The Feelies – The Good Earth

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

Six years separated the first two Feelies albums. Anton Fier and Keith DeNunzio both left the band and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer basically fucked around New York for a few years, making music in various guises. In 1985, they reformed with Dave Weckerman back in the fold and new members Brenda Sauter on bass and Stanley Demeski on drums. This five piece has been the Feelies ever since. This was the last of the core Feelies albums I bought, waiting for the 2009 reissue (the original had been released on the small Coyote Records imprint and it was impossible to find).

What I Think of This Album

Liberated from any momentum generated by Crazy Rhythms, and with a new perspective after years of exploring different approaches via their various side projects (some with new members Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski and returning original compatriot Dave Weckerman), the Feelies returned with the more sedate The Good Earth, a title that itself gives off bucolic vibes.

While some have attributed the change in sound to producer Peter Buck’s (REM) presence, he has denied playing much of any role beyond cheerleader. And it’s difficult to believe that Mercer and Million were somehow cajoled into doing something they didn’t want to. There are similarities to the driving sound of the debut, even if this album is much calmer. 

That said, this isn’t slowcore. There are plenty of electric guitars and Mercer still plays biting leads – check out the solo on “On the Roof.” If anything, there is a greater sense of steady propulsion and thrumming hypnotism on The Good Earth. Whereas the band communicated unease and tension on the debut, here they sound confident and determined.

Every track is excellent, but Demeski does a particularly impressive job on tracks like “The Last Roundup,” “Two Rooms,” and “Tomorrow Today.” “Let’s Go” is an invitation no one with a heart(beat) could turn down. The jangle of “The High Road” is immensely appealing. The twin guitar work on “Two Rooms” is fascinating. Closer “Slow Down” is a masterpiece of mood and tautness.

“Slipping (Into Something)” is an enjoyable slab of Velvet Underground homage while also being perhaps the least interesting song on the album. The atmospherics of “When Company Comes” sound like Ennio Morricone got his hands on, well, I guess the Velvet Underground. It is a lovely lovely lovely and meticulously crafted song – listen for the dog barking at roughly :40.

Note:  the reissue comes in a cardboard sleeve of non-standard size, which annoys me. It also comes with a little business card that allows you to download extra tracks (two covers (Beatles and Neil Young) and a live version of “Slipping”) – apparently the band wanted the actual album to stand alone. I have not downloaded the tracks, only because I don’t like “owning” music in purely digital form. I need a physical medium.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stanley Demeski is the absolute MVP on this.

Release Date

1986

The Cover Art

While I don’t feel strongly about it, I agree that this is probably the perfect image (with coloring) to accompany this album.

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

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

The Feelies are low key one of my favorite bands. I wish they were easier to see, but you basically have to live in the New York area nowadays. I was lucky enough to see them in Chicago some years ago. I also saw side project Wake Oolo when I lived in New York (they opened for Luna), but I did not really appreciate the significance at the time. The core of the Feelies – percussionist Dave Weckerman and guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – began playing together in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976. Lineup changes ensued and by the time of 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, bassist Keith DeNunzio (also known as Keith Clayton) had joined as had Anton Fier on drums (it is not clear what happened to Weckerman during this period, who otherwise has been a long time member).

What I Think of This Album

I don’t really believe in Top Ten Albums but fuck it, this is a Top Ten Album for me. It is odd and unsettling and comforting and comfortable and vibrant and vibratory and playful and inventive and impressive as fuck.

The title telegraphs the most obvious feature of the music, which is the polyrhythms that dominate the sound. Anton Fier is the main percussionist, but his efforts are augmented by the other three band members, who make contributions on exotic instruments like sandpaper, shoes, can, and coat rack (and also timbales, shaker, claves, castanets, maracas, temple blocks, cowbell, and extra snare and tom-toms). Keeping up with these darting and dizzying beats is a rapturous and disorienting experience, which I highly recommend.

The song titles also betray the band’s sensibilities:  “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” Raised Eyebrows,” and “Forces at Work.”  The Feelies share some DNA with Wire, in that both aim to strip things down to their essential parts. But whereas Wire exuded a sense of danger and mischief, the Feelies communicate anxiety and fatalism. And while Wire kept things spare in the most direct way, the Feelies one up them by creating a skeletal sound despite layering multiple guitar parts and percussion. Also, while perhaps less impish than Wire, the Feelies have a sense of humor, because no one is overdubbing sandpaper and coat rack without having some fun. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole thing is a joke. While later albums built on this sound, the band never again engaged in this kind of perverse and claustrophobic minimalism.

The vocals owe a debt to Lou Reed, and the twin guitars are the offspring that Television and the Velvet Underground left to fend for themselves at the orphanage. Some songs approach pop while others simply find grace in repetitiveness and inflection. 

It’s all too easy – and liberating – to get lost in the beat of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” which comes across like Jonathan Richman having sleep terrors. The unexpectedly delightful “Fa Cé-La” is insouciant and playful, with curlique guitar and a descending bass riff. Like “Perpetual Nervousness,” the slow build of “Loveless Love” creates dark tension that Million and Mercer amplify with their wiry guitar work; while Fier pounds away, the two cast spells around each other in a competition to see who will suffer a psychotic break first. 

The seven minute epic “Forces At Work” also starts atmospherically with a tremolo pulse before a motorik-type beat comes in and then a mesh of guitars is thrown in your face. Mercer adds some lead at points thereafter, seemingly without reason. The lyrics consist mostly of overlapping chants and eventually devolve into wordless vocalizations. This is basically “Sister Ray” but less artsy and more nerdy. It is appropriately the centerpiece of the album.

“Original Love” is probably the closest thing to a traditional song, albeit a smokily nihilistic one that would have made Ian Curtis dance dance dance dance dance to the radio. Speaking of icons, the Feelies have no compunction about making the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” their own. It’s an exhilarating ride, as if there was an actual capuchin in charge of the tempo. And, the coat rack really does sound great on it. “Moscow Nights” is a convoluted exploration of rhythm with some fantastic lead work courtesy of Mercer.

Jesus fuck, the drum hits on “Raised Eyebrows” stir my soul in the way I imagine love might one day. There is a credit here for “spasmodic drum” (as well as “anchor drum” and “random tom-toms” in addition to plain old “drum kit”). The lead part is fantastic, the staticky rhythm guitar is great, the jangle jangles like no one’s business, and there is even a fun vocal melody. This is one of my favorite Feelies songs ever.

There are actual lyrics to the title track, which really pulls out all the stops and barrels to the end of the album with aplomb. What a way to end an album. What a way to end THIS album. 

My copy is the 1990 A&M release, which tacks on a cover of “Paint It Black,” with the stable post-Crazy Rhythms lineup, and it really does sound like a completely different band. It’s cool to have but it feels very out of place on the disc, especially when “Crazy Rhythms” is the perfect closer.

By the way, I love credits like “left guitar” (Million) and “right guitar” (Mercer).

Fier later played with Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet, and was a member of the Golden Palominos. He died in 2022 via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything. It’s a classic and unimprovable in every way.

Release Date

February, 1980

The Cover Art

Like the album itself, there is something a little bit off about this art. Which is what draws you in. I do like the text at the top. I would accuse Weezer of having ripped this off for their debut, but I don’t think Weezer is cool enough to listen to the Feelies (well, probably Matt Sharp is). I can’t say for sure who is who, but I am relatively confident that Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are the center figures (Mercer the one with the curly hair). Anton Fier is for certain the guy on the left.

The Shirelles – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

As much as I like the girl-group genre, there are some large holes in my collection. I own the One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found box set, but that’s all rarities and obscurities. I have the Phil Spector Back to Mono box set as well, though I am not sure how complete of an overview it offers of the Ronettes or the Crystals. My Motown box set has some Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas, and Velvelettes but again, is not comprehensive. I own no Shangri-Las. For the record, I have never liked Diana Ross’s voice and have no intention of getting a Supremes comp. But I am glad I own this Shirelles album. Formed while they were still in high school in New Jersey in 1957, the Shirelles were Shirley Owens, Doris Cooley, Addie “Mickie” Harris, and Beverly Lee. They were signed to a contract by Florence Greenberg, a literally bored New Jersey housewife who, in her mid-forties, decided to go into the music business and started the label Tiara Records. Not the first girl-group, but probably the first girl-group that found major success, the Shirelles worked with Luther Dixon to craft their unique sound. Dionne Warwick sometimes stepped in for absent members for live performances. Harris died in 1982, and Cooley passed in 2000.

What I Think of This Album

This extremely bare-bones budget CD is nonetheless adequate unless you are a very hardcore Shirelles fan. It is disappointing that there is zero information included in the booklet, but hey – it’s got the songs.

The album runs through twelve Shirelles songs, not in any particular order, spanning the years 1958-1964. As far as I can tell, all the chart hits are here:  “Soldier Boy;” “Dedicated to the One I Love;” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow;” “Mama Said;” “Foolish Little Girl;” and “Baby It’s You.”

Notably, both “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” and “Tonight’s the Night” concerned losing one’s virginity, which was risky subject matter back then. “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” was a Carole King and Gerry Goffin song. Burt Bacharach was one of the songwriters of “Baby Its You.” King Curtis played sax on “Boys.”

Florence Greenberg ended up running labels that released:  “Louie, Louie;” “Twist and Shout;” and . . . uh . . . “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.” The Shirelles sued her when they learned that a trust fund she had promised to set up and keep for them did not exist. She passed away in 1995.

Luther Dixon wrote many of these Shirelles hits, as well as “16 Candles.” He died in 2009.

The Beatles included covers of “Boys” (sung by Ringo!) and “Baby It’s You” on Please Please Me.

The Best Thing About This Album

 Fucking all of it. The vocals. The songwriting. The arrangements. ALL. OF. IT.

Release Date

1991

The Cover Art

I can’t believe I actually found this cover online. It’s awful.

She & Him – Volume One

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

M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel met in 2005 on the set of an independent film for which they performed a duet. They bonded and she sent him some of her demos and they decided to work together, beginning recording on this debut release barely a year after they first met.

What I Think of This Album

It is easy to come into this predisposed against it as a crass vanity project. But this isn’t Don Johnson’s Heartbeat album on Epic. Zooey Deschanel’s name and face are absent from the art, and it’s on Merge. And, for what it’s worth, she has a really nice voice, can write a good song, and doesn’t surround herself with a bunch of high-priced hired guns in the studio.

Comprising ten originals and three covers, the album – whose title communicates confidence, if nothing else – is overwhelmingly charming and pleasant without being groundbreaking. Deschanel, true to her Hollywood roots, is capable of conveying various emotions well, usually accompanied by sunny melodies supported by neo-Spector arrangements. M. Ward, for his part, is unobtrusive and appears more than willing to cede the spotlight. Songs like the weepy “Sentimental Heart” and the rollicking and flirty “Why Do You Let Me Stay Here?,” as well as girl-group number “I Was Made for You” are emblematic of the overall strength of the album.

The covers are where I have the most trouble. It is in these moments that the whole project seems irretrievably precious. The Smokey Robinson and Beatles covers are at best unnecessary and at worst, border on embarrassing. But the cover of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is even more problematic. I’m not sure who was involved in the decision-making on this, but it seems fairly distasteful to have a white bread movie star singing an African-American spiritual (though this misdeed has been committed many times over, including by Bing Crosby and Eric Clapton). It’s an unfortunate way to end an otherwise very enjoyable affair.

Guests include Rachel Blumberg of the Decemberists and Mike Coykendall (Devotchka).

The Best Thing About This Album

Deschanel can sing. No doubt about it.

Release Date

March, 2008

The Cover Art

I love the font and the watercolor. The featureless face is creepy as fuck.

Del Shannon – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Runaway” and I am almost positive it took a little bit after that before I knew who Del Shannon was, but I was familiar with the song by the time I was seven. I didn’t think much about Shannon again until the news of his suicide in 1990. Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover, and after a stint in the Army, he worked a series of jobs in Michigan, most consistently selling carpeting, when he joined a local band as a guitar player, later taking over the unit when the leader was dismissed for drunkenness. He took the stage name Charlie Johnson and, most importantly, recruited local musician Max Crook into the band in 1959. Crook was a musical wunderkind who had invented an analog synthesizer he called the Musitron (based on the existing Clavioline). Crook also got the band noticed after he mailed out recordings, and after he and Westover signed to the Bigtop label in 1960, Westover was persuaded to adopt the stage name Del Shannon. Shannon had hits into the mid-60’s, and was particularly popular in England. He made some forays into country music and attempts at a rock comeback – he eventually worked with Jeff Lynne as well as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dave Edmunds, and the Smithereens, and was rumored to become the replacement for Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys – never quite succeeded. He wrote the Peter & Gordon hit “I Go to Pieces.” He was the first U.S. artist to cover the Beatles, in 1963. He also helped a young Bob Seger get his career off the ground.

What I Think of This Album

I can only hope that for many years to come, every week or so, some kid hears “Runaway” and becomes captivated and either contemporaneously or later, further explores the music of Del Shannon and helps to keep his memory alive. 

Rhino thankfully presents these twenty tracks in chronological order. It helps to appreciate what Shannon was up against, as “Runaway” was his first and biggest hit, a song he was never able to top even as he wrote and released several other excellent singles. And as the liner notes take pains to emphasize, Shannon should not be lumped in with the teen vocal idols of the 60’s because he was a rocker, from his songwriting abilities to his skills as a guitarist to his modern-looking thematic concerns of loss, rejection, and regret. 

“Runaway” is a monster track, immediately grabbing you by the ears with the dramatic, Latin-esque guitar and piano intro, the pumping sax, Shannon’s lyrics efficiently describing bewilderment and agony, building to his gritty prechorus vocal, and THEN you get to Shannon’s falsetto and THEN you get the space-age Musitron part, which is somehow both disorienting and perfectly complementary, and holy fucking shit! This is a masterpiece whose only flaw is that it is way too short.

“Hats Off to Larry” is a fantastically bitter and biting tune, which in seeking to repeat the success of “Runaway,” also features a critical falsetto part and the haunting sounds of Crook’s Musitron. The chugging “So Long Baby” is another surprisingly sophisticated tale of psychosexual drama, with easily the best kazoo solo in rock history. “Hey! Little Girl” rounds out the four Top 40 Hits Shannon had in 1961.

Other highlights include “Cry Myself to Sleep,” which is very obviously the basis for Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” “Two Silhouettes” is an excellent story of betrayal. “Stranger In Town” is compelling and creepy. “Show Me” has some hints of surf rock to it, while “Sister Isabelle” borders on lite-psych, with a surprisingly soulful vocal. 

As the liner notes point out, “Little Town Flirt” has the same opening lyric as the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” is the precursor to all those Springsteen songs about how we gotta get out of this town (though with a falsetto outro that Bruce could never have pulled off).

Max Crook’s story is interesting in its own right. Born into a musical family, he built his own recording studio by the time he was fourteen and the Musitron around the age of 23. In addition to working with Shannon, he recorded instrumental songs under various guises including the name Maximilian. He passed in 2020.

Fun facts: “Runaway” was recorded in A but the producer sped the recording up to juuuuuust below B-flat; Shannon recorded a new version of the song in 1967 with half of Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and Nicky Hopkins; the Misfits covered the song; Echo & the Bunnymen reference it on “Over the Wall” and Tom Petty references it on “Running’ Down a Dream.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Runaway” is the, you can guess it, runaway winner.

Release Date

1990

The Cover Art

I like the early ‘60s lettering and color scheme and the not-at-all-convincing smile on Shannon’s face speaks to the dark themes he explored in his songs.

Electric Light Orchestra – All Over the World: The Very Best of Electric Light Orchestra

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

If you think of Electric Light Orchestra, you think of Jeff Lynne, as you should. But ELO was Roy Wood’s baby and brainchild, conceived while he was leading the Move. Due to contractual obligations, the Move coexisted with ELO from 1970-72, with Wood, Lynne, and drummer Bev Bevan forming the core of both groups. Wood left ELO by 1972, during the recording of their second album, to form Wizzard. Lynne stepped up and the rest is history. The band dissolved in 1986, as Lynne moved to production work and other projects (like the Traveling Wilburys). Bevan formed ELO II (with the blessing of Lynne), and Lynne himself eventually reformed ELO (without Bevan). Bevan has also drummed for Black Sabbath and Paul Weller (the Jam).

What I Think of This Album

I am fairly certain there are about 59 different ELO Best of comps, and I have no ability or desire to convince you that this is the one you should own. From what I have read, it is not in fact the best such collection, as it apparently skips over some hits in favor of album cuts. But it is the one *I* happen to own, and for now, it suffices for my purposes. It is not sequenced chronologically and omits songs from multiple albums, focusing on tracks from 1973 to 1983. And if you care about such things, it does not feature any contributions from Roy Wood. Again, to the extent this album does not paint the most accurate picture of ELO, I am 100% okay with that. Well, 95% okay, as I can see myself replacing it with a better comp someday.

I am fully here for the absolute ridiculousness that is ELO. Every possible criticism of Electric Light Orchestra’s songs and sound is, to my ear, a positive. Shameless Beatles theft? Cool. Gloopy layer upon gloopy layer of keyboards and strings? Fuck, yes.  Pretentious meldings of genres like classical, disco, opera, and rock? Bring it on. Candy-coated and carnival-colored melodies? Perfect.

Almost every track here is pretty fucking irresistible. If you hate this and wish Jeff Lynne had died in his crib as an infant, fine (though there are better targets for your anger). I can actually understand that. But I suggest you give yourself over to the joys of Lynne’s undeniable enthusiasm and studio wizardry. This album contains twenty tracks of unbeatable and unabashed fucking FUN. The highlights are too many to mention because they are all highlights:  “Mr. Blue Sky;” “Rock and Roll Is King;” “Rockaria!;” “Don’t Bring Me Down;” “Hold On Tight.”

Marc Bolan of T. Rex plays guitar on “Ma-Ma-Ma Belle.”

The Best Thing About This Album

I am giving credit to the string players and keyboardists (especially Richard Tandy).

Release Date

June, 2005

The Cover Art

It looks like a giant Simon toy, but what I appreciate is that it is a mix of the grandiose and the silly in the same way ELO’s songs are. So, yeah, it works.

The Essex Green – Cannibal Sea

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

I for sure bought this at the Wabash Street Tower Records in Chicago during the workday, a frankly depressing outpost whose lethargic approach to retail was a harbinger of the chain’s demise. In any event, I am pretty sure this was my first Essex Green purchase, prompted by a positive album review in Magnet magazine, a resource that I loved and trusted. That semi-institution is also long gone now, a victim of various millennial economic and social forces that have devalued music and journalism (and, particularly, music journalism).

What I Think of This Album

On their third, and as far as I am concerned, best album, the Essex Green adopt a cosmopolitan pop stance that arguably brings them to the forefront of cool (as in calm and collected), intelligent indie. It’s a development that is not terribly surprising; they had already started to move beyond their ‘60s-specific persona on The Long Goodbye while also demonstrating that they were more literary and worldly than even your average Elephant 6 band. Accordingly, references both explicit and oblique to Homer, Shakespeare, and Dumas float by on the European-influenced Cannibal Sea (which really feels like it needs a “The”) and the band adds some new wave horsepower to their trusty orch/folk-pop engine. 

The most obviously catchy and arguably best song on the album is the synth-flecked “Don’t Know Why (You Stay),” which could be a New Pornographers’ track, with carefully arranged parts and harmonies, including a nice blunted guitar attack and a strong lead vocal from Chris Ziter. Much like “The Late Great Cassiopia” from The Last Goodbye, this song strongly suggests that the Essex Green perhaps functions best as a modern power-pop outfit.

But that would be a mistake and a loss, for as entertaining and enjoyable as it would be to get an album’s worth of such material, it is the Essex Green’s musical restlessness that is actually their greatest strength. Thus, “Rue de Lis” is a sprightly folk song that suggests Simon & Garfunkel at their sunniest, with wonderful harmonies from Sasha Bell and lush keyboard accompaniment. Meanwhile, the band kicks up a surprising racket on “Cardinal Points,” a deceptively modest tune that ends with some actual rocking out. 

Opening track “This Isn’t Farmlife” has a bouncy Motown beat that the trio (plus anonymous drummer(s)) adorns with strings, keyboards, and vocal harmonies to produce a pillowy and warm mini-masterpiece. And not-quite-balladish “Penny & Jack” is a very good approximation of  British indie-pop, with Ziter and Bell trading vocals. 

The variety continues with the string-plucked and moody “Rabbit“ which sounds downright Elizabethan, though the misleading callouts to York and Carlisle are actually part of a mid-Atlantic travelogue that spans Pennsylvania and dips into other nearby states. This expertly crafted song includes some impressively mournful violin in the background. Another fakeout comes on “Sin City,”  which is really about Ohio (contrasted in the song with Pittsburgh), but is really really about Bell’s beguiling vocals and the careful, open instrumentation that allows the song to bloom. 

Perhaps another contender for best tune is the stomping “Elsinore,” with Bell taking charge on vocals to some creative percussive accents in the background, all against a backdrop of keyboards and guitars. It makes you wish Hamlet and Ophelia had been granted the opportunity to enjoy this song together.

Other worthy tracks include the somewhat ominous “Snakes In the Grass,” which benefits from clever production touches, including some vaguely psychedelic (as in “A Day In the Life”) effects; the keyboard-forward, jittery “Uniform”; and the oddly martial (but also, uh, urinary) “The Pride.” Winsome closer “Slope Song” proves that there is not a bad tune on the album.

Kudos to co-producer Britt Myers who collaborated with the band on this outstanding record. One of the drummers (though, also, possibly the only drummer) was San Fadyl of the Ladybug Transistor.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Don’t Know Why (You Stay)”

Release Date

March, 2006

The Cover Art

The banner reminds me of a cross between Monty Python and Neutral Milk Hotel, and that’s probably not what anybody wanted. The actual artwork is pretty meh.

The Searchers – The Very Best of . . .

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I am pretty sure I got this out of an interest in rock history. As such, I don’t really listen to it that much. But there is some good stuff here, and worth a spin every now and then. The Searchers were from Liverpool and got together in 1959. After some early reshuffling of members, the core lineup of Mike Pender, Tony Jackson, John McNally, and Chris Curtis emerged around 1962. They spent some time honing their skills in both their hometown and Hamburg. They had some chart success but were essentially over as a musical force by 1967 (if not earlier). Jackson died in 2003; Curtis in 2005.

What I Think of This Album

The Searchers were the early British version of the Byrds, including before the Byrds existed. That’s my take. The difference is that the Searchers mostly played covers (or at least, their hits were all covers), and thus they had a very flat artistic arc. Still, it’s nice to hear that jangle and those harmonies.

True, some of these covers come across as silly, like  “Love Potion No. 9” (which for reasons I don’t understand the Searchers titled as “Love Potion Number Nine”) and “Sweets for My Sweet.” This latter song (written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) was a hit for the Drifters in 1961, while the former (a Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller tune) charted for the Clovers in 1959. The Searchers also recorded “Sugar and Spice,” which is a ripoff of “Sweets” and is likewise very lightweight, though the Cryan’ Shames recorded a garage band version in 1966 that made it onto the Nuggets comp in 1972, which is the opposite of lightweight. Also, despite the tough, bluesy vocals – which, admittedly, I sort of like – “Ain’t That Just Like Me” is literally a medley of nursery rhymes. This song was also performed by the Coasters (1961) and the Hollies (1963, beating the Searchers by several months). If I’m being totally honest, “Bumble Bee” (by LaVern Baker – the second female solo artist to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) also is sort of cringey.

Most of the rest is more sophisticated and compelling. Someone displayed excellent taste in selecting Jackie DeShannon’s “When You Walk In the Room”. And it’s hard not to love “Needles and Pins,” a song that DeShannon herself recorded, and also claims to have co-written despite credit traditionally going to Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche. If you really pay attention, you can hear the bass drum pedal squeak at the beginning of the song (and maybe if you have better ears than me, throughout the rest of the track). 

“Needles and Pins” featured a 12-string sound that predated the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” by just over a year. But, this was achieved by double-tracking a six-string guitar. In any event, it is pretty clear that the riff that the Byrds used in “I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better” was pretty much lifted straight from the Searchers’ version of “Needles and Pins.”

Another excellent track is the cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Take Me for What I’m Worth.” They do a great job with “Don’t Throw Your Love Away,” and with protest song “What Have They Done to the Rain?” (written by Malvina Reynolds and also performed by Joan Baez and Marianne Faithful (not at the same time)). Also, there is a lot to like about “Someday We’re Going to Love Again,” originally performed by Barbara Lewis and written by Sharon McMahan.

The revolving door of vocalists helps make the collection more interesting than it might otherwise be (also true of the Hollies, actually). Bassist Tony Jackson took lead vocals on the early hits, like “Sugar,” “Sweets,” and “Love Potion.” But “Needles and Pins” and “Don’t Throw Your Love Away” were handled by guitarist Mike Pender (neé Prendergast). After Jackson left the band in 1964, they recruited Frank Allen (originally Frank McNeice), who took the mic for “When You Walk In the Room,” “Rain,” and “Take Me.” 

It is worth noting that the Searchers covered several songs written by women, which I am guessing was not the norm for bands in the early 1960s, so kudos to them for recognizing and popularizing those overlooked and unrewarded artists.

Also, the Searchers experienced a surprising resurgence in the late 1970s, when they were signed to Sire Records and released two albums that are reportedly very good:  The Searchers and Love’s Melodies (though this album was titled Play for Today in the UK). I am informed by the internet that these have never been released on CD in the US, though you can stream them . . . which I intend to do.

Trivia:  Drummer Chris Curtis (whose real last name was Crummey) has some fascinating connections to rock history. He replaced original Searchers drummer Norman McGarry, who left to join Rory Storm’s Hurricanes after that band’s drummer, one Ringo Starr, had been poached by the Beatles. When Curtis left the Searchers in 1966, he formed a band called Roundabout, and that group – which included Richie Blackmore – became Deep Purple (thought Curtis had been dismissed well before that).  

More trivia: Malvina Reynolds also wrote “Little Boxes,” a hit for Pete Seeger and which became the theme song for the show Weeds.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar jangle and the harmonies, though I am very close to picking “Take Me for What I’m Worth.”

Release Date

2002

The Cover Art

Whatever. The blue looks good.

Eleventh Dream Day – Prairie School Freakout

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Eleventh Dream Day is a frustrating band that l suspect might’ve made far less infuriating choices if early on they had found the success their talent merited. I also blame Doug McCombs. The band’s roots are in Louisville, where Rick Rizzo and Janet Beveridge Bean met. Both guitarists moved to Chicago and joined forces with McCombs (bass) and the incomparably named Baird Figi (guitar), with Beveridge Bean switching to drums. The band steadily released albums from 1988 to 1994 (Figi being replaced in 1992 by Wink O’Bannon), and then collectively put Eleventh Dream Day on the back burner:  Rizzo returned to school; Beveridge Bean focused on her band Freakwater; and McCombs pursued annoying ideas with his band Tortoise. They released albums sporadically after that (minus O’Bannon), none of them with the fire of the early work and many with a strong ambient influence.

What I Think of This Album

I own a “deluxe” reissue of Prairie School Freakout which prints the four band members’ reminisces of the recording of the album. Almost all of them reference the extreme heat, the late night start, the compressed recording time, the small footprint of the studio, and the noise coming from Rick Rizzo’s amp. All of that comes through on the recording, which captures Eleventh Dream Day giving an inspired performance, born of sweat and desperation.

Rizzo and Figi Baird dominate the album with their Neil Young homage. Apart from the shouted vocals – rooted instead in punk – opener “Watching the Candles Burn” could’ve easily been a Crazy Horse track, with Janet Beveridge Bean’s tom rolls adding to the momentum. The same is true of “Beach Miner” (though I think the opening guitar figure is downright Beatles-esque). Final song “Life On a String” similarly brings to mind Young.

What the band also does, critically, is to subvert and twist the Americana that Young (a Canadian) appropriated, delivering a modern, burned-out, ominous landscape drowning in violence and sadness, unmoored by an utter lack of meaning. This is thanks to the stunning work of songwriters Beveridge Bean and Rizzo; Bean provides three tracks, Rizzo another three, and they share credit on one more (Figi wrote two and McCombs one). The album would work well as the soundtrack to an updated movie version of In Cold Blood

Beveridge Bean’s harmony vocals do nothing to ease the unsettling atmosphere; if anything, her singing on “Sweet Smell” (her own song) only contributes to the claustrophobic feel. Rizzo deconstructs a couple’s failure to communicate and connect on “Coercion” (again, a Bean number) and it comes out sounding like an (American) gothic nightmare. His singing of the closing line “She became the night” evokes dread and exhaustion. McCombs provides the anomalous “Through My Mouth,” which is all hardcore rhythm – appropriate for Rizzo’s shouting about dying – and then turns into an atonal squallfest.

Relatedly, Bean’s “Death of Albert C. Sampson” is tale about a suicidal killer of a grocery store clerk; this is basically a Rust Belt version of Camus’s The Stranger accompanied by a blistering guitar lead. “Among the Pines” is equally existential and similarly death-obsessed, building from a tapestry of instruments to a sunny, jangly chord progression that would fit in perfectly on a classic era Lemonheads album while Rizzo sing-speaks like Lou Reed after overdosing on Emily Dickinson. The two solos here are wonderfully lyrical and melodic – arguably the highlight of the album.

“Driving Song” is exactly that, though it does not traffic in liberation and fun. Rather, it speaks to resignation and pointless repetition – the acknowledgement of being trapped. Written by Baird, he proves that he can nail the anomie that his bandmates have been doling out. This song is mostly an excuse for the lead guitar part, which is admittedly fucking awesome. The band gets atmospheric on “Tarantula,” which invokes a charred cathedral, the orbit of heavenly bodies, and, of course, death. Beveridge Bean provides spooky harmonies, Rizzo delivers his lyrics with punk aggression, Baird plays some cool slide guitar, and the other guitars carve like glaciers across the plains.

I am shocked that this album did not catapult Eleventh Dream Day to fame. This thing fucking rocks, and does so intelligently. Future band member Wink O’Bannon co-engineered the recording.

My reissue tacks on the three tracks that comprise the Wayne EP, from a year later:  “Tenth Leaving Train,” “ Southern Pacific,” and “Go.” The first is a marathon number (over 11 minutes long) that allows Baird and Rizzo plenty of room to stretch out, which they do not fail to take advantage of. Making things explicit is the Young cover “Southern Pacific”; Bean’s distant harmonies are great, the guitar figures in the background are awesome, and Rizzo sounds half-demented. “Go” is a fun, noisy romp, a bit like X if they had come out of Kansas instead of L.A.

The Best Thing About This Album

I would say the guitars but the songs wouldn’t be the same without Rizzo and Bean’s harrowing lyrics. I will therefore punt to a certain degree and praise the band’s energy, which should cover both the sound and the fury.

Release Date

1988

The Cover Art

It’s okay. It bears no relation to the amazing sounds on the record. The title is fantastic, of course.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Ocean Rain

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

Echo & the Bunnymen, for all the surprising and welcome attention they received after Donnie Darko, are not as celebrated as they should be. Their musicianship was outstanding, they wrote excellent songs, they had the benefit of a born showman out front, and their sense of style was stronger than most bands’. I don’t know why they are not held in the same regard as the Smiths, the Cure, New Order, or even Depeche Mode.

What I Think of This Album

It is difficult to deny that this album, packed with hits and excellent songs, is the pinnacle of the Bunnymen’s career. At the same time, the album lacks much of the defining sound of the classic era catalog, with diminished contributions from 75% of the band and a total liberation of the other 25%. Indeed, the furious drumming of Pete deFreitas is completely absent, Les Pattinson’s bass is only fitfully present, and Will Sergeant has to make the most of what space the orchestra leaves him. Meanwhile, Ian McCulloch blossoms into a fully id-driven persona, embodying whatever emotion he is feeling and communicating it with his complete being. This album is in considerable part Ian McCulloch and His 35 Piece Orchestra, which provides palatable, conventional arrangements (far removed from what Shankar delivered on Porcupine) that are nonetheless exhilarating and sumptuous. Almost every track here is excellent, every single one adorned with strings and often more. It sounds amazing, for sure, but it feels a little diluted. 

Imperial and imperious, the snow-swept “Nocturnal Me” is the soundtrack to an alternate universe’s Doctor Zhivago. The orchestra delivers a grand and portentous score and McCulloch delivers the verse lyrics with baroque theatricality, before darkly intoning “Take me internally / Forever yours, nocturnal me,” like a seductive Rasputin.

I can’t even imagine what the plan was for “Thorn of Crowns,” but this is the weirdest song the Bunnymen ever wrote. It is also one of their most compelling. McCulloch sounds literally crazed, reduced at one point to simply barking like a dog, and at other times moaning, grunting, yelping, whispering, and then of course, famously stuttering his way through a list of vegetables:  “C-c-c-cucumber / C-c-c-cabbage / C-c-c-cauliflower.” Sergeant adds some clanging sheet metal clanging riffs and the orchestra swells with percussion flourishes (are those church bells?) at the right moments.

Obviously, the deeply romantic “The Killing Moon” is the highlight of the album. Considered by most to be the best Bunnymen song (though my allegiance is with “The Cutter”), it is shrouded in mystery and berobed in elegance. The guitars have a Spanish/Eastern feel, and Pattinson offers up a brooding bass line. Needless to say, the strategic string interjections amplify the drama, not that the impassioned McCulloch needed the help while he croons and cries about fate, religiosity, the heavens, and kissing. In high school, I half-plagiarized the opening line of “The Killing Moon” for a poetry assignment. 

Speaking of theft, McCulloch queries “Where is the sense in stealing / Without the grace to be it?” and I can’t help with that. What I can help with is telling you that “Seven Seas” is a gargantuan song that deserved to be a hit. It is expertly constructed, bringing together the pop sounds and the orchestral trappings, most notably a refrain of descending church bell tones. I am a huge fan of the atonal guitar sounds in the intro just before the drums come in, and among the many evocative lyrics (some of which seem to concern Salem-era witch trials) that McCulloch sings is the opener “Stab a sorry heart / With your favorite finger,” which I have to say, I love. The jangly guitar part is delicious and the rhythm section comes to life. Velocity Girl covered this song, which sounds like a fool’s errand, but actually turned out well.

I would not be surprised if Tim Booth of James studied the title track obsessively prior to the Laid sessions. A dark horse epic tucked away at the end of the album, “Ocean Rain” is drop dead beautiful and built from the ground up with tremendous artistry and skill, as it deliberately progresses from a stark, haunting opening to a moving, melodious ballad. McCulloch shines with his most subtle and tender singing . . . ever, and the strings are as lovely as any I have ever heard.

I swear that the keyboard intro of “My Kingdom” reminds me of Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life” (which came later, so I guess I have it backwards). This is another unusual song, with heavy biblical suggestions, a sweetly intricate guitar part from Sergeant (and then a stinging lead), and outstanding drumming from deFreitas. I very much approve of McCulloch’s non-sequitur reference to “Boney Maronie” (covered by John Lennon, Ritchie Valens, Billy Haley, the Who, and Dick Dale). “Crystal Days” is likewise very strange – deceptively so. The melody and orchestration sweeten the proceedings, but Sergeant offers up a bizarre lead part punctuated by industrial sounding percussion during an instrumental bridge. This one of the few songs with an obvious contribution from Pattinson.

It says something about the strength of the album that the excellent single “Silver,” which leans heavily pop (though lushly augmented with strings), is actually one of the less interesting songs here. Sergeant does a nice job (playing a sitar-like bit at one point), and McCulloch pursues grandeur with not a hint of shame (which is the only way to do it, I suppose). Spanish guitars introduce the blood-curdling but mannered “The Yo-Yo Man,” which is garnished with what I can only describe as tubular sound effects, creepy piano, horror movie strings, and some disturbing work from Sergeant. It is a forgettable deep cut, but when you hear it, you can’t help but take notice. 

The production credits are opaque (“produced by all concerned”) but it’s worth noting that Gil Norton (Pixies, Catherine Wheel, Belly, Throwing Muses, the Longpigs) had a hand in the engineering and mixing, if not more.

My disc adds eight bonus tracks. One is good B-side “Angels and Devils,” which sports a welcome insistence courtesy of deFreitas. Five more are tracks from the Life At Brian’s sessions, which are related to some sort of television series. Of these five, one is a Beatles cover, two are versions of album tracks, and the other two are versions of Crocodiles songs.

The cover of “All You Need Is Love” works much better than it has any right to. The orchestra does not recreate the original arrangement, instead stripping all the joy out of it; I would have believed it if Shankar had played a role in this, as it hearkens back to the Eastern sounds of his work on Porcupine. Notably, there is no brass in the arrangement, and Sergeant plays a harpsichord. Consequently, the song takes on an organic grey tinge that stops just short of irony. McCulloch sounds like he is having a blast, deadpanning the vocals with a louche casualness, and offering a delightful variety of lyrical ad libs at the end, quoting the Bunnymen’s own “Read It In Books” and then moving on to classics like “She Loves You,” “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Sex Machine” and . . . Englebert Humperdink’s “Please Release Me.” 

The live version of “The Killing Moon” is pleasantly wooly (still with strings and woodwinds, to be sure), featuring alternate lyrics, and “Silver” has a similarly shaggy quality. “Villiers Terrace” gets a ‘60s spy movie polyryhythmic percussion intro, which is strange enough, but then the jazzy horns come in to prove shit can always get weirder. Once the real song begins, it’s a skeletal version, though the percussion from deFreitas is impressive; I can do without the sax. “Stars Are Stars” is subdued and restrained.

The remaining two bonus tracks are live selections from the A Crystal Day live television special. “My Kingdom” is good, but maybe a little sloppy. I do like how Pattinson’s bass cuts through the mix. “Ocean Rain” develops more quickly in this live version, but is no less gorgeous.

The Best Thing About This Album

The band’s ability to execute its vision.

Release Date

May, 1984

The Cover Art

Not as good as Crocodiles or Porcupine, but still really damn good. Brian Griffin and Martyn Atkins collaborate once again, this time with Carnglaze Caverns as the setting.

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