Everclear – So Much for the Afterglow

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

I saw Everclear play a short set at Tower Records on Clark Street in Chicago in support of this album. Afterwards, they autographed merch, including the slipcover of my CD. They had a touring guitarist with them (Steve Birch) and he signed the album, too, and not to be a dick, but that bothered me. That dude should not have been sitting at the table, signing shit like he was in Everclear. He. Was. Not. In. Everclear. The band also had a fan contest to win a free ticket to their upcoming show at Metro. The contest involved answering a short list of written questions that they distributed at the Tower Records appearance. One of the questions was something like “What Are Your Three Favorite Bands?” I don’t remember my complete answer (I am sure the first band I listed was the Smiths and I suspect the second was the Clash), but I know that as a lark I wrote The Flying Burrito Brothers as the third band. I actually do like their first two albums, but at the time I was not actually a fan; I just thought that anyone reading the submissions would see a bunch of answers like Nirvana and Soundgarden and that they would be amused by the relative incongruity of my response. I ended up winning the tickets, and I firmly believe in my heart that Art Alexakis specifically picked my submission because of my answer to that question. I don’t think I made it to the show, however.

What I Think of This Album

If Sparkle and Fade brought Everclear into the public eye, So Much for the Afterglow made them fucking stars. It spun off five singles and sold over two million copies, and these songs were all over the radio and MTV. It covers a lot of the same thematic ground as the major label debut, but it’s much poppier, while still rocking. Part of this is due to the fact that Greg Eklund is fully in charge of the kit on all the songs this time, and he swings more than his predecessor. But mostly it’s that Art Alexakis, always the tactician, wrote his strongest batch of songs and expertly emphasized the melody while keeping the punk influence modulated to just the right degree to appeal to as wide a population as possible. Sure, it’s calculated but that doesn’t mean it isn’t authentic. 

There is not a bad song on this album. Some are slighter than others, but every single track is eminently listenable. And there are also great songs on here, full of welcome and well-thought out production touches and engaging arrangements. Indeed, the band makes a statement right away with the unexpected Beach Boys-in-the-moshpit sound of the title track, replete with inescapable vocal harmonies and irresistible handclaps, as well as a na-na-na countermelody, nice little guitar solo, and buried vocalizations from Alexakis, to say nothing of a false ending. I fucking love a false ending! This is easily my favorite song on this album.

“White Men in Black Suits” is probably the sleeper track of this disc; it is adeptly paced, and has some simple but critical guitar lines, as well as evocative lyrics. Plus, you know, the harmonies. Alexakis upends conventional notions (if not definitions) on “Normal Like You,” which would likely come off as pretentious if delivered by anyone else, but Alexakis sells it and here I am, slapping my dollars down on the counter. 

There is a delicacy to the arguably autobiographical “I Will Buy You a New Life,” which provides a convincing glimpse of blue-collar romanticism that X would be proud of. Rami Jaffe of the Wallflowers (and eventually, the Foo Fighters) adds a very Wallflowers-like organ part. When I moved to Portland, I rented an apartment with a view of the West Hills; I would sing the corresponding lyric from this track to myself almost every time I stepped out onto my balcony. As enjoyable is “One Hit Wonder,” with a great melody, a horn section, a neat little bass fill from Craig Montoya (who rarely gets to show off on Everclear songs), and more of the harmonies that dominate this album.

“Father of Mine” is devastating and more than just arguably autobiographical, and a very strange choice for a single, but hey, it was 1997. Not one of my favorites, honestly, but it is emotionally powerful in a way I cannot deny. 

Diversity and creative stretching are on ample display throughout. The Pro Tools creation “El Distorto de Melodica” is pretty cool for an instrumental; I can’t tell if the brittle, harsh sound is intentional or not, but it’s the equivalent of smashing your face into a tub full of microscopic glass shards. “Everything for Everyone” offers a heap of programming, plus more harmonies and a funky part from Eklund. There are strings on “Amphetamine,” an affecting story of a haunted but hopeful recovering addict. A banjo shows up on “Why I Don’t Believe in God.” 

Again, it was 1997, so yes, Veruca, there is a hidden track:  “Hating You for Christmas.” It doesn’t suck.

The success of this album, to be sure, is not simply the result of Alexakis’s vision. SMFTA is definitely a major label album with major label resources behind it. The Everclear mastermind may give himself top producer billing but five other guys (including Eklund and Montoya) were also involved in the production. The songs were recorded and mixed at six different studios. The list of engineers is like five fucking feet long. I’m not entirely sure what involvement Alexakis even had in “Distorto,” which is obliquely credited to Lars Fox (of Grotus) who gets a shoutout for “loops and samples.” In addition, apparently Alexakis sang his vocals to sped-up versions of the backing tracks, wanting the songs to come across as faster and more energetic.

This is my favorite Everclear album.

The Best Thing About This Album

“So Much for the Afterglow” – the honeymoon is NOT over.

Release Date

October, 1997

The Cover Art

The image here is for the slipcover. The art in the jewel case is very similar, except Alexakis and Montoya are leaning against their respective walls and everyone’s feet are lined up, so that the trio’s bodies create an inverted triangle, and also it’s sepia toned. All in all, pretty cool. Simple and artsy. Reminds me a little of The Clash cover. Oh, and it was designed by Mr. Touring Guitarist, Steven Birch (who also did the Sparkle and Fade art).

Tanya Donnelly – Lovesongs for Underdogs

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I followed Tanya Donnelly’s solo career with some interest, at least at first. I really wanted her to succeed, as I felt that the second Belly album was unfairly criticized. I used to own her first two solo albums, and then lost interest at the time of acoustic-folk Whiskey Tango Ghost in 2004. The reunion Belly album was okay but sort of disappointing; I am hoping for a true comeback.

What I Think of This Album

This album did not do well with either the public or the critics, and I am not entirely sure why. Tanya Donnelly sometimes sounds tentative and self-conscious here – as if she was a bit unmoored after the implosion of Belly – but on a song-by-song basis, this is a pretty strong collection. The liner notes suggest that the album was put together in disjointed fashion, with three different drummers and two bassists, as well as a veritable salad of producers, mixers, and engineers. So perhaps that is why it lacks cohesion and a guiding vision, not a complaint you could lodge against either Belly album. Nonetheless, there are many great-to-very-good tunes here.

Opener “Pretty Deep” is the highlight for me, a sparkling, driving number with jangly guitars, an expertly fluid bass (by Donnelly’s spouse, Dean Fisher (the Juliana Hatfield Three)), the sharp drumming of David Narcizo (Donnelly’s bandmate in the Throwing Muses), and Donnelly’s astonishing vocals, to say nothing of her strange and strangely compelling lyrics. Donelly turns up the pop on “The Bright Light,” as well as the drama – the equal parts angelic and demonic wail that accompanies the pounding drum and distorted guitar slide intro is eye-opening. Those vocal theatrics serve as a refrain to a song already bursting with ideas and melody. Narcizo continues to impress on “Landspeed Song,” a tune that finds Donnelly straddling her pop inclinations and her artsier tendencies; again, her high, spooky vocalizations are wonderful, and the song is a multifaceted exploration of the push/pull of a relationship. Indeed, much if not all of Lovesongs is about the messiness and complexity of love, even as it lacks a traditional lovesong.

The groan-worthy reference to fictional radio station “WSUK” on “Mysteries of the Unexplained” is a bad sign, but Donnelly pulls out of this nosedive with an engaging chorus and some lovely keyboards-as-strings (though she had actual strings on other tracks); Pixie David Lovering takes over drum duties on this track (and two others). This song veers close to the sound of Belly debut Star.

A completely different sound – sludgy and thick – dominates “Lantern,” and it doesn’t work very well. “Acrobat” is an acoustic number on which Donnelly does some things with her voice that are technically impressive, but overall this is a disturbing and eerie track that proves to be a difficult listen. While at times also borrowing from the sound of early Belly, it is more akin to Kristin Hersh’s songs from the Throwing Muses. Rough-edged “Breathe Around You” repeats the mistake of “Lantern” by marrying Donnelly’s vocals to an abrasive backing track.

Much better is the bright “Bum,” on which the multi-tracked, overlapping vocals weave a sinister but irresistible web, making this something that would have worked well on Belly’s King. “Clipped” is a moody, keyboard-heavy number that Donnelly elevates with her thrilling voice, but the dark, repetitive guitar riff is annoying. For all of the pleasures of delicate, intricate “Goat Girl,” this is the song on which the seams show the most, and one comes away feeling that Donnelly was trying to force something with this one. “Manna” is a beautiful, haunting acoustic piece with gorgeous string work. “Swoon” doesn’t really work for me – I certainly don’t care for the almost-a capella intro, and the rest never takes off, though the (faux?) strings are nice.

The third drummer was Stacy Jones of Letters to Cleo and American Hi-Fi. Among the many people thanked are one-time half-sister and bandmate Kristin Hersh, Madder Rose guitarists Billy Coté and Mary Lorson, and designer Vaughn Oliver of v23. Among the mixers were Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. Wally Gagel, who has worked with the Old 97’s, Superchunk, Eels, and Best Coast, was a coproducer and played various instruments. Gary Smith (Pixies) was another producer.

The Best Thing About This Album

Donnelly’s voice is a godsend.

Release Date

August, 1997

The Cover Art

Obviously the work of v23, I like the fonts and the blurry image.

This Is Ska Too!

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I actually owned this for maybe two to three years before I bought the first volume (by the way, great use of homophones to create a clever title). I don’t know how regarded or known these comps are, but I think they are impressive in their scope and selections. I wish more people were exposed to real ska (or even Two-Tone). I suspect the modern, white, suburban element of third-wave ska – with its hard-to-shake artificiality and obvious cultural cooption – is what causes people to wrinkle their noses when you mention ska. As with perhaps too many things, what we think we know isn’t actually the real story.

What I Think of This Album

Once again, another fine effort from the ska fans at Music Club. I definitely own a couple of these already – “It Mek,” “Skinhead Moonstomp,” and “Monkey Man” – but the rest were new to me, for which I am most appreciative. Impressively, there is not much artistic overlap with the first volume either. Desmond Dekker appears again, as do the Upsetters and Baba Brooks, and it’s impossible for the Skatalites not to make additional (credited and uncredited) appearances.

If the first ten seconds and entire bass line of 1969 instrumental “Liquidator” sound familiar, it’s very likely because the Staples Singers borrowed them for “I’ll Take You There.” Credited to the Harry J All-Stars, some of the backing musicians on this recording were the guys who became the Upsetters and then the Wailers, though not Winston Wright, who plays the critical, glassine organ part. This song has been covered by the Specials.

Fortunately, Desmond Dekker’s “Get Up Edina” is NOT on my Dekker compilation, so this joyous tune from 1965 was a welcome revelation. Kentrick Patrick (also known as Lord Creator) was from Trinidad and Tobago, and had a hit in 1963 with “Don’t Stay Out Late,” on which the vocals are perhaps a little too smooth (and sometimes remind me, melodically, of Christmas music), but the backing track is great.

“Dance Crasher” is a wonderful song from 1965, credited to Alton and the Flames, highlighted by a bright and bold trumpet part and some excellent, ever-so-grit-infused emoting by Alton Ellis. Another instrumental is “The Rude Boy” courtesy of the lazily named Duke Reid’s Group, and this one from 1964 is just a tad staid and goes on longer than necessary.

While I have a bias against early ‘70s ska, I have to admit that Jeff Barry and Bobby Bloom’s “Montego Bay,” recorded by Freddie Notes and the Rudies, isn’t bad at all, with a soul music inspired feel. Significantly better is “One-Eyed Giant” by Baba Brooks from 1965, with an infectious guiro rhythm and horn part, and scat-like vocals.

Patsy Millicent Todd was on the first volume of this compilation as half of Derrick and Patsy; here she is part of follow-up act Stranger (Cole) and Patsy  (and Baba Brooks and his band). “Yeah Yeah Baby” is a bittersweet duet dating back to 1969, with Patsy easily outshining her partner on vocals, and sporting a Caribbean guitar part. The Upsetters’ organ-heavy “Dollar In the Teeth” oozes with menace and dark energy; the track was written by Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Tommy McCook and the Skatalites provide boppy “Silver Dollar,” replete with horns, sax, and maybe clarinet (?). Slim Smith died tragically, but he recorded several hits, including “The New Boss” (1967) which showcases his unique vocals. The Skatalites are almost certainly the backing band on “Dreader Than Dread,” credited to Honey Boy Martin and the Voices; Martin has a deliciously deep voice, put to good use on this 1967 track.

The rambunctious “Bonanza Ska” – which, yes, is a ridiculous ska version of the theme song from tv western Bonanza (and also folds in The Lone Ranger theme, otherwise known as the fourth section of Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”) – by Carlos Malcom and the Afro-Caribs is in defiance of all logic a pretty fun song.

The Best Thing About This Album

A toss-up between “Dance Crasher” and “One-Eyed Giant.”

Release Date

1997

The Cover Art

Another fine job by the Music Club folks. The color scheme is better this time, and the graphics are great, again.

Dinosaur Jr. – Hand It Over

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Dinosaur Jr. is one of those bands that I feel guilty about not liking more. It’s as if I am worried that someone is going to expose me for insufficient indie credentials. On the other hand, I like what I like and I’m not about to apologize for it. There are a lot of Dino Jr. songs I like, it’s just that they’re spread out over a lot of albums. For the most part, the three “classic line-up” albums are too hard and noisy for me in general, and the slacker, solo-in-all-but-name major label discs I think are very inconsistent (except for this one). And that marked the end of Dinosaur Jr. until the surprise reunion of 2007, which continues fruitfully to this day (I have only listened to a few of those albums, and they are okay). The band formed in 1984 in Amherst, Massachusetts and took the name Dinosaur. The trio released a self-titled debut and then second album You’re Living All Over Me, at which point 60’s supergroup (okaaayyy) The Dinosaurs called their lawyers, and shortly thereafter Dinosaur Jr. was born. One more album was realized before J Mascis’s control freak tendencies led to the firing of bassist Lou Barlow (whose songs I have always hated, I should note). And while the four major label albums that followed didn’t turn Mascis into a star, it should be noted that the shy frontman who hid behind a sheet of hair and a wall of noise almost certainly never wanted fame and fortune anyway.

What I Think of This Album

At its best, this thing fucking rocks. It has one of my favorite Dino Jr. songs in “Nothin’s Goin On,” and that is followed by the unusual but extremely enjoyable baroque rock of “I’m Insane.” Leading up to those tunes to complete a stellar opening quartet are the My Bloody Valentine-influenced “I Don’t Think” and “Never Bought It.” I think the album sags in the middle, though some people love “Alone.” But things rapidly improve with “Mick,” “I Know Yer Insane,” and “Gettin Rough.” My only complaint with the album is really that Mascis – who plays his original instrument, the drums, here – is way too busy behind the kit.

The shoegaze element is most pronounced on opening track “I Don’t Think,” which doesn’t not sound like Dinosaur Jr., to be sure, but it has a more dreamy quality than Mascis attempted before. Of course, that’s not what strikes you as the opening guitars pummel and Mascis unleashes his whine, but as the song makes its way to the chorus (with barely-there backing vocals from Bilinda Butcher and Kevin Shields), it takes on a smoothness and sonic cohesion that seems novel. The punishing guitar intro of “Never Bought It” is a fake out, as Mellotron flutes take over what becomes a meandering, hazy song, also betraying the influence of co-producer Shields, perhaps. The solo is excellent, a demonstration of fully fledged Neil Young worship.

The sheer majesty of “Nothin’s Going On” cannot be overstated. The melody is first rate, and Mascis’s guitars are fantastic, with little squalls and fills here and there, as well as a flanged bit that almost makes the song by itself; the solo is almost too heavy to fit in comfortably but it works, especially at the end with a quick flurry of harmonics (I believe), as it shoves you back to the chorus and the phaser/flanger becomes more pronounced. Out of nowhere, a trumpet appears on “I’m Insane,” heralding a brave new world for Mascis, who delivers a wonderful, weird conglomeration of brass, drums, and guitar that ends up sounding nothing like how it started.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with “Can’t We Move This,” but it doesn’t do much for me, though I appreciate the strings on it. I have zero idea why “Alone” is regarded as the unsung Dinosaur Jr. masterpiece, because I really never need to hear this again – the vocals (and I generally like Mascis’s voice) are awful, and the tempo plods along for eight minutes; some of the guitar work I like, but most is uninspired and tuneless. The two songs that follow also sort of go nowhere.

“Mick,” though, is a more or less clean pop song – you could almost imagine the Lemonheads doing this (except for the solo) – with Mascis’s vocals modulating from laconic to almost manic for a second. Mascis drops another underrated song with “I Know Yer Insane.” A banjo is the stringed instrument of choice on the short and surprising “Gettin Rough.”

An alternate view of this album is that it is the release that best highlights Mascis’s flexibility and creativity as a songwriter.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar sound on “Nothin’s Goin On” makes me simultaneously want to play the guitar and also never pick up a guitar.

Release Date

March, 1997

The Cover Art

I mean, I think this is awful. Laughably terrible. I do like the purple. This is by Maura Jasper, who did the art for a number of Dino Jr. releases, including the debut, Bug, and You’re Living All Over Me.

This Is Ska!

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I can’t get enough of ska. It’s happy music, and I rarely listen to anything I would categorize as such. Ska, though, does it for me in a way that few other genres do. It’s soothing and uplifting and there is almost never a time when I would turn down the opportunity to listen to it.

What I Think of This Album

A pretty good ska comp with, I think, only very little overlap with the other ska albums I own. I already have the Desmond Dekker songs (not sure why they put two of them on here and both on the first half of the comp, too, though the pair – “Shanty Town” and “Pickney Gal” – are great songs) and the Dandy Livingstone original “Rudy, A Message to You.” Almost everything else is a delightful education.

For starters, the Ethiopians’ “Train to Skaville” – which borrows the horn part from June Carter’s “Ring of Fire”  – features remarkable, sighing harmonies. The Ethiopians also get a second track, “The Whip,” with jaunty horns (of course) and a glass/metallic percussion sound. Jimmy Cliff is represented by “Miss Jamaica,” which adds a pop element to the ska sound. “Guns of Navarone” by the Skatalites is a classic, well known to fans of the Specials, who covered it; those triumphant horns are amazing, as is the guiro rhythm.

The fat bass on Roland Alphonso’s “Phoenix City” from 1965 is sturdy enough to hold its own against the insistent horns (what a trumpet solo!) and the excellent percussion (once again, with a guiro that won’t quit); saxophonist Alphonso was a founding member of the Skatalites. The Upsetters (formerly Gladdy’s All-Stars) were Lee “Scratch” Perry’s house band and eventually morphed into Bob Marley’s Wailers. They contribute steamy instrumental “Return of Django,” written by Perry.

Lord Tanamo sings “I’m In the Mood for Ska,” which is a ska version of 1935’s “I’m In the Mood for Love” (which has been sung by, among others, Darla and Alfalfa of the Little Rascals, Mae West, Rod Stewart, and Fats Domino); I am pretty sure the Skatalites are the backing band here.

There is a strong soul element to 1964 instrumental “Man In the Street” (credited to trombonist Don Drummond, again with the Skatalites as the band). Derrick (Morgan) and Patsy (Todd) perform cute duet “Housewife’s Choice,” which was originally called “You Don’t Know,” and was a hit in Jamaica in 1961 and led to a feud between Prince Buster and Leslie Kong.

The weakest song is probably “Double Barrel,” and probably because it is from 1970, well past the heyday of ska (though the tune was a hit in England for Dave and Ansell Collins). This song is the first recorded appearance on drums by Sly Dunbar of Sly and Robbie. “Carry Go Bring Come” is known to fans of the Selecter, here in its original 1964 version by Justin Hinds and the Dominoes.

Also pretty well known is “Long Shot Kick De Bucket” – about an unfortunate racehorse – by the Pioneers (who provide wonderful vocals); this 1969 song was covered by the Specials. The disc closes with the Baba Brooks Band’s “Watermelon Man,” which is a song title that I really can’t endorse, but the tune is pretty cool, with bright, dramatic horns that break apart and intertwine in fascinating ways.

The Best Thing About This Album

The original “Guns of Navarone.”

Release Date

1997

The Cover Art

The yellow is hideous and the white font is difficult to read. I am in favor of the graphic element and the dancing silhouettes. I could do without the song titles.


Bo Diddley – His Best

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

The Jesus and Mary Chain wrote “Bo Diddley Is Jesus” early in their career (and later covered, not terribly convincingly, “Who Do You Love?”). On the one hand, the Scottish brothers were only going back about 30 years, into a musical landscape that was a lot less fractured than it is now. On the other, I worry that future young musicians won’t make such connections (instead, the Jesus and Mary Chain themselves became a touchstone for bands in the 2000s), and that the thread that tied a playful, boasting African-American rock originalist to a pair of scabrous, antisocial misanthropes from northern Britain has been knotted and snipped, and there is nothing to take its place. Basically, I’m not sure today’s kids know their rock history, and while I would listen to an argument that that is not necessarily a negative development, I doubt I would agree.

What I Think of This Album

This phenomenal collection pulls together Diddley’s singles from 1955-59, with a few stray tracks from the ‘60s. Absolutely an essential purchase, this disc shows how influential Diddley was; along with Chuck Berry (who was far less earthy), Diddley was critical to the birth and development of rock ‘n’ roll.

Lead single “Bo Diddley” hypnotizes with a tremeloed guitar part and that trademark rhythm. B-side “I’m a Man” is surprisingly candid (for 1955) about Diddley’s alleged sexual prowess; Billy Boy Arnold’s iconic harmonica part makes the song. Arnold’s phenomenal harmonica also dominates on “You Don’t Love Me (You Don’t Care),” though Otis Spann’s piano solo is pretty cool, too.

The beat comes back on Diddley’s rendition of “Pretty Thing” (by Wilie Dixon, who played bass on many Diddley songs), with a killer guitar part and more unbeatable harmonica. The call and response of “Bring It to Jerome” (credited to maraca player and foil Jerome Green) is a showcase for Diddley’s vocals, as well as some great percussion. “Who Do You Love?” incorporates foreboding southern imagery into Diddley’s bravado (the title was a play on hoodoo, the swampland folk beliefs of Diddley’s birthplace) with astonishing lead guitar work from Jody Williams. 1957’s  “Hey Bo Diddley” is hopelessly retrograde, but the vocals are excellent, with the drums pushed to the front and the guitar deemphasized.

Diddley’s guitar and voice combine to make “Mona (a/k/a I Need You Baby)” a winner; this is the first appearance by guitarist Peggy Jones on this collection, and it’s hard to know who plays which guitar part. “Before You Accuse Me” is a classic blues number, with guitar fills by Jody Williams. Honestly, I can do without “Say Man,” probably Diddley’s biggest hit. Diddley expands his style on the hybridized Latin/doo-wop number “Crackin’ Up.” But he still knew enough to keep reminding his audience of his own healthy self-esteem, notably communicated on “The Story of Bo Diddley,” with the excellent throwaway “I’m a killer diller”; Lafayette Leake plays a fine piano on this one.

“Road Runner” is fantastic, with a couple of pick slides to die for. The New York Dolls wisely covered the inimitable, Latin-tinged “Pills.” The relative obscurity of “I Can Tell” is entirely undeserved, featuring another great vocal from Diddley. Willie Dixon also wrote “You Can’t Judge a Book By Its Cover,” which contains more typical boasting from Diddley and essential maraca shaking from Green.

This album was rereleased in 2007 with the title The Definitive Collection.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t choose and thus will cheat:  the way the guitar, vocals, piano, maracas, and harmonica all come together.

Release Date

April, 1997

The Cover Art

The composition and palette are fine. The picture is okay, but they could have found something better (like the photo on the back).

that dog. – Retreat From the Sun

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The highlight of Riot Fest 2017 for me was finally seeing that dog. And they played all of Retreat From the Sun from start to finish, too (drummer Tony Maxwell good-naturedly complained at one point something to the effect of “these songs were never intended to be played live in this order” – I guess it was challenging for them). I am happy to report my abiding crush on Anna Waronker had not subsided. More importantly, the band sounded great (even if not all the original members were there) and it seemed like they were finally getting their due. that dog. released three albums in the ’90s before breaking up for reasons that are disputed. Despite writing catchy, zeitgeisty songs, and being friendly with Weezer and Beck, they never made it big, or even medium. Some place the blame on indie backlash against their origins. Anna Waronker was the daughter of Warner Bros. and then Dreamworks honcho Lenny Waronker, and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden were the daughters of jazz great Charlie Haden. The band was charged with lacking indie cred and benefiting from industry nepotism. Whatever. Retreat From the Sun fucking rocks. I have to admit I didn’t care for Totally Blissed Out and I never listened to the debut; they released a reunion album (minus Petra) in 2019, which is pretty good even though I don’t own it. After the band broke up, Waronker and Petra Haden each released solo albums, and Haden joined the Decembrists for a while and guested with Green Day, the Rentals, and others. Petra Haden also recorded an a capella version of the entire The Who Sell Out album. Rachel Haden has also worked with the Rentals, as well as Nada Surf, to name just a couple. Maxwell has done composition work for film, and was Nicholas Cage’s body double in Adaptation. The Hadens sometimes join with third sister Tanya as the Haden Triplets. Anna Waronker’s spouse is Stephen McDonald of Redd Kross; her brother Joey Waronker has drummed for Beck and REM.

What I Think of This Album

The story is that this was supposed to be Anna Waronker’s solo album. Whether that changed anything would require me to listen to Totally Blissed Out again, but I suspect it made little difference. On the one hand, this is straightforward ’90s indie/power pop, with guitars that jangle and crunch, a punchy rhythm section, and analog keyboard squiggles here and there. On the other, there is the perfectly integrated violin of Petra Haden and the sweet-and-sour harmonies, both of which added something special to the mix. Top it off with incisive, heartfelt lyrics and winning melodies, and this is an album that should have been a hit.

While I believe that all music is for everyone, I can’t let go of the notion that this would have appealed immensely to young women coming of age in the ‘90s. Not as bold as Liz Phair (though there is a song about S&M) and more confident and sophisticated (not to mention, tuneful) than Juliana Hatfield, that dog. occupies a critical place in the world of female-focused indie rock narratives.

This is an album that merits repeated listens. The obvious pop songs – “Never Say Never;”  “Minneapolis;” and “Long Island” – are immediately arresting, but even the more subtle tracks, like harmony rich “I’m Gonna See You;” “Retreat From the Sun;” and “Being With You” reveal themselves with a modicum of attention. So, yes, “Minneapolis” is a charming, innocent indie-rock romance (with references to Low and LA club the Jabberjaw), though it should be noted that the heroine declines to throw it all away and chase her crush to the land of 10,000 lakes. And “Never Say Never” is the song Matt Sharp wishes he made the lead single from the first Rentals album (with fantastic work from Petra Haden on violin, and sister Tanya guesting on cello). “Long Island” is a delightful, heartwarming story of nascent love, or at least, infatuation, with the classic line “By definition a crush must hurt.”

But the case can be made that the true extent of that dog.’s talent is demonstrated by the deep cuts. The maturity and sadness of “Being With You” is punctuated by Maxwell’s machine gun snare hits and Rachel Haden’s massive bass, but the harmonies steal the show. “Gagged and Tied” is neither silly nor shocking, but rather a matter-of-fact tale of exploring sadomasochistic sex, complete with a cheeky reference to “Venus in Furs;” Petra Haden’s violin once again stars, and the harmonies are excellent. The title track is notable for its piano intro but that is rapidly overshadowed by the transcendent vocals (and handclaps! And the drum rolls!).

The band gets surprisingly tough on “Annie” but finds a way to incorporate an orchestral arrangement nonetheless. The effort on “Every Time I Try” was well worth it, with a wonderful string part and fantastic vocals. Maxwell’s drumming is perhaps under-appreciated in light of the band’s many other strengths, but his fine work on “Hawthorne” is consistent with his accomplishments throughout the album. Closer “Until the Day I Die” is a stunning, piano-driven, string-trussed, French horn gilded ballad, with alternately blasé and emotive vocals from Waronker.

Go-Go Charlotte Caffey plays guitar on “Minneapolis” and synth on “Never Say Never,” while Tanya Haden contributes cello to a couple of tracks in addition to “Never.” Chick Wolverton (who has played with Number One Cup, Liz Phair, and the Bangles) adds percussion and guitar on “Cowboy Hat.”

The Best Thing About This Album

It being too difficult to choose one song, I will have to default to the harmonies.

Release Date

April, 1997

The Cover Art

I mean, any photo of of Anna Waronker would be just fine with me, but this tonal examination of her hair, eyebrow, lashes, and iris is fantastic. I like the repeating album title across the bottom, too.

Teenage Fanclub – Songs From Northern Britain

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

I don’t believe that all good things must come to an end. That’s bullshit. But in the case of Teenage Fanclub, this was the beginning of the end for me. This is where the band took a turn towards the pastoral, naps in hammocks, and a warm blanket for those fall evenings in the rocking chair on the front porch. From this point forward, the songs were more about craft and less about art, and certainly lacking the fire and energy of the old days. That’s okay – by this point they’ve basically perfected that craft, and the songs can be lovely. I hung on for a few more albums. I will always love Teenage Fanclub, regardless.

What I Think of This Album

I’m not gonna lie . . . I was very disappointed in this album when it came out, and I remain so. I like it better now than I did before, to be sure, but I miss the Teenage Fanclub that turned its guitars up loud. This celebration of gentle domesticity sounds very pretty. It is an undeniably pretty album, with meticulous harmonies and some sublime melodies. The band has arguably never sung better (certainly not before this and probably not since). Nonetheless, I would have preferred something messier and noisier and more fun. There are guitar solos on here, actually, but they are so gentlemanly, and all in the service of songs about tea kettles or something.

Raymond McGinley provides a wiggly, whammy bar lead part on “Can’t Feel My Soul,” which may be the furthest the band strays from the straight and narrow on this disc. His second contribution – “It’s a Bad World” – is decent, with some flashes of guitar muscle, but still fairly staid. “I Don’t Care” could have benefitted from the rebellious spirit the title implies, but alas, what McGinley affirms is “I don’t care about where I’m going / Because I’ll be there and so will you.” His last song is an acoustic-based number with a slight country feel and a strongly treacly message, which is to be expected from something called “Your Love Is the Place Where I Come From.”

Norman Blake and Gerard Love split the remaining eight tracks (though Blake shares credit on one of his songs with former (and at this point, future) drummer Frances MacDonald). Blake gets the privilege of opening the disc and “Start Again” is an excellent Byrdsy tune with two nice solos (the second one being better) from McGinley and smooth harmonies. The saccharine “I Don’t Want Control of You” just makes me roll my eyes; this is something 60 years old cue up as the soundtrack to their vow renewal ceremonies. The solo is okay. A song titled “Planets” should be more exciting than what Blake and MacDonald serve up, another slow piece, this time with strings. Blake comes up with another great melody on “Winter,” again recruiting Love and McGinley for perfect harmonies; there is a nice chiming (and chorused) guitar part.

Love, as usual, delivers in spades. “Ain’t That Enough” is a sunny song that is the musical equivalent of rolling hills, with jangle and harmonies for miles and miles. The wah-wah pedal inflections elevate the already resplendent “Take the Long Way Round” to a whole new level of genius; the vocal break is wonderful, too. There is a somber beauty to the brooding “Mount Everest,” with two solos that approach the old Neil Young worship of past such efforts, while “Speed of Light” has unusual sonic effects and a surprisingly tough chorus, as well as some fine “whoo hoo hoo”s from the boys.

Two great Blake songs and four tunes from Love that range from great to phenomenal, plus one good McGinley song. Not bad, but this is not the Teenage Fanclub you were looking for.

The Best Thing About This Album

Those wah-wah parts of “Take the Long Way Round” – there should be more of them.

Release Date

July, 1997

The Cover Art

Some people love this artwork. I think it is boring, and the font is terrible.

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.

Cornershop – When I Was Born for the 7th Time

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

For reasons I have not plumbed, I very much enjoy it when siblings are in bands. It is not only heartwarmingly suggestive of lifelong camaraderie, it also speaks to a certain inevitability – as if not just making music but making this exact kind of music, together, was genetically ordained. So I was deeply disappointed to learn that Avtar Singh left Cornershop, splitting with his brother Tjinder, before this album was recorded.

What I Think of This Album

The song “Funky Days Are Back Again” perfectly describes this playful, gratifying, possibly monumental album. Unfortunately – and I hate to say this about an album I really like – it is full of nonsense that detracts from the overall experience. There are instrumental passages (both short and long) sprinkled throughout that, while technical achievements, lack the cultural resonance and musical immediacy of the other songs.

Airy and uplifting “Sleep On the Left Side” has an easy groove and a complex arrangement, including an inviting harmonium intro and a hypnotic flute (keyboard) part. Tribute “Brimful of Asha” (a paean to Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle, reported to have recorded more songs – over 12,000 – than anyone else) is a stunning creation, with rock instruments, Indian instruments, strings, and synthesized and electronica sounds coming together in a perfect fashion (the drum break is also wonderful). Norman Cook (the Housemartins) had a hit with a truly excellent remix of this song.

All momentum is lost with the two instrumentals that follow (though “Chocolat” is not bad). This pattern of fitful progress never abates. “We’re In Yr Corner” leans more heavily on the traditional Indian instrumentation, marrying it to a funky groove. “Funky Days” is another achievement, its laid-back message belying the intricate web of sounds that Singh and his bandmates intertwine, finding a comfortable spot where Indian music, indie, funk, hip hop, and electronica nestle against each other.

A rough patch follows, including an execrable collaboration with Allen Ginsberg, last heard ruining the Clash’s Combat Rock. The boastful “Good Shit” rides a breakbeat (and Spanish vocals!) on the way to a synthesizer and sitar section that brings the song to a too-soon end; a bastardized version was used in a Target commercial. “Good to Be On the Road Back Home” is a country number, with vocals from Paula Frazer, that I could easily imagine David Berman covering.

“It’s Indian Tobacco My Friend” is one of the instrumentals that works, with vocal samples, a mechanized beat, traditional drums, and synthesizer flourishes. “Candyman” was itself in a commercial (Nike) and is heavy on the hip hop/Indian mix. Justin Warfield (She Wants Revenge) handles the rap, and if I’m being honest, his voice reminds me of the Stereo M.C.’s “Connected.” “State Troopers (Part 1)” is a bit of old-school funk with new school sonics that I can do without. Finally, Cornershop proudly reclaims “Norwegian Wood,” with the added benefit that we don’t have to listen to its misogynistic English lyrics.

Dan the Automator was one of the producers.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Brimful of Asha” is infectious.

Release Date

September, 1997

The Cover Art

Another winner from Deborah Norcross, synthesizing her ‘70s aesthetic with a Roy Lichtenstein-like technique. I don’t love the website address. Once again, the U.K. art is completely different.

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