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.
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.
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.
THE PLOUGH …AND THEN (CDBaby.com)
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.
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.”
SPINTO BAND- Nice And Nicely Done (Reissue + bonus disc)
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
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.
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
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
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.
THE CHILLS, AS LONG AS IT TAKES!
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
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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