College Countdown: CMJ Top 1000, 1979 – 1989 — #113 to #111

113. Siouxsie & the Banshees, Tinderbox (1986)

Siouxsie & the Banshees had grand ambitions with their seventh studio album, Tinderbox. The group’s first LP following Robert Smith’s departure to concentrate on the Cure full time, Tinderbox was originally conceived to suit a cohesive, quasi-theatrical live presentation, somewhat akin to what they’d accomplished with their 1981 album, Juju. With new guitarist John Valentine Carruthers joining drummer Budgie, bassist Steven Severin, and endlessly compelling frontwoman Siouxsie Sioux, the band toiled away on the new set of songs, refining them through jam sessions and concert performances before finally going into the studio in Germany for a recording process that itself took several months. If the broader concept receded, the high, exacting quality brought to bear remained. Tinderbox is vivid and relentless in the best possible way.

The album opens with the pulsing intensity of “Candyman,” a song about the sexual abuse suffered by Sioux during childhood (“No pity for him/ Their misery screams unspeakable things”). The post-punk tempered in goth style that was long the band’s bailiwick had a newfound heft and breadth in the track, a promise of grandness that’s fulfilled over and over on the album. “92°” starts with a snippet of It Came from Outer Space movie dialogue that tersely states “Did you know that more murders are committed at 92 Fahrenheit than any other temperature? I read an article once. Lower temperatures, people are easygoing. Over 92, it’s too hot to move. But just 92, people get irritable” and then proceed to music that’s as tightly coiled and poised to crack as the sweltering felons mentioned. “Party’s Fall” is swoony and squally at the same time, and “Land’s End” is a slithery ballad that progresses into welling thunder.

Polydor, the band’s record label, was getting anxious as Siouxsie and Banshees mixed the record, so a track that they brought to completion a little earlier than the others was rushed out as an advance single. That track was “Cities in Dust,” arguably as strong of a recording as the group had crafted to that point. Taking the decidedly unconventional inspiration of the city of Pompei’s destruction when Mount Vesuvius blew its stack, the cut is a rapturous beauty marked by Sioux’s firm, expressive vocals and restlessly exploratory tones. It exemplified the growing artistic command of the group.

Tinderbox brought greater notoriety for Siouxsie & the Banshees, becoming the band’s highest charted record to date in the U.S. as they toured the country with Love and Rockets. It also left them feeling exhausted. For their next studio album, they found a way to lessen the pressure and have a little more fun.

112. Steve Winwood, Arc of a Diver (1980)

Steve Winwood’s solo debut was considered a disappointment. A rock star since his teenaged years, Winwood had a stacked resume with time in the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and Traffic, among others. Three year after the last of those had broken up, Winwood finally relented to pressure from him record label to record a solo effort. Steve Winwood received a tepid response, with neither of its singles charting. For the follow-up, Winwood was determined to more definitely take charge of the whole endeavor.

For Arc of the Diver, Winwood shunted aside most collaborators. The songs were all written with others, but Winwood is the sole creator is practically every other respect. Every instrument heard on Arc of the Diver is played by Winwood, and he produced the album himself at his home studio. If his name was the only one of the front cover, he was damn well going to be sure that only fingerprints weren’t smudging the finished product.

“It was as if I was proving a point to myself — that I could make an all-solo album,” Winwood said later. “I also have a great interest in recording techniques, keyboard programming, and engineering.”

That cluster of interests leads Winwood straight to the fusion fiddling that was all too common for rock musicians with inclinations towards more erudite fare during the era. To be fair, the album’s hit single, “While You See a Chance,” is one of the more agreeable examples of the trend, rendering an insinuating hook with pristine pop sounds. Much of the rest of the album is mired in the hinterlands of adult contemporary dreck. The title cut is most soulless version of soul music imaginable, and “Dust” is drippy with muddled metaphors of heartbreak in the lyrics (“A feather duster’s no substitute for the real thing/ And the dust you left behind is settling still”). Maybe the most dire manifestation of Winwood’s trend-surfing is “Second-Half Woman,” which is like the product of the Pat Metheny Group trying out disco.

Windwood was hardly alone in this territory, a truth clarified by the ready comparisons that jump to mind with certain tracks. In particular, Winwood was right in line with two artists that had split off to different main arteries of post-prog rock: “Spanish Dancer” is like Peter Gabriel with the danger leeched away, and “Night Train,” running to nearly eight patience-testing minutes, anticipates the yearning soft rock that would sell a jillion records for Genesis in a few years. Arc of the Diver might be a mediocre album, but it does help usher in the nineteen-eighties with a version of pop music that would soon become deadeningly dominant.

111. Let’s Active, Big Plans for Everybody (1986)

Let’s Active had fallen apart. Bassist Faye Hunter and drummer Sara Romweber, who started Let’s Active with Easter in 1981, both quit after the release of the band’s debut album, Cypress. (Hunter was in a relationship with Easter, so it was the dissolution of that pairing that prompted her exit from the band.) After mulling his options, Easter decided to keep the band going, even if he was officially the only member. Big Plans for Everybody, the second full-length studio effort under the Let’s Active name, is essentially a solo outing for Easter, with a few appearances from guest musicians here and there, including Hunter, who appears on the acoustic jangler “Badger.”

Because Let’s Active always felt like an expression of Easter’s sensibility more than a collaborative group creation anyway, Big Plans for Everybody sits squarely within the established sound. As producer of R.E.M.’s earliest albums and Game Theory’s bigger records, Easter was instrumental in establish the sound of college rock, at least in its iteration that sprung from the U.S., and Big Plans for Everybody is understandably a proper extension of that. “Fell” is engaging in its prickly forthrightness, and “Route 67” has the agitated verve of Pylon. Easter expands his range here and there — the single “In Little Ways” has a touch of the era’s lush British pop, and “Writing The Book of Last Pages” plays around with funky psychedelia. Mostly, though, he demonstrates a mastery of the basics. “Last Chance Town” shows Easter’s strength at assembling a solid, straightforward rock song.

As Easter worked on Big Plans for Everybody, the next phase of the band started to gel. As part of his courtship with rock writer Angie Carlson, Easter invited her to play a couple cuts, and Eric Marshall was one of the drummers brought in to fill in the rhythm. Both of them stuck around for the next Let’s Active album, which would prove to also be the last.

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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