**Please do not reveal artist in comments!**
**Please do not reveal artist in comments!**
Had a relatively recent request for this one. Along with Rhino Record's Poptopia collections and Big Deal's renown Yellow Pills series, 1997's Popcan compilation went a long way in whetting my appetite to take a closer look under the under the hood of this life affirming venture we refer to as "power pop." As opposed to the other aforementioned compendiums, Popcan differed in several respects, particularly due to the fact that it consisted exclusively of (then) current Canadian artists - and it came in a single serving. No additional volumes came to pass as it presumably wasn't designed to be a series. Pretty much one-and-done here, but I kind of wish there had been a follow-up, as this disk exposed me to some seriously phenomenal combos. Yes, there's an abundance slotting in the power pop realm - Sour Landslide, Cool Blue Halo, The Nines, and Admiral among several others, but Punchbuggy and Shortfall leaned into something more vigorous, a la the Doughboys, while Noah's Arkweld and By Divine Right subscribed to a craftier indie rock aesthetic. Sixteen different flavors in all to sample from this fizzy, overflowing can. One (or more) is just right for you. Enjoy responsibly.
01. The Roswells - Like It This Way
02. By Divine Right - Fearless
03. Granny - Baby Baby
04. Cool Blue Halo - Too Much Kathleen
05. Universal Honey - Wouldn't Wanna Be In Your Shoes
06. Admiral - A Million Ways to Go
07. Crimson - Some Other Guy
08. Noah's Arkweld - Mornin'
09. The Nines - Ghost Town Saturday
10. Sour Landslide - Hired Goons
11. Shyne Factory - Pop Song
12. New Deposits - Mother Molotov
13. Shortfall - Drive
14. Minstrels - These Days
15. Cinnamon - Another Edit
16. Punchbuggy - Karen
**Please do not reveal artists in comments!**
As you might expect, what makes Have An Idea so effective are a strikingly consistent and satisfying batch of tunes. "When You're Mine," "Remember Me," and "Night Shift," are all deftly honed salvos of guitar pop manna from the heavens, emanating romantic sentiments without any syrupy aftertaste. Saucier items like "Sorry," and the particularly biting "Divorcee" mine a Rockpile-ish vein, while the guys get downright Beatlesque within the two and a half minute confines of "Some Other Guy." No shortage of dynamite moments here. Have an Idea wasn't the most stylish or groundbreaking album to see the light of day in 1980, but in the four-decade rear view it strikes me as equal parts classy and classic.
Just a couple more quick observations. A 2010 review of the remastered and expanded version of ...Idea over at Hyperbolium.com indicates the album wasn't remastered from the original master tapes, and thusly isn't as rich of an audio experience. The 2007 reissue on Air Mail Records is the version that I own and am offering here, and even though I'm not acquainted with the original vinyl incarnation, I have to admit that this could benefit from a bass-ier treatment. That being said, it does append four bonus cuts from surrounding singles, and the artwork is faithful to the original jacket. Finally, there's a bootleg cd-r version floating around that includes a patch of live bonus offerings. in 1983 a live Heats record, ostensibly released by the band and titled Burnin' Live, was issued, albeit featuring nothing familiar from Have an Idea.
01. Have An Idea
02. When You're Mine
03. Sorry Girls
04. Nights With You
05. Some Other Guy
06. Remember Me
07. Ordinary Girls
08. I Don't Mind/She Don't Mind
09. Call Yourself a Man
10. Don't Like Your Face
11. Night Shift
13. Questions Questions
14. Let's All Smoke
16. Count on Me
17. In Your Town
As stimulating as they were on record, the energy of their live performances was searing and rambunctious (even their reunion gigs two and a half decades on). Some of that fervor was captured and bottled in a performance recorded at San Francisco's New Wave A Go-Go (aka Temple Beautiful) in late '79. The fourteen-song set has circulated before, but outside of torrents and such, not in abundance, so I'm presenting it here. It features signature Pointed Sticks soon-to-be classics like "Lies," "The Real Thing," "What Do You Want Me To Do?" and the aforementioned "Out of Luck," alongside a cover of the Sonics "The Witch," always a reliable live favorite for these chaps. Attendees of this gig also heard a preview of a few nuggets that would appear on Part of the Noise, namely "True Love" and "American Song." An encore run-through of "Christmas, Baby Please Come Home" might very well be exclusive to this gig, I might add. Thanks to Terry Hammer committing this show to tape way back when.
Additionally, I'm also giving you a set of 1980 demos that have made the rounds for what seem like ages, often appearing on other blogs and file sharing platforms. Tracked fast and loose, most likely in preparation for Part of the Noise, these guys cooked, even in an informal setup. The recording features a handful of P/S tunes that never turned up anywhere else, "Middle Aged Teenagers" and "Careless," while another rarity on the tape, "All My Clocks Stopped" eventually found it's way to the Souvenirs - Little Gems of Pop comp in 2009.
Reissues of the album and singles/rarities collection, Waiting for the Real Thing, along with two reunion albums are still available through Sudden Death Records.
San Francisco, CA, New Wave A Go-Go (aka Temple Beautiful) 12/15/79
01. The Witch
02. Wasted Time
03. (title ?)
04. Putting You Down
05. American Song
06. Baby I Love You
07. All That Matters
09. The Real Thing
10. Out Of Luck
11. What Do You Want Me To Do?
12. True Love
14. Christmas,Baby Please Come Home
01. The Real Thing
02. Marching Song
03. True Love
04. All That Matters
05. All My Clocks Stopped
06. Nothing Else to Do
08. All I Could Take
09. Part of the Noise
10. How Could You
11. Middle Aged Teenagers
13. Love or Money
14. American Song
15. New Ways
Not long ago (mid-August to be exact), I teased the release of a much anticipated double LP compilation, specifically the one I named above that was due to drop this fall. In fact, I just offered a couple sentences and a YouTube link, and didn't even have a proper link to send you at the time to glean more details about the album. In the ensuing weeks and months more information on Strum & Thrum was made public, a release date for a limited edition, colored vinyl version was set for a late-October Record Store Day "drop," and currently, it's more widely available, digitally as well as on wax. For those of you who've done your homework on Strum... (and of course, those of you who already own a copy) know what it's premise is all about. This is Captured Tracks first foray into self-curated, genre-centric compilations, much along the lines of such veteran reissue labels as Rhino and Numero. The subject couldn't be closer to my site's wheelhouse - college and indie rock circa those collective genre's halcyon, mid-80s era. S&T was of particular interest to me since it overlapped so overwhelmingly with artists I've been featuring here since 2007. The compilation features twenty-eight artists - no less than fifteen of whom I've featured on Wilfully Obscure, and have offered nothing but praise for (One Plus Two, The Windbreakers, Primitons, Bangtails, Riff Doctors, The White Sisters and Pop Art to name about half). This was an unlikely but wholly wonderful coincidence, and I saw a great opportunity to do some cross-promotion with Captured Tracks, not to mention I felt a sincere personal investment, regardless of the fact I had absolutely no role in bringing the album to market.
A few weeks after the news broke, I emailed C/T proposing Wilfully Obscure not only do a typical feature/review of Strum & Thrum, but perhaps something more encompassing like an in-depth interview/deep dive with the parties involved in assembling such a worthy project. A day later I received a response from C/T's press contact with a link to an advance download of the compilation. A fine and much appreciated gesture on their part, but no response on my proposal for doing a full-fledged feature as I had hoped for. A week or so passed and I decided to try again with the same press person, illustrating how much Strum & Thrum tied into my website, but this time, no reply whatsoever. What was I doing or saying wrong I thought to myself? Second to reaching out to the people who assembled the compilation, I entertained the idea of interviewing members of one or two of the artists featured on S&T, but quickly came to the conclusion their stories and observations would be limited to their own experiences, and not those of the entire movement writ large. So I soon abandoned my idea of going "all-out," so to speak and considered scaling down my "dream" feature to one of my standard 400-word reviews. Certainly better than nothing, right? Truth is, at the end of the day, due to C/T's apparent disinterest in working with me, my motivation to do anything surrounding the album gradually deflated, much like the sound of trumpets on a game show accompanying a dejected contestant's inadequate spin of the wheel. The best laid plans of mice and men... (sigh). Ultimately I didn't do anything at all - until this week.
I have a physical copy of Strum... within two feet of the computer desk I'm situated at. I love the track selection, adore the roster of artists involved, and think the presentation is peerless, specifically the accompanying book which is terrifically detailed with personal accounts of the bands involved and loads of rare archival photos. An absolutely phenomenal collection, and to put it in perspective, quite literally the Nuggets of my dreams. Should you have any doubts yourself, examine the tracklist and some screenshots of the package here. Whomever prepared this collection delved very deep, culling together a delightfully arcane array of indie DIY-ers who were responsible for some phenomenal tunes that never got their moment in the sun or on MTV, much less their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame. Arguably, R.E.M. were the outright inspirational antecedents to many if not most of the group's spotlighted on S&T, but contrary to the compilation’s extended title, there's more than just winsome, jangly chords threading their way through this music.
So-called college/alternative/left-of(f)-the-dial rock was far more intricate than individual sonic properties, guitar tones, etc. It was about advancements and modernizations in music itself - progressions which managed to maneuver their way through an overcrowded slipstream, in spite of an exceedingly superficial era saturated with gobs of hairspray and neon visuals, not to mention deeply entrenched, corporate-driven bottom lines. True, combos like the Crippled Pilgrims, The Darrows, Absolute Grey and Salem 66 (all present on Strum) never got within a mile of breaching mainstream playlists. But every band that garnered a morsel of encouragement or inspiration from a dubbed copy of Murmur, or caought a grainy dispatch on some lower rung of the FM dial in the mid-80s played a role, regardless of how minor, in proving that genuinely organic, melodic and earnest musical notions could rub elbows with the fresh, cutting-edge advances of the day, often yielding something fresh and gratifying in the process.
If the purpose of this piece isn't to promote Strum & Thrum itself, what is? Almost as soon as I was introduced to the premise of the compilation in question, it dawned on me that I've been excavating the very type of music it entails for a sizable chunk of my life, particularly in the form of essays and digital audio files I share on a weekly basis. I couldn't help but ask, what if I had selected the S&T roster out of whole cloth? Not as a foil to the version that officially exists, or even an attempt to outsmart/out-obscure the curators at Captured Tracks, rather just as a fun exercise in what my vision for the album might have amounted to, largely based on music that I've presented on Wilfully Obscure. In essence, I'm presenting a parallel playlist to Strum... predominantly (though not exclusively) adhering to the same parameters divulged in it's title, consisting of like-minded American artists who released independent records in roughly the same time frame. Twenty-eight songs to be exact, matching the same amount of acts on the official record. This is purely a celebration of the music - all that it's given me, you and the small microcosm of hearts and ears that have partaken it for four decades, two centuries/millennia and counting. By the end of the week the goal is to provide links in the tracklist below to the original entries I've posted, although some of the download URLs will have likely expired. I'm going to try to attend to any of broken links as well, so feel free to check back Sunday or so. Additionally, there are songs/artists I haven't officially featured here before, some of whom I've just become acquainted with this year, and/or don't own official physical releases of. Enjoy.
01. Beauty Constant - Ed's Anthem (1987)
02. Dreams So Real - Maybe I'll Go Today (1986)
03. The Shakers - All Tied Up (1987)
04. Buzz of Delight - Southern (1984)
05. Neon Rock Garden (NRg) - Don't Say Baboon (1986)
06. The Big Picture - Poison Town (1986)
07. Even Greenland - Another Place to Hide (1986)
08. The Libertines - Voices From the Past (1986)
09. Cordy Lon - Covering the Ground (1988)
10. The Need - Clandestine Shield (1985)
11. The Pedaljets - Sensual Cardboard Event (1986)
12. Northern Pikes - Teenland (early vers.) (1985)
13. October's Child - I Can't Stand It (1987)
14. The Blinkies - Waiting for April (1985)
15. The Lift - Monetary Means (1985)
16. The Bandables - Cynicism (1984)
17. The Spliffs - You Know What They'll Say (1986)
18. The Wake - Lion's Heart (1985)
19. The Reivers (Zeitgeist) - Sound And The Fury (1985)
20. Not Shakespeare - Get Well Soon (1986)
21. Jagged Rocks on the Perimeter - The Soldier And The Painter (1986)
22. Beat Feet - She's on Time (1986)
23. Other Bright Colors - Time Was (1986)
24. Cannon Heath Down - Bone of Contention (1987)
25. Turning Curious - Out Into The Light (1985)
26. Spooner - Walking With an Angel (1986)
27. U Thant - Little Chlorine (1986)
28. The Square Root of Now - Bent Around Corners (1987)
Well, I didn't get around to putting together a batch of singles together this Chanukah like I did last (maybe next year?). Got the next best thing though, a collection of some of the better EPs that made it to my turntable in 2020, including one that had been sitting on my shelf, shrink-wrapped no less for a good eight years since purchasing it. And you think you're backlogged? I think you'll appreciate at least two of these three, and just remember what Meat Loaf had to say about that quotient.
02. Research Bee
05. Go Go Bee
06. Topological Lies
Another outfit that never quite made it to the album phase was Long Island, NY trio Modern Pioneers. In fact, the EP I'm featuring was their longest proper recording, a glorified single with Ione of the songs, "Far Away Places" being an instrumental. The "The Big Hookup" is a resounding left-of-the-dial anthem brimming with confidence and verve driving the point home that these guys didn't take the telephone, of all things, for granted. "Roman Times" chooses a subtler tack but is equally well written. Excellent stuff, and if it's more content you crave from M/P, Jim Santo's Demo Universe has you covered with a live show at CBGBs from 1986 and even some unreleased studio tracks.
A. The Big Hookup
B1. Roman Times
B2. Far Away Places (A Tribute to Ben Gazzara)
01. Milky Way
This is all leading into what I'm presenting today, which is essentially a "dry run" of the majority of the songs that would materialize into Reckoning - that and several other tunes that would be relegated as b-sides and outtakes. Per UNCUT magazine:
"On November 9 , R.E.M. demoed 24 songs at Rhythmic Studios, San Francisco, with Elliot Mazer, who'd produced Neil Young's 'Harvest'. They recorded nine songs that would eventually appear on 'Reckoning': 'So. Central Rain', 'Letter Never Sent', 'Little America', 'Camera', 'Second Guessing', 'Harborcoat', '7 Chinese Bros', 'Pretty Persuasion' and 'Time After Time (AnnElise)'.
All cut in a single day, live to two-track. Quick and dirty you might say, but the arrangements weren't fussed over much more on the finished product than they were on these prototypes, comparatively raw and spontaneous as they are here. There's covers too, ranging from the Tokens to the Velvets. Additionally we're treated to an early take of "All The Right Friends," a song that wasn't released in it's fully realized form until it's inclusion on the expanded import of Dead Letter Office in 1993, and later on a much more widely available best-of. Then there are a patch of cuts that I seem to recognize from some really early live R.E.M. bootlegs, like "That Beat" and "Just a Touch," and "Skank." As for "Cushy Tush," the boys were just having a frivolous stab at a potential commercial jingle.
As die-hard fans of any given innovative artist go, they tend to want to hear alternate versions, regardless of how close the similarities might be. Luckily, R.E.M. were apparent sticklers for demoing new material - and that's very much to our benefit. This boot is also known as the Elliot Mazer Demos. Someone other than myself went to the trouble of prepping this collection for a torrent some years ago, and even provided liner notes that you'll find in the download folder, so big props to whomever went to the effort. By the way, if the depiction of the album sleeve above seems a bit off, I futzed with some of the colors in Photoshop.
01. That Beat
02. Walter's Theme
03. Cushy Tush
04. Burning Down
05. All The Right Friends
07. Femme Fatale
08. Burning Hell
09. The Lion Sleeps Tonight
11. So. Central Rain
12. Letter Never Sent
13. Little America
15. Second Guessing
16. Second Guessing Take 2
18. Seven Chinese Brothers
19. Just A Touch
20. Pretty Persuasion
21. Pale Blue Eyes
22. Time After Time (Annelise)
Integrity alone doesn't necessarily exude talent, but this quintet seemed to have both cards firmly in hand. At the time, many of their ilk were crafting strummy/jangly and literate guitar pop with no shortage of appeal, which hardly placed G/O in a class unto themselves. Still, they had the chops and the songs that should have slotted them somewhere amidst combos ranging from the Housemartins to the Railway Children, and even Trashcan Sinatras. Right out of the starting gate, "World At My Shoes" sparks a sprite, visceral charge with a dynamite chorus hook and an aptitude far advanced for a band who were just unleashing their debut salvo. Other selections here are nearly as vital - "Heaven Sent," "Newspapers" and the concluding "Guitar is Drunk" to name three more. Some of Jargon's ballads, like "Buried in America" and "Acid Rain" could use a tad more lift, so to speak, but I like to think that some of the record's slower pieces are growers. There's only ten songs here, so I shan't give much more away. In a nutshell this is yet another great "lost" indie-pop album from a coveted era that I hope you'll give a spin or two. By the way, the record's complete title is Making Allowances For the Jargon...Until All Intentions Are Clear.
01. World At My Shoes
02. Laughing Stops
03. Bird in the Hand
04. Heaven Sent
05. Glass Houses
07. What Did you Expect
08. Buried in America
09. Acid Rain
10. Guitar is Drunk
I've spilled so much text with no shortage of biographical details on these guys already, but for the uninitiated, The Sugarplastic are/were an immensely talented L.A.-area pop trio whose body of recorded output spanned the entirety of the '90s and well into the first half of the next decade. Garnering a small but dedicated following, the trio of Ben Eshbach (vocals/guitars), Kiara Geller (bass) and Josh Laner (percussion) seized on a mildly eccentric poise, offering considerable Anglophile nods to the likes of XTC, The Monochrome Set, and yes, The Beatles. There's a not-so-subtle undercurrent of whimsy and mercurial charm threading their way through just about any song they leave their imprint on, and Ben & Kiara's barbershop harmonies merely buttressed the band's indigenous and often addictive tenor. Weird, without being weirdos, the Sugarplastic were a unique proposition for a major label, especially in 1996 when their second and perhaps most representative album Bang, The Earth is Round saw the light of day on Geffen Records. Such a singular species was bound to be a hard-sell in an era when Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots still ruled the roost, and as fate would predictably have it the masses were indifferent or outright ignorant to the curious threesome. They persevered with two more studio LPs, 2000's Resin, and Will three years later. Following up a series of subscription-released singles dispensed between 2003-05, they carried on as a live entity for a few more years, and to my knowledge are currently on an extended hiatus, or perhaps completely put to pasture. Ben and Kiara have relatively recent solo outings to crow about, albeit far removed from the typical Sugarplastic mold.
Recommendable as the albums are as an ideal jumping off point, the quintessence of what they were about is demonstrably summed up in a nine-song, in-store gig held at Los Angeles' No Life Records in April of 1996. Captured straight from the soundboard, the Bang-era performance is crisp and nimbly executed, and plays to every iota of the Sugarplastic's spartan but melodic strengths. Included are then current nuggets "Polly Brown," "The Way This Is," and "Montebello," earlier triumphs "Skinny Hotrod" and "Sun Goes Cold," and even a tune that was apparently reserved for live sets, "29¢ Stamp."
There's considerable song overlap between a KCRW, Morning Becomes Eclectic live-to-FM set from the same era as the No Life Records performance, but I'm including it for the interview segments intermingled between the tunes. Sugarplastic songs often take on the gist of romantically-sentient, if not surreal and crooked fables, but the conversation entails background details and provides a sense of where the band's collective heads were when the emerging combo was briefly under the auspices of a major record company.
Finally, I've curated a collection of fourteen (mostly) under-released doses of 'plastic passion, that even the most astute devotee might be lacking on their hard drive or otherwise. The first six cuts were made available for literally less than 48 hours on Bandcamp, approximately five years or so ago. No recording dates were affixed to these tracks, but they bear the strident and buoyant gait that so typified the Sugarplastic aesthetic. Next up are a quartet of songs that appeared on a "bonus" CD that were made available to subscribers of the Tallboy Records 7x7x7 singles series I mentioned in passing above. Even by Sugarplastic standards, "Overextended And Helpless At A Payphone In Chinatown" and "Hesperus And Phosphorus" exude some relatively oblique properties. These are followed up by three early, unreleased tracks that were deemed fit for unleashing on YouTube. Finally there's the band's contribution to the soundtrack of the cutest superhero cartoon enterprise ever.
If I wanted to be extra-cynical I might be tempted to allocate about 30% of Scared's roster as "bands that influenced the Smiths," with the remaining 70% composed of "band's that were influenced by the Smiths." Unfortunately for me, a small-time music scribe, this collection of 134 artists isn't as conveniently monolithic as that, though the overarching tenor of the six+ hours of music featured here wouldn't be what it is without the shadows of such seminal antecedents like Aztec Camera, the Housemartins, and yes, The Smiths, looming so large overhead. Arguably the ground-zero year for UK indie-pop was 1986, which was literally codified in May of that year when a particular issue of NME magazine hit newsstands. Affixed to it was C86, a 22-track, gold-sleeved cassette issued in conjunction with Rough Trade Records of up and coming hopefuls, including on-deck indie luminaries Primal Scream, the Wedding Present, Mighty Lemon Drops, The Shop Assistants, McCarthy, the Pastels and the Soup Dragons among at least a dozen more. This veritable who's-who (to come, in many cases) wasn't merely representative of the year 1986, but a musical aesthetic virtually unto itself, typified by independent artists boasting a mid-fidelity penchant, often chockablock with jangly guitar chords, humble vocals, and relatable heart-on-sleeve prose, clearly bucking the far bolder, gaudier and frankly obnoxious Top-40 vendors that so dominated the mainstream on both sides of the Atlantic. Scared to Get Happy contains selections (though not necessarily the same songs) from the brunt of the C86 tape roster, but goes 112 tunes better, thoroughly exploring what came before and after that seminal reel became so literally and metaphorically tangible.
Revisiting what I mentioned in the middle paragraph, not everyone here owes a sonic debt to Morrissey, Marr & Co, and in fact, you'll find some veritable departures from clangy guitar pop, evidenced by way of the comparatively avant leanings of We've Got a Fuzzbox..., Big Flame, Talulah Gosh, and Josef K. Virtually no significant sub-genre of UK indie pop (save for maybe shoegaze) is unrepresented here, and there are dozens of worthy unknown quantities that I didn't get to mention in this piece. A complete track list is depicted above, and as a side note, while the CD book-set incarnation of Scared to Get Happy has long sold out, 28 of its songs were condensed into a double LP vinyl set in 2017, not to mention another manageable, whittled down assemblage of 50 tunes that can be streamed at Amazon and Spotify. Links to the unabridged version are directly below, but I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that in 2013 I assembled a hypothetical sixth disk of what this box could have potentially contained. Feel free to dip into that one as well.
2020 has got to be good for something...right? With all the crazy and cataclysmic events that have taken place in the last eleven months or so, even I'm not as jazzed about annual traditions. Nonetheless, as long as I still have a supply of extra special ear candy to share with you, I wouldn't feel right depriving you of the usual eight night spread of choice bootlegs, live rarities and standout vinyl scarcities that I've offered every Chanukah since 2012. The festivities begun this Thursday evening, come around sundown EST.
If you're new to the site please check out the preliminary details for past Chanukah roll-outs (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019). You might be asking what initially motivated me to begin this tradition altogether. For one, it gives me a
convenient excuse to share several mind-blowing "gifts" instead of just
one big reveal on Christmas. Secondly, Chanukah represents
relevance to me. We all know you were envious of
that kid down the block who had a yarmulke festooned to their head, who
was given the privilege of lighting the menorah, and of course, reveling
in eight glorious nights of presents. Once again, I'm paying it
forward. Previous Chanukah entries have featured Wire, Velocity Girl, Jellyfish, Husker Du and Teenage Fanclub,
but name recognition is hardly a guarantee. As in past years, there
will definitely be familiar faces, but also
several entrants that have never garnered face-time on W/O. Bear in
mind that what's crucial to my ears may not be of equal essence to
yours, but kindly, try to humor me.
At the top of each Chanukah upload will be a thumbnail photo of a menorah, with the appropriate number of lit candles to denote each succeeding evening until all eight slots in the candelabra are occupied on the concluding night, December 17th.
**Please do not reveal artist in comments!**
01. Factory Town
02. Shooting Your Days Away
03. Show Np Emotion
04. The Changes to Come
05. Letter Dated December 31st
06. On Your Own
07. Punch the Man
08. Hard Word
09. Work Sketch
10. Wild Weekend
**Please do not reveal artist in comments!**
01. The Word
02. Deep Six
03. Waste of Time
04. 8 to 7
05. Hopeless Fiend
06. All People
07. Don't Lay it On Me
08. Someone Like You
09. Screamin' Things
10. What's Inside
12. God is Dead
2019 saw the release of Waiting, a documentary of an unlikely subject - "small of fame" singer/songwriter Van Duren, who came to prominence...well, never to be honest, at least as far as pedestrian ears were concerned. Nonetheless that didn't stop two Johnny-come-lately Aussie film entrepreneurs from tracking him down decades after he made his most notable records. Van Duren is as renown for his connections with Big Star alum Chris Bell and Jody Stephens (and technically Big Star themselves when they were on their last aching legs in Memphis circa the mid-70s) just as much for his first two overlooked but genius solo disks Are You Serious? (1978) and Idiot Optimism, intended for a 1980 release, but only seeing the light of day nearly twenty years later via the Japanese imprint, Air Mail Records. Accompanying Waiting was a quietly released soundtrack on Omnivore Records, drawing largely from the aforementioned albums, leaving out tons of key album tracks. Whether you were fortunate to be cognizant of Are You Serious? when it initially came out, or merely became infatuated with Van Duren's music by virtue of the film some four decades after the fact one thing is for certain - you wanted the whole picture. You're in luck, because Omnivore has made both Van Duren solo records in their entirety available again.
Emanating out of the speakers like a wizardly and often soulful amalgam of Paul McCartney, Eric Carmen, Emitt Rhodes and Todd Rundgren, Van Duren's debut, Are You Serious? not only professed his influences on his sleeves, but functioned as a subconscious declaration that none of the prevailing trends of the day - disco, punk and increasingly staid album rock barely held a candle to well-composed, deftly crafted pop music, be it conveyed on guitar, piano or both. Even if ...Serious? had been whittled down to a hypothetical single of two heartfelt ballads, say "Waiting" and "Positive (Wedding Song)" Van Duren's could have cemented his reputation right there based on his melodic strengths and romantic intuitions. But he proves himself to be far more than a mere piano-pumping balladeer, with the remainder of his debut evidencing itself in a myriad of motifs and textures. "Grow Yourself Up" is a buoyant uptempo feast of hooks and sass from the word go, sounding like the greatest thing the Raspberries left out of their repertoire, while "New Year's Eve" could have passed for an outtake from Big Star's Radio City had Chris Bell stuck around for a second LP. In the forty year+ rear-view, Are You Serious? is a doggedly period sounding record, but despite a lack of studio innovation Van Duren more than gets by with a deliriously strong and capable selection of songs, any one of his higher profile contemporaries would have gladly staked as their own.Idiot Optimism was it's FM-ready analog. Tracked over the span of 1978 to 1980, IO, with it's bolder arrangements and loftier production values sounded like a veritable radio hit - and it likely would have been if it ever came to market. Slated for release in 1980 on the same indie label, Big Sound that was responsible for Van Duren's debut, Optimism languished on the shelves for a good two decades for some curious reasons laid out in the album's liner notes. Nonetheless. it was to the detriment of not only the man in question but millions of potential fans. Despite sounding firmly rooted in the mid-70s, his should-have-been '80 sophomore effort was a doubly more lucid and state-of-the-art affair that it's predecessor, and boasting an even bigger sonic debt to Rundgren, Optimism offers sophistication in spades, and often flirts with functioning on a yacht-rock tier of aptitude (not necessarily a detriment in my book). Armed with memorable numbers like "Tennessee, I'm Trying," and the muscular and McCartney-esque "Woman Needs Man Needs Woman," the album also manages to pay tribute to friend and collaborator Chris Bell, by way of "Make a Scene," a then-unreleased Bell composition - and boy, does Van Duren nail it! Song for song, Optimism is both a marked progression from, and a fitting follow up to Are You Serious? And at long last, both albums can finally be heard on a wide-scale basis in both digital and physical iterations, with Omnivore Records and Amazon being your most immediate and recommended options.