One for Friday — The Smithereens, “Crazy Mixed Up Kid”

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(Image via the Smithereens’ web site)

I landed in college radio in the fall of 1988. By that point in time, there were already loads of artist who were cemented as the signature acts of the left side of the dial: the Cure, the Smiths, R.E.M., and U2 (though the Irish lads had recently become the form’s first true graduates, moving on authoritatively to the “real world” of commercial radio). I think the accepted stratagem of cool kids mandated we primarily seek out bands who were more abrasive and challenging than those who bore our standards. That’s why Sonic Youth broke through in a big way that winter.

The station I called home tended to move a little more slowly when it came to exploring the outer reaches of modern music, which reflected the sensibility of the community we served. But I think it also spoke to an appreciation for creators who didn’t flail around with half-baked ideas, but instead truly and properly committed to the crafts of songwriting and musicianship. I will tell you without hesitation that the self-titled release commonly referred to as the White Album represents the peak of the Beatles’ power because they reinvent pop music anew with every track, but there’s a compelling argument to be made that it’s more difficult — and therefore more impressive — to create the pure perfection of something like “Love Me Do.”

The Smithereens arguably came closer to achieving that ideal of classic rock ‘n’ roll songwriting and execution than any other band of their era. The songwriting of Pat Dinizio effortlessly reached back to a simpler time, when relatively straightforward proclamations of love and heartache were enough to fill up a couple sides of a 45, providing a soundtrack that lasted all summer long. The emotions depicted in the songs weren’t facile. They were piercing and true, universal enough to be applied to any relationship weather front that sent me scurrying to the record player for validation or salve. Their songs were timeless, in the very best sense of the word.

I’ve typed this out before (recently, even), but it bears repeating: as much as any other artist, the Smithereens were the sound of my college radio experience. They hit the sweet spot of our varied tastes, so just about every on-air staffer could find a song or two that was irresistible. There were two full-length albums in the station stacks when I arrived, and the raggedness of the sleeves signaled how deeply the band was already embedded in the shared consciousness of the station. The needle could be dropped anywhere and find a true treasure.

So let’s drop the needle.

Listen or download —> The Smithereens, “Crazy Mixed Up Kid”

(Disclaimer: I assume most of the Smithereens catalog is available for purchase from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said store. This track is not offered as an alternative to engaging in such commerce, but instead an encouragement to do so. Without a moment’s reservation, I can recommend any of the band’s first three albums — Especially for You, Green Thoughts, and 11  — and I’ll also note that the Smithereens is one of those rare bands that may actually be well-served by a smartly curated “greatest hits” collection. Blown to Smithereens fits that bill. Although I firmly believe sharing this song in the space in this way qualifies as fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 12 – 9

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12. The Smithereens, “Blues Before and After”

The second single from the Smithereens album 11, “Blues Before and After” was a perfect example of the slightly tougher sound the New Jersey band generated with producer Ed Stasium. Probably best know for his work with the Ramones, Stasium was credited with helping the hard rock band Living Colour turn into unlikely hitmakers with their debut album, Vivid. When presented with the notion that Stasium significantly influenced the band’s musical approach, however, lead singer and chief songwriter Pat DiNizio chafed, noting the demos recorded for the album already exhibited a harder thump.  ”I can’t say Ed’s presence brought a heavier sound,” DiNizio said at the time. ”Ed was instrumental in bringing the sound of what the band evolved into into sharper focus.”

This cut is up from 13 on the previous chart.

 

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11. The B-52’s, “Roam”

Using peak chart position as the sole criterion, “Roam” was just as big of a hit as its immediate predecessor in the singles discography of the B-52’s. Like the still inescapable “Love Shack,” this track from the band’s 1989 album, Cosmic Thing, was a dominant force on MTV and Top 40 radio. Seemingly a straightforward call to go out and travel the planet, “Roam” has had an interesting afterlife, with a certain sect of pop song theorists detecting far more salacious intent in the the track’s buoyant refrain. To determine the accuracy of that supposition would require interrogation of longtime friend of the band Robert Waldrop, since he’s the one who penned the lyrics. According to singer Kate Pierson, the music came together quickly in the studio, as the band shaped a jam around the lyrics under the watchful eye of producer Nile Rodgers.

This cut is down from 8 on the previous chart.

 

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10. Renegade Soundwave, “Biting My Nails”

I am quite bad at predicting which songs will become hits, and, by extension, which musical artists will develop the sort of robust staying power that allows them to become a significant influence on those that follow. Renegade Soundwave is why I know this. In my rickety recollection, Soundclash, the debut album from Renegade Soundwave, arrived at my college radio station at about the same time as the first album from Nine Inch Nails, Pretty Hate Machine. Superficially, the two releases were similar, offering throbbing dance music scorched with the industrial aggression mastered by bands such as Front 242 and Skinny Puppy. I thought Nine Inch Nails was nothing special, but that Renegade Soundwave had the makings of a college rock contender, especially on the basis of the single “Biting My Nails.” I don’t disavow that opinion, but its predictive powers were clearly very, very weak. I also didn’t know the cut was a cover, so basically my bold pontificating on the song was an ill-informed disaster all around.

This cut is up from 14 on the previous chart.

 

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9. The Cramps, “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns”

Stay Sick! was officially considered the fourth studio album by the Cramps, the California-based band that first stepped on a stage in 1975, melding punk sensibility with a rockabilly soul to create a vividly unique sound all their own. It was also their first studio effort since A Date with Elvis, released four years earlier. According to guitarist Poison Ivy, who also served as producer on Stay Sick!, the layoff was largely attributable to the band struggling to find the right corporate partner. They were forced to peddle the album for about two years before ultimately landing a single-album deal with Enigma Records. “We’ve just been kinda left to our own resources to put out records, and that’s kinda hard for people like us to do,” she said on MTV’s 120 Minutes. “You know, we’re sort of unemployable except for being the Cramps.” “Bikini Girls with Machine Guns” was the first single from the album and delivered the band a rare taste of mainstream chart success, crossing into the Top 40 in the U.K.

This cut is up from 21 on the previous chart.

 

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.

One for Friday — Will and the Bushmen, “It’s Gonna Be Alright”

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I’ve alluded to the following before: Being immersed in a college radio station is a little like living in an alternative cultural dimension. This is especially true back in the pre-internet era, where there wasn’t a towering wall of external music websites offering guidance about the vital music of the day. Except for a little prompting from certain publications, college programmers were basically on their own. The on-air staff elevated bands on the basis on their own taste and predilection. What the record sounded like mattered.

In my cultural universe, then, Will and the Bushmen delivered one of the surprise hit albums of 1989. The self-titled effort was the Alabama band’s debut with the upstart major label SBK Records. The lead single, “Blow Me Up,” completely won over my crew (and became a holiday staple for several years, thanks to the repeated chorus line “She’s better than, much better than Christmas”), but that song was hardly the end of our affection for the music of Will and the Bushmen. As I recall it, the album was played extensively, with several different cuts flaring up as favorites.

I still hang onto this album as a personal treasure, an artifact of the time when earnestness and earthiness were valued qualities in the music that filled out the corners of my life. The song “It’s Gonna Be Alright,” for example, is about as straightforward as the title implies, offering encouragement to anyone who needs to “get the sour grapes and the moldy bread out of your basket.” It had — and still has — precisely the right rejuvenating effect for me, serving as a battle cry of perseverance built upon a dandy hook. In my slightly fantastical memories of music in the world, that combination is the making of a smash hit.

Listen or download —> Will and the Bushmen, “It’s Gonna Be Alright”

(Disclaimer: Though I’m not certain, I believe Will and the Bushmen to be out of print, at least as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the original artist and the proprietor of said place of business. I offer that track here with that understanding, and mean no fiscal harm to deserving souls. Also, I mean for this be an encouragement to seek out more music from the artist in question, not a replacement for snapping up any record of theirs that you ever encounter. Although I believe my use of the material here qualifies and fair use, I know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of digital world if asked to do so by any entity or individual with due authority to make such a request.)

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 16 – 13

creatures

16. The Creatures, “Standing There”

Siouxsie Sioux was never one to recede from pointed commentary, particularly when it came to sexist attitudes that have long been rife in society. For the first single from the Creatures album Boomerang, she and her fellow Siouxsie and the Banshees moonlighter, Budgie, delivered a fierce musical and lyrically pummeling of the sort of cads who loiter around the public square, gawking at women and hurling vile come-on commentary their way. No words are minced: “Ignoring your calling, ignoring your taunting/ Ignoring your feelings of self hate and loathing/ How empty and pointless your life must seem.” The wrecking swings are destructive gender roles extended to the music video, which included biblical imagery with a tart reversal. It’s the male who offers up the Garden of Eden’s forbidden apple.

This cut was down from 9 on the previous chart.

 

house of love

15. The House of Love, “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”

The House of Love stand as quite the cautionary tale. An up-and-coming modern rock band from the U.K., the House of Love notched a couple small-but-beloved hits with singles as the late-nineteen-eighties encroached. Then they were the beneficiaries of a thickly generous contract from Fontana Records, which provided loads of pricey studio time and all the uncompromising expectations of commercial successful and executive micromanagement that came with it. Their second full-length — officially untitled, as was their debut — credited at least four different producers and boasted a big, polished sound that the band reportedly detested. Although, it’s difficult to say how vigorously they protested since most accounts agree that many of the key band members spent the recording process giving their most dedication attention to prodigious drug usage. Years later, lead singer Guy Chadwick characterized signing up with the label as “a dreadful mistake.” There may be missteps galore across the resulting album, but I maintain “I Don’t Know Why I Love You,” the release’s second single, is a fantastic single.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

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14. Michael Penn, “No Myth”

In 1989, when Michael Penn’s album March was released, the best means to stir interest in the freshly introduced performer was to invoke his family tree. Part of the same Hollywood household that produced actors Sean and Chris Penn, Michael was the one who holed up in his bedroom with a guitar and a notepad. In the case of “No Myth,” the album’s lead single, Penn specifically noted it was written in his parents’ garage, shortly after the dissolution of his band Doll Congress. Following the sturdiest pop song template, “No Myth” was inspired by heartache, “It had to do with a serious relationship in my life that broke up, and I was just trying to figure out, ‘What the fuck was that?,’” Penn later reported. “So this song was the beginning of me trying to actually figure that shit out in song.” The track a somewhat unlikely hit, peaking in the Billboard Top 20 and — perhaps most surprisingly — helping Penn to best Bell Biv DeVoe, Jane Child, the Black Crowes, Lenny Kravitz, Alannah Myles, and Lisa Stansfield in the competition for Best New Artist at the 1990 Video Music Awards.

This cut was down from 10 on the previous chart.

 

metropolis

13. The Church, “Metropolis”

Arista Records were certain the Church were set to become regular hitmakers. The Australian band had scored a fairly unlikely Top 40 hit with “Under the Milky Way,” the lead single from the 1988 album Starfish. (“Under the Milky Way” peaked at #24 on the main Billboard chart, spending that week nestled between decidedly non-kindred singles by Richard Marx and Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine.) After the Church made overtures to former Led Zeppelin member John Paul Jones, who was developing a reputation as a skilled producer, the label insisted they reunite with Waddy Wachtel, who’d presided over Starfish, figuring the breakthrough would be built upon. Starting from that point of agitation, the band spent much of the sessions that would become the 1990 album Gold Afternoon Fix feeling angry and unappreciated. They were also dealing with the mounting drug abuse problem of drummer Richard Ploog, which led to his departure from the band. According to Arista, though, it was all sunshine and light. At least that’s how they presented the situation in the press release accompanying the arrival of Gold Afternoon Fix. Cohesion was emphasized.”I think what’s happened is that everone’s got their things off their chest,” bassist and vocalist Steve Kilbey said in the release. “No one’s got an axe to grind, coming on and saying, ‘I’ve written this song I want to do. Now it’s more like everyone’s got their own stuff done, everyone wants to interact more.'” The ascension to greater stardom so coveted by the label never manifested, but the album’s lead single, the splendid “Metropolis,” was a significant winner on the college charts.

This cut was making it’s debut on the chart and was the highest debut of the week.

 

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.

One for Friday — Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

keene

One of the great pleasures of working in college radio is discovering monumentally talented songwriters and artists, and then claiming some sliver of their coolness by playing their songs on the radio. This was especially true in my personal era, back before sampling just about any existing track was a click or two anyway. It felt downright revolutionary to have a little bit of knowledge about a great performer, slipping their songs into a playlist. “You guys think Elvis Costello or Nick Lowe is cool? Well, just listen to this.”

I found Tommy Keene relatively early in my college radio tenure. The 1989 album Based on Happy Times arrived during my first year at the station, and it became a touchstone, the sort of record I routinely circled back to, finding a gem no matter no matter where I landed on the track listing. Eventually, I dug into what little back catalog we had in the library, notably Songs from the Film, which has enough lingering cachet that Keene was able to tour on it in recent years. Like the album I landed on first, every track was a winner.

There was something remarkably pure and lovely about Keene’s songwriting. There was some power pop around the edges, but it was mostly lean, perfectly realized songs about simply being. The songs felt specific and universal all at once. And they had sterling hooks that Keene played with sharp, unfussy musicianship. For as much time as I spend championing dense musical soundscapes from modern artists, listening to Keene reminds me that there’s a special artistry to more direct rock songwriting, songs that make their points in three minutes and then fade out in chiming assurance.

Plain and simple, Tommy Keene was one of the greats.

Listen or download –> Tommy Keene, “In Our Lives”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I haven’t done my usual due diligence to see if Keene’s Songs from the Film is in print as a physical object that can be procured from your favorite local, independently-owned record store in a manner that compensates both the proprietor of said store and the original artist. I wanted to share this today, regardless. I don’t mean to impede commerce, but instead to encourage it. Head out and buy every Keene album you see. I will gladly and promptly remove this file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

The New Releases Shelf — Colors

colors
(Image nicked from Beck’s Twitter)

Even as I’ll admit that I’m fairly detached from up-to-the-minute music scene scuttlebutt, it seems to me there’s a surprising lack of enthusiasm or even basic interest around the release of Colors, the new album by Beck. This is an artist who has been a major figure in pop music for around twenty-five years and who is also coming off an album that won him the top prize at the Grammys, joining the small legion of performers who unfairly bested Beyoncé in entertainment award competitions. (Don’t even get me started on Lemonade losing out to whatever drivel Adele hacked up that year.) I understand that taste is fickle and fleeting, but how can Colors be such a minor blip?

I’d like to think it’s because that trophy-nabbing predecessor, Morning Phase, has come under enough sharp enough critical reassessment that the realization has widely dawned that it’s actually a fairly dull affair. That’s probably not it, though. The problem could be the major lag time between the first bubblings of the album, over one year ago, and it’s ultimate release, a circumstance Beck chalks up to a determination that the overall chipperness of the music might not sit all that well in the immediate fallout of a gruesome presidential campaign and even more dire election. Maybe the explanation is yet simpler than that. Colors is bright, frothy, and a little wobbly. Its imperfection can make it seem like a let-down.

Regardless of the purposeful creativity Beck insists he brought to the album, Colors plays like a grab bag of decent ideas executed with a mindset that wavers between playful and mildly disengaged. Arguably, “I’m So Free” is the most emblematic track. It is stuffed full of studio-driven notions and indulges in some pleasingly modern concerns in its passing consideration of digital isolation (“Who am I supposed to be/ In the middle of the day with no good connection?/ I’m so free now”), but there’s a distressing Weezer-ish quality to its basic buzz-pop lope, and the insertion of rapidly jabbered lyrics with a magnetic poetry randomness only delivers greater sabotage.

The minor reworking of early single “Dreams” maintains its joyfully rambunctious embrace of every effective dance music trick, and “Dear Life” nicely splits the difference between Beck’s layered dance music explosions and his more ruminative, Sunday-morning-acoustic side. There are also instances of reasonable curiosity, such as “No Distraction,” which is the sort of track the Police might have come up with had they embraced disco around the time of Ghost in the Machine. Even if they feel a little negligible at first, they have the sonic stickiness that has always distinguished Beck from other quasi-ironic musical tricksters in his alternative rock peer group.

The album is also saddled with more regrettable examples of Beck’s craft. “Fix Me” is drippy and drab, and “Up All Night” sputters along with hints of Avalanches-style manipulated sounds and a groove that strains for the spirit relaxed Prince. Those qualities could be intriguing, achieving the invention-through-appropriation scheme that has lately proven winning for the likes of Daft Punk and LCD Soundsystem. Instead, the song sounds recycled, a bit of a shock from one of music’s more iconoclastic figures.

Despite the missteps, there are pleasures to be found on Colors. Beck is a skilled creator, and even uncertain swings of the piñata stick are likely to spill some candy. It’s his thirteenth studio album, after all. Consistent ingenuity can only be expected to last so long. Colors might not be a tremendous event, but some attention should be paid.

College Countdown: CMJ Top 40 Cuts, March 16, 1990 — 20 – 17

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20. Kevn Kinney, “MacDougal Blues”

Back in the day, I don’t think we knew about the ability to claim Kevn Kinney as one of our own. Livin’ on the air in Central Wisconsin, we had a prideful devotion to artists who also called America’s Dairyland home, at least at some point. Kinney, the lead singer and chief songwriter of the band Drivin N Cryin, was, as it happens, a Milwaukee native. But his band was formed after a movie southward to Atlanta, and I doubt many of the reviews we read back in the day would have mentioned his lengthier heritage. We still shared his wares generously, especially when he struck out with his solo debut, MacDougal Blues. The title track and lead single covered a different geographic displacement, offering a wryly humorous assessment of moving to New York City with expectations of discovering a modern equivalent of the nineteen-sixties Greenwich Village folk scene only to encounter a far more callous, indifferent culture.

This cut was up from 32 on the previous chart.

 

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19. Ministry, “Burning Inside”

As the eighties gave way to the nineties, there were few bands making as aggressive of a sound for giddy college radio consumption as Ministry. Fully shaking off the mildly goth but fully accessible synth-pop they’d slung for the previous decade, Al Jourgenson’s outfit unleashed the album The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Taste in late 1989, and its lead single, “Burning Inside,” rattled broadcast towers from coast to coast. Jourgenson saw the harsh new sound as a more pure manifestation of his musical self, deeming the early music an example of a sell out. “I think there’s two kinds of music,” he told MTV at the time. “I think there’s good and there’s bad, and hopefully I’d like to be affiliated with the good side. I’m not going to get into this thrasho, technico, cyber-new-wave-o, sanitized, homogenized, boxed, out-it-out, 120 bpm, down your throat, ah you’re fuckin’ on to the next platter, you know?” Wish granted. “Burning Inside” can be described a lot of different ways, but it definitely can’t be characterized like that.

This cut was down from 5 on the previous chart.

 

ebtg

18. Everything but the Girl, “Driving”

And here we have a track that is essentially the exact opposite of the Ministry rage-blast. Everything but the Girl already had a reputation for pristine pop, and that was before producer Tommy LiPuma turned dials for the duo. LiPuma had a mountain of records in his discography, but he’d probably had his greatest successes with jazz so smooth it was basically textureless.  And one year later, he’d serve as executive producer on Natalie Cole’s Unforgettable…with Love, an album so rabidly inoffensive and steeped in nostalgia that it couldn’t help but being an enormous hit. With Everything but the Girl, he helped craft The Language of Life, which showcased the band’s impeccable pop craft, but also buried the songs in obscuring twee glisten. The most damning evidence of LiPuma’s heavy hand arrived two years later, when the single “Driving” was salvaged for an exquisite remake on the album Acoustic.

This cut was making its debut on the chart.

 

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17. Public Enemy, “Welcome to the Terrordome”

In the fall of 1990, I moved into a large, ramshackle house with several of my fellow college radio staffers. With approximately one-third of the station’s executive staff in a single domicile, we decided the house needed a catchy name. You know, like Graceland or Foxcatcher. Preferring something that evoked — however tangentially — our time in the on air studio, we landed on the Terrordome, borrowing the location named in a Public Enemy single from the 1989 album Fear of a Black Planet. My crew was about as far from Public Enemy as a half-dozen people could be, but we were able to drop in the fiercely rapped line “Welcome to the Terrordome” randomly onto party mix tapes. Priorities, you know. The track from which we sought transferred cool and danger was written to address controversy the group experienced when Professor Griff — designated as Public Enemy’s Minister of Information — made antisemitic comments in an interview. That also had no connection whatsoever to my crew, but, again, the song really made a party bounce.

This cut was up from 34 on the previous chart.

I wrote about the chart we’re tracking through at the beginning of this particular Countdown. Previous entries can be found at the relevant tag.

As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist.