They Might Be Giants – A User’s Guide to They Might Be Giants

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

It took me a very long time to come around on TMBG. When I was in high school, they were very popular with some subgroup of nerdy theater kids, who drank in the band’s quirkiness. I found TMBG to reek of artifice; I thought they were trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, and as this was a time when I was desperately wishing I could fit in better (or at all), I found the whole act to be contrived, off-putting, and ultimately insulting. I was offended that TMBG could think being an outsider was somehow fun and funny, when all I felt was loneliness, shame, and rejection. I started to thaw in college, when “The Statue Got Me High” came out. Eventually, I came to appreciate and perhaps love the band, who are hyper-intelligent, clever, creative, and hilarious absurdists; I guess I just had to be more comfortable with myself.

What I Think of This Album

There is a lot to talk about here even before we get to the 29 tracks that serve as a haphazard but successful retrospective. To begin, the liner notes are mind-bogglingly dense. There are lists and charts galore. There is a list, with dates, of (almost) every show the band has ever played. There is a list (alphabetical) of every musician who contributed to any album. Some relevant names are Mike Doughty (Soul Coughing); Roger Moutenot (producer of Sleater-Kinney, Yo La Tengo, and others), Robert Quine (who recorded with Matthew Sweet); Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne); and Lyle Workman (played with Frank Black).

There is a list (also alphabetical) of all the TMBG songs. There is a chart showing the “frequency of TMBG gigs in places beginning with “New.”” There is a map isolating the states in the union that TMBG never played in. There is a list of every POTUS mentioned in TMBG lyrics. There is a list of other artists TMBG has referenced in their songs (including the dB’s, the Young Fresh Fellows, and the Replacements). There is a chart illustrating the liquids featured in TMBG lyrics, and one comparing the personal pronouns in TMBG song titles. A track listing, of course, exists.

And the band also documents their albums. And there is a timeline of historical facts relevant to TMBG songs, including “worms evolve;” “the Odyssey written;” and “US minimum wage established.” Study of the back cover reveals that the track listing is an almost perfect parabola or bell curve or some such thing, based on song length. Each of songs 1-12 has a longer running time than its predecessor; each of songs 13-29 gets shorter.

As for the actual music, it’s a highly enjoyable mix that spans the band’s career into 2002, not emphasizing one album too much over any other (Flood gets a record five songs, while Apollo 18 gets four, and the rest of the distribution is fairly democratic). What jumps out is how a pair of nerdy goofballs overly reliant on the accordion can offer such visceral thrills. And how the decision to refract the childlike wonder of Jonathan Richman through a post-modern prism paid off so satisfyingly.

Is there anything more satisfying than singing “You son of a bitch / I palindrome I”? The shouted lyrics on “Cyclops Rock” (including the list of ‘60s era dances:  “pony, twist, monkey, and frug / These are the things that I taught to you”) and the angry, Chucky-referencing vocals are a revelation; the scream in the middle is so liberating. The faltering defiance of “Boss of Me” prevents the song from being merely bratty. The life-altering (-ending?) encounter with sculpture in personal favorite “The Statue Got Me High” wouldn’t be as effectively communicated without its pounding drums.

Also valuable are the pop songs that were not hits, like the flowing “She’s an Angel,” the ‘60s parody “Purple Toupee,” the ridiculous “Dr. Worm” (about a worm who is trying to improve his drumming), and the wistful “They’ll Need a Crane.” The soul pastiche of “The Guitar” is entertaining, based on African classic “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (written in 1939, with lyrics in Zulu, by Solomon Linda and originally titled “Mbube”). “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” is deeply strange, whose lyrics render it a bizarro new wave song.

All the hits are here, of course:  “Anna Ng,” “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” the cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Don’t Let’s Start.”

And, for better or worse (worse, definitely worse), there are the sillier numbers like “Minimum Wage” and ”Particle Man,” among just a few included here, and the history songs of “Meet James Ensor” and “James K. Polk,” which are barely worth mentioning.

TMBG also cover Cub’s “New York City” with some revised lyrics. Too bad “The Communists Have the Music” came a few years too late to be included.

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Statue Got Me High”

Release Date

May, 2005

The Cover Art

An abstract work that only makes sense if you look at the back cover. In any event, the colors are hideous.

Damon & Naomi – More Sad Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I was a big Galaxie 500 fan, but it took me a little to explore the efforts of Damon & Naomi. Often described as psychedelic folk (fair) and dreampop/slowcore (also fair), they have released over ten albums and have worked extensively with Japanese experimental band Ghost. I need to check out more of their stuff, which sometimes gets a little insubstantial for me. After the bitter dissolution of Galaxie 500 in 1991, spouses and rhythm section Naomi Yang and Damon Krukowski continued to make music under the unassuming moniker of Damon & Naomi. Arguably overshadowed by Dean Wareham in their earlier band, the two have carved out a spot as highly respected iconoclasts. What’s more, each has expanded beyond music. Yang is a graphic designer (having done all the Galaxie 500 and Damon & Naomi sleeves), photographer, and filmmaker, with videos created for Tanya Donnelly, Waxahatchee, and the Future Bible Heroes. Krukowski, for his part, is a published poet and author, has taught at Harvard, and founded – with Yang – a book publishing company (Exact Change) that specializes in avant-garde literature from the 19th and 20th centuries.

What I Think of This Album

This is a charming, beautiful record that manages to establish the band as separate from Galaxie 500 while maintaining a sonic connection that nonetheless explores sounds that trio never attempted. Yang’s vocals and bass playing were perhaps never given their due in Galaxie 500, and Krukowski was considered simply to be the (excellent) drummer; neither of them has to worry about that ever again. Teaming up once more with their previous band’s producer Kramer (Bongwater), on More Sad Hits the three craft a meticulous collection of dreamy but grounded soundscapes, more or less hewing to pop structures.

The first almost-half of this album is unstoppable. “E.T.A” is a showcase for Yang, who adds lovely vocals with superb support on drums (and vocals) from Krukowski; someone adds a chiming, chunky guitar strum and then a silkworm solo – delicate but with considerable tensile strength. The band subverts Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” in the languid, hypnotic “Little Red Record Co.” by claiming with somber sincerity “Mother’s close / And Father’s close / But neither’s as close as Chairman Mao.” I’m guessing it’s keyboards making the odd noises that permeate but do not distract from the track, which ends with a repeated verse that takes on the permanence of a religious chant.

My favorite track is probably the gauzy eulogy of “Information Age,” with some stunning wah-wah guitar (approaching the sound of a theremin or saw). The lyrics here are also excellent; few lines by anyone are as witty as “The times are hard / Or so they say / But I don’t believe the Times / And I don’t believe the Globe / It’s spinning free enough to choose your way to go,” and the kicker of “They’re just nostalgia” in the chorus pierces my heart with every listen. In addition, Yang’s bass flows effortlessly and unpredictably through the track. Sometimes the melody reminds me of “Here Comes a Regular” by the Replacements – maybe it’s just me.

The enigmatic, lachrymose “Laika” floats by on Yang’s vocals and high register bass part. The duo’s perverse sense of humor is fully flaunted on bumper-sticker quoting “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington,” which takes the vertiginous tourist attraction and uses it as the skeleton of a song about a troubled relationship; this is the track with the closest thing to a Galaxie 500 guitar part, as someone (my guess is Kramer) unleashes a lengthy and blistering, but not flashy, solo.

Things generally get less immediate on the back half. “Astrafiammante” (which translates to “flaming star” from Italian) has some nice bass work again, but doesn’t really go anywhere. . . except to a very strange place with sort of faux-operatic vocals (both female and male), which I suppose is consistent insofar as Astrafiammante is one of the roles in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Krukowski takes the lead on the over-before-it-starts “Boston’s Daily Temperature,” which meanders along harmlessly; the arrangement and production are cool, but the song sort of stagnates.

Similarly benign, but far less interesting, is “Sir Thomas and Sir Robert,” which invokes the name of 16th century poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt and perhaps is a jokey reference to the Soft Machine’s Robert Wyatt, which I surmise in part because smack dab in the middle of the album is a cover of the Soft Machine’s “Memories.” I can’t really say much about the cover, but this is definitely where the psychedelic part of the band’s genetics comes to the fore.

I have to admit that instrumental interlude “Scene Change” isn’t bad at all – I normally hate this kind of thing – though obviously it’s not essential. The at-once-dreamy-and-ramshackle “Once More” is an excellent song that dares to get noisy. The cover of “This Changing World” – best known apparently in its Claudine Longet-sung version – is pretty good too, though the avant-jazz drum intro I could do without.

Originally released on Kramer’s Shimmy Disc label, I have the Sub Pop reissue; more sad hits, indeed.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Information Age,” though “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” gives it a good run for its money.

Release Date

November, 1992 (original); 1997 (Sub Pop reissue)

The Cover Art

Wonderful. This use of Man Ray’s Les Larmes (also just known as Tears) from 1934 works perfectly with the album title, and the color palette choices are superb. Excellent work from Naomi Yang.

Velvet Crush – Teenage Symphonies to God

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

This is yet another album I’ve purchased twice. The first time, I bought it around the time of its release date, and I believe I sold it not long thereafter because it was “too country.” Just in case you were wondering if there was any time in my life when I wasn’t a complete fucking idiot.

What I Think of This Album

Velvet Crush delivers a more mature and organic sophomore album, and any loss in exuberance (arguable, anyway) is more than made up for by the excellent musicianship. Needless to say, all the usual signifiers remain in place, from the Brian Wilson-derived album title to the Gene Clark cover to Paul Chastain’s Hofner bass (or similar knockoff) to the choice of Mitch Easter (Let’s Active) as producer.

Still officially a trio, the band benefits from the unexplained contributions of Greg Leisz (pedal/lap steel, obviously), Stephen Duffy (the Lilac Time, Duran Duran), Mike Deneen (producer of Fountains of Wayne, Aimee Mann, and Letters to Cleo), Wes Lachot (who has also worked with Flat Duo Jets – a band that featured former Let’s Active member Sara Romweber), Lynn Blakey (a touring member of Let’s Active, and the subject of the Replacements’ “Left of the Dial”), John Chumbris (who played with Blakey in Glory Fountain and on a Peter Holsapple/Chris Stamey (dBs) album), and Easter.

I am particularly interested in who played the guitar leads, as Matthew Sweet is not present this time, and the leads are still quite excellent. In addition, the band provides their usual stellar vocals, Ric Menck’s unflappable drumming, and tons of melody. The guitar leads on sighing but tough “Hold Me Up” are matched only by the wonderful backing vocals. A squalling guitar kicks off frustration-fueled “My Blank Pages.” The band follows its credible cover of weepy “Why Not Your Baby” with its own strong and swirly country-rock effort, “Time Wraps Around You.” I am not sure about the sequencing of those two songs back-to-back, especially with the very slow ballad (and unnecessary) “#10” and the additional laid back country-rock of “Faster Days” (co-written with Duffy) coming so soon after, but that’s the only complaint. The cover of Matthew Sweet’s “Something’s Gotta Give” gets the band back on more solid power-pop footing. The absence of serotonin on bleak “This Life Is Killing Me” is more than made up for with a surplus of adrenaline; this rocker could’ve easily come from the debut. “Weird Summer” is a jangly lite-psych love song with fantastic drumming from Ric Menck, and “Star Trip” is basically the American version of a Teenage Fanclub song (I approve!). At the close, Velvet Crush bestows its most fully realized country-rock song in “Keep On Lingerin’.” Jeffrey Borchardt by this time had dropped the “Underhill” and reverted to his birth name. The back cover shows all three members performing in denim jackets . . . which is weird.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Hold Me Up,” but any number of the songs could’ve gone here.

Release Date

July, 1994

The Cover Art

Yes! The drawing (reminiscent of a children’s book illustrator I can’t remember) is carefree and lighthearted. I like the “stereo” et. al in the ribbon at the top, and I appreciate the band members’ names being listed, too. The drawing is by the excellently-named Edwin Fotheringham, who has done work for Dylan, Mudhoney, Elvis Costello, and Flop.

Paul Westerberg – Folker

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

This marked the end of Westerberg’s DIY time on Vagrant, which was overall very satisfying even if not commercially successful. Ever ornery and unpredictable, Westerberg subsequently wrote songs for an animated children’s movie no one saw (Open Season – though I’ve read that the songs are really good), and then released 49:00, a digital, roughly 44 minute single track album with no song titles that sold for $.49 – it was almost immediately pulled due to copyright issues with the final “song,” a medley of snippets of covers (Beatles, Stones, Elton John, etc.) for which Westerberg had not secured any rights. He reunited with Tommy Stinson for a victory lap as the Replacements in the 2010s, and then in 2016, collaborated with Juliana Hatfield in the very Westerbergian-named the I Don’t Cares. I am chronologically out of order with this, but I need to state that he released a “Best of” collection titled Besterberg and then a short rarities comp called The Resterberg, and those album titles makes me laugh so much.

What I Think of This Album

The old self-sabotage of Westerberg’s Replacements days (e.g., lighting their per diem cash on fire; swearing on their most high-profile live tv performance) is in full view with his decision to open this album with the deliriously stupid “Jingle.” Supposedly intended to be licensed to big-box retailers, the best thing I can say about it is that it is melodic and includes a reference to Ringo. Beyond that, Folker is very much in the vein of Come Feel Me Tremble, both in that it’s just Paul alone in his basement and also in that he throws a bunch of stuff at the wall and we’re left to figure out what sticks. This ends up being another pretty good collection, though you come away wondering if maybe he could just try a bit harder (and also, find a drummer, please).

“My Dad” is a sweet tribute to his father, as is, I assume, “Lookin’ Up In Heaven.” The first is full of carefully observed details, and ends with a repeated “my dad I love,” and the other is easily something that could’ve been on Don’t Tell a Soul. Paul sounds a bit creaky on “Anyway’s All Right,” but this is a finely turned bittersweet song (that references “I Will Dare”). “As Far As I Know” is another Westerberg classic that ranks among his best solo work. My personal favorite is “How Can You Like Him?,” with a desperate, yearning performance from Paul. You say this is self-pitying and pathetic (“How can you like him / Better than me?”), and I say it is the story of my life and go fuck yourself, and who’s to say we can’t both be right? “What About Mine?” achieves poignancy with a gentle descending melody, and “Breathe Some New Life” is also pretty good. The Faces-like rocker “Gun Shy” sounds like a lost track from Mono; the lyric “I’m a jack rabbit / Rock star / Fruit jar / Fuck you” always makes me cheer. Some missteps include the bad joke of “$100 Groom” and the annoying “Folk Star,” but these are easily offset even by the lesser good songs like “Now I Wonder.”

The Best Thing About This Album

The chorus of “How Can You Like Him” will be engraved on my tombstone. Except that I’m not going to have a tombstone.

Release Date

September, 2004

The Cover Art

By a mile, the best album cover of Paul’s solo career. It is vaguely reminiscent of an old Blue Note release, but with a tenth the style and effort (those iconic jazz albums were designed by Reid Miles using photographs by label co-founder Francis Wolff).

Paul Westerberg – Stereo / Mono

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

Originally packaged with bonus album Mono (otherwise a standalone release under Westerberg’s Grandpaboy alias), Stereo was the great comeback album. Paul had been dropped by two major labels at this point and hadn’t released an album in three years; the stardom that people expected after the Replacements broke up never materialized. So he hunkered down in his basement – goodbye producers Brendan O’Brian, Lou Giordano, and Don Was – and recorded himself, mistakes and all, in the middle of the night. On his own schedule, in the Minnesota dark, with neither pride nor shame, Westerberg made a great album. And backed by the energetic, refreshing Mono, this is the highlight of Paul’s solo career.

What I Think of This Album

Stereo

The title deceptively suggests this is going to be full of the high-wire, beer-soaked rock from the heyday of the Replacements. In fact, this is mostly somber, reflective stuff (which was always the strongest aspect of his solo career anyway) – contemplative, rueful, resigned, sorrowful, and apprehensively grasping at wise.

Battling it out for the top spot here are self-abasing, ironic “Only Lie Worth Telling” and the elegiac, tentative anthem “We May Be the Ones.” The latter boasts careful lyrical details and a brilliantly balanced tone halfway between declaration and question, while the former communicates, with only a few repeated words, the conscious choice to prostrate oneself. Westerberg counsels the other other (and possibly abused) woman on “He’s Got You Down,” and “Boring Enormous” melodiously details the slow domestic death of a relationship over a series of acoustic guitar chords. I think “Baby Learns to Crawl” doesn’t quite hit the mark, but it is still a really good song, with a nice solo and an accordion in the background. “Dirt to Mud” is an acoustic number about survival and perseverance (that cuts off in the middle of a line).

“No Place For You” is sort of forgettable but nonetheless empathic (and continues a feminist streak that dates back to “A Little Mascara”). Existential observations are the name of the game on the delicate “Nothing to No One.” “Let the Bad Times Roll” is a dark admission of giving up, and relatively lush (re-la-tively) “Call That Gone?” is a humorous kiss-off. I can’t deny that “Mr. Rabbit” is super-charming, and the hidden ramshackle cover of Flesh for Lulu’s “Postcards From Paradise” is a wonderful treat.

Mono

Not exactly the Replacements redux people wanted either, it is instead a loose, ragged collection of riffy, Faces-inspired power-pop songs. Like Stereo, there is no polish here, and in fact, a couple of the songs could’ve used a little more work. But there is no denying this is a fun, uplifting album that scratches an itch many Westerberg fans had lived with for a long time.

“High Times” is affable and laid-back, riding a not-too-dirty riff. Things get a little grittier on “I’ll Do Anything.” Westerberg hits a jangly power-pop home run with the outstanding “Let’s Not Belong Together,” with a jumpy rockabilly-lite riff that sounds like every Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers album blended together. Westerberg’s snide delivery well-serves the funny and sharp “Silent Film Star” : “You ought to be a silent film star / Keep that pretty little trap shut.” There isn’t much to “Knock It Right Out,” but it’s still a decent bit of filler that probably could’ve been something more. Paul slows down just a bit on the sweetly vulnerable “2 Days ‘Til Tomorrow,” which could’ve easily fit on Stereo and has a tidy little solo. I desperately wish Westerberg had put a little more effort into “Eyes Like Sparks,” which is basically just a short chorus repeated over and over and a riff, but shit – what a line (“Stay where you are / Baby, stay away from me / Your eyes like sparks / My heart like gasoline”) and the riff is one Keith Richards and Ronnie Lane would’ve arm-wrestled over.

“Footsteps” has a sort of Eastern guitar solo, but the vocal rhythm is a little annoying. “Kickin’ the Stall” never comes together but it isn’t bad; it is not the loud rocker the title implies. “Between Love and Like” is another power-pop nugget, orbiting around the twin suns of its riff and the bright chorus. And “AAA” is an obvious contender for best song on the album – an energetic, downcast jangle-fest. I think Westerberg has claimed he did this by himself, but supposedly, Tommy Stinson played bass (under the Zeke Pine pseudonym). The putative cover art here is even scarier than on Stereo.

The Best Thing About This Album

From Stereo, it’s “If not, then why are we here / Why the hell then are we here?” And from Mono, I have to give it to “Let’s not belong together.” That sounds wonderful.

Release Date

April, 2002

The Cover Art

Not a cover I really want to spend any time looking at. The font is okay, I guess.

Paul Westerberg – Eventually

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

More of the same, insofar as most people hated this album, and I suspect it’s mostly because they were unwilling to accept Westerberg as an adult. I, for one, don’t think we need additional iterations of “Gary’s Got a Boner,” and I greatly prefer the musing of a reflective, sober, and sad Westerberg.

What I Think of This Album

This is almost undoubtedly the best of the early Westerberg solo albums, even as it was savaged critically and popularly. I literally like almost every track. If it never really gets more raucous than a mid-tempo groove, that’s fine with me. This is a perfectly enjoyable, self-assured, mature album by someone who perhaps never felt more comfortable in his own skin.

“Love Untold” is a heartbreaking story of lovers who never meet. “These Are the Days” is both bruised and celebratory, with a wonderful jangly melody, and “Century” cruises along with crackling energy. Piano-based “Good Day” is a grey, simple tribute to former and recently-deceased Replacements guitarist Bob Stinson. Westerberg explores the question of parenthood and his own feelings of childhood rejection on the tough but tender “MamaDaddyDid.”

There is still room for fun, like on the goofy “Trumpet Clip,” featuring former brother-in-arms Tommy Stinson on bass and, naturally, trumpet. “Ain’t Got Me” has a great melody, with some good lines tossed in. Parts of “Once Around the Weekend” borrow the melody of “Merry Go Round,” as it tells the tale of a calm, domestic Westerberg. “You’ve Had It With You” may not be a Westerberg classic, but that fat distorted tone is worth the price of admission. Acoustic ballad “Time Flies Tomorrow” is an appropriate closer, a gentle love song with some nice imagery.

Davey Faragher (Cracker) played bass on some tracks; Minneapolis’s favorite drummer Michael Bland (Prince, Soul Asylum) sat behind the kit for a few songs; and ex-Zuzu’s Petals and Westerberg spouse Laurie Lindeen sang on “Ain’t Got Me.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Love Untold” is sad as shit, all the more so because it’s realistic.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

Supposedly a last-minute replacement (heh heh) after the planned art did not work out, this is . . . not good. The text is hard to read and the colors are awful; the washed-out tone is drab.

Paul Westerberg – 14 Songs

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Westerberg was doomed, I think (and as I suspect so many are), by his past with a beloved band. He was never going to be able to meet expectations. What’s particularly tragic for Westerberg is how unreasonable those expectations were. People loved the mythology of the Replacements – the idea that a drunk high school dropout could get it together just long enough to create a magical piece of music and then crawl back into the gutter – and equally loved celebrating and enabling the excesses and self-sabotage that framed that dynamic. But even if this was an accurate view of what Westerberg was in his 20s, there is no reason to have wished that on him for the remainder of his life.

What I Think of This Album

Is this a disappointing album? Yes, but that’s partly my fault for having certain expectations (hey, I’m not perfect). I think it’s best to accept Westerberg on his own terms and just let him do what he wants. Is it a bad album? No, not at all; in fact, it’s got some great songs, even if it doesn’t really come together as a whole.

There are a couple of unusual aspects to this release. First, Westerberg was the last of the Replacements to release a solo album (though he did contribute two excellent songs to the Singles soundtrack in the interim). Second, it’s on the quieter songs where he shines. “Runaway Wind” is lovely and gentle, with sympathetic lyrics and an appropriately measured vocal. “Even Here We Are” is mixed really low and is super short, but is well worth paying attention to; this is the most affecting song on the album. “Black Eyed Susan” is just Paul recorded in his kitchen – shades of “Within Your Reach” from way back in 1983 – and it is damn near perfect. “Things” is a sardonic but mature exploration of ambivalence and weakness (“You’ll be a song I sing / A thing I give away”). “Dice Behind Your Shades” adopts a comfortable, shambly groove; Laurie Lindeen of Zuzu’s Petals (and Westerberg’s spouse at the time) sings backup on this amiable, warm tune. “First Glimmer” is a sweet reminiscence, with wonderful lyrical details and a nice moment where Paul’s voice breaks.

“Down Love” is the best of the fast songs, with a punkish attitude and sound. “World Class Fad” is the next best rocker, but it still misses the mark; ostensibly directed at Kurt Cobain, there is little wit to the title and there is too much obvious effort in the lyrics, but the guitars sound pretty cool. “A Few Minutes of Silence” is a decent bit of power-pop (there’s some nice riffing going on, and a cool solo, and the drumming is funky) but it’s not memorable. “Knockin On Mine” has potential – the opening riff promises the moon, and the melody is more than adequate – but the lyrics are overcooked and Paul’s vocal performance (or really, the production choice) isn’t great. “Mannequin Shop” is misguided; “Silver Naked Ladies” is silly and annoying; and “Something Is Me” is lazy.

Guesting on this album were Joan Jett, Ian McLagan (Faces), Josh Freese, and Brian MacLeod (Wire Train); also, the Georgia Satellites’ bassist Rick Price played on one song.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Even Here We Are”

Release Date

June, 1993

The Cover Art

The album title being an homage to Salinger’s Nine Stories, the cover is a bit pretentious and on the nose.

X – Under the Big Black Sun

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

My not-very-well developed theory is that the more X moved away from straight punk, the better they got. Wisely, they moved backwards towards roots music, which was consistent with Billy Zoom’s history in Gene Vincent’s band and John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s studious obsession with Americana and blue-collar stories. Unlike the Blasters, though, X were punk at their core and they never called attention to their influences or sound; I never got the sense they wanted to be rewarded or were trying to teach you something. They simply were.

What I Think of This Album

Arguably, the best X album, this is seriously dark and despairing, informed as it is by the death-by-drunk-driver of Cervenka’s sister two years earlier.

“The Hungry Wolf” is appropriately titled, and not just because this is actually a song about wolves (at least nominally); untamed and uncowed, Doe stalks around DJ Bonebrake’s pounding toms and Zoom’s riffage, none of it sounding anything like punk. Zoom gets an album credit for “wolf howls,” which is by itself a sign of how this band’s palette has expanded (actually, his credits for saxophone and clarinet are probably more relevant in that respect). A more rockabilly sound presents itself on “Motel Room In My Bed,” another classic Cervenka/Doe duet, full of yearning and frustration. The specter of Mireille Cervenka haunts the slightly disturbing “Riding With Mary,” which I don’t much care for, but it’s undeniably powerful. There is a ‘50’s high school prom feel to “Come Back to Me,” but I find Cervenka’s vocal annoying here; this is yet another song about her sister. Much better is the title track, with an excellent riff from Zoom, a modified Bo Diddley beat, and a fantastic performance from Cervenka (her way around “you can put him in fish pond” is worth the price of the album), with the occasional harmony from Doe.

Cervenka shines again on “Because I Do,” wailing impressively (“I am drunk over you”) while Zoom shoots lightning bolts from his guitar. Zoom and Bonebrake carry the neutrino sound of “Blue Spark.” The sprightly, Latin-esque “Dancing with Tears In My Eyes” seems like a colorful cover until you realize Cervenka is singing about her sister. Zoom gets his chance on the sax on the freeway-burning “Real Child of Hell.” The intro call-and-response of “How I (Learned My Lesson)” is all you need to hear to go all in on this desperate, straining rocker. The album ends on the depressing “The Have Nots,” moving fully into roots rock territory and ending with an impressively long list of taverns, like some fucking Kerouac fever dream; this is the spiritual older cousin to the Replacements’ “Here Comes a Regular.” Ray Manzarek (the Doors) once again produced this album, and plays a nice keyboard on the single version of “Riding With Mary” added on a bonus track on the reissue.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Everybody asks me how I’m doing / I’m doing everything alone”

Release Date

July, 1982

The Cover Art

I like the comic book style art, and the color scheme and solitary imagery well evoke the tone of the music. I don’t like the stylized X, which should be much starker and simpler. The font for the album title is wrong and too large, but the blue works.

Big Star – #1 Record / Radio City

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Obviously, having both developed a love for power pop (one of my favorite genres) and been an avid reader of rock journalism, I came across Big Star’s name repeatedly before I finally went out and purchased this admittedly unwieldy reissue, which combines their first two albums. Was I blown away? No. Do I like it? Sure. Why don’t I like it more? Probably the vocals – I particularly don’t care for Chris Bell’s vocals, and this is not pure power pop anyway, with some blues, straight-up rock, and even funk mixed in. The reissue offers a couple of essays but not a lot of information on the actual recording of the albums, or even the lyrics. The story of Big Star is a largely tragic one. Released on the Ardent label, #1 Record relied on Stax’s shitty distribution, so while it received good reviews, no one could find it and it sold under 10,000 copies on initial release. Bell and Alex Chilton feuded, Bell quit, and the new trio didn’t survive long. But after a well-received gig at a convention, they (still minus Bell) decided to give it another shot and recorded Radio City (Bell’s involvement ranging from none to a little). This time, Stax had its own deal with Columbia, but those labels had a falling out, so again, the Big Star album did not get distributed – it sold roughly 20,000 copies. Bell died in a car crash in 1978. With help from the Posies, the band returned to the public eye in 1993. Chilton – whose career began as the teenage throat of the Box Tops (“The Letter” (sung when he was 16), “I Met Her in Church,” ”Cry Like a Baby”), and who was immortalized by the Replacements in “Alex Chilton” – died in 2010.

What I Think of This Album

#1 Record

This is a good album, though I don’t play it much. I’d say half of it ranges from good to excellent, and the other half is forgettable.

Things kick off with “Feel,” on which Bell sings lead; the Stax horns and tinkling piano are pretty great, and the harmonies are nice, but I find Bell’s vocals (similar to when McCartney tries to rock out) to be uninspiring. The first standout is “Ballad of El Goodo,” which is surprisingly earnest and vaguely religious, packed with sweet harmonies, while panoramic tom rolls direct your attention to Chilton’s straightforward life-affirming entreaty. This has a very John Lennon feel to it. There is no denying “In the Street” – it’s hard not to like this teenage anthem, the perfect soundtrack to aimless suburban driving and coming-of-age boredom; again, I don’t love Bell’s straining lead vocals, but the guitars, harmonies, and cowbell are fantastic. The third crag on this early peak is “Thirteen,” another classic teenage track, with Chilton’s straightforward lyrics acting as the amber encapsulating young love. You will never convince me that the Clash did not steal from this (“If it’s so, well let me know / If it’s no, well I can go”) for “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

As far as I am concerned, “Don’t Lie to Me” is basically a throwaway, with a beefy, conventional guitar track and quasi-macho lyrics sung in a decidedly blues-rock style. That said, the freakout in the middle of the song is pretty cool.  Much more unconventional is “The India Song,” which is a harbinger of a second half of the album that is much quieter than the first. Orchestral pop from Memphis in 1972? Yes. The arrangement here is the draw (those woodwinds!), as the melody is pretty slight; the multi-tracked vocals sound nice. I have little use for “When My Baby’s Beside Me,” with a chorus that is content to remain in first gear, as well as an underdeveloped melody in the verse. “My Life is Right” starts out sounding like a cousin of “El Goodo,” but a quick left turn finds the band picking up steam for the chorus before returning to the ballad-like tempo and vocal of the verse; repetitive but fun and well-constructed, with excellent vocals and another positive message. Credit where credit is due: this is probably Bell’s best vocal on the album, and the drumming is good.

Another very Beatles-sounding number (but with Beach Boys harmonies), “Give Me Another Chance” relies on strummed acoustic guitar and piano; Chilton does a nice job with this one. Some great guitar work opens “Try Again,” with Bell sounding quietly desperate over a relatively spare but expansive backing; probably the best of the side two tracks. Another mostly acoustic song, “Watch the Sunrise,” doesn’t really go anywhere – the backing vocals are the only thing special here. As for “St 100/6,” let me say that I don’t even know how to pronounce this title, but by the time I’ve taken a stab at it, the song is over. The cover art is fantastic – simple, direct, and colorful, it does everything it needs to. It was designed by Carol Manning.

By the way, Big Star was named after a Memphis grocery store chain.

Radio City

Radio City (which is an excellent title) is mostly a Chilton vehicle, with even the Big Star rhythm section absent on some tracks. It’s rougher than the debut (and missing the second guitar; I also think the drums are mixed too loud) but I can’t say I feel strongly about one album over the other.

The surprising first track is “O My Soul,” a lengthy, funky, self-referential slab of chunky riffing and organ chords. I guess this is what rock from Memphis would sound like in 1974; I find Chilton’s vocals to be pretty annoying here, though the drumming is enjoyable. The deliberate and desperate “Life in White” is characterized by sustained harmonica chords washing across its surface; the vocal and melody are things Matthew Sweet copied about a million times in his career. One of the best songs on the album is “Way Out West,” written by bassist Andy Hummell. This sweet bite of jangle pop is underrated and overlooked amongst Bell and Chilton’s work.

Chilton retakes the mantle with “What’s Going Ahn,” and specifically his haunting, overlapping “oh no”s towards the end. Things threaten to fall apart on “You Get What You Deserve,” a glorious stew of battering drum rolls, a spiky guitar lead that shows up out of nowhere, harmonies galore, arpeggios everywhere, and a sinister lyric you can’t get out of our head. “Mod Lang” sounds like Faces fronted by Mick Jagger, basically; loose and ragged and gritty, and sort of a throwaway. “Back of a Car” is another of the band’s teenage songs. I think the drums here (as on every other track, dominating the mix) to be too busy for the pace and sound, and it’s incredibly distracting. Beyond that, there’s not much of a melody to work with.

The schizophrenic “Daisy Girl” morphs dramatically from its somber, plodding beginning, and if you can stick it out for about 1:50, you will hear the origins of Teenage Fanclub. “She’s a Mover” is more bluesy rock that I can do without. By leaps and bounds, the best things Big Star ever recorded, “September Gurls” boasts a wonderful melody, chiming guitars, a fantastic vocal, and excellent lyrics. Again, Teenage Fanclub owes their career to this sound. “Morpha Too” sounds like Abbey Road Beatles if they were all in the middle of acute opioid withdrawal. “I’m In Love With a Girl” is as the title intimates, a simple, acoustic love song. Both of these very short songs seem like afterthoughts. The cover, a disturbing splash from photographer William Eggleston, is excellent, and I love the font.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Thirteen” is bigly stellar. And as for “September Girls,” well, I’ve got it bad.

Release Date

1972 (#1 Record), 1974 (Radio City), and 1992 (reissue)

The Cover Art

You’ve got to hand it to Ardent/Stax. Two decades after fucking up Big Star’s career, they have learned exactly zero lessons. I don’t know how you compile two albums, each with outstanding cover art, and release it with this abomination on the front. It’s lazy, messy, confusing, and ugly.

Best Coast – California Nights

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

I’ve seen Best Coast live three times. While the sound on the albums has evolved, one of the nice things about the live shows is that the band basically plows through the old and new stuff in the same fashion. I think Bethany Cosentino and Bobb Bruno should stick to small and medium clubs and avoid the arena shows that they are apparently shooting for, but that’s just me. As long as the basic sound doesn’t change – and I don’t see that happening without Cosentino being led astray – I am okay with the more professional presentation on the albums. I think she will always be that kid in her bedroom, sadly ripping bong hits because she is too depressed to go walk on the beach right outside her door.

What I Think of This Album

Bigger, bolder, louder, slicker. A perfectly understandable move for Best Coast. And while this is a great album, I do miss the more amateurish feel of the debut. The core duo of Bethany Cosentino and Bob Bruno is rounded out by two multi-instrumentalists (one of whom is apparently a real drummer), and the fact that all four are credited with guitar, and three of them with keyboards tells you a lot about how shiny this album is. The vocals are multi-tracked and pushed out front, the booming drums sound like the soundtrack to the War of 1812, and the guitars and keyboards are sometimes indistinguishable. Cosentino sounds great – her voice is well-suited for this bid for stardom.

The larger canvas sometimes exposes her lyrics, which are more in line with bedroom confessionals than arena rockers, but first, Cosentino sells the shit out of her angst and depression, so the lyrics still come off as genuine expressions and not the product of laziness; and second, there are and have been plenty of male-fronted acts with equally or more unsophisticated lyrics (fucking Weezer, for Christ’s sake) but no one ever gave them grief for it (there will never be an annotated booklet of Def Leppard’s Hysteria). And moreover, the melodies here are fantastic; almost every song is overflowing with tunefulness.

In another universe, there would be several radio hits pulled from this album:  the insistent “Fine Without You” (great “ooh-oooh”s in the background) and misery-tinged “Run Through My Head” are outstanding. Similarly, “In My Eyes” seeps regret through its otherwise impenetrable wall of guitars, keyboards, and drums, while Cosentino belts it out for those of us in the cheap seats. “So Unaware” benefits from a great melody in the verses and a repeated descending riff. The rest of the tracks are almost as strong. “Heaven Sent” has a Replacements-esque “Answering Machine” intro before the drums shove you into the pit and the limbs start flailing. A more subtle strain of Replacements worship arrives on the jumpy “Fading Fast,” which rides a riff that sounds very much like the one Tommy Stinson employed on “Tickled to Tears” off of Bash & Pop’s debut album. The Pretenders are a jumping off point for the chiming “When Will I Change,” which surges into modern rock territory at the end. Girl-group backing vocals add the right touch to the mournful “Jealousy.” The title track adopts a slow and glistening atmospheric approach (though retains the lyrics about weed) – it doesn’t quite work but points for trying something different. On the other hand, dramatic closer “Wasted Time” is an excellent ballad, with Spector-ish sonics.

I’ve been resisting saying this, because I guess it feels critical, though it is not: this album reminds me a lot of the sound of Hole’s Celebrity Skin (an album I like), though the transition for Best Coast feels much more organic and the songs are stronger.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Confused and alone.” “Why don’t you like me?” “Sleep won’t ever come to me.” Cosentino knows the story of my life.

Release Date

May, 2015

The Cover Art

Excellent. A classic California image, and perfectly moody. I wish the band wasn’t in the shot, but I’ll allow it.

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