347. Guadalcanal Diary, 2×4 (1987)
Guadalcanal Diary evidently sought to recapture something they felt they lost when they recorded their third album, 2 x 4. After an excursion with other collaborators, the band from Marietta, Georgia returned to the producer of their first album, Don Dixon. Famed among the left-of-the-dial set for his behind-the-boards efforts on R.E.M.’s earliest triumphs, Dixon tied Guadalcanal Diary to a scene they often sought to distance themselves from. They weren’t a band from Athens, Georgia, but were often lumped into that grouping, simultaneously benefiting and suffering from the inevitable comparisons. Like almost everyone else with a noncommercial bent, they could skew in the direction of the college-rock standard bearers — “Little Birds,” on 2 x 4, could be a Fables of the Reconstruction outtake — but Guadalcanal Diary had their own distinct brand of charging, joyful pop rock.
The album opener, “Litany (Life Goes On),” is an exuberant triumph, merging an explosive melody and powerhouse sound with sharp, direct lyrics celebrating the vast possibility of living open to experiences (“We move so quickly/ Who knows where the time goes/ Where does this road lead?/ No one knows, no one knows”). It’s a shaky, hopeful manifesto as assertive pop statement, and it’s absolutely perfect.
The rest of 2 x 4 is solid, if merely adequate in comparison to its opening salvo. “Get Over It” sounds like a stab at winning over the poppier programmers in the album rock radio sphere, almost like the Bangles before they cracked the code of crossover success. “Let the Big Wheel Roll” is suitably bouncy, and “Winds of Change” is churning college rock. The post–bar time ballad “3 AM” is a tick too precious, and “Lips of Steel” tinkers with psychedelia, a sound that sits slightly awkwardly in the band’s more dapper sound. It’s an ill-fitting, tie-dyed jacket
Guadalcanal Diary was making good music, but they were also starting to wear out. Not long after the release of 2 x 4, guitarist Jeff Walls and bassist Rhett Crowe married, entering into a settled domesticity that made the necessary touring life, a grueling undertaking under any circumstances, less appealing. Guadalcanal Diary released on more album, 1989’s dandy Flip Flop, before disbanding, more or less for good.
346. Echo & the Bunnymen, Echo & the Bunnymen (1987)
Echo & the Bunnymen were coming off a messy stretch when they worked on the album that would be their 1987 self-titled effort. Following the critically lauded Ocean Rain, released in 1984, the group went through all sorts of tumult, including the departure of drummer Pete De Freitas, who was replaced with different musicians that didn’t quite work out. The band’s output dwindled, even as interest in them remained high. Boosted by its inclusion on the Pretty in Pink soundtrack, the single “Bring on the Dancing Horses,” initially grafted onto the 1986 compilation Songs to Learn & Sing, was a hit in the U.K. and on U.S. college radio. The band went into the studio with producer Gil Norton, who they clicked with on Ocean Rain, and they were entirely dissatisfied with the results.
With no small amount of nervousness about the mental health issues he struggled with, Echo & the Bunnyment invited De Freitas to play with them again, though he was technically hired as a session musician rather than put properly on the band roster. They also circled back to producer Laurie Latham, who oversaw “Bring on the Dancing Horses.” The drab ballad “All My Life” was the only track retained from the sessions with Norton (and it was plopped unceremoniously as the last cut on the album, almost as an afterthought). Echo & the Bunnymen started over.
In addition to the other concerns, the band’s record label was leaning on them to develop a more commercial sound, reportedly even playing a copy of Peter Gabriel’s smash So and suggesting its overwhelming sheen as an aspirational goal. Echo & the Bunnymen is definitely slickly produced, and it sometimes serves the material. The burbling “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo” and lush, soaring “Lips Like Sugar,” both attention-getting singles from the album, flirt with the true pop perfection that the band was capable of at their very best. Most of the album, though, is far from that invigorating peak. “The Game,” another single, is oddly flaccid, and “Blue Blue Ocean” has a whiff of retread to it. “New Direction” piles up cliches in the lyrics (“Out on a limb/ Did you see what the cat dragged in/ Take it on the chin”) and has music that’s similarly uninspired.
Regardless of what the label heads wanted, there are no “Sledgehammer” swings on the record. Echo & the Bunnymen do occasionally seem to be toying with sonic angles that gained some of their contemporaries traction on the charts. “Satellite” comes across like a INXS reject, and “All in Your Mind” is dismaying close to the eager preening of ABC. It’s unlikely there there was an overt attempt to ape other hitmakers — and there were certainly acts that were nicking ideas from Echo & the Bunnymen by then — but it definitely feels like the band is shifting with the pop-chart winds.
Practically every band member disparaged the album later, heaping scorn on the heavily produced sound. The more immediate problem was a rift growing within the band largely because lead singer Ian McCulloch was beginning to get — and enjoy and further cultivate — the kind of attention afforded big rock stars. Understandably, that didn’t sit well with his bandmates.
“Mac had distanced himself from everyone else and he was getting different treatment from the rest of us,” guitarist Will Sergeant later noted. “Not the we wanted the treatment he was getting. We just found it all ridiculous. He had people running around him, basically wiping his arse. He had started to act like a turd.”
The following year, McCulloch announced he was leaving the band to launch a solo career. The remaining Bunnymen intended to continue on and quickly found it wasn’t going to be easy. The difficultly in securing a new lead singer was bad enough, and then real tragedy struck when De Freitas died in a motorcycle accident. A reconstituted Echo & the Bunnymen released an album entitled Reverberation, in 1990, to massive indifference. Not long after, they were dropped by their record label. There were reunions, and plenty more music, to come, but it’s fair and accurate to say that the original run of Echo & the Bunnymen ended with Echo & the Bunnymen.
345. The Dukes of Stratosphear, Psonic Psunspot (1987)
Most didn’t expect Sir John Johns, the Red Curtain, and Lord Cornelius Plum, known collectively as The Dukes of Stratosphear, to make more than one album. Sir John Johns was perhaps more skeptical than most. And yet there the trio was, working with producer John Leckie, who’d had great success presiding over the earlier efforts of XTC, on a new assemblage of trippy, tantalizing tunes that feel transported straight from the hallucinogenic haze of the late nineteen-sixties. If their first studio effort, 25 O’Clock, was deeply beholden to the Beatles after Bob Dylan introduced them to strong drugs and they let their hair grow long, the sophomore outing was more of a homage to the other droopy-eyed denizens of the same creative era, such as the Beach Boys and the Hollies, or so Sir John Johns, in his alter ago of Andy Partridge, told The New York Times at the time.
The Dukes of Stratosphear was a splendid side trip for XTC, the dream band they retreated to when they found their day gig dissatisfying. they were in a particular funk after the recording of Skylarking, released in 1986, having skirmished mightily with producer Todd Rundgren. Guitarist David Gregoruy, a.k.a. Lord Cornelius Plum, later suggested that XTC might not have outlasted the nineteen-eighties if they hadn’t had the creative respite of the Dukes of Stratosphear.
Psonic Psunspot, the fanciful band’s sophomore effort, is kaleidoscopic pop bliss. “Vanishing Girl” so expertly captures the bygone era that it’s a wonder it wasn’t plucked from a Nuggets-style compilation of head-trip gems. “Have You Seen Jackie?” is a deliberately confusing swirl of gender signifiers, and “You’re My Drug” is a chipper, densely imaginative love song (“You take me to heaven from deeper than hell ever dug/ And you fly me higher than a trip on a magical rug”). “You’re a Good Man Albert Brown (Curse You Red Barrel)” is plucked from an alternate universe where Small Faces’ Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake was a rock opera inspired by a misremembering of Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts. “Brainiac’s Daughter” is a giddy goof, the best post-Beatles lark that none of the fabs ever got around to recording.
After Psonic Psunspot was released, there was idle — likely insincere — speculation on the part of Partridge that the Dukes of Stratosphear’s pastiches could explore other flavors of nineteen-sixties British rock. ” They should sound like The Merseybeats of The Easybeats, before they started getting a bit bendy,” Partridge said. “The Equals, Dave Clark Five. I’d love to write a song for The Troggs.” Sadly, none of that was meant to be. XTC persevered for only a few more years, and there was never another album credited to the Dukes of Stratosphear.
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.