College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #362 to #360

362. Martha and the Muffins / M + M, Danseparc (1983)

With the band’s fourth album, guitarist Mark Gane finally got the name change he’d been agitated for. Well, almost. The Toronto band Martha and Muffins took on their moniker as a goof, offering some gentle mockery of the doom-and-gloom band names that proliferated during the era of punk rock. Intended as a placeholder until they came up with something better, the name stuck and then was cemented into place when the band had a surprise hit with the early single “Echo Beach.” As the band’s ambitions grew, the name Martha and the Muffins was an unbearably silly burden to carry. For their fourth album, and their first under the RCA Records banner, they settled on a compromise. The more familiar name would appear on the album alongside the shortened M + M.

With the new name, M + M adopted a new sound, or at least a modified one. They reunited with producer Daniel Lanois, brother to the band’s bass player, Jocelyne Lanois, and made efforts at expanding their range. Among the progenitors of new wave, the band took that vibe and amped it up with slick dance music. “World Without Borders” is like a version of Blondie with chunkier beats, and “Walking Into Walls” is delightfully agitated post-disco. At the dizzying pinnacles of “Several Styles of Blonde Girls Dancing,” M + M almost sounds as if they are laying the foundations upon which LCD Soundsystem would eventually build an art-dance skyscraper. The material is simultaneously grounded in its moment and ahead of its time.

M + M also roams admirably across shrewd variations in their general musical mode. “Dansesparc (Every Day is Tomorrow)” is a lean, snaky new wave tune, and the instrumental “Whatever Happened to Radio Valve Road?” is like the Police when they got arty, but better. Whether all this admirable creativity resulted in the band being taken more seriously is an open question. Reviews at the time were mixed, and Gane and frontwoman Martha Johnson surveyed the progress they’d made only to decide that more change was needed. More significant transformations of the band were still to come.

361. Ric Ocasek, Beatitude (1982)

The Cars were four albums deep into their recording career when the band’s lead singer and chief songwriter, Ric Ocasek, released his solo debut. While the Cars made their professional home on Elektra Records, Ocasek shopped around when he went out on his own, signing with Geffen Records. Then only about two years old, Geffen was nonetheless scooping up major artists, in large part because of the reputation of the record executive who was the label’s namesake. Part of the strategy for luring the big names was letting them follow whatever odd creative avenue they liked. That surely played into Ocasek’s interest in the label, given that his first solo outing, Beatitude, favors restless experiment over repeating the pop-rock tricks that delivered a string of hits for the Cars.

That’s not to say that there aren’t clear vestiges of Ocasek’s main gig across the album. Single “Jimmy Jimmy” sounds like a Cars classic as covered by Hilly Michaels. Ocasek’s desire for sonic roaming is admirable, but the boundary-pushing sits awkwardly in his art. The explorations in “Out of Control” quickly become little more than numbing synth noodling, and the epic sprawl of “Connect Up to Me” is more than seven and a half minutes worth of quasi-Euro disco made limp by U.S. pop sensibilities. “Something to Grab For” suggests no matter how esoteric Ocasek gets, his base instincts are always going to make a bleating guitar solo a good idea. Similarly, “Time Bomb” suggests he was listening to the Cure and thought they what they were really missing was wailing guitars straight out of classic rock.

It’s fun to hear Ocasek fully embrace weirdo pop on “Sneak Attack.” If it’s not wholly convincing, it points the way to his later works as a producer of genuine oddballs Weezer and Guided By Voices. The album was only a modest success, and Ocasek was soon back with his usual cohorts, working on another record. And quite a record it was.

360. The Icicle Works, The Icicle Works (1984)

In the manner of the day, the Icicle Works started because of an advertisement placed in a music magazine. Liverpudlian Ian McNabb, just twenty years old, went looking for collaborators, and bass player Chris Layhe responded. The two started writing together, recruited drummer Chris Sharrock, and started releasing music independently. Eventually, they caught the attention of Beggars Banquet Records. They were partnered with producers, including Hugh Jones, who’d recently had significant success presiding over Echo and the Bunnymen releases. A familiar gleaming, lithe pop sound can be heard on The Icicle Works, the band’s debut full-length.

“Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)” is the clear standout on the album, melding an undulating melody with a charging beat. It taps into the grand magic of pop music, building bigger and bigger until it seems like it’s the size of the whole universe. That nothing else comes close to that delightful high helps to make a remarkable amount of the album feel like it’s the zippiest version of listlessness ever pressed into grooves. Often, it’s hard to pin down who the Icicle Works want to be. “As the Dragonfly Flies” and “In the Cauldron of Love” are post-punk taken through a disco filter and swirled with prog rock garishness. It feels less like ambition and more like confusion. That sensation is compounded by lyric writing that is still in a very developmental stage. “A Factory in the Desert” saddles its enjoyable antic pop with words that inspire eye rolling (“Though diligence caress me/ Deliverance unfold/ The distant bells are ringing/ In a small town in my soul”).

To be sure. there’s promise on the Icicle Works’ debut, even beyond the most resonant cut. “Chop the Tree” is a slab of luscious drama, and “Love is a Wonderful Colour” sets the template for some of the most grandly erudite British indie pop to come. The inconsistent quality of the material is less a damnable shortcoming and more a welcome sign that the band has room to grow. The Icicle Works set themselves as a band worth listening to. With the albums to come, they largely proved that happy suspicion correct.

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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