Sahara Hotnights – Jennie Bomb

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The Ss are here. This might be the largest subsection of my collection. This is going to take *so* long. But it will be fun. Sahara Hotnights has the privilege of opening this chapter. Formed in Sweden around 1991, named after a racehorse, and partially comprised of the sisters Asplund (Jennie and Johanna), Sahara Hotnights released their debut album in 1999. Two years later, they released Jennie Bomb (though it didn’t hit US shores until 2002). They have released a total of six albums, none since 2011 (with a seventh rumored to be on the way).

What I Think of This Album

I won’t belabor the point about how this band should’ve been bigger. I will say only that if these songs had been arranged and produced a little differently, Pat Benatar could’ve had a hit with almost any one of them in 1983. Instead, in 2002, this was lumped in with the garage rock revival in general, and the Scandinavian garage rock explosion in specific.

But as attested to by the fact that I own two Sahara Hotnights albums and exactly zero Hives, Soundtrack of Our Lives, or Hellacopters discs, I think this band has better songs than your average Land of the Midnight Sun guitar basher, mixing punk trappings, glossy hard rock, and garage rock attitude.

And by better songs, I just mean more enjoyable songs. Nothing here is all that memorable, frankly, but almost every song is pretty damn fun. It makes it hard not to root for this quartet, who know their way around a melody. A couple of times, the sound maybe approaches a sort of arena rock Sleater-Kinney, when the band experiments with a little bit of indie texture?

Apparently there are distinct Swedish, UK, US, and Australian versions of this album. Jennie Bomb is named after band member Jennie Asplund.

The Best Thing About This Album

I think song title “Alright Alright (Here’s My Fist Where’s the Fight)” is hilarious.

Release Date

2001; 2002 (US)

The Cover Art

This is the US release cover. It’s not bad. I like the script and the two tone photo and the font for the band name. The color scheme is the only element I would change.

Dinosaur Jr. – Ear Bleeding Country: The Best of Dinosaur Jr.

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

Dinosaur Jr. was part of a lively New England scene in the late 1980s and 1990s. Along with Dino Jr. there were the Pixies, Throwing Muses, Buffalo Tom, Belly, the Lemonheads, Galaxie 500, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Come, Damon & Naomi, and Gigolo Aunts, to say nothing of earlier bands like the Cars and the Modern Lovers. And, a fact often overlooked, the Magnetic Fields also came from the Boston area.

What I Think of This Album

It’s fairly simple and straightforward:  I think this is a good comp because it contains a lot of Dinosaur Jr. songs I like and not too many that I don’t. The focus is on the major label era with a full twelve songs out of nineteen coming from that period, compared to only five songs from the first three albums. The inclusion of a post-Dinosaur Jr. track is inexplicable and renders the title of the compilation a lie.

While there is not much early material, the selections are mostly pretty good. Such generous acknowledment aside, “Repulsion” is a song I don’t enjoy even a little; “Little Fury Things” is considerably more tolerable, with at least an interesting distorted wah-wah intro and some compelling dynamic shifts, though the melody is still underdeveloped. I detect a country element to the beginning of “In A Jar,” which somehow meshes with a Cure-like bass part, and the solo is enjoyably noisy.

“Freak Scene” is mind-blowing and gave ample notice of what Mascis was capable of – an infectious melody, a mix of guitars that range from brutal to clean/reverby strums, a fantastic solo, strategic harnessing of his voice, and hilariously forlorn lyrics (“Sometimes I don’t thrill you / Sometimes I think I’ll kill you / Just don’t let me fuck up will you / ‘Cause when I need a friend it’s still you”), with the concluding acknowledgement “what a mess” delivered in perfect resignation. After that, “Budge” is a letdown, sounding like very basic thrash enlivened with hints of melody.

The major label material is where this comp shines. “The Wagon” takes all the elements of “Freak Scene” and succeeds almost as well; the solo is phenomenal and the drums during the bridge will shake your neighbor’s tooth fillings loose. Don Fleming (producer of Teenage Fanclub and very short-term member of Dino Jr.) plays guitar on this and “Thumb.” That latter song, sporting mellotron by co-producer Sean Slade, is a sort of plodding, half-hearted piece. “Whatever’s Cool With Me” may boast the best title of any Dinosaur Jr. song (an apparent embrace of the not-always-accurate slacker tag attached to Mascis); as a song, it is pretty good (almost great), though I can’t say it’s a favorite and the solo leaves me cold.

Much more impressive is “Not You Again,” with Mascis making magic on the guitar and stumbling over his laconic vocals against a winning melody. Where You Been is the first album (the band’s fifth) from which more than two tracks are derived, which seems a little strange. “Out There” is sort of somber and grey, and the guitars are a bit much, honestly. “Start Choppin” is an absolutely ridiculous song – there’s no way that falsetto isn’t a middle finger to the critics of his singing – but it’s also a classic Dino Jr. song for a reason. The skittery riff is pure early ‘90s alterna-gold, the solos kick ass, the drums are monstrous, and the delivery (falsetto and all) is perfect. “Get Me” is a thick milkshake of ‘90s alterna-rock, and that’s not really a criticism.

The comp wisely selects the two best tracks from Without A Sound:  the slightly repetitive “Feel the Pain” and the countryish “I Don’t Think So” (with vocals from My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields and Bilinda Butcher). The two tracks from Hand It Over – “Nuthin’s Goin On” and “I’m Insane” are the right selections; nuthin to complain about there.

The disc also contains two non-Dinosaur Jr. tracks, one being a more justifiable inclusion than the other, both artistically and logically. “Take A Run At the Sun” was a song J Mascis wrote for the soundtrack to Grace of My Heart, and this delectable slice of sunny Beach Boys pop (though with a foreboding theremin part) is as impressive as it is surprising, and also happens to have been written and released while Dinosaur Jr. was still a going concern (in between Without A Sound and Hand It Over). In contrast, “Where’d You Go” is from the post-breakup J Mascis + The Fog project; this song is sort of paint-by-numbers, but if I’m being fair, it’s not a bad song. The truncated cover of the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” was supposedly sincere; the guitar tones Mascis chooses are great.

The producers whose work is found here include Sean Slade and Paul Q. Kolderie. The liner notes from indie rock scribe Byron Coley provide an effective biography of the band. In a roundabout way, J Mascis + The Fog led to the Stooges reunion in 2003 – look it up.

The Best Thing About This Album

“It’s so fucked I can’t believe it” – “Freak Scene” is a masterpiece.

Release Date

October, 2001

The Cover Art

This is one of my favorite covers of all time. The drawings by professional skateboarder Neil Blender (who also did the art for Without A Sound) perfectly evoke the reckless abandon, awe inspiring beauty, and jaw-dropping skill of the best Dinosaur Jr. songs.

The dB’s – Stands for Decibels / Repercussion

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was another band that I worked backwards towards. Not surprising, as their first two albums were not released in the US and those came out in 1981-82, when I had but nine years of age. But enough references read in magazines led me to find this compilation. The four dB’s were all from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and had known each other as children (as well as Mitch Easter); Chris Stamey, drummer Will Rigby and Easter were in the short-lived Sneakers together (whose work was produced by Don Dixon). Nonetheless, the dB’s officially formed in New York. Stamey had moved there to play bass for Alex Chilton, and started recording and releasing his own music (including a song recorded with Richard Lloyd) on his own record label – Car Records – which furthered  the Big Star connection by releasing Chris Bell’s “I Am the Cosmos / You and Your Sister” single in 1978. Rhythm section Rigby and Gene Holder backed him, and eventually Peter Holsapple appeared in Manhattan and joined the band as well. They signed to small British label Albion, which was not able to secure distribution for their work in the US; thus Stands for Decibels and Repercussion were imports only. Stamey left after that and the band released two more albums before breaking up. Stamey released his own music and also became a producer (Pylon, Whiskeytown, Le Tigre, the Mayflies). Holsapple became a sideman for the likes of REM. Rigby drummed for Steve Earle and Matthew Sweet. Rigby was also the spouse of Amy Rigby, whose Diary of a Mod Housewife is a pretty good album; she is now married to Wreckless Eric, and I saw (via a livestream) both of them play with Yo La Tengo in 2020. Holder has done production and engineering work for Luna, Yo La Tengo, and Marshall Crenshaw. I don’t agree with the apostrophe in the band’s name.

What I Think of This Album

Stands for Decibels

“Quirky” is the wrong word. It is suggestive of artifice and preciousness. The plainer “strange” or the kinder “off-kilter” are better. You can call the dB’s power-pop but this is the oddest power-pop I have ever heard. Even considering that Peter Holsapple generally provides the more straightforward songs, those are still full of unusual lyrical matter and unexpected musical choices.

There are eleven songs on the album; the band gets a full credit for one of those, and Holsapple and Stamey each provided five of their own. As sometimes happens with these things, they also take lead vocals on their own songs.

Holsapple kicks things off with the jangle that would reverberate across the world (or at least, Athens, Georgia) on “Black and White.” It’s not difficult to hear REM in this 1981 tune, though Holsapple’s shout of “You don’t like it at all!” is a little disconcerting. He continues with the theme of domestic strife on the Greek drama of “The Fight,” which again finds him shouting the chorus (“It was a fight! / We were involved in a fight”) with some unnerving string bends in the background. This song is hardly what I would call conventional, with a stuttering rhythm and an unusual delivery from Holsapple.

“Bad Reputation” is about a girl tainted by hypocritical rumors, with Holsapple adopting a sinister talk-croon; the latter half of the song incorporates a bass solo and a discordant piano part, just because. The closest to a traditional song arrives with “Big Brown Eyes,” which is Beatles-esque to the extreme, though the guitar solo is pure ‘70s power-pop. The acoustic-tinged “Moving In Your Sleep” is a stark, mumbly ballad, with unexpected surges and artsy arrangement that somehow veers into doo-wop.

Stamey’s first contribution is the psychedelic pop of “She’s Not Worried,” with some cool backwards guitar, organ, and clever production touches; this sounds like something Brian Wilson would approve of. “Espionage” is not showing up on the soundtrack to a James Bond movie any time soon; full of jarring piano and keyboard, with a creeping, jittery sound that is the furthest thing from suave and smooth, and it all devolves into a nightmarish short bridge before the psychotic piano reestablishes itself.

Fuzzy analog synths introduce “Tearjerkin’,” though Holder’s bass takes over quickly and Rigby’s nimble drumming is key to this unpredictable song. That said, what appears to be a chorus is pretty damn tuneful. Even stranger is “Cycles Per Second,” with stray piano notes, bizarre keyboard sounds, and other inexplicable sound effects, again all held together by Holder’s jazz-funk bass and Rigby’s expert drumming. “I’m In Love” isn’t too far out in left field by comparison – this is basically a Robyn Hitchcock song before there was such a thing, with Stamey doing his nervous, confused best and offering a great vocal.

The collaboration “Dynamite” is pretty good, with a bright organ part, pleasantly stretched out and whiny vocals, and more excellent work by Rigby and Holder. Tacked on as an extra track is the fine single “Judy,” which is a very straightforward song from Holsapple, with some slippery bass work from Holder and nice harmonies.

Overall, I don’t think any of this would’ve been a hit even if the band had obtained American distribution. It would have influenced – as it did, anyway – the college-rock kids and appealed to the artsy crowd, but there is no way this was sneaking into most ears even if broadly marketed as “new wave.”

The original cover art is very early ‘80’s (reminds me a little of the Marshall Crenshaw debut), but I like it.

Repercussion

Not exactly more of the same, but not not exactly more of the same. Six songs from Stamey, and six from Holsapple. Stamey is the more adventurous songwriter, but it’s not as if Holsapple is churning out Top 40 pap. Producer Scott Litt (REM) smooths things out a little but this is still a band that is as unpredictable as it is talented.

The Rumour Brass (Graham Parker) add a professional touch to “Living a Lie,” which accordingly sounds much fuller and glossier than anything that had come before, approaching a mod-like reverence for R&B. Much more typical of the debut’s sound is the spare, spiky “We Were Happy There,” with prominent roles played by Holder’s thick bass and Rigby’s drumming.

Perhaps proving that he could get weird too – not that that was a concern anyone had – Holsapple provides the innocuously titled “Amplifier.” This song about a musician’s suicide, prompted by his partner’s theft (or destruction) of all his worldly possessions save for the titular item. Frankly, I would have a hard time arguing this isn’t a novelty song. The short bridge is really the best part; I find Holder’s bass oppressive and the piano and guitar racket at the end annoys me.

Much more enjoyable is the Latin-inflected “Storm Warning,” which nonetheless offers some biting lyrics (“You’ve been a loser all your life”) and an ocarina (?) solo. The rare ballad appears in the form of “Nothing Is Wrong,” which is fine as those things go. Perhaps Holsapple’s strongest offering – and one of the best dB’s’ songs overall – is “Neverland,” which is ultra-melodic jangle with great dynamics and fun backing vocals.

Stamey’s bitter, sneering “Happenstance” (“So run back to your mother / She always said you would”) is magnificently dark. His balladic contribution is the swirling, fragile “From a Window to a Screen.” Meanwhile, his near-joke song is “Ask for Jill” which documents trying to ask out the receptionist at the mastering company; the song is all elbows and knees, with some unusual drumming from Rigby and a pretty good vocal from Stamey.

The gently psychedelic “I Feel Good” (backwards guitar!) is an interesting exercise, even if you can’t hum it. Much more lively is “Ups and Downs,” with the band’s trademark drawn-out whiny vocals present, and a nice piano part. A needly guitar introduces the busy, claustrophobic “In Spain,” which Talking Heads would’ve shoplifted in the pockets of an extra-large suit if they could have; Holder outdoes himself on this recording, and the guitar solo is nerdily awesome. Stamey gets the bonus track this time with the shuddering, angular, brittle “Soul Kiss;” again, not even close to a traditional pop song.

I like this original cover art.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stamey wins with “I’m In Love” and “Happenstance” (though “Neverland” is a great song).

Release Date

January, 1981 (Stands for Decibels); 1982 (Repercussion); 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Obviously, terrible in every way (impressively, the record company unearthed a photo where everyone but Stamey looks like a lunatic), but also not surprising.

Velvet Crush – In the Presence of Greatness

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

One of my favorite power-pop bands, and one of my favorite bands of the ‘90s, Velvet Crush gives you everything you could ask for from the genre. Emerging from the collegiate cornfield of Champaign, Illinois, drummer Ric Menck (originally from Barrington, Illinois) and bassist/vocalist Paul Chastain recorded together under various names including the Springfields, Choo Choo Train, and Bag-O-Shells, and then moved to Rhode Island in 1990 where they joined forces with Jeffrey Underhill (Honeybunch). The result was arguably among the best American power-pop of the decade. I have never seen Velvet Crush live, but I have seen Chastain and Menck as part of Matthew Sweet’s touring band, so I guess that’s something. I also once spotted Menck chatting with Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo, in what I think of as the Summit of the Ric[k]s.

What I Think of This Album

This is a bracing, energetic, almost life-affirming album, even as the band intones “you don’t know your heart from your asshole.” This debut may or may not be the band’s best album, but it is definitely the most fun one.

The opening chiming riff of “Window to the World” is sideswiped by a distorted lead line and a rough rhythm guitar part, but Paul Chastain’s sweet vocals (augmented by Matthew Sweet’s harmonies) keep it all together. In fact, Sweet played lead on all these tracks and he does a phenomenal job – the snarling solo on “Window” is fantastic. The sneering guitars of “Drive Me Down” counterbalance the chorused vocals, and Chastain sings the verses with considerable urgency while Ric Menck kicks ass on the kit. Sweet lays down a wah-wah part on “Ash & Earth,” which bristles with desperation. “Blind Faith” is not a tribute to the ‘70s supergroup (which also had a “Ric” in it) but is the best song on the album, with another winning vocal performance (reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub), outstanding guitar work, and a wonderful melody. Almost as good is the aptly-titled, stinging “Speedway,” which builds and releases over the course of its running time, and Menck does his best Keith Moon impression; Sweet once again impresses on the six-string. “Stop” is a nice Beatles-meets-Byrds(-meets early Who) number, and “Die a Little Every Day” is a muscular take on classic melodicism.

My reissue (on the band’s own Action Musik label) adds a scathing Jonathan Richman cover (“She Cracked”), an enjoyably ragged Teenage Fanclub cover (“Everything Flows”) and the excellent “Circling the Sun.” Matthew Sweet also produced (on an eight-track).

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitars on this are not to be missed.

Release Date

October, 1991 (original); September, 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

The art of the reissue (far right) is pretty boring, and the fonts are terrible. That said, it is leagues better than the original cover art (near right), which juxtaposes a very unflattering photograph with um, a fish, and employs an even worse font.

The Chamber Strings – Month of Sundays

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

We are back to the Bobsled Records part of the collection. Honestly, my desire to collect the Bobsled album releases was my prime motivation for acquiring this. To my immense delight, an insert included with the packaging folds out to reveal images of ALL THE BOBSLED RELEASES (as of 2001). What a treat. Now I know that the only albums I am missing are the three Stereo Total albums and the first Chamber Strings long-player. I have listened to Stereo Total, and I am ashamed to admit that even my obsession with Bobsled is not enough to drive me to purchase those discs. Whatever I sampled way back when was very unlistenable. So really, Gospel Morning is the only hole I need to plug. Which brings me full circle to this album. I almost never listen to it, but I should do so more often. I can’t say I love it, but it’s not bad at all. Basically a project for Kevin Junior (neé Gerber) – who had worked with Epic Soundtracks (that’s a person) and Nikki Sudden (that’s his brother), both of Swell Maps – this was the second and final Chamber Strings album. Junior suffered from mental illness and drug addiction; the band broke up and he endured a period of homelessness. After an attempt at a comeback (mostly centered in Akron, Ohio), he died of health issues related to a heart condition in 2016.

What I Think of This Album

Junior was apparently doing a lot of heroin and coke during the making of this album. Not that you can tell. This isn’t Tusk or LAMF. This is an odd mix of orchestral rock, light soul, country, and even lighter ‘70s power pop. It doesn’t always work, but it never doesn’t work, and it sometimes works really well. At my least charitable, I would say it sort of borders on easy listening.

There is some noteworthy stuff on here, though. “Make It Through the Summer” (co-written with Wilco bassist John Stirratt), sounds like really good Badfinger, if Badfinger had spent a lot of time in Memphis. Using Memphis as a launching pad, “For the Happy Endings” is akin to Big Star, if they were really into the Left Banke and Tapestry.

Highlight “Let Me Live My Own Life” could almost be a glam stomper, with some production and arrangement changes. I did not have high hopes for a song called “Sleepy Night,” but it turned out to be a reverb-heavy country tune, almost like the Beechwood Sparks or one of labelmates the Waxwings’ gentler numbers. On the other hand, I had inflated expectations for “Our Dead Friends,” which also turned out to be a gauzy country song, and is pretty excellent and also sounds very much like what the Minus 5 would be churning out ten years down the road.

“The Road Below” worked its syrupy charms on me, and I’m not sure what to think of “It’s No Wonder,” which, by the 5:30 mark, started to wear me into submission and had me thinking, “I might actually  . . . like this?” But seriously, there are five high-quality tracks here, and they boast such a strange mix of influences that I am into it.

Sarge frontwoman Elizabeth Elmore sings on a couple of songs, and Shellac’s Bob Weston plays the trumpet on one.

Junior was from Akron, and he attended the same high school (Firestone) as Chrissie Hynde, the guys from the Black Keys, and members of Devo.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Our Dead Friends” is probably not as good as “Let Me Live My Own Life,” but its title puts it over the top.

Release Date

March, 2001

The Cover Art

The color palette is terrible but everything else works. I like the fonts, the allcaps, and the diamond separating the artist name and album title. The image is decent, maybe even good.

Weezer – Weezer [Green]

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

If Weezer had simply kept making this album over and over again for the rest of their career, I would have been satisfied. I’m not investing the time to figure out what happened, because I really don’t care, but apart from the odd song here and there – I will admit that I really enjoy “Beverly Hills” – post-Green album Weezer is a waste of space and time.

What I Think of This Album

Song for song, better than the Blue album and therefore Weezer’s best, the Green album is not anything complicated. These are very straightforward, incredibly simple pop songs – they are sugary, fast, and with just enough bite. While Weezer is capable of better, they have proven that they are much more apt to do worse, so this is really the most you can expect from this band.

This time around, producer Ric Ocasek (Cars) earns his keep, changing the sound around and adding keyboards and synths here and there. “Don’t Let Go” is all hooks and guitars. The harmonies are the key to “Photograph,” with a nice overdriven tone to the solo. “Hash Pipe” adds some rhythmic muscle (and the opening line is from the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That,” one of their most misogynistic songs). The band offers up its most romantic song in the form of the sweet “Island In the Sun.” The lyrics of “Crab” are really stupid – not that “Hash Pipe” was poetry – but the guitar riff is cool and the harmonies carry the day. In comparison, “Knock-down Drag-out” hints at allegory, but it is content to repeat a couple of phrases – again, the music more than compensates. The ballad strikes again on “Smile.” Arguably the best song here, the vocal rhythm of “Simple Pages” combined with a winning melody add up to more than the sum of the parts. Weezer must have sensed they were on to something, as “Glorious Day” is almost a rewrite of “Simple Pages.” “O Girlfriend” is sort of a throwaway.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Simple Pages” is the winner.

Release Date

May, 2001

The Cover Art

The difference between the dorky stupid charm of the Blue album cover and this, its arrogant cousin, is stark. Rivers is clearly the focal point, out in front of the others with his guitar and absurd lightning bolt strap, and the angle is more dynamic and flattering. These are no longer nerds proud to be nerds; these are successful nerds who think they’re no longer nerds.

Built To Spill – Ancient Melodies of the Future

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It’s a testament to Built To Spill’s talent that this album can be overlooked and downgraded for the crime of not being as good as Perfect From Now On or Keep It Like a Secret. Even if that’s true (and it’s probably true, but just barely so), it’s still an outstanding album that Martsch and company (the by-now-set lineup of Scott Plouf, Brett Nelson, and guest-in-name-only Brett Netson, plus guest Sam Coomes) have every reason to be proud of and pleased with.

What I Think of This Album

Anyone who thinks this album isn’t better than There’s Nothing Wrong With Love (in other words, this is without a doubt at least the third-best Built To Spill album) is out of their mind. While it doesn’t break new ground like either of the two platters that preceded it, Ancient Melodies finds Built to Spill establishing themselves and refining the hybridized approach they staked out on Keep It Like a Secret.

Thus, the band pushes ten tracks of pop-oriented (as in, not lengthy) guitar creations, this time with a big assist from Coomes’s keyboards, importing a sound from his band Quasi. He leads off swirling, bright opener “Strange,” marked by stinging, darting guitars, as well as a fine drum performance from Plouf. Keyboards take the place of cellos on the languid “The Host,” a slow motion movie projected on a six string screen. “In Your Mind” is an Eastern-flavored behemoth, with Plouf pounding away and Martsch unleashing a dirty distorted lead line. “Alarmed” is another ballad, reliant on keyboards as much as guitars, that slowly picks up steam as Martsch intensely questions the listener (“Did you make it all wrong / So wrong / Did you wait oh so long / So long / Did you take it all wrong / So wrong”) and Coomes’s keyboard tumbles down a never-ending staircase.

“Trimmed and Burning” is classic Built To Spill, with Martsch and Netson building a massive ark together in grim determination. “Happiness” can’t be accused of overstating things (“Happiness will only / Happen when it can”); this turns out to be a sort of indie-sounding classic rock song, which Martsch has pulled off before. “Don’t Try” is ridiculously dense and layered; it feels like it’s eons old. If you don’t shed a tear to “You Are,” then I have the right to call the police and have you arrested; this is a stunning and enchanting piece of music.

As if that’s not enough, it is followed by “Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss,” which is probably the most melodic, charming song Built To Spill has ever recorded, with lovely lyrics:  “I know you’re making / Accidents and stars for everyone / You’re amazing / And half of them won’t know until you’re gone,” and also with sleigh bells. And then THAT is followed by folky “The Weather,” which is the purest love song to come from Built To Spill (“And as long as it’s talking with you / Talk of the weather will do”), and winds up revolving around backwards guitar and backwards Mellotron(?) If this song hasn’t been played at dozens of hipster weddings, I will pay you a thousand dollars.

Martsch relied on Phil Ek to twiddle the knobs, as usual.

The Best Thing About This Album

“You Are” should be heard by everyone.

Release Date

July, 2001

The Cover Art

This is pretty great; designer and Kicking Giant guitarist Tae Won Yu hits the bullseye this time. The ornate fonts and intricate designs call to mind the interlocking guitar sounds, and I approve of Built To Spill’s adoption of the bullseye/record image. The half-shy appearance by Martsch, hiding behind the very object that brings him fame, seems to be a half-hearted acknowledgement of his status. I like the band of vertical stripes across the bottom, too.

X – Wild Gift

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

X is another of these bands that I like a lot but can’t honestly claim to love. I own a good number of their albums, and I think they have some great songs; also, Billy Zoom is super cool, DJ Bonebrake has a great name for a drummer (“Dude, he hits so hard he BREAKS BONES”), and John and Exene are an iconic pair. But if I was given 30 minutes to freestyle in front of the Lincoln Memorial about bands I love, X wouldn’t even come close to getting a mention. Adding to this, I really don’t like the debut album, Los Angeles, which is widely considered to be a classic. Oh well.

What I Think of This Album

Ray Manzarek of the Doors produced this, which I find a little weird but not a lot; I don’t think there needs to be an obvious connection between producer and band. In any event, this is a pretty clean sounding album for a punk band, though X was already starting to pull at the threads of that cloak on this second outing.

In particular, the subtly tense “Adult Books” is a successful attempt at Latin-esque rhythms and mood manipulation; the coda, when the vocals lilt upwards at the end of the phrases, is excellent. Much more in keeping with the band’s style, “The Once Over Twice” has Zoom spraying rockabilly riffs everywhere while John Doe and Exene Cervenka harmonize about how terrible men are. Bonebrake propels the urgent “We’re Desperate,” an electrifying anthem for the downtrodden and dispossessed. Exene’s first solo composition is the repetitive “I’m Coming Over,” which for all its brutal simplicity is not unenjoyable. The underappreciated “It’s Who You Know” is a lot of fun. All the band’s strength’s are on display on the classic “In This House That I Call Home,” with a great bass riff, and excellent work from Zoom, as well as Bonebrake hitting every surface within reach about 9,000 times, and an outstanding vocal take from the front couple.

Zoom shines again on “Beyond and Back,” and Exene’s “shut up and smoke” may not be on par with Dorothy Parker but it is terrifically lethal. The excellent “When Our Love Passed Out On the Couch” is another of the desperate songs of romance that characterize this album. “Year One” is fantastic, with party handclaps, probably Cervenka’s best vocal on the album, and riffs galore from Zoom. The only bad news here is “Universal Corner,” which has Zoom playing in a fairly traditional hard rock style; not a keeper and overlong. I strongly dislike everything about “White Girl;” just can’t tolerate even a second of it, though I guess a lot of people like it. And “Back 2 the Base” is dull filler. The bonus tracks on my reissue range from cool to not awesome.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Shut up and smoke!” (but don’t, because smoking is like, really bad for you). A close second is “last night everything broke.”

Release Date

1981 (original), 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Kind of messy and confusing. Not a fan.

Blondie – Eat to the Beat

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

I used to own upwards of 1,000 CDs. I have, in recent years, whittled that down to maybe 800 (I’m not sure). I can’t say I have a particular formula or set of principles that I apply in determining what to keep; emotion plays a large role, and enjoyment is too subjective in the first instance. This album is another one that I have a hard time justifying owning. It’s a good album but the best songs on it are already on my copy of Greatest Hits, and three songs I don’t like, leaving four songs that are at best just good (and from which I could not call up a snippet of melody or fragment of lyrics if my life depended on it). But there is something about an album that a compilation can’t really match, sometimes, even if the album itself isn’t an artist’s best work. For now, at least, I am hanging on to Eat to the Beat.

What I Think of This Album

A very good, borderline-great Blondie album, Eat to the Beat is in some ways a lesser copy of Parallel Lines. Obviously, having found a hit sound with producer Mike Chapman, they were not about to stray too far from that formula, so the similarities are not unexpected.

The big draw here is “Dreaming,” which gives you a good idea of what a cocaine-fueled octopus on drums might sound like; the guitar riff is pretty cool, too. The white boy funk of “The Hardest Part” is the second-most surprising thing about it, the true novelty being that this song is about an armored car robbery. Dense and layered, “Union City Blue” is probably the sleeper song on here; it definitely deserves to be more well-known. “Atomic” is clearly an attempt at another “Heart of Glass,” with its mix of new wave and disco. Hardly holding a candle to its inspiration, it’s still a pretty good song.

Beyond these highlights, “Shayla” is a decent ballad with a nice slide guitar part, and “Die Young Stay Pretty” is a moderately successful attempt at reggae. “Accidents Never Happen” probably should have been a bigger song:  it’s a seductive, new wave-gilded power pop number. “Living in the Real World” relies on Debbie Harry’s gutsy vocal and a strong performance by the band. Brill Building songwriting legend Ellie Greenwich (co-author of “Be My Baby,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Da Doo Ron Ron,” and “River Deep-Mountain High”) sings backup on “Dreaming” and “Atomic.”

The 2001 reissue adds some live tracks, including a good cover of Bowie’s “Heroes” and maybe a less good cover of “Ring of Fire,” and in the liner notes, Chapman again provides dirt on the toll fame and drugs were taking on the band.

The Best Thing About This Album

The drumming on “Dreaming” is fucking awesome.

Release Date

1979 (original); 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

A disappointing effort after the excellence of Parallel Lines. The grid screams “THIS IS A NEW WAVE BAND” and the font for the band name borders on parody. I hate when bands have only a fraction of the members on the cover, with the remainder being relegated to the back cover. That must cause arguments.

Blondie – Parallel Lines

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

One of my first music purchases was a cassette of The Best of Blondie (1981); I was in fourth grade. I only paid attention to the hits – “Heart of Glass,” “Dreaming,” “The Tide is High,” “Call Me,” and “One Way or Another” – I have no recollection of listening to the deeper cuts, though looking at the track listing now, it was a very strong selection, and nine-year-old me should have paid more attention to it.

What I Think of This Album

Almost certainly Blondie’s best album (the debut is a contender, though I don’t own it), this is the one you should buy if you’re going beyond a best of comp. Produced by Mike Chapman, the album was Blondie’s breakthrough, making them stars.

The reissue I have includes fascinating liner notes from perfectionist Chapman, in which he briefly recounts his difficulties working with the group and dishes on intra-band tensions. And while Chapman certainly gets credit for the glossy, radio-ready sound, the fact is that the band – even if as undisciplined as musicians as Chapman claims – wrote some great songs for him to work with, responsible for nine of the twelve songs here.

That said, let’s not overlook Jack Lee of the Nerves, who serves as a source of two songs:  that band’s “Hanging On the Telephone” (later also covered by L7, Def Leppard, and Cat Power) opens this album, and “Will Anything Happen?” is an excellent album track. Harry growls her way through the determined, if not stalkerish, “One Way or Another,” which has a great opening guitar riff and fun keyboard bridge. Harry turns sweet on the wistful love song “Picture This,” masterfully injecting increasing urgency as the song progresses, then pulling back again. Robert Fripp, for some reason, guests on the aimlessly meandering “Fade Away and Radiate.” Seductively is how Harry plays it on “Pretty Baby,” another fine showcase for her. “11:59” is excellent, though much less so than the cooing “Sunday Girl,” which features an outstanding vocal performance and great drumming from Clem Burke (as well as a cool clave, briefly, in the background towards the end).

The disco/new wave fusion of “Heart of Glass” is A-MA-ZING:  the synthesizers, the drums, the guitar riff, and that ascending bass part, all in the service of a song glistening with massive hooks. Did you know this song is almost six minutes long? It sure as shit doesn’t feel that way (though the original album version was under four minutes, it’s been replaced on this reissue with the 12” version). The cover of “I’m Gonna Love You Too” is fun but inessential. “Just Go Away” is a cheeky way to end an album.

The reissue includes an early version of “Heart of Glass,” and it gives an interesting peek into the evolution of the song. Also thrown in is a cover of T. Rex’s “Bang A Gong (Get It On).”

By the way, Chapman co-wrote the Tony Basil hit “Mickey” (though in its original incarnation it was about a girl, and titled “Kitty”). “Mickey” was the basis of Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky,” which was itself a model for the Archers of Loaf’s “Harnessed in Slums” (and possibly also “Underdogs of Nipomo”). He also co-wrote Pat Benatar’s hit “Love Is a Battlefield.”

The Best Thing About This Album

The arrangement of “Heart of Glass.”

Release Date

September 1978 (original); 2001 (reissue)

The Cover Art

Iconic. The band apparently hated it, but the use of black and white, and the play on the album title, is *chef’s kiss.* The boys look a little goofy, but the matching suits are both a throwback to the Beatles and consistent with the prevailing new wave aesthetic. The red script for the band name is great, too.

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