College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #652 to #649

call woods

652. The Call, Into the Woods (1987)

After enduring some professional tumult, the Call were presumably feeling at least somewhat settled when they got down to recording Into the Woods, their fifth studio album. Its immediate predecessor, the prior year’s Reconciled, was their first with label Elektra Records, where they’d signed after a protracted legal battle left them without a corporate home and entirely uncertain as to whether or not their music would see further release. Reconciled yielded the respectable rock radio hit “I Still Believe (Grand Design)” and the mounting success of U2, flashing like a beacon with the early 1987 release of The Joshua Tree, suggested mainstream commercial taste was turning in a direction nicely conducive to the Call’s anthemic songs.

Into the Woods held one of the big, soaring singles that were the Call’s calling card. Album opener “I Don’t Wanna” is a love song of emotion, employing a litany of rejected romantic gestures on its way to declaring an all-consuming need. That same vast sonic scope is found across the album, whether when the band borrows some of the slow-build bombast of gospel music on “In the River” or mixes in some honky-tonk flavors in the punchy rocker “Walk Walk.” Studio puffery was very much the style of the day, but it could get perilous. “Day or Night” demonstrates how close the Call could come to the hollow pop rock boom of someone like John Parr, and ballad “Memory” slips into off-putting treacle.

Some tracks hint at a version of the band that crafts leaner, sharper songs. The skittering and forceful “It Could Have Been Me” has a fervent energy, and “Too Many Tears” is like an old movie western theme refracted through a new wave lens. The cuts aren’t necessarily better than the arena-ready fullness that was the Call’s clear specialty, but the little sprinklings of variety are welcome tempering of a style that could become numbing in its implied profundity. Not every song need stretch excitedly toward the heavens.

 

blue walk

651. The Blue Nile, A Walk Across the Rooftops (1984)

The high polish of the Blue Nile’s pop music prompted a persistent myth about the band. Supposedly, the group secured the contract to record their debut full-length release because a manufacturer of expensive stereo equipment wanted a records that would properly showcase its technology. The band members have repeatedly denied and debunked that version of their origin story, but listening to A Walk Across the Rooftops, the Blue Nile’s debut album, it’s easy to discern why the story took hold. Elegant and jaw-dropping, the album seems genetically engineered to make someone value precision equipment that could properly reveal its intricacies.

The Glasgow trio opens A Walk Across the Rooftops with a title cut that places a lush, elegant pop sound up against an anxious countermelody of plunking synthesizers. It plays with the mechanics of electronic dance music without any evident hopes of raising a pulse or setting a foot to tapping. The pace is typified by piercing ballad “Easter Parade” and the deeply relaxed “Heatwave,” the latter sounding as though lead singer Paul Buchanan is delivering his vocals from the deepest reaches of a silken hammock. The erudite air can occasionally veer close to stultifying beauty, which is compounded by lyrics that often repeat like fading echoes. “Tinseltown in the Rain” is lovely, but it’s also a metaphor looking for a proper emotion to moor itself to.

A Walk Across the Rooftops is most exciting when the Blue Nile seem to be reinventing the textures of their art on the fly. “From Rags to Riches” is pop music pared back to near-abstractions, the eventual province of Portishead. The persistent classic pop feel to the album means the band isn’t exactly laying the groundwork for trip hop or some other future innovation, but there’s a daring at play that recognizably similar to the startling norm-warping to come.

 

young men

650. The Young Fresh Fellows, The Men Who Loved Music (1987)

‘There’s a fine line between taking yourself too seriously and being a total cutup band that no one will take seriously,” Chuck Carroll, guitarist and singer with the Young Fresh Fellows, told the Chicago Tribune shortly after the release of the band’s third album, The Men Who Loved Music. ”And I think it insults some people to see a band that has some funny elements in its music. Some people only want serious music, something they can sink their teeth into. But you can’t please everybody, and we’re certainly pleasing ourselves at this point.”

If there was a tinge of novelty to the band’s songwriting — as with the flurry of classic television references in “TV Dream” (“For some reason you kill Pugsley and Dick Grayson, too/ Perry Mason out and out refuses to help you”) — it was becoming increasingly clear that the musicianship of the Seattle-based band was no joke. The fleet of songs on The Men Who Loved Music, the band’s first to receive a concerted national push to college radio, careen across styles, each played with enviable craft. Mostly, they stuck with a buffed up rock ‘n’ roll sound, occasionally pushed to a higher volume. The punky burst of “Why I Oughta” and squawking hard rock number “I Got My Mojo Working (And I Thought You’d Like to Know)” are fine demonstrations of the Young Fresh Fellows’ muscularity. And “Ant Farm” is musically similar to those instances when Bruce Springsteen borrows lovingly from classic girl group ditties.

For most college programmers, though, it was probably the jokier material that connected. The album’s clearest college radio hit was “Amy Grant,” a catchy cut that posited a mildly salacious secret life enjoyed by the Christian music singer who’d recently made surprising ripples on the mainstream pop charts. Better yet is “When the Girls Get Here,” which gently mocks the hopeful posturing of dudes expecting a contingent of lovely young ladies at their social gathering (“We’ll put out our guitars/ And tell ’em how we’re gonna be stars”). The track is amusing, but it has clear merits beyond the punchlines, including a tang of empathy that carries it beyond the mere brattiness of other college rock bands that largely leaned on laughs. The Young Fresh Fellows were funny. The Young Fresh Fellows were also a dandy rock band.

 

lords method

649. The Lords of the New Church, The Method to Our Madness (1984)

I.R.S. Records felt like the Lords of the New Church were floundering. Boasting a membership that drew from some of the most credibly cool bands of the punk era, the Lords of the New Church had flashed into being with a couple raw, righteous albums, but the third studio effort was proving to be more of a challenge. The label hired Chris Tsangarides to produce the album, hoping his touch with hard rock acts, such as Thin Lizzy, would bring some useful discipline and a professional sheen to the finished product. That’s exactly what resulted, but it sometimes seems the personality of the band gets lost in the effort. The Method to Our Madness often sounds like it could have come from just about anyone.

The album opens with the grinding “Method to My Madness,” all seething and feigned fury. The strutting “Pretty Baby Scream” and the lonely heartbreak ballad “When the Blood Runs Cold” (“My coquette cutie with a chameleon heart/ You tried to change me, to disarrange me”) show further how easily the band could be molded into slick, slightly generic shape. In this form, the practiced darkness can start to seem like mere posturing. The wolf howls on the opening of “Fresh Flesh” are simply the first signal that the cut pushes its menacing horrors so hard it slides into ridiculousness.

The more the band’s long-held, ash black sensibility comes through, the better. The performers got their respective starts in an era of garish, semi-ironic showmanship, and that fine history is infused into “Murder Style,” which is maybe the closest lead singer Stiv Bators comes to the preening glam perfection of the New York Dolls’ David Johansen. And then they finally reach for full goth operatics on album closer “My Kingdom Come.” It still approaches the ludicrous, but in a way that feels like taunting rather than half-hearted indulgence. Only at the very end of The Method to Our Madness does it feel like a creatively engaged version of the Lords of the New Church arrives.

 

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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