College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #696 to #693

fogelberg innocent

696. Dan Fogelberg, The Innocent Age (1981)

There was a point when music artists of a certain stature couldn’t simply release a new record. An extra level of import was required, and so singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg followed his greatest commercial success to that point, the 1979 multi-platinum release Phoenix, with a sprawling double album that he termed a sixteen-part “song cycle” about the gradual erosion of childhood innocence. Although concept albums were fading in stature by the early nineteen-eighties, their off-putting pretension countered by the brisk joys of new wave, The Innocent Age proved to be another major hit for Fogelberg, placing three singles in the Billboard Top 10 and again moving millions of copies.

The album opens with Fogelberg playing the sprightly troubadour “Nexus,” complete with ponderous lyrics that might make the members of Jethro Tull call for a rewrite (“And balanced on the precipice/ The moment must reveal/ Naked in the face of time/ Our race within the wheel”). The track is reasonably emblematic of all that follows. While there are occasional cuts that take a bit of rock ‘n’ roll ballast (“Lost in the Sun” sounds like the missing link between the jangle folk rock of Jefferson Airplane and the thudding excess of Jefferson Starship), most of the material is wispy as tracing paper. “The Sand and the Foam” is pure treacle, and wan ballad “Only the Heart May Know” is beyond saving, even by the considerable charm and warmth of Emmylou Harris as a duet partner. The Top 10 singles — “Leader of the Band,” “Same Old Lang Syne,” and “Hard to Say” — collectively stand as the epitome of mellow pop.

The double album’s supposed thematic unity somehow still allows for Fogelberg to give a home to some of his songwriting strays. “Times Like These” appeared on the Urban Cowboy soundtrack one year earlier, and “Run for the Roses” was commissioned by ABC to accompany broadcasts of the Kentucky Derby, allowing Fogelberg to croon lovingly to a horse (“The sun on your withers / The wind in your mane / Could never prepare you/ For what lies ahead”). The tepid theatricality found on “The Lion’s Share” and “Ghosts” echo the intricate music box pop of Harry Nilsson, at least if his records were cloying and bad.

The Innocent Age represents Fogelberg’s commercial peak, in part because his output slowed. It would be three years before his next studio album, and the pop music landscape changed significantly during that time. Subsequent releases settled for lower and lower peaks on the charts, until Fogelberg essentially became a nostalgia act. He passed away in 2007, after an extended battle with prostate cancer.

 

freaks monkey

695. House of Freaks, Monkey on a Chain Gang (1987)

Comprised of only two members, Bryan Harvey on guitar and Johnny Hott on drums, House of Freaks made a splendid racket. The duo’s debut, Monkey on a Chain Gang, is filled with tracks that are potent enough to disguise the fact that there’s not a large outfit banging out the songs. The band sounds lean, but not understaffed. Heightened by Harvey’s rich, keening vocals, the material is consistently forceful.

Without feeling particularly beholden to one bygone style, House of Freaks give the impression that they’re bringing the sum total of rock history into the songs they craft. There’s a clear retro guitar prowl on album opener “Crack in the Sidewalk” and a jabbing, blues ferocity to “You Can Never Go Home,” but more often the influence is less overt. Theres also a smacking modernity that made it easy for these cuts to settle snugly into a college radio playlist.  “40 Years” wouldn’t be out of place on a classic Squeeze album, and “My Backyard” sounds like members of Guadalcanal Diary and the Replacements decided to form a college rock supergroup.

Monkey on a Chain Gang is absolutely loaded, boasting thirteen tracks, not a single one disposable. “Black Cat Bone” is raw and insistent, “Yellow Dog” careens with thrilling velocity, and “Monkey’s Paw” is starkly enticing. Across the tracks, House of Freaks plays with a concentrated energy, as if trying to put every last ounce of themselves on record just in case they didn’t get a chance to make another one. That would have been a reasonable fear, considering the band a rare current act signed to Rhino Records, then as now specialists in colorful reissues. There were more records to come, though, all of them dandy.

Unfortunately, the House of Freaks story ends in tragedy. In 2006, Harvey and his family were victims of a brutal crime when two men invaded their home, killing everyone inside and then trying to cover their crime by setting the structure ablaze. It was Hott who saw the flames and alerted the authorities, leading to the discovery of the crime scene.

 

brains against

694. Bad Brains, I Against I (1986)

According to producer Ron Saint Germain, I Against I, the third release from Bad Brains, was recorded on a shoestring budget. Saint Germain came to the job straight off of studio duties on the one and only album from Duran Duran offshoot band Arcadia, a project where money was essentially a fungible commodity. When Saint Germain was initially told the total allotment of dollars available for I Against I, he assumed it was meant to cover the recording of a single track. Extreme austerity was simply the prevailing model used by the band’s new label, SST Records.

If the lean finances had a negative impact on Bad Brains, it’s absolutely indiscernible on I Against I. The album is absolutely titanic in its outlook and impact, building on the band’s hardcore roots to deliver a set of songs that practically trembled with unpredictability. As an early example in the track listing, Bad Brains packs an album’s worth of shifts onto the title cut. They unleash weirdo metal on “Return to Heaven” and, on “She’s Calling You,” forecast the hard rock and funk combo that would briefly lift Living Colour to rock star status.

For all the bracing sonic wanderings of the album, I Against I is mostly notably for the sheer power flashed by the band, offering the reassurance that punk was always going to be the prevailing piece of their musical personality. There’s the marvelous rockslide of noise that opens “House of Suffering” and the echoing dread on “Secret 77.” In its combination of hardcore hurtling and expert melodizing, “Let Me Help” recalls Hüsker Dü, circa Zen Arcade. Like that exalted Minneapolis trio, Bad Brains deserved breathless plaudits for their fearless creativity.

Impressive as I Against I consistently is, there was wearying drama behind the scenes. Lead singer H.R. experienced one of his regular bouts of dissatisfaction and quite the band not long after the album’s release, leaving some of the tour dates in support of I Against I to replacement Taj Singleton. There were more albums to come, and the personnel tumult following I Against I became as much of a mainstay as the thunderous guitars and pounding drums. Part of the strength of the Bad Brains records, especially I Against I, is that the surrounding messiness is entirely incidental.

 

pandora stop

693. Pandoras, Stop Pretending (1986)

When the Pandoras signed with Rhino Records, Paula Pierce decided it was time to start over. The frontwoman and chief songwriter for the band, Pierce fired her bandmates and brought in new recruits, briefly leading to a stretch when her disgruntled former cohorts played gigs and recorded music under the Pandoras name, apparently in part to spite her. It was Pierce whose name was on the bottom line of the record deal though, and her version of the group went into the studio with producer Bill Inglot. Stop Pretending, officially the Pandoras’ sophomore full-length, was the result.

Pierce and the Pandoras were expert revivalists, playing a brusque, tough-minded garage rock that could have been airlifted in straight from the late nineteen-sixties. The chunky guitars on “I Didn’t Cry” and the splendid drum and organ interplay on “I’m Your Girl” testify to the band’s fine musicianship, and the tuneful “Anyone But You” is equally iron-clad evidence of the skillful songwriting at play on the album. “You Don’t Satisfy” cuts like a jagged razor, and “Let’s Do Right” pops assertively, suggesting the Bangles if every last one of them was balancing a hefty chip on their respective shoulders. The sunshine-dappled title cut hits the same sweet spot that the Primitives found a couple years later, and thrashing album closer “It Felt Alright” offers the Yin to that Yang.

Perpetually unsettled, the Pandoras left Rhino Records after the release of Stop Pretending, believing they’d have better luck on Elektra Records. Instead, their attempts to make a new album were thwarted. The Pandoras were dropped and wound up briefly on Restless Records, releasing one EP before disbanding. One year after the group broke up, Pierce suffered a brain aneurysm and died. She had celebrated her thirty-first birthday less than two months prior.

 

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

Outside Reading — The Right Thing edition

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(Image via The New York Times)

Megan Rapinoe Cannot Make This Any Clearer by Barry Petchesky

This piece was written and published before Megan Rapinoe scored two goals to lift the U.S. women’s national team past their French rivals in the World Cup quarterfinals, cementing her status as a hero of her sport. With a blessed directness common at Deadspin, Barry Petchesky gets into the mini-feud between the skilled forward representing the nation admirably on the biggest sports stage of the moment and the petulant slug who smugly signs off on policies that diminish protections for her and those she cares for then brutishly demands fealty anyway. Unlike other stories on the same topic, Petchesky goes past the personality clash to examine — citing Rapinoe’s clear understanding of this situation — why the second-place-finisher occupying the White House is so fixated on athletes.

 

The Enduring Urgency of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” at Thirty by Richard Brody

do the right thing

The more prolific and esoteric of the two film critics toiling under the New Yorker banner, Richard Brody is usually relegated to capsule reviews in print, proving to be a highly adept communicator in the form. (Whenever I write a movie preview for Tone Madison, it’s Brody’s bar I’m leaping to clear.) Online, he can stretch out a little more, and the thirtieth anniversary of Do the Right Thing, accompanied by a revival house booking in New York City, provides the perfect prompt. Brody offers a fresh assessment of the movie that still stands as Spike Lee’s finest, efficiently touching on all the components that ensure its cinematic legacy, regardless of the swirling social context around it, then and now. But then, the social context is important, too. Three decades later, the film’s depiction of the killing of an unarmed black man by police officers has, alarmingly, become even more pertinent. That’s part of Brody’s article. I’ve taken my own cracks at writing about Do the Right Thing over the years. I wish I’d done it as well as this.

 

The Meaning Changed, But DiGiorno’s Slogan Stays the Same by Jaya Saxena

not delivery

This essay, published at Eater, is absolutely inspired. Beginning from the oddity that the DiGiorno frozen pizza brand has clung to the same slogan for an unusually long time, Jaya Saxena traces the way the message of that registered phrase has completely transformed over time. With inventiveness and insight, Saxena then illustrates how that transformation reflects a broader shift in the cultural relationship with delivered meals. Saxena wrote the following on Twitter: “A lot of people have already had to sit through my rant about how weird it is that DiGiorno’s slogan is the same but means something totally different than it did in the 90s, but now I work at a food website so you ALL have to sit through it.” And, my sweet Rowdy Roddy, isn’t that what topically hyper-focused news and opinion websites are for? Make no mistake, these are the days of miracle and wonder, and the marketplace of ideas is bustling like never before.

 

This Week’s Model — Lucy Dacus, “Forever Half Mast”

lucy dacus

Back when Fridays were turned over older songs excavated from my digital collection, the edition that landed around the U.S. federal holiday Independence Day often featured a track that somehow, some way spoke to the character of the nation celebrating its anniversary. I didn’t intend to follow the same model with the current sharing of a song to close out the working week. I sorted through my options and landed on the latest from Lucy Dacus because she simply one of my favorite current songwriters, who also delivers her tuneful handiwork in with illuminating performances.

“Forever Half Mast” is, according to Dacus, “about american cognitive dissonance,” and it’s aswirl in mixed emotions and misgivings. Those are basically Dacus’s specialties, but it’s especially potent to hear her sensibility applied to a broader topic, to weightier concerns. The song avoids easy platitudes or didactic sloganeering. Dacus opts instead to evoke the perpetual existential fretting of this moment in time, when the lyric “Yes, you’re evil but you’re not that bad” can feel like the full extent of achievable solace. We are broken, and it’s okay to say so.

So I might not have thought about the right song to place in this space for the 4th of July. Luckily, Dacus did that thinking for me.

The New Releases Shelf — Western Stars

bruce western

Three months shy of his seventieth birthday, no one would chastise Bruce Springsteen for hanging up his guitar strap. Especially following the monumental Springsteen on Broadway run, it would seem the man who strummed his first formative chords with the New Jersey band Steel Mill fifty years ago this year had reached a point where he could reasonably crimp an airtight cap onto the frothy bottle of his career. Or maybe he could take a little bit of a break, survey his recent accomplishments, and determine where he could possibly go next. Instead, Springsteen has released Western Stars, his first full-length studio album of new material in five years.

Described by Springsteen as “influenced by Southern California pop music of the seventies,” it almost seems as though Western Stars is an album meant to help fill in a particular gap in his own biography through music. The memoir Born to Run keeps circling back to California. It was a promised land sought by Springsteen’s father. It was an imperfect early testing ground for Springsteen’s aspirations of music stardom beyond the Jersey Shore. It was the place Springsteen settled with his wife, Patti Scialfa, seeking solace from the demons of depression and other emotional turmoil that defined him more than he cared to admit. When Springsteen used his book as framework for the Broadway show, mingling reminiscence with reflective songwriting, it’s not hard to imagine him coming to the realization that there was a gap in his discography. The Golden State was unaccounted for.

The tone is set from the jump, Springsteen evoking a Woody Guthrie ease and simplicity on “Hitch Hikin’.” A gentle melody joins in, but the song is dominated by acoustic plunks and Springsteen’s keening voice. The vagabond has arrived to recount his travels, glories, and rueful disappointments. Springsteen describes these as character-driven songs, and it’s been folly to ascribe too much autobiography to Springsteen’s songwriting since at least the early nineteen-nineties, when he seemed to realize that his wealth and fame had carried him too far from the earthy territory of his preferred storytelling, that he could only go so much further as “a rich man in a poor man’s shirt.” Even so, much of Western Stars feels like Springsteen imagining who he might have been had he joined his father on the move west or otherwise settled near the Pacific earlier.

That sense of the personal prominent, the material on Western Stars is among the best Springsteen had crafted in some time. A borrowed Laurel Canyon gentleness inspires Springsteen to temper his usual bombast. The album is not as stark as The Ghost of Tom Joad or Nebraska. Instead, it is a cousin to Tunnel of Love, the wringing anguish imposed by a marriage falling apart replaced by a proving of the self and a resulting playfulness. “Sleepy Joe’s Cafe” could even be a companion to “Old Joe’s Place,” the jaunty number from Christopher Guest’s A Mighty Wind. I don’t mean to imply that Springsteen skirts parody (he is susceptible to that flaw). Instead, like the marvelous Guest film, Springsteen somehow makes pastiche into the genuine, mostly through earnest commitment to honoring his inspirations.

Elsewhere on the album, “Tucson Train” makes for a highly respectable addition to the long, long, long line of train songs in the American musical story, and “Drive Fast (The Stuntman)” is gentle, smart, and detailed in recounting the wounds and tenacity found in the practitioners of the Hollywood occupation named in parentheses. “Sundown” is prime example of Springsteen indulging his penchant for the epic, keeping it nicely contained. Album closer “Moonlight Motel” is properly elegiac (“Pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag/ Poured one for me and for you as well/ And it was one more shot poured out in the parking lot/ To the Moonlight Motel”), a repository of dreams that might not be fully shattered, but are definitely sporting heavy distress.

In my teens, I was devoted to Springsteen like few other artists, fully subscribing to Rolling Stone‘s ratification of him as a performer practically unparalleled. Not long ago, I was ready to declare him basically a figure of the past, a creator whose grasp of his old tools had grown shaky. Western Stars doesn’t exactly elbow its way into the pantheon of Springsteen’s finest albums, but it is strong, sometimes even vital. After all this time, this tramp can still run.

Golden Words — The Office, “Gay Witch Hunt”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.

gay witch hunt

Despite its current elevated status in the annals of television comedy, The Office was neither a rating juggernaut nor an awards magnet for much of its run. In the full-season Nielsen ratings series rankings, The Office never cracked the the Top 50. It claimed the Emmy for outstanding comedy series in its second season, but none of its performers ever won an acting trophy. Across nine seasons, The Office won only four other competitive Emmys: two for editing, one for directing, and one for writing.

The writing Emmy was awarded to Greg Daniels, who took the BBC version of The Office, created by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, and developed it for U.S. television. The episode that won was “Gay Witch Hunt,” the third season premiere. In addition to placing a trophy in the hand of the person who was arguably most responsible for the overarching creative decisions that shaped this workplace comedy into a surprisingly enduring product, “Gay Witch Hunt” is a suitable choice as a singular representation of the series. The episode has all of the touchstones of the program’s most successful stretch. It even includes a “That’s what she said.”

The script by Daniels begins with a classic blunder by Michael Scott (Steve Carell), the regional manager for the Scranton branch of the Dunder Mifflin paper company. Michael used the word “faggy” when referring to Oscar Martinez (Oscar Nunez). The normal problem with that offensive language in compounded by Oscar’s identity as a gay male, a detail previously unknown to Michael or anyone else in the workplace. With characteristic hustle-bustle, the office goes through a rolling meltdown. Multiple characters chime in with their idiosyncratic views, and Michael keeps pushing to rectify the situation, even as he struggles to push past his own clumsy ignorance to find the language to express conciliatory acceptance of Oscar.

Several characters get strong, funny lines, but, as with all the best episodes of The Office, the core of the comedy is Michael’s struggle against himself. What set The Office apart from its British predecessor — and what famously took Daniels and his cohorts a few episodes to figure out — is the manager’s fundamental morality. In the original, Ricky Gervais’s David Brent is a narcissist and a dolt. Michael Scott carries mild versions of those qualities, but mostly he genuinely wants to do well in his position. It’s not malice that trips him up, but his own ineptitude. That he lacks the skills of introspection to help him identify the self-sabotage is the foundational ingredient of the long narrative’s comedic success.

I noted the episode included all of the flashing lights cast by The Office disco ball, and that of course includes the lovelorn saga of Jim (John Krasinski) and Pam (Jenna Fischer). As the season premiere, “Gay Witch Hunt” had some heavy lifting to do. The finale of the previous season ended with Jim and Pam tilting the will-they-or-won’t-they question by kissing in the office, but the Moonlighting Dictum insists that it can’t be that easy. Pam, still engaged to another man at the time of the kiss, insisted she couldn’t pursue anything with Jim, leading Jim to transfer to a different branch, where, as it turns out, his usual prank shenanigans and mugging-to-the-camera aren’t appreciated. Except for the subversive mockery of the Jim Halpert tropes that were already becoming a little tiresome, the thread isn’t that interesting (and it includes the introduction of Andy Bernard, played by Ed Helms, which stands as the first droplets against the windowpane that signal the thunderstorm of ill-conceived creative decisions on the horizon for the office). But the soap opera needed to be served, and so there it was.

There’s one more reason “Gay Witch Hunt” is an exemplary selection for the sole instance of The Office winning a writing Emmy. The episode’s signature moment, which likely contributed mightily to its victory in the category, is Michael going too far in his fervor to signal appreciation of Oscar’s homosexuality. Michael stiffly, awkwardly gives Oscar a kiss as the capper to an impromptu all-call meeting of office personnel. Reportedly, that action wasn’t in the script and was instead improvised by Carell. It’s entirely in keeping with the tone of The Office that the series won a rare trophy because of an act of almost accidental excellence.

Now Playing — Toy Story 4

toy story 4

So maybe here’s where the story ends? Nearly twenty-five years after Toy Story launched Pixar into the field of feature film production and almost a decade past Toy Story 3, which seemed to provide an ideal conclusion to the franchise, the fourth full-length installment of the film series has arrived. Before my cynicism prevails (and it will), I should not that the Toy Story 4, directed by Josh Cooley, is a perfectly dandy piece of entertainment. The screenplay benefits from the narrative sturdiness instilled by the studio’s famously rigorous stress-testing (reported strife notwithstanding) and the new additions to the sprawling cast of characters are consistently inventive and delightful. The practically unparalleled emotional potency of the film series remains solidly intact, as well. The drum thwacks to the heart may not be quite as forceful as was the case with the preceding installments, but there are still skilled percussionists at work.

Toy Story 4 begins with a critical flashback revealing why Bo Peep (voiced by Annie Potts) was absent from the prior film. Perched on a nightlight lamp that was outgrown, Bo Peep and her sheep were gifted to another household, leaving a lingering loverlorn ache in the heart of venerable cowboy toy Woody (Tom Hanks). Years later, Woody has slipped down in the pecking order set by Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw), the child who inherited Andy’s toy box when he went to college. An increasingly purposelessness Woody anxious finds meaning in protecting an impromptu, plastic-utensil-based plaything named Forky (Tony Hale), crafted by Bonnie to hold off sadness on her kindergarten orientation day. Hectic adventures follow, notably including Woody’s reunion with Bo Peep, transformed by circumstances into the Toy Story equivalent of Sarah Connor circa Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Closure is again the ostensible theme, along with some recurring consideration of purpose. But it’s all soft and ill-defined, one of several notions kicked around like a soccer ball. One of the more promising ideas pursued involves Woody’s inability to cede control and listen to other leaders, particularly those that are girl toys. But that angle fades away almost entirely before the movie ends, which has me convinced it’s a remnant of the contributions of Rashida Jones and Will McCormack that so dismayed Pixar leadership, leading to their departure from the project (at right around the time the full extent of Pixar head John Lasseter’s ugly behavior toward women came to light.) That’s admittedly a leap on my part, but the lineage matters less than the frustrating sense that things don’t fully cohere, that this is one of those instances when the desire to provide new product to the marketplace overtook the recurring mission to create a film worthy of the legacy of the hopping desk lamp.

Perhaps I’m raising the rim unfairly high for Pixar. There are components of it — such as Annie Potts’s fantastic vocal performance as Bo Peep and the vividly detailed visuals of a carnival and a second-hand store — that are grand and memorable. And the new film certainly looks like high cinematic art compared to the hideous-looking animated gimmicks from competing studios that were flashed like warnings in the trailers preceding my screening of Toy Story 4. But when the likes of Up and Inside Out are proven possible, it must be acceptable to long for more than another spinning diversion from the conveyor belt.

Top 40 Smash Near Misses — “Easy Come Easy Go”

winger

Whatever other plentiful complaints can be lodged against the hair metal band Winger, they deserve admiring credit for the novelistic perfection of this detail: Their final single to place on the Billboard Hot 100 bears the title “Easy Come Easy Go.”

Hailing from New York City and named for frontman Kip Winger, the band benefited from the boom in glossed up, expertly moussed hard rock bands that struck the U.S. music market in the late nineteen-eighties. Much as they might have liked to, MTV couldn’t fill the programming day with Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” on endless repeat, so other bands with the right sound and the right look — especially the right look — had ample opportunity to rattle up interest in the marketplace. Winger’s self-titled debut album landed in later summer of 1988, and two of its singles — classically gross underage girl anthem “Seventeen” and power ballad “Headed for a Heartbreak” — made it into the Billboard Top 40. The band also quickly became an MTV staple, even playing the annual New Year’s Eve live extravaganza.

The band’s sophomore album, In the Heart of the Young, was released in 1990 and including their highest charting single, “Miles Away,” which peaked at #12. Utterly generic hard rock number “Easy Come Easy Go” served as the follow up.

In the manner of the day, the requisite music video also served as an advertisement for the band’s concerts. The clip opens with Kip Winger’s stage banter, which offers Paul Stanley a challenge in the competition for yelped inanity. (There’s no beating the champ, though.) “How many of you people have been tryin’ all your life for somethin’ and it ain’t happened yet?” shouts Winger, pausing to grin at the raucous cheers. “Yeah, I know what you mean, man. But I tell ya, if things get goin’ just a little bit too bad just remember one thing.” Then Winger yells, “Easy Come,” and the crowd finishes, “Easy Go!”

I can’t quite parse the meaning of Winger’s advice, but the fans seemed to like it. I hope some of them eventually got to see that thing they were trying all their life for come to fruition.