Jersey Beat Music Fanzine

MATTHEW SWEET - Catspaw (Omnivore)

One of the first things that I noticed about Matthew Sweet’s Catspaw was the striking resemblance of the cover to that of Badfinger’s Headfirst. Is it intentional or coincidental? I might be inclined to think the former. Matthew Sweet has always been a student of pop, even recording three albums of covers with Susanna Hoffs. A quick perusal of the liner notes suggests that this is about as close to a “solo” album as Sweet has undertaken. He provides all of the instrumentation himself with the exception of the drums, which are ably handled here by long time collaborator Ric Menck of Velvet Crush. Throughout his career, he’s always had the good fortune to have some stellar lead guitarists in his band (Richard Lloyd, Robert Quine and Ivan Julian among them). Here, for the first time, Sweet steps out and handles the lead work himself. These tracks prove him to be a more than capable lead guitarist, his style owing the most to Lloyd’s incendiary, other worldly playing. Catspaw finds Matthew Sweet in fine form. The hooks are massive. The arrangements are lean and muscular, punctuated by his spitfire solos and great harmonies. Longtime fans will find plenty to like here and first time listeners will find a solid introduction.

Game Theory- Across the Barrier of Sound (Omnivore Records)

When Omnivore Records reissued Game Theory’s final album Two Steps From the Middle Ages in 2017, most of us figured that would be the last we heard on the subject. Happily, that’s not the case, and the new collection Beyond The Barrier of Sound is reason to rejoice. Game Theory did not break up immediately following Two Steps, but - as they had a number of times previously - reformed around a new line up.

Singer/ songwriter/guitarist Scott Miller always managed to surround himself with a talented crew of players and the new line up was no exception. Drummer Gil Ray switched to keyboards and guitar, being replaced behind the kit by Josef Becker (Alternate Learning, Thin White Rope.True West} and Michael Quercio of The Three O’Clock took over the bass playing duties. The line up played up and down the west coast and recorded some demos but never released an album. Across the Barrier of Sound is comprised of demos and live cuts from this lineup as well as Scott Miller on his own. There’s a healthy dose of covers ranging from the Beatles to Big Star to Brain Eno and a bevy of originals any songwriter would be proud to claim as their own. A number of songs that would later find their way into The Loud Family (Miller’s next band) catalog can be heard here, as well as some previously unheard gems. Nobody wrote melodies like Scott Miller, so these tracks are a joy to behold.

It’s easy to get down wondering why music this great never found its audience, but we can also marvel at the confluence of events that made it all possible - a master songwriter at the height of his powers, a stellar supporting cast and sympathetic labels. Whatever else we can say about the Game Theory catalog, we can be reasonably sure that the albums came out just as Scott Miller intended. If they didn’t connect with a large audience the first time around, we can thank the good folks at Omnivore for bringing them out again, a treasure trove waiting to be discovered.

PETER HOLSAPPLE – Game Day (Omnivore)

When I first became aware of Peter Holsapple’s work back in the early days of the dB’s, I couldn’t believe that they weren’t more well known. The songs sounded like hits to my ears, the albums masterpieces of thoughtful, memorable pop music. In the subsequent decades, Holsapple continued to do compelling work... with the dB’s, the Continental Drifters, and as a solo artist, as well as working as a sideman with a number of groups (REM, Hootie & The Blowfish, and the Chills among them).

So, what’s a world class songwriter to do when commercial success doesn’t seem to match the quality of work being produced? Keep working, of course! Holsapple seems to address that on the opening track, when he sings, “If you put me in the game I’ll play, it you don’t I won’t just fade away”. On Game Day, his first solo album in 20 years, Peter Holsapple’s gift for melody is as sharp as ever but what I enjoy most is the lyrical perspective. These songs are written from the point of view of someone who’s been around the block a few times and has seen plenty.There’s a long overdue note to a former college girlfriend, ”Commonplace;” the cleaning out of a parent’s house and all that that entails, ”Inventory” (which contains the memorable lines,”You used to joke your brother wants that dresser when we pass away. Now I’m the only one left so it comes to me anyway.”) The powerful ”Don’t Mention the War” addresses the damage done to soldiers returning home and their families. Game Day really is a solo album with Peter Holsapple playing and singing nearly everything on it. Songs range from raucous ("Tuff Day") to ebullient ("Yelling at Clouds") to sublime ("Continental Drifters.") Certainly, “Don’t Leave” ranks with the best ballads he’s ever written. For long time fans, listening to this album will feel like getting a letter from an old friend you haven’t heard from in ages. For the uninitiated, it’s a worthy introduction to one of our finest songwriters. Either way, Game Day is something to celebrate.



If there are two things that characterize Speed the Plough’s decades long run, it’s a constantly evolving line up and a consistently compelling output. Since their wonderful 2016 album, “NOW”, the band lost their rhythm section to higher education. Core members Toni Baumgartner (vocals, woodwinds and percussion), John Baumgartner (keyboards and vocals), Ed Seifert (guitar) and Michael Baumgartner (guitar) returned to the studio with the aide of Dan Francia (bass) and Ken Meyer (drums). The resulting album, “…AND THEN” is a reflective, beautiful collection of folk rock tunes. There’s quite a bit of looking back going on here. The opening track-“Crossing the Tisza” is an old Hungarian folk song. Already a multi generational affair, a third generation joins the fold when Anna Baumgartner delivers her spoken word here. It’s a great opener and sets the tone for the rest of the album. There’s a reimagining of the title track from Speed the Plough’s 1995 album “MARINA’ and a lovely piano/ flute arrangement of Brian Eno’s “The River”. The album closes with two stellar songs from The Trypes- the band that Speed the Plough grew out of. No matter what shape the band takes or what musical avenues they decide to explore, Speed the Plough always deliver the goods.

BASH AND POP - Friday Night Is Killing Me (Omnivore)

I had always thought of Tommy Stinson as “the bassist” in the Replacements. With the initial release of this album in 1993 came the revelation that he was also capable of being a compelling songwriter and frontman. I wondered why we hadn’t heard his songs earlier and considered what might have happened if the Replacements hadn’t broken up and Paul Westerberg shared songwriting duties with Stinson. What kind of albums might they have made? Stinson’s style clearly owed much to his former band while carving out his own distinct niche. With Tommy pulling double duty on bass and rhythm guitar, Steve Foley and Steve Brantseg were enlisted on drums and lead guitar to fill out the line up. They were good choices on both fronts with Foley propelling the harder material and pulling back to give the more laid back songs their space and Brantseg proving an ideal guitar foil to Stinson. Don Smith delivered a sound at once hard edged and accessible.

There’s no shortage of barn burning rockers - “Never Aim to Please,” ”Hang Ups,” and “Fast and Hard.” “Little Pieces” is a gorgeous pop song that in a more just alternate reality would have yielded a hit single. “First Steps” is a sparse beautiful ballad that recalls the Replacements’ “16 Blue” (a song Westerberg wrote about Stinson). The title track is a song that Paul Westerberg would have been proud to call his own.

As always, Omnivore delivers a beautiful package here with voluminous notes and an 18 song bonus disc. As much as I enjoyed hearing this album again, I’d have to say that the bonus disc steals the show. It consists mostly of demos and alternate takes that are a bit more raucous and rough around the edges than the finished album. It’s a disc that always puts a smile on my face.

Some people just ARE rock and roll- it’s as if it’s in every fiber of their existence. Tommy Stinson is one of those people. He referred to these songs as being just “me and my guitar and my guts.” That’s plenty.

THE SPINTO BAND- Nice And Nicely Done (Reissue + bonus disc) (Bar/None)

You can count me among those who missed out on this impressive debut album when it was first released in 2005. The band name was taken from frontman Nick Krill’s grandfather, Roy Spinto. When going through his grandfather’s things, Krill came across some song lyrics written on the back of Cracker Jacks boxes. I don’t recall ever hearing a band origin story quite like that and it’s apparent from the opening notes of NICE AND NICELY DONE that The Spinto Band aren’t quite like any other band out there. I have a hard time singling out favorites from these thoughtfully arranged, energetically played songs. Whether it’s with a memorable melody, a turn of phrase, an unexpected change or hooks upon hook upon hooks, each of these tracks reveal their own distinct rewards. As if that weren’t enough to recommend this release, there is also a 13-song bonus disc that suggests that they could have easily made NICE AND NICELY DONE a double album without there being a discernible drop off in quality. Thanks to Bar None Records for making this wonderful album available for a much deserved second look.

GAME THEORY - Two Steps From The Middle Ages (Omnivore)

There’s a truckload of conflicting emotions that accompany the arrival of the reissue of Game Theory’s Two Steps From The Middle Ages. While it’s a joy to see this overlooked gem of an album get the loving Omnivore Records reissue treatment, it also hits you that this will be the final installment of the series and serves to remind us that we’ll never get new music again from Scott Miller, who passed away in 2013. Drummer Gil Ray, who was an integral contributor to the reissue series, passed away before this installment was finished. The reissue is dedicated to him.

I’ve always felt that this album was underappreciated, even by folks who enjoyed their previous work. In contrast to it’s sprawling, epic predecessor Lolita Nation, Two Steps From The Middle Ages is from top to bottom, a marvel of concision. Miller, who first hit his stride as a songwriter on Real Nighttime showed no sign of slowing here, three albums later. The line up who recorded Lolita Nation returned intact and Mitch Easter turns in one of the finest production jobs of his career. Together they delivered an album at once streamlined, muscular and beautiful that sounds as great today as it did at it’s initial release. The package contains generous amounts of liner notes, interviews and photos as well as 11 bonus tracks.- a collection of live cuts, demos and covers( most notably Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” and Let’s Active’s ”Bad Machines”).
In “Amelia, Have You Lost” Miller sings,”What if the whole world saw I care, it’s never kind to souls laid bare.” – Omnivore’s reissue series has made his music available for another generation of listeners. It’s a shame that he isn’t here to see how warmly it’s being received.

PS-It would appear that we can look forward to at least two more releases- 1) a document of the final Game Theory lineup and 2)- SUPERCALIFRAGILE- the Game Theory album Scott Miller was working on at the time of his death. The album was completed under the supervision of his widow with contributions from a variety of former band mates and collaborators.

GAME THEORY - Lolita Nation (Omnivore)

The latest in Omnivore Records ongoing Game Theory reissue series is the 1987 double album LOLITA NATION.

I was initially taken aback by this album in 1987 as it seemed like such an abrupt departure from their previous work. The overall sound was much harder edged and some sound collages and really short songs were interspersed with more conventional ones. I had not heard it in ages as my original vinyl version was ruined in a badly flooded basement. Hearing it all again after so many years was a revelation. Here was a band firing on all cylinders. Anyone who was fortunate enough to have heard this lineup live could vouch for the fact that they were capable of rocking as hard as anyone while being skilled enough to deliver on the more understated songs.

I never knew Scott Miller but I always got the feeling that he was probably the brightest person in just about any room he walked in to. Game Theory albums reward repeated listenings and I’m sure that I haven’t uncovered anything close to what he put in to them. That’s never been more true than on LOLITA NATION- an album that references everything from James Joyce to Star Trek. Even a fragment of one of the sound collages titled, ”Vacuum Genesis” sparks wonder. In it, Miller sings the Genesis song “Illegal Alien” over a vacuum cleaner. Is the title a big bang reference? Does his singing that song over a vacuum mean that he thinks it sucks? Both? My love of really short songs can be traced to this album. The really short entries here don’t feel fragmented or incomplete- just remarkably concise. To dwell on the album’s stranger leanings would be to overlook the fact that it contains many of Miller’s best songs- the exquisite,”We Love You Carol and Allison”, the rocking, unpredictable,”The Waist and the Knees”, the insanely catchy, ”Chardonnay” and perhaps my all time favorite Game Theory song-“Nothing New”. It’s striking how well this album is constructed. In this day and age of short attention spans and ipod shuffles, here is a double album deserving of your undivided attention. I invite you to listen to it start to finish and tell me that you didn’t find yourself getting choked up by the end of, ”Together Now, Very Minor”.

As with the other albums in this series, the entire package is first rate. The album sounds amazing. I wonder if producers have favorite albums. It’d be interesting to see where Mitch Easter would place this – he’s never done better. The liner notes contain photos and recollections of many of the people involved. The bonus disc opens with the original, nearly 8 minute long version of “Chardonnay” and closes with the previously unreleased beauty,”Choose Between Two Sons”. In between there’s a wealth of demos, alternate takes and live clips, including covers of everyone from The Hollies to The Sex Pistols.

It’s true that in 1987 they didn’t deliver what I was expecting. They delivered something better. LOLITA NATION is a brilliantly written, expertly executed masterpiece.

The Chills- Silver Bullets (Fire Records)

by Joe Merklee

Decades ago I read a Martin Phillipps interview in which he stated that his motto was, “The Chills- as long as it takes”. He couldn’t possibly have foreseen how the ensuing years would unfold- A string of albums consistent in both their brilliance and their inability to find a large audience, ongoing difficulties keeping a stable lineup together, depression, substance abuse, serious health issues. The fact that The Chills even exist in 2015 is remarkable. That they’ve produced an album as compelling as SILVER BULLETS is cause for celebration.

The album opens with the ominous, atmospheric,” Father Time” built around samples of Phillipps’ father’s voice. Echoed guitars introduce “Warm Waveform”, a moving paean to physical love. The band first shifts into high gear on the title track and there can be no mistaking the fact that this really is a band as opposed to a group of sessions musicians. Phillipps, Erica Scally,James Dickson,Oli Wilson and Todd Knudsen are a talented group of multi instrumentalists who have been playing together for years. In their hands, these songs soar.

Phillipps’ melodic gifts are intact and a number of the lyrics are more urgent and topical than you might expect to find on a Chills record. The centerpiece of the album is the 8 minute,”Pyramid/ Until the Poor Can Reach the Moon”. The song deals with wealth inequality and people struggling to get by in a system that seems to be increasingly stacked against them. It starts off bleakly with lines like,” Don’t ask us to dream just to be part of your scheme. Why should we try when you would just watch us die”. It gets darker and heavier from there- “We know how you live, we smell what you eat”. In the midst of all the darkness, something startling happens- the song abruptly shifts gears and becomes a rapturous pop tune. The effect is striking, like a weight has been lifted. The sense of relief and hope is palpable. It’s not a naive optimism that doesn’t know any better but an optimism that’s hard won by persevering through misfortune. The highs are all the sweeter because of the lows that have been endured.

I can recall being an impressionable 20-something year old in the audience of a Chills show at Maxwell’s, feeling like I wanted to be Martin Phillipps when I grew up. (The lyrics to “Song for Randy Newman,etc” are inscribed on the pick guard of my telecaster). I can say now,as a slightly more worldly 50-something year old that we should all be so lucky to creatively age as well as The Chills have. SILVER BULLETS is a triumph that stands comfortably alongside their finest work. Here’s hoping that we’re fortunate enough to hear more from them.





GAME THEORY- The Big Shot Chronicles Reissue (Omnivore Recordings)

I was so taken with Game Theory’s REAL NIGHTTIME that I had a hard time imagining how they’d possibly follow it up. I needn’t have worried. From the opening blast of “Here it is Tomorrow” it’s as if Scott Miller is declaring, “Ha! I’m just getting started!” Rather than a pinnacle, REAL NIGHTTIME was an arrival. THE BIG SHOT CHRONICLES proved that Scott Miller and company were a force to reckoned with. The “company” this time around were all new recruits- drummer Gil Ray, keyboardist Shelly LaFreniere and bassist Suzi Ziegler. The new group came together fairly quickly and it was apparent before long that they were on to something special .The new lineup hit the road to promote REAL NIGHTTIME and took a break mid tour to record the new album at Mitch Easter’s Drive In Studio.

“Here it is Tomorrow” is an urgent, aggressive opener, speeding by at a breakneck pace and clocking in at barely 2 minutes. The band abruptly shifts gears for the gorgeous,” Where You Going Northern”. If there’s someone out there who’s written more beautiful melodies than Scott Miller, I haven’t heard them. There’s an exuberance to the playing throughout the album, even on the darker numbers.

The mid tempo rocker,” I’ve Tried Subtlety”, the heavenly,” Regenisrean”, the hook laden ,”Erica’s Word”, the hard rocking,” Never Mind”… I could go down the entire track list. Every one is a stunner.

Game Theory had covered Big Star on REAL NIGHTTIME and to close this album brought out there own” Like a Girl Jesus” which would have been perfectly at home on BIG STAR’S 3RD. The song starts with just guitar and vocal with other instruments dropping in and out of the mix (like 3rd) before the whole band kicks in at the end over the repeated line , ”She’s doing fine”. It’s a magnificent way to bring the proceedings to a close.

The reissue offers 13 bonus tracks- an appealing blend of demos, rough mixes, covers and live cuts that give a glimpse into the band’s creative process and showcase their considerable skills. In their hands, even the theme song to the old TV show” Here Come The Brides” turns into something breathtakingly beautiful.

THE BIG SHOT CHRONICLES is a perfect album and as much of a joy to listen to now as it was 30 years ago.


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