One for Friday — The Sicilian Vespers, “Baccala”

vespers

Thirty years ago, in 1988, the Sicilian Vespers released their self-titled debut LP. Comprised of Pittsburgh brothers David and Francis Rifugiato, the band delivered bouncily jagged punk pop music with notably off-kilter lead vocals. I take great delight in imagining the reactions at first listening of college radio programmers across the nation. The needle drops onto opening track “Baccala,” a thumping backbeat is quickly joined by a rusty razor guitar riff, all is good. Then, about ten seconds in, David’s vocals surge forward, all nasal and keening as he sings, “It’s a dumb baccala!/ Baccala!/ It’s a buncha dead fish!”

What little attention the Sicilian Vespers received at the time often centered on attempts to describe the mellifluous sound of David’s voice. Cash Box wrote he “sounds like gulps helium before stepping up to the microphone” and “sounds like a cartoon character,” eventually concluding he suggests “a completely tone-deaf Johnny Rotten with a cold.” The Chicago Tribune kept it a little simpler in a more appreciative review, invoking the babbling lunacy of vintage Jerry Lewis.

Many years later, when Francis (going by Fran) had moved on to other, less purposefully abrasive music pursuits, he acknowledged that the Sicilian Vespers were something of a gag, calling the band’s material “tongue-in-cheek experimental music.” Sicilian Vespers was right there in heavy rotation when I joined my college radio station. I don’t know how seriously I or my cohorts took their banging tracks, but many of us unabashedly adored the raucousness they delivered. For me, the duo’s album represented everything I hoped college radio would be. Simply put, I was getting a chance to discover music I was absolutely certain I wouldn’t find anywhere else.

Listen or download —> The Sicilian Vespers, “Baccala”

(Disclaimer: I feel quite confident Sicilian Vespers is no longer available for purchase in a physical format that would properly compensate both the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. On the other hand, the full release does seem to be available at for digital acquisition at CD Baby, presumably putting money directly in the pockets of the Rifugiatos. I’m sharing this track as encouragement to go out and buy more of their music, not as a replacement for doing so. Although I feel this qualifies as fair use, 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.)

One for Friday — Close Lobsters, “What is There to Smile About”

lobsters

Thirty years ago, in 1988, Close Lobsters released the EP What is There to Smile About. It was part of a very typical strategy to take every measure to ensure not too much time passed between new recordings for bands storming college radio. The Scottish band, signed to the upstart Fire Records label in the U.K., had commanded eager attention on the left end of the dial with their debut album, Foxheads Stalk This Land, released in 1987. In the fraught land of college radio popularity, where the endpoint of graduation meant that approximately one quarter of a station’s staff would turnover every year, there was a unique urgency in staying current. Around the one year anniversary of their first full-length, Close Lobsters dropped six new songs of inspired, jangly Britpop.

Again produced by John A. Rivers (who’d recently help guide Love and Rockets to a highly unlikely major hit), the EP is arguably more satisfying than either of the full-lengths Close Lobsters put out during their initial swing. A shorter overall running time is well-suited to the energy of their songs, which often surge to life as if the individual members were simultaneously roused from a classroom nap and want to prove they were paying attention all along. And their roughhouse cynicism also benefits. Fewer songs align with the sense that they simply couldn’t be bothered to do more. Why bother, right? The EP’s title — and its title cut — lay out the philosophy just fine.

Listen or download —> Close Lobsters, “What is There to Smile About”

(Disclaimer: I’m under the strong impression that What is There to Smile About is out of print, at least as a physical item 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 shop. It looks like it might have shown up on a “best of” type collection released about ten years ago, which I can highly recommend without even digging deeply into the contents. Or go buy something else from the record store. It’s good for your soul. Although I believe sharing this track in this space in this way at this time falls under the legal principle of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove the 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.)

One for Friday — Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “Circle”

bohemians

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians released the album Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. Without their lead singer’s name out in front, the band had spent a couple years gigging around the Deep Ellum neighborhood of Dallas, building enough of a local following that they caught the attention of Geffen Records. The major label, still in its first decade at the time, snapped up the group and dispatched them to Rockfield Studios in Wales, perhaps figuring the pastoral landscape surrounding the converted farmhouse recording space would vibe beneficially with the New Bohemians’ neo-hippie sounds.

The label’s choice of producer was less simpatico. By their own accounting, the New Bohemians generally opted for a loose, exploratory approach to crafting music, jamming until they found their way to a song. Guitarist Kenny Withrow told Spin magazine that the band’s biggest hit, “What I Am,” came about “after about ten minutes of doodling around in the garage.” Moran’s approach was far more regimented. The band was discouraged from playing together in the studio, ceding control to Moran, who pieced together individually recorded parts. Hardly an uncommon practice, it still made the group feel discouraged.

The sinking sense for some of the band members was compounded when they discovered the label was putting their weight behind the young, photogenic lead singer releasing the album as the debut of the newly renamed Edie Brickell and New Bohemians. The shift in billing spurred enough discord that the band nearly broke up before the album even hit stores. Instead, they soldiered on, and “What I Am,” released as the lead single, became a surprise Top 10 hit, immediately propelling the band to bigger stages.

At the college radio station I called home in the fall of 1988, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was about as close to an ideal album as we could get. For many of our brethren across the nation, that first semester of the last school year contained entirely within the eighties was all about the abrasiveness of Nothing’s Shocking, The Land of Rape and Honey, and Daydream Nation. Generally speaking, gentler souls had their FCC licenses pinned to the wall near our transmitter, and the folky grooves of the Bohemians were all over our playlists like summertime freckles. At the time, the station had a policy strictly forbidding airplay for anything that crossed into the Top 40, so “What I Am” was quickly unavailable. Other tracks, then, stir the greatest nostalgia for me. The mildly conflicted paean to isolation “Circle” is more likely to place me back in that beloved radio booth, winding down an evening of programming with Brickell’s pristine keening and cooing voice.

Listen or download —> Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, “Circle”

(Disclaimer: Honestly, I started writing this with the assumption that Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was still in print, or at least a hits collection featuring the song shared above was readily available 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 shop. After a little research, I’m not so sure of that. Regardless, this file is not shared with the intention of impeded commerce, but instead in the hopes that it will encourage some music shopping. It’s fair use, friends, but I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove it 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.)

One for Friday — Transvision Vamp, “Tell That Girl to Shut Up”

vamp

Thirty years ago, in 1988, Transvision Vamp released the album Pop Art. The British band’s debut album, Pop Art was positioned alongside the Primitives’ stellar Lovely as part of a mini-movement of brashly confident retro pop delivered by acts fronted by charismatic bottle blondes. The Primitives were the band built to last (or so it seemed, until they broke up three years later), but Transvision Vamp had an undeniable verve that demanded attention. They were a overloaded flare, burning bright and fast.

At home, their big single was “I Want You Love,” which made it into the Top 5 on the U.K. charts. On the other side of the Atlantic, a different track took priority. “Tell That Girl to Shut Up,” a cover of a song by Holly and the Italians, was the cut that college radio programmers played with zest, especially if there was some personal feud they could obliquely refer to over the microphone when launching into that booming, grinding intro. The Transvision Vamp version hews closely to the original, but it manages to build in an extra sheen of defiance and sexiness. It was a commanding song to drop into a set list.

As suspected, Transvision Vamp didn’t last long. There were two more albums (and another Top 5 U.K. hit) before the band broke up, a ending that stuck. The various members went on to other endeavors. Lead singer Wendy James, always pushed forward as the star of the band, had a middling solo career that opened with an album comprised entirely of songs Elvis Costello wrote for her. Bassist Dave Parsons had the greatest music business success story, serving as a founding member of Bush, the nineties grunge-lite band that sold a kajillion records of blazingly hideous music.

Listen or download –> Transvision Vamp, “Tell That Girl to Shut Up”

(Disclaimer: I believe Pop Art 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 proprietor of said shop, the original artist, and Holly Beth Vincent, the songwriter behind the album’s best track. The song above is shared here, then, with the belief that doing so is not impeding fair commerce, but is hopefully serving as a reminder of the joys of collecting music. Go buy something this weekend. You record store friend would like to see you. Although I believe I’m well within the confines of 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.)

One for Friday — The Dream Syndicate, “My Old Haunts”

dream syndicate

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, the Dream Syndicate released the album Ghost Stories. Although the band was one of the defining acts of the Paisley Underground movement that spun out of Los Angeles in the nineteen-eighties — and produced at least one fount of major hits in the Bangles — the Dream Syndicate simply couldn’t catch a break. They were a strong presence on college radio, but a true commercial breakthrough proved elusive. And they had particularly bad luck with record labels, leading to several instances of dissolution and reassembly during the decade. A&M Records dropped them after their 1984 album, Medicine Show, and their next home, Big Time Records, folded shortly after the release of the follow-up, Out of the Grey.

Enigma Records gave the Dream Syndicate what would prove to be their final shot (at least until the following century brought on the improbably bustling procession of relatively obscure college rock bands making reunion records). With a big batch of genially morbid songs penned by frontman Steve Wynn, the band started working with producer Elliot Mazer, famed for his efforts behind the boards on some of Neil Young’s most beloved recordings. All those years of collaborating with rock’s notorious curmudgeon evidently shaped Mazer’s view of how things should proceed in the studio. He reportedly stirred trouble and fomented disagreements, believing toxic environments led to more striking art. For a band already worn out by the brutality of the music industry, it seemed this creative experience may have been the knockout blow. The Dream Syndicate called it quits the following year.

I didn’t know any of this when I sat in my college radio station’s air chair and regularly, eagerly pulled Ghost Stories from the new music rotation. I just knew the music was dandy, and, well trained to believe in albums as cohesive artistic statements, I appreciated the way the mildly grim, tenderly morose song titles (“Weathered and Torn,” “See That My Grave is Kept Clean,” “Someplace Better Than This,” “When the Curtain Fall”) were a proper reflection of the overall work’s title. As a teenager ludicrously pining for the days when I, too, could wallow in melancholy nostalgia, I was especially fond of “My Old Haunts.” The fact that the lyrics evoked bitterness about the remembered past (“So don’t sing me your songs about the good times/ Those days are gone and you should just let them go”) only enhanced my appreciation. At times, I was an odd fellow.

Listen or download —> The Dream Syndicate, “My Old Haunts”

(Disclaimer: I believe Ghost Stories to be currently unavailable in a physical format 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 shop. I am sharing its music in this space with the understanding that it causes no undue fiscal harm to any deserving individuals. I am also sharing it as an encouragement to go out and buy some music. Remember what’s great about discovering new music, and go buy some today. Although I believe my sharing of this track constitutes 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.)

One for Friday — Hunters & Collectors, “You Can Have It All”

hunters and collectors

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Hunters & Collectors released the U.S. edition of their fifth studio album. The Australian band was a reasonable commercial force in their homeland, routinely delivering albums that charted in the Top 20 and singles that made — or at least approached — the Top 40. Stateside, they had recently signed with I.R.S. Records, the independent label that made dominance on college radio their model through much of the nineteen-eighties. The album What’s a Few Men?, released in Australia in 1987, was determined by the executives to have too strong of a Down Under vibe, so it was retitled Fate and a couple new tracks were recorded, including the fantastic “Back on the Breadline,” which served as a s single.

Fate largely succeeded according to the I.R.S. Records model, charting singles and making a healthy overall showing on the CMJ charts. Multiple tracks — including “You Can Have It All” — skewed closely enough to the yearning, anthemic style popularized by U2. Like just about everyone else, college programmers always had room for bands that reminded them of the the music they already liked. Although Fate did well, there were evidently hopes for greater crossover success. By the time of the band’s next album — Ghost Nation, released in 1989 — they had a new American label, Atlantic, that also couldn’t figure out a way to fully crack the bonanza code of The Joshua Tree. Before breaking up at the end of the nineteen-nineteens, Hunters & Collectors released three more albums that did bang-up business in Australia. But in the U.S., they were little more than an afterthought.

Listen or download —> Hunters & Collectors, “You Can Have It All”

(Disclaimer: While there appears to be loads and loads of Hunters & Collectors collections released in Australia over the years, a presumably a healthy enough trade in the original albums, I believe their recordings to be out of print in the U.S., at least as physical objects that can be procured from your favorite local, independently owned record store in a manner than compensates both the artist and the proprietor of said shop. I am not presenting this file — shared under the legal precedent of fair use — as a replacement for engaging in commerce. In fact, I think you should go buy some new records right now. I just don’t think this is a viable candidate for that purchase. 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.)

One for Friday — Reckless Sleepers, “Tried to Please Her”

reckless sleepers

Thirty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Reckless Sleepers released their first and only album, Big Boss Sounds. The band’s label, college radio mainstay I.R.S. Records, concentrated the promotional push on the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Jules Shear. One sticker slapped on the front of the record even shifted the billing to “RECKLESS SLEEPER Starring Jules Shear,” touting him as “The ‘bossest’ songwriter of these modern times.”

Shear had previously fronted a band called Jules and the Polar Bears, but that gig wasn’t the thing that made I.R.S. Records decide to hinge their campaign on him. Instead, he’d been the songwriter behind a couple eighties Top 40 hits: Cyndi Lauper’s “All Through the Night,” and the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants.” This wasn’t exactly Holland-Dozier-Holland territory when it come to hit-making, but in the neglected wilds of college radio, at time largely before bands started enjoying unlikely crossover successes, it was as if Shear had crossed into some mythical promised land and brought back trinkets shaped like golden records to hold up before an awestruck crowd.

It was arguably Shear’s business model of giving songs away that helped sink Reckless Sleepers. The track from the album given the heartiest push was “If We Never Meet Again,” a lovelorn ballad very much in style of the previous Shear-penned hits. At roughly the same time, another version of the song was included on the major label debut from Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers. That act also released the song as a single. With the weight (and promotional budget) of Columbia behind it, the Conwell take on the song made it in the Billboard Hot 100. The Reckless Sleepers did not chart.

The band deserved better. Big Boss Sounds is a solid college rock album, completely in line with the prevailing sound of the moment: catchy, homespun, polished but not too glossy, endearingly earnest. “Tried to Please Her” is emblematic of the style, practically designed to be the Lego block linking, say, Game Theory and Let’s Active on an afternoon playlist. The album did perform well on college radio, but not quite well enough. Reckless Sleepers didn’t last, scattering the band members to other projects and Shear to an MTV hosting job he exited right before the program became a sensation.

Listen or download —> Reckless Sleepers, “Tried to Please Her”

(Disclaimer: I could be wrong, but I don’t believe Big Boss Sounds is current available in a physical format that can purchased in such a way that it simultaneously benefits the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. Since the music business favors songwriters, going out and buying greatest hits collections from either Lauper or the Bangles would presumably put some change in Shear’s pocket, if you’re so inclined. And Reckless Sleepers guitarist Jimmy Vivino might appreciate it if you watch Conan, and then patronize their commercial sponsors. Basically, I believe I’m on solid ethical ground in sharing this song in this space at this time. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove the 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.)