College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #350 to #348

350. The House of Love, The House of Love (1988)

Signed to Creation Records not long after their formation, the House of Love released a couple successful singles and seemed quickly, comfortably on their way to their debut full-length album, recording two sides of songs in just about a week. Then the troubles began. Mixing the album took ages, in part because of squabbling among the bandmates — the album was self-produced — and maybe, just maybe, because of the copious amounts of LSD that were allegedly ingested while the work took place. Pat Collier, former bassist for the Vibrators and producer for the Soft Boys, was enlisted to settle the disputes and bring the album across the finish line. The album was released without an official title, but the immediate consensus was that it was called The House of Love.

The album’s advance single and lead track, “Christine,” finds the House of Love at the peak of their powers. A lovely eddy of polished pop sound, evoking human despair in most ravishing manner (“And the whole world dragged us down/ The whole world turned aside”). That’s the band’s mode, rendered expertly. At least on this self-titled record, they make glimmering songs that manifest asteroid belts of emotions with just a few words seemingly chosen by feel more than writerly logic.

“I don’t think people have to get messages when they listen to records, but I like that vagueness,” frontman Guy Chadwick told Sounds at the time of the album’s release. “When we make a record, we are just going for an overall sound, an overall effect.”

The overall effect on The House of Love is wowing. With one elbow in post-punk and another in the future sound of Britpop, the band deals out fabulous tracks. “Road” is rich, prickly pop about being one of society’s cast-offs (“Born abroad, no relation here/ Talk so funny, why did you bother at all”), and “Happy” simmers with energy. The chiming, cooing “Love in a Car” and squalling “Touch Me” find different textures in the band’s sound, and “Sulphur” comes close to topping Echo and the Bunnymen at their own grand game.

The House of Love had the goods. They also steered poorly as they navigated the slippery pavement of the music industry. Following their initial success, they signed a contract with Fontana Records that proved, succumbed to more destructive drug use, and failed to weather internal conflict that led to counterproductive personnel shifts. By the middle of the nineteen-nineties, the band was no more.

349. The Del Fuegos, The Longest Day (1984)

The Del Fuegos were messy legends in their hometown of Boston, where raucous, boozy nights and reckless playing were the expectation. Part of the legend was that one tour finished with a tally of alcohol costs that outpaced the expenditure of gasoline pumped into their van’s tank. After they were signed to Slash Records, the band was swooped out to a Los Angeles studio for three months where producer Mitchell Froom helped them clean up their act, in every sense of the phrase. For one thing, Froom urged them to tighten up their material and strip away all the extraneous slop. The resulting debut album, The Longest Day, is fierce and lean, rock ‘n’ roll stripped down to the framework.

The instilled professionalism doesn’t mean the Del Fuegos became dully sterile in their playing. Album opener “Nervous and Shakey” is loose and raucous, ideal for commanding the attention of a bustling barroom crowd. The bluesy grind “I Should Be the One” and the rockabilly shuffle “Missing You” are similarly suited to making even the most beer-soaked patron paused in their slurred yammering to bob their head in appreciation. “When the News is On” sounds like a twangier version of Graham Parker, and “Have You Forgotten” is an aching ballad that further demonstrates the range the Del Fuegos developed. With a little bit of throwback and a lot of jubilant gruffness, the Del Fuegos proved the value is playing straight-ahead rock music with craft and certainty.

The record label likely thought they had a ready-made smash with The Longest Day. That didn’t come to pass, but the promise for bigger and better was evident on the record. The investment was also modest enough to buy the band some more time: Froom reportedly recorded the debut album for a mere $30,000, a sliver of what bigger bands were spending as heavy studio polish was increasingly the norm as the nineteen-eighties edged along. The Del Fuegos didn’t make a hit, but they did make an impression. There was keen interest in what they’d do next.

348. The Fleshtones, Hexbreaker! (1983)

As they would on other occasions, the Fleshtones including an explanatory note on the sleeve of their album Hexbreaker! Signed “The Guys,” the missive offered a promise of freshly forged greatness:

“The theme of this album is NEW, because after all, this is the FLESHTONES newest LP. And not only is it their newest but it’s also their wildest, most emphatic, most super-rock record yet! It’s been said that the FLESHTONES aren’t just a pop group but an outlook, a way of life. But — although a lot of things have been said about the FLESHTONES, you’ll agree that their new hexbreaking record album renders all praise not only superfluous, but unnecessary.”

There’s a lot of superfluous, unnecessary praise that comes to mind when listening to the procession of rip-roaring cuts. The Fleshtones aren’t reinventing rock ‘n’ roll; they are playing it with pulverizing intensity, committing to cracking open its inner core to let the spirits of bygone rebellion soar out and melt some faces. The chewy, attitude-jolted “What’s So New (About You),” beer-blast instrumental “(Legend of a) Wheelman,” and freewheeling “Hexbreaker are such gems of garage-rock heroism that their grooves should be pressed into hubcaps. The rawness is thrilling, and the thrill of the music is raw.

Focus is a virtue with this sort of material, and it’s a fair question as to whether it’s wholly advisable to stray too far from keeping it as compact and hard as a knuckle. “Screamin’ Skull” has some of the braying theatricality of the New York Dolls, and “This House is Empty” sidles up to the sleek panache of Julian Cope. If I find that expansiveness a little less satisfying, I have to admit that the R&B-adjacent tinkering in “Right Side of a Good Thing” is pretty irresistible, like the J. Geils Band doing their thing while unconvincingly faking that they’ve haven’t lapsed in a giddy hallucinogenic stupor. The Flestones cap off the album with a cover of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell,” a choice that feels like a declaration of iconoclast kinship.

Hexbreaker! is, like most of the Fleshtones’ output, a blast and a half. It’s super-rock. And how.

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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