All Girl Summer Fun Band – All Girl Summer Fun Band

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

Self-criticism, if not self-flagellation, can come far too easily. Even in contexts where performance or achievement isn’t relevant. I probably didn’t even first become aware of Portland’s All Girl Summer Fun Band until maybe 2021 or 2022. And I didn’t listen to a note of their music until 2023, when I saw them live at a Slumberland-adjacent show with the excellent Tony Molina. And in fact, the AGSFB is a big name in the twee scene and has been since about 1998 when they first formed. But I didn’t know anything about them, and while I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the music I like, this wonderful band was just something I overlooked. There are good reasons for it (parenthood! job! depression!), but there don’t need to be. This shit isn’t a competition and I don’t have to justify why I didn’t happen to know about this band for so long; it really doesn’t matter how conversant I am in some musical subgenre. I am just focusing on how fortunate I feel that I now know about them.

What I Think of This Album

Truer marketing never existed. All girl band? Yep. Summer fun? You betcha. There you have it. Everything you need to know is right there. Of course, that’s hardly the case. While the album title/band name as essence is a reliable shortcut, taking it will mean missing out on other essential scenery. For one, there is the talent at work, as the four musicians swap instruments regularly and all are involved in the songwriting in some way. Also, there is the band’s pedigree, with Jen Sbraglia being one-half of legendary the Softies (with Rose Melberg of Tiger Trap) and Kathy Foster’s simultaneous rise to prominence with the Thermals. And there is the winking manner of the foursome as they pop out their short, sunny songs of innocence.

Somehow, the quartet of Foster, Sbraglia, and cohorts Arirak Douangpanya and founder Kim Baxter (she somehow convinced the other three, none of whom had every met the others, to form the band) manages to walk the line between sincerity and irony without tripping even once. So while the style is borderline frivolous and the presentation approaches archness, there is warmth, gentle humor, and undeniable intelligence to the songs. The four women are here to have fun and they’re going to do it in a way that is fun, and they realize you may think it’s not fun, but that only makes it more fun for them.

As with most twee, you’re either going to like this a lot or not at all. You will appreciate that “Later Operator” is somehow both G-rated and R-rated at the same time, the simple messaging of “Cell Phone,” the implicit humor in “Canadian Boyfriend,” and the fact that the band has a theme song (“Theme Song”), or you won’t. I hope you do, and I dare say you should.

K Records impresario and Beat Happening leader Calvin Johnson recorded the album and contributes memorable vocals to “New In Town.”

The Best Thing About This Album

How it is born of the bravery to do something just for the fun of it, even if most people won’t like it.

Release Date

February, 2002

The Cover Art

The drawing is by Sbraglia, and I like the ‘60s hair salon theme, as well as the stars in the band name (which remind me of the Eugenius album cover for Oomalama).

Eugenius – Oomalama

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Eugene Kelly was one-half of the Vaselines with Frances McKee, that band occupying a somewhat outsized place in the indie-pop world given their meager output and lack of success (much of their renown due to a late arriving blessing from Kurt Cobain). They formed in 1986, released two EPs and one album, and then broke up. They reformed in 2006 and have played live very sporadically while also releasing two more albums, in 2010 and 2014. In fairness to all involved, the original run of the Vaselines did feature a rhythm section. McKee (who had previously played in a band with Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub), Duglas (not a typo) T. Stewart of BMX Bandits, and Sean Dickson of the Soup Dragons) has released albums under other band names and as a solo artist. Kelly, for his part, formed Captain America in 1990 and when Marvel’s lawyers came calling, changed the name to Eugenius (which was his nickname). With a somewhat messy line-up situation, Eugenius released two albums and then Kelly just proceeded under his own name thereafter. I used to own both Eugenius albums, and while I got rid of Mary Queen of Scots, I would be willing to give it a listen again.

What I Think of This Album

There is a very appealing slacker vibe to these fourteen tracks, with the band deceptively shambling their way through a set that includes one song (“Bed-In”) about how much Eugene Kelly likes sleeping and watching tv, another (“Breakfast”) that apologizes for how he “can’t help falling down,” and the title track, which basically just repeats the absurd “oomalamaa” over and over and also makes an unrelated claim about, I guess, resurrection. In many ways, the album is something the Lemonheads might have created if Evan Dando was more self-effacing and had a better sense of humor (and maybe, you know, laid off the drugs). Throughout, Kelly lends his everyman voice to catchy, simple songs that for all their noise suggest a fundamentally cheerful and lighthearted outlook, as you might expect from titles like “I’m the Sun,” “Wow!” and “Buttermilk.”

For all of its gleeful shagginess, the truth is that Kelly is an ace songwriter and guitarist Gordon Keen unleashes some fantastic leads amidst the mess. Indeed, there is a slippery little riff at the end of the delirious solo on “Bed-In” that belongs in some hall of fame somewhere. Additional very impressive guitar goodness can be heard on the quiet/loud “Down On Me,” fiery “Flame On,” and the rockin’ “Here I Go,” as well as on most other tracks, really.

The band sprinkles just enough surprises in to keep things interesting, not that anyone is in danger of getting bored with Oomalama. Thus, there is some subtle organ on “Breakfast,” strings on the ballad “Hot Dog” (written by Keen), and pleasant (dare I say, sunny?) harmonies on “I’m the Sun.” 

The U.S. release adds three tracks to the eleven on the original U.K. release. One is a robust cover of “Indian Summer” by Beat Happening, the spiritual American cousin to Kelly’s previous band, the Vaselines. This song was also covered by Luna. The other two – “Wow” and “Wannabe” were (along with “Bed-In”) originally on the first Captain America EP. “Wow” is a sludgy delight, reminiscent maybe of the Stooges, and “Wannabe,” which seems like it borrows the verses from Chuck Berry, employs some echo chamber sonics on Kelly’s vocals.

Some of the tracks were recorded with an early version of the band, resulting in a confusing credits situation, though it is clear that Gordon Keen of BMX Bandits has always been the band’s guitarist. Francis MacDonald of Teenage Fanclub (and also manager of Camera Obscura) drums on some songs. Duglas T. Stewart contributes as does Joe McAlinden, both of BMX Bandits. The band thanks Teenage Fanclub in the liner notes.

The Best Thing About This Album

The guitar work of Gordon Keen.

Release Date

September, 1992

The Cover Art

A head-scratcher, but I really like it.

Beat Happening – Look Around

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I like twee pop just as much as the next guy. More even, as the average “next guy” has no fucking clue what twee pop is, and odds are, probably wouldn’t like it once exposed. Even so, I admit to struggling a bit with Beat Happening. Mostly, it’s Calvin Johnson’s pitch-optional singing that wears me down. But I am fully on board with the overall aesthetic, though it is a bit overstated in the case of Beat Happening. Purposely primitive and decidedly innocent (sort of), the band subverts rock expectations (and, more to the point perhaps, punk expectations, or more to the point of the point, male expectations) by offering up music that is casually if not haphazardly constructed, and with a determination to celebrate whimsy. Where this description falls apart is that Beat Happening was certainly capable of playing gritty and dark (and even sexual), but for the most part, they spearheaded a movement – in conjunction with Johnson’s K Records label – to champion what is essentially passionless passion. They clearly love what they do, but they are not going to make any effort to be good at it in a way that you would expect them to, and the fact that they can’t really play their instruments doesn’t even rise to the level of a minor inconvenience – it is just a simple reality that they not only accept but reclaim as proof of their commitment. Beat Happening formed in Olympia, Washington in the early 1980s, and the band – Johnson, Heather Lewis, and Brett Lunsford (all of them switched instruments regularly, and eschewed the bass altogether) – released five albums through 1992. Their songs have been covered by indie rock luminaries such as Luna (“Indian Summer”), Teenage Fanclub (“Bad Seed”), the BMX Bandits (“Cast a Shadow”), Cub (also “Cast a Shadow”), and Eugenius (uh, “Indian Summer,” again).

What I Think of This Album

This career-spanning compilation – oddly, not released on K Records – works as a better introduction to the band than perhaps intended. More than just simply compiling highlights, the collection gives equal weight to the undersold aggressive side of the band while also depicting a steady progression in terms of musicianship and professionalism, culminating in the excellent sequence of songs from the last phase of their career.

This comp is made up of two songs from the debut; another two songs from their first single; three tracks from Jamboree; three tunes from Black Candy; a full five songs from Dreamy; and another five from You Turn Me On. Also mixed in are single tracks “Look Around” and “Angel Gone,” as well as B-side “Knock On Any Door.”

The album can be roughly broken down into the Cramps-inspired songs and the Jonathan Richman-inspired songs. On the more sinister side of the ledger are tracks like “Bad Seeds,” “Nancy Sin,” “Pinebox Derby,” and “Black Candy” – these get repetitive and border on tiresome, and frankly, are not always credible. Still, sometimes the change of pace is refreshing:  “Bewitched” rides a dirty, distorted guitar line with Johnson threatening “I’ve got a crush on you”; and “Red Head Walking” is appealingly obsessive.

I prefer the lighter stuff, though, which I find more endearing. The droney “Our Secret” overcomes Johnson’s meandering past the boundaries of the key; Lewis’s vocal turn on the delightful, bouncy “What’s Important” is critical to its success; and Johnson carries the wistful (but shockingly graphic)  “Look Around,” with the inimitable line “If a black cat’s gonna cross my path / It might as well be you.” The bittersweet “In Between” is another plus, with a simple drumbeat propelling Lewis’s plain vocals past your defenses. “Indian Summer” is deservedly a classic, with its matter-of-fact recitation of life’s little pleasures (“croquet and Baked Alaska”) against a backdrop of young love (“Cover me with rain / Walk me down the lane / I’ll drink from your drain / We will never change / No matter what they say”) and all of two chords.

The band wisely decided to have Lewis and Johnson duet on “Other Side,” and it may be one of their best songs as a result. “Cast a Shadow” really is pure Richman, childlike and awed, with a relentless tom-tom beat. Similarly, “Fortune Cookie Prize” is disarmingly sweet, with stellar performance from Lewis, and the silly “Hot Chocolate Boy” is better than it has any right to be. “Tiger Trap” is gently gorgeous and hypnotically heartwarming. Of course, the apex of the album (if not of all of Beat Happening’s career) is “Godsend,” a nine-minute epic which distills the love song to its purest form, with Lewis taking (multi-tracked!) lead. The lyrical directness and the repetitive jangle combine to transport you to a world where this sort of compulsive devotion is appreciated and reciprocated (you know, a fantasyland).

“Teenage Caveman” is of a piece with the preceding two songs, as is the fizzy “Noise.” The regret-laden late single “Angel Gone” is a perfect career capstone. I suppose it would have been nice to have tracks like “The This Many Boyfriends Club,” “Sea Hunt,” “Cat Walk,” and I am sure there are others I’ve missed, but overall, this works well as both a standalone album and a gateway drug.

Producers on the tracks include Stuart Moxham (Young Marble Giants), Steve Fisk (the Wedding Present), Greg Sage (the Wipers), and Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Godsend” is a . . . well, you know.

Release Date

September, 2015

The Cover Art

My album has this annoying blue sticker in the upper right hand corner, but otherwise, I like the composition and use of color. Also, bunnies!

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