College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #872 to #869

sting sun872. Sting, …Nothing Like the Sun (1987)

These days, I’m as prone as anyone to treat the performer born Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner as a punchline of uncoolness, sitting swaddled in a couture turtleneck on some sprawling, misty English estate. Back in the nineteen-eighties, though, (as well as deeper into the nineties than I’m currently prepared to admit) I was an acolyte of the former Police-man, certain that his jazz-flirtation approach to rock was the epitome of high class modern musical artistry. I was hardly alone. Sting’s second solo outing, …Nothing Like the Sun, was met with an enraptured reception, marked by critics extolling its intricate virtues.

I think it’s fair and accurate to say that …Nothing Like the Sun has aged better than its immediate predecessor, Dream of the Blue Turtles, if only because its songs offering political commentary on current events — such as “Fragile,” inspired by an innocent man who became a casualty of the Nicaraguan conflict, and “They Dance Alone,” about women whose loved ones were among the disappeared in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile — are far more adept than the outraged middle school essay that is the earlier “Russians.” At the time, Sting was highly enamored with jazz-influenced arrangements, an understandable impulse when an ace player like Branford Marsalis is drawing a paycheck in the backing band. Sting’s version tipped toward the tepid, though. Sometimes the gentle touch fits well, as on the charming Quentin Crisp tribute “Englishman in New York” (a minor hit as a single, but now arguably the album’s most enduring track). Just as often, Sting’s approach could result in “Sister Moon,” mostly notable for its ability to grow tedious despite a running time under four minutes.

The album was largely written while Sting was in mourning for his mother, who died in 1986. There’s a slightly ruminative quality to much of the material, a somberness that plays as welcome restraint rather than dourness. Even as the material lolls across four vinyl sides (the length of …Nothing Like the Sun was clearly designed for the extra space available on the new-fangled compact disc technology), it ultimately feels less indulgent than what occasional came before from Sting, and definitely less so than what was to come. The songs could be playful (“We’ll Be Together,” the album’s sole Top 10 hit, and “Rock Steady”), fulsome yet balanced (“The Lazarus Heart”), or tender (“The Secret Marriage,” which borrows a Hanns Eisler melody.) The only grievous misstep is a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Wing” that manages to jettison any sense of longing or passion.

By any measure, …Nothing Like the Sun was a major success for Sting. It was certified double platinum in the U.S. and nabbed him three Grammy nominations, including his second straight Album of the Year nod. (In general, the Recording Academy has shown embarrassing devotion to Sting, bestowing upon him forty-four nominations and sixteen wins over his career, including trophies for decidedly subpar material.) Any stubborn skeptics who felt Sting wouldn’t prosper away from the Police had no choice but to cede. For better or worse, Sting wasn’t going anywhere.

 

 

swimming blue

871. The Swimming Pool Q’s, Blue Tomorrow (1986)

While Athens was the Georgia city renowned for a steady-flowing pipeline of great bands during college radio’s nineteen-eighties heyday, Atlanta had a few local heroes of their own. The Swimming Pool Q’s formed in the late nineteen-seventies and quickly developed a reputation as a strong live act, earning support gigs for major acts, including the southern swing of the first major U.S. undertaken by the Police. They released their debut album, The Deep End, on the Atlanta indie label DB Records in 1981. Some lineup shuffling followed, and the group snagged a major label contract with A&M Records.

Blue Tomorrow was the sophomore outing for Swimming Pool Q’s as part of the A&M stable. Working with producer Mike Howlett — who oversaw the Alarm’s breakthrough release, Strength, as well as the first couple A Flock of Seagulls albums — the band delivers a wide-ranging records that sounds agreeably like a primer of all the different sounds that were popping on college radio in the middle of the eighties. While maintaining a strong sense of identity, the band roams and rollicks, often injected sly comedy into the lyrics and building music of inventive homage.

The predominant sound of Blue Tomorrow is a wry, jangly take on country rock. It’s firmly present in the title cut, as well as the thumping “Laredo Radio.” The latter track has the sort of opening couplet that bands spend entire careers trying to craft: “Well, the sound is up/ And my fortune’s down.” Merging that sonic personality with their home region, “Big Fat Tractor” sounds like the product of a joyful partnership between the Beat Farmers and the B-52’s. There’s a nice churning guitar on “She’s Looking Real Good,” and “More Than One Heaven” has an easy propulsion. The latter track features lead vocals by Anne Richmond Boston, who regularly trades off on those duties with Jeff Calder. She has a tonal quality equally rich and ethereal, which can give her tracks — such as the mildly Celtic twirl “Now I’m Talking About Now” — an soaring quality atop the straightforward guitar pop, as if Kate Bush had decided to tour scruffy college bars with the Connells as a backing band.

Blue Tomorrow is terrific, but the sales weren’t strong enough to satisfy A&M Records. The band was dropped, and Boston left to pursue solo efforts. The Swimming Pool Q’s eventually signed to Capitol and released one more album (World War Two Point Five, in 1989) before settling into a long hiatus, although Calder maintains the band was a going concern the whole time, just a little quiet in stretches.

 

 

gene immigrant

870. Gene Loves Jezebel, Immigrant (1985)

Immigrant was the second full-length release from Gene Loves Jezebel, and it represented a clear strike at making a commercial breakthrough. Producer John Leckie was brought in to oversee the recording, and though he wasn’t precisely someone with a knack for hits, his sterling reputation was built on helping somewhat prickly artists — such as XTC and the Fall — shape a more approachable sound. Headed by twin brothers Jay and Michael Aston, Gene Loves Jezebel specialized in an especially odd brand of goth rock. There’s a fine sheen to Immigrant, but there was probably only so much Leckie could do.

Album opener “Always a Flame” sounds like Cocteau Twins with a trashy streak and maybe a few pints in them. That’s entertaining, but it’s very much an ear-of-the-beholder situation as to whether or not it’s all that good. For all the polish, Immigrant is defiantly, consistently challenging, in its layers of potentially off-putting elements rather than engrossing complexities. The lead vocals on “Shame” are a true endurance test, coming across as some keening, whining version of a cartoonish late night horror movie host. And the very weird “Cow” (“Did you see the cow with the furrowed brow?/ He’s laughing out”) almost offers a surly condemnation of anyone who’d dare try to discern its meaning. Tracks like those make the drab goth wallow “Coal Porter” almost a relief. It may also be messy, but at least the lyrics open with a scrutable thesis statement: “Why can’t I have you again?/ Why can’t we be such friends?”

The clattering mediocrity of the album — and a decent amount of the band’s other output — is part of the reason the long afterlife of Gene Loves Jezebel is far more interesting than anything they pressed onto record back in the day. The Aston brothers might actually top the Davies, the Fogertys, and Gallaghers in the storied annals of rock ‘n’ roll familial dysfunction. Always contentious, the Astons broke away from each other for good in the late nineties, each persisting with separate and yet identically named versions of Gene Loves Jezebel.

 

 

utopia swing

869. Utopia, Swing to the Right (1982)

In the early days of the Reagan Revolution, Todd Rundgren and his cohorts in Utopia were angry about the state of the world. With clear-eyed assessment of the rampant avarice that existed behind the veneer of patriotic aspiration in the Republican party’s new rhetoric, the group crafted a set of songs that attacks the myth-making with angry satire. Titled Swing to the Right, the album was delivered to the band’s Bearsville record label. Albert Grossman, head of the label, was already irritated with Utopia, due to the way it diverted Rundgren from his solo work — which sold significantly better than those with his side group — and the bruising reception of their 1980 album, Deface the Music, which aggressively spoofed the Beatles. A new collection of highly political pop songs was just another indignation. Grossman shoved Swing to the Right aside, waiting almost a year before releasing it.

If anything, the album became more timely in the interim, as was clear on the scathing title cut. With lavish production and cheery harmonies, Utopia delivers the grotesque message of Reagan and his disciples: “Don’t want to hear what the povertous expect from me/ Let ’em eat cake if they feel that way/ I gotta work why should I have to pay for that?/ And I don’t want to be left holding the bag for them.” This credo is effectively countered toward the end of the album, when the ballad “Only Human” calls for sympathetic understanding of common shortcomings.

In between, Utopia offers their own dismayed state of the union, bucking against war culture on “Lysistrata” and swiping at resurgent shamelessness among the capitalists with a rubbery cover of the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” leading straight into “Last Dollar on Earth,” a condemnation of greed encased in a uniquely abrasive new wave song. Across the album, Rundgren’s nearly peerless studio technique is evident, even when (or maybe especially when) he’s playing around with sidelong musical parody, as on “Junk Rock,” which sounds like a poke at Devo.

Perhaps influenced by the label’s lack of enthusiasm for the album, Swing to the Right was the weakest charting release in the Utopia catalog to that point. As though making amends for the combativeness, the next Utopia album was self-titled, promising nothing more than the expected doses of characteristic big, bold pop. There was one change Rundgren made sure was in place, however. He made sure Utopia was freed of their commitment to Bearsville. The album was released by Network Records, with no undue delay.

 

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