The Fastbacks – Zücker

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

As far as I can remember, I only had one real chance to see the Fastbacks live and that was in the early ‘90s in Washington, D.C. I didn’t see them and now it’s too late. How many times has that happened to me? Lots. Have I learned my lesson? No. It still happens.

What I Think of This Album

This is the part where I inform you that zücker is German for sugar, and tell you how it is an appropriate title for this energetic pop-punk masterpiece. Joined by Rusty Willoughby of Flop on drums (though Willoughby plays the guitar in Flop), the Fastbacks power their way through thirteen instant classics and one Bee Gees cover on this Sub Pop release. Do I need to check out ‘60s Bee Gees? Fuck me.

Kurt Bloch is all over the place on this album, inserting his ‘70s hard rock influenced leads into his melodic tunes, which ease off the punk somewhat (but not completely) this time around but are nonetheless so forceful and speedy that you barely notice the softer edge. Presumably he plays the keyboards that are more than a little present, though there is no credit in the liner notes. Kim Warnick and Lulu Gargiulo turn in their best vocal performances to date, notably on spooky ballad “When I’m Old” and girl-group adjacent number “They Don’t Care,” which also features some of my favorite lead guitar lines on this album. Also of note is spiky instrumental “Bill Collector,” on which Bloch shows off his moves.

PNW mainstay Conrad Uno co-engineered the album, which was only the third full-length studio release for the band (the first coming in 1987), even though they formed in the late ’70s. It was also their first studio album for Sub Pop.

The Best Thing About This Album

Bloch’s songwriting and guitar playing.

Release Date

January, 1993

The Cover Art

I like the colors. The rest isn’t terrible, and I sort of appreciate the weirdness of it – if I am being honest, it is a memorable image, so maybe it did its job? – but it is far from a favorite.

Screeching Weasel – Anthem for a New Tomorrow

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

I used to own two additional Screeching Weasel albums:  Wiggle and How to Make Enemies and Irritate People (the latter with Mike Dirnt of Green Day on bass). Both had some great songs, including the seedy bizarro-world Happy Days-themed tune “Joanie Loves Johnny” from Wiggle, but neither was as good as the twin pinnacle of My Brain Hurts and Anthem for a New Tomorrow, and I decided I had all the Screeching Weasel I needed with those two records. I am open to revisiting that conclusion. I also owned the first Riverdales album – an offshoot with Ben Weasel, Dan Panic, and Danny Vapid – but again, while it contained some quality tunes, it couldn’t hold my attention. Jughead eventually formed Even In Blackouts and has written novels and plays, as well as acted in theater productions with the Neofuturists. Dan Panic has drummed for various bands, including, surprisingly, Beulah. Danny Vapid has also continued in the music scene. Weasel remains a massively influential figure in the punk world.

What I Think of This Album

As great as My Brain Hurts is, the best Screeching Weasel album is 1993’s Anthem for a New Tomorrow, which came on the heels of the somewhat disappointing Wiggle (also released in 1993). Amplifying the Ramones-worship of Brain and confidently displaying more sophisticated songs and arrangements, Anthem becomes a perfect encapsulation of everything there is to love about Screeching Weasel:  thoughtful lyrics promoting individuality, antiauthoritarianism, and silliness; humor both high and low (mostly low); melody by the bucketloads; and plenty of punk energy.

Almost every one of the generous 18 songs here is a keeper. Screeching Weasel’s perverse approach is well-documented on opener “I’m Gonna Strangle You,” which is a hyperactive and ultra-catchy threat which resolves with a sweetly-sung, doo-wop influenced outro that is basically the blueprint for The King Khan and BBQ Show. 

Weasel expertly explores self-hatred, despair, frustration, and loneliness, including on “Falling Apart,” “Leather Jacket,” Rubber Room,” and “Inside out,” all of which basically form a suite of thematically related songs on what some might call side one. “Rubber Room” is a callback to the band’s hardcore roots as is hard-charging but still tuneful “Inside Out,” whereas “Falling Apart” and “Leather Jacket” are Ramones-based songs, the former of which benefits from some nice (and uncredited) keyboard and the latter of which describes the titular article of clothing as the consolation prize of a failed relationship.

The band surprises with instrumental “Talk to Me Summer,” a charming, chugging, and irresistible surf-rock inflected number that suggests this band has a lot more tricks up its sleeve than one might have assumed. Less surprising but even more fun is “Peter Brady,” which finds the band again dipping into their pop culture grabbag (though they seem to really have a thing for The Brady Bunch in particular) to remind listeners about the importance of being true to yourself, all via lyrics that offer solace to the acne-afflicted and the small-breasted and invoke the idea of a teenage wildebeest. Fat Mike of NOFX sings backup on this.

On both “Pete Brady” and neighboring song “I, Robot,” Weasel communicates that conformity and consumerism are fundamental qualities of the concept of Americanism promoted by politicians, marketers, capitalists, and religious leaders. This is also the thrust of the short essay in the booklet (reminiscent in its graphic design of the work of artist Barbara Kruger), which notably remains compassionate towards those who have lost their way and urges a collective striving for a healthier “new tomorrow.” Anyway, “I, Robot” is a song that DeeDee Ramone would’ve sold his collection of Converse shoes to have written.

Weasel’s dark existential themes continue to dominate the album, such as on arguable centerpiece “Every Night” and side two songs like “Three Sides,” “Cancer In My Body,” “Panic,” and “Trance.” “Every Night” boasts a lengthy and wonderful instrumental section that marries the innovation of “Talk to Me Summer” to the affecting and honest sense of loss that the lyrics on the front end convey. “Panic” packs 60 seconds worth of lyrics into fifteen seconds of song; “Trance” is a hardcore workout but not off-putting in any way. “Cancer” sort of splits the difference between aggression and melody. 

Weasel saves his love songs for the back half, with the fantastic and endearingly reductive “Totally” (as in, “I totally love everything about you”), the more mature “Claire Monet,” and the thrashy and very fun “Thrift Store Girl,” elevating this album above standard punk fare. “Totally” and “Thrift Store” provide Chicago references (Belmont Avenue and Wicker Park, respectively). Of course, “Thrift Store” also reminds us that Weasel is capable of singing “[we can] rot amongst the cynical prototypes of love” and make it work in the context of a speedy punk song. “Claire Monet” bemoans the marriage (complete with name change) and absence of a teenage crush, noting “But if she couldn’t go on being Claire Monet / Who can?”

The album ends with call to arms “A New Tomorrow,” on which Jawbreaker’s Blake Schwarzenbach, the Vindictives’ Joey Vindictive, and Cassandra Millspaugh all contribute vocals. This ostensible title track takes the message of the booklet’s essay and puts it to music.

This album again featured the classic Weasel/Jughead/Dan Panic/Danny Vapid lineup. The album was engineered by Mass Giorgini, who worked with Green Day, the Ataris, Rise Against, Anti-Flag, Alkaline Trio, and my beloved Cub. He is also a well-published linguistics scholar and has a Ph.D. in Cervantes Studies.

The Best Thing About This Album

I don’t know who plays the keyboards on this, but they get a very strong honorable mention that falls just shy of the strength of Ben Weasel’s songwriting.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

This is an odd parody of patriotism and conformity, bathed in uncharacteristic pastels. I guess it works because I can always picture it pretty well in my mind when I think of the album. More interesting is the photo on the back of the booklet showing the band playing live, and what I love about it is the fact that Weasel has somehow attached a Big Gulp-type drink container to his mic stand so that he can sip hands-free when not singing.

Eleventh Dream Day – El Moodio

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

This is my favorite Eleventh Dream Day album. I don’t know how this wasn’t a hit in 1993 – I’m not saying the album was made for the times (that would be too calculated and careerist for the band) but rather that there is no discernible reason why this album by this band shouldn’t have been widely and loudly embraced during that cultural moment. The overdue attention for women musicians that arrived with the rise of alternative rock should have made Janet Beveridge Bean a hero for her songwriting, drumming, singing, and guitar playing. The celebration of loud guitars that propelled grunge bands to stardom should have done the same for Eleventh Dream Day. The newfound appreciation for lyrics that went deeper than what had been offered by hair metal and top 40 pop should have popularized the band’s literate and dark songs. Should have, should have, should have. This album was the last on Atlantic, the major having given the band three chances. Also calling it quits was original guitarist Figi Baird, who left during the Lived to Tell tour, replaced by Matthew “Wink” O’Bannon, who had engineered the band’s debut album. O’Bannon died in 2020.

What I Think of This Album

While I cannot dispute that Prairie School Freakout is essential, I submit that this is the most enjoyable and accessible Eleventh Dream Day record.

Janet Beveridge Bean starts things off by taking lead on a memorable and tough song. That track is the chunky “Makin’ Like a Rug,” on which she adopts a clench-jawed Southern accent on the verses while someone engages in some seriously sinister string-bending. The tune explodes into fiery melody on the choruses, augmented by Rick Rizzo’s contrapuntal vocals.

Even better is “After This Time Is Gone,” a tuneful, jangly pop song that incorporates a fluid, expressive solo full of color and light. I don’t usually credit Doug McCombs with much of value on these albums, but his bass work on this track is sinewy and melodic. And there’s even a false ending! I love a false ending. 

“Honeyslide” achieves levels of sophisticated lushness nothing like the band had ever attempted before. It sounds like the time spent with Yo La Tengo on a 1991 European tour was instructive, as the epic soundscape is right in line with YLT’s oeuvre. “Figure It Out” likewise betrays a debt to the Hoboken trio, with some elegiac melodicism in the guitar solos and a delicate, intimate touch on the verses. 

Wink O’Bannon makes himself heard with “Murder,” a song that fits in well with not just the band’s sound but its history, as this creepy slab of malice is the closest the band has come to the terrorizing mayhem of Prairie School Freakout in a while.

“That’s the Point” recruits Velvet Crush drummer Ric Menck, who propels the punky tune (again, McCombs does critical work) which still makes room for some key guitar tremolo (or maybe vibrato?) accents and a laser-like solo. “Motherland” is another excellent song, with a more relaxed pace (though Beveridge Bean goes to town on the drums) and thoroughly enjoyable guitar work, including the solo. Speaking of guitars and solos, guest Tara Key adds some droney texture to mood piece “The Raft,” while slow workout “Rubberband” is this album’s Neil Young tribute.

Tara Key would end up collaborating with Rizzo on a couple of albums’ worth of instrumentals; all the members of Eleventh Dream Day as well as Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo contributed to Key’s Bourbon County album from 1993. Producer Jim Rondinelli (Sloan, Jayhawks, Everclear, Wilco, Pooh Sticks, Magnolias) became a tech executive. 

I recently learned (or possibly relearned, who knows?) that Eleventh Dream Day originally recorded a version of this album in 1991 with Brad Wood (Liz Phair), which they hoped to shop around to labels after they fell out with Atlantic. When Atlantic wooed them back, they were encouraged to start anew with another producer, and those sessions led to El Moodio. The original recording was finally released in 2013, under the name New Moodio.

The Best Thing About This Album

I love “After This Time Is Gone.”

Release Date

1993

The Cover Art

The art reminds me something from the v23 shop – mostly it’s the album title printed on top of itself. The crab by itself would be cool, but the ropes make it too busy. I also don’t like the letters in circles used for the band name.

The Drifters – The Very Best of the Drifters

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

When my son was young, he sometimes watched this cartoon show that, based on my limited attention, was Marvel’s Avengers except as young children (possibly The Super Hero Squad Show). There was a Valentine’s Day episode (I think) whereby the various cartoon child Avengers fell in love with each other by dint of some external force (which is a VERY odd conceit for child characters). At one point, a romantically-frustrated young Thor exclaims “This is NO kind of wonderful!” and I loved that throwaway reference to the Drifters’ song. Good job, writers for the Child Avengers!

What I Think of This Album

As the liner notes helpfully explain, the Drifters went through two distinct incarnations in the 1950s and 1960s, and even that summary is inadequate. This collection focuses on the more successful and well-known official version of the group – the one that ran from 1959 to the late ’60s.

I can think of two very good reasons to own this comp. One is that it contains perhaps the two best Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman songs in “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” The other is that you get to hear Ben E. King sing lead on several tracks, and he has a great voice. As a third reason, if you happen to need one, this is a pretty strong representation of Brill Building songwriting, with very good-to-excellent material from not only Pomus/Shuman but also Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, and even Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard.

King sings lead on most of these tracks, with additional songs led by Rudy Lewis, as well as Johnny Moore (who takes an oddly Elvis-like approach on 1964’s “Saturday Night At the Movies”), and at least one other person. Lewis actually had a very nice voice, and does an outstanding job on “Some Kind of Wonderful,” and Moore fucking kills it on “Under the Boardwalk” – that swoop from “down by the” up to “sea” is spine-tingling.

The piano and percussion on “Sweets for My Sweet” is wonderful (later covered, in worse fashion, by the Searchers). Is there a more dramatic intro than the vocals on “Some Kind of Wonderful”? “I Count the Tears” is excellent and “Up On the Roof” is a solid track. Classic status has been appropriately bestowed on “Under the Boardwalk,” which, on top of the genius vocal, has an easily overlooked glassine guitar part, a just-right bassline, and a sweet guiro.

The highlights, of course, are the eminently romantic “This Magic Moment” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.” Both are swoon-worthy. The violins on “Moment” are exquisite and King delivers a perfect vocal. The Latin sounds of “Save the Last Dance for Me” are irresistible; the polio-afflicted Pomus wrote the lyrics while watching his new bride dance at their wedding. There is some speculation that a young Phil Spector – apprentice to Leiber and Stoller at the time – had a hand in the production of this song.

I own an excellent book titled Always Magic In the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era, which I recommend to anyone even remotely interested in this period of rock history.

Some interesting facts:  Phil Spector plays guitar on “On Broadway” and the backing vocals on three songs included Dionne Warwick, Dee Dee Warwick, Doris Troy (who also sang on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon), and Cissy Houston.

The liner notes explaining the immoral, unscrupulous business arrangement at the heart of the Drifters – the name was owned by George Treadwell, who could basically hire and fire the group’s members at will, none of whom got any royalties – are truly shocking.

Ben E. King died in 2015.

The Best Thing About This Album

The pair of Pomus/Shuman numbers.

Release Date

1993

The Cover Art

Blah.

Dramarama – Hi-Fi Sci-Fi

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

Vinyl should’ve turned Dramarama into stars, but even after once again failing to catch on, they had one bullet left. Turning the guitars up was probably the right strategy, but by then the target had shifted towards grunge, and I think Dramarama missed the mark through no fault of their own. At the same time, personality conflicts between John Easdale and Chris Carter were growing more intense, and substance abuse was a factor, so after the tour to promote Hi-Fi, the band broke up. Carter became a radio DJ, Peter Wood moved back to New Jersey to work construction, Mark Englert went into insurance, and Easdale stayed quiet for a couple of years before resuming performances solo. But VH1 came calling in 2003 and gave the band a second chance.

What I Think of This Album

The hardest rocking and loudest album of Dramarama’s career, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi was also the last bid for success by this hard-luck band. As usual, it features some great songs and wonderful guests, but the public was focused on sounds other than an unhip mix of melody and classic distorted guitars.

Blondie drummer Clem Burke is happily beating the skins for this album, and the other guests include friend and Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Dwight Twilley, Sylvain Sylvain (New York Dolls), Astrid Young (half-sister to Neil), and Nicky Hopkins (Stones, Kinks, Who). Though not as consistent as Vinyl, this is a very strong collection and ranks as the band’s second best album.

The excellent musician-turned-homeless-person saga of “Work for Food” should’ve been a hit; Easdale’s clear-eyed and sympathetic recognition of a passed moment and the difficulties thereafter is among his best songwriting. I love the line “No one wants to pay me for my broken heart.” The incendiary and hilarious “Bad Seed” gets by on nasty guitar work and pounding drums. At the other end of the spectrum is the sweet “Incredible,” a celebration of love and radio. The band puts two drug songs back-to-back, which seems like a bad sign. “Prayer” rocks almost as hard as “Bad Seed” and provides some unforgettable imagery:  “Got used to bloody snot / And going to heaven in a parking lot.”

Meanwhile, “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs” offers a more nuanced take on maturity and sobriety. Also worth a listen is “Shadowless Heart,” which is dark, direct, and foreboding, as well as “Swallowed Your Cure,” which could have worked well on Vinyl with its slightly less hard guitars (but a great solo and yet more references to drugs); this track was written by bassist Chris Carter and another individual. The remaining tracks are forgettable, but the ones listed above are well worth getting this album for.

Hopkins died in 1994, and Sylvain passed in 2021.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Work for Food,” though if Sylvain had played guitar instead of just providing vocals on “Bad Seed,” I might have chosen differently. Keep rollin’ on.

Release Date

January, 1993

The Cover Art

Weird and messy, but I actually don’t hate it.

The Trash Can Sinatras – I’ve Seen Everything

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

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

What I Think of This Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thing About This Album

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

Release Date

May, 1993

The Cover Art

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

Tiger Trap – Tiger Trap

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It took me a long time to acquire this album – many years after I first heard it and fell in love with the band. Tiger Trap (named after the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes) was formed in 1992 in Sacramento, though guitarist/singer Rose Melberg had used the name for a solo performance the previous year. Melberg and high school friends Angela Loy (guitar/vocals), Jen Braun (bass/vocals), and Heather Dunn (drums) were together for only a year and released but one album (as well as a few singles). Still, their influence on the twee pop movement was considerable, and Melberg went on to additional success as half of the spare The Softies (with Jen Sbraglia of the All Girl Summer Fun Band) and with bands like Go Sailor and Olivia’s World, as well as via solo releases. Dunn later played drums for the Raincoats (reunion version, of course), Lois, and Dub Narcotic Sound System. The band was the inspiration for the Beat Happening song of the same name.

What I Think of This Album

Released on K Records and produced by Calvin Johnson, Tiger Trap’s self-titled debut is a charming, youthful blast of melody. To be reductive, it’s the American version of Heavenly (whose albums K released in the U.S.).

The energetic drumming on “Puzzle Pieces” demolishes any preconceived notion of what twee is and isn’t, while Melberg, Loy, and Braun harmonize with delicate precision and the guitars jangle away. There is a more downcast tinge to the tangy “You’re Sleeping,” this time with a more biting lead guitar part but the same bright vocals. The band gets noisy on “Eight Wheels,” and dreamy via layered vocals and arpeggiated guitars on the excellently-titled “Supercrush.”

The odd spy/surf guitar of instrumental “Tore A Hole” suggests a Bond movie score as performed by the Ventures. Album highlight “Words and Smiles” is a sunny, skirt-twirling piece of twee pop, with a niggling guitar part, drums being bashed left and right, and fantastic vocals. The foursome digs into darkness on the bitter “For Sure” (“I’d rather be without you / Than be anything like her”), which surges with hurt feelings and recrimination; the solo is excellent and the harmony vocals are essential.

The sing-song quality of “You and Me” underscores its fundamental sweetness, and the guitar line nicely evokes the lyrical reference to buzzing bees. I am shocked that the Wedding Present never covered “Supreme Nothing,” whose speedy and insistent thrum seems like it would have been irresistible to those Brits. “Chester” is really the only song here I could skip; the melody is slight and the changes from quick to sludgy are annoying.

Melberg and company bounce back with “My Broken Heart,” which sounds like a song that Vivian Girls would scuzz up with reverb and noise. “Prettiest Boy” is a ballad that highlights the women’s harmonies and the skilled drumming of Dunn.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitars on this album are very well played.

Release Date

May, 1993

The Cover Art

You know what, I don’t hate it. It’s colorful and I like the handwritten look. I guess that’s a bouquet? It was designed by Beat Happening’s Heather Lewis.

The Dentists – Powdered Lobster Fiasco

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

There is a period of British indie, roughly post-Smiths and pre-Oasis, that I really enjoy. The House of Love, the Wedding Present, the Auteurs, Catherine Wheel, Heavenly, Teenage Fanclub, Spacemen 3, the Weather Prophets, Close Lobsters, the Housemartins, the Stone Rose, Ride, the Boo Radleys, Kingmaker, and, obviously, the Dentists. The Dentist released four albums between 1985 and 1995; during that time they had three different drummers, but the core was singer/guitarist Mick Murphy, guitarist Bob Collins, and bassist Mark Matthews. They had a fitful recording career, perhaps explaining both the number of random-ass compilation albums out there and the band’s lack of sustained success. I used to own the final album, Deep Six, which is a dispiriting atrocity, and the earlier comp Dressed, which for some reason I did not like enough to keep. I do believe that the comp I did retain and the excellent Behind the Door I Keep the Universe represent the best of the Dentists.

What I Think of This Album

It’s difficult to believe this is a collection and not a proper studio album, as there seems to be unity of purpose and a consistency of sound that belies the fact that six of the songs are from singles released on three different labels; the rest are apparently songs from the years immediately past (plus one live radio session of a tune released several years before). Actually, the singles – titled Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, and See No Evil – were thematically linked, insofar as each contained a contained a poem by John Hegley.

What stands out most on the album is Mick Murphy’s clear, boyish voice and Collins’s excellent guitar work; the songs are melodic, energetic, and retain a hint of the psychedelic leanings from the Dentists’ earlier efforts. So too the band’s good nature, which is evident on several tracks.

The lead guitar line in “Leave Me Alive” is phenomenal, the song culminating in Murphy’s anthemic cry of the title lyric, backed by some grouped harmonies. Murphy shines again with the anthemic, forceful declaration “You can be king again!” on the tuneful, crystalline “Beautiful Day,” with another excellent guitar part from Collins. “Charms and the Girl” is a propulsive piece with a soaring vocal and an aggressive guitar attack, as well as some interesting melodic shifts.

There is a moody, reflective quality to the acoustic-based “Outside Your Inside,” which reminds me much of the Frank and Walters. The winding “Pocket of Silver,” with a thick bass line, is a fine, fun song. Coming across like a less dour Church, the band delivers on “Box of Sun,” which is at once chiming, serpentine, and driving (and the harmonies are again a nice touch). Even the tracks I don’t care for as much aren’t bad – they just fall short of the quality of the others.

The band thanks “the workers, the writers, and the worriers” in the liner notes, and how can you not love that?

The Best Thing About This Album

“Leave Me Alive” is one of the band’s best songs.

Release Date

1993

The Cover Art

This is fantastic. In the liner notes, bassist Mark Matthews explains the origins of some of the objects pictured on the cover (e.g. “the safety pin has no significance though it was the only thing I couldn’t glue down”; “the stamp just had to be Belgian”; “the crisps were salt and vinegar. I threw them away”).

Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen

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

Teenage Fanclub is one of my favorite bands, even if I am disappointed (heartbroken?) by their reticence to record rockin’ songs anymore. My interest stops at Man-Made, and I didn’t bother to listen to 2021’s Endless Arcade, because by then Gerry Love had left the band and I am not interested in a Love-less TFC. Shadows and Here from 2010 and 2016, respectively, are fine but very subdued. Also, drummer Brendan O’Hare left after Thirteen, and while replacement Paul Quinn did a fine job on the next few albums, I think the band lost a little something when their unpredictable, hard-hitting drummer left.

What I Think of This Album

This is probably the least popular album of the classic-era TFC run, which is unfortunate. At worst, it is a bit uninspired, but there are still several great songs, with a few ranking as TFC classics.

As on Bandwagonesque, Gerry Love and Norman Blake trade off on the majority of the tracks, with Raymond McGinley ponying up three songs and drummer Brendan O’Hare contributing the silly instrumental “Get Funky.” If you add up the number of album tracks, you get thirteen, though some have claimed the title was an homage to the Big Star song, because people are very comfortable with easy stereotypes.

Once again, I find myself drawn a bit more to the Love songs. “Radio” is a whopping slice of power-pop, with O’Hare supplying an ample portion of said power; the harmonies here are otherworldly. At the close of the album, Love pays tribute to Byrd “Gene Clark,” although it’s really Neil Young who is being referenced musically on this transcendent track, with some distorted chunky riffing and a Zuma-riffic solo from McGinley that arrives early and lasts well into the third minute sans vocals.

Love is also responsible for the fake out on opener “Hang On,” which sounds like the band has not just gone back to the sound of A Catholic Education but actually immersed itself in grunge (though to be both fair and specific, it would be grunge playing T. Rex’s “20th Century Boy”), until forty seconds or so later, the clouds part and Love delivers a gem of a melodic tune with more excellent harmonies; fully opposed to grunge, the song ends with an extended string and flute part (credits to Joe McAlinden (BMX Bandits) and John McCusker, who has played with Paul Weller, Steve Earle, Linda Thompson, and Ocean Colour Scene, for the violins). While “Song to the Cynic” isn’t as strong as the others, it is still a fine, gentle song that fits in well with the rest of the album. The same holds true for “Fear of Flying,” which is unfortunately not based on the Erica Jong feminist novel.

Blake does not sit idly by, however. Challenging “Radio” as best album track is “Norman 3” (a working title that never got updated), another charming love song in the dumb lyrical mode of “What You Do to Me,” but much more musically involved. The harmonies are first-rate and McGinley offers up a fantastic solo that is buried deep in the mix. “The Cabbage” could easily have been a Bandwagonesque track, on which O’Hare again effectively pounds his kit while the guitars churn with pleasant nastiness (after some nice slide work) and Blake presents another great melody. The oddly titled “Ret Liv Dead” (Return of the Living Dead?) is a sophisticated pop construction, with more violin work, that ends a bit prematurely. “Commercial Alternative” is Blake’s forgettable offering, but it’s not bad by any means.

McGinley is still the junior member of the songwriting team. “120 Minutes” is a nice little number, while “Escher” does not offer up the guitar interplay that its title seems to promise. But again, not a bad song, and the solo is certainly listenable. Meanwhile, “Tears Are Cool,” is a more mature piece of songwriting, but it’s a little bland and McGinley’s lead vocals seem thin (he is also the weakest lead vocalist of the three), though the strings are nice.

Considering the album closely, the problem seems to be that its middle sags significantly (with six less-than-electrifying tracks in a row) after a phenomenal start, and “Get Funky” disrupts the flow of the what should be the two strong closing numbers. If the band had jettisoned the drummer’s instrumental and then swapped in McGinley’s graceful “Genius Envy” – a B-side to “Norman 3,” tacked on here as an extra, hidden track –  for any one of his other three songs, the album would be instantly better. “Genius Envy” is easily the best thing McGinley had written to date, with a gorgeous, crunchy solo. I used to own a record company sampler titled DGC Rarities Vol. 1 (there never was a subsequent volume), and it contained an outtake from Thirteen called “Mad Dog 20/20,” which would also have made Thirteen a better album.

There are five more hidden tracks, all B-sides from the album’s singles. The chunky, loose-limbed cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Older Guys” is excellent, while the run through of Phil Ochs’s “Chords of Fame” is not enjoyable at all. Another O’Hare instrumental (“Don’s Gone Columbia”) simply takes up space, and McGinley doesn’t do much with solo acoustic “Weird Horses.” But O’Hare surprises with the pastoral, meandering “Golden Glades,” which sounds exactly like what Teenage Fanclub became 20 years later.

The Best Thing About This Album

Love’s “Radio”

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

This is an admitted ripoff of Jeff Koons’s One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank from 1985. That said I like it.

Uncle Tupelo – Anodyne

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

There are four Uncle Tupelo studio albums. The third, produced by Peter Buck, is March 16-20, 1992, which is half covers of folk songs and all acoustic. People go crazy over it – it sold more than No Depression and Still Feel Gone combined – but I couldn’t stand it. Factoring my dislike of the debut, this means that I don’t care for the extremes – punky or folky – of Uncle Tupelo. Give me the second and fourth albums, or give me death.

What I Think of This Album

As with all last-albums-before-the-breakup, the temptation is to view the work through the lens of the dissolution. Here, that urge is augmented by the fact that the newly-expanded backing band – drummer Ken Coomer, bassist John Stirrat, and multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston – all stuck with Tweedy and became Wilco.

The songwriting split does appear to be more stark than ever, with Tweedy’s five songs featuring livelier tempos and more pop melodies, and Farrar leveraging his voice and poetry on his more somber six tracks. Overall, though, this is the album that most closely ties the band to their country-rock predecessors of the ‘60s. The somewhat surprising meld of punk and country (not that Jason and the Scorchers and Green on Red hadn’t already done that) turned out to be not so odd after all, as it evolved into a more modern version of what the Byrds had done.

Each songwriter hits some highs on this fine album. “Chickamauga” is a rousing rocker from Farrar, with a Neil Young guitar part, and lyrics about a breakup (hmmmm). Tweedy counters with the excellent journey-as-metaphor “The Long Cut;” the rustic, enigmatic, seismically-themed “New Madrid”  (with a superior banjo played by Johnston); and the impassioned duality of “We’ve Been Had,” in which he beats the Jesus and Mary Chain to the “I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll” / “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” punch. No such ambivalence taints the celebratory “Acuff-Rose,” which, despite being a fun little number, is also sort of lightweight.

Meanwhile, Farrar’s “Slate” will have people wondering again if Tweedy and Tupelo are the objects, and the weariness and defeat of “Fifteen Keys” will also raise some eyebrows. The future Wilco sound is fully present on “No Sense In Lovin’.” The cover of Doug Sahm’s “Give Back the Key to My Heart” is sung by Sahm himself, in a pleasantly amber voice, and this excellent song also serves to further tie Uncle Tupelo to its musical heritage.

Max Johnston is the younger sibling of Michelle Shocked. Uncle Tupelo opened for Michelle Shocked, whom Johnston was supporting. The tour ended badly but Johnston forged a relationship with Tupelo and ended up in the band. Dixie Chicks patriarch Lloyd Maines plays pedal steel on the album.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Long Cut,” for its sweetness and hope.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

Love the color, and the ribbon extending from the left. The photo itself is a bit messy. Fewer guitars would have worked better.

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑