WIS Presents: The Boston Years XV

It’s coming up to the end of the year and the end of the semester, and I think it’s safe to say that I was probably in a reasonably good mood at this point. I say ‘reasonably’ because I knew I’d started wondering if I’d made the right decision in going to the college I did. I was still struggling with homework — I wouldn’t realize until much, much later that I had undiagnosed focus issues since probably 7th grade — and I was just wishing I could finish up this whole education game already. I’d already made some terrible 8mm film experiments that showed that I had interesting ideas and absolutely zero experience. At the same time, however, I started thinking that maybe those interesting ideas was where my creative strengths lie. I also took some radio classes that gave me some interesting ideas as well.

In the meantime, there was still a magnificent wave of great music coming out and I was certainly spending all my money on it.

The House of Love, A Spy in the House of Love, released 1 November 1990. Yet another album with the band’s name in the title (both named after the Anais Nin novel), this time collecting several b-sides and rarities. ‘Marble’, an obscure b-side, ended up getting significant airplay and an official promo video.

Pass the Avocados, Please (Being a Compilation of Manchester, Hip Hop and Other Atrocities) mixtape, created by C Tatro, November 1990. After foisting several mixtapes on my high school friend who was now in his junior year at UMass, he sent me this one in return. It’s a curious mix of tunes that we both loved, heavy on the Madchester with a dash of deep cuts. By the summer of 1991, I’d be responding with my own ‘Avocado’ mix.

The Trashcan Sinatras, Cake, released 5 November 1990. This Scottish band came and went in the US rather quickly, but while they were here, this particular album was a favorite of both music journalists and fans. Light and jangly and full of humor, this album is a joyful listen and I really need to play it more often!

The Beautiful South, Choke, released 13 November 1990. When the Housemartins broke up in 1988, two of its members went on to form this band and have a strong and vibrant career playing lighthearted, cheeky music with a string of British hits to their name.

Lush, Gala, released 13 November 1990. The first official ‘album’ by Lush is actually a compilation of their EPs and singles to date. “De-Luxe” was rereleased to promote it, and this album became a favorite for both critics and fans alike.

Madonna, The Immaculate Collection, released 13 November 1990. It took Madonna a surprisingly long time to release a greatest hits mix, and as was typical of her career, it wasn’t just a collection of her hit singles. Several of the songs were mixed into QSound, an attempt at giving the songs an aural 3-D quality. Two new songs were also added, including the trip-hop inspired “Justify My Love”.

The Sisters of Mercy, Vision Thing, released 13 November 1990. The last new Sisters of Mercy album to date (Andrew Eldritch still tours at this time), This one feels rather glossy compared to the gloomy First and Last and Always or the damp and echoey Floodland, but it fit the changing moods of industrial and goth. It’s definitely of its time.

The Cure, Mixed Up, released 20 November 1990. While us fans were all waiting for a new Cure album (it wouldn’t come for another two years), the band followed up the mega-selling Disintegration with a…remix album? Sure, why not? It’s a wild ride, partly a collection of already-released 12-inch extended remixes and partly an experiment with handing the tapes to producers to turn into something new. And somehow it works!

Buffalo Tom, Birdbrain, released 20 November 1990. This was such a huge hit in the Boston area that you heard it everywhere: on WFNX, WBCN, college stations…I think even hard-rock station WAAF played them for a while! It’s a great album, full of punky, folky songs written by fantastic songwriters.

Happy Mondays, Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches, released 27 November 1990. While the Mondays’ previous albums could be scattershot and a mix between a coked-out jam session and an aural car crash, this album saw them break through internationally with tight grooves, smart lyrics, sort-of-on-key singing, and an album chock full of excellent songs. The big hit “Step On” — another Kongos cover they’d kept for themselves — put them on the indie rock map and remains their most popular track.

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Coming towards the end of the year, I started thinking about the various things that had changed in my life to date. I’d remembered entering 1990 thinking how wild it was to be entering the last decade of the last century of the last millennium, but I ended the year thinking maybe a little more close to home: writing new songs and getting better on my bass (and borrowing Jon A’s guitar now and again); approaching my creative writing in different ways; learning to rein in my rampant emotions and thoughts into something a bit more coherent and controllable; and maybe even thinking about who I thought I was versus who I actually wanted to be. It was around this time that I’d finally decided that maybe being the overly moody bastard wasn’t going to work for me for that much longer.

WIS Presents: The Boston Years III

After some time avoiding my roommate and getting to know other people in my dorm who were more chill and less hipster — and occasionally heading home on the Fitchburg line train to get my head together and maybe meet up with T for an afternoon — I think I finally figured out where I was going. Or at least found a goal to aim for, at any rate. I may not have gotten the radio station position I wanted (that would come next semester) but I did find a work-study day job at the school that would bring many fond memories and calm moments.

The Emerson College library at the time was at 150 Beacon, a half-block up from our ‘campus’ center and the parking spot for the school shuttle. It was five floors and a basement squeezed into a former mansion — the only stairway that reached all six floors was the servant’s, where the old-school iron-gate elevator was — and it was the perfect place to hide if you wanted to study without being bothered by anyone. And down in the drafty and often chilly basement was the Media Center, which held a few classrooms, the music library, and a few a/v suites shoehorned in as well. That was my job for all four years plus two summers: hanging down there at its front desk, taking classroom reservations, setting up videos and 16mm films for the film teachers, and recording the daily newscasts for the TV teachers. It became my haven and my hiding place and one of my favorite places to be. To this day I still have occasional dreams about it, even though the building’s long been sold off and divided into condos.

Happy Mondays, Hallelujah EP, released 1 November 1989. This, I think, was my official introduction to what would soon become known as Britpop. I remember hearing this on WMDK one evening when I’d gone home for a weekend break, and the DJ was super excited about the ‘new sound’ coming out of England that was steeped in club grooves but still maintained its rock swagger. I instantly fell in love with its psychedelic grooviness and that it was just so out there, totally different from the moody post-punk college rock I’d been mainlining for the last few years yet not flippant and lightweight like most dance pop was at the time. While most alt-rock stations were looking westward towards Seattle, I was once again looking eastward towards London.

The Stone Roses, ‘Fools Gold’ single, released 13 November 1989. Soon after the Mondays came another Manchester band, one I was more familiar with from its debut album released just a few months earlier. (I didn’t initially lump them in with the Britpop sound as they felt more like a post-punk/garage band hybrid to me at the time.) I instantly fell in love with the nine-minute 12″ version of this song for its blissed-out groove jam as well as its janky drum loop. This one often reminds me of my years working at the college library, as WFNX would play it quite often.

Morrissey, ‘Ouija Board, Ouija Board’ single, released 13 November 1989. Out of all his between-album singles of the time, I probably liked this one the best because it was just a simple quirky oddity squeezed in between the political ‘Interesting Drug’ and the overindulgent ‘November Spawned a Monster’. It’s a throwaway, but it’s a fun throwaway.

The Primitives, Pure, released 14 November 1989. This band’s second album lightened up slightly on the sugary flower-pop sound and leaned a bit heavier on the rock that drove their initial hit “Crash”. There’s some really great deep cuts on this album and I don’t listen to it nearly enough as I should.

Ministry, The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste, released 14 November 1989. The album between the college radio favorite The Land of Rape and Honey and the breakthrough Psallm 69 gets overlooked a lot, and I think it’s partly because it’s a ‘more of the same’ record, but it’s got some great tracks on it that got some major radio play on WFNX at the time. I tended to listen to this one on my headphones whenever my roommate was pissing me off too much.

Duran Duran, Decade, released 15 November 1989. Their first official greatest hits record was absolutely perfect collection of their hit singles in chronological order that proves just how amazing this band was throughout the 80s. Even if you had every album and single they’d put out, you wanted this because it was such a great mix.

The Creatures, Boomerang, released 22 November 1989. Siouxsie and Budgie’s side project away from the Banshees always focused more on the musical styles that their main band couldn’t (or wouldn’t) quite pull off, and this one delves deep into a lot of different styles like jazz and even a bit of flamenco. I got to meet the two of them at Newbury Comics in Harvard Square when they did a signing!

Severed Heads, Rotund for Success, released 22 November 1989. This was one of my most favorite finds during my freshman year, picked up used at Nuggets in Kenmore Square. They were one of those bands I was familiar with (thanks to 120 Minutes) but never owned anything as I could never find their stuff. I bought this only on the strength of having heard the single “Greater Reward” at some point, and I completely fell in love with it. This became one of my Walkman go-tos when I was heading home on the train for the weekend. The band isn’t for everyone, but this record certainly is, and I highly recommend it.

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More to come — when the end of the year brings hope for change, however desperate it may be.

Favorite Albums: Think Tree, ‘eight/thirteen’

I never really got along with my freshman year roommate in college for various reasons and we rarely had anything in common except certain tastes in music. We both leaned heavily towards college radio and things alternative. He was quite a bit more into the indie scene than I was — he went to all the shows whereas I was just fine sitting alone on my bed with the headphones on listening to it — but occasionally our paths crossed and we introduced each other to different bands.

Think Tree was one of his favorites that he foisted upon me pretty early on, and I loved them immediately. They were a local Boston band that defied any easy description; they seemed to embrace the same gloomy semi-industrial sound of Nine Inch Nails (but without the apocalyptic nihilism), the off-kilter humor and weirdness of Butthole Surfers (but without all the body-horror jokes) and maybe even a bit of the musical ubernerdiness of Wire (but without getting too arty about it).

“Hire a Bird” was their first official single, dropped at the tail end of 1989, and it was a huge favorite of the college radio stations, as well as both WBCN and WFNX, who had always gone out of their way to champion any local band with pride. It’s definitely a weird song but it’s catchy as hell. Singer Peter Moore delivers his vocals with an affected hillbilly grampaw lisp (something he’d do for most of their first album and live sets), over a bed of Will Ragano’s acoustic guitar, Jeff Beigert’s popping percussion, and the samples and synths of Paul Lanctot and Krishna Venkatesh. The resulting din is so off-kilter yet weaves around itself so perfectly that it works. And surprisingly, the song is a highly poetic sermon about the dangers of environmental disaster, with a semi-hopeful ‘at least we’re trying to fix it all’ chorus. The final sample that ends the song, lifted from the football game scene in Robert Altman’s MASH and taken completely out of context to underscore the song’s theme (‘we are our own enemy’), was the icing on the cake.

It took nearly a full year for the band to finish off and release their first album eight/thirteen, but it was highly anticipated by the local fans and stations. Record delays are always a dangerous thing, because when they are finally released, the scene that the record would easily fit into often no longer exists in that form. There are so many excellent albums out there that never quite reach their full potential due to fans having moved onto the next sound or scene. [This, alas, would happen to Think Tree themselves when they spent nearly two years between this and their second album Like the Idea, which is great on its own yet failed to find interest in a scene now obsessed with grunge and Britpop.]

The songs of eight/thirteen feature the best of their live set of 1988-90, hitting all their heights and highlighting their car-crash style. Sometimes it’s serious and gloomy, other times it’s funny and poppy, sometimes it’s both at once. Songs like “The Lovers” are goth dance, while songs like “Memory Protect” hint at the sample-heavy clang of Einsturzende Neubauten or Test Dept.

I got to see Think Tree a few times live during my college years, and I firmly believe that was their best platform, as they put on a raucous, hilarious, and completely bonkers show every single time. You never knew what was going to happen, or what the hell Moore was going to sing or chant about next (he had a brilliant ability to riff a wild fire-and-brimstone sermon like a demented Elmer Gantry, especially on songs like live favorite “The Word”). They would sing about prehistoric monsters (‘Iguanodon’), strong women of the wild west (1992 single ‘Rattlesnake’) and the strangeness of religions (‘Holy Cow’, another live favorite with its wonderful chorus “you worship the thing that goes moo!”) and whatever else they could think of and make it sound both freakish and fun at the same time. It was like watching a band that would have fit perfectly on The Adventures of Billy and Mandy. Album closer “The Moon” (formerly the b-side to the “Hire a Bird” single) is a perfect example of this.

Moore has recently dropped a few Bandcamp releases from the band over the years, with two live rarities albums in 2020 and a demos-and-b-sides rarities album this year (fittingly, all of them dropped on August 13). eight/thirteen is still available for streaming and downloading elsewhere, though Like the Idea is still a bit harder to get due to it having been released on Caroline Records. Most of their songs are available on YouTube, alongside a few interesting rarities like a Dutch TV appearance. Moore would continue his musical career (and his musical oddness) under the name Count Zero and even popped up as a bandmate for Blue Man Group! This album does remain quite the oddity but it’s still one of my favorites from my college years.

The taste of youth, the taste of you, dear

Okay, I’m finally going to take the plunge.

Next week will be the first of many entries for the Walk in Silence blog series…and of course, I’ll be letting you know all about that over the next week and a half.

But that’s not the plunge I’m talking about.

When I was first planning out the WiS project, I always had the timeframe in the back of my mind: should I focus just on my own personal connection with college radio (1986-1989)?  Should I talk about its history (197? – 199?)?  Or should I just come up with an arbitrary time?  Eventually I chose the third entry, that way I could focus mostly on my own personal history, but also include the time before I connected with the genre, thus 1984 – 1989.

The plunge I’m thinking of now is the college and post-college years.  They weren’t exactly the happiest years of my life, for various reasons, but they were interesting musically.  College rock, at least with American radio, gave way to grunge and Britpop as it became more popular, and changed genre names numerous times before deciding on the all-encompassing ‘alternative rock’.  A schism grew: those who felt alternative rock was selling out and followed the most obscure bands possible, and those who really didn’t mind either way, as long as the prefabricated crap currently in the charts went away.

I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a sequel to Walk in Silence for quite some time.  There’s no name to it yet, nor is there any concrete schedule or plan for it at this time (all my focus is currently on posting WiS and publishing the Bridgetown trilogy), but I do have a few ideas floating around…it’ll focus mostly on the years from late 1989 (when I left for college) to late 1995 (when I left Boston and moved back home).  And it will most likely continue the WiS theme of both personal story and music history.

Some albums from that era still get heavy airplay on the radio: you’ll still hear tracks from Nevermind and Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Loveless and Definitely Maybe and Achtung Baby and Violator and so on.  But there are so many more albums I’ve ignored for one reason or another, forgotten about or couldn’t make myself listen to for personal reasons.  Songs that radio let pass into history, even forgetting to play them on Throwback Thursday.  But as with Walk in Silence and the 80s, it’s been nigh on twenty-plus years for most of these.  It’s well past time to revisit them again.

So starting today I’m going to start listening to some of these albums in my collection, give them a once-over they haven’t had in quite some time, and see where I can go with it.

Should be an interesting ride, to say the least.