948. Fishbone, Fishbone (1985)
“Party at Ground Zero” stands as one of the greatest opening declarations of artistic identity in all of college rock. It’s probably not wholly correct to assert that no one sounded like Fishbone before the Los Angeles band blasted onto the scene, but I truly can’t think of an ancestor who shares the particular twirl of ska, funk, hard rock, and punk in their DNA. George Clinton is a spiritual godfather, to be sure. Even his vintage cluster bombs of soulful melody and bombastic beats didn’t exactly forecast the spirited crew in Fishbone created.
As the centerpiece of Fishbone’s self-titled debut EP, “Party at Ground Zero” can’t be improved upon as a masterpiece of dazzling ferocity. Audaciously making apocalyptic imagery (“And the world will turn to flowing/ Pink vapor stew”) into fodder for headlong celebration, the band rifles through a treasure box of sounds until the track’s six-and-a-half minutes have expired, and all stops have clearly been pulled out.
In general, Fishbone is a smacking good opening salvo. Time and again, the band delivers songs as if the walls will collapse at any moment, and they might as well be blazing away with guitars and drums and horns when it happens. “V.T.T.L.O.T.F.D.G.F.,” an acronym for “Voyage to the Land of the Freeze-Dried Godzilla Farts,” is apparently about a government disinformation campaign that Hiroshima’s devastation wasn’t the result of atomic warfare, but instead the flatulence of a giant lizard monster. One YouTube comment insists the track “is perfect when you are playing a fighting game or Battletech or anything with mass destruction!,” and that sums it up better than any high-falutin’ attempt at serious rock critic analysis.
The more easygoing vocals in the middle of the bursting “Another Generation” might be a buzzkill in the midst of digital mayhem, but the touch does agreeably add another sonic texture to the proceedings. And it’s fun to hear Fishbone empty the junk drawer of broadcasting call letters in “? (Modern Industry).” Forward-thinking as most of the material is on the record, the harshness of “Lyin’ Ass Bitch” today sounds more ugly than forthright, despite the presence of guest vocalist and co-writer Lisa Grant to counter the immediate impression of misogyny. That’s an aberration, though. Most of Fishbone is joyously reckless in its inspired invention.
Play it, Boy Wonder.
947. Richard Thompson, Across a Crowded Room (1985)
For Richard Thompson, the nineteen-eighties was all about splits, both professional and personal. And, of course, in one significant instance, both.
Although never someone who exactly sold records by the truckload, Thompson delivered a critically revered run of album with his wife Linda from 1974 to 1982, the last of which, the brilliant and devastating Shoot Out the Lights, was essentially a raw-nerved excavation of their deteriorating marriage. The couple officially parted after a painful concert tour together, but it took some time before the divorce was finalized (both of them remarrying shortly after). Across a Crowded Room was Richard Thompson’s first album after the ink dried on the legal papers.
It was also Thompson’s first solo album in many years off of the small Hannibal Records label, headed by his longtime producer, Joe Boyd. Although Thompson had hopped to PolyGram, Boyd came along to turn knobs for Thompson, providing a certain continuity of sounds and sensibility. There may have been tumult in the vaunted guitarists and songwriter’s life, but the album smoothly provides some very expected music. With little deviation, Across a Crowded Room is what Thompson has always sounded like.
That sound is smart, warm, rich, and peppered with casually astonishing instrumentation. Very little on the album jumps forward and emphatically demands attention, but most of it is agreeable. The enjoyably frenetic “Fire in the Engine Room” and the bounding “Little Blue Number” are quintessential Thompson tracks. Without being a country song in the slightest, “I Ain’t Going to Drag My Feet No More” sounds like it should be delivered from the backseat of a jalopy winding its way though farmland. In this instance, Thompson doesn’t fare as well when he slows down, as on the ballad “Love in a Faithless Country,” which aims for restrained intensity, but comes across as borderline inert, despite otherworldly guitar flourishes by Thompson.
Thompson kept shifting after this record, seeking collaborators other than Boyd and trying to gain a foothold in a music scene that was more respectful than overjoyed when he plugged in his amp. The music stayed rock solid and recognizably his. For a man who sometimes seemed to invite trouble, he was a remarkably dependable performer.
946. Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, Couldn’t Stand the Weather (1984)
I’ve tried and tried to come up with a different opening for this mini-review, to no avail. So, I’ll stick with the approach I can’t shake: As an appropriation and updating of classic American blues, Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Couldn’t Stand the Weather is miles beyond the lousy Eric Clapton album that appeared on our countdown two weeks ago.
Drawing the comparison might seem unfair. Although the albums have copyright dates only one year apart, Clapton was the worn-out veteran and Vaughan was the upstart in the mid-eighties, and the former was presumably hungrier and blessed with a younger performer’s added energy and invention. In truth, the two men were fairly close contemporaries — Clapton was less than ten years older than Vaughan — and the disparate outcomes were clearly less about experience than approach.
Vaughan’s second full-length with backing band Double Trouble, Couldn’t Stand the Weather is the work of a disciple who gives in to the music he adores rather than a skilled practitioner who feels he’s already mastered it. A cover of the Guitar Slim song “The Things (That) I Used to Do” is a prime example. Vaughan plays it expertly, but also with a evident gracious passion. He lets the song take him over, swarming him with its deep bends and undulating melody. As a guitarist, singer, and all-around performer, Vaughan was uncommonly skilled. However, the disciplined humility he brings to his work is the defining quality. He respectfully made himself secondary to the music.
Vaughan looked to predecessors to inform his work, which also builds some limitations into the album. A take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return)” is undoubtedly impressive, but it comes across as little more than an aspiring guitar hero’s rite of passage, a checked box instead of a compelling stand-alone track. Stretching over nine minutes, “Tin Pan Alley is a more impressive workout because of its restraint and intense instrumental details. And the Vaughan-penned instrumentals that open and close the album — “Scuttle Buttin,” with its impossibly fast and intricate guitar work, and the sweet, jazzy vamping of “Stang’s Swang” — are arguably the finest showcases for his generous affection for the music that moves him. He is true to the genres while also expressing his own fine voice.
945. Salem 66, Frequency and Urgency (1987)
Salem 66 formed in the Boston area in the early nineteen-eighties, earning attention on the basis of their songs, which mixed a garage rock roughness with the tuneful jangle that was basically the official sound of college rock in the decade. The band arguably got a little boost from the fact that — initially, anyway — the lineup was originally all women, which was still considered a rarity.
By the time of Frequency and Urgency, Salem 66’s second full-length release the band had endured a few lineup change, including the departure of two-third of the founding drummer Susan Merriam. The chief songwriters and alternating vocalists Judy Grunwald and Beth Kaplan were still around, and they were clearly studying the music that surrounded them on the left end of the dial. They weren’t creating material that was derivative, but it does seem specifically designed to nestle in amongst the growing titans of the scene. The chugging “Postcard” and the stately, contained “Blue” are made for the middle of a sterling mid-afternoon set of indie label hits.
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.