College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #356 to #354

356. Translator, No Time Like Now (1983)

When 415 Records, an independent label based in San Francisco, inked a distribution deal with Columbia Records, Translator was the first act they brought to the newly accessible masses. Heartbeats and Triggers, Translator’s debut full-length, was the inaugural offering under the the pact between upstart and venerable label, all involved quite convinced that the local fervor over the band, and their fabulous breakthrough single, would handily carry over to a national audience. After the sensational success failed to materialize, the band went back into the studio once again with their label boss and producer, David Kahne.

No Time is Now is more of the same, with both flesh and spirit showing signs of lagging. “Un-Alone” is probably the most obvious clone of the first record’s sound, and it makes for a solid enough single. After that, the band doughnuts in rutted circles. “I Heard You Follow” is dramatic but inert, and “I Love You” is awash in a gushy intensity, like Marillion without the shameless sweep. “Break Down Barriers” has a mild thump of angrily politicized rock — like New Model Army during a warm-up set, maybe — that is undermined by the addition of the sort of studio polish endemic to nineteen-eighties albums when there was suddenly a little bit of money to play with.

There are indications that Translator is ready to strike out in the sort of sonic directions that would define college rock in the decade ahead: “Circumstance Laughing” has U2 yearning with more straightforward rock clatter, “About the Truth” has the Feelies’ jumpy energy without the low-fi charm, and “Everything is Falling” is like a tryout version of the Lemonheads’ It’s a Shame About Ray pivot, about a decade early. None of the tracks are really all that strong, but there are interesting elements that suggest the artist that could have been. Instead, Translator went roaring in search of bland AOR simplicity in their future endeavors, including the recruitment of Ed Stasium, an emerging hard rock specialist, for their next album.

355. Adrian Belew, Twang Bar King (1983)

When trying to pin down the musical mysticism perpetrated by Adrian Belew on his instrument of choice, arguably the best strategy is to defer to the publications that specialize in finding new, novel ways to describe seemingly indescribable sonic acrobatics. At around the time of the release of Twang Bar King, Belew’s second solo album, Guitar Player took a crack at summing up his sound, noting he created “torturing harmonics by yanking mercilessly on the vibrato bar, tapping his metal slide on the bridge, and harnessing the echo and feedback to imitate the calls of whales, rhinos, insects.” This is not intended to be pop music for the average gum-snapping teen.

Belew recorded Twang Bar King in between the King Crimson albums Beat and Three of a Perfect Pair, a particularly fraught stretch for the guitarist’s main gig. It’s probably projecting too much intent on the record to speculate that it’s Belew’s attempt to assert his own artistic vision at a time when King Crimson was being pulled in opposing directions by several iconoclastic, committed creators, including himself. Yet, it’s hard to listen to Twang Bar King and not get a sense that Belew is breaking clear of the morass of sound that could make King Crimson albums feel smothering. As if ringing a crisp, clean bell, Belew opens the album with a raucous, lean, and fierce cover of the Beatles’ “I’m Down” that sounds like he’s drawing on the energy of the band’s earliest performances at the Cavern Club, when they were free of pretensions and just wanted to raise an ear-rattling racket.

Then again, that opening salvo gives way to Belew’s own brash, flinty experimentalism. Going back to basics is only the beginning. Then the weirdness can be strewn about like glowing tinsel. “Paint the Road” has a spectacular musical freneticism, and “She Is Not Dead” is a cascade of tendrilling tones. “Another Time” might tilt in the direction of more convention songcraft with its veneer of the brightly theatrical, but there’s “I Wonder” bending back toward the odd so completely that it could have sent momentarily panicked listeners to inspect the spinning turntable to see if the vinyl had picked up a troubling warp. Even when Belew draws evident inspiration from his most famed collaborator, David Bowie, it’s to crank through the pure delirium of “Fish Head” (“Yes, he was a fish head/ His frontal lobe a retread/ He rode a little motor scooter/ They said he was a neuter”).

Belew was a master of his craft, and Twang Bar King is a proper showcase of that mastery. And according to Belew, the album’s namesake guitar still plays fine all these years later.

354. The Bolshoi, Friends (1986)

Friends, the full-length debut of the Bolshoi, provides a version of goth rock imbued with a gleaming Brit-pop soul. Fittingly, it is like a toxic enchantment, luring in the innocent and unsuspecting with lively hooks and pining vocals to stealthily unveil a lurking menace underneath. If the gloom has been scrubbed away, there’s still a presence of soot in the crevasses. It’s not that the Bolshoi were the only band trying this trick at the time. Everyone from the Cure to the Psychedelic Furs to Love and Rockets were doing their own version of it. But the Bolshoi had a unique proto-Pulp swagger to their pop prestidigitation.

Single “Away” is emblematic of their approach. A churning, soaring singalong, the song has lyrics that imply a young woman has been pushed into prostitution to support her family (“All the time they bring their friends ’round/ Dress you up, show you up”). “Books on the Bonfire” has a celebratory sound as it depicts human squalor and callous behavior (“I’ve always been like this, since I was young/ I’m a truculent bigot, I revel in scum”) and “Fat and Jealous” is vividly trashy. If not every cut is compelling or convincing — “Modern Man” is musically nimble and intellectually plodding, and “Waspy” is a numbing chunk of languid experimentation — there’s a strong sense that the Bolshoi is really putting their collective shoulder into making pop songs that are archly pointed and challenging. At their best, they leave a mark. “Sunday Morning” is a bruising anti-church song (“Oh, how we kneeled down/ Oh, we were so quiet/ Never any light there/ I don’t care, it’s not right there”) that grooves.

Friends is a sleek, satisfying record. The Bolshoi didn’t last much longer, but they had one more memorable, enjoyable album in them.

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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