The Selecter – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I find The Selecter to be the least immediately appealing of the two-tone movement bands (at least, of the ones whose work I own). Partly this is due to the fact that they were short-lived and didn’t produce much material in their classic, original incarnation. The other is that the Coventry band were a bit less melodic and a tad more adventurous than their peers (and more reggae-influenced than ska, and I greatly prefer one to the other).

The Selecter’s origin story is unusual, as is their later history. When the Special AKA (the original name of the Specials) had difficulty finding an appropriate song to be the B-side to their 1979 debut single “Gangster,” their drummer mentioned a tune he had recorded a couple of years earlier with Neol Davies. He asked Davies to overdub a guitar track and that song – “The Selecter” – wound up as the flip (actually the single was a double A side release), credited to the Selecter, a band that technically did not yet exist. Shortly thereafter, though, Davies recruited the other six members of the Selecter. They released debut album Too Much Pressure in 1980, experienced a line-up change, and released Celebrate the Bullet in 1981, after which vocalist Pauline Black left, and effectively that was it.

Black and Davies reformed the band in 1991 (with members of Bad Manners), but Davies left soon after; original co-vocalist Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson joined Black in the reformed band as of 1993. They persevered until 2006. Four years later, Black and Hendrickson revived the band once again, and in 2011, Davies formed his own version (though Black had the rights to the name the Selecter).

What I Think of This Album

This comp presents the Selecter’s songs out of order, which I find incredibly frustrating. So, let’s do the fucking work that EMI didn’t. The album contains 16 tracks. Eight come from Too Much Pressure; five were originally on Celebrate the Bullet; two are non-album singles; and the last song is a dub version of one of the Bullet tracks (and I am not sure of its original release format). 

Statistically, Celebrate the Bullet comes out ahead in terms of quality of selections. Four of the five tracks represented here are among the best of the collection. Most of these are far from classic ska, incorporating both new wave sounds and atmospherics. They may not necessarily be catchy and are certainly not feel-good, but they are fascinating. “Celebrate the Bullet” – apparently about the futility of revenge – is spare and spooky, with a haunting horn part and ominous guitar. 

“Bomb Scare” is faster-paced but just as unsettling and Pauline Black does a fantastic job. Black shares her lament on the affecting “Deep Water,” which skitters through the speakers; the echoed guitar part is pretty cool. The St. Paul’s rebellion of 1980 and a similar racial uprising in Miami that same year are the subject of “Bristol and Miami,” which rides on organ chords, that familiar ska guitar rhythm, a healthy bass line, and some shimmering keyboards.

Single “The Whisper” may be the best Selector song of all:  melodic, bright, bouncy, and Pauline Black doing her best to convince herself she isn’t troubled by her partner’s betrayal.

Meanwhile, even though over half of Too Much Pressure is represented here, only four selections really stand out. Those four songs, though, are pretty great. “Too Much Pressure” is a joy to listen to, relentless and infectious, with a cleansing bridge that arrives just in time (twice). The band comes to life on their cover of ska song “Time Hard” (originally by the Pioneers and released maybe in the mid-’60s?). Another cover is the irresistible “Carry Go Bring Come,” a hit for Justin Hinds in 1963. Finally, there is “Murder,” which is a bit unsophisticated lyrically but maybe that’s just how it is when you are begging for someone else’s life; in any event, its another prime melodic nugget, with some fun guitar licks and Arthur Hendrickson shouting “MURDER.” 

The rest of the tracks don’t do much for me, though most of them have something to offer. Even so, “James Bond” is silly. “Last Tango in Dub” is a fantastic title but it is just the dub version of “Washed Up and Left for Dead.”

Norman Watt-Roy of Ian Dury and the Blockheads (and guest of the Clash on Sandinista!) plays bass on “Celebrate the Bullet” and “Washed Up and Left for Dead.”

Like other two-tone bands, the Selecter was racially integrated, but unlike most two-tone bands, they were majority black *and* they had a woman member. Notably, the Bodysnatchers were an all-female band on the 2 Tone label but they only released a couple of singles (as did most 2 Tone labelmates).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Whisper”

Release Date

May, 1996

The Cover Art

Fuck, yes. First, the font for the band name is excellent. The checkerboard ribbon ties the two-tone aesthetic together (and in fact was part of the 2-Tone label’s design). Also borrowed from the 2-Tone label is the character known as Walt Jabsco. Based on a photograph of Peter Tosh, he was the creation of Jerry Dammers (head of the label and keyboardist/founder of the Specials), Horace Panter (bassist for the Specials), and graphic designers John Sims and David Storey. What a great use of space, lines, and shape!

Sammy – Tales of Great Neck Glory

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Many years of listening to Sammy’s sophomore (and final) album led me to imagine:  these are two privileged kids from Long Island who were smart enough to get into a good grad school on their merits (not through some legacy bullshit) and instead decided to spend a few years goofing around playing indie rock, knowing that they were doomed to end up working at their father-in-laws’ hedge funds anyway. If you then take the trouble to do research into Sammy, you’ll learn that I was not that far off target. Luke Wood was an executive at Geffen in the early ‘90s, eventually becoming the president of DGC Records. He then went to Interscope Records and later joined Beats Electronic as its president and COO, which he guided towards its acquisition by Apple, Inc. He left Beats in 2020. He is on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Wesleyan University. Jesse Hartman continued making music after Sammy disbanded, and then branched out to filmmaking and acting. Hartman had played on tour with Richard Hell and the Voidoids in 1990.

What I Think of This Album

Look, at its worst (or perhaps at my worst), Tales of Great Neck Glory hints that these dudes might actually be insufferable. But much more often, you get the sense that anyone who dismisses this as Pavement pastiche is way off base. In fact, Jesse Hartman and Luke Wood have made a fun, idiosyncratic, tuneful, sharp, and dare I say emotionally substantial, little record. If you get past the familiar sonics, there is a great deal of art and heart here. 

Sometimes you’ll get an evocative quatrain (or couplet, as you prefer):  “I used to sneak / Into your room / I felt like I was raiding / King Tut’s tomb” (from “Encyclopedi-ite”). More than once, there will be depth and poignancy, like the Pygmalion-esque fantasy of “Neptune Ave. (Ortho Hi Rise).” “Anything” is a document of single-minded, possibly pathological, devotion. Absurdism rears its head on the disquieting “Horse or Ballet.”

Sammy has a soft spot for outsiders. A victim of class warfare is treated with kindness on “Kings Pt. v. Steamboat.” “Slim Style” is an appealingly lazy shuffle, with a damaged, doomed, glammy sense of seedy sadness that updates the Velvet Underground for the indie kid set. The surprising “Chilling Excerpts Bare the Soul of a Monster” is a sympathetic defense of an underachiever.

By the end of it, you can see the daylight between this band and Pavement. The difference between the two is that while Pavement believes in nothing, Sammy is brave enough to wear its heart on its (designer) sleeve.   

Ephemera:  One of the three guest drummers on this album is Alexis Fleisig, who was the drummer for Girls Against Boys. Three members of GVSB previously had been in the Washington, D.C. area band Soulside. Also in Soulside was Luke Wood.

The Best Thing About This Album

The display of sincerity during the Age of Irony.

Release Date

April, 1996

The Cover Art

Call me crazy, but I think this cover shot of Jesse Hartman and Luke Wood makes them look a little bit like Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. Right? Anyway, I like the neon and the sort of throwaway nature of the shot, as if the band couldn’t care less what ended up on the cover. I actually think this is a still from the video for “Neptune Ave. (Ortho Hi Rise).”

Dramarama – The Best of Dramarama: 18 Big Ones

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

VH1 show Bands Reunited decided to cajole the Wonderama-era members of Dramarama into getting back together in 2003. Whatever the impetus for this stunt, I am glad it worked and the relevant episode is entertaining without being insightful. And as a result, Dramarama released another album in 2005 (minus Chris Carter and drummer Jesse), whose title track is fantastic. The next album (Color TV) arrived fifteen years later in 2020, and there are at least a couple of quality tracks on that one, too.

What I Think of This Album

I could have put together a better Dramarama Best of in about 30 seconds. Among other things, this violates a classic rule of such compilations by including rarities – here, a B-side, two covers (one unreleased and one on a rare single), and an acoustic version. Needless to say, these rarities take up space that could have been filled out with much better songs. It also raises the question of who this collection is for. Fans will already own much of this, and newbies won’t be terribly interested in the extras (because, again, they are not very good), so the suspicion is that Rhino rapaciously tried to rope in both sets of listeners with this mess.

And, the choices for the album tracks are all wrong –  every one of the five studio albums is mishandled and ultimately the band ends up misrepresented. “Emerald City,” “Steve & Edie,” “Wonderamaland,” “Train Going Backward,” and “Senseless Fun” have no place on this album. Instead, quality tracks like “All I Want,” “Questions,” “70’s TV,” “Try,” “Ain’t It the Truth,” “Until the Next Time, “In Quiet Rooms,” “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs,” and “Bad Seed” are ignored.

And if the compilers really felt like including covers, the obvious choice would have been “I Wish I Was Your Mother” (Mott the Hoople) off of Wonderamaland, and not a) a Dwight Twilley cover that even John Easdale concedes in the liner notes is not satisfactory; and b) a KISS cover that fails to reflect the band’s deep rock knowledge (which, admittedly, is the one benefit of the Twilley cover).

I really have no good reason to own this. I guess it gives me “It’s Still Warm” from Box Office Bomb (the one classic period Dramarama album I don’t own) and the acoustic version of “Work for Food,” and all the songs have been remastered and arguably sound better, but none of those is a terribly compelling reason. In fairness, I think I bought this before I found Cinéma Vérité and after I decided (incorrectly) to get rid of Wonderamaland, so I thought with one album I was making up for three, though the situation has changed now.

It is entirely possible that the most illuminating element of this package is the band’s own list of 18 Rhino “big ones,” which includes the dBs, Mott the Hoople, a power pop compilation, a punk compilation, two Todd Rundgren albums, two Monkees discs, John Cale, and the Zombies.

The Best Thing About This Album

The acoustic “Work for Food” as the hidden track.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

So. Lazy.

Tullycraft – Old Traditions, New Standards

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I had read about Tullycraft many times before I got around to purchasing some of their eight (!) albums; I will probably end up getting them all. This is a band that seems designed specifically for me to fall in love with. Tullycraft is from Seattle, and they formed in 1995, with Sean Tollefson (bass/vocals), Gary Miklusek (guitar/vocals), and Jeff Fell (drums), and by the end of the next year, they’d released a number of singles and a full-length album. Indie-pop fame followed, and the rest is history largely unknown to the public. Miklusek left the band and Chris Munford joined, and a number of other co-vocalists and guitarists have come in and out, but Tollefson appears to be the heart and soul of the band, and Fell has been around for all but the most recent album (in 2017).

What I Think of This Album

The first thing to know about Tullycraft is . . . well, no, the first thing to know is that they are a fantastic band. The second thing to know is that Sean Tollefson’s boyish, almost nasal, definitely amateurish vocals are not for everyone, and if you can’t get past that, you’re probably not going to be able to focus on the high quality of songwriting (and to a degree, the skilled musicianship). Once you accept that Tollefson’s vocals are actually a plus, you can revel in the clever lyrics, tuneful melodicism, playful energy, boundless sweetness, and intense dedication to indie pop and, fundamentally, self-acceptance.

Instant indie-pop classic “Pop Songs Your New Boyfriend’s Too Stupid To Know About” is as good a summation of the band’s aesthetic and raison d’etre as any words I could write. The tune is a misguided but sincere attempt to woo the object of the narrator’s affection away from her boyfriend with a mix of references to obscure indie-pop artists and the repetition of the withering put down of the title. In this song, there are mentions of Neutral Milk Hotel, the Halo Benders, Nothing Painted Blue, Cub, and Heavenly. And those are just the ones whose albums I own. I left out the Orange Peels, Lois, the Pastels, the Crabs, and the Bartlebees (the last two being bands I’ve never even heard of). We are not done yet. The song also names more mainstream bands like the Breeders, Green Day, U2, Weezer, the Lemonheads, and even Sting. To the extent this sounds incredibly annoying, it is actually catchy as all get out and ridiculously charming. If it sounds like something you would enjoy, then you need to buy the entire Tullycraft discography (and keep an ear out for celebratory song “Twee,” which contains even more opaque indie references).

The subtext of “Pop Songs,” and as communicated by the band’s other work, is the confidence to love what you love unabashedly. Thus, “Josie” is about the leader of Josie and the Pussycats deciding that she “wants to be in a punk rock band” and that she will let her bandmates “know when it’s punk enough.” Robynn Iwata of Cub sings on “Josie,” and producer Pat Maley adds some keyboards.

There are also more or less straightforward and utterly guileless love songs, like “Willie Goes to the Seashore,” “Sweet” (which will melt your heart), and “Meet Me In Las Vegas.” And Tollefson broadens his horizons with ditties like the unexpected “Superboy & Supergirl,” which offers empathy to the beleaguered heroes, and more lyrically abstract songs like “Wish I’d Kept a Scrapbook” and “Dollywood,” the latter featuring some impressive guitar work from Mikulsek.

Even a deep track like “Then Again, Maybe I Don’t” is bursting with surprises, including an infectious chorus, a punk intro/refrain that won’t quit, and a creepy whistling interlude. This track contains guest vocals from Susan Robb (Incredible Force of Junior). Tullycraft puts their money where their indie cred is by covering the Bartlebees (“Miracles Are Hard to Find”) and the Judy’s (“Mental Obsession”). The Judy’s were an early ‘80s trio from Texas who played with the B-52s, the Talking Heads, and the Go-Go’s, and whom I will probably have to check out. The Bartlebees are a German band formed in 1990. An interesting note is that Chris Munford guested on the Bartlebees cover, and by the time of the next Tullycraft album, he was a full time member.

My version is the reissue on Darla (which does not appear to add any extras). My ONLY complaint with this album is that I wish there had been a lyric sheet supplied.

The Best Thing About This Album

The fresh and fearless approach.

Release Date

1996 (original); 1999 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Meh. I don’t hate it, but I don’t like it.

D Generation – No Lunch

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

D Generation makes me smile. Which is good. D Generation makes me laugh. Which isn’t necessarily bad, particularly because I firmly believe these boys possess a sense of humor. But their anachronistic commitment to their eyeliner-smeared, guttersnipe punk image cracks me up. Leader Jesse Malin even started a punk rock nightclub on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan in the ‘90s, the perfectly named Coney Island High (which I admit I was always too intimidated to enter). This band never stood a chance but they made some great, fun music. Their first album (which I owned for a time) didn’t quite gel and so they switched record companies, lassoed in Ric Ocasek as producer and tried again with No Lunch, which included four songs from the debut. They released two more albums after this (the fourth coming in 2016, almost two decades after the third one), and Malin went on to a mildly successful solo career, sounding like a mix of Paul Westerberg and Springsteen; meanwhile my favorite band member simply by virtue of his name, Howie Pyro, allegedly ran into some legal trouble in 2011 or so.

What I Think of This Album

Practice makes perfect, I guess. I am not sure what happened with the first album or what exactly changed by the time of the second, but the fact that one-third of No Lunch is new versions of songs from D Generation suggests that the band was very unhappy with that initial effort. I’d have to relisten to the debut but I suspect it was a question of production more than songwriting. The glammy, hard-rock elements of the band’s sound could veer close to cartoon metal – and still do here at times – but Ric Ocasek (Cars) keeps the band firmly in the New York Dolls’ lane (though tougher and, ironically, less retro).

Jesse Malin has an appealing rasp to his voice, and the band dishes out attitude as if trying to live up to some New York stereotype. The songwriting is handled by any number of folks, including Malin, guitarist Richard Bacchus, bassist Howie Pyro, and other guitarist Danny Sage. The grafting of melody onto driving rhythms and gritty guitars becomes an effective calling card on tracks like “She Stands There” (which doesn’t shy away from vocal harmonies); the clever, tragic “Capital Offender” (on which Malin offers “I might as well sell my ass”); and “Major,” whose “na na na’s” are but a small part of its sympathetic anti-military stance.

A pummeling “No Way Out” doesn’t overstay its welcome at four minutes, mostly due to Malin’s spitfire delivery and his too-rare air raid siren screams. “Disclaimer” is a blast of defiance, and the fact that it doesn’t make much sense is neither here nor there. “Waiting For the Next Big Parade” balances quiet verses with an anthemic post-chorus; the line “my television wants to screw me” doesn’t really work, however. “Too Loose” could be a Bash & Pop song, while “Degenerated” is a harsh look at drug addiction with some nasty guitars and throat-shredding vocals.

The biggest problem with this album is that it wastes guest vocals from Suicide’s Alan Vega on the annoying “Frankie.”

The Best Thing About This Album

The absolute best thing about this is that five dudes wanted to resurrect street orphan punk in New York City in the ‘90s.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

Not bad. Even better is the ridiculous liner tray photo, which shows you what’s inside the bullet-ridden lunchbox:  an apple core, a guitar pick, a hypodermic needle and spoon, fireworks, a pager, dog tags, and, of course, a cassette of the album. All that’s missing is the switchblade.

Cub – Box of Hair

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

I often think I should make my own Best of compilations for every band I like. I think I could put together an excellent Cub retrospective. I also think I would be a good spin class instructor. My playlists would be awesome. I once abandoned a spin class because the instructor just cycled (hah) through a rotation of three playlists on burned CDs, and one of them was a “patriotic” mix full of country songs, including that piece of shit Lee Greenwood song. No way. No. Fucking. Way.

What I Think of This Album

Consistent with the imagery the title evokes, Box of Hair is a bit of a mess. Cub toughens their sound further, which does them no favors this time. The harder songs are uniformly negligible, even when the band throws in an additional treat, like the musical saw on the otherwise forgettable title track. Thus, tunes like the sludgy “One Last Kiss” and equally muddy “S.G.”, in addition to the well-meaning “Mom and Dad” and the snarling “Freaky,” clutter up an album that contains some great tracks.

The reasons to own this album include the sexually frank “Pillow Queen,” in which Lisa Marr boasts that she is a “good time girl,” “porno star,” and “whore” who wants to “take off this party dress / And go go go to bed for a thousand years” against a bouncy beat and Robynn Iwatta’s distorted chording. More innocent is the gentle “Magic 8 Ball,” a bright exploration of superstitions as predictors of love, complete with an understated accordion part courtesy of Dr. Rob Kozak. “Loaded” thrums along nicely, with a thick guitar/ bass sound that matches the drug theme well, while “Main and Broadway” is a wistful and self-loathing laced look back on lost love. Also, “Way to Go” lopes along pleasantly despite the questioning, hopeless lyrics sweetly sung by Iwata. The country feel reappears more explicitly on “Riverside,” a weepy ballad that is augmented by the violin of Sexy Pierre (that’s what the credits say – I am not editorializing). Someone co-wrote “Riverside” with Marr, but it’s unclear from the booklet who (their initials are S.C.). The one thrashy track that does work is the live version of “Not What You Think” with drummer Lisa G. shouting out the lyrics – it’s fun and goofy; another version of that song is the hidden track this time (not worth the wait).

This could’ve been a great album; I wish Cub had ended on a stronger note but they bowed out with at least three of their best songs here. Iwata went on to play in I Am Spoonbender, while Marr and Lisa G. decamped for Los Angeles and new band Buck.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Pillow Queen,” for it’s take-no-prisoners approach.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

Pretty much perfect. The angry kitten is aptly emblematic of Cub’s sound. This was designed by the band and Chantale Elena Doyle.

Cracker – The Golden Age

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

I’ve seen Cracker live a couple of times, in various incarnations (the band is basically just David Lowery and Johnny Hickman, anyway), and they are tight. Perhaps in contrast to their jokey persona, the band plays very professionally on stage, and clearly know what they are doing. They handle hecklers with aplomb (woe to he who crosses Lowery), and supposedly have an ironclad policy of playing “Free Bird” in its entirety and immediately upon hearing that tired taunt.

What I Think of This Album

If Kerosene Hat’s “Get Off This” existed to communicate the band’s philosophy (“We’re just doin’ what we wanna”), then The Golden Age is the album where Cracker first fully embraced it. Varying wildly between styles, this album is nothing so much as an expression of Cracker’s id. Which is what makes it so appealing.

At the same time, it is what makes “I Hate My Generation” seem so out of place, an inauthentic track that sounds like a contrived bid for an alt-rock hit. Other than that, The Golden Age is a very good, underrated album. Maybe not the best start for a new listener, but pretty essential for a true fan. The album works best as a whole, becoming something more than the sum of its parts, which are very good but rarely notable in their own right.

Thus, the low sparkle of the countrified title track gives way to the piercing guitar and shouted vocals of neo-psychedelic “100 Flower Power Maximum,” which turns into the drawn out, cinematic, string-laden “Dixie Babylon.” Elsewhere, the gritty, bluesy “Sweet Thistle Pie” (with fantastic backing vocals from Kristin Asbury and Shannon Worrell (who worked together in Monsoon and September 67)) precedes poppy, self-deprecating and devoted “Useless Stuff,” which gives way to the oddly funky yet still country “How Can I Live Without You.” And the pulsing, synthesizer-gilded “I’m a Little Rocket Ship” leads to the dusty, meandering riverbed of “Big Dipper.” “Bicycle Spaniard” is an alien ballad, with an otherworldly arrangement, and the sonics of “I Can’t Forget You” are a close relative.

I have to admit that Joan Osborne kicks ass with the backing vocals on “Nothing to Believe In.” Dennis Herring, last seen working on the Camper Van Beethoven major label albums, is in the producer’s seat again. Session drummer Eddie Bayers and Sparklehorse’s Johnny Hott play on this, as well as David Immergluck. Former Silo Bob Rupe handles bass duties and Charlie Quintana (Social Distortion, Agent Orange, and uh, Dylan) played drums; he passed away in 2018. The liner notes are a real bitch to read on this thing.

The Best Thing About This Album

I think “Big Dipper,” “The Golden Age,” and “Bicycle Spaniard” are the most impressive constructions, but my stupid heart lies with “Useless Stuff.”

Release Date

April, 1996

The Cover Art

If this postage stamp themed cover reminds you of the postage stamp themed cover of Camper Van Beethoven’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, well, then you have been paying attention. Good for you. Get yourself some Sweet Thistle Pie. I don’t know what that means. Anyway, Lowery went back to CVB’s favorite artist Bruce Licher for this excellent effort, probably the best Cracker album art of all their albums. 

Chainsaw Kittens – Chainsaw Kittens

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

There must come a point where a band realizes that they’re probably not going to be financially successful, or even viable. How they react to that reality can be interesting. By the time of the last Kittens album, I am sure Tyson Meade and Trent Bell had reached the conclusion that their career was not going to suddenly take off. I strongly suspect that they may have started feeling that way with this one. While no less enjoyable than should’ve-been smash Pop Heiress, it is increasingly ambitious and things are starting to feel more personal. The falling away of expectations can be liberating, and sometimes that comes through on albums. These last two Kittens albums sound pretty different from their early stuff, and even from Pop Heiress, and whatever the mindset going in, the results were pretty great.

What I Think of This Album

The guitar noise of the early period is replaced by Moog squiggles, stately strings, and guest piano by Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips. This album feels like Meade just said “fuck it;” if Pop Heiress was an album that was unjustly overlooked, then this one is an album that was predictably ignored. There is no way Meade believed this was going to sell, even in 1996; it’s way too quirky and difficult to pin down, without the loud guitars to draw in casual listeners. Which is fine – there is an element of poignant authenticity to this effort that you can’t hear on the earlier albums. It’s as if Meade decided that as fun as loud guitars may be, he didn’t need them anymore. And he doesn’t. These songs are as strong as any the band ever wrote, and at fourteen on the album, they express a wider range of sounds than before. 

There is the fact/fiction blurring, Wizard of Oz-themed “Dorothy’s Last Fling,” with a propulsive drum part, Meade’s inimitable vocals, a serpentine synth, and the first instance of wonderful work by guest violinist James Honderich and cellist Mary Beth Leigh. Then comes the irresistable pop splendor of the lurching “Heartcatchthump,” with some backing “ba da ba”s that I dare you to forsake, along with a meandering string part. Sly and winking “Tongue Trick” has a stuttering keyboard sound, appropriate, I guess, for the tenderest song about road head ever. Loose-limbed but sinister, “King Monkey Smoke” rides organ swells as Meade struts his stuff, feeling confident enough to both growl “you can grope my rope, man” and admit “I’m a middle class dork.”

Drozd’s piano shares top billing with Mike Hosty’s lap steel on the jaunty “Bones In My Teeth,” which nonetheless does not skimp on the strings. This song is about smoking? Seems oddly pedestrian after the diverse subject matter so far. Doomed ballad “Waltz Across Debris” – with some fine work from Drozd – proclaims “we’ve got stereo tvs” and that is reason enough to despair. The band takes a plastic news anchor to task on “Ballad of Newsman 5,” lambasting his clean teeth, smooth skin, and dandruff-free hair; the strings here coexist nicely with the crunching guitars, sometimes going into a John Cale frenzy and other times gently wrapping the song in warm blanket.

Meade describes a sexual encounter turned violent on the harrowing and sad “Mouthful of Glass.” Eight songs into this album, and every single one is a keeper. “All (no surprises)” is an overlooked song, perhaps (on an album no one bought, but still). A delicate ballad with guest vocals from Maraya May, it gets more muscular at times, leavening the faster rhythms with the string work of Leigh and Honderich and Bell’s fingerpicking. “Sounder” is a tidy encapsulation of Meade’s feelings about being an artist (“there’s a sound in my head” and “can you hear me?”).

There are three songs I can do without. Drozd again excels on “The Leash,” with a chorus that leaves me cold, but it’s still a decent song. “Bicyclehead” is uttterly disposable. “Mad Hatter’s Blues” is the oddest, most abrasive of the bunch – it sounds very out of place on this album – but it’s not unlistenable. Even the weaker songs here have something, or a few somethings, to offer. The album ends with the beautiful, simple autobiographical ballad “Speedway Oklahoma.”

Cellist Leigh and violinist Honderich also played in the Starlight Mints with original Kittens bassist Kevin McElhaney. I like that Bell’s studio is named Bell Labs – clever.

The Best Thing About This Album

The strings on this album add a whole new dimension to the Kittens’ sound.

Release Date

October, 1996

The Cover Art

Horrifying. Disembodied organs are usually a bad idea, art-wise. The font is also terrible. There is not a single good thing about this cover (well, maybe the llama). I have seen an alternate cover – with a speedway and a nice, clean font – though I don’t know from whence that came.

Paul Westerberg – Eventually

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

More of the same, insofar as most people hated this album, and I suspect it’s mostly because they were unwilling to accept Westerberg as an adult. I, for one, don’t think we need additional iterations of “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and I greatly prefer the musing of a reflective, sober, and sad Westerberg.

What I Think of This Album

This is almost undoubtedly the best of the early Westerberg solo albums, even as it was savaged critically and popularly. I literally like almost every track. If it never really gets more raucous than a mid-tempo groove, that’s fine with me. This is a perfectly enjoyable, self-assured, mature album by someone who perhaps never felt more comfortable in his own skin.

“Love Untold” is a heartbreaking story of lovers who never meet. “These Are the Days” is both bruised and celebratory, with a wonderful jangly melody, and “Century” cruises along with crackling energy. Piano-based “Good Day” is a grey, simple tribute to former and recently-deceased Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. Westerberg explores the question of parenthood and his own feelings of childhood rejection on the tough but tender “MamaDaddyDid.”

There is still room for fun, like on the goofy “Trumpet Clip,” featuring former brother-in-arms Tommy Stinson on bass and, naturally, trumpet. “Ain’t Got Me” has a great melody, with some good lines tossed in. Parts of “Once Around the Weekend” borrow the melody of “Merry Go Round,” as it tells the tale of a calm, domestic Westerberg. “You’ve Had It With You” may not be a Westerberg classic, but that fat distorted tone is worth the price of admission. Acoustic ballad “Time Flies Tomorrow” is an appropriate closer, a gentle love song with some nice imagery.

Davey Faragher (Cracker) played bass on some tracks; Minneapolis’s favorite drummer Michael Bland (Prince, Soul Asylum) sat behind the kit for a few songs; and ex-Zuzu’s Petals and Westerberg spouse Laurie Lindeen sang on “Ain’t Got Me.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Love Untold” is sad as shit, all the more so because it’s realistic.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

Supposedly a last-minute replacement (heh heh) after the planned art did not work out, this is . . . not good. The text is hard to read and the colors are awful; the washed-out tone is drab.

Built To Spill – The Normal Years

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

Doug Martsch gives off this slightly scary woodsman vibe, with his long beard, bare pate, Pacific Northwest origins, and apparent extreme social reticence. Which is totally unfair. And in the end, I’m not hiring him as a babysitter – what matters is that he writes excellent songs and plays the hell out of the guitar, and I am not even that impressed by guitar playing in the first instance. You keep doing that shit, Doug.

What I Think of This Album

A hodgepodge of singles, random tracks, and unreleased material, this is another of those albums that by any sober calculus I should get rid of. But sober calculation fucking sucks. Not that raw emotion ever proved to be a better compass, but fuck it . . . there is something more poetic about following your heart even if you know it doesn’t make sense.

There are only five songs here that are worth a damn, and one of them is already on There’s Nothing Wrong With Love in far superior form. The cover of Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair’s “Some Things Last a Long Time” is mesmerizing and beautiful. “Girl” is a great little pop tune, with a knotted solo, and a romantic streak a mile wide. Self-deprecating “Joyride” is really fun, with a fuzzy guitar line, hilariously bad backing vocals, and goofy lyrics. Beyond that, there is some interesting six-string work on “Sick & Wrong,” which starts out spindly and spidery and then becomes fuzzy and groovy. The single version of “Car” is less polished than the album version on Nothing Wrong, lacking cello and without a lot of the guitar parts, and also maybe a touch slower. Even in this infant form, it’s a great song. The rest is forgettable, though “Still Flat” has a trombone on it, so that’s cool.

This was released on K Records, and Calvin Johnson (who partners with Doug Martsch in the excellent Halo Benders) recorded some of the tracks; Phil Ek recorded just one.

The Best Thing About This Album

I hate to choose a cover because it sends the wrong message, but the version of “Some Things Last a Long Time” is amazing.

Release Date

April, 1996

The Cover Art

This is a cool cover.

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