College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 1

1. The Feelies, Only Life

I will likely never be able to accurately identify the first song I ever played on the radio. For one thing, it was probably a jazz song, grabbed at random from the stacks by someone less concerned with artfully programming a show and more with finding long enough tracks to give deejay trainees ample time to cue up the next offering. I could reasonably consider my “first song” to be whatever I played to open my debut night on my regular shift during my initial semester of college: Monday nights, 10:00p.m. to 2:00 a.m. While I wish I was blessed with the foresight to save those early playlists, they are lost to the oscillating waves of time. So I went ahead and decided what my first song was, using knowledge of my preferences, my suspicions over what was appropriately cool enough to disguise my own shortcomings in alternative music knowledge, and the not insignificant detail of what was in the station’s rotation at the time of my arrival. Thus, I settled on “Away” by the Feelies as the personally momentous track.

There’s another simple reason to believe “Away” is what I selected: I used it to kick off my Monday night shift a lot. Besides my pronounced affection for the song, there’s that long, beautiful ramp. The instrumental portion that opens the song at a elegant slow build lasts for one minute and twenty-one seconds before the tempo fully kicks into gear, which can be considered the first post for a deejay to hit with a talk-over. From there, there’s another ten seconds to spare before the singing starts, which is the definite spot to finish the work on the mic. At the top of my show, which was one of five weeknight programs of the late evening block dubbed Soundstreams, I had to dump out of the AP Network News audio five-minute news recap at the top of the hour, read the Central Wisconsin weather forecast, and finally introduce myself and the program, including the important business of giving out the request line number since it was ostensibly an “all-request” show. All of my on-air business could be conducted without undue rushing in the time it took for the vocals to start. Though I suspect pride in that skill has largely fallen away — by the time I was an advisor to a different college radio station around a decade later, there was minuscule interest in learning, much less mastering, that part of the broadcast deejay’s craft — I arrived at a station where and when my senior cohorts still saw nailing posts and deploying perfect segues as practically proof of personal virility.

Then again, it was my first solo flight. Surely I wasn’t ready to play around with lengthy talk-overs just yet. This was live radio, no net. Still, there’s a decent chance I played “Away” that night (my appreciation for it thoroughly reinforced by the Jonathan Demme-directed music video that was a staple of MTV’s 120 Minutes that fall). If not, I played something else from the Feelies album Only Life. I’ve no doubt. Though it was miles away from anything I’d listened to before arriving at the station, there was something about the New Jersey band’s music that I immediately found thrilling. The jittery rhythms and downbeat cast to the vocals had influencing ancestors (which the band addressed directly by covering the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” for the closing track on the record), but my range was limited enough that it felt complexly, shockingly new to me. I hadn’t heard music quite like this before, and Only Life presented ten tracks strong enough to prove decisively to me that I’d been sadly missing out on something great.

My added nostalgia for this particular release now acknowledged at perhaps excessive length, I think Only Life is an exceptional record, one of the three or four that jockeys in my brain for the entirely unofficial and rightly unvalued position as my choice for best album of 1988. The band’s third album has a sprightly charge, like a flint that won’t stop giving off sparks. There’s an engaging loose energy to the whole thing that belies the intricacies of the playing. The nonchalant ease and assurance of the album title is a perfect match for the songs, beginning with the album-opening almost title cut, “It’s Only Life.” As the lyrics in the charging “The Final Word” intone, “Don’t you turn back/ Yeah, it’s all right/ There ain’t nothing in the way.” That must have been how the band was collectively feeling, ensconced on a major label after years of uncertainty, defined by the fumbled release and subsequent famed unavailability of their spectacular 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, which in turn led to the departure of half the band and a full six years before their sophomore effort, 1986’s fine The Good Earth. The Feelies were secure like never before.

Predictably, then, the band didn’t last much longer, releasing only one more studio album, 1991’s Time for a Witness, before calling it quits. The eventual reunion did take place, including the release of a new album that is better than anyone would reasonably expect after a layoff of twenty years. The quality of the later release shouldn’t be all that surprising. Though the Feelies were a distant offshoot of the underground punk scene of the nineteen-seventies New York, most of their music had a oddly timeless quality, a sense that it was youthful rock ‘n’ roll all grown up. That’s what I hear now when I listen to Only Life tracks like the relatively sedate “Higher Ground” or “Too Far Gone,” which is as good of choice of any if asked to demonstrate the band in a single song. That’s another reason I don’t think it’s strictly wistful memory that guides my modern celebration of Only Life. It’s as though it was built to be listened to forever.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–4: Peepshow
–3: Nothing’s Shocking
–2: Blue Bell Knoll

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 2

2. Cocteau Twins, Blue Bell Knoll

Most of the albums on this list are imprinted on me deeply enough to hold a deluge worth of water, sitting as they were in the various tiers of the new music rotation when I was first becoming acquainted with the joys of serving the public interest, convenience, and necessity as a college radio deejay. Even those that didn’t eventually get an honored place in my personal music collection stir a heady nostalgia in me, placing me right back in that square studio that served as my most dependable on-campus home during my undergraduate years. That’s why it’s so odd to me that Blue Bell Knoll is an album I don’t remember one bit from my first semester at the station. It’s in the runner-up position on this chart, and yet I can’t testify with certainty that it was even part of my station’s record library. Cocteau Twins aren’t exactly a band that I would have gravitated to back then (I was averse to anything that sounded too soft, too lush to my ears that craved buzzing, crashing guitars), but it’s almost inconceivable to me that an album could have been this popular during that fall without becoming part of my resonant soundtrack. I’d like to think the album was one of those that vanished from the studio, absconded away by a deejay with sticky fingers and not enough money to buy every album they burned to possess. Even though the mere thought of theft from the station sets my teeth to grinding in anger, even twenty-six years after the crime, it’s preferable to believing that I could have been so closed-minded to a music that didn’t immediately speak to me.

I could have maybe been forgiven for missing one of the earlier four albums released by Cocteau Twins. The Scottish band may have inspired a devoted cult following, but they had trouble getting their albums distributed in the United States. For Blue Bell Knoll, things were different. It was their first album released under a stateside agreement with major label Capitol Records, and they were the beneficiaries of a reasonably generous promotional push. There was even a splendid lead U.S. single, “Carolyn’s Fingers,” that slightly reshapes the band’s trademark sonic eddies with a bright pop beauty, punctuated by attention-getting heavy trills across Elizabeth Fraser’s lead vocals. The more I think about it, the album seems downright unmissable.

And there are plenty of other pleasures to be found on the album. The title cut is an ideal opening track, quietly explosive in its swirl of ethereal sounds. Or there’s “A Kissed Out Red Floatboat,” which takes the Cocteau Twins formula and speckles it with multi-colored sugar. The record is immersive and forthright in its intoxicating splendor, pushing into the same realms of heavy atmospherics that would eventually engage my fandom when traveled by the likes of Ride and My Bloody Valentine using darker, droning guitars. There are moments on the album that still leave me a little chilly — as one example, “Spooning Good Singing Gum” sometimes sounds too much like a lullaby sung by a seductress reeling from a overly hefty dose of absinthe — and Fraser’s tendency to deliver the lyrics as if they’ve been translated into an impenetrable, otherworld language can make the whole landscape of the album recede into the background. Still, listening to it now is enough to convince me that I should have listened to it then.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–4: Peepshow
–3: Nothing’s Shocking

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 3

3. Jane’s Addiction, Nothing’s Shocking

In the fall of 1988, prevailing opinion held that Perry Farrell was the next great artist emerging from the realm of off-center rock ‘n’ roll. His band Jane’s Addiction was just out with just its first proper studio album (they’re self-titled debut was recorded at a live show), on the major label Warner Bros., but Farrell was quickly establishing himself as a master provocateur, creating an album cover image that got it banned from most major music retailers and a music video (for “Mountain Song”) that brought our the skittishness in MTV. This was the era of Robert Mapplethorpe and Piss Christ, so nothing established credibility quite like riling tender sensibilities with confrontational artwork. That stridency combined with the raw, hypnotic hard rock on Nothing’s Shocking to make it seem like a new sage of the blazingly alternative had arrived.

Turns out Farrell didn’t exactly have the longevity that many expected. Certainly he cemented his place in the extended story of both rock ‘n’ roll and nineteen-nineties culture with the creation of the Lollapalooza festival, which first delivered angry music in blazing summer sunshine as nearby freaks drove roofing nails through their septa in 1991. On the music side of the ledger, though, the tally was a little iffier, with one more Jane’s Addiction album before breaking up (though there were reunion tours and albums aplenty in the decades that followed) and a series of bands and solo efforts that were met with rapidly dwindling interest. There’s always a little huckster in every visionary. In Farrell’s case, the two personae were more like a reversible suit that he inverted at will. By now, thought huckster side has been in permanent use long enough that it’s looking a little frayed. Still, at least the emperor has some clothes on.

No matter what followed, Nothing’s Shocking was still seismic. Parts of it sound dated now, as is going to be the the case with almost any music that drifts towards agitated outsider performance art. Elements that once felt like roundhouse swings at the tepid establishment now come across as coy little slaps. It’s hard to imagine any but the most conservative record sellers giving more than a second of worry to that album cover these days, for example. When Farrell levels his banshee wail vocals at the repeated lyric “Sex is violent” on “Ted, Just Admit It…” the clear objective of stirring stuffed shirt outrage is downright quaint. Putting that aside, the track in one of the clearer examples as to why Nothing’s Shocking had an impact that deserves to endure. The music is intriguing and complex, swirling around melodies rather than embracing them. It hits hard but is also strangely wistful. It sounds like musical reinvention undertaken on the spot.

“Mountain Song” still hits hard, and “Standing in the Shower…Thinking” has an exuberant looseness that cuts against the surprisingly vivid juxtaposition of idle mind deep thoughts (“I’m thinking about power/ The ways a man could use it/ Or be destroyed by it”) and tactile impressions of time under the blasting shower head (“The water is piping hot/ It beats upon my neck/ And I’m pissing on myself”). For those who like such things, “Ocean Size” has interlude of guitar work by Dave Navarro that flirt with hyper-nimble Satriani excess. Really, though, the album is nearly a classic solely for the version of “Jane Says” it includes. A song that first appeared on the band’s 1987 debut, “Jane Says” is fleshed out with a fuller sound, a subdued but distinctive steel drum backing, and a tremendous, keening vocal by Farrell. The lyrics perfectly, evocatively capture a life in stasis (“Jane says/ She’s goin’ away to spain/ When she gets my money saved/ I’m gonna start tomorrow”). A songwriter and a band couldn’t ask for a better signature track.

Whether or not Nothing’s Shocking was truly a transformational release almost doesn’t matter. At the time, when the horrors of “Kokomo” and “Bad Medicine” were topping the Billboard charts, something that clawed at the eyes of convention was welcome. And Jane’s Addiction was just bold enough as they threw curled up hands with sharpened nails. So what if it wasn’t the sound of the future. For those of us in college radio, it was a deeply vital part of our shared present, when we believed we could reshape the airwaves for the better, one song at a time.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime
–4: Peepshow

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 4

4. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Peepshow

When Peepshow arrived in the fall of 1988, it was seen as something of a resurrection for Siouxsie and the Banshees, touched with a little welcome reinvention. The post-punk and goth-rock pioneers hadn’t exactly been idle in the year prior, releasing both a covers album and the standalone single “Song from the Edge of the World” in 1987, but it had been two-and-a-half years since they’d issued a full-length of new material. In the fickle world of college radio, where the most basic math of institutional progress suggests a turnover of at least 25% every time the academic calendar switches over, that was a short lifetime. It was long enough that some critics received the new record with a small level of amazement that it existed, that Siouxsie Sioux and her crew hadn’t shuffled off quietly into rock ‘n’ roll retirement, fading away rather than burning out. This perception was also somewhat attributable to the expected life cycle of a band back then. Those that persevered much longer than a decade were still something of a rarity, and Peepshow was released within stage diving distance of the tenth anniversary of the group’s debut single. Fairly or not, that made the teeth on Siouxsie and the Banshees look a little longer than the norm. They had something to prove.

It’s not clear if Siouxsie Sioux felt she had something to prove, but she was clearly interested in pursuing valuable change. Part of the reason “Song from the End of the World” wasn’t connected to any album was Siouxsie Sioux’s dissatisfaction with the release. She later conceded that she found the production of Mike Thorne lacking, and the track was essentially disowned by the band. It was omitted from their 1992 singles collection and only found its way onto subsequent compilations in remixed versions. The sense that things plainly weren’t working may have also contributed to the decision to expand the band’s lineup. Peepshow was the first Siouxsie and the Banshees album recorded as a quintet, with the addition of guitarist Jon Klein and multi-instrumentalist Martin McCarrick, the latter credited with some of the added sonic layering found on the album.

As if to announce the band’s newfound inventiveness, Peepshow leads off with one of the most arresting songs Siouxsie and the Banshees ever recorded: “Peek-a-Boo.” Building its rhythm track around the intoxicating shuffle found in a sample of a previously recorded track played backwards, the song is fierce and urgent, punctuated with odd electronic punches and the creaking menace of a jubilant accordion part. Siousxie Sioux’s lead vocals are as unpredictable as the music, landing anywhere from croon to battle cry to achingly tender, like a greased roulette ball (part of the effect was achieved by recording with a multitude of different microphones). The track surges and slinks and curls around on itself. It’s music made for the dance floor in a surrealistic painting. While I find myself sadly unable to verify this, it’s my recollection that it held the #1 position on the CMJ Top Cuts chart for weeks on end in the fall of 1988. It took the band approximately one year to pull it together into its finished version, and the extra effort is completely evident. It’s so spectacular that it threatens to overshadow everything else on the record. I pulled Peepshow plenty of times during my tenure at the radio station, but I can’t promise with certainty that I ever played another track off of it.

And listening back to it now, there are definitely other songs worth sampling, even if the best any of the others can hope for is to jockey for runner-up position. Across the two sides, it’s the consistently adventurous nature of the music that keeps Peepshow interesting. “Carousel” sounds like the opening song to some haunted fairy tale film from Tim Burton (I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover this track is what landed them the undoubtedly lucrative gig of pitching in on the Batman Returns soundtrack), and “Burn-Up” provides the odd sensation of hearing something that might have been created by Bo Diddley had he been reared on post-punk. “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” can be heard as a thrilling ancestor to the recent brilliant work by St. Vincent. The album lags somewhat on the second side (“Turn to Stone,” for example, is more sleepy than seductive), but it ends on a fine note with the intricate, escalating majesty of “Rhapsody.”

If Siouxsie and the Banshees had developed doubters in the lead-up to Peepshow, they were surely silenced by the record’s success. In the United States, anyway, it was their highest-charting album to that point, and “Peek-a-Boo” became their first single to make it onto the Billboard Hot 100. They topped themselves a couple of years later when “Kiss Them for Me,” the lead single from 1991’s Superstition, made it into the Top 40. From there, though, the dwindling down that had been previously predicted started to take place. Despite the dream collaboration of enlisting John Cale as a producer, their 1995 album, The Rapture, was met with very little interest, even from college radio. They were dropped by their label. The following year, the band announced they were done for good, doing so on the very day the Sex Pistols introduced their “Filthy Lucre” reunion tour. As best as I can tell, the last new music ever released by Siouxsie and the Banshees was on, of all places, the Showgirls soundtrack. Blessedly, they’ve resisted any and all entreaties to reunite, in part because Siouxsie Sioux and co-founding Banshee Steven Severin feuded for years. Even with that fracture apparently patched up, I’d like to think the cheap victory lap tour is beneath them. As Peepshow communicated to me way back when, Siouxsie and the Banshees only venture forth when they’ve got something new and vital to deliver.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul
–5: Workers Playtime

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 5

5. Billy Bragg, Workers Playtime

Billy met Mary in 1986. Specifically name-checked in the song “The Short Answer” (“Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary/ There was Mary/ Between the deep blue sea and the devil/ That was me”), Mary provided the inspiration for a hefty number of the songs on Billy Bragg’s fourth official album, Workers Playtime. Or rather, it was Bragg’s tempestuous relationship with Mary that stirred his creativity. Even though the first song that brought him fame announced, “I don’t want to change the world/ I’m not looking for a new england/ I’m just looking for another girl,” Bragg’s reputation as a socialist-minded protest singer was well-established by the late nineteen-eighties (I still cherish the Rolling Stone concert review from 1988 that noted Bragg apologizing for his raspy singing, claiming he’d worn out his voice by spending the day screaming “Asshole!” at people with George Bush bumper stickers), making Workers Playtime feel like a heart-rending reinvention. Social commentary still comes into play — a pointed attack against the criminal justice system on “Rotting on Remand,” the anti-war coo of empathy on the a capella “Tender Comrade” — but the bulk of the album is about thwarted romance. The bulk of the album is about Mary.

I loved the album in the fall of 1988. I needed it about three years later, when I went through my first (and my worst) major breakup. Like those from a generation before me might have luxuriated in the sweet misery of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, I gave Workers Playtime a more or less permanent place on the turntable in my college apartment bedroom, finding highly relatable truths in its grooves. In the manner of the very best pop music, the album was a patch on loneliness, proof delivered at thirty-three rotations per minute that the feelings roiling inside weren’t entirely unique to me. At least Bragg knew what I was going through, as evidenced by the ballads “The Price I Pay” (“There’s something inside that hurts my foolish pride/ To visit the places we used to go together/ Not a day go by that I don’t sit and wonder why/ Your feelings for my didn’t last forever”) and “Little Time Bomb” (“He holds your letters but he can’t read them/ As he fights this loneliness that you call freedom”). Even a comparatively jaunty song (musically, anyway) like “Life with the Lions” held sadly familiar truths (“I know that I’m guilty/ But I don’t know what I’ve done”). These were exactly the songs I wanted to write at the time. Utterly bereft of musical talent, I’m lucky Bragg did it for me.

Even putting aside the album’s splendid success as a life support system for the newly lonely, Workers Playtime easily stands as one of Bragg’s strongest records. The added focus that comes from the thematic throughline certainly helps, but there’s also a stronger sense of musicianship that one previous albums. Though hardly a cacophony of noise, the album has an abundance of sonic textures, lovely caressing of melody and sound in every track. Surely some of that is attributable to the presence of producer Joe Boyd, who previously shepherded lush, delicate works by the likes of Fairport Convention and Nick Drake. Bragg usually considered himself a poet first, downplaying his skills as a songwriter and musician. By the gentle intricacy of the production, Boyd challenges Bragg’s underplaying of his own talent. Even if Bragg was ready to rely on fast-strummed exuberance like perpetual busker, the shape and sound of the album emphasized his winning songcraft.

Appropriately, then, Workers Playtime is bookended by two of the very best entries in the Bragg songbook. Album opener “She Got a New Spell” is propulsive, catchy, and scored with the sorts of clever lyrics that draw in the listener (“The laws of gravity are very, very strict/ And you’re just bending them for your own benefit”), excited to unlock its possibilities. The album closes with “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” arguably Bragg’s most enduring song and certainly the one that stands as his clearest personal anthem, if only for its direct address of the challenges of “mixing pop and politics.” Like the finest folk standards of the past, it practically cries out for a singalong, or at least it would if Bragg hadn’t realized almost from the get-go that it was also one of his most pliable songs. I’ve seen him play it live several times, never the same way twice (I’m especially partial to the revised lyric “It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n’ roll/ From East Berlin to the Letterman show”). I think of Bragg’s willingness to alter a signature song whenever I revisit Workers Playtime, I think because it hits at something I always instinctually knew was lurking there. I used the album to wallow, but it also built my strength up a little every time. Bragg obviously knew my pain. He also clearly got through his own. Life changes and develops. The heart heals and moves on. The catharsis offered by the songs was part of my process. Among everything I drew from Workers Playtime, Bragg also reminded me that it was okay to let the lyrics of my sad song change.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day
–6: Truth and Soul

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 6

6. Fishbone, Truth and Soul

Fishbone decided to open Truth and Soul, their second full-length release, with a track that signaled a clear understanding of their forebears. Their ferocious take on Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddie’s Dead” is a clarion call to the rock ‘n’ roll faithful. Fishbone is going to do right by the mélange of genres in which they traffic. “Freddie’s Dead” is steeped in funk authority, but it also blasts forward like a headlong hard rock anthem. Their earlier releases sometimes got Fishbone pigeonholed as an empty party band, maybe in part because it was all too easy to lump them in with their fellow Los Angeleno hard-smacking funk practitioners Red Hot Chili Peppers (and, to be fair, Fishbone’s very first single was a helluva party song). From the crack of Truth and Soul, they are determined to roar with purpose.

Released right after the band renegotiated their contract with Columbia Records, the album was produced by the guy who got them signed to label in the first place. David Kahne had presided over their previous efforts as well, but there’s an added level of studio polish to Truth and Soul. Crisp, clear, and tight, the album is remarkable for a heavy thumb professionalism that somehow doesn’t compromise the rawness of the band’s performances. Even the songs that could have easily settled onto early releases, like the hearty ska punch of “Ma and Pa” or the raunchy juvenilia of “Bonin’ in the Boneyard,” are less happily ramshackle than they may have been previously. As different college rock bands were teetering between maintaining their negligible cult followings and achieving some level of crossover success, Fishbone was alerting all who cared to listen that they were not to be underestimated. A track like “Mighty Long Way” even sounds like ready-made soundtrack fodder (“Believe me when I say/ Me and my friends/ We go a mighty long way”). That wouldn’t have been an entirely unexpected result. After all, they’d cameoed in the weirdo Frankie and Annette reunion movie Back to the Beach, and, at about the same time Truth and Soul was released, the band showed up in cult classic wannabe Tapeheads, playing “Slow Bus Movin’ (Howard Beach Party).”

In some ways, though, those more eager songs perpetuated the notion of Fishbone as loopy fun, all too easy to dismiss. Other portions of Truth and Soul shatter that perception. Without tempering the rhythmic freedom and horn-blasted spiritedness of their music, Fishbone showed a relatively newfound interest for tackling more politicized material, heard most clearly on the back half of the album with tracks such as “Subliminal Fascism” and “Ghetto Soundwave.” The latter sadly has a lingering pertinence in the lyrics as it sketches out a dire landscape for young black men in the United States (“There’s another cry of murder/ Policeman shoot down baby brother/ Shot him, shot him down/ In the street”). These aren’t quite rallying cries, but nor do they turn a blind eye to the injustices that were happening every day in the band’s home city. It’s a nice bonus that the music still invites pogo-peppered dancing.

As is often the case, especially when a band is taking a stab at greater commercial success, not everything works (invoking precipitation isn’t the only aspect of “Pouring Rain” that makes it sound like warmed-over Prince). That conceded, a remarkable amount of Truth and Soul still comes across as fresh and vibrant. Listening to it now, it’s also an obvious evolutionary stop between their raucous early work and the album that would follow it, 1991’s explosive, complicated The Reality of My Surroundings. They are revving up, testing the engine ahead of a true racetrack blast to come. Though Fishbone has never officially stopped as a going concern (Angelo Moore and John Norwood Fisher are the two band members who have been in the lineup for the duration), that next album would prove to be a clear commercial and artistic peak. The staging for it began with Truth and Soul.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern
–7: Every Dog Has His Day

College Countdown: Rockpool’s Top 20 College Radio Albums, November 1988, 7

7. Let’s Active, Every Dog Has His Day

Back around #15 on this particular countdown, I noted the elevated stature of North Carolina-based producer Mitch Easter at the end of the nineteen-eighties, at least within the aspirational, twentysomething Neverland of college radio. That minor key fame primarily stemmed from his work behind the boards on the earliest R.E.M. albums — which were less than ten years old at the time but already achieved iconic status as left of the dial masterworks — but that certainly didn’t stop I.R.S. Records from using expectations of brilliance to hype the release of the third album by Easter’s band Let’s Active. Every Dog Has His Day, like its direct predecessor (1986’s Big Plans for Everyone), was largely recorded as an Easter solo effort. There are contributions by drummer Eric Marshall on most tracks, and Annie Carlson, who became Easter’s wife after being recruited into the band a couple years earlier, also pitched in. This was clearly Easter’s album, though. And he was enmeshed enough in the alternative music scene that it makes for an interesting and telling State of the Sound testimony.

The album is simultaneously earthy and slicked up, mirroring the progression Easter’s old pals in R.E.M. were going through (the little ol’ band from Athens, Georgia were the unquestioned standard-bearers of college rock, circa 1988). Easter stayed true to his own artistic voice, in all its jangly guitar, chiming melody wonder. That didn’t stop him from dressing tracks up in studio refinement, helped along by the contributions of co-producer John Leckie, who’d previously worked with the likes of XTC and Public Image Ltd. and would go on to make hugely important records with the Stone Roses and Radiohead. Easter definitely had his own talent for audio polish, but it’s easy to attribute the shininess of Every Dog to Leckie. If nothing else, the incursion of Beatle-esque psychedelia into “Mr. Fool” must have been the handiwork of the Swami Anand Nagar, the pseudonym adopted by Leckie when he worked with XTC on various Dukes of the Stratosphear tracks.

“Mr. Fool” hits on one of the recurring themes of the album, as Easter often seems to be trying to figure out his place in his professional world, particularly in light of the non-lucrative nature of his fame. He was extremely well-known in certain quarters, deeply esteemed, even. That wasn’t translating into the sort of crossover success that was necessary in that era of the music business. And since rock ‘n’ roll was still thought of an almost solely a young person’s game, Easter likely wouldn’t have been looking at the longterm strategizing. He states it pretty clearly on “Mr. Fool”: “Better sit down for this piece of news/ For you, there’s no more time left to lose.” That wry cynicism comes through on tracks steeped in irony, such as “Sweepstakes Winner” and the fantastic title cut (“We’ll pull into mainstream/ Where the sun illuminates the way/ And here beneath the rainbows/ Just for us where all the kids will say/ Every dog has his day”). If there’s bitterness there (and there probably is), it’s shaped by exultant pop structures. These are songs to be sung at top volume while the ship goes down.

There’s good stuff across the album. The instrumental “Orpheus in Hades Lounge” is rubbery spy movie theme with chocolate chips of ballpark organ strewn throughout it, and “Ten Layers Down” is an agreeable basher. Similar to the latter, Easter proves he can get a lot out of being direct with the glammy simplicity of “Too Bad” (“I got a lot of ideas/ All bad/ Got a whole slew of friends/ All mad”). Not every song pitched at the college kids has to sound like it could inspire a weighty thesis. I’m less partial to the “Horizon,” with its veneer of Styx-ian grandiose tenderness, but overall Every Dog Has His Day was exactly the sort of record I was hoping to find every time I sat in my station’s air chair. Even if the music across the two vinyl sides wasn’t exactly wildly diverse, its exuberant energy and slightly snarling point of view made it feel like it was striking in the most fruitful vein of college rock.

Ultimately, the album didn’t provide a commercial turnaround. The band toured, but they were formally disbanded by 1990. Compounding the finality, Easter and Carlson filed for divorce at around the same time. Easter continued on with other bands and producing gigs, none of them really touching the peaks of his nineteen-eighties heyday. Let’s Active remained entirely quiet for most of that time, a silence broken when Easter reunited with original drummer Sara Romweber for a benefit show this past summer.

Previously…
An Introduction
–20: Substance
–19: End of the Millennium Psychosis Blues
–18: Rank
–17: Lovely
–16: Ghost Stories
–15: 2 Steps from the Middle Ages
–14: Lincoln
–13: Short Sharp Shocked
–12: Forget
–11: Rattle and Hum
–10: Nothing Wrong
–9: Big Time
–8: Invisible Lantern