The Essex Green – Hardly Electronic

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

So, the Brooklyn-based Essex Green released the excellent Cannibal Sea in 2006, toured globally behind it, and then disappeared for over a decade. Sasha Bell had a child, moved to San Francisco, and then went to Montana to pursue elk-related science, and also released music under her own name. Chris Ziter returned to Vermont and started both a family and a tech company (and also got into fermentation?). Jeff Baron built and lived on a houseboat that cruised the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers (as an aside, I always thought The Monongahela Monsters would be a good name for a mariachi-punk band). At some point, Baron moved back to Vermont and with the help of technology and airplanes, the band started recording their fourth album. They also toured behind it, and I saw them play at Sleeping Village in Chicago. It was a marvelous show, and I was thrilled beyond belief to have the opportunity to see them live. They also worked New Order’s “Age of Consent” into a medley, which put me over the moon.

What I Think of This Album

The best thing about this album is that it even exists. If that sounds like faint praise, then the problem is with you and not with me. Context matters. I suspect no one ever expected to hear (from) the Essex Green again, and that they managed to pick up where they left off after more than ten years of frustrating (and, eventually, inconsequential) silence is nothing short of a miracle. So that makes the fact that Hardly Electronic is a great platter the second best thing about it.

For an album recorded at six (and maybe more) locations in four states, to say nothing of being the product of a reunion a decade in the making, Hardly Electronic betrays nothing of its lengthy and peripatetic gestation. Bursting with melodies and Sasha Bell’s golden tones, this could have come out two years after Cannibal Sea. The band continues to deliver delightful, carefully crafted pop songs. 

Such songs include driving and burbly lead track “Sloane Ranger” (somewhat dated British slang akin to “preppy,” and which I think I heard someone utter on an episode of The Crown), which among other things, gives lie to the claim of the album title and more importantly reminds us of how wonderful Bell’s voice is. The brief backwards guitar and the glorious harmonies of Bell and Chris Ziter are among the many pleasures of “The 710.” Somehow the eye-opening “Don’t Leave It In Our Hands” surpasses both these tracks, reminding us of what this band is capable of, and shining so brightly it basically dares the New Pornographers to steal from it.

“Waikiki” is a showcase for Bell, who is generously supported by a pillowy, dreamy arrangement which unfortunately is over almost as soon as it begins. The loping “January Says” is classic Essex Green, washing over you like a gentle, warm, and neverending tide. And “Smith & 9th” is propelled by peppily strummed acoustic guitar and an earworm keyboard line. 

The trio also succeeds in working other sounds into their transcontinental mix. Lush orch-pop (verging on orch-prog) is represented by “In the Key of Me,” which hearkens back to the band’s roots in the Elephant 6 movement. There is a touch of soul to the organ-rich “Modern Rain,” which nonetheless leaves room for a short and stinging lead guitar part. They get slightly psychedelic on the star-bursting and inaptly titled “Catatonic.”

There are a couple of uncharacteristic stumbles. “Bye Bye Crow” is country pastiche taken a bootstep too far, and “Slanted By Six” is downright annoying, coming across like an ill-conceived Neko Case offering (that said, I can legit see some listeners being really drawn to it). Too, some tracks don’t leave much of an impression, like “Patsy Desmond” (which nonetheless has an interesting arrangement). But this mild criticism is offered only in the spirit of comprehensiveness; Hardly Electronic is a fantastic fucking album.

The Best Thing About This Album

I know that I already said that the best thing about is that it exists, which means I get to say something different this time. “Don’t Leave It In Our Hands” is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Essex Green’s artistry.

Release Date

June, 2018

The Cover Art

Look, I don’t like photos of topless kids. Infants and even toddlers are okay, but once you get to the tween years, then such images carry more than a whiff of suspicion about them. I am only accusing the Essex Green of poor judgment, nothing more. But even if you threw a Ban-lon shirt on the cover star, this art would still be pretty lousy.

Echo & the Bunnymen – Echo & The Bunnymen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 5)

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked, and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and sumptuously produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is in keeping with the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in deFreitas and Pattinson not well represented in the mix, but Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable.

A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a whispered, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is gorgeous.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbin pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones.

Echo and the Bunnymen – Echo and the Bunnymen

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Ian McCulloch left the band for a solo career after this album, and the other three very unwisely chose to continue with a new vocalist. While that fiasco was unfolding, drummer Pete deFreitas died in a motorcycle accident. The resulting album, with no McCulloch or deFreitas (but with future Spiritualized drummer (and partner of Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins) Damon Reece), tanked and then the band was no more. McCulloch eventually regrouped with Will Sergeant in Electrafixion and then the two revived the Bunnymen name, roping Les Pattinson in on bass for reunion album Evergreen. Pattinson bailed after that and the other two have continued since then. Some of those albums are pretty good (Evergreen and What Are You Going to Do With Your Life?), but nothing compares to the classic era.

What I Think of This Album

So much about this is so different from what the band gave us before. Even the change in cover art speaks to it, as does the album title. Indeed, the band finally provides the Doors pastiche they were always accused of flirting with, giving in to the rumor instead of playing with it. Overall, this album feels like a concession to public tastes, and as mainstream bids go, it’s excellent – melodic and lushly produced. Much of the mystery and mood is watered down, though, and McCulloch delivers his most straightforward set of lyrics ever, while also dialing back the dramatic delivery that he so liberally employed previously. If you listen to this without any knowledge of the Bunnymen, then it’s easy to love. It’s only in context of the albums that came before that the disappointment starts to seep in.

You know what? There is not a single bad song on here. Everything is appealing and it all sounds great. Producer Laurie Latham (who has worked with Squeeze and Ian Dury & the Blockheads) does a fantastic job of adding tasteful sheen. Due to the heavy reliance on keyboards (instead of strings this time), the album sounds less adventurous and more contemporary, which is also true of the songwriting.

“The Game” reins in drummer Pete deFreitas, and Les Pattinson’s bass is not well represented in the mix, but Will Sergeant’s guitars are excellent and the keyboards do the rest of the heavy lifting. Much the same can be said of “Over You.” On these tracks, McCulloch is almost subdued (he does dial it up a little on “Over You”), a shadow of his former, angst-wracked self. The melodies, though, are impeccable. A good portion of the album follows this basic blueprint. “Bombers Bay” piles on the atmosphere, with an almost-dancey feel, which is definitely present on the sparkling “Lips Like Sugar.” Sergeant’s reverby guitar is very cool and McCulloch croons seductively on what ended up being a sizable hit. There is an undeniable appeal to “Lost and Found,” even as it sounds very much like “The Game,” “Over You,” and “Bombers Bay.” 

The one song that manages to break free of its shiny mold is “All My Life,” which while not being representative of the Bunnymen, is still a moving, stirring ballad. Notably, this is one of the few times that the keyboards sound like strings instead of keyboards. Anyway, McCulloch kills it with a quiet, rich, and resonant vocal, and the melody is stellar.

Three songs are standouts. “All In Your Mind” goes a long way towards recapturing the old Bunnymen sound, with Sergeant offering some welcome weird guitar sounds (including sweet dive bombs later in the song) and deFreitas hitting almost as hard as he did on Crocodiles. Pattinson gets a meaty bass part and McCulloch spits out lyrics with intensity and a sense of danger. This is probably my favorite song on the album. “New Direction” also hearkens back to the glory days, with a choppy guitar, percussion accents as well as energetic drumming, and a passionate McCulloch vocal. And a notch below these sits “Satellite,” which rocks very credibly (deFreitas does an excellent job) and McCulloch cuts loose. 

“Blue Blue Ocean” sounds like another attempt to get back to basics, but it’s less successful. Whether the band was trying too hard or somehow the seams showed no matter what, this song never becomes what it clearly was intended to be.

I hate the Doors, and so I have trouble with “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which goes so far into homage as to feature Ray Manzarek on keyboards. The lyrics are notably ridiculous. But for the first time on the album, Pattinson gets a prominent role and deFreitas gets a little funky. I don’t hate it, but I can’t listen to it a lot.

There are seven bonus tracks on my version. The most notable is the noisy “Over Your Shoulder,” which uncharacteristically traffics in white noise and primitive drumming. “Hole In the Holey” is simply a different version of “Over You.” There is an early version of “Bring On the Dancing Horses” as well as a dance remix of the same. There is an unfortunate Doors cover (“Soul Kitchen”) and the original version of “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” which sounds much cooler minus Manzarek’s nonsense. An acoustic version of “The Game” is actually superior to the album version. The liner notes indicate that New Order’s Stephen Morris might have been the drummer on “Soul Kitchen.”

Gil Norton was involved in engineering, mixing, and production.

The Best Thing About This Album

“All In Your Mind,” for being a reminder of how special this band was.

Release Date

July, 1987

The Cover Art

Obviously an Anton Corbijn pic. I much prefer the photo on the back cover, which would have been much more enigmatic and also funny. As it is, this is okay but nothing special. I do like the grey tones. The font is excellent; not sure why “The” is capitalized.

Tullycraft – Disenchanted Hearts Unite

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

I spent a month in El Paso in 2021. I was putting in twelve hour days six days a week, living in a hotel, and eating unhealthily, but doing very rewarding work. I had a twenty to thirty minute commute and on my days off, I drove even more to get in some sightseeing (e.g., White Sands, Carlsbad Caverns). At some point, Spotify offered me a Tullycraft tribute album, and I accepted. It had some great covers – Bunnygrunt’s “Not Quite Burning Bridges,” Sprites’ take on “Wish I’d Kept a Scrapbook,” and “Rumble With the Gang Debs” as interpreted by Fishboy. But three songs really grabbed me:  “If You Take Away the Make-up (Then the Vampires They Will Die),” (by L.A. Tool & Die), “Fall 4 U” (courtesy of the Special Places), and most of all, “Our Days In Kansas” (wonderfully done by Darren Hanlon and Rose Melberg (Tiger Trap, the Softies)). I played those three songs on repeat for maybe three weeks straight, any time I was in my rental car. I ended up altering the lyrics to “Kansas” to make it apply more to someone I could not stop thinking about (any more than I could stop listening to those songs). I know it was unhealthy, but I was stuck. God, I am so lonely.

What I Think of This Album

A magnificent achievement, this is a glorious indie-pop album bursting with melodicism, filled with warmth and wisdom, and generous with the surprises.

I need to start with “Our Days In Kansas,” which references Soviet experimental aircraft, raves, the Kansas University fight song, and disco, via couplets that leave you in awe. It also features at least four shifts in feel (including one stark change from a waltz to 4:4 time), but is always catchy and endearing, with wonderful group harmonies (including from recent member Jenny Mears). The bridge, though. Jesus. The bridge sideswipes you with a shocking lyrical reveal that renders the song a completely different shade of sad.

“Fall 4 U” is sweet and swoony, with call-and-response vocals between Sean Tollefson and guest Jen Abercrombie (Rizzo); the squiggly and bleepy keyboard backing is unexpected. Opener “Stowaway” immediately reveals the importance of adding Mears’s vocals, which create a much richer sound (and serve as a soothing counterpoint to Tollefson’s less professional singing). Meanwhile, closer “Secretly Minnesotan” boasts perhaps Tollefson’s most winsome vocal ever, with some impressive guitar work, plus wonderful harmonies from Mears (and a sort of New Order melody at the end).

“Every Little Thing” is full of sonic details and brimming with confidence, and “Leaders of the New School” is convincingly heart-breaking and self-flagellating. “The Last Song” is thematically too close to “New School” to justify sequencing them together, but the arrangements and feel are very different, enough so that each song can exist on its own merits. The relatively subdued “Polaroids From Mars” is an excellent deep cut, easily on par with the more uptempo songs found here. “Rumble With the Gang Debs” is an odd, borderline silly tune but completely enjoyable, while the rapid tumble of “Building the Robot” is endearing and exciting.

“Molly’s Got a Crush On Us” is a barely reworked cover of BMX Bandits’ “Kylie’s Got a Crush On Us,” but again, the female harmonies are fantastic. Meanwhile, “Girl About Town” is a cover of song by Welsh indie band Helen Love (though Helen Love is also a person in the band Helen Love).

The Best Thing About This Album

Obviously, “Our Days In Kansas.”

Release Date

May, 2005

The Cover Art

Backing vocalist on “Fall 4 You” (and future lead guitarist) Corianton Hale won an award for the design and layout of the album. I do like the vertical lines and the colors, as well as the fonts and the “stereo” graphic.

The Cure – Staring At the Sea – The Singles

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

The Cure had gone through three, possibly four, and up to five phases, by the time of this release, and for better or worse, much of it is captured on this comp. I can’t decide whether this album works or not, and if not, whether it even could have. The early days of the band were informed by a spiky but melodic post-punk sound (Phase 1). Then came the darkness (Phase 2). After that was an odd period of uncharacteristic single releases (Phase 3), which was followed by the shiny pop era (Phase 4 (or maybe Phase 5?). I am leaving out however you want to characterize what was going on with The Top (The real Phase 4? Phase 3.5?), which was almost, kind of, basically a Robert Smith solo album and also didn’t really sound like anything that came before or after. Actually, the one song from The Top on this comp sounds more like it came from the weird singles period, and I am inclined to view it as part and parcel of that era of the band’s history instead (so, Phase 3). Anyway, this album was a huge hit and for all my misgivings, I’m glad it exists.

What I Think of This Album

Released in six different formats, and with at least two titles, this is a confusing compilation. It packages together almost all of the band’s singles over its first decade. The CD, vinyl, and cassette editions offer the same 13 songs. The vinyl provides nothing extra. The cassette, arguably the edition to own, adds all the band’s previously unreleased B-sides. The CD, though, tacks on four album tracks, except they are interspersed among the singles and so the running order of the CD is different from that of the vinyl and cassette. To add to the confusion, one of those album tracks is “10:15 Saturday Night,” which was actually a single – but only in France, and for that reason (apparently) not included in the original set of 13 found on the vinyl and cassette editions. The vinyl is titled Standing On The Beach. The CD is titled Staring at the Sea. The cassette gives you the best of both worlds, with Side A titled Standing on The Beach – The Singles and Side B titled Staring At the Sea – The B-sides. I don’t know who was responsible for that whole mess, but it is impressively chaotic. I own the CD, so that is what we are going to focus on.

I really enjoy the early singles, and in particular the stirring bass work of Michael Dempsey. “Killing an Arab” – obviously a retelling of Albert Camus’s The Stranger – is a disturbing anti-song, taking Camus’s extreme exploration of absurdity and turning it (reasonably) into a nihilistic declaration of meaninglessness (“I’m alive / I’m dead”). Dry as kindling, the arid production is highlighted by the most brittle hi-hat hit ever recorded. I don’t think the “Middle Eastern” guitar figures were a good idea, and it’s a little weird to hear to Smith sing in such a matte fashion. That this song was eventually co-opted by racists is not surprising; it created controversy upon its single (re-)release in 1979, and the Cure put an explanatory sticker on the Fiction version (and had a similar sticker on this compilation album, too). The band has since then played the song live as “Kissing a Arab,” “Killing Another,” and “Killing an Ahab,” but also played the original version, too. 

I think “10:15 Saturday Night” is a terrific piece – jagged and spare. The guitar solo is a frenzied freakout that is a much needed release from the coiled tension that leads up to it. I also dig the coda, which seems to have nothing to do with anything but sounds amazing. “Boys Don’t Cry” is a phenomenal pop song. Much as he would do many years later with “Friday, I’m In Love,” Robert Smith takes what is basically a Tin Pan Alley theme and modernizes it. The stinging guitar lead is great, and it’s rewarding to hear Smith finally start to use his voice in a more expressive manner.

Rounding out the set of early songs is the sneering, derisive “Jumping Someone Else’s Train.” Perhaps a bit lyrically obvious, “Train” is still an engaging blast of teenage anger and superiority. Dempsey plays a fluid but sinister line, and props to original drummer/future keyboardist Lol Tolhurst for keeping things together here. So marks the end of the first phase, and arguably the best argument for owning this album (though this probably means I should just swap it out for Three Imaginary Boys).

After this, things get difficult for me, as the goth era gets its due. God help me, I think “The Forest” is boring as shit. It’s not a bad song – the arrangement is fairly interesting (I love a flanged guitar) and the drum sound is odd but works – but it just goes on forever and the bass part is dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull . . . dull-dull. “Play for Today” – one of the extra album tracks on the CD – is much more my speed, with a great keyboard line and more echoed drums, plus a fine contribution from new bassist Simon Gallup. Neatly claustrophobic “Primary” reminds me a bit of Joy Division, and Smith doesn’t so much sing as half-shout on this dense, thick track, the sound courtesy of the two-bass-no-guitar arrangement, which I FULLY ENDORSE.

I feel like the band is trying way too hard on “Other Voices,” which is even less interesting than “A Forest,” and not a great choice as the third extra album track. On the other hand, there is a ridiculous grandiosity to “Charlotte Sometimes” (which sees a renewed reliance on keyboards) that is no less gloomy than the nonsense of “Other Voices” but wisely amps up the drama. Goth can be tedious or it can be sort of fun, and “Charlotte Sometimes” is the latter. “The Hanging Garden” closes out the dark section of the album, with relentless drumming from Tolhurst and very Grand Guignol lyrics from Smith, as well as an effective use of treated guitars. This song sort of makes me laugh just because it’s so committed to its aesthetic.

The Cure basically fell apart after Pornography (maybe three albums of bleakness wasn’t great for the mental health of anyone involved?), and Smith proceeded to issue a bizarre batch of singles that were fairly alien to everything we knew about the Cure to date. “Let’s Go to Bed” resurrects the angst and anger of the early songs, but the style and sound are . . . quirky. I actually like all the processed elements of “The Walk,” from the cheesy keyboard intro/outro to the hyperactive drum machine to the synthy bass part to the absurd theremin-like sounds. The percussion and synths sound a lot like New Order, if I’m being honest (specifically “Blue Monday”).

I hate “The Love Cats” with white hot intensity, but I will admit I dig the jazzy bass line (this time by Phil Thornalley) and the fake horns aren’t that bad; I guess it’s really the lyrics and cat sounds that I have a problem with. Does he really say “solid gold?” I shudder. Okay, “The Caterpillar” is pretty great (this is the one song from The Top). Andy Anderson kicks ass on the drums and the violin work is a welcome oddity; Smith offers a wonderful vocal take and Tolhurst’s avant-garde piano flourishes somehow coexist with a very poppy melody.

The Head On the Door songs follow, including the “with horns” version of “Close to Me.” Almost any other song from that album besides “A Night Like This” could and should have been chosen as the last extra track on the CD.

The Best Thing About This Album

Fuck it, “The Caterpillar.”

Release Date

May, 1986

The Cover Art

This is obviously not the CD cover (as you can tell from the title). The CD cover is a more closely cropped image of this man’s face. Regardless, a great cover. The craggy-faced gent brings to mind some forlorn lighthouse keeper, watching and waiting and forever alone.

The Cure – The Head On the Door

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was my introduction to the Cure. Well, I was familiar with “In Between Days” and “Close to Me,” but this was the first Cure album I listened to. It was the summer of 1987, so I was two years late, but still – I was 14 years old in 1987. I borrowed the cassette from a girl who was a fellow participant at a two (or maybe four) week teen writing workshop in Dobbs Ferry, New York. We were housed at a private school that I have to assume, from my internet research, is the Masters School. That was also where I discovered the Smiths (by borrowing Louder Than Bombs from the same girl). And I met Ally Sheedy’s mother, who was a literary agent (if memory serves) in Manhattan (well, we all met her, it’s not like she and I had tea together). I hung out a lot with a kid from Denver named Josh, who dipped tobacco, and an Irish-Italian girl named Stacey who commuted every day from Manhattan. Also in the program that year was future author Carolyn Parkhurst. I bought one of her novels by happenstance well into my 30s. Something about her name looked familiar; I did a little research and our ages matched up, so I reached out via email. Voilá – she confirmed that she indeed was at that writing workshop with me!

What I Think of This Album

As far as I am concerned, this is the first great Cure album. I know a lot of Cure fans will take issue with that, but the early stuff is just too oppressively gloomy for me, even as there are individual songs from that period that I like (e.g., “The Funeral Party,” “The Drowning Man”). This album likewise is the first with what I consider to be the classic core Cure lineup:  Robert Smith, Simon Gallup, Porl Thompson, and Boris Williams (I view Lol Tolhurst and replacements Roger O’Donnell and Perry Bamonte as fungible, neither one individually critical (though I am sure they are all fine human beings)).

Certainly, this was the most colorful, poppy album release by the band as of that time, and saw them expanding their sound and broadening their fan base. Notably, it’s not like Smith abandoned his goth roots – he just found a way to pair up those sensibilities with more accessible sounds. And, with songs like “The Love Cats” and “The Caterpillar” in the rearview mirror, Smith had dabbled in pop before. Accordingly, the shift on The Head On the Door felt organic and respectable. For all the credit Smith is due, though, this album is really Boris Williams’s coming out party. From the introductory tumble on “In Between Days” to his creative work on “Six Different Ways” to the punishing rolls on “Push,” Williams is a star on this.

Beyond these macro highlights, the fact is that the arrangements, melodies, and lyrics of almost each song offer something special. “In Between Days” gives us a New Order-ish two chord structure (i.e., “Dreams Never End”), but with airy keyboards used in a way New Order never has, and with immediate lyrics concerning a regrettable (bizarre) love triangle. Smith deftly incorporates an Asian-sounding keyboard line into the foreboding “Kyoto Song,” with oddly appropriate synthetic percussion hits, and desperately sung lyrics about death-tinged dreams and hangover mornings with anonymous bed partners (or floor partners, as it were). Not wanting to be overshadowed, “The Blood” bursts forth on a bed of flamenco guitar, castanets, and yelps, and the spookiness spikes with a sinister short keyboard refrain. Thompson (I’m assuming) shows off his chops by doing a Paco de Lucia impression on the solo.

My personal favorite song on here – the one I kept rewinding to hear on that cassette in 1987 – is “Six Different Ways.” The fascinating, piano-vamp and synthesized strings intro seems completely divorced from the rest of the song, which is instead a series of keyboard lines and atmospheric, counter melodious pings (though the strings reappear in different form). A huge part of the appeal for young me was the vulnerability of the lyrics and Smith’s vocal delivery; I also like the abrupt ending. Again, Williams absolutely shines on this track. The cascading guitars and pounding toms of “Push” herald a classic; few bands would dare dedicate so much time to an instrumental opening, but I could listen to this forever, the well-deserved, striking centerpiece of the album. Once the band has had its way cycling through the arrangement, Smith gives some faint high-pitched vocalizations before making a more energetic formal delivery. I would give considerable sums to have been in the studio when the “like strawberries and cream” vocal take was recorded.

The sequencer intro, to say nothing of the later-introduced rising guitar line, of “The Baby Screams” is pure New Order, and I don’t see how Smith escapes that charge on this song. That said, the parabolic vocal is pure Smith – “Strike me strike me strike me dead / Strike me strike me dead” is phenomenal. Also, Gallup’s bass line is simple but effective. Speaking of bass lines, Gallup owns the sparkling “Close to Me,” though the percussion is critical (those handclaps!) and of course, the keyboards and Smith’s delivery of (again) sensitive and emotional lyrics are first-rate. This album version lacks the horns of the single.

Relatively lengthy “Sinking” feels like a throwback to the Faith/Pornography era, and it is a perfect closer, ending the album with a sense of gravitas and finality. The supple keyboard washes complement the hypnotic bass, with more Asian elements thrown in at the edges, and Williams again adds some effective fills, all of which serve a simple, direct, and highly emotive vocal from Smith.

There are only two speedbumps on this disc, and they arrive in succession. The best thing I can say about “Screw” is that the distorted bass is like a rusty screwdriver to the gut, but the truth is that this bit of silliness is filler. And the very ‘80s (and surprisingly conventional) saxophone absolutely ruins “A Night Like This,” which would otherwise have been a compelling, anguished ballad.

Kudos to co-producer David Allen for creating space for all the instruments and enabling maximum enjoyment from the careful arrangements (Howard Gray worked on a few of the tracks as well).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Six Different Ways,” though objectively “Push” is probably the best song.

Release Date

August, 1985

The Cover Art

I like this a lot, even the ridiculous font. Vaguely reminiscent of the day-glo parts of the “In Between Days” video, it’s gothic, and disturbing, and slightly funny all at the same time.

Why Popstars Can’t Dance

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This is the first compilation I’ve had to address here. It re-raises questions of organization, which I had not previously answered in consistent fashion. Some compilations I had organized by the name of the issuing party (like my Mojo magazine comps, or the Parasol label’s Sweet Sixteen albums). But I also had the Victoria Williams charity album Sweet Relief under the “S”’s, by virtue of its title, and also the Creation comp The Patron Saints of Teenage was filed under “P.” The problem is I don’t really know these albums by their titles. I am more apt to think about “that ska comp from Mojo.” Pushed to make a decision, I think alphabetically by title makes the most sense – and if that forces me to learn the titles, then that’s fine.

What I Think of This Album

I really like the Slumberland label, though I have to say I find this compilation from 1994 a little disappointing. It’s fine, and there is some good (and rare) stuff here, but it doesn’t blow me away like I expected it to. I am not really sure why I keep this – I guess I just like that it’s a document of the scene from the early ‘90s, even if it’s not terribly compelling. There are twelve artists represented, eleven with two songs apiece and poor Jane Pow with just one track. The album is also almost evenly split between American and British acts.

Honeybunch was a Rhode Island band featuring future members of the Magnetic Fields (Claudia Gonson) and Velvet Crush (Jeffrey Underhill/Borchardt). Their offerings are just okay, frankly, but sort of skimp on the melody and with limp tempos. I don’t know anything about the Artisans, who hail from England. “Start Again” is decent, sounding like a mash-up of Heavenly and Velocity Girl. But the gem here is the violin-powered “Tolerance.” Rocketship is a band from Sacramento, or at least in 1994 they were; thereafter, it was basically a vehicle for the work of founder Dustin Reske. An organ, backing “ooohs” and a charming melody bring out the best of “Your New Boyfriend,” though the lengthy, hazy “Like a Dream” suffers from the overbearing organ sounds. The Steamkings have a history back to 1986, but again, this was a new band for me. “Darkest Star” is a ton of fun, refreshing and bright, with some nice guitar work thrown in at the end. “Sad About You,” however, just plods along, and coming so soon after the similarly tedious “Like a Dream,” really hurts the album. Stereolab is the biggest name on the comp; they had roots in the leftist indie band McCarthy. I’ve never been into Stereolab, but “John Cage Bubblegum” is enjoyable, and “Eloge d’Eros” is very cool.

Lorelei is another mystery band, hailing from Arlington, Virginia. “Stop What You’re Doing” is a busy but well-arranged little tune that could’ve used a stronger vocalist singing a better melody; this is 80% of a very good song. The same thin vocals (as well as a too-loud drum sound) plague “Float My Bed,” which is otherwise a decent noise-pop number. Like Slumberland founder (and member of Black Tambourine) Mike Schulman, the Ropers are from Maryland circa 1991, and its main members also spent time in the Lilys. I hope “Blue Sunday” is a New Order joke, but even if not, it’s still a pretty good song. The dark, dense, oceanic “Drive” is a wonderful shoegaze showcase. Singer-songwriter Linda Smith is another discovery. She sounds a bit like Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, Breeders, Belly), breathily cooing over the brittle “The Real Miss Charlotte”; her whispered counting on the track is a highlight. “There’s Nothing You Can Do About It” is a series of short, sharp guitar shocks that could’ve used more effort.

Glo-Worm is the band that Black Tambourine vocalist Pam Berry formed in 1993. They do a winsome turn on the pretty and lush “Stars Above.” There is nothing about “Tilt-A-Whirl” that is deserving of that title, and I find the melody to be quite unpleasant. The story is that Schulman asked San Jose band Silver to change its name quickly, and they came up with Jupiter Sun. Which is definitely a worse name. But “Headlight Beam Reaction” is a fuzzy yet delicate delight, with some surprising and welcome sound effects coming out of the blue as the song winds down. It sounds like we arrive in the middle of “Violet Intertwine,” which reminds me a lot of Ride (due mostly to the backing vocals and powerful drumming) with a daintier guitar sound. Six-piece band Jane Pow is from England with a birth date in 1988, and their sole offering “Reorganize” is what would’ve happened if second-album Stone Roses got really drunk, stole a keyboard, and tried to rewrite “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone.” Not a fan. At one point, I owned a Boyracer album. They came out of Leeds in 1990, and are fairly well-known in the indie-pop world. Neither of their contributions is anything special, though “Speedtrap” is at least listenable.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am choosing the Ropers over Stereolab. Each provided two good songs (Jupiter Sun arguably did too but such is life) but the Ropers get the nod because I hadn’t heard of them before.

Release Date

October, 1994

The Cover Art

It’s neither good nor bad, much like the album itself. I don’t really understand the title (the explanation in the booklet provides the unsatisfactory answer “because guilty feet have got no rhythm”). The color scheme is also mediocre. 

The Weakerthans – Fallow

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I have seen the Weakerthans live once. I saw the ad in the paper (or online (whatever)), and decided not to buy tickets in advance. The (new) Bottom Lounge holds maybe 500 people (? – I am bad at that) and I figured, “who the hell even knows the Weakerthans?” The good news is, I was wrong – it turns out a lot of people even know the Weakerthans. The bad news is, I was wrong – it turns out a lot of people even know the Weakerthans and thus the show was sold out, save for the higher priced VIP seating option. This was problematic. I had no objection to spending the money to get it – I had already sunk costs into arriving at the door, I very much wanted to see the band, and I had no real confidence that they were going to tour again soon. The obstacles were that I bristle at the notion of VIP seating, and also that such capitalist price structuring (to say nothing of the labeling) runs counter to the Weakerthans’ principles as well. I paid the extra money. The VIP seating was an elevated, enclosed platform at the back of the venue with cushioned stools and a private bar. I don’t usually drink at shows, I like being close to the stage, and I don’t think anybody who doesn’t need to sit should ever sit at a rock concert. So, basically I paid for amenities that added no value to my experience, but that’s okay. I got to see the band and I helped fund a venue that does a good job of bringing in acts I like.

What I Think of This Album

The personal is political is poetical. John K. Sampson leads his bandmates through what is essentially a series of short stories set to music. Sampson’s voice and vision thoroughly dominate the album (and the band), as does his history in lefty punk band Propoghandi, and his fiercely Canadian pride. The booklet opens with a quote from Manitoban intellectual, novelist, and poet Catherine Hunter reflecting on the difficult nature of existing, paired with a quote from British Columbian writer and academic Tom Wayman about the individual and collective strength of the downtrodden. The booklet ends with informational text about anarchist and socialist press and literature. In between are twelve clear-eyed vignettes about small moments and big ideas, whose lyrics are printed on top of graphics of a Winnipeg street map.

Some songs are spare (“Illustrated Bible Stories for Children”; “The Last Last One”) and some are more enthusiastically indie-pop (“Diagnosis”; “Wellington’s Wednesdays”). Meanwhile, the lyrical references meander from Milton’s Samson Agoniste to disco group Boney M. to P.G. Wodehouse to New Order’s “Temptation.” I have a preference for the faster, poppier songs. “Confessions of a Futon-Revolutionist”  brilliantly captures the dreary intersection of interpersonal relationships, political consciousness, and the practical realities of getting through the day:  “Leave the apartment to buy alcohol / Hang our diplomas on the bathroom wall / Pick at the plaster chipped away / Survey some stunning tooth decay / Enlist the cat in the impending class war/ Let’s lay our bad day down here, dear / Let’s make believe we’re strong / Or hum some protest song.” Drummer Jason Tait beats the hell out of the kit on this number. Guest Roberta Dempster adds some welcome backing vocals on the tunefully desperate “Letter of Resignation.” The highlight is the nervy, throbbing “Wellington’s Wednesdays,” a half-sad ode to seeking solace in live music (and specifically at Wellington’s, a punk club in Winnipeg that closed in 2001). The frustration of an inability to connect comes through on the heartfelt “Greatest Hits Collection.” And there is an appealing muscularity to the story of a solitary person coming to a solitary end in “Anchorless.” But don’t sleep on the quiet tunes, as “None of the Above” is sweetly sad, and “Sounds Familiar” is evocative, intelligent, and lyrical. “Letter of Resignation” and “Anchorless” had appeared on Propaghandi releases.

The Best Thing About This Album

The incorporation of the lyrics from “Temptation” – possibly the very best New Order song – into “Wellington’s Wednesdays” has been known to make me smile broadly.

Release Date

1997 (Canada); 1999 (U.S.)

The Cover Art

Simple, but effective.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – Clap Your Hands Say Yeah

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

These guys were the indie heroes of 2005. With no record or distribution deal, they managed to sell tens of thousands of copies of this album through good press from blogs (and Pitchfork); they were hand-mailing these things out from their Brooklyn apartment across the globe. And they seemed pretty low-key about the whole thing. But I didn’t care for the second album and then I sort of forgot about them. Apparently, the entire band eventually quit and leader Alec Ounsworth is now the sole member of this project.

What I Think of This Album

I am not a fan of weird opening numbers – I don’t need a carnival barker to tell me to “hold on to your hat, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Just start playing the damn music.

Eventually, CYHSY settles into an energetic groove. Alec Ounsworth half warbles / half mumbles, with a distinctly David Byrne sound to his voice. This is probably what’s going to make or break this album for you – either you accept Ounsworth’s vocals or you don’t. Along with the annoying intro, there are also a couple of other 90 second tracks, which are what I find the biggest stumbling block (though “Blue Turning Gray” is admittedly pretty). But that groove I mentioned? Yeah, it’s here in full guitar-and-keyboard glory, with Ounsworth’s haphazard voice on top.

“Let the Cool Goddess Rust” benefits from a suspension bridge cable bass line and some great tom pounding; there is a sort of Wedding Present vibe to the rushing guitars. It’s easy to lose yourself in the appropriately titled and glittering “Over and Over Again (Lost and Found).” There is a tense beauty and grace to “Details of the War,” particularly when you consider that one of the lyrics is “camel dick.”

The strongest track is unmistakably “The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth,” with a New Order bass part (but more spare), disco beat (also, New Order-ish, frankly), glassine keyboard lines, skittery guitar (New. Fucking. Order.) and an unstoppable vocal melody that Ounsworth stretches like he’s some kind of taffy-pulling savant. “Is This Love?” is where the Byrne comparison is most appropriate, but that’s not to take away from the song at all, which sort of sadly tumbles all over the place.

The big surprise of “Heavy Metal” is that . . . it is not remotely metal (though in fairness, the lyrics indicate the band was talking about a suit of armor); this song is just okay. The band gets back on track with the dysthymic but thrilling “In This Home On Ice,” with a sort of Yo La Tengo sound. Closer “Upon This Tidal Wave of Young Blood” (umm, okay) is another pulsing song that somehow comes across as both modest and anthemic, and also clinically depressed. Which is to say . . . I like it! Ounsworth pulls you in to his vortex when he chants “child stars” for what seems like three hours and you emerge gasping for air when he yelps “With their sex / And their drugs / And their rock / And rock / And rock and rock ‘n’ roll, HEY!” 

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Skin of My Yellow Country Teeth” can even make me feel good, for almost six minutes.

Release Date

June, 2005

The Cover Art

I think this is hideous. The drawing is by Dasha Shishkin, with coloring and lettering by one of the band members.

The Church – Seance

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

I am pretty sure this was the last of the classic era Church albums I bought, just because it was so difficult to find. I know this in part because my copy has a horrifying rip through the booklet, which pains me every time I see it. I would never have bought something in that condition unless I had to. As with any sort of collecting, there are fetishistic and obsessive elements to the enterprise of building and curating one’s music library. I like having the physical copies, enjoy seeing them even without listening to them, and would like them to be in the best condition possible.

What I Think of This Album

I would never accuse the Church of being a fun band. They are serious; not dour, but focused. Nonetheless, Seance feels like their most fun album. It’s almost as consistent as The Blurred Crusade and adds the high points that made Of Skins and Heart so exciting.

Notably, “One Day” is a fantastic piece, with a guitar figure that latches on to your brain, and a vocal take that borders on winking, as well as forceful tom-pounding and a bit of guitar showiness in the bridge. I wish this song didn’t have to end. Too, “Electric Lash” is wondrous. The intro sounds like something from Tommy James and the Shondells, and then quickly becomes something different (better, yes, but that’s not because Tommy James and the Shondells aren’t pretty great). The song features the chorused vocals that would play a larger role on later albums, typically impressive jangle, and some very cool strings. But, the drums sound awful on this song.

Speaking of drums, “It Doesn’t Change” starts out with drums that were borrowed from Joy Division’s “Atmosphere” and then adds stately synths that would’ve been welcomed by New Order; this is a chilly, textured piece that’s a testament to the Church’s understated versatility. The Hammond organ that introduces moody “It’s No Reason (with guest vocals from Michelle Parker, spouse (at some point) of Steve Kilbey) gives way to Kilbey’s voice, an unassuming guitar, and some perhaps too-loud drums (which, again, don’t sound great); this holds sway until the keyboards and strings blindside you with their beauty. There is a lot to like on “Disappear?” (minus the drum sound), which gets more complex and interesting as it progresses.

“Dropping Names” is, well, fun. There. It’s a fun goddamned song – intense and dark and muscular (the drum pattern is cool, but the sound is typically awful). “Travel By Thought” is a post-punk exercise that sounds like a carryover from the debut. The bass is oddly emphasized on “Now I Wonder Why,” which also highlights a harmonica from presumed Kilbey family member Russell Kilbey. “Electric” is okay without being anything special, and opener “Fly” is also decent, with some nice production touches and . . . uh, bongos.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Electric Lash” is amazing, though I still feel bad not choosing “One Day.”

Release Date

May, 1983

The Cover Art

The pink and black is okay. The image, coupled with the title, is misleadingly goth. The font is atrocious (though the image here has different font and sizes from my version – terrible in either incarnation, anyway). Is she a nun? Is that a metal flower?

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