closer “Angels Spread Your Wings,” complete with mournful harmonica from Rizzo. 

“I Could Be Lost” is a decent rocker that doesn’t sufficiently develop musically, unfortunately. Rizzo sets a short story to long music on “It’s Not My World.” The languid (exhausted?) guitar workout that starts at around minute 3:00 is the best thing about this song, and I think I can hear some nice tremolo work in there, too. 

Similarly, Beveridge Bean’s “There’s This Thing” is like Tom Waits reading a Jim Thompson story:  great lyrics, but the music doesn’t do much for me. The guest saxophone adds a new touch. Bassist Doug McCombs’s “Frozen Mile” is repetitive and irritating. Rizzo and Baird do what they can to make this interesting but to no avail.

Twiddling the knobs this time was Paul McKenna, who has had a diverse career working with the Cramps, the Circle Jerks, the Long Ryders, and Wall of Voodoo, but also Elton John, Barry Manilow, and Sting.

The Best Thing About This Album

The return to form.

Release Date

1991

The Cover Art

I don’t like a single thing about this. The painting was by Beveridge Bean’s partner in Freakwater, Catherine Irwin. This image is of some alternate release insofar as mine does not have that text on the left margin.

Dramarama – Vinyl

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

After several barren years despite significant effort, it was a surprise when 1991’s Vinyl turned out to be Dramrama’s best album. It also was the beneficiary of a major label marketing push, which included music videos. And the critical acclaim the band had generated probably helped lasso guests Benmont Tench, Mick Taylor, and studio pro Jim Keltner.

What I Think of This Album

Vinyl opens with the sound of a jukebox arm loading a record onto the turntable. The song that follows is the best Dramarama album opener ever. “Until the Next Time” blends acoustic and electric guitars, offers up a red hot solo, and John Easdale sounds completely energized, while also older and wiser. The tom-rolling “Haven’t Got A Clue” was a single, and deservedly so, as Easdale turns in a great performance, Chris Carter’s bass pushes and pulls, and Mr. E delivers a catchy wah-wah lead part and solo.

The mocking-but-sort-of-sincere protest song “What Are We Gonna Do?” features Benmont Tench (Tom Petty) and this downcast number was surely chosen as a single simply for the reference to Earth Day, which was a thing people were paying lip service to in 1991. The blistering attack on classic rock radio “Classic Rot” is enlivened by ex-Rolling Stones Mick Taylor’s guitar playing and the violin of Lisa Haley (a descendant of early rock ‘n’ roller Bill Haley), as well as more contributions from Tench. Perhaps appropriately, the band segues into a cover of the Stones’ (sort of – maybe just Mick Jagger’s) “Memo From Turner,” which is pretty good, and on which Mr. E does some impressive slide work.

I have to say that while the first half of lengthy ballad “Train Going Backwards” effectively bores me, I do like the second half quite a bit. Suspicious and sinister “I’ve Got Spies” is a sleeper deep cut, sinewy and dark and fucking fantastic – a masterpiece of arranging. “In Quiet Rooms” is a fantastic rocker, and “Ain’t It the Truth” is a cousin to “Spies,” sounding like a harder and faster version of something Lindsey Buckingham would’ve recorded in a cocaine-fueled frenzy during the Tusk sessions. The phased guitar would’ve made J Mascis smile. This also happens to round out a very impressive nine solid tunes in a row.

“Tiny Candles” is . . . not good, and eminently skippable. Final track “(I’d Like to) Volunteer, Please” is the Jim Keltner track for those of you keeping score, and I can take it or leave it (but mostly leave it, as it is too long). Basically, I think the album ends with “Truth,” though the short hidden track “Steve Is Here” is enjoyably stupid.

By this time, Dramarama had been reduced to Easdale, Mr. E, Pete Wood, and Chris Carter; they borrowed Brian MacLeod from Wire Train on drums and New Jersey friend Tommy T. for various other tasks.

Among the people mentioned in the “Thanks” section of the liner notes are Ian Hunter (Mott the Hoople), Tom Petty AND the Heartbreakers, the Posies, the Wonder Stuff, John Wesley Harding, Mitch Easter, and Clem Burke (Blondie). Former drummer Jesse is gently teased for having left the band to teach spiritual therapeutics; he died in 2014.

Production credit goes to Don Smith (Bash & Pop, Cracker, Tom Petty). Also Jeff Lynne (ELO) is credited for having listened to a rough mix.

The Best Thing About This Album

That Dramarama came back from the dead to deliver a phenomenal album.

Release Date

October, 1991

The Cover Art

Excellent! The colors, the quadrants, the shag haircut, the pop art chair, the composition of the band name and title. I think the models legs look like they are turning into butterfly legs or something insectoid.

Throwing Muses – The Real Ramona

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

At one point, I owned at least four Throwing Muses albums, but the truth is that Kristin Hersh’s songwriting is too challenging for me. I’ve seen her live (part of a tour with Grant Lee Phillips and John Doe), and I listened to the episode of Marc Maron’s podcast on which she was a guest, and she is a charming, thoughtful, funny human being – I just have a difficult time with her music. On that podcast she explained that she and Tanya Donnelly (Breeders, Belly) were half-sisters for a few years, when one’s father married the other’s mother. They remained close and were high school classmates in Providence, Rhode Island, both taking up the guitar at about the same time. Hersh was in a car accident and thereafter experienced auditory hallucinations, whereupon she of course began songwriting. The pair secured a drummer and bassist and moved to Boston, where they became the first American band signed by 4AD. A debut produced by Gil Norton (Catherine Wheel, Pixies) and other albums followed. Donnelly formed side project the Breeders with Kim Deal, but remained in Throwing Muses . . . until she did not. In 1991, she left the band, taking bassist Fred Abong with her to form Belly. Hersh has continued Throwing Muses and also released solo albums since then, as well as worked with side project 50 Foot Wave. Drummer David Narcizo works primarily in graphic design these days.

What I Think of This Album

If I am being stingy, this is the only Throwing Muses album worth owning. Some people really like the debut, but you have to be able to accept Kristin Hersh’s volatile, sometimes disturbing songwriting and equally unique voice. I find life to be harrowing enough on its own – I don’t require a complementary soundtrack.

This is all to say that I strongly prefer Tanya Donnelly’s songs – she typically had two per album – and here both “Honeychain” and “Not Too Soon” are standouts. Donnelly’s work is obviously more pop oriented, but the real issue is that the Muses could not function as the vehicle for two different songwriters, mostly because Hersh’s songs are so powerful and commanding that they suck all the oxygen from the room. I can 100% understand Donnelly’s decision to branch out on her own.

“Honeychain” is grounded in a pleasant bass figure over which Donnelly’s angelic vocals float, only to be shattered by a stabbing, distorted guitar, before resolving again to gentle, flowing melodicism. Donnelly shifts her singing style during this piece, from soft and sweet to more nakedly strident – a fine performance. “Not To Soon” is a wonderful cherry bomb of a song, hidden in a cloud of cotton candy. With impressively pounding drums from David Narcizo, and featuring a wordless and seductive vocal refrain, the song chunks its way into your heart, spurred on by lashes of effected guitar. Both tracks hint at the ethereal qualities that would come to define the first Belly album (but not, as we have already discussed, the second).

The remaining ten tracks constitute the punishing tidal wave of Hersh’s neuroses. “Counting Backwards” is notable for its syncopated drumming (Narcizo really does excellent work on this album) and a discordant, snaky guitar line. I can’t figure out what the brief “Him Dancing” is about, but it is unusual and unsettling; the music is excellent, with a Pixies-like drum beat, very nice bass work, and creative layering of different guitar tones and parts. Equally inscrutable is the spindly and spooky “Red Shoes,” which threatens to dissolve into its own bitter plasma and feels way too long at just over three and a half minutes.

Hersh delivers melody by the carload on the propulsive “Graffitti,” with some effective guitar work; this almost sounds like something Donnelly would’ve written (and her harmonies are wonderful). The call to action of “Golden Thing” is of a piece with the first two tracks, again driven by Narcizo’s drumming and more underrated guitar playing. “Ellen West” is dark and unwavering, the sound of Hersh exorcising whatever demons plague her. “Hook In Her Head” is likewise a troubling piece with an extended, Dantean instrumental break, after which Hersh’s voice (literal and figurative) takes over as she spits out terse commands, and then spends several minutes in a frightening whirlwind of atonal sounds, heavyweight drums, and bizarre lyrics. Not for the faint of heart.

“Say Goodbye” straddles the line between the poppier elements of the album and the more typical obtuseness of Hersh’s songwriting, without making either feel notable. “Two Step,” on the other hand, is a disarming ballad, with surreal lyrics delivered in a surprisingly understated fashion, along with a lovely guitar line. Instrumental “Dylan” feels like a placeholder, though it isn’t unlikeable. It’s remarkable that thirty years on, this album still sounds as uncompromising and fresh as ever.

Dennis Herring (Camper Van Beethoven, Modest Mouse) produced; Paul Q. Kolderie did some remixing on “Red Shoes.”

The Best Thing About This Album

David Narcizo’s drumming is outstanding.

Release Date

February, 1991

The Cover Art

I’m a fan of the black border and the font. The photograph doesn’t do much for me.

Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

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

I recall fondly the way MTV VJ Dave Kendall would pronounce Bandwagonesque, which he did often when I was in college. It felt like the video for “The Concept” was always on 120 Minutes, and honestly, it’s not even in my top 7 songs from this album. Maybe not even top 8. I would have much rather had “Star Sign” – the song that first attracted me to Teenage Fanclub – get all that attention. 

What I Think of This Album

This is technically the third Teenage Fanclub album, but I think of it as the second one because the true second album – The King – was essentially a joke recording, supposedly made in one night (after the sessions for Bandwagonesque were completed). The fact that Bandwagonesque was released roughly three months after The King tells us which one is the real album.

Anyway, this is the album, produced by Don Fleming (who also worked with Hole and Sonic Youth), that made Teenage Fanclub famous. Bandwagonesque was the band’s defining moment in more ways than one. Apart from being the album that broke them in the US, it also set the framework for future TFC albums, with split songwriting, a greater emphasis on harmonies and melody, and the songwriter taking lead vocals on his songs. The third (second) album also moved permanently away from the sludgier A Catholic Education in that it evinced a predilection for love songs, and this time the guitars chime and jangle as much as they churn and distort.

Norman Blake provided four tracks, bassist Gerry Love five, guitarist Raymond McGinley got his feet wet with just one, and then Love and drummer Brendan O’Hare collaborated on one, with the entire band getting credit for the throwaway “Satan.” The quality here is so high it is difficult to decide whether Love or Blake comes out ahead. I might have to give the nod to Gerry Love, but I can see the argument the other way.

First, “Star Sign” is impeccable, a Byrdsy treat about superstition that comes to life after a lengthy, almost infuriating intro. The rising bass part and the “oh well” nature of the lyrics play off O’Hare’s near-manic drumming and the tape flutter effect near the end, where everything goes out of tune for a hot second is fucking awesome (this was mysteriously eliminated from later versions of the song – I have listened to them all, and even communicated with Brendan O’Hare’s spouse on Facebook about it). Love also contributes the beautiful and enigmatic  “December” (what the fuck does “I wanted to assassinate December” mean?), with perfect strings from BMX Bandit Joe McAlinden (a band Blake was also in). This track admittedly does bring to mind Big Star’s “September Gurls.”

Love gets religious on “Guiding Star,” also again benefitting from McAlinden’s arrangement, which flows like honey out of the speakers on the harmonised vocals of the band members, and a nice little guitar riff at the end. Casting that aside, Love turns in the psychedelic, swirling instrumental “Is This Music?,” on which O’Hare wears out the bass drum while McGinley and Blake’s guitars weave around each other and climb towards the heavens. I don’t much care for “Pet Rock,” but the horn part is cool (McAlinden once more), even if the guitar solo is a bit too conventional for me.

Blake, though, gives us the so-stupid-its-perfect “What You Do To Me,” possibly the most reductive love song in the world; the guitars, vocals, and melody suggest the Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Byrds all locked in the same room. Blake’s other stunning contribution is the fantastic (and fantastically titled) “Alcoholiday.” This is a guitar showcase, yes, but the sighing harmonies and the lyrics of ambivalent love (including the dismissive “Baby, I’ve been fucked already”) are stellar; meanwhile, the solo at the end should have led to an invite from Neil Young to join Crazy Horse.

I will give Blake most credit for “Sidewinder,” another simple but perfect love song with silly lyrics (“When you’re ticking / I’m your tock), this time aimed at a drummer (“You look so cute behind your kit / . . . / Hit the snare you know it makes me smile”), and another casually enamel-stripping solo from McGinley. “Metal Baby” is probably Blake’s weakest offering, reinforcing the notion from A Catholic Education’s “Heavy Metal” and “Heavy Metal II” that this band does not know the first thing about metal. Blake also wrote “The Concept,” which I never cared for that much. The feedback opening is cool, and I dig the chord progression. McGinley plays one excellent solo (the first one) and one good solo (duh). And I like the shift to the dreamy, weightless, wordless harmonies. And I really like it when the strings take center stage for a few seconds, right before the second solo. But while there are a lot of things about this song I like a lot, it doesn’t come together for me. Part of it, I think, is that it’s just too goddamn long.

McGinley’s “I Don’t Know” is not surprisingly, a riffy little affair with some great vocal harmonies, and a fine melody.

I dispute the inescapable comparisons to Big Star. I dispute and reject them. First, these Scots have much better voices than Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If there is any complaint about the Fannies’ vocals, it’s that they can seem a bit lackadaisical. Big Star, on the other hand, often relied on bluesy throat-straining – the opposite of lackadaisical – which you will never hear on a TFC album. Second, there is not that much Big Star that actually sounds like this. More to the point, there is a lot of Big Star that doesn’t – “She’s a Mover,” “Mod Lang,” “O My Soul,” “Don’t Lie to Me.” Teenage Fanclub has a fairly consistent sound, whereas Big Star tended to wander from style to style. Yes, this music owes a debt to “September Gurls” and the last half of “Daisy Girl,” but to claim this is the equivalent of the fourth Big Star album is insane.

The cover art was intended to be a snide comment on the music industry, cheaply put together using clipart by Sharon Fitzgerald (McGinley’s girlfriend at the time). Little did TFC realize that Gene Simmons of KISS had apparently trademarked bags of money with dollar signs on them (?????) and decided to sue.

The yellow spine of my CD has faded to white, but I will never replace it (because I need that moment in “Star Sign” that has been erased from history).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Star Sign,” now and forever.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

It has grown on me. The color is garish and the image is silly, and at one point I really didn’t like it. I still don’t love it, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

Uncle Tupelo – Still Feel Gone

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I once saw a Jeff Tweedy solo show at the Lounge Ax. I forget the year, but it was before Wilco got big. Some guy in the audience (which wasn’t even that sizeable) shouted out “No Tupelo!” – not that Tweedy had yet played any Uncle Tupelo songs. It’s possible the shouter meant it as encouragement – that Tweedy should be confident in his own, new material. At any rate, Tweedy, not immediately but shortly thereafter, launched into an Uncle Tupelo number (I don’t remember which one), and afterwards, he angrily declared “They’re my songs, too.” Uncle Tupelo formed in Belleville, Illinois in the early 1980s, starting as a cover band called The Plebes and then the Primatives (or possibly, the Primitives). When they changed their name in the late ‘80’s, they began writing their own material. Four albums later, songwriters Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s relationship ruptured, and Farrar formed Son Volt while Tweedy created Wilco.

What I Think of This Album

I much prefer this second album to debut No Depression, which title notwithstanding, was an difficult examination of a bleak, bored, rural Rust Belt existence, with multiple songs about alcohol abuse, and where the most uplifting number – the excellent cover of the Carter Family’s “No Depression In Heaven” – suggested that the only escape was death. That album was also dominated by Jay Farrar and is the Tupelo disc that most honors their punk roots (indeed, hardcore roots, judging from the oppressive rhythms).

On Still Feel Gone, the band gets more melodic and less tightly wound (though this is not a band that seems to know how to have fun at all). Too, both songwriters have grown. They better channel their punk fury – note the pounding drums at the end of “Fall Down Easy” (excellent job, Mike Heidorn!) or the guitar noise of “Looking for a Way Out” – into pop structures and seem more comfortable with country instrumentation and arrangement. The stop-start dynamics are still present (particularly on “Postcard” and appropriately on tribute to “D. Boon” of the Minutemen) but they don’t overwhelm.

In general, Farrar sounds less angry and considerably wiser, accepting without being resigned. His work on the spare, vulnerable, alcohol-soaked “Still Be Around” is amazing, and his emotional vocal on “Punch Drunk” is incomparable. Too, he adds grace and heft to the fatalistic but not hopeless “True to Life” (with Bottle Rocket Brian Henneman on guitar).

Tweedy gets many more songs this time, and they generally go down easier than Farrar’s. It’s arguable that he proves to be the better songwriter this time. I’m obviously looking at it from the wrong end, but you can hear the seeds of Wilco here, particularly on “Nothing” and “If That’s Alright.” Neither of these, as good as they are, can compete with rumbly opener “Gun.” And the nimble “Watch Me Fall” – with guitar from Jawhawk Gary Louris and a subtle accordion, organ, and banjo backing – is phenomenal, and the off-beat drum hits/guitar strums at 1:27 are positively joy-inducing. Also, “Cold Shoulder” is an affecting realization that the person you love doesn’t love you.

Louris plays guitar on three songs total, and Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie produced (with Slade contributing piano and organ).

I have the Legacy reissue, which came out in 2003 after Farrar and Tweedy won the rights to the songs from original label Rockville. The disc adds five bonus tracks – mostly demos – all enjoyable, including an excellent cover of the Soft Boys’ “I Wanna Destroy You” and downer original “Sauget Wind,” which makes me think of the Byrds’ “Hickory Wind” and more importantly, deserved to have been included on the album proper. The liner notes are by accomplished author/producer/editor/archivist/curator Holly George Warren.

The Best Thing About This Album

Probably “Gun,” but “Watch Me Fall” is a close contender.

Release Date

September, 1991 (original); March, 2003 (reissue)

The Cover Art

I don’t know. On the one hand, I like the color and the font, as well as the use of texture, but on the other, the image (a cropped shot of the band on stage) is murky.

U2 – Achtung Baby

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

It took me at least a decade – probably more – to fully come around on this album. And the “fully” part may be wishful thinking, as I still honestly can’t stand U2 and those feelings remain linked, in part, to this album. There were several reasons for my initial hatred of this album. One was that U2 and I were just growing apart. When I first liked them, I was still in my early teens, not yet fully immersed in alternative and indie. By the time Achtung Baby came out, I was in college and had almost completely moved away from mainstream rock. Another factor was the immense loss of goodwill that resulted from the execrable Rattle and Hum. Bono was insufferable and self-righteous, and the whole band seemed to start believing in their own status (ironic, given how The Joshua Tree balanced the myth of America against the reality of America), fully crossing over into self-parody. Third, this album was inescapable and I resented that. There was not a single party I attended in college post-Acthung Baby that did not include “Mysterious Ways” or “One” on the soundtrack. I never wanted to hear these songs again. Over time, and with distance, I came back to it to see what I might have overlooked. In retrospect, this is the last great U2 album. The title should carry a comma, I think.

What I Think of This Album

This is nothing more and nothing less than U2’s alternative rock album. They get waaaayyyyy too much credit for adopting the harsher guitars and dance beats of their younger peers. None of these sounds are new or innovative – but they are for U2. Where they should get credit is for doing it well. And that should come with a helping of criticism for being clueless, self-satisfied egomaniacs about it. As good as this album was, it represented the point at which I just could not take this band anymore, and that hasn’t changed (though I will admit that “Wild Honey” off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a wonderful pop song, and one of my favorite U2 tracks – not surprisingly, it represents a lighter side of the band, which basically does not exist).

The intro to “Zoo Station” is pretty fucking cool, with that nasty riff, the rhythm track, and then the processed drums. What’s hilarious is that U2 wanted to confuse listeners and make them think their stereo equipment was broken . . . which would be my mother’s reaction to that intro. U2 is so laughably out-of-touch, lacking any understanding of the world around them. If they honestly thought their fans would react to hearing distortion and programmed drums with bewilderment and concern that their stereos were malfunctioning, then U2 were truly musical innocents.

The band repeats the awesome intro trick on “Even Better Than the Real Thing. Some of the vocal melody is fine, but the chorus is absolute garbage; the guitar tones later in the song are creative and effective, and the solo is appealing. I hate “One” – the melody, the vocals, the lyrics, all of it. The percussion and guitar on “Until the End of the World” absolutely make this song, which is otherwise <sigh> a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Ignoring that, the Edge shines on this track, using different tones, riffs, and textures expertly.

One of my favorites of all of U2’s entire catalog is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” again with an outstanding intro. The Edge doesn’t do a lot but his distorted, reverby tone is excellent. And Bono thankfully does not try to do too much with the lyrics; the backing harmonies (which might not be a vocal, I’m not sure) are nice, too. If you want a ballad, I suggest you skip “One” and head straight for “So Cruel,” a marvelous construction featuring piano, strings, and a syncopated rhythm track.

Once again, the intro to “The Fly” just fucking slays. In fact, the entire guitar element of this song is amazing, with a solo that manages to combine the old U2 sound with the new. I wish the Edge would cut loose like this more often. And the percussion works really well, too. I have come to embrace “Mysterious Ways,” though I still find Bono’s vocals annoying, with its funky rhythms (nice congas, courtesy of Daniel Lanois), a slinky bass part, and spy movie embellishments. This is arguably the sexiest U2 has come across on record.

From there, the album ends unimpressively. The “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” line basically ruins “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” which is a decent and almost lighthearted tune. The familiar pattern of Bono’s delivery hampering an otherwise fine musical backing reappears on “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which, if you tune out the vocals, is a great song. The same cannot be said for “Acrobat,” which is an unsalvageable mess, nor for the eminently forgettable and overcooked “Love Is Blindness,” which features the Edge’s hammiest playing on the album, if not his professional career.

Lanois mostly produced, with Brian Eno contributing and Steve Lillywhite as well; Flood was the engineer, again.

Not surprisingly, U2 ultimately fell back into the same trap as they had post-The Joshua Tree of becoming too convinced of their uniqueness. Bono’s attempt at parody through his Fly and MacPhisto (groan) characters – and this is assuming he is being honest about his intentions, and this wasn’t a latter-day retcon – was fundamentally flawed because the very idea of parodying rock star behavior by creating and adopting different personas – particularly, those that you maintain in public and off-stage – is itself egotistical behavior.

And in any event, the actions and attitudes of these not-at-all-clever creations were pretty close to Bono’s own predilections before and after, most notably perhaps via the fact that “Bono” was a stage name. Young Paul Hewson was in a “surrealist street gang” (Jesus Fucking Christ) and he went by various names, including “Huysman” and “Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang” (sigh) and “Bono Vox” (roughly, “good vocals” in Latin – eyeroll). Making prank calls to politicians from the stage isn’t that far removed from preaching about the Troubles or singing tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, Bono was always a pompous loudmouth – the oversized sunglasses didn’t suddenly render his actions ironic.

More generally, the band spent the years since this era overly concerned with their public and critical perception, wrapped up in the belief that as the biggest band in the world (not my words) they carried some special burden. The whole thing actually speaks to a dearth of confidence and self-esteem, which is evident in their desperate need to record with B.B. King or “steal back” a song on behalf of the Beatles. The fact is that U2 is embarrassed to be U2 but too scared to admit it.

Part of the problem is that U2 really has no organic musical heritage. The Joshua Tree was born of a recent introduction to folk, blues, and roots music. Achtung Baby was a quick adoption of alternative, dance, and industrial sounds. Pop added more techno and electronica elements. But just as a distortion pedal appeared to be a revelation for the Edge in 1991, so too did sequencers in 1997. These things should not have been so eye-opening. It’s just that U2 exists in a vacuum. Worse, they pretend that they don’t, so you get ridiculous statements like that Pop was a conscious effort to deconstruct a four piece rock band. Get over yourselves – what really happened is that you figured out fifteen years after New Order did that you could combine sequencers, drum loops, and guitars. And five years after Jesus Jones did, for fuck’s sake. I ask, where does U2 come from? What can you connect them to? U2 is certainly capable of covering a Dylan, Ramones, or Chuck Berry song, but not with any sincerity. They exist exclusively in their own world.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?,” though I could just as easily credit the Edge’s guitar playing.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

A mess, but you know what? Points for not giving us a typical U2 album cover.

Violent Femmes – Why Do Birds Sing?

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

Violent Femmes are almost certainly underrated, but not by much. They could have arguably rivaled the Replacements, but the songwriting simply wasn’t consistent enough. I’ve never heard Hallowed Ground, but if nothing else it speaks to Gordon Gano’s lyrical flexibility and the band’s more-expansive-than-you-might-think musical heritage. The Blind Leading the Naked was decent but not a keeper, and 3 was a bit of a dud. Along the way, they created memorable and fun songs. Why Do Birds Sing? is worthy of being in my collection, and I sort of stopped after that. Gano and Brian Ritchie have endured acrimony and lawsuits but still play together.

What I Think of This Album

This is a strong Femmes album, obviously not rising to the heights of the inimitable debut, but still bursting with wit, originality, and energy.

Few bands would put together a folky and upbeat celebration of suicide like “Out the Window,” nor would any other band decide to update both Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and an Elizabethan era poem (“Hey Nonny Nonny”) on the same album (or even, during the same career). Several songs appear to resurrect the ghost of the first album. The silly “Girl Trouble” (“Have mercy on me / I’ve got girl trouble . . . up the ASS”) effectively hearkens back to the debut, as does the conflicted and bitter “He Likes Me.”

The spare “Flamingo Baby” transforms from romantic to horny to bitter to resolute, while “Lack of Knowledge” is a misfire that certainly wouldn’t have made the cut in 1983. Unexpectedly, the thick, almost sludgy, “Life Is a Scream” is as conventionally punk as I’ve ever heard the band (though the wah-wah bass does break the mold). On the other end of the spectrum, hit “American Music” is a shiny and robustly arranged pop song that avoids any charges of selling out, because the sincere lyrics are still from the confused, messed-up, frustrated, self-hating point of view of the same teenage malcontent from eight years earlier.

Gano resurrects his spiritual concerns on the unobtrusive and light-hearted “I’m Free.” There is a touching vulnerability to “Used to Be,” though some may find it maudlin. Whatever. Fuck them. On everything but “American Music,” the band deftly adds subtle enhancements to their mostly acoustic-and-snare setup (I do like that drummer Victor DeLorenzo gets a “cymbal” credit on one song), with bassist Brian Ritchie doing his masterful best on bouzouki, glockenspiel, didgeridoo, ukelele, banjo, and jaw harp.

The Best Thing About This Album

“American Music” was intended to be the hit, and I will comply.

Release Date

April, 1991

The Cover Art

It’s amusing. The intermingling of the title and band name, with the different fonts and colors, is difficult to read.

The Verlaines – Ready to Fly

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

This was the Verlaines’ major label debut, which was on Slash, which was also the label that picked up fellow Kiwis The Chills the year before. Clearly, someone at Slash was paying attention; they should have just signed the entire Flying Nun roster. Though I doubt either band sold well enough in the States to make those signings pay off. The Slash logo is cool. The Verlaines toured behind this album but I was not yet into them in 1991, sadly.

What I Think of This Album

Look, if one of the lyrics of your song is “Why don’t you love me?,” then I am probably going to like that song. Does this make me a pathetic fuck? No. It doesn’t make me one  . . . it just underscores the degree to which I am one.

Anyway, that line is but one of the many charms of wonderfully titled opening track “Gloom Junky,” which also offers this classic:  “I don’t mean to say you’re infantile / But do you ever listen to yourself?” The song – like the entire album – finds Graeme Downes striking the perfect balance between his pop and orchestral sensibilities.

Still formally a three piece, the Verlaines get help from no fewer than twelve additional musicians, mostly on horns, strings, and reeds. That said, “Overdrawn” is possibly the fastest, most drum-heavy song they had recorded to date, while “Such As I” sounds like it was written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, but in neither case does it sound like the Verlaines are going too far in one extreme or the other.

And indeed, most of the songs follow the pattern of the glorious love song “Tremble” – effectively bringing together the rock instruments and the orchestral ones, with Downes’s emotive vocals tying everything together. “Hurricane” is another pop song that borrows from Broadway, but it works perfectly. “War In My Head” is appropriately frenetic, with Downes doing his best to explain his competing, extreme emotions.

“Inside Out” is another song that marries horns and strings to a roller coaster drum part, and which relies on Downes’s way with a melody, while “See You Tomorrow” is basically a country-blues number from an alternate universe version of Oklahoma! where Laurey and Ado Annie wear Chess Records t-shirts.

Oddly, “Hole In the Ground” starts out like a Wire song, but quickly develops into a warm message of support to a heartbroken friend (“Dance as if you were on his grave”). The title track is a full-throated declaration of freedom (“You’re wearing me down / I’m ready to fly”). “Moonlight On Snow” is less immediate than the other tracks, but is a very pretty orchestral piece. The Verlaines end things with the quick sine wave of “Hold On.”

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything here is fantastic, but I will go with “Tremble.”

Release Date

1991

The Cover Art

They broke out the fisheye lens, but didn’t really need to go through all that trouble, as there is barely any fisheyeing going on here.

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