The Essex Green – The Long Goodbye

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

A little-known but wonderful trio, the Essex Green are humble practitioners of the pop arts. Originally from Vermont, where they played as Guppyboy, the threesome of Sasha Bell, Chris Ziter, and Jeff Baron decamped to Brooklyn and became the Essex Green in 1997. Invited to join the Elephant 6 collective, they issued their first album in 1999. The band also had cross-membership in the Ladybug Transistor and worked with Saturnine, a band that included Baron’s sister, Jennifer. As far as day jobs went, at least at some point Bell worked in documentary filmmaking, Baron did recording work, and Ziter was in web design.

What I Think of This Album

Yes, The Long Goodbye borrows heavily from the past, as the Essex Green updates classic ‘60s sounds – from folk-pop to chamber-pop to sunny California pop – but the band does more than just engage in retro exercises. The three have forged an identity on this album, and done so with sufficient self-possession to satisfy fans and sideline detractors. In fact, sometimes it seems like they are showing off and you know what, fucking good for them.

The band flexes its muscles early with the surprising “By the Sea,” which evokes gently rolling English hills with a bucolic flute part and angelic harmonies backing Sasha Bell’s distinctive and sweet lead vocal. Partway through, though, an unexpectedly aggressive lead guitar part appears and the flute part becomes more Summer of Love, leading to a veritable jam that would’ve rocked Golden Gate Park in 1969.

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is the standout out tune, with a Moe Tucker-influenced tom pattern (not a single cymbal is struck during this song, thank god) and a guitar riff that I would murder a close friend for. Bell once again does the honors on vocals, invoking the titular (though misspelled) constellation, New York magazine, and words of deeply romantic devotion. This wasn’t the song that made me fall in love with this band, but every time I hear it, I fall in love with them all over again.

Bell continues to dominate on “Our Lady In Havana,” which unfortunately is not a spy story (please return to this blog for more Graham Greene jokes), but very fortunately benefits from a spooky organ part and impressive supporting string work. Bell is again in the spotlight on the wonderful “Southern States,” offering perhaps her best vocal turn on the album.

The martial “Lazy May” employs an appealing rhyme scheme and heralds a return of the tougher guitar sound, at times evoking the Smiths’ “Sweet and Tender Hooligan.” I think it’s Chris Ziter singing lead, with Bell taking care of harmonies. I can’t say I love “Julia,” also with Ziter (presumptively) on vocals, but it’s also not a bad song.

The trio evokes a trippy, quasi-ecclesiastical Byrds/Band hybrid on “Old Dominion,” with some gorgeous harmonies. “Sorry River” is a lovely tune carried more than capably by Bell, whose voice continues to be a revelation. “Chartiers” is another thoughtful and melancholy pop song, with Ziter offering a tale of love lost (and referencing Chicago).

The band cannot capitalize lyrically on the promising joke of “The Whetherman,” but that doesn’t detract at all from a truly beautiful song, enhanced by strings and steered by Bell’s excellent vocal.

The band carefully constructs “The Boo Hoo Boy,” a meticulously arranged song which Ziter does a nice job with, eventually trapping listeners in its insistent swirl. Closing things out is “Berlin,” a simple and straightforward love song with Bell and ZIter harmonizing perfectly.

Apparently there is a version of this album that contains a short, alleged reprise of “The Boo Hoo Boy,” which references yet another Graham Greene work (The Quiet American), but I don’t have that on my copy. Also, the music publishing is credited to Quiet American Songs. And, album title The Long Goodbye is a Raymond Chandler book (and related movie starring Elliot Gould), so someone in this band really likes the detective/mystery genre.

Gary Olson of the Ladybug Transistor was involved in the recording. Thanked in the liner notes are Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballard of Superchunk (but more relevantly, heads of the Merge label, home of the Essex Green).

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is a joy.

Release Date

May, 2003

The Cover Art

Sasha Bell’s comically chaste outfit, complete with flute, and the stuffy, self-important demeanor of Jeff Baron and Chris Ziter propel the New England boarding school scene depicted here to unsurpassed heights. I can’t tell if this is supposed to be a joke or not, but regardless, I really enjoy it. The use of red, black, and white is excellent; not sure about the bird image.

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.

El Goodo – El Goodo

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The things I definitely know about this band are much more important than the things I barely know about this band. Emerging from the small but excellently-named town of Resolven, Wales in the mid-2000s, the quintet did not use last names. They did eventually reveal their surnames, and it turns out that three of them share the admittedly common “James.” And two of those Jameses are brothers, so this is a brothers band! They have released four albums in roughly a dozen years. They are friends with the Super Furry Animals. I don’t have any more information about the group. But I do know that they are fans of ’60s pop, favoring a jangly, hazy, ornate, lite-psychedelic sound, so that the nod to Big Star via their name is a bit misleading. At the same time, they also tip their hat to related bands from the ’80s and after.

What I Think of This Album

Nothing here is particularly original, but that is not the point. Not even close. El Goodo demonstrate a patent and steadfast dedication to ‘60s sounds and songcraft, as well as the ’80s and ’90s bands that updated those sounds, and their resolve in (yes!) doing so is admirable. This band knows what they love, and they are driven to celebrate it. This is an album of sunny harmonies, fulsome orchestration, and simple but engaging melodies. If that’s not for you, okay. At the barest minimum, you can play “spot the influence” and have a good time. 

For example, if the Jesus and Mary Chain had done a better and brighter (or at least, more ironic) job with the country leanings of Stoned and Dethroned, they would have created “If You Come Back.” More fundamentally, to the extent it is true that the Jesus and Mary Chain were, as someone once described, the Beach Boys crossed with the Velvet Underground, then “Honey” is the Jesus and Mary Chain crossed with the Beach Boys. That the title evokes JAMC’s iconic “Just Like Honey” cannot be an accident. Even less possibly happenstance is “Here It Comes,” which should have Lou Reed’s lawyers salivating, as it is pretty much “Heroin” with a different vocal melody and lyrics (the melody being reminiscent of Mercury Rev’s “Car Wash Hair,” instead). 

The Beach Boys passing a joint to the Byrds is what “If I Were a Song” sounds like, though I can also detect shades of Teenage Fanclub, particularly in the so-dumb-they’re-sweet-lyrics that Norman Blake specializes in (“If I was a song, I’d be about you, baby”). “Surreal Morning” apes Beachwood Sparks and maybe a little of the Waxwings with its pillowy, psychedelic country-rock. Bright and bouncy “Chalking the Lines” reminds me of nothing so much as Herman’s Hermits, again with hints of the Waxwings, augmented by brass and an experimental bridge.

The spaghetti western horns and bongos  of “I Saw Nothing” take you back to 1965, clutching the poncho of a laconic, anonymous drifter bent on revenge. The Mamas and the Papas could’ve recorded “What Went Wrong? (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)” but they would have had to have been very sad. Again, the clear reference to 1964 cinema in the title is a clue that the band knows exactly what they are doing.

Opener “Life Station” could be a lost Spacemen 3 track – narcotized, droney, blissful – though with a more delicate touch, as evinced by the (synthesized) woodwinds, at least until the bizarre, fractured ending. Spacemen 3 also influence “Silly Thoughts,” but this would be a Spacemen 3 more enamored with the Byrds than Suicide. 
The short “Esperanto Video” (what?) aspires to be an instrumental Pet Sounds outtake. “Stuck In the 60’s” is a little too candy-colored for me at the start, but this odd song about a time machine owes a lot to the spacier bands of Elephant 6; I love the reverby handclaps. “I Tried But I Failed” is a lullaby that is likewise reminiscent of Elf Power or Olivia Tremor Control.

The Best Thing About This Album

How it displays the band’s unabashed love of other bands.

Release Date

2006

The Cover Art

Neither good nor bad. I think the European release has different art.

Bob Dylan – The Bootleg Series, Vol. 5: Bob Dylan Live 1975 The Rolling Thunder Revue

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 7)

I once received Chronicles: Volume One, the Dylan memoir, as a gift. I only made it partway through, as I found it impossible to credit the impossibly detailed remembrances from the early 1960s. There is no way all the contents were factual or accurate, and as a novel, it wasn’t terribly interesting.

What I Think of This Album

An exciting, revelatory live album, I really think this is a must own for even a casual Dylan fan. Notably, Dylan and his unruly band tear their way through a series of songs with reckless abandon, offering new arrangements and an unexpected vigor. Dylan doesn’t come across as playful, but neither is anger the animating emotion; instead, he sounds compelled by some unknown force to inject as much energy into his songs as possible. 

The track listing is hard to beat, drawing from across Dylan’s career and relying on popular favorites. It should be noted that the two disc album does not document any specific show during the tour, or even replicate a complete set list. Rather, it is a compilation of highlights from various nights, and I have no problem with that. In general, the electric songs are the best, and I prefer the first disc over the second.

The version of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” is eye-opening, coming out of the gate like a caffeinated bucking bull; the slide guitar is slippery and silvery, Dylan is practically jumping out of his shoes, and the rhythm section keeps a monster beat throughout. The same energy suffuses “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” which sounds less like romance and more like obsession, while “It Ain’t Me, Babe” gets a funky arrangement with skittering drums, supplemental congas, a bouncy bass line, and an impassioned delivery from Dylan, as well as more impossibly mercurial slide guitar work (plus harmonica). 

“The Lonesome Death of Hattie McCarroll” gains heft and intensity. And there is an expansive muscularity to this version of  “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Lot to Cry.” “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is vibrant, intricate, and maudlin (but in a good way). “Just Like a Woman” is a trash song, no matter what the arrangement.

The songs from Desire  – of which there are several, not surprising considering it was Dylan’s forthcoming (but already recorded) studio release – all benefit from the live setting. In fact, I submit there is no reason to own Desire when you can get this album, which has “Hurricane,” “Sara,” Romance In Durango,” “Isis,” “One More Cup of Coffee (Valley Below),” and “Oh, Sister” in superior versions. “Hurricane,” in particular, comes to life vividly, with neutrino-speed congas and an emotive violin and “Sara” gets an urgent and pained reading. The tempo and melody of “Oh, Sister” make me think of “No Woman, No Cry” (which was released one year earlier).

There are a number of tracks that are solo performances from Dylan, and these are much more subdued. This includes “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Simple Twist of Fate,” the latter of which does not come across well in this spare arrangement (and Dylan’s voice sounds fairly rough on this track). “Tangled Up In Blue” shifts to the third person for most of it, if you care about such things. I can’t say either “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” or “Love Minus Zero” gain much, but they are certainly not worse than the studio versions.

Splitting the difference between loud and spare are the duets with Joan Baez. The full-throated version of “Blowin’ In the Wind” is strident and somehow triumphant. Written during the Another Side of Bob Dylan sessions (but never released), rarity “Mama, You Been On My Mind” is given a very nice Sweetheart of the Rodeo-type treatment (though I don’t know what the studio version sounds like). Dion & the Belmonts covered it. On the other hand, “I Shall Be Released” comes across as overcooked, stodgy, and self-important. On the other other hand, the song has been covered by the Byrds, the Hollies, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Wilco, Elvis, and Paul Weller (the Jam), so what do I know? Traditional song “The Water Is Wide” is also a duet, with a full band backing, and it’s okay but not really a highlight or anything.

The members of the large backing band included Mick Ronson (Mott the Hoople, Bowie, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter), a relatively unknown T-Bone Burnett, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and Roger McGuinn (Byrds).

The Best Thing About This Album

The energy.

Release Date

November, 2002

The Cover Art

I like the black/white photo of the be-hatted Bobby.

Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home

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

When we were in college, my friend Justin would lament “you’re too smart to not like Dylan.” While I appreciated the implicit compliment, I’m not sure I agree with the formulation. One can be intelligent and not like Dylan. And one doesn’t have to be smart to appreciate Dylan, either. In other words, Dylan isn’t a litmus test for anything other than taste. After all, Justin and I became friends even though at the time, I was not yet a Dylan fan. It also bears mentioning that in addition to trying to convince me to like Dylan, Justin also sought to persuade me to take up smoking. So . . . who was too smart not to do something, hmmmm?

What I Think of This Album

Dylan’s fifth album is his deliberate move into rock, and in fact is a masterpiece. Bringing It All Back Home is near-flawless from start to finish, way more consistent than The Freewheelin’ and much better than the stark third album and the uneven fourth disc. It should be noted that those albums do contain some amazing songs:  “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “My Back Pages,” “I Don’t Believe You (She Acts Like We Never Have Met),” and “All I Really Want to Do.” Okay, so you can make an argument that Another Side of Bob Dylan is worth owning. But Bringing It All Back Home is undeniably crucial.

On much of the album, Dylan is backed by session musicians playing electric instruments and rock drums. He also moves away from direct commentary on the social or political, instead indulging himself with a stream-of-consciousness approach that relies on surreal poetry and impressionistic imagery. This was 1965. No one else was writing songs even remotely like this.

Dylan met the Beatles in 1964 and probably came away with a new appreciation for pop (a genre that certain interviews, at least, suggested he viewed with disdain). But he must have always liked some of it, as he acknowledged the influence of Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” on the verbose, rapid-fire “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” which is way too short at not even two and a half minutes. Anchored by harmonica and a sick little guitar lick, Dylan playfully unleashes a head-spinning torrent of words that surely must have impressed the Beastie Boys. And there are clear lyrical references to this song in tunes by the Jesus and Mary Chain (“Blues From a Gun”) and Echo and the Bunnymen (“Villiers Terrace”).

Dylan changes pace with the gentle “She Belongs to Me,” a love song to a woman of wide artistic talent. By 1965, the ravages of Huntington’s Disease meant Woody Guthrie probably was unable to communicate any appreciation of “Maggie’s Farm,” but I think he would have heartily approved of this proletarian song of principled refusal. Dylan refines the sentiments of “She Belongs to Me” and combines it with his new lyrical approach on “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” a thrilling, literary song that celebrates the object of his affection with unusual, unpredictable language.

More surreal yet is the bizarre, confusing, and frightful world of “On the Road Again,” which shuffles along with a sense of courageous good cheer. Dylan shifts from the personal to the historical for companion piece “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream,” in which he unspools a feverish, nightmarish version of American history. I really really enjoy the flubbed intro with Dylan and producer Tom Wilson (Velvet Underground, Simon & Garfunkel) breaking down in laughter.

The exquisite “Mr. Tambourine Man” – helped along by the subtle electric lead guitar – is the most pop of Dylan’s surreal experiments on Bringing It All Back Home, with a warm delivery, a dreamy, hypnotic melody, and lyrics that call to mind the innocence of childhood, the comfort of trust, and the promise of escape and discovery. Obviously, the Byrds version is a landmark, but don’t overlook the original. Dylan reclaims the spitfire delivery of “Subterranean” and mixes it with the foreboding scenes from “115th Dream” on the stark and punishing “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).”

Unlike most everything else on this album, “It’s Alright, Ma” is a relentlessly bleak polemic that serves as a grim summary of everything that’s wrong in the world. After that, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” seems like a reprieve, and while it certainly has a pretty melody, the lyrics border on unkind. The only two weak spots are “Outlaw Blues” and “Gates of Eden,” and neither is terrible.

The Best Thing About This Album

I can’t pick any one song. I think Dylan’s simultaneous embrace of rock arrangement and surrealism is the best thing about this album.

Release Date

March, 1965

The Cover Art

Cluttered and pretentious and silly, though I do like the blurry ring.

Jackie Deshannon – What the World Needs Now . . . Jackie DeShannon: The Definitive Collection

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It’s a goddamn travesty that Jackie DeShannon is not an icon, role model, and superstar. By the time her family moved to Aurora and then Batavia, Illinois, young Sharon Lee Myers had already been singing on the radio and had hosted her own radio show. She left high school early and began her career in earnest (and under various stage names), eventually catching the attention of Eddie Cochran, who introduced her to Sharon Sheely, with whom Myers began a songwriting partnership. She signed to Liberty and recorded a bunch of songs, with not much success. Still, she opened for the Beatles in 1964. Much more rewarding was her songwriting career. She wrote hits for Brenda Lee and Marianne Faithful, her songs were recorded by the Byrds and the Searchers, and she composed with Jimmy Page and Randy Newman. She also co-wrote “Bette Davis Eyes,” just one of the roughly 600 songs she wrote in her career.

What I Think of This Album

It should go without saying that The Definitive Collection is not definitive, as it is missing, at a minimum, DeShannon’s “Bette Davis Eyes.” In fact, this collection is limited in scope to the songs DeShannon recorded for Liberty, though the track listing is ample at 28 songs, many of them previously unreleased.

The generous liner notes manage to leave out critical information, such as who played on the tracks (a who’s who ranging from the Byrds to Jimmy Page to Dr. John to Barry White), though some of this is explained in the narrative even as it is missing from the credits, and I wish the track selection was more heavily skewed towards DeShannon’s own songs instead of her versions of others’ material. Its easy to ignore these shortcomings, though, because it’s an eye-opening collection.

What is most striking is the wide range of styles DeShannon worked in. She did girl-group type stuff, was a folk-rock pioneer, trafficked in the singer/songwriter genre, excelled at blue-eyed soul, and interpreted Hal David and Burt Bachrach material with ease. What follows is the appreciation of her own songwriting talents, which again, really should have been the focus of the album. Finally, there comes the realization that DeShannon was a woman ahead of her time, doing things that unfortunately women were not permitted or encouraged to do in the ‘60s.

Of the 28 tracks, 17 are DeShannon compositions (in whole or in part), leaving 11 interpretive songs. My favorite original – which I admit I already owned, via the excellent One Kiss Can Lead to Another: Girl Group Sounds Lost and Found box set – is “Should I Cry,” a witty and affecting song of heartbreak with a killer vocal. Also, the demo version of “Splendor In the Grass” (later covered by the Ladybug Transistor) has a superb melody and features the Byrds as the backing band (also on vocals). While Irma Thomas’s version of “Breakaway” is better known, DeShannon’s original is not to be missed. Incidentally, Thomas’s version was a B-side, was spelled “Break-A-Way,” and is also on that Girl Group Sounds box set.

DeShannon’s biggest original hit for herself was 1969’s “Put a Little Love In Your Heart,” which has a Dusty In Memphis feel and is undeniably good. “When You Walk In the Room” was understandably a hit for the Searchers and decades later, for Pam Tillis; Springsteen has covered this live. “Dream Boy” has a surprisingly tough guitar sound, courtesy of Jimmy Page. A more noteworthy Page collaboration is “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me,” also with an intriguing guitar part, straight up rock drums, and a fantastic melody, with DeShannon laying down a perfect vocal. A demo version of “It Shines On You Too” is beautiful and beguiling.

Marianne Faithful had a hit with “Come and Stay With Me,” though I find little about this tune I care for. Beyond this, tracks like “I Remember the Boy” (also with Page on guitar), “You Won’t Forget Me,” “Love Will Find a Way,” and “Hellos and Goodbyes” are waiting to be discovered. As for songs she interpreted, her version of “Needles & Pins” (a Jack Nitzsche/ Sonny Bono composition, though DeShannon claims she was also involved) should’ve been a bigger hit for her (as it was for the Searchers a year later). The Ramones covered this, too.

She delivers more girl group goodness with “Heaven Is Being With You” (a Gerry Goffin/Carole King/Cynthia Weil song). Her biggest hit ever was “What the World Needs Now,” though I frankly don’t care for Bachrach/David songs. That said, “Lifetime of Loneliness” is pretty good, but it’s also fairly atypical of the stuff those two created. “For Granted” is sweeping and dramatic – maybe a little overproduced with those backing vocals – but still pretty good.

Rock trivia nerds will love that DeShannon recorded a Warren Zevon song – “500 Miles From Yesterday” – in 1966, long before he rose to popularity. Honestly, the song is just okay. Those same students of history may already know that DeShannon’s recording of “The Weight” (claimed by Robbie Robertson, but disputed by Levon Helm) was the first single release of that song. Dr. John plays the piano on this excellent track, and Barry White contributes backing vocals. Some of the pop stuff here could’ve been cut, as it drags things down, but regardless, this is a fantastic collection.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Splendor In the Grass” is a great fucking song.

Release Date

January, 1994

The Cover Art

This is adapted from the cover of 1967’s For You, with a different banner up top. I like the Imperial/Liberty Records box in the upper left.

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.

Teenage Fanclub – Thirteen

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

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

What I Think of This Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thing About This Album

Love’s “Radio”

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

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

Teenage Fanclub – Bandwagonesque

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

I recall fondly the way MTV VJ Dave Kendall would pronounce Bandwagonesque, which he did often when I was in college. It felt like the video for “The Concept” was always on 120 Minutes, and honestly, it’s not even in my top 7 songs from this album. Maybe not even top 8. I would have much rather had “Star Sign” – the song that first attracted me to Teenage Fanclub – get all that attention. 

What I Think of This Album

This is technically the third Teenage Fanclub album, but I think of it as the second one because the true second album – The King – was essentially a joke recording, supposedly made in one night (after the sessions for Bandwagonesque were completed). The fact that Bandwagonesque was released roughly three months after The King tells us which one is the real album.

Anyway, this is the album, produced by Don Fleming (who also worked with Hole and Sonic Youth), that made Teenage Fanclub famous. Bandwagonesque was the band’s defining moment in more ways than one. Apart from being the album that broke them in the US, it also set the framework for future TFC albums, with split songwriting, a greater emphasis on harmonies and melody, and the songwriter taking lead vocals on his songs. The third (second) album also moved permanently away from the sludgier A Catholic Education in that it evinced a predilection for love songs, and this time the guitars chime and jangle as much as they churn and distort.

Norman Blake provided four tracks, bassist Gerry Love five, guitarist Raymond McGinley got his feet wet with just one, and then Love and drummer Brendan O’Hare collaborated on one, with the entire band getting credit for the throwaway “Satan.” The quality here is so high it is difficult to decide whether Love or Blake comes out ahead. I might have to give the nod to Gerry Love, but I can see the argument the other way.

First, “Star Sign” is impeccable, a Byrdsy treat about superstition that comes to life after a lengthy, almost infuriating intro. The rising bass part and the “oh well” nature of the lyrics play off O’Hare’s near-manic drumming and the tape flutter effect near the end, where everything goes out of tune for a hot second is fucking awesome (this was mysteriously eliminated from later versions of the song – I have listened to them all, and even communicated with Brendan O’Hare’s spouse on Facebook about it). Love also contributes the beautiful and enigmatic  “December” (what the fuck does “I wanted to assassinate December” mean?), with perfect strings from BMX Bandit Joe McAlinden (a band Blake was also in). This track admittedly does bring to mind Big Star’s “September Gurls.”

Love gets religious on “Guiding Star,” also again benefitting from McAlinden’s arrangement, which flows like honey out of the speakers on the harmonised vocals of the band members, and a nice little guitar riff at the end. Casting that aside, Love turns in the psychedelic, swirling instrumental “Is This Music?,” on which O’Hare wears out the bass drum while McGinley and Blake’s guitars weave around each other and climb towards the heavens. I don’t much care for “Pet Rock,” but the horn part is cool (McAlinden once more), even if the guitar solo is a bit too conventional for me.

Blake, though, gives us the so-stupid-its-perfect “What You Do To Me,” possibly the most reductive love song in the world; the guitars, vocals, and melody suggest the Beatles, Beach Boys, and the Byrds all locked in the same room. Blake’s other stunning contribution is the fantastic (and fantastically titled) “Alcoholiday.” This is a guitar showcase, yes, but the sighing harmonies and the lyrics of ambivalent love (including the dismissive “Baby, I’ve been fucked already”) are stellar; meanwhile, the solo at the end should have led to an invite from Neil Young to join Crazy Horse.

I will give Blake most credit for “Sidewinder,” another simple but perfect love song with silly lyrics (“When you’re ticking / I’m your tock), this time aimed at a drummer (“You look so cute behind your kit / . . . / Hit the snare you know it makes me smile”), and another casually enamel-stripping solo from McGinley. “Metal Baby” is probably Blake’s weakest offering, reinforcing the notion from A Catholic Education’s “Heavy Metal” and “Heavy Metal II” that this band does not know the first thing about metal. Blake also wrote “The Concept,” which I never cared for that much. The feedback opening is cool, and I dig the chord progression. McGinley plays one excellent solo (the first one) and one good solo (duh). And I like the shift to the dreamy, weightless, wordless harmonies. And I really like it when the strings take center stage for a few seconds, right before the second solo. But while there are a lot of things about this song I like a lot, it doesn’t come together for me. Part of it, I think, is that it’s just too goddamn long.

McGinley’s “I Don’t Know” is not surprisingly, a riffy little affair with some great vocal harmonies, and a fine melody.

I dispute the inescapable comparisons to Big Star. I dispute and reject them. First, these Scots have much better voices than Alex Chilton and Chris Bell. If there is any complaint about the Fannies’ vocals, it’s that they can seem a bit lackadaisical. Big Star, on the other hand, often relied on bluesy throat-straining – the opposite of lackadaisical – which you will never hear on a TFC album. Second, there is not that much Big Star that actually sounds like this. More to the point, there is a lot of Big Star that doesn’t – “She’s a Mover,” “Mod Lang,” “O My Soul,” “Don’t Lie to Me.” Teenage Fanclub has a fairly consistent sound, whereas Big Star tended to wander from style to style. Yes, this music owes a debt to “September Gurls” and the last half of “Daisy Girl,” but to claim this is the equivalent of the fourth Big Star album is insane.

The cover art was intended to be a snide comment on the music industry, cheaply put together using clipart by Sharon Fitzgerald (McGinley’s girlfriend at the time). Little did TFC realize that Gene Simmons of KISS had apparently trademarked bags of money with dollar signs on them (?????) and decided to sue.

The yellow spine of my CD has faded to white, but I will never replace it (because I need that moment in “Star Sign” that has been erased from history).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Star Sign,” now and forever.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

It has grown on me. The color is garish and the image is silly, and at one point I really didn’t like it. I still don’t love it, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

Marshall Crenshaw – Marshall Crenshaw

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

Another music nerd done good, Marshall Crenshaw is a breath of fresh air. Coming out of Detroit, he was cast as John Lennon in the West Coast and national touring companies of the musical Beatlemania in the late ‘70s. He moved on to portraying Buddy Holly in La Bamba in 1986. But when left to his own (musical) devices, Crenshaw writes shiny, witty, heartfelt pop gems.

What I Think of This Album

Like all power-poppers, Crenshaw is a classicist at heart. Not as beholden to the ‘50s as Dave Edmunds, there is still a strong early rock element to his music. But for all the melodicism, pristine sonics, classic arrangements, and intelligent lyrics, an equally critical component of Crenshaw’s appeal is the sheer joy that comes through on the recording. Produced by Richard Gottehrer (Blondie, Go-Go’s, the Raveonettes), Crenshaw’s debut album is as crisp as the sheets at the Ritz-Carlton.

With his brother Robert on drums, Crenshaw energetically churns out one toe-tapper after another, starting with the yearning, perpetually-teenage “There She Goes Again.” He outdoes himself on the next track, with the throwback “Someday, Someway,” whose title/lyrical hook – to say nothing of the guitar sound – probably cemented the Buddy Holly comparisons. The handclaps and harmonies are magical. Any doubt possibly remaining after “There She Goes Again” is completely eliminated here – Crenshaw’s craft was already fully developed. Another standout is “Cynical Girl,” with a melody to die for, perfect handclaps, and sparkling production. The Byrds are the touchstone for “Mary Anne,” with slightly more muscular drumming from Robert and a sumptuous presentation by Gotterher. Crenshaw impresses throughout the album, including with “I’ll Do Anything” (with a surprisingly tough-ish solo). Buddy Holly is sonically invoked again on the bright “The Usual Thing,” while Crenshaw does a better job making the “She Can’t Dance” (with a guitar solo that contains a little grit, even) his own. A cover of 1962 soul song  “Soldier of Love” (made famous by the Beatles, though) is fine. “Not For Me” builds nicely and is a good deep cut.

Gottehrer co-wrote “My Boyfriend’s Back” and “I Want Candy,” and formed Sire Records with Seymour Stein.

The Best Thing About This Album

Crenshaw’s exuberance is undeniable.

Release Date

April, 1982

The Cover Art

The colorized art deco aesthetic is a real turn-off, and I have no idea what Crenshaw is doing with his hands/glasses.

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