7. Let’s Active, Every Dog Has His Day
Back around #15 on this particular countdown, I noted the elevated stature of North Carolina-based producer Mitch Easter at the end of the nineteen-eighties, at least within the aspirational, twentysomething Neverland of college radio. That minor key fame primarily stemmed from his work behind the boards on the earliest R.E.M. albums — which were less than ten years old at the time but already achieved iconic status as left of the dial masterworks — but that certainly didn’t stop I.R.S. Records from using expectations of brilliance to hype the release of the third album by Easter’s band Let’s Active. Every Dog Has His Day, like its direct predecessor (1986’s Big Plans for Everyone), was largely recorded as an Easter solo effort. There are contributions by drummer Eric Marshall on most tracks, and Annie Carlson, who became Easter’s wife after being recruited into the band a couple years earlier, also pitched in. This was clearly Easter’s album, though. And he was enmeshed enough in the alternative music scene that it makes for an interesting and telling State of the Sound testimony.
The album is simultaneously earthy and slicked up, mirroring the progression Easter’s old pals in R.E.M. were going through (the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia were the unquestioned standard-bearers of college rock, circa 1988). Easter stayed true to his own artistic voice, in all its jangly guitar, chiming melody wonder. That didn’t stop him from dressing tracks up in studio refinement, helped along by the contributions of co-producer John Leckie, who’d previously worked with the likes of XTC and Public Image Ltd. and would go on to make hugely important records with the Stone Roses and Radiohead. Easter definitely had his own talent for audio polish, but it’s easy to attribute the shininess of Every Dog to Leckie. If nothing else, the incursion of Beatle-esque psychedelia into “Mr. Fool” must have been the handiwork of the Swami Anand Nagar, the pseudonym adopted by Leckie when he worked with XTC on various Dukes of the Stratosphear tracks.
“Mr. Fool” hits on one of the recurring themes of the album, as Easter often seems to be trying to figure out his place in his professional world, particularly in light of the non-lucrative nature of his fame. He was extremely well-known in certain quarters, deeply esteemed, even. That wasn’t translating into the sort of crossover success that was necessary in that era of the music business. And since rock ‘n’ roll was still thought of an almost solely a young person’s game, Easter likely wouldn’t have been looking at the longterm strategizing. He states it pretty clearly on “Mr. Fool”: “Better sit down for this piece of news/ For you, there’s no more time left to lose.” That wry cynicism comes through on tracks steeped in irony, such as “Sweepstakes Winner” and the fantastic title cut (“We’ll pull into mainstream/ Where the sun illuminates the way/ And here beneath the rainbows/ Just for us where all the kids will say/ Every dog has his day”). If there’s bitterness there (and there probably is), it’s shaped by exultant pop structures. These are songs to be sung at top volume while the ship goes down.
There’s good stuff across the album. The instrumental “Orpheus in Hades Lounge” is rubbery spy movie theme with chocolate chips of ballpark organ strewn throughout it, and “Ten Layers Down” is an agreeable basher. Similar to the latter, Easter proves he can get a lot out of being direct with the glammy simplicity of “Too Bad” (“I got a lot of ideas/ All bad/ Got a whole slew of friends/ All mad”). Not every song pitched at the college kids has to sound like it could inspire a weighty thesis. I’m less partial to the “Horizon,” with its veneer of Styx-ian grandiose tenderness, but overall Every Dog Has His Day was exactly the sort of record I was hoping to find every time I sat in my station’s air chair. Even if the music across the two vinyl sides wasn’t exactly wildly diverse, its exuberant energy and slightly snarling point of view made it feel like it was striking in the most fruitful vein of college rock.
Ultimately, the album didn’t provide a commercial turnaround. The band toured, but they were formally disbanded by 1990. Compounding the finality, Easter and Carlson filed for divorce at around the same time. Easter continued on with other bands and producing gigs, none of them really touching the peaks of his nineteen-eighties heyday. Let’s Active remained entirely quiet for most of that time, a silence broken when Easter reunited with original drummer Sara Romweber for a benefit show this past summer.
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern