College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #287 to #285

287. Gene Loves Jezebel, Discover (1986)

Welsh twins Jay and Michael Aston, joint frontmen of Gene Loves Jezebel, strode into the peak music video era knowing how to command attention. Lounging scallywags with haybale hairdos, kaleidoscopically colorful outfits, and troweled-on foundation and blush, the duo so consistently led with style statements that they were briefly able to convince Martha Quinn that they were on the verge of releasing a book of makeup tutorials during a torturous MTV interview. Their timing couldn’t be better in offering a bratty combination of goth and glam well sanitized by pop convection. After building a fervent fan base with their first few indie releases, Gene Loves Jezebel were signed to Geffen records for North American distribution.

Discovery, the band’s third album, was given a hearty push by the major label as the band’s “debut domestic album,” conveniently ignoring its predecessor, Immigrant, which saw U.S. release through Relativity Records. Bolstering the band’s sounds, they added James Stephenson, formerly of Generation X, as lead guitarist. He brought instincts good and bad with him, making “Wait and See”as satisfying chewy as beef jerky but also helping sink “Desire (Come and Get It)” with a wanky guitar solo that underscored its ever-so-eighties version of studio excess.

Hopelessly uneven in quality, Discovery at least epitomizes the moment it was released in. Gene Loves Jezebel neither set nor follow trends. They simply exist squarely within them. “Over the Rooftops” picks us the sauntering sleaze INXS dropped midway through the making of Listen Like Thieves, and “Heartache” has a chugging beat and churning guitar that declare Gene Loves Jezebel as kin to Echo and the Bunnymen. “Sweetest Thing” (“Just feel my heart go bump, baby/ Feel it coming on through”) and “Brand New Moon” are utterly by-the-numbers and yet strangely satisfying. They’re arguably endearing because they demand so little of the listener’s intellect. Before long, the Gene Loves Jezebel would get very messy. On Discovery, it’s still possible to believe in their guileless offer aof a trashy, flashy good time.

286. The Woodentops, Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway (1988). For their sophomore studio LP, the Woodentops brought in a slew of ringers. Largely a creative outlet for former Jazz Butcher member Rolo McGinty, the band recorded Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway with the producer role filled by Scott Litt, fresh off of guiding R.E.M. to new commercial heights with their album Document. They got further help from: guitarist Gary Lucas, of Captain Beefheart’s band; Fred Maher, of Scritti Politti; Doug Wimbish, or Tackhead; and funk maestro Bernie Worrell. Enterprising college DJs could drop the needle just about anywhere on the record and find some sort of little treasure.

Presumably there were hopes and expectation that Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway might duplicate the chart headway some other college rock had recently enjoyed. Unfortunately for the band members’ bank accounts, and fortunately for discerning listeners, the album was too thrilling unorthodox for the mainstream. “Wheels Turning” might play a little like a stripped-down Simple Minds, but it’s the exception “They Can Say What They Want” is like early Heaven 17 or Mental as Anything, and “Heaven” recalls the chiming, churning pop of the Housemartins, albeit with a little more weirdness around the edges. The closest corollaries are reside in the realm of the cult hero.

There’s a headlong quality to the material on the album, whether the jaunty “You Make Me Feel” or the fully adrenalized “Maybe It Won’t Last.” McGinty sometimes seems to packing all his creative energy into a single song, emerging with a track that is prickly and ferocious. “What You Give Out” is a prime example, playing like the Feelies crossed with Poi Dog Pondering. It’s easy to imagine the band and the audience collapsing into to simultaneous exhausted bliss at the completion of a rollicking run-through of the song, content that it’s been beveled to its ideal state.

Maybe they had indeed taken the band’s music as far as it could go. Although the Woodentops continued to play live for the next several years, Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway was effectively the group’s final studio effort (almost twenty years later, there were a couple new, hard-to-get albums from a revived version of the Woodentops). With a spectacular, squalling racket, Wooden Foot Cops on the Highway is sets college rock spinning. A dervish like this can only whirl so long.

285. Squeeze, Argybargy (1980)

Squeeze came to the third album, Argybargy, with quite a headwind. Its predecessor, Cool for Cats, was a comfortable hit at home in the U.K., and their label was eagerly pushing for new music as quickly as possible. Made somewhat dizzy by the flush of newfound success, the members of Squeeze threw themselves into the writing process as an escape from the attention they were getting from all sides. It wasn’t Beatlemania, but it was getting more difficult to enjoy a quite pint down at the local pub. Seeking comfort in the midst of the mayhem, they brought back Cool for Cats producer John Wood for the new record.

For a good stretch of Argybargy, Squeeze is in top form. At their best, they did pristine, erudite pop songs like few others, taking the finely hewn models on nineteen-fifties and nineteen-sixties chart-darling tunes and imbuing them with the dewy charm of new wave. On the practically perfect “Pulling Mussels (From the Shell),” they make the lyrics “Squinting faces at the sky/ A Harold Robbins paperback/ Surfers drop their boards and dry/ And everybody wants a hat” seem as natural as a rhyme of moon and June. It’s a type of magic. “Another Nail in My Heart” is another gem in the same zone, tinging with romantic cynicism (“That stupid old bug that kills only love/ I want to be good, is that not enough”).

The hiccupping “Farfisa Beat” and lolling “If I Didn’t Love You” are further demonstrations of the band’s expertise. Nearly everything works — or at least works well enough — on Argybargy. It’s one thing when Glenn Tilbrook shares lead vocal duties with fairly simpatico Chris Difford, but quite another when he cedes the microphone to the pinched trilling of Jools Holland. And yet the track in question, “Wrong Side of the Moon,”is enjoyable in its mildly askew sensibility. By the final notes of the album ending “There at the Top,” which sounds like Nick Lowe by way of Junior Walker, Argybargy has loped into do-no-wrong territory.

It would be a reasonable statement to say Argybargy is Squeeze at their very best. The only problem with that assertion is that they got yet better one album later.

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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