The Embarrassment

Straight Outta Wichita

Strongest album: heyday. This two disc anthology contains every studio track the band recorded between 1979 and 1983
Weakest album: I just told you where to find everything the band ever did!

The Embarrassment were an early '80s Kansas band that found nothing but obscurity in its lifetime but has attracted a minor cult following in the ensuing years, culminating with the 1995 two-CD anthology heyday, which collects almost everything they ever released. Some claim greatness for the band, but despite the initial highly positive reaction their music engenders, it doesn't hold up as well over repeat listenings. Still, the band is worth hearing, for the most part, and they did have a highly idiosyncratic post-punk sound that is both jagged and pop. This talented minor band's original records are impossible to find nowadays, and they didn't leave much of a legacy worth talking about, yet somehow they get pretty overrated by '90s rock crits. Perhaps it's because they were so obscure - I mean, '90s rock crit fashion is to wildly overrate obscure bands and artists from the past because everybody is just so bored talking about old farts like the Beatles, who had the temerity to be popular and sell records, for heaven's sake! Anyway, the Embarrassment were a pretty good little band, and their records are enjoyable, even if they won't change your life unless you're from Wichita. Besides, the Embarrassment are worth preserving; since they were literally hundreds of miles from any alternative scene, these proto-Pavements and harder rocking MidWestern cousins to R.E.M. developed a highly unique prairie-nerd approach to punk that in retrospect sounds fairly prescient.

If you're curious about this long-lost band, then here's the Embarrassment Home Page, the only one so far in existence - but it's a good one, with an extensive and informative discography that was a big help in my untangling just what this band released when.

Embarrassment EP (1981) ***

The Embarrassment are fond of shaggy loping guitar lines that are kind of psychedelic in a Neil Young/garage way, and those lines are the best aspect of the band's sound. In fact, take away the guitar lines and what you have left is fairly tuneful, lightweight pop concerning such eccentric subjects as Art Carney, Elizabeth Montgomery, jukeboxes, and old farmers on the road. "Wellsville" is easily the highlight, and probably the best song in the Embarrassment's ouvre; it contains an easy melodicism and catchy chorus that makes it sound a bit like a great lost R.E.M. single. "Celebrity Art Party" has the best lyrics, rhyming "artistic" with "narcassistic", and tossing off smartass psuedo-pretentious lines like, "Excuse me, is this the age of reason?" Not that the Embarrassment are smartasses; their charm is that they are just a bunch of normal, slightly nerdy guys, the kind you pass by in the dorm cafeteria. As such, the boast that "I'm a Don Juan" comes across as a joke; these guys are the type who spend their afternoons watching reruns of "Bewitched".

Death Travels West (1983) **1/2

Embarrassment aficianados rate this their best effort because it's the only full-length LP they released before breaking up (for the first time), but to me it's their weakest regular release. None of the songs here are up to the standard of the EP, with the exception of the drivingly punkish "Drive Me To The Park". It's a loose concept album based around the theme of travel, with "Lewis and Clark" even showing up, though the concept is so underdeveloped it hardly makes sense. The lyrics are either intriguingly enigmatic or confusingly enigmatic, depending on your point of view - just why does the friend turn into a monster in "Careen"? Me, I ignore the words and just groove off Bill Goffrier's guitar - it's awesome. But not awesome enough to save the weak songwriting and flat melodies of these 8 songs.

Retrospective (1984) ***1/2

The Embarrassment broke up in 1983, at about the time they were about to break open and recieve some national recognition. It was really bad timing, not only because their records began recieving rave reviews just as they broke up, but also because musically it sounds like they were just hitting their stride. This was a cassette-only release from the MidWestern indie Fresh Sounds, who have subsequently gone out of business. Good luck finding this release. The first side of the cassette consists of unreleased studio songs, and the second side of live recordings. I can't say anything about the second side because I've never heard it; I'm basing my review on the studio side that is available on the heyday compilation, and I can tell you it's really good. It starts of with their 1979 debut single, "Sex Drive", which is a lot punkier than their later material. The best song is "Two Week Vacation", about driving across the country with $300 and nowhere to go; for some reason lead singer John Nichols keeps screaming, "I don't want to sing about love again!" "She's One Of The Other Kind" is engagingly melodic, "Sexy Singer Girl" is horny, "Age Five" is impressive, "Berliner's Night Out" has some goofy German, and "Special Eyes" concerns the fear that your TV and couch are coming alive.

The Embarrassment LP (1987) ***1/2

An even harder to find rarity, luckily all the songs here are available on the heyday anthology. The first side of this LP contains the entirety of the 1981 Embarrassment EP, and the second side contains unreleased studio tracks from a 1983 session. The Embarrassment sound the same as usual, except a little more assured and confident. Side two begins with the moody "Rythm Line" (how come I never mentioned that the Embarrassment have a really good rythm section before? Well, they do. The sounds of disco recorded in a woodshed by a bunch of MidWestern hicks with no synthesizers), and ends with some gibberish entitled "Out Of Town". The best song is the anti-imperialist "Woods Of Love", one of the few Embarrassment songs that is actually about something lyrically. "Age Five" and "Special Eyes" reappear here, also, alongside the celebration of porno, "Picture Women". This was released by an even smaller and obscurer Kansas indie label, and like most of the Embarrassment's releases it is very hard to find - if you ever see an LP by them lying around collecting dust in some used vinyl shop, then pick it up since it's probably worth quite a bit of money to collectors. After the Embarrassment's 1983 split, Bill Goffrier formed Big Dipper, who had some modest national success on the college rock circuit, but Big Dipper weren't half as good as the Embarrassment (but they get brownie points from me for covering Mott the Hoople).

God Help Us (1990)

The Embarrassment reformed briefly for this LP. I heard some of it once at the college radio station I used to DJ at and that it was kind of okay, but nothing more than that. The band sounds the same as before, as far as I remember.

heyday (1995) ***1/2

Just about everything the band recorded in the studio between 1979 and 1983, it contains all the music I reviewed above along with a helping of unreleased material. Aside from the music I've already discussed in my previous reviews, highlights include the "Patio Set" single and the cool "Godfrey Harold Hardy", which has a quite unusual song structure. Three of the "new" songs are live cuts from a concert at "Jerry's Farm, rural Kansas", which alongside the live cut from "Hobo's Pizza, Wichita" speaks volumes about how tough this band had it stuck in the wilds of Kansas. It makes you wonder just how many bands as good as the Embarrassment got lost out there....fortunately, this one got to make a few records, and their music has finally found something of an audience. If they had come from a big city on the coast, they would have been twenty times as successful (at the very least), but they weren't; however, as the liner notes to this compilation state, if they hadn't come from Kansas, they wouldn't have developed that uniquely MidWestern sound that made them special.

Post Your Comments

Reader Comments

Mark Westfall,

The Embarrassment Rule! Fast, Loud, and Ferocious!

William & Lauri Morris,

"It doesn't hold up as well over repeat listenings"

I like the Embarrassment better every time I hear them on CD or tape. I have followed alt. types of music since around 1979 and would easily pick the Embos as my favorite band of that (and pretty much any) era as far a genre goes. No disrespect meant, but found your reviews on your Embo page suggesting to me that you don't get a chance to listen closely enough to the music you review. Still, it's nice to see a band like the Embos get a little more recognition.

By the way, did you know Death Travels West, the song, was about a friend of theirs who was killed in a motor cycle accident. He asked that if he died, the Embos play at his funeral. I heard they did this and played Wellsville.

Rick Hellman,

There were no other bands as good as the Embos in Kansas! There were no other bands as good as the Embos in the world at the time, except perhaps the Fall. I own every record/tape/CD you mention here, and they all have their gems. D-Rngs, Sex Drive, Patio Set, Woods of Love, Don't Stop Till You Get Enough...I spent many a shaky night sweating to those tunes. And to me, they still hold up.

Where Can I Go, What Can I Do