College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #359 to #357

359. The B-52’s, Mesopotamia (1982)

After two full-length studio albums, the B-52’s had exhausted their backlog of original songs. Gary Kurfirst, the band’s manager, insisted that shouldn’t stop them from getting to work on a third record. His urgency to keep the training of new records chugging inspired that the idea that the B-52’s should work with another of his clients, David Byrne. The B-52’s made dance music. So did Talking Heads, kinda. Byrne was brought in to produce, though his attention was divided because he was simultaneously working on music for The Catherine Wheel, the Twyla Tharp dance piece he agreed to score.

Despite high hopes, the sessions didn’t go well. Byrne pushed to include all manner of extra instrumentation and studio layering that the band didn’t particularly like, and the label was constantly needling them to finish as quickly as possible because of the perception that new product needed to hit record stores soon to keep the band’s momentum going. Before long, it was decided that pushing through to lay down enough material for a full-length was an untenable proposition. A few satisfactory tracks were pulled together and released as the EP Mesopotamia, named for a light-funk track that the label didn’t want on the record.

Understandable given the circumstances, Mesopotamia is wracked by compromise, more fascinating than satisfying. “Loveland” is familiar B-52’s territory but with a rubbery quality nicked by Byrne’s main gig. A decent amount of the EP just doesn’t quite work. “Deep Sleep” is like the B-52’s had all the energy knocked out of them, and “Cake” tries to add buzzy funk, but musically it comes alarmingly close to Sports-era Huey Lewis and News. The one time they find their way to the zingy joys of their best work is “Throw That Beat in the Garbage Can,” which tosses in free jazz saxophone and other delightful weirdness and makes it all sound like a proper extension of their aesthetic. Evidently the producers of the soap opera Guiding Light agreed, because that was one of the songs the B-52’s performed when they made an unlikely cameo appearance on the daytime show.

If Mesopotamia was a misfire, it gave B-52’s a stronger sense of who they wanted to be. When it came time to record their next album, the band was prepared to take more concerted ownership of the creative process. The next outing would be all them.

358. The Motels, All Four One (1982)

When making their third album, the Motels fell apart. Led by singer Martha Davis, the band worked with producer Val Garay to create songs that they considered dark and a little weird, inspired by the likes of David Bowie and Brian Eno. Good or bad, it was decidedly distinct from their first two albums. They dubbed that album Apocalypso and turned it in to their record company, Capitol Records. It was quickly rejected, with no chance of appeal.

The Motels started over, though it’s a fair question as to whether they were truly still the Motels. In part because of a broken romantic relationship within the band’s lineup (Davis broke up with guitarist Tim McGovern), the band splintered apart, and Garay recruited a bevy of seasoned studio musicians to help Davis work through the new songs she was generating. The reactive approach results in an exploratory album. The released third album, All Four One, romance freely from the sleek rock number “Mission of Mercy” to the swaying torch song “Change My Mind.” The classic doomed boyfriend song that defined countless girl groups in the nineteen-sixties gets a cheeky update on “Tragic Surf.”

There are times arch cleverness blunts the charm on the album, as with “Take the L” (“Take the L out of love/ And it’s over”). There are other examples where the unmoored aspect of the album’s development results in clumsiness: the uncertain cover of “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” and the Benatar-adjacent “Apocalypso.” What inarguably did work was the luxuriantly forlorn “Only the Lonely,” a meticulously crafted track that became a single and became a Top 10 hit. If the Motels were falling apart, they suddenly had the commercial incentive to find a way, any way, to put it all back together.

357. The Stranglers, Aural Sculpture (1984)

The Stranglers were no novices when they made the album Aural Sculpture. It was their eighth full-length studio effort. But they were still getting used to their new corporate home. Following a long, complicated courtship from multiple major-label suitors, the Stranglers signed with Epic Records. Their first album under that shingle, Feline, went smoothly enough, but the follow-up initially raised some concerns with label executives. The Stranglers had softened their sound and concerns were raised that the album wasn’t enough of a grabber. Laurie Latham, who produced the album alongside the band, suggested added a three-piece horn section to several tracks, and the Stranglers had a whole new sonic angle that stuck.

The bursts of jubilant brass don’t exactly make the Stranglers conventional, though. “Ice Queen,” one of the tracks sweetened up, is still deliciously odd (“I was never sure of the accurate score/ When I sat in for a hand with the Ice Queen/Cards were laid and the hand was played/ When I sat in for a hand with the Ice Queen”). “Punch and Judy” and “Mad Hatter” similarly feel like they’re drawing on British theatrical pop traditions while imbue them with flinty reinvention. All at once, the Stranglers sound familiar and yet not quite like anyone else who they competed with for space on the pop charts.

“Skin Deep” is direct, spare pop, and “Laughing” is a lax ballad, both maybe examples of the restraint that worried the suits (though “Skin Deep” was released as a single and cracked the U.K. Top 20, so maybe not). A lot of the album, whether in initial conception or following responsive embellishments, is full and spunkily inventive. “No Mercy” is awash in intricate tonal elements, and “Spain” feels like it incorporates every notion that struck them, whether chintzy organ noodling or spoken word interludes in Spanish. For an album that label bosses tagged as underdone, Aural Sculpture has a lot going on, admirably so.

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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