Monday, October 2, 2023

Bobby Sutliff - Only Ghosts (1987/2023, Jem) - a brief review.

It's nearly impossible for a recent passing to not overshadow the music of the artist involved. In the cases of high profile specimens like John Lennon and Kurt Cobain it took years for a lot of fans to come to terms with their premature deaths before they could simply sink back in and enjoy the music again. For better or worse, Bobby Sutliff was not a household name, even at the arguable apex of his career in the mid-80s, but fans of both his solo endeavors and the work he did with the more renown Windbreakers certainly felt something when it was announced he lost his battle with cancer in August of 2022. There was really no controversy or prolonged drama tethered to Bobby, and those like myself who didn't know him personally were still able to associate him exclusively with his catalog of music.  Unlike the aforementioned Lennon and Cobain, however, when someone of Bobby's small-of-fame stature departs, their loss tends to exist in a vacuum, one in which there is no media pile-on or ubiquitous airplay on Sirius XM.  But above all else the music lives on with their faithful minions, and a recent reissue of his 1987 solo LP, Only Ghosts Remain is a much needed reminder of his relevance.

Making his bow in the early '80s from the somewhat unlikely locale of Jackson, MS as half of the songwriting quotient of the Windbreakers, Bobby, partnered with Tim Lee, would be responsible for three memorable albums of collegiate guitar pop (Terminal (1985), Run (1986) and A Different Sort (1987), not to mention a handful of preceding EPs. Fortified with national distribution, despite being anchored to smaller indie labels the Windbreakers were something of a staple on left-of-the-dial radio outlets, and were a decent live draw, but they didn't come close to breaching the mainstream.  To fans of jangle-laden indie rock coming remotely from the same environs as R.E.M. (and maybe less so the Dream Syndicate) the Windbreakers were a breath of fresh air.  They were advanced enough to exist in the '80s, yet managed to thoroughly sidestep the most egregious and embarrassing trends of the era. When OGR was released the 'breakers were still a going concern and from what I've been able to glean there was no acrimony between Sutliff and Lee.  That said, it was advisable for Bobby to put the album's eleven songs under a separate umbrella.

Just to get a little bit of trivia out of the way, Only Ghosts..., essentially began life as a Mitch Easter-produced five song EP, the lovingly dubbed Another Jangly Mess, that was only available as a European import which I've seen conflicting release dates of 1986/87.  Another one of Bobby's collaborators, not to mention erstwhile music publicist Howard Wuelfing was so enamored with what he heard that he encouraged PVC/Jem Records to bankroll the recording of another batch of songs, once again with Mitch Easter at his fabled Drive-in Studios to flesh out an entire LP.  Thus, Only Ghosts... was born. Despite being culled from two sessions the album doesn't feel patchworked together in the least, and is as consistent if not more so than anything the Windbreakers had been responsible for up until that point. 

During the era surrounding OGR's recording/release, the Windbreakers was ostensibly Bobby's main meal ticket - yet not one iota of the record sounds half-hearted, or casually strewn together. Retaining much of the 'breakers edgy, forward-thinking pallor while simultaneously emboldening Bobby's overarching sonic heft, this was an album that seemingly had one foot steeped in indie rock aesthetics, with the other sporting an ambitious stride that could have instantly impressed more pedestrian ears. 

The Windbreakers were partial to downcast themes and moreover, were known to exude a pessimistic tenor when it suited them, but as a solo entity Bobby was discernably more assured, and even downright confident. The driving, decided "Same Way Tomorrow" made for a primo opening salvo, declaring something of a brash clarion call. "Always Love You" and "Couldn't Help Myself" mine a similar, if slightly less strenuous vein. Further in, Only Ghosts... reveals itself as more of a mid-tempo specimen, albeit our protagonist is wont to circumvent traditional ballads. The overall effect is comparable to the first couple of Matthew Sweet albums, not to mention the Sweet-adjacent Velvet Crush precursor Choo Choo Train. Intoxicating jangly and strummy notions like "Won't Be Feeling Blue" pour down like an unremitting waterfall, and while the context of any given Bobby Sutliff tune is a cinch to glom onto, there's more than surface level depth at play here.  OGR may not rewrite or out-innovate anything that came before it (by the Windbreakers or otherwise) but it's nonetheless a life affirming example of par-excellence power pop, with an aptitude that's nothing short of wholly earnest. 

As mentioned above, Only Ghosts Remain has been given a new lease on life on the label that originally minted it, Jem Records.  The album's original running order has been bested with eleven additional cuts from three of Bobby's subsequent albums (Bitter Fruit, Perfect Dream and On a Ladder). Amazon has you covered via CD or digitally.


Josef Kloiber said...

It's good that you're bringing more brief review again. I have the lp. Also some more of the Windbreakers and a lot of Donovan's Brain. EVERYTHING GREAT.

kahoutek13 said...

Thank you for this review. Only Ghosts Remain Plus is not the only posthumous Bobby Sutliff release. Career Records released Bobby Sutliff’s last solo album. Bob Sings And Plays September 5 on Bandcamp well worth checking out too!