692. Go-Betweens, Tallulah (1987)
Tallulah might not have delivered the Go-Betweens their first experience with professional disappointment, nor even their most pronounced. And yet the recording experience and subsequent related duties were peppered with enough frustrations that the album stands as a key delineating point for the band. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the Go-Betweens would fold two years later.
Broader commercial success was the stated goal as the Go-Betweens embarked on Tallulah. The Australian band stood in the golden light of critical acclaim, but that hadn’t yet translated into record sales or hit singles. Their previous album, Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express, made only the most modest headway on the charts of their homeland and register nary a ripple anywhere else. The band went into the studio with producer Craig Leon expecting to play together, attempting to capture some of the energy of their live performances. Instead, Leon meticulously recorded individual tracks and assembled them, working so slowly that a sizable chunk of the budget and the scheduled recording time was expended on only two cuts. Leon was replaced by Richard Preston, and the Go-Betweens dashed off the rest of their new songs as quickly as possible.
Despite the compromised recording process, Tallulah is a fine album, mostly because the material crafted by perfectly paired songwriters Grant McLennan and Robert Forster was bound to push through whatever hardship threatened to disguise them. Opening track and lead single “Right Here” is a fine example: pristinely perfect pop, sunshiny enough to disguise some scalding lyrics (“I know you’re thirty-two/ But you look fifty-five/ You walk around/ With your eyes wide open/ But you’re barely alive”). “I Just Get Caught Out” has a similar shimmery energy, as does the lilting “Bye Bye Pride.”
The Go-Betweens were from Australia, but London was essentially their professional home base. Accordingly, there’s a strong Britpop feel to the album, whether in the Bowie-esque rule-bending around the fringes on “Cut It Out” or the mild Echo and the Bunnymen vibe to “The House That Jack Kerouac Built.” The leaner cuts especially benefit from the sheen. “Hope Then Strife” is what might be expected if the mid-nineteen-eighties Violent Femmes adopted lush British production.
Other problems were cropping up in the Go-Betweens camp. Developing interpersonal friction was compounded by the revelation that Forster was secretly mulling a solo record. Then Tallulah was released, and the fervently sought mainstream embrace didn’t happen. For the next album, the group decided to make significant changes in their process and even their geography. Creatively, it would pay off beautifully.
691. The Bolshoi, Giants (1985)
Arguably the biggest band to hail from Trowbridge, a modest town in South West England, the Bolshoi emerged in the mid-eighties with Giants, their debut EP. Poised between lithe British pop and swooning goth churn, the music on the release transcends the moments when it threatens to lapse into derivativeness with a sense of odd adventure. Led by Trevor Flynn (who would later become know under his real name, Trevor Tanner), the Bolshoi showed an immediate facility for a certain doomed romanticism that sold plenty of jet black hair dye during the decade.
Released by I.R.S. Records, the U.S. version of the Giants leads with the dark, lush, and stealthily menacing “Happy Boy.” The track establishes the template nicely, as does the Cure-like “Fly.” From there, the Bolshoi sticks with the sound while simultaneously traipsing into strange unsettled territory. The thick morass of gloomy goth sounds on the title cut are perhaps not that far off from any number of kindred bands of the time. But the tingly “By the River” has an inner pulse of experimentation that hints at greater depths.
Encouraged by the warm reaction to Giants, the Bolshoi relocated to London and got to work on building a proper repertoire. By the following year, they’d be out with their first full-length, and a brief — but interesting — career was underway
690. Wire Train, Between Two Words (1985)
Wire Train built up just enough of a following in their hometown of San Francisco that they found themselves in odd company following the release of their sophomore album, Between Two Words. In the ninth annual iteration of the Bay Area Music Awards, Wire Train were nominated in the outstanding album category, vying against John Fogerty’s Centerfield, Night Ranger’s Seven Wishes, Santana’s Beyond Appearances, and — prepare to wince — Starship’s Knee Deep in the Hoopla. There’s a wavering quality level across that list of titles, but those are still major acts for a fledging band to be placed among. Wire Train had promise.
Between Two Worlds is a quintessential example of the sort of college rock from U.S. bands that a certain breed of student programmer found irresistible. The tracks are earnest and earthy, but also crisply produced. It sounded as professional as the stuff on commercial radio — or at least MTV — but it had a certain hangdog charm that tagged it as distant from the offerings of the true pop and rock titans. “Last Perfect Thing” might sound a little bit like early INXS, had they been raised on rock songs from the American heartland, but there was no doubt that Wire Train was miles away from ever making an album like Kick.
Songwriters Kurt Herr and Kevin Hunter had a knack for hitting the pocket on fine college rock cuts. There’s a swooning intensity to “Skills of Summer” and a brisk energy on “Two Persons” that make them perfect playlist fodder. But Between Two Words also suggests there was only so many cookies in the jar they raided. The ballad “No Pretties” quickly grows dull, and the pining “I Will” (“Cry for the time/ I wish I could see your eyes”) is similarly generic. The limitations might be better assigned to the playing of the whole band, given that wares of no less formidable a songwriter than Bob Dylan can get finessed into blandness, proven by the flat cover of “God on Our Side.”
Wire Train’s Between Two Words lost the Bay Area Music Award for the year’s top album. Centerfield took the prize. Much as I’m inclined to champion the college rock band, the choice was correct. Fogerty’s record is better.
689. Married to the Mob soundtrack (1988)
“Music was my first love, movies came second,” director Jonathan Demme once explained. And that original affection figured significantly in the procession of wonderful film which bore his signature. He presided over several concert films during his career, with the most notable, Stop Making Sense, still standing as the probable peak of the form. But exceptional music also flowed through his narrative features, Demme’s exemplary and beautifully esoteric taste buoying the projects. Demme knew it, too.
“It can be like something that saves you in a scene that isn’t working that great — the right music can make a weak scene acceptable,” Demme told Rolling Stone. “It can also add a whole other dimension to a scene. It can send it right into the ozone.”
Catching the wave of the soundtrack boom of the nineteen-eighties, Demme’s terrific comedy Married to the Mob resulted in the strongest album spun from one his films, excepting the concert documents. Leading with “Jump in the River,” a track from thrilling newcomer Sinéad O’Connor that she would carry over to her sophomore full-length a couple years later, the album is like a generous chunk of a college radio show programmed by an especially strong DJ. Longtime Demme faves New Order, Tom Tom Club, and the Feelies are duly represented, and the filmmaker orchestrates some inspired covers, recruiting Debbie Harry to take a turn on the Castaways’ “Liar Liar” and Brian Eno to drift across a version of William Bell’s “You Don’t Miss Your Water.”
There are more significant reasons to celebrate Married to the Mob than the soundtrack. Even so, the accompanying album seems like the truest distillation of Demme’s music taste. That is its own grand gift.
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.