College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #485 to #483

jerry casual

485. Jerry Harrison: Casual Gods, Casual Gods (1988)

Thanks to his membership in Talking Heads, Jerry Harrison could claim a central part in creating some of the best and most influential rock music of the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties. As the latter decade was drawing to a close, however, there were signs that he might need to seek other outlets. After years as a true collaboration, Talking Heads was increasingly being coopted by frontman David Byrne. For the 1985 album Little Creatures and the 1986 album True Stories, Byrne arrived with demos of complete songs that the band worked into final shape, a major change from the previous method of starting with the musical equivalent of a bare canvas. Combined with Byrne’s newfound disinterest in touring, it was clear the other three-fourths of Talking Heads needed to find something to do in their spare time.

For Harrison, the opening in his schedule meant going back to his hometown of Milwaukee to work on his second solo album, the follow-up to the 1981 art rock excursion The Red and the Black. Harrison recruited some ace collaborators — including session guitarist Chris Spedding and the downright magical keyboardist and ancillary Talking Heads member Bernie Worrell — and kept the studio door open to anyone who wanted to swing by and pitch in. In a fitting assessment of the loose assemblage of mighty talent, Harrison dubbed his new project Casual Gods.

At times, the material Harrison and his cohorts came up with is maybe a little too casual. There’s a tendency to invent a riff or a groove and lock into it, as if striving for incremental improvement through repetition rather than giving it the space to evolve into the core of a full, dynamic song. If the riff is especially strong — as on the single “Rev It Up” — that strategy’s not so bad. It’s also an approach that’s all but doomed to grow stale across a whole album. There’s a big thick rhythm on “Let It Come Down,” nice enough airy soul-funk on “Are You Running?,” and slinky soft blues on “Man with a Gun.” It’s all agreeable enough, but little of it fully sticks. The lack of range is maybe most evident on the album’s closing track, “Bobby,” a bit of experimental tinkering that never quite escalates into the kind of loopy madness that could make it memorable.

Casual Gods did all right on rock radio, at least until it was completely overshadowed by the release, just a few weeks later, of Naked, the eighth studio album by Harrison’s more famous band. It was also the final studio album from Talking Heads, though the band’s end wouldn’t be made official for another three years, by which point everyone had clearly and decisively moved onto other projects, including Harrison recording one more album with Casual Gods.

butthole abortion

484. Butthole Surfers, Locust Abortion Technician (1987)

Writing for Spin, Chuck Eddy called the Butthole Surfers’ third album, Locust Abortion Technician, “your average dubwise-tape-mixology/fluttering-buzzsaw-muck/slobbering-toothless-Tasmanian-Devil-bluesbelter-occult-gibberish.” That daunting chain of colorful words just about says it all, but I’ll try to add a little more anyway.

By 1987, singer Gibby Haynes, guitarist Paul Leary, and their cohorts in the Texas-bred warped-punk band were already an institution of sorts, inspiring fervent devotion from a certain breed of blaze-brained fans of music that would leave their ears throbbing for several days after each encounter in a dingy club spattered with sweat, saliva, and other unseemly human fluids. There were expectations attached to a new Butthole Surfers album, of ribald mockery and scabrous noise. Locust Abortion Technician largely meets those expectation, beginning with the heavy metal goof on Black Sabbath that is “Sweat Loaf” and ending with the impressive guitar snarl and entangled found-sound snippets of “22 Going on 23.” In between, the Butthole Surfers venture with the questionable freedom of a nomad hopped up on peyote.

The material is often aggressively off-putting enough that its presence on the album seems like a dare. “U.S.S.A.” features shrieking vocals that sound like one of those cymbal-crashing mechanical monkeys after a drunken warlock transmogrified it into a human, and “Kuntz” is largely comprised of layered chanting of the title, a dumb joke that requires no explanation and less respect. Maybe someone else can find hidden profundity in the studio screw-off “Hay,” but it’s beyond me. The tortured tomfoolery is irritating mostly because the band clearly have it within them to deliver material with genuine craft. “Human Cannonball” is a solid enough rock song that I suspect the Butthole Surfers swiped it from the Meat Puppets while their backs were turned.

At this point, there were signs that even Butthole Surfers were getting a little sick of Butthole Surfers’ schtick. When it came time for the band’s next album, they sought out a more professional studio space to record in and used songs that were more fully developed. Dirty jokes are great for a while, but everybody’s got to start growing up at some point.

translator trigger

483. Translator, Heartbeats and Triggers (1982)

Translator former in Los Angeles in the late nineteen-seventies before moving up the coast to settle in San Francisco, where a booming music scene was underway, bolstered by an influential college radio station and an upstart independent record label. The band wound up being beneficiaries of both when their demo tape made its way to the student programmers at KUSF-FM and the ample airplay it received caught the attention of 415 Records founder David Kahne. He signed Translator and, as was the norm for the label, produced their debut album, Heartbeats and Triggers. In a demonstration of high confidence in the resulting record’s quality, Kahne picked the album to be the first distributed under a new inked pact with Columbia Records. Just like that, Translator was a local band about to get a big national push.

Kahne’s enthusiasm was well placed. Heartbeats and Triggers is a sharp, scintillating distillation of everything happening in rock and pop music during an especially dynamic moment. There’s snappy post-punk goodness on “Sleeping Snakes,” Joe Jackson–style off-kilter propulsion on “Favorite Drug,” and even a giddy goth goofiness on “Dark Region.” There’s an admirable leanness to the quartet’s playing, but they also know when to let a song swell, as with the building pop epic “Nothing is Saving Me.” Demonstrating Translator’s ability to edge toward the near future of college rock, “When I Am With You” anticipates the homespun fervor of Hunters & Collectors, and “Everywhere,” a tribute to John Lennon, has some of the melancholy melodics of the Smithereens.    

Unsurprisingly, the album’s finest track is the song that pricked up ears in the first place. “Everywhere That I’m Not” is mid-tempo new wave with an abundance of feeling, the object of affection pined after intensely, though — maybe because — she’s stepped completely out of the picture: “I thought I saw you/ Out on the avenue/ But I guess, it was just someone/ Who looked a lot like I remember you do.” Catchy and insistent, the cut is one of those songs from the era that so clearly should have been a massive hit that it’s more modest status in the annals of music feels like a pop culture injustice.

Over the next few years, Translator put out three more albums under the joint 415/Columbia banner, to steadily dwindling enthusiasm. The band broke up in 1986. The all-but-inevitable reunion came around twenty-five years later.

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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