College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #263 to #261

263. Lloyd Cole and the Commotions, Easy Pieces (1985)

“I could think the sound of this LP is considerably different to the first one,” Lloyd Cole said not along after the release of Easy Pieces, his sophomore outing with backing back the Commotions. “It’s a lot thicker. It’s richer and harder in places. We wanted it to sound different. That’s why we’ve worked with different people. There are songs on this LP that needed bigger treatments than they would have got on the first LP. They needed to sound more lush, and they do.”

The different people Cole and his cohorts worked with were, most notably, producers Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who had built an impressive resume working with the likes of Madness, Elvis Costello, and Dexys Midnight Runners. The band’s debut, Rattlesnakes, was given a remix polish ahead of its U.S. release, and Cole evidently liked it, because Easy Pieces builds from that commercial-friendly sheen. “Brand New Friend,” the album’s lead single, is the template: loose, ingratiating pop that’s crisply rendered, idly tinkering with emotions of romanticized self-pity like a less grandly morose version of the Smiths (“Am I asking oh for so much?/ I’m not asking to be understood”). The material is far too sniffily erudite to level accusations of mainstream pandering, but there’s a strong sense across the album that Cole thinks he’s crafting a breakthrough.

In truth, Easy Pieces deserved to be a hit. Although not quite as arresting in its cleverness as Rattlesnakes, the album still features Cole, a smooth-operator performer and snappy songwriter, still slaloming around his peak. “Rich” moves with a trademark shimmy, and “Cut Me Down” is winningly delicate and deliberate. Cole’s slickest trick is using bright, carefree music to help stealthily slide bleak lyrics across the table. “Why I Love Country Music” swings its way through the story of a romance on life support (“Jane is fine, always fine/ We’re unhappy most of the time/ We don’t talk, we don’t fight/ I’m just tired, she’s way past caring”), and “Lost Weekend” puts an sprightly melody to stark sentiments (“There’s nobody else to blame/ I hang my head in a crying shame/ There is nobody else to blame/ Nobody else except my sweet self”).

Good as the album is overall, it also shows some faint cracks. Like Bright Eyes a generation later, Cole’s abundant cleverness can sometimes become a little much; even he later disavowed the noir-ish posturing of “Minor Character”: “She said she’d throw herself off a bridge/ He stood and laughed and she walked out again/ Which was when she wrote me in/ To her scheme of things.” More often, Easy Pieces crackles with the satisfied excitement of an artist made confident — but not yet overconfident — by his own brimming talent.

262. Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Imperial Bedroom (1982)

Elvis Costello’s first attempt at wholesale reinvention didn’t go all that well. Following a briskly released quintet of acclaimed albums made with producer Nick Lowe, Costello journeyed to Nashville to record covers of country songs with Billy Sherrill, the legendary figure who was behind the boards for major works by Tammy Wynette, George Jones, and Charlie Rich. The resulting album, Almost Blue, was widely derided. For his next album, Imperial Bedroom, Costello returned to his own songs, but that didn’t necessarily mean wholly familiar approaches.

Costello wanted to explore added layers to his songs in the studios, and he figured Lowe wouldn’t be interested in that amount of fussing. By this point, Costello had enough of a reputation that he could aim high. He secured the services of Geoff Emerick, the sound engineer on most of the Beatles’ albums who built up a producing resume that included records by Badfinger, Robin Trower, and Split Enz. Costello wanted the capacity for ornate craft that Emerick could provide, and that’s exactly what he brings to the album. “…And in Every Home” is a notable example employing a forty-piece orchestra to fill out the song musically, including little hat tips to George Martin’s orchestrations for the Beatles (Martin even vetted the charts by Steve Nieve before the recording took place). Although the sound of Imperal Bedroom is clearly different than anything Costello had done before, Emerick later downplayed his contributions.

“Elvis is a major songwriter,” Emerick told Rolling Stone a few years later. “He just oozes talent. And we captured Elvis then and there. It was easy — I pulled up the fader, and away we went.”

There are definitely times when Costello’s complete command of his songwriting, and his ability to perform material in way that squeeze every last bit of possibility out of one of his composition, has the jaw-dropping ease present on all his early albums. “Beyond Belief,” “The Loved Ones,” and “You Little Fool” all, one way or another, have the tantalizing buzz of classic Costello. There are other instances where the extra effort is unavoidable present, such as the layered “Tears Before Bedtime” and the gently dramatic “Boy with a Problem,” the latter featuring lyrics by Chris Difford of Squeeze. Vivid strings cut across “Town Cryer” and there’s a hypnotic pop lushness to “The Long Honeymoon” that accentuates the emotional potency of the lyrics (“If he isn’t in by ten she’ll call up her best friend/ Why doesn’t he come home/ Why does her friends phone keep on ringing/Maybe she should just pretend”).

Imperial Bedroom is the first Costello album to include a lyrics sheet, as if underscoring his solidifying stature as one of the great writers of literate rock. “Man Out of Time” even borders on Dylan-esque, at least from the point in the nineteen-sixties when he was on the verge of wheelbarrowing his songwriting into the realm of proper pop songs. Costello might have been coming on his first real misstep when he made Imperial Bedroom, but that didn’t slow his pace. He was moving forward with enviable artistic certainty.

261. Guadalcanal Diary, Jamboree (1986)

Guadalcanal Diary’s second full-length, Jamboree, is a document of a band testing their boundaries only to discover that they’re most comfortable within their own cozy yard. The record doesn’t careen into metal-machine abrasiveness or loopy experimentation so much as it sees how much variety can be gotten out of college-rock jangle. “Michael Rockefeller” could be plucked right off of R.E.M.’s Reckoning, except for the flaring bursts of punky fervor. “T.R.O.U.B.L.E.” is loosely jazzy, and “Country Club Gun” sounds like it was concocted to accompany a menacing hayride. bizarre throwaway “I See Moe” is a throwaway that uses an overt association with the bowl-cut Stooge as metaphor for personal isolation: “Now I got friends, yeah, that’s for sure/ But Larry and Curly don’t come around much anymore.”

After working with R.E.M. producer Don Dixon on their debut, Guadalcanal Diary opted for a decidedly different collaborator for the follow-up. Jamboree is primarily overseen by Rodney Mills, who had logged a lot of hours engineering records by Lynyrd Skynyrd before leveling up to producing. (Two tracks are produced by Steve Nye, evidently in between studio duties for David Sylvian.) Maybe Guadalcanal Diary — or, more realistically, their label, Elektra Records — was hoping Mills was going to be able to give the material the AOR appeal of his recent clients .38 Special. There are indications that’s indeed what they were going for: the bottom-heavy Americana “Pray for Rain” and thumper “Dead Eyes” prime among them. That’s simply not who Guadalcanal Diary was ever going to be. When they lock into the smooth, loping plunk of chiming guitars and soaring melody on “Fear of God,” everyone in the band sounds more natural, as if they’re relaxing into an identity they’d been denying. That the lyrics are awash in finely rendered Southern religious dread (“He’s coming in my dream, the one i’ve had before/ He wraps me in white linen, and slowly shuts the door”) only improves the fit.

Murray Attaway, frontman and main songwriter for Guadalcanal Diary, had mostly bad impressions of Jamboree, which he later chalked up to the fact that he was hitting rock bottom before going into recovery for alcohol abuse issues. He assessed the making of it as “painful, unnatural.” I think some of that strain is present on the record, giving it a slightly lackluster air. For their next album, Guadalcanal Diary tried to rebound by returning to the producer best equipped to help them embrace everything they were.

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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