956. Velvet Elvis, Velvet Elvis (1988)
Velvet Elvis formed in Lexington, Kentucky, largely because aspiring singer-songwriter Dan Trisko needed an outfit to deliver the tunes he was cranking out with admirable efficiency. The band played through the reasonably robust club scene in their fine college town, eventually issuing their debut album, What in the World, on the local Hit a Note Records label. That album, released in 1986, made its way onto the turntable of Mitch Easter, revered in college radio circles for his work with Let’s Active and — especially — producing the earliest R.E.M. records. Easter filled out a feedback postcard included in the album’s sleeve, proposing the band come to his North Carolina studio when it was time to work on a follow-up. At that time, there were few more promising opportunities for a new ban
Working with Easter, Velvet Elvis rerecorded a few songs from their debut and new originals. They then shopped the material around, landing a contract with Enigma Records. The band’s major label debut, a self-titled album, hit record shops in 1988.
Velvet Elvis is absolutely of its time, filled with straightforward rock songs stiffened by a shellac of homespun Americana. Album opener “When It Comes” is built upon the spirited jangle of guitars and a country music undercurrent that burbles into greater prominence from time to time. It’s primary sound of the album, delivered with true aim and aw-shucks earnestness. It’s agreeable, but it can also run a little tepid (“Privilege” is a good example). They can steer their songs too firmly in the middle of the lane, as with “This Could Be,” which recalls some of Jackson Browne’s material of the era, when he twisted away from politics and got ruminative about affairs of the heart.
As if often the case with bands like this, it gets more interesting when the unexpected seeps in around the edges. The chunky single “Something Happened Today” has hints of the tension that marked the best of Buffalo Tom, and “What in the World” features a gentle synth tone floating through it, like a new wave song is waiting eagerly for its cue to tag in. “Ambition” succeeds by getting into more of a rollicking barroom blues sound, though it suffers from unimaginative lyrics: “All I want is to get it right/ Maybe I won’t, then again I might/ Would you try to help me/ If I slip and fall?”
Of course, the very elements of Velvet Elvis that now seem a little drab were likely to give the album broader appeal. At the time, anyway, acts that crossed over from college radio had usually sanded down their splintered edges. Nothing off Velvet Elvis approached true hit status, which the band attributed to indifferent promotion by Enigma Records. They extricated themselves from the record contract and went looking for a new home in the music business. Unable to find a new label and frustrated by the sense of professional stasis, Velvet Elvis shut down as a going concern, in 1990.
955. Stiff Little Fingers, Go For It (1981)
Although Irish punk band Stiff Little Fingers certainly had their place in the U.K. music scene, there was an open question as to how far they could really go with their strident, agitprop stylings. The group found their creative voice when Gordon Ogilvie, an acquaintance who would become a regular songwriting collaborator, suggested they directly address the Troubles besetting Ireland in their lyrics. That made Stiff Little Fingers an act that practically demanded to be listened to, but it also threatened to make them the house band of the editorial page.
Go For It, the band’s third studio album, finds Stiff Little Fingers clearly taking stabs at a diversified palette, lyrically and musically. If the results aren’t always flatly successfully, the album is consistently interesting in its restless explorations. The title cut is an instrumental driven by a militaristic rhythm and littered with chewy, classic-rock-styled guitar parts. It is at once firmly contained and reverberating with the sense that it could spur if in any direction at the snap of a metal string. And “Gate 49” employs a cheery old time rock ‘n’ roll bounce that should team awkwardly with the uncompromising punk bluster, but instead feels like an ideal match.
Since it was the U.K. in the early-nineteen-eighties, occasional incorporation of a reggae cadence was practically a requirement, and Stiff Little Fingers does their part, most memorably with “The Only One” and “Safe as Houses,” the latter track featuring the nifty turn of phrase “There was a time away back then/ She might have thought to think again.” Elsewhere on the album, “Kicking Up a Racket” delivers exactly what its title promises as it recounts the woes of being a teenager, and “Piccadilly Circus” brings sharply observational lyrics to a tale of a physical attack on the street.
For all its tweaks of the Stiff Little Fingers model, Go For It doesn’t contain a musical revolution. Instead, its marked by the intrigue of a band striving to answer the ever-perplexing question “What’s next?” That the band seemed to be formulating their collective response on the fly, in the unsettled moment in which the challenging query was put forth, gives the album an itchy energy.
954. Soft Cell, The Art of Falling Apart (1983)
The Art of Falling Apart was an apt title for the second full-length studio album from the U.K. duo Soft Cell. Comprised of singer Marc Almond and synthesizer maestro David Ball, Soft Cell enjoyed commercial success beyond their most hopeful anticipation when a cover of the Gloria Jones song “Tainted Love” became a chart smash all over the world. In their homeland, it provided enough momentum to nab the band a string of Top 5 hits. So by the time Almond and Ball got down to work on the material that would serve as their second album, the pressure would have felled just about anyone.
For the blokes in Soft Cell, the added opportunities that came with success were also a boon, and The Art of Falling Apart is a flawed but fulsome wonder, with tracks that spin the studio trappings of the day into pop cyclones. At the same time, Almond was largely bypassing sedate love and breakup stories in his lyrics, opting instead for wounded tales of seedy, precarious, and hardscrabble lives. Album opener “Forever the Same” announced the intent, bringing vivid dance floor dramatics to lyrics of working class misery (“He watches the clock and watches the time/ Watches life slip by on the assembly line/ And the youth he’s never known”).
Inspired by the controversial John Rechy novel of the same name, “Numbers” proceeds with a halting rhythm as Almond coos about hollow sexual encounters, describing a Lothario’s practice of collecting conquests before ending of a bleak punchline (“Until you wake up on day and find that you’re a number”). “Baby Doll” addresses prostitution, though the lyrics wind up as little more than a distraction as the track’s distorted vocal effects, slow gallop beat, and popgun hits of echoing choral tones make it sound unnervingly like Sisters of Mercy with all the goth bleached out.
The album is most successful when it is blatant in its musical excess. “Heat” keeps building and building until it feels like its seams are shredding away, and the album closes with the title cut, a beauteous exercise in exuberant pop swagger. As the album screeches to silence, it all starts to seem like more than one small band can contain. And Almond’s attempts at self-medicating with alcohol and drugs along with his diversion into the side project Marc and the Mambas suggested a subconscious attempt to force his career into the territory of the unsustainable. Sometimes things fall apart, but sometimes they’re vibrated to pieces. Soft Cell, it seemed, was teetering between the two.
953. The Jim Carroll Band, I Write Your Name (1983)
In the long history of rock music, Jim Carroll might be the only performer who could pull off the lines “Life is easy when you’re pretty and sixteen/ Just make sure that your underwear is clean.” Those lyrics leap forth from “Love Crimes,” the lead track on I Write Your Name, the fourth album credited to the Jim Carroll Band. It’s close to a perfect track from Carroll: catchy, thumping, and finding a strange sideways admiration in the squalor of downtrodden city life. As much as anything Carroll ever recorded, “Love Crimes” could be his defining thesis.
The remainder of I Write Your Name is a decidedly mixed bag. As an creator, Carroll was more of a skilled puncher than a graceful, patient crafter of complete materials. His records generally reflect that, and this one is no exception. There are modest gems, such as the clamorous title cut and “Freddy’s Store,” which has a J. Geils Band bluesy charge. Just as often, Carroll blunders into ill-advised material and doesn’t have the insight to prune it away. “Hold Back the Dream” lays a carpet of creeping dance pop that sounds like a Bonnie Tyler discard, and it sounds even more misplaced against Carroll’s reeling, distracted beat poetry. And his cover of “Sweet Jane” offers an unsettling sampling of what it might have sounded like if Lou Reed hadn’t gotten around to writing his most beloved Velvet Underground songs until his mid-eighties wallow in slicked up studio glop.
I Write Your Name finishes with the ballad “Dance the Night Away,” which finds Carroll in a jazzy, sentimental mood. The piano-based track suggests Randy Newman without the ire or Tom Waits without the juke joint soot blow-dried off him. An endearing attempt at warmer material, it also doesn’t particularly sound natural for Carroll, either. It sounds more like an expression of Carroll’s limitations than an opening up of his possibilities.
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.