College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #732 to #729

alex priest

732. Alex Chilton, High Priest (1987)

Alex Chilton spend the first half of the nineteen-eighties scuffling through professional uncertainty. The former lead singer of the Box Tops and challenging genius at the core of blazingly brilliant and commercially underperforming power pop band Big Star, Chilton crashed his fledgling solo career with the 1979 album Like Flies on Sherbert, a motley batch of songs that had its adherents, but sold about as well as the insect-speckled dessert of its title. Adrift, Chilton cycled in and out of Tav Falco’s Panther Burns and took other stray music gigs, often relying on menial jobs — such as dishwasher and janitor — to pay the bills. His bankbook was significantly boosted when the Bangles included a cover of the Big Star song “September Gurls” on their 1986 full-length, Different Light. As the sole songwriter of the track, Chilton benefited from a small claim on a multi-platinum album. His slice may have been modest, but it likely exceeded any revenue stream he’d enjoyed to that point, putting him on more solid financial footing.

“Making money off a thing like the Bangles record makes up for a lot of things,” Chilton told a music journalist at the time. “You can’t live your life being upset about things, but it’s a lot easier to not be upset about it if you’ve got enough money.”

Bolstered by the unexpected sniff of success and handed a recording budget by collaborating independent labels New Rose Records and Big Time Records, Chilton settled into the familiar confines of Ardent Studios, in Memphis to record High Priest, his third solo album. Surrounded by sharp local musicians, Chilton opted for his customary approach of laying down a whole bunch of covers and a few originals that seems to be two or three refinements away from completion. No matter the origin of the song, Chilton has an air of detachment. The Guitar Slim blues number “Trouble Don’t Last” is somehow hollowed out of all emotion, and Chilton’s take on the Carole King and Gerry Goffin composition “Let Me Get Close to You” is so indifferent it seems like a put-on. “Don’t Be a Drag,” on of the Chilton-penned tunes, is like a single from a version of the Stray Cats with only marginal motivation.

There’s a pleasing, Lou Reed-style directness to “Take It Off,” and the jazzy casual vocals on “Thing for You” hold their own charm. “Nobody’s Fool” is a high point, if only because Chilton sounds more invested in imbuing character into the track. Even when Chilton livens up, an overwhelming sense of goofiness can dampen the effectiveness, as on “Dalai Lama,” which includes the lyrics “I hear he never swats a mosquito/ That’s cuz he’s a follower of Buddha.”

Realistically, the album had little chance of progressing much beyond a cult curiosity in the pop culture consciousness. But Chilton wound up literally lending his name to a more notable college rock offering released in 1987, also recorded at Ardent Studios, at around the same time he was toiling on High Priest. Alex Chilton got plenty of plays on college radio in 1987, but it’s safe to say that “Alex Chilton” got even more.

 

bodeans outside

731. BoDeans, Outside Looking In (1987)

Straight outta Waukesha, BoDeans hold a unique place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, as few other bands have endeavored with quite so much dedication to distance themselves from the creative effort that earned them the most adoration. Produced by T-Bone Burnett, the band’s debut, Love & Hope & Sex & Dreams, was roundly hailed by critics and tickled the interest of enough of a broader audience to make BoDeans the choice for Best New American Band in the annual Rolling Stone reader poll. Burnett favored a lean, unfussy approach to the production, which accentuated the heartland earnestness of the songwriting of fellow frontmen Sam Llanas and Kurt Neumann. The band hated the result, feeling they were shortchanged on studio time. No matter how often they heard effusive praise for their debut, BoDeans wanted a different sound.

Perhaps still smarting from their experience on the first album, BoDeans had some trouble settling on a producer for their sophomore effort. Mike Campbell, from Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, was originally enlisted, but he kept nudging the band toward the basic sound of his primary gig, even trying to get Neumann to adjust his guitar playing. Campbell was axed, and the band instead opted for fellow Wisconsinite Jerry Harrison, in between Talking Heads records and fresh off of giving Violent Femmes a gleaming coat of shellac on The Blind Leading the Naked.

Harrison gave BoDeans what they wanted. Outside Looking In has an eager pop sound, as if trying to will a place on the charts or maybe an opportunity to score a mid-nineteen-eighties beer commercial. Some of the material — such as the single “Dreams,” and the beautiful basics of “Only Love” —is strong enough to muscle past the heavy-handedness. More often, the heart of the music gets lost. “Pick Up the Pieces” surges forward like a churning river of sugar water, and “Say About Love” has guitars that cut like switchblades dripped in glitter. “The Ballad of Jenny Rae” is like Steve Earle with the menace surgically removed, and on “Runaway Love” the personality is so thoroughly buffed away that it could be a Richard Marx B-side.

This direction seemed to suit BoDeans just fine, and they definitely leveraged it into some high-profile gigs, most notably a sizable stretch as one of the support acts on U2’s The Joshua Tree tour. And they just kept getting slicker.

 

robyn gotta

730. Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians, Gotta Let This Hen Out! (1985)

Robyn Hitchcock was still finding his footing as a solo artist when he and his new backing band, the Egyptians, took the stage at London’s The Marquee in late April, 1985. Four years had passed since the dissolution of his obscure but beloved punk band, the Soft Boys, and he’d had varying success with a few releases under his own name. Reuniting with his old bandmates Andy Metcalfe and Morris Windsor, Hitchcock had just put out Fegmania!, and he and the band were giving those new songs some of their first stage renderings while simultaneously figuring out the best ways to string together his esoteric songs into a solid, engaging set.

Hitchcock and the Egyptians are in fine fettle on the resulting live album, Gotta Let This Hen Out!, giving songs a propulsive fierceness that had sometimes been elusive in the studio. In particular, this album’s versions of “My Wife and My Dead Wife” and “Heaven,” both originally found on Fegmania! are definitive. Hitchcock also effectively reclaims his own history, nestling Soft Boys numbers “Kingdom of Love” and “The Face of Death” amid the newer material, beginning to truly stake out the full range of his iconoclastic creativity. Simultaneously vivid and cryptic in his lyrical imagery, Hitchcock made it clear there was no one quite like him.

More than Fegmania!, Gotta Let This Hen Out! was the artistic statement Hitchcock built upon moving forward, finding himself one of the odder fellows to experience major label courtship and some out of left field minor hits.

 

graham mona

729. Graham Parker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister (1988)

As a general rule, Graham Parker didn’t make it easy on himself. The brilliantly caustic singer-songwriter set bridges ablaze at records companies, most famously directly musical ire at his original corporate home, Mercury Records, but also bounding between Elektra Records and Arista Records during the nineteen-eighties. His time at Atlantic Records was so disastrous that not a single note of music was released while he was under contract with the company. There was a three year gaps between albums when Parker took full control, insisting on producing new music himself, along with guitarist Brinsley Schwarz, who’d played in Parker’s backing band, the Rumour. He offered the resulting album, The Mona Lisa’s Sister, to RCA Records, but with the stipulation that they had to release exactly what he gave them, without a single alteration.

Hailed by critics as a return to form for the rocker, The Mona Lisa’s Sister is filled with piercing songs played cleanly and firmly. “Don’t Let It Break You Down” could be Parker’s official anthem, snarling out a call for persistence against the litany of social ills and other bruising indignities. “I’m Just Your Man” demonstrates Parker’s skills for sweetness without sentimentality, and “Back in Time” pointedly calls out the futility in nostalgia (“You stop in the old cafe where you used to play pinball/ And look for the air-raid shelter but it’s gone/ And the cafe seems so small”). The album’s doubtless pinnacle is the single “Get Started, Start a Fire,” which gives The Mona Lisa’s Sister its title. Against a perfect, lithe guitar lick, Parker recounts the travails of the less successful sibling of the subject of the world’s most famous painting, whose own time as a model was less productive: “Leonardo sent her home/ Since then she has lived alone/ With her few belongings and her copy/ Of a painting of herself unhappy/ She is going to burn it when she’d ready.”

Parker’s album was a reasonable commercial success, at least in the modest standard he’d previously established. His asserted authorship didn’t mean he was satisfied with it, though. Within a couple years, Parker was openly disparaging The Mona Lisa’s Sister, describing it as “closer to office work than rock and roll.” Everyone is entitled to their opinion, of course, but I take issue with Parker’s assessment. To my ears, this office work sounds quite wonderful.

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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