Odds & Ends: The 1980s

The Bluebells -- Fear -- The Frogs -- The Go-Betweens -- The Godfathers -- The Jesus & Mary Chain -- Joan Jett -- Tommy Keene -- Let's Active -- The Plimsouls -- The Wipers

It seems that the '80s are the most despised decade among serious rock lovers -- and no wonder, considering the state of mainstream rock and pop during that era. However, as I have pointed out again and again, the '80s were the equal of the '60s and '70s in terms of quality output -- it's just that in the '80s, one had to dig a bit deeper. After punk rock's commercial failure despite reviving the moribund rock scene, rock faced a major paradigm shift: no longer would commercial and artistic worth go hand in hand (for the most part) as they had melded so perfectly in the '60s; from now on, the greatest bands in the world were consigned to the margins. The situation was briefly corrected in the early '90s with the post-Nevermind takeover, but that was very quickly quashed by corporate knockoffs such as Bush and Stone Temple Pilots, and now, in the late '90s, we're back to pre-fab boy bands ruling the radio. Imagine the '60s with the Beatles and Dylan banished from radio airplay and instead the Monkees and Cowsills smugly staring from every major music magazine in the U.S., and you've got an idea of how screwed up the distribution system has gotten these days. Sad to say, the situation was even worse in the '80s - but there definitely was more to the decade than cheesy synth-pop and even cheesier poodle-hair metal.

The Bluebells: The Singles Collection (1998) ****

Another jangly, literate pop band from Scotland, in the vein of Aztec Camera and Belle & Sebastian, that's unjustly forgotten. Splitting up after only one EP and one album (1984's Sisters), this collection contains most (but not all) of their brief recording career. Influences include the Everly Brothers (quite noticable on the harmonies), Elvis Costello (who produced their album), and usual pop suspects like the Beatles. The plaintive "Cath" (one of the early '80s greatest singles) and "Will She Always Be Waiting," are unnecessarily repeated twice in substantially different mixes, and "Patriot Game," a hearfelt but Pete Seeger-worthily dull protest against the Northern Ireland troubles, is a drag, but the rest of the CD rarely misfires, throwing one harmony-laden, punchy pop tune after the other. The sound and quality are so consistent that it's quite difficult to pick favorites, but let me say that most fans of quality pop are sure to get a rush out of the sublime "Sugar Bridge (It Will Stand)", hum along with smooth harmonies of the likes of "I'm Falling," and "Young at Heart," bounce to chirpy "I Never Said," and being moved by the stirring "when we were young, oh so young" chorus of "Forever More." Why they weren't bigger is a mystery, since this is excellent, well-produced, and commercially accessible jangle-pop at its finest.

Fear: The Record (1982) **

I once stated in another review that punk does not equal asshole, and I see no reason to alter my position. I've got nothing against offensiveness in my punk - love the Angry Samoans - but Fear are like the Samoans with the redeeming qualities (triple-time riff-compression, secretly pop hooks at heart) tossed out. So what you're left with is an annoying band that not-so-secretly want to be a hardcore punk version of Pere Ubu or Devo, but without those two band's innovative musical warpings. Fear try hard to be obnoxious musically as well as lyrically, and to their credit I can say that their approach is kind of unique - stripped-down, basic punk but with a lot of quirky stops and starts so that they don't get a simple groove going. However, while Fear are certainly a tight band (they lack any decent soloists, and I'm not sure if that's a question of punk ideology or genuine inability), musically they're far too limited (every track uses a similar approach) to hold much interest over the course of an album - even if the album in question clocks in under a half-hour. As for their image, Fear's Lee Ving sounds like he looks: a middle-aged, blue-collar short fat guy, as if Archie Bunker got up from his easy chair to rant in a rock'n'roll band. Like a lot of Cali punks, Fear are secretly Republicans - the lyrics are pro-war, anti-homosexual, and misogynistic. Sure, I understand that it's "irony" and Fear's lyrics are supposed to be "funny", but lines such as "I just wanna cum in your face," hardly sound either ironic or amusing to me. Sure, they get off a decent "FUCK YOU!" anthem every now and then (see the just quoted "I Don't Care About You," which they rhyme with the above quote; "I Love Livin' In the City," - "cockroaches crawlin' on the walls/crabs crawlin' on my balls", and I don't doubt Ving is speaking from heartfelt experience; "Let's Have a War," which uses Ving's gargling voice to amusing effect). But most of these, ahem, "tunes", are nothing more than musically uninteresting attempts at shock value. I'd say that this band is a disgrace to punk, except that there have been in Fear's wake far more worse punk bands. Punkers are a pretty undiscriminating lot, aren't they -- they sure deify a lot of mediocre bands, that's for sure!

The Frogs: It's Only Right and Natural (1989) ***1/2

The greatest gay-supremacist concept album ever recorded. Whether the Frogs, a flamboyant duo from Wisconsin or Minnesota or some place full of weirdos like that, are really gay or not is anybody's guess. Suspicion that they are just a pair of high (or do I mean low?) concept pranksters simultaneously mocking political correctness and incorrectness has been given plenty of ammunition with subsequent Frogs releases, which reveal the duo as jokesters out to offend as much as possible (Racially Yours tackles racism by having the Frogs perform in blackface). The Frogs recklessly exploit taboo subjects in our overly-sensitive society, and gawd bless'em for it. But the most important thing is that it's funny as hell. Just look at the titles! Aside from the opener about scoring drugs, and the morbid one about dying in a car crash, all of the songs are depraved voyeurs into the the seamy homosexual underground. Anyone who doesn't laugh at least once at such fare as "hot cock annie" ("with the cock and vagina combined"), "these are the finest queen boys (i've ever seen)", "baby greaser george" (not about Mexicans or hoodlums, honest! The 'greaser' is a baby who sucks dick!), the juvenile punnery "Richard Dick Richards", "dykes are we" ("we'll never get AIDS"), "been a month since i had a man", and "homos" (which implies that sports-obsessed boys are secretly faggots in the locker room, taking communal showers and dropping the soap. Take that, dumbass homophobic jocks!) either has no taste for sophomoric, juvenile humor or feels as if his masculinity is threatened. As for the music, the album consists mostly of delicately picked acoustic folk-pop, sometimes interesting from a strictly musical standpoint, but with an album like this the focus is strictly on the lyrics and their delivery. And the lyrics wouldn't be half as funny if not delivered with such camp flair, deliberately lisping and mincing and declaiming in parody of the stereotypical 'gay man's voice'.

As for my sexuality, that is my personal business, and I am highly offended that you asked such a brazen question. If you ever find yourself with a cock in your mouth and are questioning whether you are still a heterosexual, it's handy to remember the simple rule the Greeks and English, those great gay peoples, devised for such situations. The man giving oral sex is gay, the man on the receiving end is not. However, this is reversed when anal sex is performed - on top, a real man, on bottom, a faggot! In other words, if you're sucking dick - you're a faggot! Unless, of course, you're a starving Cambodian 10-year-old boy prostituting himself to a middle-aged Australian businessman, since we all gotta do what we gotta do to survive.

I'm sorry, that last bit was pretty offensive, wasn't it?

The Go-Betweens: Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express (1986) ***1/2

Robert Forster and Grant McLennan are two of the most accomplished songwriters working in a pop-rock medium in the past quarter century, yet they had the bad luck to emerge in the '80s from exotic Australia (their move to London helped their career somewhat) and the world didn't care. Or actually, those who actually got the chance to hear -- oh, I better stop now before this turns into another rant about how good music gets buried these days and crap floats to the surface. Few songwriters are as deft and intelligent as this duo at songcraft, penning sharply worded, melodic gems that hit emotional bullseyes -- if you're a songwriter yourself, study these two carefully, as they are classical masters at the songwriting form (classical perfection isn't to be confused with best, keep in mind - the imperfections of, say, Dylan, can be preferable). Their songs do, however, tend towards hooklessness; sonically there's nothing special going on, merely competent jangle-pop; and neither Forster nor McLennan is a more than an adequately journeyman singer -- in sum, superb songwriting is the only reason to pay attention to the Go-Betweens, in the same way that no one would care about Hendrix if he couldn't play guitar solos. Their records might sound a bit lackluster on first listen, but they sink in over time, and at this point I'm more than glad to have made my aquaintance with one of the '80s most underrated bands.

Their albums seem to be only slightly distinguishable from each other; I've heard that their first was tentative, but the other five are all more or less equally good. Liberty Belle contains several gems, mostly on the first side, and a small number of songs that don't really register, which seems typical of a Go-Betweens release. They stick closely to their likable folk-pop formula, tossing in an occasional violin and every so often attempting to rock out in a very mild manner. The first four songs are the highlights: "Spring Rain," evokes a less pompous mid-period U2; "The Ghost and the Black Hat," jigs briefly in a Celtic manner; "The Wrong Road," calls to mind dark Creedence set in the swamps of the outback; "To Reach Me," is simply a plaintive midtempo love song. The best song on side two concerns a lover writing from a ship on Palm Sunday - he's on the S.S. Within (hint: that doesn't sound like a real name to me). Or is the best song on side two "Apology Accepted," a ballad in which it sounds like McLennan (I guess; even hardcore fans get the two mixed up at times) is the one apologizing?

The Go-Betweens: Tallulah (1987) ***1/2

The Go-Betweens add a full-time violin fiddler, Amanda Brown, to their band palette, but otherwise they sound the same as always. In fact, despite the addition (she helps with their too-subtle hooks) this doesn't sound as sparkling as Liberty Belle -- downplaying the Creedence influence that they upplayed on the last year's release, the arrangements seem a bit dryer and lacking sparkle this time. But I like the songs on this one better, so I'll call it a draw. "The House That Jack Kerouac Built," not only doesn't live up to its title, it's not a very strong track to lead side two off with and presents the Go-Betweens as overly precious, bourgeios bookworms who are too genteel for rock'n'roll - all of which is true, and such charges aren't the worst things to be in the world. As such decidedly middle-class popsmiths, they tackle the most hackneyed subject in bourgeios literature -- adultery -- in the obviously titled "Someone Else's Wife". But the peak moment on side one is "Right Here," an ode to fidelity that McLennan claims was based on two friends who worked in a funeral parlour, not that one can tell from the lyrics. That's trumped, however, by side two's highlight, "Clarke Sisters," about three steel-grey-haired ladies who sleep in the back of a feminist bookstore because they had problems with their father's law.

The Go-Betweens: 1978-1990 (1990) ****1/2

A stunning career overview that begins with a very adolescent (and sounding it) Robert Forster awkwardly strumming away his bedsit frustrations and fantasies, teaming up with a like-minded Grant McLennan, who form a Dylan-influenced guitar & bass combo; slowly they add extra musicians to their spare arrangements (drummer Linda Morrison is a big help) and continue to grow likewise as songwriters. If you bemoan that they don't write'em like Paul Simon and Lou Reed anymore, then I direct you to this pair of talented Aussies - when they're on, they reach a warm halfway point between poetry-reading acoustic chamber music and an old country song crackling in late at night over the local short-wave radio. And they're on most of the time -- this 28-track compilation (go for the vinyl or cassette, which clock in around 100 minutes -- the CD release was truncated by 6 six songs to fit on a single disc) suffers only a few duds. It's such an ideal introduction (perhaps one of the best-ever band chronicles) that the original albums will seem disappointing in comparison (they certainly did to me). The songs are split evenly between Forster and McLennan (and you can tell them apart, because they wrote some quite illuminating and amusing liner notes to each song), the first half consisting of A-sides and album tracks, and the second half of outtakes and B-sides -- and testifying to Forster/McLennan's strength and prolificity as songwriters (and possible lack of quality control) the second half is almost as strong as the first; many of the B-sides sound A-side quality to me - "Rock'n'Roll Friend," "This Girl, Black Girl," "Second-Hand Furniture" (a rousing divorce number in which McLennan ad-libs the items of furniture in the couple's room), "You Won't Find It Again," (a moving acoustic pop ballad of this quality McLennan didn't deem worthy of release?!).

With such a wealth of riches, it's hard to know where to begin - so let's take the easy way and begin at the beginning, shall we? "Karen," might be my favorite Go-Betweens song; it's certainly the most arresting, the one I say to people, "You've got to hear this" -- Forster, "nineteen years old, depressed, nervous, and probably distrustful," as he describes himself, becomes obsessed with the librarian who helps him find all the books he devours (love the way he pronounces Brecht - and has anyone else ever rhymed "James Joyce" with "right choice"?). Forster has obviously devoured some Jonathan Richman records, also, and his clumsy pluckings at his acoustic guitar and gangly talk-singing are as inspiring to amateurs like myself as any two-chord punk band. In the early days of the Go-Betweens, Forster clearly dominates, but McLennan soon catches up, as his airy "Cattle and Cane," rolls around in the sheer sound of its lovely melody. McLennan's "Bachelor Kisses," is better still, just as lovely but with more solidity beneath, a tune lushly romantic enough for Bryan Ferry -- "Faithful's not a bad word," indeed. Forster's tunes are edgier and less pop than McLennan's - he's the one who pens such gems as "I feel so sure about our love/I'll write a song about us breaking up," ("Man O'Sand To Girl O'Sea"), and he gets off the best song about smarter and more talented than your boss I've heard, "Draining The Pool For You". Tallulah is overrepresented with four songs (the other albums only get two apiece), and if I had all of their albums I'd probably quibble a bit more with the song selection, but why quibble when I get to hear such gems as "Love Is A Sign" - which needs a bridge, but considering that McLennan wrote this on the spot to a Norwegian couple who said it sounded like a Blood On The Tracks outtake (a high compliment, folks) I can see why he didn't think of that at the time -- ah, these little liner notes are wonderful; illuminate several of these songs quite well. Such smart, tasteful (perhaps too tasteful and genteel), decidedly adult pop didn't have a chance in the '80s; perhaps if they'd emerged in the early '70s and wrote sappier and less intelligently, they'd have cornered the singer-songwriter market - as such, the Go-Betweens remained a cult band, which is only to non-cultists' loss.

The Godfathers: Birth, School, Work, Death (1988) ***

The title track is a knockout, the type of song that so perfectly encapsulates pent-up rage and energy that it makes you want to smash your fist through a wall and believe in rock'n'roll again - it's a stunning indictment of Thatcher's England, a pessimistic summation of what life's all about, and one the 10 greatest singles anyone released in the '80s. These mod revivalists reach back to the mid-'60s for their sound, a punked-up update on the gritty, R & B influenced sonic maelstorm of the Yardbirds, Troggs, early Stones, and countless other British bands of the pre-Revolver era; but for their lyrical attitude, they reach back all the way to the mid-'50s, updating the angry-young man defeatist ethos of Osborne/Braine/Sillitoe for a decade under the spectre of Thatcherism. They've got a surprising amount of brains for the gang of pissed-off street toughs they pose as - lines about living under a false economy and not reading Baudelaire's poetry belie the brutish sound the lyrics are wedded to. Aside from the crashingly nihilistic "'Cause I Said So," that opens side two, the rest of the Godfather's songs are, unfortunately, rather pedestrian. Sure, they start sides one and two with a bang, but don't sustain such greatness. That said, the guitar work of Chris Coyne, Kris Dollimore, and Micheal Gibson (that's right, three guitarists, which as usual is one too many, 'cause as with most bands with more than two, you can hardly hear that there's a third) is excitingly effective and stinging, and singer Peter Coyne's voice is well-suited to such snotty seethings and shoutings. Legendary producer Vic Maile does the band justice, and they show a surprising pop sense on several mid-tempo numbers such as the closer, "Love's Dead," which despite its title is actually an upbeat anthem. And they almost make some generic rockabilly rips actually sound exciting due to the seering guitar work - but I said almost; the Godfathers try hard, and since the lyrics are intelligent and I like their sound, I ought to like this album more than I do. But facts are facts - aside from the side openers, their songs are nothing special. I've got their followup, the aptly titled More Songs About Love and Hate, and it's more of the same, but without a "Birth, School, Work, Death".

The Jesus and Mary Chain: Psychocandy (1985) *1/2

Some bands try to hold your attention through pop hooks, some through poignant songwriting, some through monster guitar riffs, some through funky dance beats, some through thrilling instrumental interplay. The Jesus and Mary Chain try to get your attention through their amplifier equipment. Almost certainly the most unlistenable debut ever to be heralded by rock journalists as significant, J & M have precisely one idea, and one idea only: to drench simple pop songs in layers of annoyingly echoey white noise. And it's not even a terribly original idea, considering that the Velvet Underground and the Ramones did much more with the gimmick. The problem is that J & M's pop tunes aren't so much simple as simplistic, sing-song nursery rhymes that lack interesting melodies or choruses (not that one could tell, anyway, seeing as the Reid Bros.' voices are buried deep behind the gothic roar in the mix, making most of the lyrics unintelligible - which, judging from what I can make out, is fortunate). The problem with the noise isn't that it's noisy (which it isn't, really - the production makes the feedback seem soft and blurry for the most part), but that J & M don't even bother to come up with such mundane amenities such as solid riffs. Instead, they just lazily strum a few simple chords on the six-string and hope that by cranking the amps up to beyond 10 that you won't notice. Plus those tinny mid-'80s drums don't help matters, even if they do manage an amusing Ronnettes cop on side two. Maybe this album is influential in its subgenre way, but who gives a flying Marilyn Manson about the marriage of goth and punk and other such travesties of the '90s? At least My Bloody Valentine show some variety, and at least the Velvet Underground wrote real songs.

The Jesus and Mary Chain: Automatic (1989) *1/2

J & M fans generally rate this as a low point, but what do they know - someone with the bad taste to actually like this crap isn't the most trustworthy of musical authorities (which I guess includes Frank Black, since the Pixies covered "Head On"). The J & M, now reduced to essentially the Reid Bros. (Jim and William) and a trusty drum machine (one the stupidest musical fashions of the '80s - drum machines sound like shit, and no, it's not Luddite to say that anymore than saying that synthesizer reproductions can't substitute for real string sections; instruments need real people to play them, folks!), resemble a straight rock band more than before. And that's why J & M heads downrate this release, and why I think it's actually better than Psychocandy - it's got some real choruses, melodies, riffs, and drive. It still sucks, though, because the rock drive sounds as rote as the title suggests, and those lyrics about the seamy side of the city are growing pretty tired - not that as third-rate Lou Reed ripoffs their pro-sexual-perversion lyrics weren't pretty lame in the first place. Also, I hate to point this out, but all of the songs use the exact same drumbeat (see what happens with programmed drums? A real drummer wouldn't be that numbingly repetitive, no matter how incompetent), and so seem to use the same arrangements, and recycling half of the melodies for every other song doesn't help the monotony factor. Geez, I really hate this band. I didn't mind wasting a couple of dollars on them, but sitting through their tapes more than once was a thankless chore.

Joan Jett: Bad Reputation (1980) ***

After breaking away from no-talent svengali Kim Fowley's Runaways (which also included Lita Ford, an airbrushed one-hit metal star for about 15 seconds in the late '80s), Jett found some much more professional musicians (well, if you consider guests such as ex-Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook "professional" - funnily enough, the ex-Pistols play on the string-orchestrated ballad!) and recorded a decent hard rock album, which every major label rejected. Feisty and determined as Jett is, she released the album independently, as all documented in her classic video of the title track. And as we all know, Jett surprised those fat cat record executives and became a genuine rock'n'roll star. She's been an inspiration to all those '90s girls with loud guitars (and there's a lot'of em this decade) by showing that estrogen doesn't stand in the way of tackling volume-shaking macho rock just like the boys, and surely if I were a flat-chested tomboy in a leather-jacket I'd have a shrine built to her in my room. But I'm not, and much as I would like for Jett to be as good (or do I mean bad?) as her reputation, her music falls a bit short. Jett delivers dependable, servicable hard rock, falling neatly between glam and garage with touches of power-pop, early rock'n'roll nostalgia, and punky spunk - just the sort of meat'n'potatoes ROCK & ROLL you'd expect me to like (as if you haven't guessed where my tastes generally lie already). The problem basically comes down to that old bugbear, songwriting: there are only four songs on this album that aren't covers, and only one of them, "Don't Abuse Me," was written all by herself (Jett's tough and defiant standing up to her man, not a cowering willow as certain other female singers would play such a title - but knowing Jett's personality, that's no surprise at all). The title track moves with fire and guts, no she doesn't give a damn about her bad reputation, but there's no melody, so it gets tiresome after a while. The covers are hit and miss; she's probably the only person to record not one, but two Gary Glitter covers in her entire career, much less on the same album: "Doing All Right With The Boys," plays off her tomboy persona by not changing the lyrics, but even that can't redeem a forgettable, overly simplistic chant (which describes almost every Gary Glitter song, doesn't it?); but "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" is another matter entirely. The guitar riff's a monster, and hearing a girl twist Glitter's crotch invitation around in on itself, with a chorus of red-blooded boys gang-shouting "Oh yeah! Oh yeah!" - lust rock doesn't get any better than this. And you haven't fully appreciated this song until you've seen the Beavis & Butthead commentary on the video - "Beavis, those are guy's tits!" "His tits are bigger than hers!" - classic! Jett flubs Leslie Gore's whiny "You Don't Own Me," and "Too Bad On Your Birthday," is little more than a simplistic chant (obviously she took that Glitter influence too seriously), but "Make Believe," which sounds like some old Everly Brothers classic (and probably is, I just don't feel like looking it up right now) is just dandy.

Joan Jett: I Love Rock & Roll (1981) ***1/2

Now this album's a lot better; she's still inconsistent, but at least she wrote half of the songs (still with co-writers, though) and her new band the Blackhearts are considerably tighter than the studio vets she used last time. The title track is the standout, naturally; Jett knows how to find a great obscurity (actually, the original glam-era B-side by some bunch of nobodies called the Arrows or Sparrows or something like that, as if anybody cared, sucked in an almost not-lame way, mainly 'cause they tried to deliver the crushing guitar riff on a bass guitar - sheesh!). "Nag," is another terrific obscurity that sounds like some great lost Leiber-Stoller novelty for the Coasters, except that some guy named Arthur Crier wrote it and the Coasters were in no way involved. I could do without such camp moves as the Dave Clark Five song (really...) and "Little Drummer Boy," (!?) but she covers "Crimson and Clover," without changing the gender pronouns, giving the Tommy James oldie an entirely different connotation. Think about it for a sec...clovers are, err, lush and woody, and what's the color of crimson... Ahem. Quite a clever trick to turn an innocent oldies staple into an ode to lesbian cunnilingus without changing a lyric, ain't it? Jett's originals have improved likewise, but still the only one that really gets off the ground is the righteous "You're Too Possessive," that puts a domineering boyfriend in his place. Unfortunately, her "Love Is Pain," cliches grow tiresome very quickly. In sum, a reasonably entertaining album of hard-hitting, derivative hard-rock.

I've got her next pair of albums, also, and they're a step down; I'll get around to listening to and reviewing them soon, which means I'll probably have to (sigh) set up a whole page for Jett eventually.

Tommy Keene: Songs From the Film (1986) ****1/2

Somewhere along the line, finely crafted, hookily melodic Beatlesque guitar-pop songs stopped becoming popular; why this is so I suspect has more to do with record company payola than actual public taste -- after all, does any not prefer Beatlesque guitar-pop to the oversynthed crap dominating '80s radio (and which still dominates Top 40 radio today)? Why Tommy Keene didn't sell records by the boatload instead of the Culture Club can only be explained by such an inexplicable change in popular taste; certainly his sparkling songs seem tailor-made for blasting out of the car window on a crisp fall day - at a conservative estimate, at least half of the songs on this album sound like hit single material. But the public has been ignoring great power-pop since the heyday of Big Star, who are Keene's obvious biggest influence (aside from the Fabs, of course) - his reedy, high-pitched voice sounds quite similar to Alex Chilton's, as does his jangly-but-piercing guitar style. Keene had gained critical acclaim from several independent label releases, and on his major label debut he enlisted legendary producer Geoffrey Emerick (Elvis Costello, engineer for the Beatles). Unfortunately, Emerick's style of overproduction mars Keene's performances, but only slightly -- the main faults are a weak drum sound and overmodulation of Keene's voice, obscuring the lyrics. Aside from a somewhat forced version of Lou Reed's "Kill Your Sons," that disrupts the flow smack in the middle of the CD, there's not a truly weak song among the pack. Keene's no sunny-faced popster; his songs reveal a slightly bitter melancholy that nicely counters his upbeat hooks and monster choruses -- the ever elusive pop trick of melding sadness and ebullience Keene makes his forte. The anthemicly weary nostalgia of "Places That Are Gone," (re-recorded from a previous EP), the ringing chorusii of "In Our Lives," and the haunting midtempo ballad, "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe," (one of the '80s most perfect pop songs) are all particularly high highlights. Since I happened to rent The Mystic Pizza the same weekend I purchased the CD reissue, I always think of that flick when the brief, thrilling "Astronomy" comes on (just thought I'd add a little "what memories this song evokes personally" tidbit, and hey, just 'cause it's got Julia Roberts in it does not automatically mean the movie sucks -- especially if it's Roberts before she became famous). And didn't Keene title this Songs From the Film? -- a title he nabbed from his old copy of Help!, and which he lives up to in "My Mother Looked Like Marilyn Monroe," which he claims was inspired by Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train (good flick, by the way). The original album gets four stars, that is if you ever found the original LP anywhere (you probably won't), but the CD reissue gets upped a notch due to the astounding bonus tracks. Not only do you get first-rate outtakes, the best of which are "Take Back Your Letters," "Faith In Love," and a fine rip through the Flamin' Groovies classic "Teenage Head," but the entire Run Now EP. Run Now, produced by T-Bone Burnett and Don Dixon, is an improvement over Songs From the Film, with clean, clear production instead of Emerick's slightly excessive flourishes -- and Keene's songs are as strong as the bulk of the LP.

Tommy Keene: Ten Years After (1996) ***1/2

Luckily commercial failure hasn't stopped Keene from doing what he's doing in exactly the same way he did it a decade earlier; his voice and guitars are still clear and ringing, and his pop hooks and melodic craft have diminished only slightly over the years. Some of the harder rockers sound a bit forced on this release, but when Keene goes for melancholy balladry, he's still stunning: the crisp acoustic guitar kick of "Silent Town," and the bitter epic "Before the Lights Go Down," are among the finest songs he's ever written. Of the more uptempo numbers, "Today and Tomorrow," remains my favorite due to its naggingly melodic chorus, and the brief, spirited romp through the Who's "It's Not True," is a welcome surprise that closes the album. It's not as strong as his earlier material (several of these songs feel slight), but Keene delivers another finely crafted album with a few perfect pop songs, and remains one of pop's most criminally overlooked talents.

Let's Active: Afoot EP (1983) ***

Mitch Easter's notoriety as one of the architects of the mid-80s jangle-pop sound due his production duties (most notably of R.E.M.) overshadowed his talents on the other side of the mixing board as the leader of this charming little Carolina band. Having served time in the late '70s seminal Sneakers with Chris Stamey, it's no accident that Easter's own breed of slightly askew power-pop bears a striking resemblance to the Db's. The six songs on the band's first release are all chirpily tuneful, painfully winsome post-Big Star minor jewels of popcraftery -- nothing in the least bit earthshaking, merely very enjoyable for those so inclined. Easter throws a bucket of production gimmickry over his Beatlesque songs, just like the Dbs; Easter's falsetto whine comes across as even drier and nerdier than Chris Stamey's, which only goes to underscore the Db's connection (obviously both boys' worshipped at the Alex Chilton altar of straining high notes). The rhythm section of this trio consists of a pair of gurls, though, which raises the vocal harmonies to an even higher bird-like pitch -- very flighty, complementing the songs' lightweight appeal. At times the twinkly affectations are positively annoying, but Easter has a pro's knack for hookcraft, which he puts to good use with his narrow melodies -- jangly hook here, distorted synth break there, a few feminine "ooo la la la"'s for good effect. Easter's achievements basically amount to a footnote, but fans of the Db's and early R.E.M. won't mind.

The Plimsouls: Everywhere At Once (1983) ***1/2

In the late '70s, Los Angeles had in its midst a band overloaded with talent, boasting not one but three equally talented songwriters -- and completely ignored that band, the Nerves, who only released a modest independent EP in their lifetime. One band felt too crowded for its three members, who all found a bit more success separately: Paul Collins formed the Beat, who are probably most famous for forcing another Beat across the Atlantic to change their logo to the English Beat; Jack Lee might have earned the most royalties in the short run via Blondie's hit cover of his "Hanging On The Telephone," but subsequently dropped out of sight in the industry; and Peter Case seemed to be the only one to make a long-term career as a musician, forming the Plimsouls prior to his current gig as a Dylanesque folksinger.

The Plimsouls never found wide success, despite the inclusion of this album's two best songs, "A Million Miles Away," and "Oldest Story In The World," in very prominent positions in the classic teen flick Valley Girl. Lumped in with the New Wave/Power-Pop crowd, the Plimsouls skirted the edges of those square pegs, but were much grittier and traditionally rocking than their peers - Case claims that he never considered the Plimsouls power-pop, and he's got a point: several of these songs can hardly be called pop or even pop-rock but just plain rock, more Yardbirds than Byrds. That "big blast of pain and alienation set to a rock'n'roll beat," (Case's words again) called "A Million Miles Away," is the standout track, its incredible drive and chorus carved in stone making it one of the early '80s greatest singles -- perfect for driving around in your old hometown years later after all your old friends are gone. Case isn't a strong melodicist, which causes several tuneless slabs of rock to fall flat -- such as the first two songs, which create a rocky start. Then the third song, "Oldest Story In The World," a rough-hewn, bitter ballad with another carved in stone chorus comes on, and you can glimpse a singer-songwriter of some talent lurking beyond the rocker. A stomping cover of "Lie, Beg, Borrow, and Steal," is the other highlight of side one, and luckily side two's considerably stronger, as the band finally settles into a hard-hitting, fierce groove on numbers such as "How Long Will It Take," "I'll Get Lucky," and of course, "A Million Miles Away." The cover of Eddy Grant's "My Life Ain't Easy," is a nice touch, also. This snappy, if melodically sparse (its biggest weakness, and it really does hurt) garage-rocking album puts me in mind of prime Flamin' Groovies more than anything else - which is a compliment, by the way.

P.S. The band's name comes from the Beatles' shoes. Just some more useless trivia to clutter your brain.

The Wipers: Youth of America EP (1981) ***

If they had released this record a decade later, Portland, Oregon's Wipers might have had a hit record as part of the Northwest grunge explosion; instead, the Wipers will have to settle for the adjective of "seminal" rather than "successful". Northwestern rockers have always had that grunge sound ever since "Louie, Louie," the Sonics, Wailers, and this weird cat named Hendrix ground out their muddy, grinding noise way back in the '60s. Leader Greg Sage (who essentially is the Wipers, as he's changed the lineup several times during their career) was one of millions of American kids stuck in nowheresville who somehow stumbled across a few punk rock records and decided to form a band; at the time, though, the great Northwest was practically nonexistent on music industry maps, and one of the more isolated media centers of the continental U.S. -- which is to explain why Sage, and most of the seminal Northwest proto-grunge bands of the '80s, languished in such obscurity. Kurt Cobain didn't forget, though, since Nirvana covered not one but two songs from the Wipers' 1979 debut, Is This Real. And the Wipers were definitely very seminal - give this one listen and you'll hear traces of every lumberjacked outfit to march out of Seattle in the early '90s; it's too bad Sage has never gotten his due credit as one of the godfathers of grunge with his dense, gloomy melding of indie punk and heavy Sab/Zep-style metal. This six-song EP is reputed to be one of the band's less song-oriented releases, which is a plus, actually, since Sage isn't an exceptional songwriter (merely adequate at best), but he's one of rock's most shockingly underrated guitarists. Though Sage is obviously influenced by the hardcore punk making its way up north from southern California, he plays by the rules of a conventional guitar hero - the most thrilling moments on this EP are when he shuts his mouth and lets his six-string do the talking. The lengthy, idiosyncratic guitar solos and incredibly dense, heavy grunge sound meet Hendrix and Sabbath at a halfway point; Sage's riffs are as heavy and chunky as wad of peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. Sage's lyrics and the atmosphere suggest an intense alienation and isolation, as if he were making this music in the wilderness, far from any human contact; given the public's ignorance of the Wipers at the time, maybe he was. The ten-minute title track is the highlight, something of a cross between a social commentary anthem and his attempt at "Marquee Moon." Most of all, though, the Wipers remind me of Joy Division gone grunge. I've got The Best of the Wipers, also, but it doesn't make any sense; given Sage's talent for setting up a sustained mood as he does here, the Wipers are obviously best heard on the original albums.

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