The Fastbacks – The Question Is No

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

It is entirely possible that the Fastbacks are the most punk band not only in my collection, but the country. Keep your Fear, your Fugazi, your Dead Kennedys. They are all more professional, polished, and popular than the Fastbacks, who formed in 1979 and didn’t release their first album until 1987 (and even that one was cobbled together from a series of sessions, only one of which took place in an actual recording studio), and who never have had a permanent drummer. High school friends Lulu Gargiulo, Kim Warnick, and Kurt Bloch formed and essentially remained the Seattle band until 2001 (or maybe 2002, who knows? See? Punk as fuck). At first, Bloch drummed, Warnick played bass, and Gargiulo was the guitarist while a friend handled vocals. Quickly trimmed down to a trio, Bloch took over on guitar and Warnick grabbed the mic and they scraped by with random drummers thereafter. Those drummers have included two members of Flop, Mike Musberger of the Posies, Richard Stuverud (who has been associated with members of Pearl Jam), Tad Hutchinson from the Young Fresh Fellows – another band Bloch is in, Mudhoney’s own Dan Peters, and of course, future Guns N’ Roses bassist Duff McKagan. The alternative/grunge/Seattle boom in the ‘90s resulted in the Fastbacks opening for Pearl Jam on an international tour, but of course, that didn’t translate to fame and fortune.

What I Think of This Album

The Question Is No is a delightful collection of singles, compilation tracks, and unreleased songs on Sub Pop featuring five drummers (including, yes, Duff) and covering twelve years of the band’s history. Seven tracks are from 1980-88 and the other six are from the productive-by-comparison era of 1991-92, though the newer songs are presented first (mostly – per the liner notes, this was a decision intended as an explicit “fuck you” to people like me who want a strict timeline).

Displaying a remarkable consistency despite the years and the drummers, the Fastbacks play hooky, speedy, fuzzy poppish punk descended from the Ramones and akin to a less tortured Buzzcocks. Kurt Bloch is a triple-threat, writing engagingly catchy melodies, playing tough lead guitar that is actually more Cheap Trick than anything else, and offering up lyrics that are thoughtful and intelligent. For their part, Lulu Gargiulo and Kim Warnick sweeten and soften things up with their lively vocals, adding a girl-group element to the sound.

Warnick worked at SubPop and was in Visqueen with Rachel Flotard (Neko Case) in the early 2000s. Her husband for some period of time was Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. Gargiulo is a cinematographer and filmmaker.

The Best Thing About This Album

Um, Duff. Okay, not really, but almost. “Lose” is a fantastic fucking song, with the brilliantly titled “Don’t Eat That It’s Poison” nipping at its heels.

Release Date

June, 1992

The Cover Art

Dumb, but my main objection is that a drummer is in the pic. Also, I think this cover was just repurposed from the The Answer Is You release photo shoot. That’s punk.

The Young Fresh Fellows – It’s Low Beat Time

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

I strongly suspect I will end up owning a good chunk of the Young Fresh Fellows’ output. It’s only a matter of time. I like bands that are irreverent and carefree but still try enough (at least, enough of the time) to write melodic and clever songs.

What I Think of This Album

It’s difficult to fairly assess this from such a distant vantage point. Low Beat Time was released in 1992; I first heard it in 2023. That said, it is basically what you would expect from any Young Fresh Fellows album:  it’s a fucking mess, but eminently enjoyable. Thank you, Scott McCaughey and Kurt Bloch, for never disappointing.

This one is actually probably more of a clusterfuck than the average YFF disc. It’s got 16 songs, recorded at five studios in three cities, and with six different production credits. Perhaps not surprisingly, this eighth album was the last Young Fresh Fellows record for a good five years (and that 1997 release, A Tribute to Music, was only issued in Spain, supposedly).   

As usual, the best songs are the ones that combine the band’s irreverence with their pop smarts. So, dial up “Right Here,” “Mr. Anthony’s Last,” “Whatever You Are,” “Faultless,” “She Sees Color,” “Monkey Say,” “99 Girls,” “She Won’t Budge,” and “Green Green.”

Notable anomaly is instrumental “A Crafty Clerk,” which sounds like Brian Wilson got lost in the midway of a carnival in Iowa.

Along the way, you can make what you will of “Low Beat Jingle” (a fifteen second number comprised of typewriter, trumpet, and percussion), the schizophrenic but still melodic (sometimes) “Snow White,” the churning and ominous “Two Headed Fight,” the mysterious and hateful “A Minor Bird,” and a reprise of “Low Beat Jingle” plus more in the jaunty “Low Beat.” 

Soul legend Rufus Thomas sings on closing track “Green Green,” which is a cover of a New Christy Minstrels song. Keyboardist Lester Snell (Isaac Hayes) plays on at least three tracks, and William Brown (engineer of “Theme from Shaft”) contributed vocals and technical work on the cover of “Love Is a Beautiful Thing” (the Young Rascals). New York band the A-Bones help out on “Monkey Say”, too.

Butch Vig produced some tracks, as did Willy Mitchell (trumpeter and producer of Al Green and Solomon Burke). Conrad Uno (who worked with Bratmobile, Mudhoney, the Fastbacks, and Sonic Youth) and McCaughey worked on one track, and Sonics engineer Kearney Barton produced the two songs that sound like the Sonics. Doug Easley (Guided by Voices, Modest Mouse, Cat Power, Pavement, the Amps) also contributed to a number of tracks.


Only the Young Fresh Fellows know why the spine of the CD reads Doc Sharpie Is a Bad Man in place of the real title, though Doc Sharpie is credited with the album art. Alex Chilton is thanked in the liner notes.

The Best Thing About This Album

The unexpected soul influence, including an excellent Rufus Thomas vocal on “Green Green.”

Release Date

September, 1992

The Cover Art

I’m agnostic on this; it’s neither good nor bad.

Eugenius – Oomalama

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Eugene Kelly was one-half of the Vaselines with Frances McKee, that band occupying a somewhat outsized place in the indie-pop world given their meager output and lack of success (much of their renown due to a late arriving blessing from Kurt Cobain). They formed in 1986, released two EPs and one album, and then broke up. They reformed in 2006 and have played live very sporadically while also releasing two more albums, in 2010 and 2014. In fairness to all involved, the original run of the Vaselines did feature a rhythm section. McKee (who had previously played in a band with Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), Duglas (not a typo) T. Stewart of BMX Bandits, and Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons) has released albums under other band names and as a solo artist. Kelly, for his part, formed Captain America in 1990 and when Marvel’s lawyers came calling, changed the name to Eugenius (which was his nickname). With a somewhat messy line-up situation, Eugenius released two albums and then Kelly just proceeded under his own name thereafter. I used to own both Eugenius albums, and while I got rid of Mary Queen of Scots, I would be willing to give it a listen again.

What I Think of This Album

There is a very appealing slacker vibe to these fourteen tracks, with the band deceptively shambling their way through a set that includes one song (“Bed-In”) about how much Eugene Kelly likes sleeping and watching tv, another (“Breakfast”) that apologizes for how he “can’t help falling down,” and the title track, which basically just repeats the absurd “oomalamaa” over and over and also makes an unrelated claim about, I guess, resurrection. In many ways, the album is something the Lemonheads might have created if Evan Dando was more self-effacing and had a better sense of humor (and maybe, you know, laid off the drugs). Throughout, Kelly lends his everyman voice to catchy, simple songs that for all their noise suggest a fundamentally cheerful and lighthearted outlook, as you might expect from titles like “I’m the Sun,” “Wow!” and “Buttermilk.”

For all of its gleeful shagginess, the truth is that Kelly is an ace songwriter and guitarist Gordon Keen unleashes some fantastic leads amidst the mess. Indeed, there is a slippery little riff at the end of the delirious solo on “Bed-In” that belongs in some hall of fame somewhere. Additional very impressive guitar goodness can be heard on the quiet/loud “Down On Me,” fiery “Flame On,” and the rockin’ “Here I Go,” as well as on most other tracks, really.

The band sprinkles just enough surprises in to keep things interesting, not that anyone is in danger of getting bored with Oomalama. Thus, there is some subtle organ on “Breakfast,” strings on the ballad “Hot Dog” (written by Keen), and pleasant (dare I say, sunny?) harmonies on “I’m the Sun.” 

The U.S. release adds three tracks to the eleven on the original U.K. release. One is a robust cover of “Indian Summer” by Beat Happening, the spiritual American cousin to Kelly’s previous band, the Vaselines. This song was also covered by Luna. The other two – “Wow” and “Wannabe” were (along with “Bed-In”) originally on the first Captain America EP. “Wow” is a sludgy delight, reminiscent maybe of the Stooges, and “Wannabe,” which seems like it borrows the verses from Chuck Berry, employs some echo chamber sonics on Kelly’s vocals.

Some of the tracks were recorded with an early version of the band, resulting in a confusing credits situation, though it is clear that Gordon Keen of BMX Bandits has always been the band’s guitarist. Francis MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub (and also manager of Camera Obscura) drums on some songs. Duglas T. Stewart contributes as does Joe McAlinden, both of BMX Bandits. The band thanks Teenage Fanclub in the liner notes.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar work of Gordon Keen.

Release Date

September, 1992

The Cover Art

A head-scratcher, but I really like it.

1992

I belong to a Facebook group dedicated to 1990s indie and alternative. The moderator will periodically select a year and provide a spreadsheet of all the albums released in that year and then you have two or three months to submit your ballot, which is a list of up to the 50 best albums of the year, with the top ten ranked. He then scores and compiles the ballots. A ranking from 11-50 earns an album one point. A ranking from 1-10 will give an album from two points (#10 ranking) to 11 points (#1 ranking). When he is done with the math, he posts the entire list of albums that received at least one vote, album by album, as decided by the participants.

I have been a lurker in the group for a while. I decided to participate in the most recent voting, which covers 1992. Even though I don’t believe in top ten lists or rankings. If anything, this exercise proved my misgivings accurate. I think you can at best separate albums into tenths (top ten, next ten, etc) and even that gets difficult as the albums decline in quality. More minute distinctions are impossible.

1992 was the year I saw two of the best concerts of my life. One was the Rollercoaster tour: Spiritualized, Curve, and The Jesus and Mary Chain. I saw them at GW University in Washington, D.C., with my best friend from high school, Meetul. We were both JAMC fans, and he liked Curve; neither of us knew the first thing about Spiritualized, the opener. Well, Spiritualized stole the fucking show, with a mind-blowing performance that converted me into a fan right then. I don’t even remember the Curve portion of the concert, and while the Mary Chain was excellent, it all paled next to Spiritualized.

The other was Social Distortion at the 9:30 Club, also in D.C. Touring behind their best album, the band packed the small venue and delivered a blistering set of material. I was at the very front, the stage being about waist high, and I had a close-up view of the whole show. At one point, I turned around to see behind me and learned that a large mosh pit had been going on inches from where I stood. Social Distortion had one guy on security, who stood off to the side of the not-large stage in almost comical fashion; he was surprisingly efficient in preventing fans from making it up there – that was almost a show in itself.

The List

Top Ten

1 Flaming Lips – Hit to Death in the Future Head

2 Luna – Lunapark

3 Jesus and Mary Chain – Honey’s Dead

4 Spiritualized – Lazer Guided Melodies

5 Heavenly – Le Jardin de Heavenly

6 Vulgar Boatmen – Please Panic

7 Cracker – S/T

8 Catherine Wheel – Ferment

9 Lemonheads – It’s a Shame About Ray

10 Pavement – Slanted & Enchanted

Next Ten

11 Morrissey – Your Arsenal

12 Jayhawks – Hollywood Town Hall

13 Beat Happening – You Turn Me On

14 Magnetic Fields – The Wayward Bus

15 Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine – 1992: The Love Album

16 Chills – Soft Bomb

17 Guided by Voices – Propeller

18 Ride – Going Blank Again

19 Cure – Wish

20 Social Distortion – Somewhere Between Heaven and Hell

Third Ten

21 Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over

22 Frank and Walters – Trains, Boats and Planes

23 Kitchens of Distinction – The Death of Cool

24 Church – Priest = Aura

25 Magnolias – Off the Hook

26 Material Issue – Destination Universe

27 House of Love – Babe Rainbow

28 Bettie Serveert – Palomine

29 Boo Radleys – Everything’s Alright Forever

30 Damon & Naomi – More Sad Hits

Fourth Ten

31 Ned’s Atomic Dustbin – Are You Normal?

32 Soul Asylum – Grave Dancers Union

33 Seam – Headsparks

34 Michael Penn – Free-For-All

35 Magnapop – S/T

36 Grant McLennan – Fireboy

37 Mighty Mighty Bosstones – More Noise and Other Disturbances

38 Sugarcubes – Stick Around for Joy

39 Young Fresh Fellows – It’s Low Beat Time

40 Eugenius – Oomalama

Last Ten

41 James – Seven

42 3Ds – Hellzapoppin

43 Sugar – Copper Blue

44 Gin Blossoms – New Miserable Experience

45 Jawbreaker – Bivouac

46 Jonathan Richman – I, Jonathan

47 They Might Be Giants – Apollo 18

48 John Wesley Harding – Why We Fight

49 Beastie Boys – Check Your Head

50 Yo La Tengo – May I Sing With Me

Desmond Dekker – Rockin’ Steady: The Best of Desmond Dekker

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Desmond Dekker was born Desmond Dacres – say that last name out loud, and the stage name makes sense. He had hits in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and even released a couple of albums in the ‘80s (one with Graham Parker’s backing band, the Rumour). He mostly worked with the influential Leslie Kong (a Chinese-Jamaican producer who recorded Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, and Toots and the Maytals, and helped form Island Records, and also had a bit part in The Harder They Come). It is almost certain that he was the inspiration for the “Desmond” character in the Beatles’ stab at ska in “Ob La Di, Ob La Da” (which itself was taken from the name of the band that backed Jimmy Scott). He is referenced in the Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ “Desmond Dekker’s Doing Fine,” and he recorded with the Specials in 1993. Dekker died in 2006.

What I Think of This Album

This is old school shit, ya’ll, and it’s fairly awesome. Dekker has a sweet voice, and all of these songs go down easy. If you’re coming at this from the perspective of third or second wave ska, you may be surprised at how gentle these tracks are. I really can’t find any fault with the collection. Twenty tracks in chronological order (thank you!), with pretty good liner notes and very good sound. But then, I trust Rhino to get these things right.

The big hits like “A It Mek,” “Israelites,” “007 (Shanty Town)” (which was covered by the Specials), and his version of Jimmy Cliff’s “You Can Get It If You Really Want” are all here. The deeper cuts are all eminently worthy of repeated plays. In my somewhat uneducated opinion, some of this is not purely ska, venturing into the slower beat of rocksteady and even reggae, but that’s fine.

I can’t endorse either the message or the religiosity of “Honour Your Mother and Father,” but it sounds amazing and is catchy as hellfire, with a great horn part and some nice piano. Dekker unleashes a soulful vocal on the sublime “This Woman.” The references to “Oh Oh Seven” and Ocean’s Eleven are sort of shoehorned in to the ambivalent, half-anthem / half-cautionary tale “007 (Shanty Town),” but whatever – it’s a classic ska track for a reason. Dekker’s voice slices through “Keep a Cool Head,” which also finds him (or more accurately, perhaps, producer Leslie Kong) embracing the slower rhythms of post-ska Jamaican music.

“Unity” floats by on a marvelous melody, with some fine bass work by whoever played bass for Kong’s Beverley’s All-Stars and excellent harmony work by back-up singer the Aces, while “Wise Man” bubbles with celebratory joy, with a doo-wop influenced vocal by Dekker. “Fu Man Chu” is probably a bad idea, but it is compellingly sinister sounding, again with a great bass line. The Aces ably support Dekker’s wonderful vocal on international hit “Israelites.” It’s difficult to deny the charms of “It Is Not Easy,” where the vocals take on a Frankie Lymon tinge.

I think this is the original single version of “A It Mek,” but I am not sure; the remixed one was the hit, so I don’t know. In any event, it’s another fantastic tune, again more rocksteady than ska. “Rude Boy Train” covers the same ground as “007 (Shanty Town),” but when the results are this fun, you can’t blame Dekker (or Kong) for going back to the well. “Pickney Gal” is fabulous, with possibly the best use of a children’s choir ever (which in all other circumstances, I fucking hate), and surprisingly gritty passages from Dekker. This album is basically a must-own for any ska fan.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Pickney Gal,” for having the only children’s choir I like.

Release Date

1992

The Cover Art

I am a fan. I love the use of color and while the graphic of the dancing white couple is sort of a head-scratcher, I like the style of the drawing. The musical notation is nice touch and the arrangement of the letters at the bottom is a winner. Also, the composition of the red, black, grey, and white rectangles is on point. 

Damon & Naomi – More Sad Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I was a big Galaxie 500 fan, but it took me a little to explore the efforts of Damon & Naomi. Often described as psychedelic folk (fair) and dreampop/slowcore (also fair), they have released over ten albums and have worked extensively with Japanese experimental band Ghost. I need to check out more of their stuff, which sometimes gets a little insubstantial for me. After the bitter dissolution of Galaxie 500 in 1991, spouses and rhythm section Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski continued to make music under the unassuming moniker of Damon & Naomi. Arguably overshadowed by Dean Wareham in their earlier band, the two have carved out a spot as highly respected iconoclasts. What’s more, each has expanded beyond music. Yang is a graphic designer (having done all the Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi sleeves), photographer, and filmmaker, with videos created for Tanya Donnelly, Waxahatchee, and the Future Bible Heroes. Krukowski, for his part, is a published poet and author, has taught at Harvard, and founded – with Yang – a book publishing company (Exact Change) that specializes in avant-garde literature from the 19th and 20th centuries.

What I Think of This Album

This is a charming, beautiful record that manages to establish the band as separate from Galaxie 500 while maintaining a sonic connection that nonetheless explores sounds that trio never attempted. Yang’s vocals and bass playing were perhaps never given their due in Galaxie 500, and Krukowski was considered simply to be the (excellent) drummer; neither of them has to worry about that ever again. Teaming up once more with their previous band’s producer Kramer (Bongwater), on More Sad Hits the three craft a meticulous collection of dreamy but grounded soundscapes, more or less hewing to pop structures.

The first almost-half of this album is unstoppable. “E.T.A” is a showcase for Yang, who adds lovely vocals with superb support on drums (and vocals) from Krukowski; someone adds a chiming, chunky guitar strum and then a silkworm solo – delicate but with considerable tensile strength. The band subverts Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” in the languid, hypnotic “Little Red Record Co.” by claiming with somber sincerity “Mother’s close / And Father’s close / But neither’s as close as Chairman Mao.” I’m guessing it’s keyboards making the odd noises that permeate but do not distract from the track, which ends with a repeated verse that takes on the permanence of a religious chant.

My favorite track is probably the gauzy eulogy of “Information Age,” with some stunning wah-wah guitar (approaching the sound of a theremin or saw). The lyrics here are also excellent; few lines by anyone are as witty as “The times are hard / Or so they say / But I don’t believe the Times / And I don’t believe the Globe / It’s spinning free enough to choose your way to go,” and the kicker of “They’re just nostalgia” in the chorus pierces my heart with every listen. In addition, Yang’s bass flows effortlessly and unpredictably through the track. Sometimes the melody reminds me of “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements – maybe it’s just me.

The enigmatic, lachrymose “Laika” floats by on Yang’s vocals and high register bass part. The duo’s perverse sense of humor is fully flaunted on bumper-sticker quoting “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington,” which takes the vertiginous tourist attraction and uses it as the skeleton of a song about a troubled relationship; this is the track with the closest thing to a Galaxie 500 guitar part, as someone (my guess is Kramer) unleashes a lengthy and blistering, but not flashy, solo.

Things generally get less immediate on the back half. “Astrafiammante” (which translates to “flaming star” from Italian) has some nice bass work again, but doesn’t really go anywhere. . . except to a very strange place with sort of faux-operatic vocals (both female and male), which I suppose is consistent insofar as Astrafiammante is one of the roles in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Krukowski takes the lead on the over-before-it-starts “Boston’s Daily Temperature,” which meanders along harmlessly; the arrangement and production are cool, but the song sort of stagnates.

Similarly benign, but far less interesting, is “Sir Thomas and Sir Robert,” which invokes the name of 16th century poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt and perhaps is a jokey reference to the Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, which I surmise in part because smack dab in the middle of the album is a cover of the Soft Machine’s “Memories.” I can’t really say much about the cover, but this is definitely where the psychedelic part of the band’s genetics comes to the fore.

I have to admit that instrumental interlude “Scene Change” isn’t bad at all – I normally hate this kind of thing – though obviously it’s not essential. The at-once-dreamy-and-ramshackle “Once More” is an excellent song that dares to get noisy. The cover of “This Changing World” – best known apparently in its Claudine Longet-sung version – is pretty good too, though the avant-jazz drum intro I could do without.

Originally released on Kramer’s Shimmy Disc label, I have the Sub Pop reissue; more sad hits, indeed.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Information Age,” though “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” gives it a good run for its money.

Release Date

November, 1992 (original); 1997 (Sub Pop reissue)

The Cover Art

Wonderful. This use of Man Ray’s Les Larmes (also just known as Tears) from 1934 works perfectly with the album title, and the color palette choices are superb. Excellent work from Naomi Yang.

The Cure – Wish

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

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

What I Think of This Album

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

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

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

The Best Thing About This Album

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

Release Date

April, 1992

The Cover Art

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

The Vulgar Boatmen – Please Panic

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

There is a third Vulgar Boatmen studio album (Opposite Sex) that, predictably, was never released in the U.S. In 2003, the Boatmen released a collection of tracks from all three albums, with some other flotsam. The Indianapolis Boatmen normally play a January show in Chicago, which I have seen once and missed once, and which I hope to see again once we actually enter a post-pandemic phase.

What I Think of This Album

First of all, props for the excellent album title. Second, this is at least as good as the debut. Sometimes I get misled because I don’t care for the first song here (not coincidentally, it is the one song not by the Dale Lawrence-Robert Ray team), but that just means I am impatient and stupid.

This is a great album to drink a bottle of wine and develop a rough outline for suicide to. A collection of careful, thoughtful, beguiling, and heartfelt songs, Please Panic is all about unappealing choices, resignation, broken hearts, and the far off horizon. And yet. And yet, songs like “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” “I’m Not Stuck On You,” “You’re the One,” and “Alison Says” (which works up a nice Velvets/Feelies churn) betray that glimmer of hope that we normally don’t dare acknowledge, because that sort of thinking is really fucking risky. Of course, those are the saddest songs of all (even if they don’t know it).

There is a gorgeous viola – played by Helen Kirklin, spouse of Ray – on several tracks (most notably, on the wonderful “There’s a Family”), and the guitar interplay is excellent. I don’t know – this is probably enjoyable even for people who are not profoundly depressed.

The Best Thing About This Album

“You Don’t Love Me Yet”

Release Date

February, 1992

The Cover Art

Hmmm. No. I don’t like anything about this.

Cracker – Cracker

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

David Lowery has a blog where he goes into impressively minute detail about various Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker songs, obviously meandering off into other topics, including the mechanics and moralities of the music business. I have the utmost affection for Lowery, a grinning smart aleck, who in addition to fronting two great bands is also a musician’s activist, a lecturer at the University of Georgia, a radio host, and a mathematician specializing in quantitative analysis. Cracker formed out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven; Lowery and high school friend Johnny Hickman left California in 1991 and settled in Virginia (at some point joined by fellow Redlands native Davey Faragher), where they proceed to crank out rootsy, melodic, and intelligent songs.

What I Think of This Album

God, I love this fucking thing. I played the shit out of this way back then, and it still sounds amazing. Johnny Hickman is a tragically unknown guitarist, and bassist Davey Faragher does fine work, aided on three tracks by consummate session pro Jim Keltner on drums, and superguest Benmont Tench on keyboards. But the key to all of this is Lowery, whose smart-assed cynicism neither curdles nor crosses the line into smarminess. Running at full speed away from the eclectic sounds of Camper Van Beethoven, David Lowery crafts undeniably catchy but earthy and sinewy songs, with some critical songwriting contributions from Hickman (as much of a court jester as Lowery is) and others, including Faragher. This album is the perfect marriage of insightful cleverness with bar band sonics, and it is a delight.

Hit “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” expertly mocks and empathizes with its target, a moody youngster who just wants to get laid; Lowery’s strained vocals at around 3:40 are a favorite of mine. The odd but irresistible “Happy Birthday to Me” finds Lowery casually employing the absurdist lyrical approach he excelled at with his former band, with a stellar harmonica part from Hickman. Lowery vents his spleen some more on the not at all subtle “Don’t Fuck Me Up (with Peace and Love),” with fun rolling toms from . . . someone (maybe Rick Jaeger), a thrilling lead part by Hickman, and excellent backing harmonies. “Someday” is sadly self-pitying (“Someday / Well, I’ll get it right / Yeah, one day / I’ll get it right”) and also romantic, with an appropriately dusty and weepy Hickman, and lovely backing “oooh”s. The bitter “Satisfy You” is a case of Lowery unleashing inventive vitriol (As far as I know / The world don’t spin / They carry you around in your bed / And rearrange the stars all night / To satisfy you), but the cowbell, the backing vocals and Hickman manage to steal the show anyway. Hickman’s “Mr. Wrong” is hilarious, packed with colorful lyrical details that Lowery digs into. Hickman sings on the ironically dusty “Another Song About the Rain,” which maybe goes on a minute too long, but it otherwise pretty good. The spooky waltz “Dr. Bernice” is like staring into a deep well until you lose consciousness and fall in; I can never get over “Baby, don’t you drive around with Dr. Bernice / That ain’t a real Cadillac / It’s a Delta 88 / Spray painted black / With fake leather seats from Juarez.” Brilliant. The funky “Cracker Soul” is fun but slight. “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven?” ends up working just when I think it won’t. A few tracks don’t do it for me, but honestly those are quibbles.

The Best Thing About This Album

Hickman’s lead parts are revelatory.

Release Date

March, 1992

The Cover Art

Cracker’s self-deprecating take on their corporate outing is refreshing and amusing. The font is cool, as is the color scheme.

The Church – Priest = Aura

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 6)

The Church seemed like they could have done anything after the success of Starfish, and what resulted was the disaster of Gold Afternoon Fix. This album is a course correction but by then it was too late, and things soon fell apart for the Church – Richard Ploog had already left, then Peter Koppes said he was out, too, and Steve Kilbey was using heroin at this point. Record label woes and other issues compounded the difficulties. Whatever random good song might have resulted after Priest = Aura, the Church’s early years are their best.

What I Think of This Album

Arguably, the last great Church album. I say this having given up on the Church in the early 2000s – maybe they recaptured the old magic later, but I tend to doubt it. I don’t know if this was the album that should have followed Starfish, but it absolutely was the album that needed to follow Gold Afternoon Fix (though the salvation it offered was fleeting, in the end).

There is a strong sense of retrenchment and insularity on Priest; the album is a miasma of atmospherics and texture, vaguely Eastern in tone (but not sound). The Church display zero interest in writing radio friendly songs. Four of the fourteen tracks are over six minutes long, and even the shorter pieces mostly eschew a pop sound (“Ripple” is the closest thing to a nod to commercialism, with a charming chorus, and maybe “Feel” could’ve gained some traction). Peter Koppes and Marty Willson-Piper dominate, stretching out to explore every whim but without overindulging.

“Chaos,” in particular, is an aptly-titled showcase for the two guitarists, who single-mindedly slice everyone’s Achilles’ tendons over a near-ten minute spree (parts of this song remind me of Crocodiles-era Echo and the Bunnymen). “Aura” kicks things off with a bizarre existential exploration of wartime PTSD.

There are moments of tranquility, like “Paradox,” “Kings”, and “Dome,” but overall the album remains a somewhat unsettling journey into the darkness of someone’s soul. “The Disillusionist” wins for most bewildering, disorienting song of the year. “Mistress” stumbles with the line “And that halo you wear on your head / I haven’t seen one of those in years”; that should only be used once, as the repetition starts to sound like affectation. If getting high and listening to an album is your thing . . . you could do worse than this.

The drums were played by Jay Dee Daugherty (Patti Smith Group, Tom Verlaine). This was recorded and co-produced by Gavin McKillop (Chills, Goo Goo Dolls).

The album title comes from a misreading by Kilbey of a fan’s Spanish:English vocabulary notes, which of course was “Priest = Cura.”

The Best Thing About This Album

The fact that it was a comeback.

Release Date

March, 1992

The Cover Art

This art pretty much perfectly captures the feel of the music. Stark, mysterious, threatening, arid, and timeless.

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