College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #764 to #761

works enemy

764. The Icicle Works, If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song (1987)

By most accounts, Ian McNabb was anxious for a hit when it came time to record the third album with his band the Icicle Works. The group had tasted success with the early track “Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream),” even notching a Top 40 U.S. single, but momentum didn’t build as hoped. The Icicle Works dispensed bright, smart pop music to only the barest commercial appreciation. That surely factored in to the decision to enlist producer Ian Broudie for the album that bore the inspired title If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song. Broudie had a building reputation for presiding over lush, lovely pop songs with a decidedly British bent, most notably some of the best efforts of Echo & the Bunnymen. If anyone was prepared to polish the Icicle Works’ material into an irresistible shape at the time, it was Broudie.

Measured strictly in terms of quality, I think If You Want to Defeat Your Enemy Sing His Song meets its implicit goal. McCann’s songwriting, which always straddled the border between between inventive and insipid (let’s call it “The Marillion Line”), benefits from the sense of unending flourish Broudie’s production work provides. “Hope Springs Eternal” shimmers with lithe drama, and “Evangeline” somehow manages to be breezy and blasting at the same time, like a more cogent Julian Cope. “When You Were Mine” is a song meant to be bellowed from a gray, craggy expanse as ocean waves offer cymbal crashes against the shore. The sense of the music serving as a piece of a larger, grand story is maybe strongest on the effusively swoony “Walking with a Mountain,” if only because of the way it keeps pace with other pop efforts of the day that were similarly crafted as if in audition for the closing credits of a John Hughes movie.

The album firmly belongs to the mid-nineties-eighties, but there’s also a sheen of classic pop to it, reaching back at least as far as Phil Ramone’s fabled Wall of Sound. The vintage stylings bolster “Who Do You Want for Your Love?” and add to the inner being of “Sweet Thursday,” which sounds like the evolutionary link between Scott Walker and Pulp. Vibrant, propulsive single  “Understanding Jane,” the album’s delightful pinnacle, carries threads of every descriptor I’ve offered thus far. It is pop brilliance and yet also contains a painfully inane double entendre involving a pool cue. I adore every bit of it without reservation.

The commercial success for the album remained at the very modest standard most of the Icicle Works’ material has already set. There were a couple more albums before the group formally dissolved, though McNabb occasionally assembled a few backing musicians and toured under the name.

 

lowe cowboy

763. Nick Lowe, Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit (1984)

I maintain that Nick Lowe deserved far better than he got in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, but he definitely didn’t make it easy on himself. In 1984, as MTV’s influence was starting to balloon, helping to give crisply constructed pop songs significant inroads on the charts, Lowe should have been able to take advantage, since he was about as fine at crafting songs as anyone else at around that time. Instead, he slapped a moniker on his backing band that suggested he was pursuing a country music sound that had fallen out of favor at the moment. In British slang, “Cowboy Outfit” referred to a shoddy, possibly unscrupulous organization posing as a legitimate business, an entirely characteristic expression of cynical humor on Lowe’s part. U.S. audiences didn’t know that, though, and radio and cable music video programmers weren’t particularly motivated to figure it out, either. Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit sunk.

If Lowe doesn’t exactly deliver world-beating stuff on the album, his half measure artistry and showmanship still laps most musical practitioners. The jaunty party vibe of “Half a Boy and Half a Man” is complemented by a crunchy cover of Mickey Jupp’s “You’ll Never Get Me Up (In One of Those)” and the rockabilly rave-up “Maureen.” There are moments when Lowe accedes to the some studio experimentation, as with the almost industrial pumping that serves as the rhythm line for “(Hey Big Mouth) Stand Up and Say That.” More often, he charmingly saunters through the proceedings like a host who’s moments away from setting aside any concerns over how the guests are doing in order to tend to the martinis he’s stirring up for himself. The easygoing “The Gee and the Rick and the Three Card Trick” is decidedly in this mode. And then there’s his trademark wry wit, as heard on “God’s Gift to Women” (“He says he can make her toes curl/ She says he only makes her skin crawl”).

Lowe may have been misstepping, but he was doing it with endearing aplomb. If the album didn’t exactly work in capturing a larger audience, it kept the faithful just happy enough. And Lowe didn’t wait around much in those days. Nick Lowe and His Cowboy Outfit was his third album is as many years, and another studio effort followed not long after. That one didn’t quite ignite either, but it did include his first single to make inroads on the U.S. charts in years and became an MTV hit to boot.

 

lorries mantra

762. The Lorries, Crawling Mantra (1987)

Red Lorry Yellow Lorry had developed a modest but fervent fan base with their first few releases, across the middle part of the nineteen-eighties, so it was of course time to confuse matters by briefly adopting a new name. For the EP Crawling Mantra, the Leeds-based band was suddenly going by the Lorries, which was at least already a shorthand nickname for the group. Still, radio station music directors and record store proprietors must have felt some consternation as alphabetical filing systems were knocked asunder by a fleeting dalliance with a pseudonym.

If the band had an identity crisis in their name, it didn’t manifest in the music. Across its four tracks, Crawling Mantra is on brand black eyeliner beauty, led by the grand goth snaking of the title cut. The EP also offers the appropriately grim “Hang Man” and the thick menace of live cut “Shout at the Sky.”  No matter the name on the sleeve, Crawling Mantra is about assertion of an established sound rather than reinvention. The Lorries, both yellow and red varieties, were claiming their space in a very specific section of the musical landscape, and it was noticed. Shortly after the EP was released, the band signed with Situation Two, an offshoot of Beggars Banquet Records that was home to similar avatars of sullen glam Gene Loves Jezebel, Tones on Tail, and the Bolshoi.

 

eric smash

761. Wreckless Eric, Big Smash! (1980)

One of the founding artists on the legendary U.K. label Stiff Records, Wreckless Eric delivered on of the all-time great debut singles with the 1977 release “Whole Wide World.” The cut is so good that it doesn’t even seem all that cruel to note he never remotely approached its exalted heights again, except that it’s not only the high standard that remained elusive. By the time of his third album, it was clear Wreckless Eric simply didn’t have that much strong material in him. The label made it clear they were in agreement with that withering assessment, bundling the new record with a “greatest hits” collection as the second half of a de facto double album, led by a remixed “Whole Wide World.”

“It made me feel my new album wasn’t good enough, which I don’t think it was, actually,” Wreckless Eric later said of the move. “But at the time, it wasn’t a good way to feel about it.”

The new material that make up Big Smash! isn’t disastrous, but it sure is messy. The romping “Break My Mind” and the cantankerous irony of single “A Popsong” have a certain appeal. Those cuts are outliers. Most of the time, Wreckless Eric takes one idea — usually a lyrical hook — and repeats it into numbing tedium. About the best he can do with the repetitive lyrics is to start shouting louder and in a more ragged fashion, as on “Broken Doll.”  It’s more problematic on “Too Busy,” which is a notion instead of a song. Even when there’s a more robust ingredient list to the stew, the results are still cloying, whether the slurring, coked-up rockabilly “Back in My Hometown” or the frightful “It’ll Soon Be the Weekend,” which is about as dumb as they come.

The experience was hugely disheartening for Wreckless Eric. Not long after the release of Big Smash!, the performer extricated himself from his contract with Stiff Records and deliberately settled into a far more modest music career.

 

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