The Feelies – The Good Earth

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

Six years separated the first two Feelies albums. Anton Fier and Keith DeNunzio both left the band and Bill Million and Glenn Mercer basically fucked around New York for a few years, making music in various guises. In 1985, they reformed with Dave Weckerman back in the fold and new members Brenda Sauter on bass and Stanley Demeski on drums. This five piece has been the Feelies ever since. This was the last of the core Feelies albums I bought, waiting for the 2009 reissue (the original had been released on the small Coyote Records imprint and it was impossible to find).

What I Think of This Album

Liberated from any momentum generated by Crazy Rhythms, and with a new perspective after years of exploring different approaches via their various side projects (some with new members Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski and returning original compatriot Dave Weckerman), the Feelies returned with the more sedate The Good Earth, a title that itself gives off bucolic vibes.

While some have attributed the change in sound to producer Peter Buck’s (REM) presence, he has denied playing much of any role beyond cheerleader. And it’s difficult to believe that Mercer and Million were somehow cajoled into doing something they didn’t want to. There are similarities to the driving sound of the debut, even if this album is much calmer. 

That said, this isn’t slowcore. There are plenty of electric guitars and Mercer still plays biting leads – check out the solo on “On the Roof.” If anything, there is a greater sense of steady propulsion and thrumming hypnotism on The Good Earth. Whereas the band communicated unease and tension on the debut, here they sound confident and determined.

Every track is excellent, but Demeski does a particularly impressive job on tracks like “The Last Roundup,” “Two Rooms,” and “Tomorrow Today.” “Let’s Go” is an invitation no one with a heart(beat) could turn down. The jangle of “The High Road” is immensely appealing. The twin guitar work on “Two Rooms” is fascinating. Closer “Slow Down” is a masterpiece of mood and tautness.

“Slipping (Into Something)” is an enjoyable slab of Velvet Underground homage while also being perhaps the least interesting song on the album. The atmospherics of “When Company Comes” sound like Ennio Morricone got his hands on, well, I guess the Velvet Underground. It is a lovely lovely lovely and meticulously crafted song – listen for the dog barking at roughly :40.

Note:  the reissue comes in a cardboard sleeve of non-standard size, which annoys me. It also comes with a little business card that allows you to download extra tracks (two covers (Beatles and Neil Young) and a live version of “Slipping”) – apparently the band wanted the actual album to stand alone. I have not downloaded the tracks, only because I don’t like “owning” music in purely digital form. I need a physical medium.

The Best Thing About This Album

Stanley Demeski is the absolute MVP on this.

Release Date

1986

The Cover Art

While I don’t feel strongly about it, I agree that this is probably the perfect image (with coloring) to accompany this album.

The Feelies – Crazy Rhythms

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

The Feelies are low key one of my favorite bands. I wish they were easier to see, but you basically have to live in the New York area nowadays. I was lucky enough to see them in Chicago some years ago. I also saw side project Wake Oolo when I lived in New York (they opened for Luna), but I did not really appreciate the significance at the time. The core of the Feelies – percussionist Dave Weckerman and guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – began playing together in Haledon, New Jersey in 1976. Lineup changes ensued and by the time of 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, bassist Keith DeNunzio (also known as Keith Clayton) had joined as had Anton Fier on drums (it is not clear what happened to Weckerman during this period, who otherwise has been a long time member).

What I Think of This Album

I don’t really believe in Top Ten Albums but fuck it, this is a Top Ten Album for me. It is odd and unsettling and comforting and comfortable and vibrant and vibratory and playful and inventive and impressive as fuck.

The title telegraphs the most obvious feature of the music, which is the polyrhythms that dominate the sound. Anton Fier is the main percussionist, but his efforts are augmented by the other three band members, who make contributions on exotic instruments like sandpaper, shoes, can, and coat rack (and also timbales, shaker, claves, castanets, maracas, temple blocks, cowbell, and extra snare and tom-toms). Keeping up with these darting and dizzying beats is a rapturous and disorienting experience, which I highly recommend.

The song titles also betray the band’s sensibilities:  “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” Raised Eyebrows,” and “Forces at Work.”  The Feelies share some DNA with Wire, in that both aim to strip things down to their essential parts. But whereas Wire exuded a sense of danger and mischief, the Feelies communicate anxiety and fatalism. And while Wire kept things spare in the most direct way, the Feelies one up them by creating a skeletal sound despite layering multiple guitar parts and percussion. Also, while perhaps less impish than Wire, the Feelies have a sense of humor, because no one is overdubbing sandpaper and coat rack without having some fun. Indeed, it is entirely possible this whole thing is a joke. While later albums built on this sound, the band never again engaged in this kind of perverse and claustrophobic minimalism.

The vocals owe a debt to Lou Reed, and the twin guitars are the offspring that Television and the Velvet Underground left to fend for themselves at the orphanage. Some songs approach pop while others simply find grace in repetitiveness and inflection. 

It’s all too easy – and liberating – to get lost in the beat of “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness,” which comes across like Jonathan Richman having sleep terrors. The unexpectedly delightful “Fa Cé-La” is insouciant and playful, with curlique guitar and a descending bass riff. Like “Perpetual Nervousness,” the slow build of “Loveless Love” creates dark tension that Million and Mercer amplify with their wiry guitar work; while Fier pounds away, the two cast spells around each other in a competition to see who will suffer a psychotic break first. 

The seven minute epic “Forces At Work” also starts atmospherically with a tremolo pulse before a motorik-type beat comes in and then a mesh of guitars is thrown in your face. Mercer adds some lead at points thereafter, seemingly without reason. The lyrics consist mostly of overlapping chants and eventually devolve into wordless vocalizations. This is basically “Sister Ray” but less artsy and more nerdy. It is appropriately the centerpiece of the album.

“Original Love” is probably the closest thing to a traditional song, albeit a smokily nihilistic one that would have made Ian Curtis dance dance dance dance dance to the radio. Speaking of icons, the Feelies have no compunction about making the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)” their own. It’s an exhilarating ride, as if there was an actual capuchin in charge of the tempo. And, the coat rack really does sound great on it. “Moscow Nights” is a convoluted exploration of rhythm with some fantastic lead work courtesy of Mercer.

Jesus fuck, the drum hits on “Raised Eyebrows” stir my soul in the way I imagine love might one day. There is a credit here for “spasmodic drum” (as well as “anchor drum” and “random tom-toms” in addition to plain old “drum kit”). The lead part is fantastic, the staticky rhythm guitar is great, the jangle jangles like no one’s business, and there is even a fun vocal melody. This is one of my favorite Feelies songs ever.

There are actual lyrics to the title track, which really pulls out all the stops and barrels to the end of the album with aplomb. What a way to end an album. What a way to end THIS album. 

My copy is the 1990 A&M release, which tacks on a cover of “Paint It Black,” with the stable post-Crazy Rhythms lineup, and it really does sound like a completely different band. It’s cool to have but it feels very out of place on the disc, especially when “Crazy Rhythms” is the perfect closer.

By the way, I love credits like “left guitar” (Million) and “right guitar” (Mercer).

Fier later played with Bob Mould and Matthew Sweet, and was a member of the Golden Palominos. He died in 2022 via assisted suicide in Switzerland.

The Best Thing About This Album

Everything. It’s a classic and unimprovable in every way.

Release Date

February, 1980

The Cover Art

Like the album itself, there is something a little bit off about this art. Which is what draws you in. I do like the text at the top. I would accuse Weezer of having ripped this off for their debut, but I don’t think Weezer is cool enough to listen to the Feelies (well, probably Matt Sharp is). I can’t say for sure who is who, but I am relatively confident that Bill Million and Glenn Mercer are the center figures (Mercer the one with the curly hair). Anton Fier is for certain the guy on the left.

Del Shannon – Greatest Hits

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I don’t remember the first time I heard “Runaway” and I am almost positive it took a little bit after that before I knew who Del Shannon was, but I was familiar with the song by the time I was seven. I didn’t think much about Shannon again until the news of his suicide in 1990. Shannon was born Charles Weedon Westover, and after a stint in the Army, he worked a series of jobs in Michigan, most consistently selling carpeting, when he joined a local band as a guitar player, later taking over the unit when the leader was dismissed for drunkenness. He took the stage name Charlie Johnson and, most importantly, recruited local musician Max Crook into the band in 1959. Crook was a musical wunderkind who had invented an analog synthesizer he called the Musitron (based on the existing Clavioline). Crook also got the band noticed after he mailed out recordings, and after he and Westover signed to the Bigtop label in 1960, Westover was persuaded to adopt the stage name Del Shannon. Shannon had hits into the mid-60’s, and was particularly popular in England. He made some forays into country music and attempts at a rock comeback – he eventually worked with Jeff Lynne as well as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dave Edmunds, and the Smithereens, and was rumored to become the replacement for Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys – never quite succeeded. He wrote the Peter & Gordon hit “I Go to Pieces.” He was the first U.S. artist to cover the Beatles, in 1963. He also helped a young Bob Seger get his career off the ground.

What I Think of This Album

I can only hope that for many years to come, every week or so, some kid hears “Runaway” and becomes captivated and either contemporaneously or later, further explores the music of Del Shannon and helps to keep his memory alive. 

Rhino thankfully presents these twenty tracks in chronological order. It helps to appreciate what Shannon was up against, as “Runaway” was his first and biggest hit, a song he was never able to top even as he wrote and released several other excellent singles. And as the liner notes take pains to emphasize, Shannon should not be lumped in with the teen vocal idols of the 60’s because he was a rocker, from his songwriting abilities to his skills as a guitarist to his modern-looking thematic concerns of loss, rejection, and regret. 

“Runaway” is a monster track, immediately grabbing you by the ears with the dramatic, Latin-esque guitar and piano intro, the pumping sax, Shannon’s lyrics efficiently describing bewilderment and agony, building to his gritty prechorus vocal, and THEN you get to Shannon’s falsetto and THEN you get the space-age Musitron part, which is somehow both disorienting and perfectly complementary, and holy fucking shit! This is a masterpiece whose only flaw is that it is way too short.

“Hats Off to Larry” is a fantastically bitter and biting tune, which in seeking to repeat the success of “Runaway,” also features a critical falsetto part and the haunting sounds of Crook’s Musitron. The chugging “So Long Baby” is another surprisingly sophisticated tale of psychosexual drama, with easily the best kazoo solo in rock history. “Hey! Little Girl” rounds out the four Top 40 Hits Shannon had in 1961.

Other highlights include “Cry Myself to Sleep,” which is very obviously the basis for Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock.” “Two Silhouettes” is an excellent story of betrayal. “Stranger In Town” is compelling and creepy. “Show Me” has some hints of surf rock to it, while “Sister Isabelle” borders on lite-psych, with a surprisingly soulful vocal. 

As the liner notes point out, “Little Town Flirt” has the same opening lyric as the Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale” and “Keep Searchin’ (We’ll Follow the Sun)” is the precursor to all those Springsteen songs about how we gotta get out of this town (though with a falsetto outro that Bruce could never have pulled off).

Max Crook’s story is interesting in its own right. Born into a musical family, he built his own recording studio by the time he was fourteen and the Musitron around the age of 23. In addition to working with Shannon, he recorded instrumental songs under various guises including the name Maximilian. He passed in 2020.

Fun facts: “Runaway” was recorded in A but the producer sped the recording up to juuuuuust below B-flat; Shannon recorded a new version of the song in 1967 with half of Led Zeppelin (Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones) and Nicky Hopkins; the Misfits covered the song; Echo & the Bunnymen reference it on “Over the Wall” and Tom Petty references it on “Running’ Down a Dream.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“Runaway” is the, you can guess it, runaway winner.

Release Date

1990

The Cover Art

I like the early ‘60s lettering and color scheme and the not-at-all-convincing smile on Shannon’s face speaks to the dark themes he explored in his songs.

The Essex Green – The Long Goodbye

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

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

What I Think of This Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thing About This Album

“The Late Great Cassiopia” is a joy.

Release Date

May, 2003

The Cover Art

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

El Goodo – El Goodo

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

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

What I Think of This Album

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Thing About This Album

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

Release Date

2006

The Cover Art

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

Sammy – Tales of Great Neck Glory

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Many years of listening to Sammy’s sophomore (and final) album led me to imagine:  these are two privileged kids from Long Island who were smart enough to get into a good grad school on their merits (not through some legacy bullshit) and instead decided to spend a few years goofing around playing indie rock, knowing that they were doomed to end up working at their father-in-laws’ hedge funds anyway. If you then take the trouble to do research into Sammy, you’ll learn that I was not that far off target. Luke Wood was an executive at Geffen in the early ‘90s, eventually becoming the president of DGC Records. He then went to Interscope Records and later joined Beats Electronic as its president and COO, which he guided towards its acquisition by Apple, Inc. He left Beats in 2020. He is on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Wesleyan University. Jesse Hartman continued making music after Sammy disbanded, and then branched out to filmmaking and acting. Hartman had played on tour with Richard Hell and the Voidoids in 1990.

What I Think of This Album

Look, at its worst (or perhaps at my worst), Tales of Great Neck Glory hints that these dudes might actually be insufferable. But much more often, you get the sense that anyone who dismisses this as Pavement pastiche is way off base. In fact, Jesse Hartman and Luke Wood have made a fun, idiosyncratic, tuneful, sharp, and dare I say emotionally substantial, little record. If you get past the familiar sonics, there is a great deal of art and heart here. 

Sometimes you’ll get an evocative quatrain (or couplet, as you prefer):  “I used to sneak / Into your room / I felt like I was raiding / King Tut’s tomb” (from “Encyclopedi-ite”). More than once, there will be depth and poignancy, like the Pygmalion-esque fantasy of “Neptune Ave. (Ortho Hi Rise).” “Anything” is a document of single-minded, possibly pathological, devotion. Absurdism rears its head on the disquieting “Horse or Ballet.”

Sammy has a soft spot for outsiders. A victim of class warfare is treated with kindness on “Kings Pt. v. Steamboat.” “Slim Style” is an appealingly lazy shuffle, with a damaged, doomed, glammy sense of seedy sadness that updates the Velvet Underground for the indie kid set. The surprising “Chilling Excerpts Bare the Soul of a Monster” is a sympathetic defense of an underachiever.

By the end of it, you can see the daylight between this band and Pavement. The difference between the two is that while Pavement believes in nothing, Sammy is brave enough to wear its heart on its (designer) sleeve.   

Ephemera:  One of the three guest drummers on this album is Alexis Fleisig, who was the drummer for Girls Against Boys. Three members of GVSB previously had been in the Washington, D.C. area band Soulside. Also in Soulside was Luke Wood.

The Best Thing About This Album

The display of sincerity during the Age of Irony.

Release Date

April, 1996

The Cover Art

Call me crazy, but I think this cover shot of Jesse Hartman and Luke Wood makes them look a little bit like Mick Jagger and Brian Jones. Right? Anyway, I like the neon and the sort of throwaway nature of the shot, as if the band couldn’t care less what ended up on the cover. I actually think this is a still from the video for “Neptune Ave. (Ortho Hi Rise).”

Dramarama – The Best of Dramarama: 18 Big Ones

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

VH1 show Bands Reunited decided to cajole the Wonderama-era members of Dramarama into getting back together in 2003. Whatever the impetus for this stunt, I am glad it worked and the relevant episode is entertaining without being insightful. And as a result, Dramarama released another album in 2005 (minus Chris Carter and drummer Jesse), whose title track is fantastic. The next album (Color TV) arrived fifteen years later in 2020, and there are at least a couple of quality tracks on that one, too.

What I Think of This Album

I could have put together a better Dramarama Best of in about 30 seconds. Among other things, this violates a classic rule of such compilations by including rarities – here, a B-side, two covers (one unreleased and one on a rare single), and an acoustic version. Needless to say, these rarities take up space that could have been filled out with much better songs. It also raises the question of who this collection is for. Fans will already own much of this, and newbies won’t be terribly interested in the extras (because, again, they are not very good), so the suspicion is that Rhino rapaciously tried to rope in both sets of listeners with this mess.

And, the choices for the album tracks are all wrong –  every one of the five studio albums is mishandled and ultimately the band ends up misrepresented. “Emerald City,” “Steve & Edie,” “Wonderamaland,” “Train Going Backward,” and “Senseless Fun” have no place on this album. Instead, quality tracks like “All I Want,” “Questions,” “70’s TV,” “Try,” “Ain’t It the Truth,” “Until the Next Time, “In Quiet Rooms,” “Don’t Feel Like Doing Drugs,” and “Bad Seed” are ignored.

And if the compilers really felt like including covers, the obvious choice would have been “I Wish I Was Your Mother” (Mott the Hoople) off of Wonderamaland, and not a) a Dwight Twilley cover that even John Easdale concedes in the liner notes is not satisfactory; and b) a KISS cover that fails to reflect the band’s deep rock knowledge (which, admittedly, is the one benefit of the Twilley cover).

I really have no good reason to own this. I guess it gives me “It’s Still Warm” from Box Office Bomb (the one classic period Dramarama album I don’t own) and the acoustic version of “Work for Food,” and all the songs have been remastered and arguably sound better, but none of those is a terribly compelling reason. In fairness, I think I bought this before I found Cinéma Vérité and after I decided (incorrectly) to get rid of Wonderamaland, so I thought with one album I was making up for three, though the situation has changed now.

It is entirely possible that the most illuminating element of this package is the band’s own list of 18 Rhino “big ones,” which includes the dBs, Mott the Hoople, a power pop compilation, a punk compilation, two Todd Rundgren albums, two Monkees discs, John Cale, and the Zombies.

The Best Thing About This Album

The acoustic “Work for Food” as the hidden track.

Release Date

1996

The Cover Art

So. Lazy.

Dramarama – Cinéma Vérité

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

A California band by way of New Jersey, Dramarama is another of those great lost bands that never achieved the success they should have. True students of rock and of American culture, Dramarama wrote great songs, had the best guest musicians, played expertly curated covers, and combined romanticism, pop, art, and style in a way that guaranteed being passed over by the record buying public. There is a lot to say about Dramarama, and I have four albums of theirs to get through, so I’m going to take this piece by piece. John Easdale and Mark Englert grew up on the same street in Wayne, New Jersey; they went to the same high school as Chris Carter. Carter ended up buying and running a record store in town, where Easdale started hanging out. The three began to play music, adding Pete Wood (also a high school classmate, apparently) on guitar and a drummer in 1982, and they released their first single. By 1984, drummer Jesse [Farbman] had joined as had keyboardist Theo Ellenis; the band released a self-funded EP, which led to French label New Rose offering the band a contract. It was New Rose that first released Cinéma Vérité in 1985. Supposedly attracted by the cover art (more on that later), KROQ disc jockey Rodney Bingenheimer in Los Angeles started playing “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You),” and he continued to do so relentlessly. Soon, the band was in the unusual position of having a regional hit in a major market (and in one of the two hearts of the U.S. music business), but had no (American) label or manager. The debut album was then released in the U.S. on Question Mark Records and then re-released by Chameleon that same year.

What I Think of This Album

Probably no other band in 1985 was celebrating Warholia to the extent that they used a Gerard Malanga photograph of Edie Sedgewick as their cover art. Dramarama was proud of their influences, however, and confidently embraced them. Hence, the Velvet Underground cover *and* the Bowie cover on the debut (back-to-back, no less); these tracks implicitly validate the band’s glammy take on doomed romantics and other admirable losers.

To that end, John Easdale does a decent Lou Reed impression, adding a bit more emotion than perhaps Lou would have been cool with on “Femme Fatale.” The piano seems superfluous and the percussion isn’t right, but everything else about it is great. I am admittedly not familiar with the original of “Candidate,” but I can tell you that Dramarama dials up the drama, with slow burn atmospherics that gradually coalesce into a deranged psychedelic juggernaut. I can’t say I love the song, but I love how the band handles it.

Nonetheless, the originals are where the band really comes alive. “Visiting the Zoo” sounds a bit like Mott the Hoople, particularly via the intro and the outro. In between, Easdale preens and sneers with a complete lack of guile, though in truth he knew exactly what he was doing. He powers his way through the hard-boiled “Questions,” coming off – somehow – as sardonic, sincere, resigned, and anguished all at the same time, as the guitars smear and grind with aplomb. “Scenario” is, as Easdale admits, pure Psychedelic Furs, and no less wonderful for it. With a great vocal and some fantastic lyrics, plus fine work from Mark Englert (who adopted the moniker “Mr. E Boy” (sigh)) and Peter Wood, and glittery touches from Theo Ellenis on keyboards, this is an excellent song that helped prove the young band was for real.

Also critical in that regard, of course, was “Anything, Anything (I’ll Give You).” Reportedly the most requested song in KROQ history, “Anything, Anything” is a blistering depiction of a young married couple’s disintegration, propelled by a relentless beat, a nagging lead guitar riff, and Easdale’s frantic, desperate vocals. I’m not in love with “Some Crazy Dame,” but it’s not terrible, and Dramarama delivers the song with passion and panache. “Etc.” is considerably stronger, with a stuttering rhythm and care taken to integrate the keyboards with the guitars. The vocal melody of “Transformation” honestly reminds me of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer”; once I get past that, this is a decent song with an effectively moody solo.

The highlight of the second half of the album, though, is “All I Want.” This sounds like the New York Dolls with more grit and less glam – bare bones, tough, rowdy, and a lot of fun. Somehow “Emerald City” ended up on the greatest hits (to be discussed later), and I can’t stand this song. Easdale’s voice is too high, the melody is simple and bland, and the arrangement lacks appeal.

Between the two covers and the fact that another four of these songs had already been released on the Comedy EP one year prior, it appears that the band was short on material. Given that follow-up Box Office Bomb suffered from mostly weak material, maybe Dramarama would have been better served by waiting until they could have packaged the best of both releases as their debut. In any event, this is a pretty good record as is.

The Best Thing About This Album

I like the pop hooks of “Scenario.”

Release Date

November, 1985

The Cover Art

The color scheme is great. The font for the band name is great. The filmstrip design is great.​ The album title is a little small and difficult to read.

that dog. – Retreat From the Sun

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

The highlight of Riot Fest 2017 for me was finally seeing that dog. And they played all of Retreat From the Sun from start to finish, too (drummer Tony Maxwell good-naturedly complained at one point something to the effect of “these songs were never intended to be played live in this order” – I guess it was challenging for them). I am happy to report my abiding crush on Anna Waronker had not subsided. More importantly, the band sounded great (even if not all the original members were there) and it seemed like they were finally getting their due. that dog. released three albums in the ’90s before breaking up for reasons that are disputed. Despite writing catchy, zeitgeisty songs, and being friendly with Weezer and Beck, they never made it big, or even medium. Some place the blame on indie backlash against their origins. Anna Waronker was the daughter of Warner Bros. and then Dreamworks honcho Lenny Waronker, and sisters Petra and Rachel Haden were the daughters of jazz great Charlie Haden. The band was charged with lacking indie cred and benefiting from industry nepotism. Whatever. Retreat From the Sun fucking rocks. I have to admit I didn’t care for Totally Blissed Out and I never listened to the debut; they released a reunion album (minus Petra) in 2019, which is pretty good even though I don’t own it. After the band broke up, Waronker and Petra Haden each released solo albums, and Haden joined the Decembrists for a while and guested with Green Day, the Rentals, and others. Petra Haden also recorded an a capella version of the entire The Who Sell Out album. Rachel Haden has also worked with the Rentals, as well as Nada Surf, to name just a couple. Maxwell has done composition work for film, and was Nicholas Cage’s body double in Adaptation. The Hadens sometimes join with third sister Tanya as the Haden Triplets. Anna Waronker’s spouse is Stephen McDonald of Redd Kross; her brother Joey Waronker has drummed for Beck and REM.

What I Think of This Album

The story is that this was supposed to be Anna Waronker’s solo album. Whether that changed anything would require me to listen to Totally Blissed Out again, but I suspect it made little difference. On the one hand, this is straightforward ’90s indie/power pop, with guitars that jangle and crunch, a punchy rhythm section, and analog keyboard squiggles here and there. On the other, there is the perfectly integrated violin of Petra Haden and the sweet-and-sour harmonies, both of which added something special to the mix. Top it off with incisive, heartfelt lyrics and winning melodies, and this is an album that should have been a hit.

While I believe that all music is for everyone, I can’t let go of the notion that this would have appealed immensely to young women coming of age in the ‘90s. Not as bold as Liz Phair (though there is a song about S&M) and more confident and sophisticated (not to mention, tuneful) than Juliana Hatfield, that dog. occupies a critical place in the world of female-focused indie rock narratives.

This is an album that merits repeated listens. The obvious pop songs – “Never Say Never;”  “Minneapolis;” and “Long Island” – are immediately arresting, but even the more subtle tracks, like harmony rich “I’m Gonna See You;” “Retreat From the Sun;” and “Being With You” reveal themselves with a modicum of attention. So, yes, “Minneapolis” is a charming, innocent indie-rock romance (with references to Low and LA club the Jabberjaw), though it should be noted that the heroine declines to throw it all away and chase her crush to the land of 10,000 lakes. And “Never Say Never” is the song Matt Sharp wishes he made the lead single from the first Rentals album (with fantastic work from Petra Haden on violin, and sister Tanya guesting on cello). “Long Island” is a delightful, heartwarming story of nascent love, or at least, infatuation, with the classic line “By definition a crush must hurt.”

But the case can be made that the true extent of that dog.’s talent is demonstrated by the deep cuts. The maturity and sadness of “Being With You” is punctuated by Maxwell’s machine gun snare hits and Rachel Haden’s massive bass, but the harmonies steal the show. “Gagged and Tied” is neither silly nor shocking, but rather a matter-of-fact tale of exploring sadomasochistic sex, complete with a cheeky reference to “Venus in Furs;” Petra Haden’s violin once again stars, and the harmonies are excellent. The title track is notable for its piano intro but that is rapidly overshadowed by the transcendent vocals (and handclaps! And the drum rolls!).

The band gets surprisingly tough on “Annie” but finds a way to incorporate an orchestral arrangement nonetheless. The effort on “Every Time I Try” was well worth it, with a wonderful string part and fantastic vocals. Maxwell’s drumming is perhaps under-appreciated in light of the band’s many other strengths, but his fine work on “Hawthorne” is consistent with his accomplishments throughout the album. Closer “Until the Day I Die” is a stunning, piano-driven, string-trussed, French horn gilded ballad, with alternately blasé and emotive vocals from Waronker.

Go-Go Charlotte Caffey plays guitar on “Minneapolis” and synth on “Never Say Never,” while Tanya Haden contributes cello to a couple of tracks in addition to “Never.” Chick Wolverton (who has played with Number One Cup, Liz Phair, and the Bangles) adds percussion and guitar on “Cowboy Hat.”

The Best Thing About This Album

It being too difficult to choose one song, I will have to default to the harmonies.

Release Date

April, 1997

The Cover Art

I mean, any photo of of Anna Waronker would be just fine with me, but this tonal examination of her hair, eyebrow, lashes, and iris is fantastic. I like the repeating album title across the bottom, too.

The Vulgar Boatmen – Please Panic

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

There is a third Vulgar Boatmen studio album (Opposite Sex) that, predictably, was never released in the U.S. In 2003, the Boatmen released a collection of tracks from all three albums, with some other flotsam. The Indianapolis Boatmen normally play a January show in Chicago, which I have seen once and missed once, and which I hope to see again once we actually enter a post-pandemic phase.

What I Think of This Album

First of all, props for the excellent album title. Second, this is at least as good as the debut. Sometimes I get misled because I don’t care for the first song here (not coincidentally, it is the one song not by the Dale Lawrence-Robert Ray team), but that just means I am impatient and stupid.

This is a great album to drink a bottle of wine and develop a rough outline for suicide to. A collection of careful, thoughtful, beguiling, and heartfelt songs, Please Panic is all about unappealing choices, resignation, broken hearts, and the far off horizon. And yet. And yet, songs like “You Don’t Love Me Yet,” “I’m Not Stuck On You,” “You’re the One,” and “Alison Says” (which works up a nice Velvets/Feelies churn) betray that glimmer of hope that we normally don’t dare acknowledge, because that sort of thinking is really fucking risky. Of course, those are the saddest songs of all (even if they don’t know it).

There is a gorgeous viola – played by Helen Kirklin, spouse of Ray – on several tracks (most notably, on the wonderful “There’s a Family”), and the guitar interplay is excellent. I don’t know – this is probably enjoyable even for people who are not profoundly depressed.

The Best Thing About This Album

“You Don’t Love Me Yet”

Release Date

February, 1992

The Cover Art

Hmmm. No. I don’t like anything about this.

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