College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #808 to #805

shoes

808. Shoes, Present Tense (1979)

Shoes were always interested in making records, first and foremost. Hailing from Zion, Illinois, the band largely skipped the common step of playing lots of rock club dates to hone their craft.

“There’s no way playing clubs on the outskirts of Chicago is going to get you any closer to a recording contract,” guitarist Jeff Murphy told Billboard. “There are a few bands that beat their brains out for years playing clubs, but it didn’t make sense to us.”

Instead, Shoes started their own record label, Black Vinyl Records, and self-released material, including the 1977 album Black Vinyl Shoes, which originally pressed one thousand copies. Flush with their modest but clear success, Shoes shopped themselves to major labels, eventually signing with Elektra Records. Present Tense was their major label debut.

The album is prime power pop, songs built on effervescent melodies and precise beats. “Tomorrow Night” has a keening wonderment about it, and “I Don’t Miss You” fortifies its elegant finery with thick, thudding guitars. “Your Very Eyes” has the lighter than air quality the Housemartins would later master. The tender “Too Late” became a minor hit on FM radio, crossing into the Billboard Hot 100, but Shoes were a little out of step with the pop music moment, defined more by the fading flare of disco, the dogged persistence of prog rock, and the incendiary rebellion of punk. Shoes made two more albums for Elektra and popped up frequently in the earliest MTV playlists, before receding to a comfortable cult hero status by the middle of the nineteen-eighties.

 

 

clapton

807. Eric Clapton, Another Ticket (1981)

There were plentiful problems on the path to Another Ticket. Polydor Records outright rejected Eric Clapton’s first version of the album, which was recorded with producer Glyn Johns. Although Johns had also presided over Clapton’s previous two studio efforts — Backless and Slowhand — both reasonable commercial successes, the label didn’t like what they heard, forcing Clapton to take a fresh pass at the material, this time with Tom Dowd behind the board. It was a sour turn in a professional relationship that was already experiencing trouble. Clapton left the label after Another Ticket, ending a fifteen year association.

The final version of Another Ticket definitely skews to Clapton’s well-established watery blues sound. “Something Special” is so tepid it sounds like a Schoolhouse Rock approximation of the blues, suited for pairing with lyrics about grammar or arithmetic. “Floating Bridge,” originally a Sleep John Estes song, and “Catch Me If You Can” are similarly drab. There was a market for this stuff, though. “I Can’t Stand It,” generic as can be, made it into the Billboard Top 10. It’s still better than the pure shlock title cut.

Another Ticket does have its moments, including the agreeable “Black Rose,” on which Clapton and his band sound uncommonly engaged. Album closer “Rita Mae” is even better, charging forward with a hard rock drive that gives it a robustness often missing in the many tracks across Clapton’s discography. It was reportedly one of the cuts most impacted by Dowd’s reworking. I’m disinclined to side with execs against artists, but it’s possible Polydor was right all along.

 

 

wire women

806. Wire Train, Ten Women (1987)

It’s surely no coincident that the title of Wire Train’s third album includes a number that corresponds precisely to the number of tracks it holds. Presumably, the tallied women inform the set of songs. Three of the tracks include the word “She” in the title. Ten Women picks a lane and sticks with it.Th

Released by Columbia Records, Ten Women is also making a pretty clear stab at commercial crossover. The songs are polished to a dull gleam, yearning to serve as a useful transition between U2 and John Mellencamp on album rock radio. Single “She Comes On” is plain and direct, and “She’s a Very Pretty Thing” tries on some tuneful pining. “Breakwater Days” is a hollowed out stab at arena rock that alternates between anguished narration and whining guitars that carry it perilously close to Mötley Crüe in their “Home Sweet Home” mode.

The slack “Diving” and flatly grinding “Too Long Alone” typify a redundancy that runs through the album. Wire Train settles on a lick, a turn of phrase, a cracking vocal tone and then hammers away at it, as if persistence is a more important quality than variety. All involved undoubtedly expected the creative strategies on the album were going to deliver a Wire Train breakthrough. It didn’t happen, and the band went on a brief hiatus, parting ways with Columbia during the downtime.

 

 

jazz fish

805. The Jazz Butcher, Fishcotheque (1988)

The Jazz Butcher was a tough band to pin down. The lineup changed with regularity, as did the band’s name, embellished to the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy or the notably complicated the Jazz Butcher and His Sikkorskis from Hell. Their albums were also known from being grandly ramshackle affairs comprised of songs that were simultaneously odd and pristinely formulated. When the band signed to Creation Records, it seemed like they might finally be ready to play nice.

Officially, the Jazz Butcher was down to a duo for their Creation debut, Fishcotheque: main creative force (and occasional wielder of the Jazz Butcher moniker all on his own) Pat Fish and guitarist Kizzy O’Callaghan. There’s a notably pared down sound, with the songs rendered crisply and with a pleasing lack of fuss. Even the regular inclusion of a saxophone, that instrument choice that sunk many a nineteen-eighties record, is nicely inspired, giving the album a little added groove.

Fishcotheque continually impresses, providing a primer on the many charms to be found in British pop in the era. Fish is an especially charming presence, coming across as a flintier Lloyd Cole. On album opener “Next Move Sideways” he even sounds like a more chipper Lou Reed, albeit a version of the venerable figure that somehow got diverted into fronting a cooler Modern English. “Susie” has some Cocteau Twins shimmer to it, and “Living in a Village” is like one of Poi Dog Pondering’s rollicking romps or maybe the Pogues on the wagon.

These comparisons shouldn’t imply that the Jazz Butcher isn’t distinctive and unique. They simply range widely across the sonic landscape, taking on different styles with an offhand mastery. There are times on Fishcotheque when it’s conceivable that the Jazz Butcher could plainly make whatever kind of song they wanted if they just pressed their shoulders to it. The fierce expertise is heard clearly on the Pynchon-pinching “Looking for Lot 49,” which races like a properly tuned sports car. There are also sparks of the band’s penchant for the bizarre. “The Best Way,” for example, answers the burning question “What might the backend of Blondie’s ‘Rapture’ sound like if it were about poultry?”

The Jazz Butcher could be deliberately inscrutable and distancing at times. Hardcore fans might be inclined to pick favorites among the band’s more complexly caustic offerings, but agreement seems to be in place about the high quality of the more inviting Fishcotheque. Even Fish regards it as one of the band’s peaks.

“This sold rather well, which was pleasing, and seems widely liked,” Fish notes. “I can’t fuck with that, but I had hoped that it would be more a ‘change of direction’ than it was. But I like Fishcotheque; I wish there more records as good as it.”

 

To learn more about this gigantic endeavor, head over to the introduction. Other entries can be found at the CMJ Top 1000 tag. Most of the images in these posts come straight from the invaluable Discogs

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