Saturnine – Wreck At Pillar Point

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

I don’t recall where or when I got this album, or why. I must have read about the band in a magazine and then stumbled across Wreck at Pillar Point. At some point, I became aware of a connection to the Essex Green and the Ladybug Transistor, but that was years later, I believe. The band was from New York, formed by law students Matt Gallaway (vocals/guitar) and Mike Donofrio (bass) in 1993 (and originally called Saturnine 60). They added drummer Jim Harwood and guitarist Jennifer Baron, and lasted for fifteen years, releasing six albums. All of which you can find on Bandcamp, and I suggest you check out this unappreciated band. I do note that the final album, Remembrance of Things Past, is described as an “indie-rock opera loosely based” on the novel, and by then Baron had left and they had added a keyboardist.

What I Think of This Album

The easiest and possibly best, and almost certainly the shortest, description of Saturnine is “Michael Stipe fronting a slowcore/dreampop band.” The similarities between Stipe and Matt Gallaway’s voices are striking, though on this debut album at least, Gallaway can get a little pitchy and that might be a dealbreaker for some listeners. Others will grow frustrated with the languid tempos and may not appreciate the odd juxtaposition of skronky guitar solos in such a gentle setting.

There is a lot to like on this album and I suspect that some simple resequencing would’ve made it better. Mostly, if the band had been more strategic about the placement of the songs on which Galloway’s vocals are the most . . . challenging, the record would present better. A stagnant instrumental early on also doesn’t help.

The guitar noise – somehow both loud and quiet at the same time – on opener “This Time the Best” is impressive, as is the gnarled solo, which is equal parts Lou Reed and Neil Young. The somber “Ground Truth” slides by on a pretty melody, and the ghostly harmonies (presumably by guitarist Jennifer Baron) are excellent. I still think these songs should have been interspersed later in the track list.  

“Your Maps” should have probably been the lead track, with some nice chiming/ jangly guitar, as well as an appealing vibrato part that almost sounds like a violin. On the other hand, this may be the most REM-adjacent song on the album, so perhaps they were a little shy about it. Similarly, we all would have benefitted from the frontloading of “Summer Was a Waste.” The solo wouldn’t sound out of place on a Galaxie 500 album. The harmonies once again are subtly excellent.   

“Broken” is another winning tune buried in the middle of the album, even if the sad-sack vocals can be a bit much. The guitar work, however, is fantastic, with a laser-like solo as the obvious high point, but credit to the band for the overall arrangement and construction of the song. Almost as strong is “Slightly Less Than Even,” with probably the best singing on the disc, more excellent guitar work and what sounds like piano to me.

The bass on “Reeling” is reminiscent of Naomi Yang’s work with Galaxie 500. The band kicks up some dust on “Tell Me Lies Later,” we can enjoy more great bass and guitar work on the deceptively entertaining “Had Enough,” and there is a pillowy beauty to ballad “Maverick’s” (and yes, that apostrophe is supposed to be there).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Broken” consolidates all the band’s strengths.

Release Date

September, 1995

The Cover Art

It’s just really difficult to make out what this even is. To the extent one can, the sepia-toned pastoral image only reinforces the REM comparisons.

Dressy Bessy – Kingsized

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

I bought this album at the Dressy Bessy show at Sleeping Village. Colleen Green was the opening act, and she was very good, by the way. I had mixed feelings as the show approached, as I was disappointed by the albums since Dressy Bessy, which I loved, but I figured Tammy Ealom puts on such a good show that I would still enjoy it anyway. I probably listened to Kingsized on Spotify leading up to the concert and was thrilled to hear so many great – I mean, really fucking great – songs on it.

What I Think of This Album

While hardly the big time, this feels like Dressy Bessy’s star-making turn, full of famous guests and with a bright, full sound, and on new label YepRoc. It was not, of course, a star-making turn, but it is a fantastic album that houses some of Dressy Bessy’s best work.

The aforementioned guests include Peter Buck, Rebecca Cole (Wild Flag, the Minders), Scott McCaughey (Young Fresh Fellows, the Minus 5, the Baseball Project), Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon), Jason Garner (Polyphonic Spree, Old 97’s, Deathray Davies), Eric Allen (the Apples in Stereo), Michael Giblin (the Split Squad), and Andy Shernoff (Dictators). While not as consistent as the self-titled third album, it probably has higher peaks, and in any event is way better than interceding albums Electrified and Holler and Stomp. I tend to think of this as a comeback album after the wrong turn of those two discs.

The opening drum roll of “Lady Liberty” demands your attention immediately and an impressively slippery bass line from Garner pulls you into a world of handclaps, 12 string guitar (from Buck), sweetly stacked vocals (Ealom and Cole), and a sassy performance from Ealom:  “Man, that bitch is good.” Equally excellent – if not better – is the electrifying title track, with an otherworldly performance from guitarist John Hill, whose guitar squeals would make Neil Young smile, another strong guest bass, this time from Giblin, and a vocal performance bursting with attitude (even though the lyrics are twee enough to have fit in well on Pink Hearts, Yellow Moons). The final part of the great trinity of this album is “Make Mine Violet” which is darker and more mature than a lot of the band’s typical material. It also boasts an excellent arrangement, at times reminding me of the Beach Boys, with wonderful harmonies, unexpected mini melodies, and stick percussion accents. Hill’s guitar is buried in the mix and almost sounds like a keyboard sometimes, and McCaughey adds some critical piano. Ealom plays this bass this time around, and, of course, delivers a killer vocal. These three tracks are so compelling and infectious that you almost forget to listen to the rest of the album.

But even the second tier songs are very good. I am not sure how I feel about the use of “mamacita” on sunny “Honeybee,” but this song is just a hair less impressive than the three already discussed so I will allow it. Imagine a grittier Blondie and you will end up somewhere very near “57 Disco,” on which McCaughey contributes organ. Departed bassist Rob Greene reappears for a couple of numbers, including spiky “Say Goodbye,” which provides the treat of hearing Ealom playing some surprisingly vinegary keyboard. The band brings lots of energy to “Giddy Up,” transforming what would otherwise be an average song into a very fun tune. The band gets dirty and dangerous on “These Modern Guns.”

“Pop Phenom” and “In Particular” are okay – not offensive but not Dressy Bessy’s best by a long shot (I do like how Ealom pronounces “phenomenon” on “Pop Phenom”). I find “Get Along Diamond Ring” to be fairly annoying, actually, and I feel pretty much the same about “Cup O’ Bang Bang,” but these are minor complaints.

The very long list of thank you includes Trent Bell, who I am going to assume is the same from Chainsaw Kittens; the rest of the list includes the Minus 5, the Baseball Project, Mike Mills, and the Apples In Stereo.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Kingsized” reigns supreme here.  

Release Date

February, 2016

The Cover Art

Minimalist and monochrome, I think this is great.

The dB’s – Stands for Decibels / Repercussion

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

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

What I Think of This Album

Stands for Decibels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Repercussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like this original cover art.

The Best Thing About This Album

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

Release Date

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

The Cover Art

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

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Underground

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

I used to own White Light / White Heat, but I didn’t like it. That’s the risk with a six song album, I guess. “Here She Comes Now,” the one sort of traditional song, is decent but not great (as Galaxie 500 reaffirmed with their cover). “Lady Godiva’s Operation” has an interesting (and oddly quiet) guitar part, but Cale’s vocals leave a lot to be desired and there isn’t much of a melody. The title track is tolerable. I never need to hear “The Gift” again. “I Heard Her Call My Name” has some ridiculous guitar sonics, though at its core, it is a fairly typical VU song, and would probably be really good with a better mix (as well as solos that actually related to the song). “Sister Ray” is really fucking cool – to call it a “song” is pushing the boundaries of definition – but it’s not something I would listen to often; interestingly, it was recorded in one take. I feel bad, because White Light / White Heat is the last album with John Cale, whose work on the debut I love. Lou Reed forced Cale out of the band after the second album, with the reluctant agreement of Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker. The formal association with Andy Warhol was also over by this point. In order to assist the move to a more accessible sound, Doug Yule, a friend of the band from Boston and about whom there is more to say, was recruited for the third album.

What I Think of This Album

The surprisingly quiet and sweet third album is not as influential as the first, or arguably the second, but it is highly enjoyable, with strong songwriting from Lou Reed. Still, there is an argument to be made that the band’s straightforward approach – particularly the evolving guitar interplay between Reed and Sterling Morrison – combined with Reed’s lyrical growth, is indeed significant in the indie world.

There are three uptempo songs here, and all are excellent. “What Goes On” features a hyperactive rhythmic strum, a supporting droney organ part from Doug Yule, and two killer solos from Reed; the texture of the guitar strums is otherworldly. The VU’s “What Goes On” is way better than the Beatles’ “What Goes On” – prove me wrong; the Feelies have a cool cover of this. Yule lays down an impressive bass line on “Beginning to See the Light,” in which Reed and Morrison seamlessly lay down the rhythm track. And “I’m Set Free” allows Moe Tucker to revert back to her playing style of the debut, while Reed and Morrison build up a head of steam behind her; the weepy solo sounds like Morrison to me.

For his part, Morrison outdoes himself with a beautiful guitar part on the tender “Pale Blue Eyes” (later covered by R.E.M.). Morrison likely plays the crystalline lead part on “Jesus,” on which Yule adds some very nice harmonies. You can hear the dueling guitars well on the “Some Kinda Love,” with throwback deadpan vocals from Reed and an insistent beat courtesy of Tucker. Morrison again likely plays the curlicue lead guitar and solo on the country-ish “Story of My Life.” Finally, Tucker gets a vocal turn on the charming and slightly heartbreaking “After Hours.”

Reed’s lyrics and singing on this album are wonderful. Relying on previously untapped reserves of warmth, humanity, care, and longing, Reed convincingly displayed additional facets to his persona. Whether the sympathetic portrayal of trans woman Candy Darling in “Candy Says” to the never-to-be romance of “Pale Blue Eyes” to the despair of “Jesus” to the quiet satisfaction of “After Hours,” Reed rose to new heights here.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Oh someday I know / Someone will look into my eyes / And say ‘hello, you’re my very special one’ / But if you close the door / I’d never have to see the day again”

Release Date

March, 1969

The Cover Art

It’s a little weird to see the Velvet Underground in sweaters, but I guess everyone gets cold sometimes. The use of dark and light is cool, but I don’t much care for the photo.

The Velvet Underground – The Velvet Undergound & Nico

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Post #250. Milestone. Woo. Hoo. Celebrate. I first became aware of the Velvet Underground in eighth grade, I think; a friend somehow became a big fan, which I was witness to, but I didn’t give the band a listen until much later, maybe law school, even. I’m not sure why it took me so long – obviously I had seen the band cited if not lionized a million times by then as a major influence on the bands and sounds I loved. I don’t know. Better late than never. I am sorry that the reunion tour never made it to the U.S. I would have loved that.

What I Think of This Album

Sometimes, a little context is helpful. This album was released in early 1967, approximately one year after Pet Sounds, about two months after Between the Buttons and The Doors (ugh), roughly two months before Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (possibly the most overrated album in history) and Are You Experienced, more than a year before Kick Out the Jams, and two years before The Stooges. While the Mothers of Invention were already active on the West Coast, nothing else released around this time came anywhere close to what Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison, and Maureen Tucker were doing.

Cale had a background in the avant-garde scene, complementing his foundation in classical music. For his part, Reed began his career with pop songwriting, but had an experimental streak and a literary bent. The enigmatic Morrison was Reed’s acquaintance and Tucker’s childhood friend, and was the technical foil to Reed’s rough approach on guitar. Tucker was a self-taught drummer with an unconventional but well thought out style. Together, they forged a unique, distinctive sound that nonetheless could not be pigeonholed. Of course, on this album – and at the insistence of mentor and producer Andy Warhol – they were joined by Nico, partially deaf former fashion model turned actor and singer.

Much of the album is characterized by Cale’s violent and vivid work on the viola. The sadomasochistic sex tale “Venus In Furs” is a showcase, with Cale’s droning, distorted, atonal sounds providing the ideal backdrop for Reed’s scandalous but monotone lyrics. Note how Tucker basically plays a two-hit pattern on the bass drum (followed by a single tambourine hit) for the entire song. One of my favorite VU songs ever is “The Black Angel’s Death Song,” which should be like three times as long, and also should have ended the album. In any event, this song is basically goth ten years early. Reed spouts nonsense lyrics while Cale furiously saws away, creating a force field around the band that you have to be invited to pass through. Cale is also responsible for the vicious hissing into the microphone. Cale arguably steals the show on “Heroin,” which is no small feat given Tucker’s hypnotic drumming, Reed’s fascinating and matter-of-fact explanation of the whys and hows of shooting up, and the spectacular dynamics of the piece. The subtle drones early on provide an eerie disquiet, and eventually the viola unleashes a cascade of piercing tones, creating an aural (if not neural) network of confusion, paranoia, and devastation.

Elsewhere, Reed’s songwriting and guitar dominate. “Waiting For the Man” is a revelatory recitation of scoring heroin, essentially a short story set to a stunning percussive attack (due in no small part to the staccato distorted guitar part) and almost humorous piano element. There is a strong Dylan influence on “Run Run Run,” which is essentially a folk song at heart, but Reed’s grotesque, feedback-laced solos would not have gone over well at Newport. Reed’s singular guitar playing again elevates the somber, dramatic “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” with its funereal drum beat and Nico’s husky vocals. That said, not every song is groundbreaking – which is not to say they aren’t excellent. “There She Goes” is relatively straight-forward, jangly to its core, but the lyrics are disturbingly misogynistic; the tempo shifts are interesting. Also not terribly unconventional is opener “Sunday Morning,” which approaches dream pop in its arrangement and production (courtesy of Tom Wilson (Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, Mothers of Invention)). And the delicate “I’ll Be Your Mirror” is probably Nico’s best performance on the album, where she adopts a gentler, warmer tone. Nico also sings lead on “Femme Fatale.”

Nico’s vocals were novel and not at all conventional in the realm of rock. Her strong accent and stentorian, icy tone were a far cry from what was acceptable from a woman at that time. I will say the one song I do not care for here is “European Son,” a lengthy preview of the style later featured prominently on White Light / White Heat. The improvisation is not terribly interesting (I do like the sound of crashing plates, though) and the piece is fairly tedious. It’s not a stretch to see how this album influenced if not birthed entire genres. Monumental. Essential. R.E.M. covered two songs off this album.

The Best Thing About This Album

So many options to choose from:  the way Nico pronounces “clown” (klahhhn); Reed’s little laugh in the middle of “Heroin” (right after “It’s my life / It’s my wife”); the “I chi chi / Chi chi I / Chi chi chi / Tai tai ko / Choose to choose / Choose to choose / Choose to go”) in “Black Angel’s Death Song.” But mostly because I won’t get a chance to really praise Cale again, I am saying Cale’s viola.

Release Date

March, 1967

The Cover Art

Honestly, I’m not even sure how I’m supposed to judge this. It’s achieved such iconic status. I guess I think it’s fine, but I don’t love it. I do like the font for Warhol’s name. I think I like it better as art than as album art. The actual design was by Any Lehman.

Wire – Pink Flag

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

One of a few albums that I straight up bought off my friend Duke, I don’t really listen to this often but I do like it a lot, and what’s more, I respect it immensely. I investigated some other Wire but none of it stuck. I just preferred the stark approach of their debut.

What I Think of This Album

Tense, terse, and taut. This is punk; this is the apotheosis of punk; this is the Platonic ideal of punk. And yet, it is more. You would be best served to absorb the album in one sitting. It won’t take long. The band spits out 21 songs in just over 35 minutes; six tracks don’t make it to the minute mark, and another nine come in under two. Wire says what it has to say and does what it wants to do and then moves on. This is as minimalist as it gets – literally, not a second is wasted, and concepts like verses and choruses have no currency here.

The album functions as a true collection – you can just let each song jab you in the face and you will come out of it transformed, if not necessarily happier. Much of this is disturbing and difficult. Indeed, “Reuters” may be the most harrowing song I’ve ever heard. And this gets to the heart of Wire’s genius. Because within the songs of Pink Flag there is a tremendous amount of creativity and innovation.

Trebly dirge “Reuters” is an ominous report of an apocalyptic scenario that succums to the chilling background chant of “rape.” “Field Day for the Sundays” is 28 seconds of stop/start bile directed at Britain’s trashy newspapers. Elastica lifted the iconic riff from “Three Girl Rhumba,” but not the surreality communicated by the lyrics or the coiled charge of the music; Robert Gotobed’s drumming here is excellent. Things skew closer to traditional punk on “Ex-Lion Tamer,” mockingly instructing the listener to “stay close to your t.v. set.” Extreme existential angst dominates “Lowdown,” which rides a repetitive, bluesy riff, before it explodes and then hammers the riff again. “Start to Move” is a chord-hopping bit of punk, and “Brazil” is the weirdest love song ever.

Hardcore owes something to the frantic, pummeling “Surgeon’s Girl.” The title track is one of the longer songs on the album, starts and ends with an exploration of texture and in between adds extreme noise and a gritty groove. There is almost a 50’s style to the chords and rhythm of instrumental “The Commercial.” “Straight Line” is punk-pop, and the guitars of “106 Beats That” are amazing. Hardcore again pops up on the angry “Mr. Suit.” REM famously covered “Strange,” which is basically a distorted mid-tempo groove with paranoid, anxious lyrics; apparently, there is a guest flute on here but I’ll be damned if I can hear anything that sounds remotely flute-like.

There is a substantial nod to melody in the last quarter of the album. “Fragile” has a poppy chord progression, and “Mannequin” is basically power-pop (with “ooo-oooo”s, even), though mean-spirited and cutting, and has been covered by Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, Lush, and fIREHOSE. The band again displays melodic gifts on the driving “Champs” and on the smug, disdainful “Feeling Called Love.” Finally, kiss-off “12xU” rapidly says its piece; Minor Threat covered this. Needless to say, this album is a punk classic.

The Best Thing About This Album

All of it – just the sheer inventiveness compressed into 90 second songs and spread across 21 tracks.

Release Date

November, 1977

The Cover Art

Awesome. Just as stark and striking as the music inside. The obvious fakeness of the flag makes it even better. The sky on the real art is actually a far brighter blue than what is shown here, and the foreground is more of a slate grey than this brown.

The Wonder Stuff – Never Loved Elvis

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

There was a period of time in college when I listened to this album constantly. I caught the band at the right time – the Wonder Stuff were never able to recreate this peak.  Never Loved Elvis succeeds because so many things came together or broke the right way at the same time: musical polymath Martin Bell fully transformed the band’s sound; Miles Hunt found the right balance between sweet and sour in his songwriting; and the band executed a turn towards the mature and even refined while retaining energy and a sense of fun. It’s arguably true that I never loved Elvis but I once loved the Wonder Stuff.

What I Think of This Album

The best Wonder Stuff album by miles (get it?). As on Hup, there is a batch of great songs, but this time there are more of them and they are surrounded by good songs as opposed to sticking out as anomalous flashes. Instrumental (I can do this all day) to the success of the album is the multi-talented Bell, whose violin, banjo, accordion, mandolin, and guitar permit the band to explore styles and sounds previously out of their grasp.

“Welcome to the Cheap Seats,” a folky circus-like number that celebrates cross-dressing, owes its charm to the accordion part, but it’s guest Linda McRae who deserves credit. The string quartet in the bridge is a brilliant choice, too; indeed, the entire arrangement on this song is fantastic. The ubiquitous Kirsty MacColl sings backup on this excellent song, whose only drawback is that it is too short. The other obvious highlight is “Size of a Cow,” which borrows from the Kinks, and uses cheeky sound effects and Bell’s skills on banjo (as well as some guest organ and music hall piano) to craft a strong pop number. Bell’s accordion and violin (and eventually banjo) shine on the fine “Maybe” (which takes a swipe at Michael Stipe); this is a compelling number full of confusion, frustration, and resignation, with some of Hunt’s best lyrics of the album.

The strings on the crashing “Here Comes Everyone” are excellent, and Hunt once again delivers a winning performance on vocals. “Caught In My Shadow” is a nice little pop song with a bouncing bass and delicate riff, as well as more violin. Bell’s mandolin is key to the reflective “Sleep Alone,” and Hunt adds a nice harmonica, too. The band stretches out to mix wah-wah guitar, violin, and pounding drums on the slithering, dark “Donation.” “Inertia” is a straight-ahead rocker with excellent violin work (and wah-wah again low in the mix) and a nice subtle organ part. “Grotesque” muscles ahead with an unrelenting rhythm but mixes it up with some tempo shifts and unexpected arrangement flourishes. End-of-friendship song “Mission Drive” effectively builds from an intricate bed of guitars to a rousing burst of frantic violin work. The remainder of the album is at least adequate, and nothing here is bad. Mick Glossop produced, as he had for the Alarm, the London Suede, and Magazine.

The Best Thing About This Album

This album would be nothing without secret weapon Martin Bell.

Release Date

May, 1991

The Cover Art

None of this should work, but I like it anyway. The mix of mint green, orange, yellow, and pink sounds terrible but comes across okay. The collage of images is also messy without being problematic – I really like the pills. I don’t know. Somehow, this is effective. The image on the right is from the remastered version, and adds that circular black element (a sticker, I’m guessing).

The Baseball Project – 3rd

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

This project just keeps evolving and I think that’s great, right up until the day we have Bernie Williams and Peter Gammons guesting on guitar. For now, it’s just the organist for the Boston Red Sox and the more permanent and very welcome addition of REM bassist Mike Mills. I don’t know how much longer they can keep doing this, but baseball is a pretty deep mine and the band is bursting with talented songwriters. I saw them live after McCaughey recovered from his stroke and it was heartwarming to see him back in action, clearly having a good time (and also to witness Buck’s obvious concern for his friend, keeping a watchful eye on him the entire show).

What I Think of This Album

As usual, the album is mostly focused on heroes, villains, the overlooked, and the ridiculous. By now you are familiar with the allegiances and it informs the songs – you can appreciate Scott McCaughey’s loyalty when listening to “They Are the Oakland A’s” or Steve Wynn’s Yankee fandom in his touching “Monument Park.” And when they sing of box scores and baseball cards, you know they mean it.

This album is a bit more positive and lighthearted than the others. While there are still indictments of heels, such as “From Nails to Thumbtacks,” a survey of Lenny Dykstra’s ambitions and setbacks, and “13,” a dark polemic against Alex Rodriguez (which sounds a bit like “If You Believe in Cleveland,” from McCaughey’s Young Fresh Fellows), there is not nearly as much tragedy and sadness this time. Instead, “Hola America!” celebrates the bravery and sacrifices of Cuban players who escape to the US, and “The Day Dock Went Hunting Heads” memorializes Dock Ellis’s firing spree against the Reds’ batting order.

Mike Mills flashes his credentials – musical and fan – with his passionate, power-poppy plea “To the Veterans Committee” in advocacy of Dale Murphy. This is followed-up by the John Fogarty-quoting “Monument Park,” itself a request for Bernie Williams to be given due recognition. Hank Aaron and Babe Ruth gets their songs (the former’s much better than the latter’s), as does the flustered Pascual Perez (with Linda Pitmon taking lead vocal duty, both sounding and drumming like Moe Tucker) and poor Larry Yount, whose little-known story is the subject of a lovely, sympathetic folk ballad.

At 18 songs, this is verging on double-album territory; in the band’s defense, while some songs could’ve been cut (the country “The Baseball Card Song” and icky “Extra Inning of Love,” as well as the silly Johnny Cash/Shel Silverstein parody “A Boy Named Cy”), this is another winning collection.

Some trivia – former Sugar bassist David Barbe did some of the recording, and Mitch Easter did some of the mixing.

The Best Thing About This Album

Mills takes the prize this time – the garagey “Veterans Committee” is pure fun, and slightly evocative of his vocal turn on REM’s memorable cover of “Superman.”

Release Date

March, 2014

The Cover Art

This is some weird cross of a Dali piece, a Pink Floyd album cover, and of course, baseball. The integration of the 3 in the art as the album title is obvious and probably unavoidable. But it still could have been done in a more appealing fashion.

The Baseball Project – Volume 2: High and Inside

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

I love that the Baseball Project was not just a one-off affair. Whether it was a positive response to the debut or just their continued passion for the project, the band continues to make excellent, baseball-centric songs. As unexpected as Volume 1 was, the follow-up was even more of a surprise. Who is buying these albums? Maybe the relevant Venn diagram here is bigger than I thought. On the other hand, I’ve seen the Baseball Project at the Abbey Pub (I spoke to McCaughey afterwards about our shared appreciation for the Mendoza Line – a baseball-named but not -themed band) and at Space, and the audience is neither large nor varied:  just a bunch of north-of-40-years-old dudes in baseball caps. Anyway, this album I think represents the move from parlor trick to legitimate band, and I am here for it.

What I Think of This Album

This is song-for-song a better album than its predecessor; no sophomore slump after a strong rookie season, the band comes out swinging. This time, the team has added some all-star free agents – guests include Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo (another baseball-named band), the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, Ben Gibbard from Death Cab for Cutie, and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos.

An unofficial theme song takes shape on “Fair Weather Fans,” where each of the band members takes a vocal turn proclaiming their respective loyalties (and as I suspected, Buck really couldn’t give a shit – he’s just here to make music). As on the first album, the songs mostly focus on individual players, expertly placing their stories in a larger context. Some are joyous and raucous, such as “Panda and the Freak” and the fantastic and fantastical “Ichiro Goes to the Moon” (featuring science fiction B movie keyboards). Most are poignant, though, if not tragic, with a defense of Bill Buckner (“Buckner’s Bolero”), an apology from Carl Mays (who threw “the pitch that killed”), rueful indignance from Roger Clemens (“Twilight of My Career”), and a nod to Denard Span’s poor mom (“Look Out Mom”).

The highlights from this excellent batch of songs are the sepia-tinged remembrance of Mark Fidrych (“1976” – the only songwriting contribution from Buck) and the epic Craig Finn-sung (and penned) “Don’t Call Them Twinkies.” The latter is a stirring salute to the small-market Twins (“We don’t buy our titles / And we’ve still won two World Series”), flawlessly interwoven with Finn’s memories of growing up in the area (“In ‘87 I was pretty much in heaven / I got my license and a girlfriend / And the Twins had won the pennant”) and shout-outs to communities across the state (“From Nicollet to Hennepin / From St. Paul to St. Cloud / the Minnesota Twins are making Minnesotans proud”). If this song doesn’t put a lump in your throat, then you don’t understand baseball fandom.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Don’t Call Them Twinkies” is a fucking master class in songwriting.

Release Date

March, 2011

The Cover Art

This is supercreepy and I don’t like it one bit. Nope nope nope nope nope.

The Baseball Project – Volume 1: Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

This was an unexpected effort that works much better than it should. My imagination never encompassed an indie/alternative supergroup coming together to play songs about baseball. I remember in the ‘90s, the Goo Goo Dolls played a pretty great version of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for an MLB television promo, but even then, I did not contemplate a more robust pairing of these two things that I love. Fortunately, the Baseball Project goes beyond novelty, tying a deep knowledge of and passion for the game to their considerable melodic skills. It helps that I was already a Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey fan, and while I never really cared for the Dream Syndicate, I respected Steve Wynn (I was unfamiliar with Linda Pitmon, who drummed in Zuzu’s Petals).

What I Think of This Album

This is clearly a labor of love (and friendship – I don’t get the sense that Peter Buck is much of a baseball fan). Scott McCaughey and Steve Wynn basically split the writing duties, with Buck (REM) as the super-utility player, contributing on five instruments. In fact, the credits (even before you’ve listened to a single note) are a testament to the teamwork involved. In addition to the usual guitars/bass/drums, the band throws out melodica, organ, accordion, bouzouki, mandolin, sitar, and harmonica.

And the liner notes further underscore the passion behind the project; they are informative, offering historical context and personal connection (what a great idea). Against that backdrop, it’s damn difficult not to be predisposed to like the album, but many a project has failed due to unrealistic ambitions, poor perspective, or fussy perfectionism – it’s not enough to just want something to turn out well. No worries here, as this is a collection of strong songs that go far beyond the surface of casual fandom.

The album starts with the organ-heavy, celebratory “Past Time,” honoring baseball’s rich history with a nostalgic call-out to iconic players and indelible images (“The sideburns of Pepitone / And Oscar Gamble’s afro”). The band then cycles through a series of character studies, before ending, appropriately, with “The Closer.” Standouts include the humorous exploration of jealousy and bitterness in the stomping “Ted Fucking Wiliams,” an acknowledgment of Jackie Robinson’s grace in “Jackie’s Lament,” the folk-ish, spirited argument for luckless “Harvey Haddix” (with some sweet backing “ooohs”), the homespun “Satchel Paige Said,” and a glimpse into the Samuel Beckett-tinted mind of Sandy Koufax (“Long Before My Time”). There is also a deconstruction of the sad irony of Fernandomania, the sacrifice of labor rights pioneer Curt Flood, and Jack McDowell’s middle finger (punningly titled “The Yankee Flipper”).

The market for this is probably fairly circumscribed – if you’re not a baseball fan, I don’t know how much you’re going to care, but the targets of this pitch should be delighted.

Side note – the album was mastered by Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and collaborator with McCaughey in both the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 (in which Buck also plays).

The Best Thing About This Album

“Harvey Haddix” is a lot of fun, and expertly mixes pathos with acceptance (“perfection’s always flawed”). I’ve seen the Baseball Project live twice and it’s a treat to see them update the song with the names of additional perfect game hurlers, trying desperately to fit them into the framework of the song.

Release Date

July, 2008

The Cover Art

Juuuuuuust a bit outside. The black background and the large, game-battered baseball are fantastic, as is the elegant band name centered across the top. But the band members’ names in a cartoonish script ruin the image, and seems crass and arrogant, to boot.

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