College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #254 to #252

254. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars (1988)

Word traveled to the major labels that there was a local band in Dallas that was playing to sellout crowds. Reps swarmed to the Deep Ellum neighborhood to find a band full of scruffy fellows jamming out as a slender, long-haired lead singer stood at the front in an oddly endearing legs-crossed pose. They were called New Bohemians, and they were suddenly beset by music-biz flim-flammers waving generous contracts before them. After some jostling, the group signed with Geffen Records, hopeful they’d be able to keep doing what they loved in their preferred way. The cold water splash of reality arrived quickly.

The band was shipped off to Wales to record their debut album, evidently on the theory that removing them from their individual and collective support networks would be beneficial, and they were paired with producer Pat Moran, who’d recently presided over ludicrously slick rock records for Lou Gramm and Tom Cochrane and Red Rider. Moran had no interest in the band’s desire to record their songs together and forced them to separately cut individual parts. A greater indignity soon followed. For marketing purposes, Geffen insisted the band be officially renamed to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians, putting the lead singer in the starring role. Being formally relegated to backing back status didn’t sit well with some of the members, especially those whose tenure predated that of Brickell, who was originally invited onstage as a lark. New Bohemians were on the precipice of breaking up before their debut album was even released.

They didn’t break up at that point, though. Their debut, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, was released in the late summer of 1988 and given a concerted push to college radio just as student DJs were returning for the fall semester. Muddling through the conflict proved to be fortuitous when lead single “What I Am,” a genial folk-pop number that posited “Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box/ Religion is the smile on a dog,” became a surprise crossover hit, skipping blissfully all the way up to Billboard‘s Top 10.

That hit was no outlier on the album. It’s genial spirit and sneaky catchiness is in evidence across Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars. “Love Like We Do” is sprightly and romantic, and “Little Miss S.,” about Andy Warhol superstar Edie Sedgwick, has the a near-magical ease that recalls prime 10,000 Maniacs. “Nothing” is plunky and genteel, and “Circle,” a lament for a friend who’s drifted away, is in the same mode. I suspect “Now” is the clearest example of the New Bohemians that once took command of restless club audiences. It’s a light modern blues song that suggests it was developed in an extended, exploratory jam session, but it has a tight control to it, eschewing the drifty mundanity of the indulgent hippie bands to come. The album ends with the unlisted track “I Do,” lovely, spare ballad Brickell says was written for her cat.

For a time, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians were everywhere, hitting key stops on the talk show circuit and handling musical guest duties on Saturday Night Live. The ascent reversed with the 1990 release of their sophomore full-length, Ghost of a Dog. As artistically satisfying as its predecessor, the album was a commercial disappointment and generally disregarded by critics. The band broke up the following year, though reunions eventually happened.

253. Genesis, Genesis (1983)

Genesis is the twelfth studio album credited the band that provides its name. There is a deliberate statement to that choice of title. The fourth studio outing since the group was pared down to a trio, following the successive departures of Peter Gabriel and Steve Hackett, Genesis represented a key first. Never before had the three shared songwriting credits on every track, the result of arriving in the studio with no material ready to go and developing the album through jam sessions and other collaborative efforts. At a time when drummer and lead singer Phil Collins was building his fame as a solo artist (but before that fame, and associated commercial success, reached truly ludicrous levels), Genesis wanted to reestablish that they were indeed a proper collective.

Perhaps less consciously, Genesis also serves as a timely reintroduction because the band was moving further and further away from the prog rock of their beginnings. They retained the meticulous musicianship of that subgenre while shedding most of the other ornate trappings. Hit single “That’s All” is an example of what’s left: Steely Dan without the pomposity. In basic rock algebra, that seems like a pretty good equation, but on Genesis it often results in mildly sleepy adult contemporary (“Taking It All Too Hard”) and other damp paper towels masquerading as songs (“It’s Gonna Get Better”). Another indication of how far Genesis is drifting from foundational rock ‘n’ roll oomph is lead track “Mama” a synth-scarred song about a young man obsessing over a sex worker that is supposed to sound tough and menacing but instead comes across as a middle school play version of gritty storytelling. When Collins unleashes a scary laugh, it sounds more like he’s trying to work a hairball out of his larynx.

The high and low points of the album couldn’t be more clear. Although it was guitarist Mike Rutherford who penned the lyrics, “Just a Job to Do” fits into the category of unexpectedly effective bubblegum crime-story songs that Collins yowled on (“I got a name, I got a number, I gotta line on you/ I got a name, I got a number, I’m coming after you”), a stubble-faced cousin to his solo single “In the Air Tonight.” The nadir, maybe of Genesis’s entire discography, is “Illegal Alien,” a song supposedly inspired by the British band members’ difficulties navigating the complexities of work visas and other U.S. immigration laws. The lyrics transfer the dilemma to Mexican migrants, using obnoxious stereotypes (“The sun is shining so I head for the park/ With a bottle of Tequila, and a new pack of cigarettes”) that Collins sings with a faux Latino accent. It’s repugnant now, and it was plenty offensive then.

Genesis was a big hit for the band, their third straight album (Including the double live album Three Sides Live) to chart in the Billboard Top 10. To date, it’s sold more than four million copies in the U.S.

252. Dan Fogelberg, Phoenix (1979)

The nineteen-seventies were especially amenable to performers like Dan Fogelberg. A practitioner of achingly sedate, pop-flavored folk songs, Fogelberg was a singer-songwriter who made the Laurel Canyon contingent, defined by the likes of Graham Nash and James Taylor, look like reckless punk rockers. Beginning with Home Free, released in 1972, Fogelberg put out a string of albums, all of them more or less successful. As the seventies drew to a close, he landed upon his first really significant hit.

“Longer,” the first single from his album Phoenix, is pure treacle, both musically and lyrically (“Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean/ Higher than any bird ever flew/ Longer than there’ve been stars up in the heavens/ I’ve been in love with you”). Even Fogelberg seemed to agree about the track’s overall goopiness, joking in the liner notes to one of his greatest hits albums that it was “the song that put me on the elevators.” The song was a smash, missing the top spot on the Billboard chart only because it ran into the brick wall of Queen’s monthlong run in that position with “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.”

The rest of Phoenix isn’t much more palatable. The mild honkytonk vibe of the title cut positions it with the softer side of the Eagles, and “Wishing on the Moon” (“There’s not a lucky star in sight”) is close enough to Billy Joel’s least appealing classic pop doodling that it’s easy to imagine the piano man hearing it as a cautionary tale of what he could become and making a mad dash to the studio to lay down the hard-rock posturing of Glass Houses. “Face the Fire” rocks a little harder, with a decent guitar solo on the fade, but that just gets the cut into Little River Band territory. The cloying “The Last to Know” and orchestrally fussy “Heart Hotels,” the latter another Top 40 hit, are far more indicative.

Fogelberg took advantage of the above-his-norm success of Phoenix. For his next album, The Innocent Age, he did the rock artiste thing, recording a double album that presented as a cohesive statement about adult jadedness grinding away at the kind-hearted openness of childhood. That album was a hit, too.

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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