College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #476 to #474

love tractor outer

476. Love Tractor, This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship (1986)

The early nineteen-eighties was a good time for a band to ply their trade in Athens, Georgia. In addition to an especially fertile club scene, boosted by a college crowd that was uncommonly open to new, jangly, homespun rock music, a couple very prominent acts that graduated to national prominence proved the accuracy of the cliche about rising tides providing a boost to all the vessels bobbing on the water. After a series of releases on local shingle DB Records, Athens club stalwarts Love Tractor were signed by Big Time, the independent Australian label with ties to RCA Records significant enough to make the the rough equivalent of a major label. This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship was the first album under the new deal. The big time — or at least the college radio version of it — was indeed the target.

The album opens with the sloppy, raucous jangle “Cartoon Kiddies,” an assertion that Love Tractor could rattle off the same sound that made R.E.M. the darlings of student broadcasters everywhere. The band roams freely on This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship, from the the languid intricacies of “Night Club Scene” to the psychedelic hard rock freakout “Party Train” (“Be sure to get you ticket/ Or you’re going to miss/ Everybody’s got to be on time/ So you won’t have to stand in line”). And they prove they know how to craft a tight rock song on “Beatle Boots,” which features nicely crunchy new wave guitars. The album is filled with songs that truly seems custom designed to snap right into a college radio playlist.

Prior to This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship, Love Tractor’s repertoire was mostly made up of instrumentals, and that approach pops up a couple times on the album. Both “Rudolf Nureyev” and “We All Loved Each Other So Much” have a tinge of fusion rock to them, offering the reminder that Love Tractor launched in 1980, when jazzy noodling was a prime method of signaling serious intent as rock musicians. A few years later, the style was already feeling dated, and now it’s like a sonic fossil. 

This Ain’t No Outer Space Ship was a solid success on the college charts, but Love Tractor’s upward trajectory was knocked askew by their label. Not long after the album was released, it became clear that Big Time Records was in a dire financial situation. Love Tractor wound up back on modest DB Records for their next album, Themes from Venus, released in 1989. Not long after that, the band effectively folded. A decade would pass before they recorded together again.

 

lords sacred

475. The Lords of the New Church, Is Nothing Sacred? (1983)

Assembled from the remnants of firework-burst punk bands, the Lords of the New Church were practically guaranteed to stir interest when they released their self-titled debut album. The tricky part, then, is coming up with the encore. For their sophomore release, Is Nothing Sacred?, the band loads in as much streaked-mascara personality as the songs can bear and buffs it all up with studio gloss and nineteen-eighties production trappings. Given the pedigrees of all involved — most notably frontman Stiv Bators and guitarist Brian James — there’s no doubting the bona fides of the band, but Is Nothing Sacred? feels like the Lords of the New Church are simply playing rock ‘n’ roll dress-up.

“Goin’ Downtown” is empty hard rock, and “Dance with Me” is reduced-calorie goth music. They’re suitable but unexciting. That’s roughly the character of the entire album, which veers from the oddly luxuriant “Bad Timing” to the horn-stung, jabbing “Don’t Worry Children.” Morose ballad “The Night is Calling” includes that dreaded eighties element, the yearning saxophone, which might be the clearest sign that the Lord of the New Church and their label, I.R.S. Records, were aiming for crossover success. “Tale of Two Cities” is the track with the clearest ties to the band’s punk origins, though a spoken word passage in the middle suggests Jim Carroll’s genial approximation of punk more than the real deal. The album closes with a dopey, listless cover of “Live for Today,” which is produced by Todd Rundgren. It’s a line call as to whether he or the band seems most disinterested in the blatant stab at generating attention from the mainstream.

The crossover success sought after wasn’t forthcoming, and I.R.S. grew impatient. For the band’s next album, label execs insisted on bringing in an outside producer. I.R.S. was determined to make the Lords of the New Church into a disciplined rock band. Whether the punk refugees in the lineup wanted that outcome was a whole other question.

 

they lincoln

474. They Might Be Giants, Lincoln (1988)

To their surprise, Bar/None Records had a major act on their hands. Started in 1986, by Hoboken record store proprietor Tom Prendergast, the label had the scale for fairly modest releases, but one of their earliest signings, an idiosyncratic duo calling themselves They Might Be Giants, blew past projections when the antic video for their single “Don’t Let’s Start” became an MTV hit, around one year after the release of the bands self-titled debut. They Might Be Giants went from moving approximately one thousand copies per month to fifty thousand copies per month. As they returned to the studio to record their sophomore effort, They Might Be Giants had unequivocally shifted from an obscure act with a weird name to faves of precocious college kids with FCC operator licenses.

The band’s second album, Lincoln, was largely an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it endeavor. John Linnell and John Flansburgh, the longtime pals who made up the entirety of the They Might Be Giants lineup, once again worked with producer Bill Krauss and careened freely across musical genres, such as thumping noise rock on “You’ll Miss Me,” a warped march on “Pencil Rain,” faux jazz on “Lie Still, Little Bottle.” Only two songs out of eighteen last longer than three minutes, giving Lincoln the feel of hit-and-run ingenuity. The two John hop in, unleash a flurry of accordion and guitar and loopy words, and hop out, leaving dizzying, delirious songs echoing in the listener’s psyche. And then they do it again and again.

There was more of a hint of novelty to the material, and They Might Be Giants clearly understood they were in risky territory if they wanted to make this gig last. Lincoln is peppered with track that maintain the band’s already established freewheeling spirit while showing off greater songwriting craft. “Ana Ng” and “They’ll Need a Crane” have melodic complexity and affecting emotion along with bouncy beats and quirky sensibility. Linnell acknowledged as much at the time.

“I’ve become more interested in writing songs that are direct,” he told New York at the time. “Ambiguity has been a good friend, but I’m finding that it is actually harder to write a good straightforward lyric than an obscure one.”

The attempt at a more sustainable creative mindset clearly convinced others in the music biz that They Might Be Giants weren’t destined to fade like other acts with tongues firmly implanted in cheeks. Shortly after Lincoln was released, Elektra Records signed They Might Be Giants to a seven album deal. The band has released new albums at a steady clip ever since.

 

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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