936. Skinny Puppy, Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate (1987)
It bizarre for me to think of industrial titans Skinny Puppy as edging towards cuddly mainstream acceptance, but that’s arguably what was happening around 1987, the year the Canadian released their third album, Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate. Their original label, Nettwerk, had signed a distribution deal with Capitol Records, a major player in the music business that specifically saw Skinny Puppy as a perfect entryway into the growing college radio market. Capitol employed every trick they could think of in promoting the record, such as distributing a paperweight resembling an eyeball and inexplicably landing a review in People magazine, which explained listening to Skinny Puppy’s music was like “stepping into a nightmare being experienced by the Phantom of the Opera.”
Spare a moment’s sympathy for the unwitting People subscribers who procured a copy of Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate believing it was a spookier version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical so new on the scene it was a highly topic reference to deploy. The fare on the album may be a little more approachable than Skinny Puppy at their aggressive pinnacle, but it ain’t “All I Ask of You.” The angry, snaking menace of “Addiction” is as cuddly as the album gets.
Skinny Puppy helped map the terrain of industrial music, and their defining expertise is apparent on Cleanse, Fold & Manipulate. The lock into a style that can be fairly rigid, and find odd, flinty angles within it. “Draining Faces” stays in a seething idle for most of its five minutes before expanding into a vicious, viscous swirl of sound. And “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” is fantastically propulsive, as if it could issue commands to the pogo-ing version of The Red Shoes.
As is often the case with industrial, there’s far less appeal to the lyrics, which are burdened with portentous nihilism. It’s a particularly painful proposition when the tracks tick into political commentary, as with the post-Vietnam ponderings of “Second Tooth” (“It’s useless killing children/ To satisfy the arms budgets/ Who walks right or left/ A child won’t give a damn”). It’s best to simply concentrate on the razor wire music. Skinny Puppy deployed it better than most.
935. The Soup Dragons, This is Our Art (1988)
I tend to think of the Soup Dragons as careening between markedly different styles from album to album. That’s because the touchstones from my personal college radio days — Lovegod (1990), Hotwired (1992), and Hydrophonic (1994) — really do operate with distinctly different flavors. However, a fresh listen to This is Our Art reminded me the Scottish band’s sonic contradictions were intermingling from the jump.
The proper full-length debut of the Soup Dragons (following the 1986 album Hang Ten!, which was a collection of previously released material from singles and EPs), This is Our Art is vividly rambunctious, zipping from one musical notion to the next. The hooks are infectious and the band operates with an enviable swagger, putting the songs across with unstoppable charisma and assurance. That’s true whether it’s the sugar blast glam rock of “Kingdom Chairs,” the mild psychedelia of “The Majestic Head?,” or the smart, skittering “King of the Castle.” They even adopt a convincing Morrissey swoon for the track “On Overhead Walkways.”
Although This is Our Art strikes me as the product of a band with an abundance of musical and stylistic ideas, the second side presents a counterargument. As if playing in real time, the album lags as it spins to the end. “Family Ways” is dully redundant, as is “Another Dreamticket.” They play like padding, little musical notions expanded to reach a contractually mandated running time. New to major label Sire Records, the band might very well have been facing down stern instructions. The best of the album, though, indicates the Soup Dragons were best when allowed to bend any and all rules put before them.
934. Eddie Money, Playing for Keeps (1980)
A trade journal print ad promoting the 1980 album Playing for Keeps posed a question: “How come Eddie Money’s always givin’ you the business?” The New York performer had enjoyed a few unlikely hits in the late nineteen-seventies, perhaps because his mangy hound authenticity provided an endearing contrast to the studio-buffed disco dominating the charts at the time. But it didn’t exactly seem as if Money had the complexity or room for growth needed to build a long, consistent career. By the release of Playing for Keeps, his third album, he was finding it difficult to duplicate his earlier success.
Produced by Ron Nevison — who also has to answer for a multitude of AOR sins, such as the sum output of Damn Yankees — Playing for Keeps is a procession of mediocre ideas implemented poorly. Album opener “Trinidad” somehow combines the worst characteristics of Billy Joel and Jimmy Buffet into a single track. Proving things can always get worse, it’s followed by “Running Back,” which commits so fully to some weird white soul version of reggae that wispy blond dreads are likely to form in the psyche of any being unfortunate enough to hear it.
Money is a passable rock singer, and when he sticks to earnest updates of typical sixties fare, the result is uninspiring but forgivable. He falters most painfully on the ballads, such as the drippy “When You Took My Heart,” in which he sings, “It was yours to have/ Cuz you touched my soul/ She came along, took this boy’s hand/ And the child became a man.” No human performer can overcome lyrics like that. And then there’s the dreadful duet “Let’s Be Lovers Again,” which ropes Valerie Carter into the misery.
The same ad cited above promised that Money would be on tour through the entirety of 1980, jokingly quoting the performer. “The boss says I cant come home till the album’s platinum,” he supposedly said. It was a cute way to depict Money’s servitude the music business machine, but the grueling schedule took a toll on the singer. Self-medicating with barbiturates, Money collapsed when overdosing, injuring himself severely enough to require extensive rehab efforts, further derailing his career.
933. Rubber Rodeo, Scenic Views (1984)
Hailing from Providence, Rhode Island, Rubber Rodeo honed their craft on the Boston music scene of the early-nineteen-eighties, one of the hallowed eras and locals in the grand college rock story. Brash and bodacious, the band knew how to set themselves apart, once playing a New York City label showcase on a stage adorned with cardboard renderings of cheesy Western cliches, like a cactus and a rattlesnake. The head of Eat Records, the independent label that helped the band record their debut release, termed the band “an exercise in commercial art.” Like Talking Heads, the members of Rubber Rodeo met at the Rhode Island School of Design.
If Rubber Rodeo’s sense of showmanship was exceedingly well-developed, their music wasn’t far behind. The material on Scenic Views — the band’s proper debut album, which was picked up and released by Mercury Records — is sterling college rock fare with an overlay of mildly ironic cowpoke charm. The leisurely twang of “Walking After Midnight” is representative, as is “The Hardest Thing,” a breakup song that sounds like X after the last layer of punk has been scraped away.
Befitting their saloon hall cleverness, Rubber Rodeo has a sleeve-hidden ace. Vocalist Trish Milliken’s sings like a splendid amalgamation of Kate Pierson and Siouxsie Sioux, bring equal parts bounce and slink to every song. As much as any other element, it’s her singing that makes “Need You, Need Me” (on which guitarist Bob Holmes also features prominently on vocals) sound as if it was commissioned for the David Lynch action film that will sadly never happen. She similarly contributes to the sense that “Mess O’ Me,” with its swirl of tingly pop sounds, is a couple downers away from turning into a lush Cocteau Twins hit.
There are bum tracks on Scenic Views, as well. “City of God” sounds like an incredibly tepid version of the Alarm, and “House of Pain” has deeply dreadful lyrics (“I’m bring home the bacon/ For my little house of pain/ I’m bringing home the bacon/ So she’ll fry it in a pan”). It seems less like the missteps of a band that still needs a little time to grow and more like the half-hearted effort of creators who think they can make up for their shortcomings with other elements, like stage magicians disguised the mechanics of trick with stage banter. I’d argue Rubber Rodeo wasn’t correct in that theory, but they did manage to snare a Grammy nomination for the long-form video they created in conjunction with Scenic Views. So maybe there was something to the expansive commercial art theory.
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.