College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #636 to #633

dead eat

636. Dead Milkmen, Eat Your Paisley! (1986)

Any act that nabs a sizable amount of attention with a novelty hit faces a distinct challenge. The fundamental nature of a single that earns airplay because of its comedic uniqueness is a certain level of disposability, like a fad for pet rocks that seems ridiculous one year later and certainly doesn’t inspire anyone to pine for the follow-up of pet boulders. With “Bitchin’ Camaro,” a track off their debut album, the Dead Milkmen were given prime placement on college radio playlists, but that was no promise that, by the time of their second album, the joke might be growing stale.

Delivered in a boisterous rush to capitalize on the success of that debut release, Big Lizard in My Backyard, the second album from the Dead Milkmen is a continuation of their established punk-inflected comic insolence. Eat Your Paisley! also manages to avoid sounding like a mere repeat, mostly because of the fervent commitment the Philadelphia quartet brings to the individual songs. “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” is one of the few cuts that smacks of pure novelty. Unsurprisingly, it was selected to be the album’s sole single.

More often on the album, the Dead Milkmen bash out songs that can bear up under the scrutiny of the most jaded rock fans in the dingiest clubs. The band brings an easygoing musicality to “Happy Is” and almost match the inventive anti-folk of the Violent Femmes on “Take Me Apart.” They also deserve favorable comparison to Mojo Nixon, the era’s patron saint of bawdy rock ‘n roll comedy, for “Air Crash Museum,” which imagines a backwoods tourist attraction fashioned from airplane wreckage and stuffed rendering of rock stars who perished due to ill-fated excursions into the unfriendly skies. Some of the material is merely passable (“Beach Party Vietnam,” which name-checks Frankie and Annette, is basic sick joke stuff), but there are also a few instances of real ambition, such as the bratty epic “Two Feet Off the Ground” and “The Fez,” which offers more than five minutes of tangled art rock (in the lyrics, the Dead Milkmen acknowledge they’re “ripping off the Butthole Surfers”).

Eat Your Paisley! still doesn’t signal the likelihood of great longevity for the band, but it also proved the Dead Milkmen weren’t going to simply flare out. Just because there were laughs to be had didn’t mean there wasn’t also worthwhile craft in place.

 

tua long

635. In Tua Nua, The Long Acre (1988)

Any Irish band that emerged into the public consciousness in the mid- to late-nineteen-eighties inevitably faced comparisons to U2, who’d escalated to the stratosphere with their 1987 album, The Joshua Tree. It’s wasn’t merely geography that led to In Tua Nua being lumped in with their pop predecessors, though. The band, which hailed from County Dublin, had the distinction of the being the first act to release music on Mother Records, the vanity label set up by U2. And two of In Tua Nua’s members, Vinnie Kilduff and Steve Wickham, appeared as guest musicians on earlier U2 tracks. As might be expected, In Tua Nua was signed by Island Records, the label that was home to U2, shortly after their debut single.

Following these bright beginnings, In Tua Nua actually struggled somewhat. First Wickham left the band, signing on with Mike Scott’s rotating lineup of Waterboys, and Island Records dropped the group, leaving unreleased all the music they’d recorded under the contract. Then Kilduff left, too, and the band needed to rebuild without two of their more seasoned members. Before long, In Tua Nua brought in new musicians and signed to Virgin records, releasing their debut album, Vaudeville, in 1987. Their sophomore effort, The Long Acre, arrived the following year and become their first to get a push in the U.S.

The album’s splendid single “All I Wanted” finds In Tua Nua sounding like a European, earthier Fleetwood Mac, which suggests they could have been major players in emerging radio format adult alternative. The tender folk-rock song “Meeting of the Waters” and ballad “Emotional Barrier” (which is marred by drab lyrics: “I’m insecure/ This I will admit/ But you’re no angel/ Of this I am convinced”) are corroborating evidence to this theory. Some Irish sounds finally kicks in on “The Innocent and the Honest Ones,” which closes the first side. “Seven Into the Sea,” which also appeared on Vaudeville, borrows a few sonic tricks from U2, most notably a guitar part that definitely had some Edge to it.

In Tua Nua traveled to Los Angeles to record their next record, but the band didn’t survive the process. They broke up at the conclusion of the recording process, and In Tua Nua saw yet another album get shelved by a label. Unlike the music they recorded for Island, the third album did eventually make its way to fans, via a digital release almost twenty years later.

 

wall seven

634. Wall of Voodoo, Seven Days in Sammystown (1985)

For their third album, Seven Days in Sammystown, Wall of Voodoo became a very different band. The style and sound of their music was still roughly in line with the two albums prior, but the lineup had changed in drastic ways. Most notably, the band was without the highly distinctive lead singer who was on the roster when they marched up to the edge of fame with the single “Mexican Radio.” Reportedly, it was that burgeoning success that caused Stan Ridgway to flee, after playing bigger gigs gave him a firsthand look at — and experience with — the self-destructive cycle of a big time rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. The remaining members (percussionist Joe Nanini left the band at about the same time, entering a drug rehab program) toyed with the idea of employing a rotating group of vocalists, but the label nixed the plan. Instead, the L.A.-based band added Chicago singer-songwriter Andy Prieboy to the fold.

Seven Days in Sammytown teeters between relatively straightforward pop-rock and tracks that are striving, perhaps with a little too much neediness, to be off-kilter. The jalopy waltz “Faded Love,”  the rumbling, jittery “Room with a View,” and “Big City,” which musically comes across as it were made for a haunted carnival ride, all froth up relatively thin creative concepts with a clatter of extra elements. The approach reaches its breaking point on the band’s cover of “Dark as a Dungeon,” an old Merle Travis song about the miserable work lives of coal miners. The core of the song gets completely devoured by the deliberate strangeness.

Wall of Voodoo fares better when they give a track room to breathe. Single “Far Side of Crazy” is a solid song, lacking fuss except for maybe the moody cowboy guitar line. It lands somewhere between the Rainmakers and Guadalcanal Diary, which isn’t bad territory. “(Don’t Spill My) Courage,” written from the perspective of a wheelchair-bound, is also leaner than most of the cuts on the album, allowing the potency of the storytelling to come through.

Part of the issue with Seven Days in Sammytown is that it’s not clear if Wall of Voodoo is aiming for reinvention or brand preservation. They wind up in some awkward netherworld in between the two. Even they must have known it wasn’t quite working. There was only one more studio album before the band called it quits for good.

 

marianne dangerous

633. Marianne Faithfull, Dangerous Acquaintances (1981)

Marianne Faithfull was enjoy a personally rare stretch of success when she set off to make the album Dangerous Acquaintances. After losing much of the nineteen-seventies to drug abuse and infrequent, largely indifferent music-making, Faithfull scored a major critical success — and reasonably impressive commercial hit — with the 1979 album Broken English. After scraping by with the bargain accommodations the music industry had previously been grudgingly willing to give her, Faithfull was now receiving the royal treatment, settling into posh recording studios with her band and enjoying the decadent largess of the biz.

But that fates always seemed to conspire to make sure things didn’t go altogether smoothly for Faithfull. Broken English‘s producer, Mark Miller Mundy, was again hired to oversee the album, but this time he quickly created a highly uncomfortable work environment, providing contradictory instructions to the band members, dressing up individual songs with effects and instrumentation against Faithfull’s wishes, and generally creating an environment fueled by regularly stoked animosities. Unhappiness reigned, and the resulting record sometimes shows the strain.

Dangerous Acquaintances also continues the implicit thesis from Broken English that Faithfull is a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, toughened up like few others. Faithfull might be the one who could take a song such as “Truth, Bitter Truth,” the album’s closing track, and make it thrillingly profound, her whole life of hard living poured into every note and every word (“Where did it go to, my youth?/Where did it slip away to?”). Her battered lends a tang of weary wisdom to every cut, whether the jazzy disco number “Sweetheart,” the wan funk of “Eye Communication,” or the rock song “Strange One,” which has the polished sleaze being employed around that time by Faithfull’s old pack-mates the Rolling Stones. If she can’t quite salvage a misfire such as the overly repetitve “For Beauty’s Sake,” co-written by Faithfull and Steve Winwood, there’s compensatory reward when a song is close to her equal, as with the gorgeous “Intrigue.”

Faithfull’s modest comeback was largely sustained by Dangerous Acquaintances, which slipped just a bit from its predecessor’s solid performance, even if the reviews were less enthusiastic. And then there were Faithfull’s self-destructive tendencies, which didn’t abate in the slightest. Within the next few years, she’d go through a divorce, endure psychotic episodes (including an especially harrowing incident when she was narrowly prevented from slicing up her face to extricate imagined creatures wriggling beneath her skin), and consume mountains of drugs before finally heading to rehab.

 

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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