College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #290 to #288

290. Quarterflash, Quarterflash (1981)

The members of the Portland band Seafood Mama spent a good portion of 1980 peddling their independently released single “Harden My Heart” as they gigged across the Pacific Northwest. The song took hold in local radio, and the group was starting to play to larger crowds when Carole Childs, an A&R executive with fledgling major label Geffen Records, came to see them. She signed the group as quickly as she could, and the label set them up with producer John Boylan, who’d presided over records for Boston and the Little River Band. Perhaps at the behest of the label, he encouraged married couple Rindy and Marv Ross, each a major presence in the band, to ditch the other Seafood Mama members. Because their cohorts were skewing in a country-rock direction that didn’t suit them, the Rosses agreed. In need of a new band name, they flipped through one of Boylan’s books, which was apparently a remnant of his time working the Aussies in the Little River Band. The Rosses spotted an Australian slang term that derisively described a person as “a quarter flash, three quarters foolish.” From then on, they’d be known as Quarterflash.

Childs and her Geffen cohorts were correct about the commercial prospects of the band, or at least the song they turned into a local sensation. “Harden My Heart,” re-recorded faithfully but with another fine coat of studio lacquer, was a Top 5 hit. It is also the clear peak of Quarterflash’s self-titled debut album. Build on a tight hook, the cut has cool-stride musicianship and emotionally evocative vocals by Rindy Ross that she punctuates with keening saxophone lines. “Find Another Fool” is another effective punch of pop-rock, and “Try to Make It True” is blandly appealing in its astonishing slickness, but neither comes close to the easy mastery of “Harden My Heart.”

Much of Quarterflash is mired in the glop of soft rock and its hellish kindred genres. “Critical Times,” written and sung by guitarist Jack Charles, is an unbearably drippy ballad, and “Love Should Be So Kind” seems to be an experiment in maximizing drabness. The vague fusion-jazz fidgetry of “Williams Avenue” arguably exposes the true core of the band. Admitting the following conclusion probably confers too much importance to Rindy’s saxophone, Quarterflash comes across as the poppier cousin of Passport.

Geffen Records was in its earliest days, and they had invested big in major artists such as Elton John and Donna Summer. Nearly everything released by the label in 1981 flopped. Quarterflash was the exception. It was a Top 10 album on Billboard and claimed a platinum certification within a year of its release.

289. Wall of Voodoo, Call of the West (1982)

Call of the Wild, the second full-length from the Los Angeles band Wall of Voodoo, contained the song that would hang on them — and on lead singer Stan Ridgway — for the rest of time. “Mexican Radio” Roused by off-kilter rhythms, Ridgway’s elastic vocals, and lyrics that evoke border radio stations as a stand-in for escape (“I wish I was in Tijuana/ Eating barbecued iguana/ I’d take requests on the telephone/ I’m on a wavelength far from home”), the cut doesn’t just veer into novelty; it looks into the center of that lane and guns the engine. It’s sticks to the brain like pine tar. The near irresistibility of its goofball spirit landed the single on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Wall of Voodoo an unlikely booking on American Bandstand.

Wall of Voodoo remained unlikely candidates for further crossover success, in part because the remainder of Call of the Wild decidedly lacks for material that measures up to the surprise hit. “Lost Weekend” features stiff, staid storytelling about a couple bottoming out in Las Vegas, and grindingly dull “They Don’t Want Me” is basically the total opposite in spirit, style, and smarts to the song that broke the breakthrough.

Wall of Voodoo does their best work when embracing weirdness, exemplified by percussionist Joe Nanini’s loopy choices for what he’ll get his beats out off (on the American Bandstand appearance, Dick Clark prefaces Nanini’s introduction by saying, “And over here with an assortment of pots and pans and other strange things”). “On Interstate 15” could be the them to a college-rock spaghetti Western, and the artfully creaking folk-pop number “Factory” basically sets the template for Timbuk 3’s later success. Even the percolating disco beat to “Hands of Love” at least feels like the band trying something different, opening up their possibilities rather than clamping them down.

After Call of the Wild, Wall of Voodoo went through a shift that would have shut many bands down. Both Ridgway and Nanini exited the group, leaving guitarist Marc Moreland and keyboardist Chris T. Gray as the only founding members on the roster. Rather than close up shop, Moreland and Gray decided the Wall of Voodoo name held too much potential now that a little recognition had come their way. They were going to need to figure out how to persevere.

288. Rickie Lee Jones, Pirates (1981)

“For me, it was part of feeding who I was,” Rickie Lee Jones later said of her time among the dangerous scalawags that gave a title to her sophomore album. “I felt that if I stopped living that way, whatever it was that I really was would stop being authentic.”

Following her enormously successful debut, and a rough breakup with fellow iconoclast Tom Waits, Jones sought solace and substance-assisted spiritual healing in New Orleans. She assembled a cadre of fellow rough riders, some artists like herself — Professor Longhair and James Booker among them — and others eking out existences on the other side of the law. She considered this crew pirates, and named her album after them. The title-ish cut “Pirates (So Long Lonely Avenue)” slips playfully back and forth between loose swing and a tender balladeer approach as she delivers lyrics that of celebratory elegy: “Well, goodbye boys/ Oh my buddy boys/ Oh my sad-eyed Sinatras.” As much as the scruffy troubadour who was now a famous ex, Jones was poised to prove herself as an empathetic chronicler of the romanticized downtrodden. “We Belong Together,” which was directly about Jones’s severed relationship with Waits, cements that theory into hard fact with its abstractly evocative lyrics, rendered with exquisite delicacy: “And she lay there like a baby in his hand/ And climb upon the rooftop docks lookin’ out on the crosstown seas/ And he wraps his jacket across her shoulders/ And he falls and hugs and holds her on his knees.”

Jones takes jazz-inflected pop of her self-titled debut and starts experimenting. Several tracks comes across as the singer-songwriter version of symbiotic explorations undertaken by jazz combos. The piercing and fragile “Skeletons” is in this mode, as is the loosey-goosey vamping of “Woody and Dutch on the Slow Train to Peking.” Written with Sal Bernardi, her boyfriend at the time, “Traces of the Western Slopes” is lackadaisically epic. It sounds like it lives in the bell of a nineteen-seventies saxophone when it’s asleep.

Pirates is an excellent record that got downgraded in the public perception because it didn’t achieve the same popular success as its predecessor. Though it was a Top 10 performer on the Billboard chart, its singles weren’t similarly successful, and Jones’s march away from the mainstream was underway. Whether the masses were listening, she was still making special music, as she would for quite some time.

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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