College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #239 to #237

239. Shriekback, Big Night Music (1986)

After three full-length albums, Shriekback had cause to reinvent themselves. During the recording of their third album, Oil & Gold, guitarist and vocalist Carl Marsh left the group. Frontman duties fell to keyboardist Barry Andrews, a refugee of XTC who started the band with former Gang of Four bassist Dave Allen. After touring with Voidoid guitarist Ivan Julian, Shriekback recruited Mike Cozzi to play the six-string on their next record. With all this churn already happening, the band decided the time was right to play with their sound, setting aside the dance-inflected music of earlier releases. The change was dramatic enough that they felt obligated to acknowledge it in the liner notes, offering an oblique statement of band philosophy (“Shriekback celebrate the blessed dark”) before delivering the conclusion that reads like a warning: “Big Night Music is entirely free of digital heartbeats of every kind.”

The album, the band’s first for Island Records, might lean away from blipping tones, but that doesn’t mean it abandons pop in favor of slicing punk or anything like that. Instead, Big Night Music is full of the smooth and slick, arguably too much so. “Exquisite” practically lapses into easy listening, like Everything But the Girl without the charm, and “Underwaterboys” is so airy it almost wafts away. The material is better when it feels like the group is really putting their collective shoulder into it, as with the slinky and boisterous “Black Light Trap” and the funky, goofy “Sticky Jazz.” It’s the melding of impeccable craft and sizzling energy that’s the best dynamic.

There’s a sense of creative restlessness present on the album, which sometimes brings Shriekback into range of some of the true iconoclasts of college radio. “The Reptiles and I” is just bizarre enough to be worthy of the Jazz Butcher, and “Gunning for the Buddha” is a plinky, lilting number that anticipates the best work of Cornershop. That exploratory vibe holds interesting promise for the future of the band, but it was promise that was bound to go unfulfilled. Not long after the release of Big Night Music, Allen left the band to join the reunited Gang of Four. Now the main driver, and sole remaining founder, Andrews would prove to be far less interested in weird tinkering moving forward.

238. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Long After Dark (1982)

“The last time I heard it, it was pretty good,” Tom Petty said of the album Long After Dark several years after its release. “The only thing I could say that I didn’t like about it was that it wasn’t really going forward enough for me. I think it’s imperative that you move everything forward with each recording. It was sort of a ‘tread water’ album. We’re doing what we’re supposed to do here — we’re not really going forward.”

Petty’s fifth album overall with the Heartbreakers, Long After Dark came after back to back platinum-selling albums that kept the band on the road for longer stretches than before, playing to ever-expanding, enthusiastic audiences. Feeling pressure to keep pushing new product into the marketplace to maintain their newfound momentum, Petty and the band bolted back into the studio with Jimmy Iovine, producer of those hit records. Maybe they were a little worn out, maybe they didn’t have as strong of material, or maybe there were ill effects from the squabbles with Iovine, who was dismissive of some of songs that sounded too country to his ears. Whatever the reason, the album does have a perfunctory feel overall.

Then again, Petty in a more flatfooted mode still stands taller than most of his contemporaries. “Deliver Me” is a prime example of his uncanny ability to make straightforward sentiments sound profound, which is, after all, one of the signature characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll: “Sometimes I wonder if this is worth the trouble/ Sometimes I wonder if this is worth the fight/ I never have made my mind up about it/ I’ve just decided to let it all ride.” “The Same Old You” is a lift from the Rolling Stones of cat burglar deftness, and “Between Two Worlds” is satisfyingly solid.

In opposition to Petty’s assessment, there are a couple instances of the band moving forward at least a bit. Like a lot of rock bands in the era, there are signs of new wave seeping in with some enlivening influence. “We Stand a Chance” is murky and cool, and “You Got Lucky,” the album’s most lasting hit, is as good as anything in Petty’s formidable songbook, riding a jungle-cat stalk of a synth line and Petty’s peak vocals. He injects a whole tangled romantic history into the lyric “Girl, if you can do better than me, go” like no one else ever could.

Long After Dark was a soft performer compared to its immediate predecessors. Perhaps in response, Petty and the Heartbreakers took their time getting back into the studio. When they did go back, Petty was determined to make a statement with a record, and a recording process, unlike anything he’d done before.

237. The dB’s, The Sound of Music (1987)

R.E.M. were centrally involved with the beginning and end of The Sound of Music, the fourth and essentially final album by the dB’s (demos were rooted through to assembled two comps in the mid-nineteen-nineties, and the original lineup reunited for the 2012 effort Falling Off the Sky). Let’s start with the more positive contribution on the front end. Peter Buck, R.E.M.’s lead guitarist, was instrumental in getting the dB’s signed to I.R.S. Records, the independent the college radio titans still called home. The dB’s were in needed of a new contract after a long, litigious process to free them of a multi-album agreement with Bearsville Records, which switched from being a label to a production entity farming records out to the other labels shortly after the release of the band’s first full-length under the deal. Buck was a fan of the band, in part from the times when the dB’s and R.E.M. toured together, and his advocacy likely helped secure extra studio time to make a record polished enough to theoretically bring about the commercial breakthrough that the devoted felt was the band’s due.

For The Sound of Music, the dB’s worked with producer Greg Edwards, who’d recently did the same job for Hunters & Collectors and had experience engineering hit rock records by the likes of John Mellencamp and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band (and was assistant engineer on Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Long After Dark). The result is a gleaming set of songs eagerly positioned for rock radio stations, even as Peter Holsapple’s unapologetically smart, and smart-alecky, songwriting seems to be the antithesis of broadcast outlets that were more into Lou Gramm and Sammy Hagar at the time. Programmers should have had room on their playlists for the clanking, wry “Working for Somebody Else,” romping “Today Could Be the Day,” and chiming, countryfied lament “Molly Says,” but they simply didn’t.

There’s plenty of The Sound of Music that remains firmly in the college radio pocket. “I Lie” is drifty college rock soul, and “Never Before and Never Again” is another country-adjacent gem. The latter is a duet with Syd Straw, who sang one of Holsapple’s songs on the Golden Palominos album Blast of Silence (Axed My Baby for a Nickel). She was a master interpreter of Holsapple’s songs, the Linda Ronstadt to his Warren Zevon. A couple years later, Straw took the agreeable The Sound of Music track “Think Too Hard” and covered it for her solo debut, making it into a damn masterpiece.

If R.E.M. helped the dB’s to this new beginning, they also hastened the end. According to Holsapple, I.R.S. Records almost immediately lost interest in promoting The Sound of Music after R.E.M. delivered the album Document. Label bosses even pulled The Sound of Music from production so they could press more copies of Document, which they’d correct surmised was poised to be a real commercial breakthrough. Just a few months after the comeback album of the dB’s was released, it was effectively out of print. Not long after, the dB’s called it quits.

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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