College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #848 to #845

fall saving

848. The Fall, This Nation’s Saving Grace (1985)

Although the classic college rock era covered by this particular Countdown partially tracks the journey from outsider obscurity to a wary mainstream for several artists — and, to a degree, the whole creative ethos that reigned on the left end of the dial — it’s probably worth remembering that accessibility is highly relative term, wholly dependent on the established grammar of the personnel involved. By most assessments, This Nation’s Saving Grace was the most listener-friendly album the Fall had produced to that point. It’s supposed approachability was even lamented by established fans of the band, who quickly grew accustomed to snarling — with no small hint of misogyny — about the influence of band leader Mark E. Smith’s wife, Brix Smith, who’d joined the lineup as a guitarist, singer, and co-songwriter two years earlier. She didn’t necessarily disagree that she’d shifted the sound.

“Even with the old songs, I think I added some shadow and light to them all,” she said around that time. “I give it a lot of drive, as well as adding some ‘glamor’ to it all.”

None of this means the Fall were coming anywhere near “Walking on Sunshine.” The band’s eighth studio album overall, This Nation’s Saving Grace is characteristically raw and caustic, alchemizing the confrontation of punk into pop music so deconstructionist that it’s the equivalent of bare steel beams, slender shards shedding off as some unseen external pressure rises. Mark E. Smith’s instincts call to mind comparisons to structures and other entities under assault. “Bombast” has a spoken word opening that sounds as if it’s emanating from a broken speaker (“All those whose mind entitles themselves, and whose main entitle is themselves, shall feel the wrath of my bombast!”) before going into a stark, lean rattle reminiscent of prime Iggy Pop. It’s matched in brashness by the likes of “Spoilt Victorian Child” and the intoxicating eddy of sonic elements in “Gut of the Quantifier.”

It’s recession as much as aggression that defines the Fall. Sketching the blueprint for future practitioners of too-cool-for-school artists purposefully indifferent songcraft — such as Pavement — the Fall deliver multiple tracks that feel as if they were wrapped up two or three passes early. Unlike most of the acts that echoed their approach, the Fall often made their choice at truncation with a sense of pointed purpose. The approach tends to add a air of bracing uncertainty. The sinister amble “What You Need” and the controlled casual “Paint Work” (which includes audio from a BBC documentary, reported inserted inadvertently and then retained) fit this part of the model.

This Nation’s Saving Grace didn’t provide some massive commercial breakthrough, but its arguably the band’s release that had the most lasting power. It was even the subject of a lavish rerelease several years ago, weighty with alternative edits and other supplementary material.

 

 

records

847. The Records, The Records (1979)

There might not be a finer example of the pure joy to be found in power pop than the“Starry Eyes,” the debut single from the Records. Inspired by the Eddie and the Hot Rods track “Do Anything You Wanna Do,” the Records song is shiny as polished chrome and zingily propulsive with its kiss-off lyrics (“I don’t want to argue/ There’s nothing to say/ Get me out of your starry eyes and be on your way”). It is simultaneously timeless and sharply of its era, sounding like its doing its level best to preserve the slightly retro cheeriness of nineteen-seventies AM radio pop stations. The song wasn’t exactly a hit, peaking at #56 in the U.S. and doing no better in the band’s U.K. homeland, but it gave them a template as they worked on their debut album, first with producer Robert John “Mutt” Lange (still early in his career, well before his time overseeing notable abominations against taste perpetrated by Def Leppard) and then Tim Friese-Greene. Entitled Shades in Bed in the U.K., the album was released as a self-titled effort in the U.S.

In addition to “Starry Eyes,” the album is packed with dandy songs in a similar vein. “Teenarama” is perfect bubble gum pop, though full enjoyment of it requires willful ignorance of some of the skeevy lyrics (“I wanted a change of style/ To be with a juvenile”) and “Girls That’s Don’t Exist” opens with a quickened pulse riff akin to “I Got You” before the sound fills in, completely with keening guitar lines. “Affection Rejected” has the breeziness that would someday be the defining quality of power pop legacy adopters Fountains of Wayne.

As much as there’s real strength to the material, there are also signs of a fairly limited range to the Records. “Another Star” wobbles in large part because of the prog rock indulgence layered into it, and the decent hook in “Insomnia”  can’t make up for inane lyrics (“I’ve tried all kinds of pills/ And also counted sheep/ Read another magazine/ Still I can not sleep”). The Records tinkered with their lineup and sound for two more albums before folding as a going concern.

 

 

fegmania

846. Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Fegmania! (1985)

The music career of Robyn Hitchcock was always likely to strange and circuitous, but for a time in the early nineteen-eighties, any attentive observers might reasonably predict it was going to terminate well before the peculiar poet from Paddington had run out of words. Following the dissolution of his band the Soft Boys, Hitchcock delivered a series of solo albums which maintained the mode of tunefully offbeat he’d previously established as a thoroughly unique voice. Their penetration in the cultural consciousness was impeded by music business confusion, leading Hitchcock to at least make overtures of walking away from the upside down circus altogether, releasing the single “Eaten by Her Own Dinner” as a parting shot.

Following a return with the spare I Often Dream of Trains —an album undertaken as a cathartic exercise ahead of beginning again — Hitchcock reached out to his former bandmates Morris Windsor and Andy Metcalfe. They became a backing band dubbed the Egyptians. Fegmania! was the album that followed.

To the degree that Hitchcock is known to a broader audience, it’s likely as a lyricist whose propensity for the absurd puts him just outside the realm of novelty. There’s no denying that quality to his material, especially with titles such as “The Man with the Lightbulb Head.”  But it’s that track’s incorporation of enticing psychedelia that provides a fuller picture of Hitchcock’s artistry. The music is as vivid and unorthodox as the lyrics, whether skewing to lush (“Egyptian Cream”) or driving (“Heaven”). On Fegmania!, it truly seems as if Hitchcock can go spiriting through any secret door spied through a kaleidoscope. “Strawberry Mind” sounds like demented zydeco, and the mightily agitated rhythm of “The Fly”  suggests the title insect while somehow making the gimmick immaterial, as if all music of the era sounded like that. Why wouldn’t it?

Although Hitchcock is often pigeonholed — somewhat understandably, if I’m being honest — for the wild imaginings he shares, there’s an inherent understanding of the emotions that drive human interaction. No matter the strangeness slaloming through the tracks, the words are grounded in something truthful, as with the tender “Another Bubble” (“She’s just another human/ And when you get up close you’ll see/ Now, what you gonna do, man?/ Don’t make her what you’ll never be”). Hitchcock’s endless inventiveness is always in the service of exploring the deeper self. With Fegmania!, people were starting to properly listen.

I also like the song “My Wife and My Dead Wife.”

 

 

x-teens love

845. X-Teens, Love and Politics (1985)

The X-Teens plied their craft in Durham, North Carolina, in the first half of the nineteen-eighties. Almost inevitably, that means they were tangled up with the crew of music practitioners led by Mitch Easter and Don Dixon. Both of those alumni of R.E.M.’s early records pitched in for the X-Teens self-titled debut, released in 1984, and their influence persists on the sophomore release Love and Politics“Don’t Listen to Him” even sounds a little like the sideways funk Dixon indulged in around that time on his solo efforts around that time.

Cranking out clever, jumpy guitar pop, X-Teens court all sorts of comparisons on the album. Change Gotta Come” is like a weirder XTC, there’s an echo of Elvis Costello’s contained bellow on “Say It Isn’t So”, and “It Was Something” is similar to the adding-the-kitchen-sink-means-we’re-just-getting-started approach of Oingo Boingo. I don’t mean to imply that the material on Love and Politics is derivative. Instead, it’s bright and exploratory, bending a fine sense of songcraft in many different directions, always acquitting themselves nicely. The jazzy island-hopping vibe of “Hostage of My Heart” isn’t usually my thing, but bound up with the band’s sincerity, it is warm and winning.

Love and Politics is a fine album. It was also the last from the X-Teens. The band broke up before the end of the year.

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