College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #398 to #396

398. Yaz, You and Me Both (1983)

If the old adage about books and their covers can be applied to albums, it’s also fair to remember that, as Rod Stewart once sang, every picture tells a story. In the case of You and Me Both, the sophomore album by the duo Yazoo, the story the image on the cover tells is one of extreme discord between the band’s two members.

“I remember being sent down to see this photographer for the album sleeve, and I remember I was in a black mood,” recalled Alison Moyet, lead vocalist of Yazoo. “And he was showing me his portfolio, just showing me what kind of pictures he could take, and as a part of the portfolio was the picture of the two dogs snarling, and I just said, ‘We’ll have that,’ and I left.”

Moyet and Vince Clarke, her partner in Yazoo, were like those disagreeable pooches during the making of the ironically named You and Me Both, at least to each other. Their prior album, Upstairs at Eric’s, was a somewhat surprising success, derailing Clarke’s plans to make the collaboration a one-off affair after his departing Depeche Mode, immediately following the release of their debut album, Speak & Spell. Clarke was convinced that establishing a one-and-done approach to his work in bands wasn’t the wisest choice if he wanted a long-term career in the music biz. He got to work on the new record, but Moyet immediately sensed that he didn’t want to be there. Before the recording process was over, Clarke and Moyet weren’t on speaking terms, and the original U.K. version of You and Me Both doesn’t include a single songwriting collaboration, instead alternating between tracks credited to either Moyet or Clarke. The only cut credited to them both is the funky, rap-adjacent “State Farm” — which bears a sonic resemblance to Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” released the same year — plucked from a B-side and dropped onto the North-American version of You and Me Both instead of the Clark-penned “Happy People.”

Perhaps reflecting Moyet’s greater commitment to Yazoo (a name that was shortened to Yaz on the other side of the Atlantic), her songs on You and Me Both are far better. “Sweet Thing” is a bouncy thrill, “Good Times” is lithe disco, and “Anyone” is lushly grandiose. “Ode to Boy” is a stately, quietly intense ballad that is strong enough to be revisited and reinvented by Moyet on a solo album a decade later. “Nobody’s Diary” might be the best of the bunch, a blast of sweeping synth pop that is triumphant in its heartache. Even Clarke’s better contributions, such as the polished, serious “Mr. Blue,” are heavily reliant of the expressiveness of Moyet’s rich, elegant vocals.

For those involved, there was little doubt that Yazoo was at end. It became official shortly after the release of “Nobody’s Diary” as a single and well before You and Me Both hit shops. Clarke went on to form Erasure and pursue a myriad of other musical projects, and Moyet launched a solo career. The two would eventually cave to the demand for reunions. Those excursions were well-received, rare and fleeting.

397. Warren Zevon, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School (1980)

When Warren Zevon went into the studio to record his fourth album, Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, he was coming off the biggest hit of his career and the his lowest personal low to that point. His 1978 album, Excitable Boy, was a hit, climbing to the upper reaches of the Billboard album chart on the strength of the single “Werewolves of London,” which broke into the Top 40. At roughly the same time, Zevon was spiraling, consumed by his addictions, notably levels of drinking that led to disruptive behavior and wiped entire evenings from his memory. His friends and bandmates intervened, and he checked himself into Pinecrest, a rehab hospital in Santa Barbara.

Zevon’s bottoming out and subsequent attempt to set himself right are all over Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School, right from the album-opening title cut, which includes the repeated promise “Swear to God I’ll change.” On “Wild Age,” he sings, “Mostly when the reckless years end/ Something’s left to save/ Some of them keep runnin’/ ‘Til they run straight in their graves.” Zevon steps away from the fanciful, pulp-novel storytelling of his preceding album and instead levels his trademark bleak evaluation at his own failings. In concept, it’s admirable; in execution, it’s lacking authority and force, as if Zevon is pulling his punches. The songwriting is redundant, which could heighten the intensity of the words but, combined with Zevon’s somewhat listless performances, makes them seem facile instead.

Famous supporters of Zevon flocked to Los Angeles to work with him, clearly showing their support. Linda Ronstadt, who was an aces interpreter of Zevon’s songs, lends her distinctive voice to the plaintive ballad “Empty-Handed Heart” and the languid “Bed of Coals.” Bruce Springsteen serves as co-writer on “Jeannie Needs a Shooter,” and several Eagles swoop into help, including on the island-rhythm oddity “Gorilla, You’re a Desperado,” which was inspired by the famous band’s tumultuous success, though it can be tough to discern from the lyrics (“He plays racquetball and runs in the rain/ Still he’s shackled to a platinum chain”). In general, the material just doesn’t work. “A Certain Girl”is an ill-fitting cover of an old Ernie K-Doe song that the Yardbirds also took a pass at, and “Play It All Night Long” is an overstuffed jab at Southern culture (“I’m going down to the Dew Drop Inn/ See if I can drink enough/ There ain’t much to country living/ Sweat, piss, jizz and blood”).

Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School didn’t do well critically or commercially, which inspired Zevon’s label to opt for the salvage attempt of a double-live album. Stand in the Fire was released later in the year, clearly trying to remind fans how much they liked Zevon’s earlier rock-radio hits. That album was also received tepidly, and it looked like Zevon was dangerously adrift.

396. Game Theory, Lolita Nation (1987)

According to producer Mitch Easter, there was mischievous intent behind the sprawl of Lolita Nation, the fourth full-length studio effort from Game Theory. Naturally, it was the band’s brilliant and esoteric songwriter, Scott Miller, responsible for the scampish ambition.

“Scott said, ‘I want to make a double album so that everybody can say it would have been a great single album,'” Easter recounted.

To get to four sides of wax, Miller threw every idea he had at the record. As a result, Lolita Nation dabbles in scattered-fragments-of-songs approach that Guided By Voices would soon bring to the college charts. Several tracks dissipate in less than a minute, such as the tender, Big Star–like ballad “Go Ahead, You’re Dying To,” the throwaway acoustic riff “Museum of Hopelessness.” and the lunatic mashup on side three that begins its title “All Clockwork and No Bodily Fluid Makes Hal a Dull Metal Humbert.” For other acts (including, I submit at risk or earning the ire of my indie-rock brethren, Pavement and the previously cited Guided By Voices), the dump of spare sonic parts comes across as a diversionary tactic to excuse laziness in finishing the task. The rest of Lolita Nation definitely proves such short-cutting isn’t the prime motivator for Miller and company.

Bolstered by a new band lineup, Miller crafted a set of songs that sharply explored the range within the relaxed rock sound of the day. “Not Because You Can” is flinty and cool, “Dripping with Looks” is the sound of making psychedelic pop in the middle of a clanging factory with venting steam pipes, and is “The Waist and the Knees” is simply roiling ocean of familiar college rock sounds made unfamiliar in the fierce playing of them. “The Real Sheila” made for a glimmering single, and “Chardonnay” suggests what it might have been like if XTC was reared in the U.S. “Look Away” and “Mammoth Gardens” feature lead vocals — and songwriting — from new guitarist Donnette Thayer, making Game Theory comes across as a version of Lone Justice that was less enamored with an undercurrent of twang.

Lolita Nation would have been a great single album. It’s a pretty great double album, too.

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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