960. Plasticland, Wonder Wonderful Wonderland (1985)
It’s treacherous to draw heavily drawing on distinctive rock subgenres layered with dust. By the time Plasticland formed — as the nineteen-eighties dawned in Milwaukee, Wisconsin — the version of lush, layered psychedelic rock with garage grease smeared upon it was entirely out of the style. But principal band members Glenn Rehse and John Frankovic weren’t borrowing musical approaches from some odd discovery in a thrift store. The pair had played in bands together in the nineteen-sixties, when they were childhood pals. The duo weren’t really reviving anything. They were following the same caramel-coated muse as they always had. It was the rest of the universe that was playing retrospective catch-up.
Wonder Wonderful Wonderland was Plasticland’s second album and first since being signed to Enigma Records (the label rereleased the band’s debut, originally called Color Appreciation, as a self-titled album, in 1985.) Locking in on the paisley haze in Plasticland’s music, Enigma assigned producer Paul Cutler to the recording sessions. He’d recently had success with the Los Angeles band Dream Syndicate, overseeing their debut EP, which was generally seen as the launch of the brief, bedazzled Paisley Underground scene. By all accounts, the band generally ignored every suggestion of Cutler, instead building a record dazzling in its expansiveness.
The sound of the album is obviously backward-looking, but Wonder Wonderful Wonderland never feels stalled in nostalgia. Lead track “No Shine for the Shoes” sets the bar, drawing on psychedelic layering without becoming overly derivative or jokey. There are absolutely instances in which Plasticland offers a treatise on standard psychedelic trapping, as with the melty vocals on “Gloria Night.” And “The Gingerbread House” features the tried and true lyrical practice of wallowing in imagery of sugary foods (“The shingles on the roof are frosted wafers/ With sheets of licorice linings like paper/ Rolling expanses of candy cane archways/ That seemingly go on forever”).
Elsewhere, Plasticland swells the sonic palette. “Fairytale Hysteria” starts with a discordant squall of guitar sounds that sound like the most bedraggled rock ‘n’ roll orchestra tuning up, then the song turns into a beautifully sludgy march forward, the melody moving with serpentine fervor. “Non-Stop Kitchen” introduces nice nice seventies-glam-punk snarl to the mix, and “Process of the Silverness” has the spirited worldly pop reinvention of Camper Van Beethoven.
Enigma Records never quite knew what to do with these trippy titans and the album they delivered. Closer to the band’s original home, they were more warmly regarded. Plasticland were inducted to the Wisconsin Are Music Industry Hall of Fame, in 2015.
959. Eric Clapton, Money and Cigarettes (1983)
Doctors warned Eric Clapton against recording the album Money and Cigarettes. It’s nice to think the physicians were trying to protect the listening public from another bloodless collection of rehashed riffs, but they were instead concerned that the legendary guitarist would compromise the long, hard treatment for alcoholism he’d recently completed, recognizing there’d be triggers aplenty in the process. There’s no question the absence of booze was on Clapton’s mind. He titled the album Money and Cigarettes because he felt that, following rehab, that was all he had left in the world.
Over a decade earlier, Clapton had drawn on wrenching misery to make Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, the epic album by Derek and the Dominos that still stands as his one truly unassailable piece of art. If he had any similar sorrow when he ducked into Compass Point Studios, in the Bahamas, it’s nowhere to be found on Money and Cigarettes. At best, the material is perfunctory, and even those drab peaks are rare. “Ain’t Going Down” sounds like a REO Speedwagon discard played by a still-developing Muddy Waters tribute act, and modest hit single “I’ve Got a Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart” is one of the least convincing declarations of helpless rebellion ever pressed into grooves.
When Clapton lands on an agreeable riff, he hobbles the song with his dependably dreadful words. “The Shape You’re In” is a decent, little shuffle that moves along briskly, but then the exceedingly dopey lyrics arrive: “Well, my little girl really loves that wine/ Wine will do it to her most every time/ If it’s red or it’s white or it’s in between/ She can drink more wine than I’ve ever seen.” And for those who believe the notorious “Wonderful Night” is the unbeatable champion of trite, treacly Clapton love ballads, know that “Pretty Girl” might very well be worse (“Pretty girl you are the light of my life/ I mean my everything/ You are the one I chose to make my wife/ That’s why you wear my ring”). If only doctor’s orders had stopped it.
958. Scruffy the Cat, Boom Boom Boom Bingo (1987)
Befitting a band that specialized in fantastically raucous music, Scruffy the Cat clearly didn’t sit still. Although their recordings span only three full years — 1986, 1987, and 1988 — they released two full-lengths and pair of EPS, the records often arriving right on top of each other. Boom Boom Boom Bingo was the band’s second release, following High Octane Revival. A continuing introduction to Scruffy the Cat’s rough-hewn charms, it couldn’t be much better.
Boom Boom Boom Bingo is a little looser affair than its immediate predecessor. It features both new studio originals and some live tracks, the latter including a spirited cover of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” Not only were Scruffy the Cat taking a swing at a number that is arguably one of the top five rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, they were announcing an ancestral kinship with a certain musical approach: dark and stealthy, raw but grounded firmly in accomplished musicianship, yearning and bleakly romantic.
Although there’s not much to the EP, everything there is choice. Opening track “You Dirty Rat” is especially good, built around a clean, enlivening pop hook and sizzling with nifty little guitar flourishes. Surely Boom Boom Boom Bingo accomplished its primary goal and left college programmers anxious for more.
957. Electric Light Orchestra, Time (1981)
The desirable convenience of slotting pop music trends into distinct chronological eras often runs afoul of the more slippery realities of discographies held up against calendars. The often embarrassing pomposity of rock concept albums is typically thought of as a product reserved for the nineteen-seventies, with only the rare escapee. Some of the most bizarre entries is that misbegotten canon, though, have copyright dates placing them unmistakably in the nineteen-eighties, when the excesses were further garnished with growing studio slickness and the linger effects of disco and new wave.
I will not claim to have ascertained the plot moving through the thirteen tracks of Time, the ninth studio album by Electric Light Orchestra (in one of the instances in which they are simply billed as ELO), nor am I particularly interested in a deep enough studio to crack open its deeper nuances. The explanation of band leader Jeff Lynne is good enough for me. The story involves a young man living in the early-eighties who drifts into a dreamlike state that includes time travel to the year 2095. There, he meets an android woman, marvels at the futuristic scenery, and pines his simpler past. That time traveler’s nostalgia is present in the haunted balled “Ticket to the Moon,” which is just longing for a rock opera Broadway musical to call home (“Remember the good old nineteen-eighties/ When things were so uncomplicated/ I wish I could go back there again/ And everything could be the same”).
Of course, the album must opens with a prologue, in this instance announced with studio sounds that suggest a neon strafed electro-pipe-organ gurgling up from murky depths, accompanied by an android voice reciting a stage-setting poetry that’s nearly indecipherable, in every respect (“And as you tread the halls of sanity/ You feel so glad to be, unable to go beyond/ I have a message from another time”). That morphs directly into the shiny disco pop of “Twilight,” suggesting ELO were still nursing a Xanadu hangover.
For all the implied ambition of the concept album approach, Time admirably avoids getting overly bogged down in servicing the through line. If the tracks were tied too imposingly to the central character’s era-spanning woes, after all, a track like “Hold on Tight” could have been almost impenetrable when separated from its cohorts. Instead, it could provide the soundtrack to an odd promotional campaign by the National Coffee Association, which looped in David Bowie, Kurt Vonnegut, and Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson, touting among other things, how good the caffeinated beverage is at letting “you calm yourself down.”
Lynne sometimes evidences some creative rambunctiousness in his songwriting, with mixed results. “The Lights Go Down” demonstrates the oddity of melding a loose reggae beat (more “Tide is High” than Peter Tosh, admittedly) with dance floor lite tinkering, and “Another Heart Breaks,” a near-instrumental that is more sleepy than rewardingly intricate. It’s better when Lynne opts for his favorite pastime: trying to create a highly modernized Beatles sound. “Rain is Falling” finds Lynne really tapping into his Lennon-esque soaring etherealness, as does “21st Century Man.”
It’s impossible to know if the songwriter needed the structure of a fellow skipping along centuries to get to the better material on Time. I suppose it didn’t hurt.
To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs.