Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Poll Results - "Best 'Worst Album'"

Well, not surprised at the overall top choice. True Stories wasn't the greatest film in the world, and it got some pretty bad reviews in some quarters. But I (and many others) believe that the muted response to Talking Heads' album True Stories was due to the film's negative reception, with most people assuming that the disc was a movie soundtrack album (which it wasn't - it's a Talking Heads studio album featuring recordings of songs from the film rather than songs sung by the film's cast). Even with the huge hit "Wild Wild Life" (#4 US) on it, True Stories only made it to #28 on the US album charts, significantly lower than their previous (and in my opinion, musically weaker) album Little Creatures. There are plenty of other great songs on this disc, including one, the name of which was eventually appropriated by one of the greatest bands of the past decade - "Radio Head".

But enough of that - here are the Best Worst Albums, as selected by you all:

True Stories (Talking Heads) - 6 votes
Presence (Led Zeppelin) - 4 votes
Dirty Work (The Rolling Stones) - 2 votes
Good Stuff (The B-52's) - 1 vote
Cut The Crap (The Clash) - 1 vote
Hard (Gang Of Four) - 1 vote
One Hot Minute (The Red Hot Chili Peppers) - 1 vote
Halfway To Sanity (The Ramones) - 1 vote

And the rest, which apparently have no redeeming qualities whatsoever (0 votes):

Mad Not Mad (Madness), Around The Sun (R.E.M.), The Woman In Red (Stevie Wonder), Goodbye Cruel World (Elvis Costello), Give My Regards To Broad Street (Paul McCartney), Never Let Me Down (David Bowie), Dylan & The Dead (Bob Dylan), Total Devo (Devo), Packed! (The Pretenders)

I'm afraid to say that I own all of the albums on this List of Shame. But I must say that there are particular ones that have incurred the majority of my wrath over the years. The ones on this list that pissed me off the most, in no particular order:

- Good Stuff - The B-52's: As I've mentioned before, I was a Bee-Fives fan from waaaaaaay back. So no one was as pleased as I was when the band finally broke through in 1989 with their hit album Cosmic Thing. Sure, I was a little put out when all of those neophyte B-52's fans came out of the woodwork in its wake, shouting "Tin roof - rusted!" at the top of their lungs at every one of the band's now-packed concerts, but who generally were unfamiliar with the group's earlier songs. But that was OK - I guess when a 'cult' band goes big-time, the original fans will always sort of feel that way. So no worries there. But I was shocked to see how quickly this newfound critical and commercial adulation tore the band apart. Cosmic Thing was the first LP that the band made any serious coin on; Cindy Wilson took the money and ran, quitting the band in late 1990. With both Wilsons gone (Ricky died in 1985), it should have been time for the band to call it a day. Instead, the remaining trio (Kate Pierson, Keith Strickland and Fred Schneider) decided to soldier on, releasing Good Stuff in 1992. Good Stuff is a classic 'cash in' album, with the remaining members of the group milking their now-humongous fan base for one last big paycheck before pulling the plug. I remember buying this disc that June just before going on a road trip, so I could listen to it in the car on the way down. I thought the first song, "Tell It Like It T-I-Is", was a weak opener, but I expected the album to pick up as it progressed. No such luck. Every song on that album was weak, and WAY too long (average of 5:30 per song, with "Dreamland" clocking in at over SEVEN minutes). And frankly, the band sounded sort of worn out and jaded. It seemed that the band was going out with a whimper, instead of a bang . . .

- Cut The Crap - The Clash: I thought Combat Rock was brilliant (as I wrote in an earlier posting), so I was champing at the bit for The Clash's next release. However, I wasn't fully plugged into the whole music scene at that time, specifically the alternative music press. If I was, I would have heard more about the tensions within The Clash, specifically between Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, which eventually led to the latter's departure from the group in late 1983. You would think this would be a problem, since Jones essentially wrote all of the band's music up to that time. Undeterred, Strummer teamed up with controversial band manager Bernie Rhodes to co-write a bunch of new material, recruited a bunch of no-name musicians, and with them released these cowritten songs on Cut The Crap in November 1985. I bought this album on cassette the weekend before I headed up to the U.S. Military Academy, as part of a 7-day exchange program between the academies, ostensibly so Navy could see how Army lived, and vice-versa [quick aside: a VERY grim week there - cold and grey, in the middle of fucking nowhere. And EVERY cadet I spoke to there was hating life, rueing the day they ever HEARD of West Point . . . ]. During the bus ride from Annapolis to New York, I listened to this entire album a couple of times, and couldn't believe how bad it was. It was all just tired sounding sloganeering, a lame attempt to get back to The Clash's pure punk roots. Also remember that Mick Jones' new band, Big Audio Dynamite, put out their first album, the outstanding This Is Big Audio Dynamite, the month before this travesty came out - if Clash fans needed any further evidence as to the relative talents of Jones and Strummer, all they had to do was compare the two releases. Apparently I'm not alone in this assessment of the 'final Clash album' - the original band themselves (including Joe Strummer) have disowned this album, and its songs have never appeared on any official Clash compilation or retrospective. Cut The Crap is the Rocky V of Clash albums.

- Total Devo - Devo: I was as big a Devo fan as anyone, back in the day. But I can tell you quite frankly that Devo was D-O-N-E by 1982. Their first trio of albums (Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo!, Duty Now For The Future, and Freedom Of Choice) are pretty much unassailable, and even New Traditionalists, while somewhat weaker than the first three, is still a quality album. Their fifth album, 1982's Oh No! It's Devo, with its near-total reliance on synthesizers, was the first Devo album to completely splash the bowl. The follow-up, 1984's Shout, was another synthy stinker that ended my Devo fandom. But still the band soldiered on, essentially becoming embarrassing parodies of themselves. Some band members were smart enough to realize that the ship was dead in the water and sinking rapidly - longtime drummer and stalwart Alan Myers left the band around this time. He was replaced by former Gleaming Spires/Sparks drummer David Kendrick, who manned the kit for the next release, 1988's Total Devo. This album is crap, crap, crap, with Devo still concentrating on an electronic sound that had run its course five years earlier. There were no memorable songs or moments on this disc, which barely entered the Billboard Top 200 before quickly fading away. Even with the public making a loud and clear rejection of the band, Devo STILL had the gumption/wherewithal to release one more album, 1990's Smooth Noodle Maps, before the band finally, mercifully collapsed.

And so much for that. Thanks again to all who voted. I'll try to think of another poll question soon.

. . . Well, hell - since I brought this album up, I might as well have the damn thing available here; here's True Stories, released in 1986 on Sire Records. Bon appetit!

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Sunday, June 12, 2011

Trona - Trona

Trona was one of the three bands I saw at that epic (for me) show at TT The Bear's Place in Cambridge, MA during the summer of 1996 (the other two being The Laurels and The Kelley Deal 6000, both of which have had their albums previously posted on this blog - so now you have music by all three bands from that evening). Trona was the opener, a local band fron Boston. A four-piece, with two guys and two girls, they belted out their songs with energy and abandon, with a sound that immediately caught my attention.

For all I knew at the time, Trona was made up of neophytes to Boston's rock landscape. But as I discovered, most of the band members had been kicking around the Hub scene for years. Christian Dyas, the guitarist and one of the lead singers, had been a member of the popular local band Orangutang (they released only one long-player, 1995's Dead Sailor Acid Blues).  Pete Sutton, the bassist, was formerly a member of the indie group The Barnies. Drummer Nick White had also made the rounds with a number of small Boston-area bands. The only music newcomer to the band was Mary Ellen Leahy, who shared guitar and vocal duties with Dyas; she was a former publicist for Taang! Records when it operated out of Boston.

Trona's sound was . . . well, I won't say "generic Boston indie rock" (first, because that's sort of an oxymoron; and second, because such a description sounds like a disparagement of a style of music that I enjoy immensely) . . . but there was definitely more than a small tinge of early Pixies/Throwing Muses/Mass. Ave.-type inflection in their music. Atop this 'indie' foundation, the band had erected a strong Western (in some cases, almost country-Western) sound into many of their songs, usually by juxtaposing Dyas' and Leahy's twangy voices. And this construct seemed to work - In describing this band to a friend later, the best way I could think of to describe them was that "they were what The Pixies would sound like if they were fronted by John Doe and Exene Cervenka [the lead singers of X]". And that was A-OK by me - I thought every song they did that evening was superb. I went to the show that night to see Kelley Deal's band, but of the two openers, Trona was the one that made to biggest impression on me at the time (not to say that The Laurels weren't bad either).

I didn't pick up their self-titled album (Trona, released by Cosmic Records) at the show that night; I waited a day or two, and found it at the Newbury Comics in the basement of the student union at M.I.T., close to where I was living that summer. I was really looking forward to getting into their CD, and once again hearing those great songs they played at T.T.'s earlier that week. But when I played it, I remember feeling VERY disappointed. The songs on the disc didn't seem to approach the quality of the sounds I heard and recalled from their live gig. At the time, it all just seemed sort of . . . blah. Outside of an unexpected and pretty good cover of Stereolab's "Wow And Flutter", there was nothing on the album that really held my attention. I regretfully chalked that purchase up as one of my occasional mistakes, and stuck Trona on the shelf, where it sat unplayed for several years.

As for the band: Trona's second album, Red River (released in 1998 on Cherrydisc/Roadrunner), shifted them more firmly into the countrified roots rock X vein. By then, even the critics were openly comparing them to X and the X countrified side project, The Knitters. Not a good thing, when you're trying to blaze your own musical trail. And it did nothing for band cohesiveness - Trona broke up in August 1998, when Leahy quit the band over the usual reason, "musical differences". Chris Dyas and Pete Sutton moved on to join the Ray Corvair Trio, a 60's lounge/surf revival band, for a time. Dyas now fronts a band called The Lingering Doubts out of New York, recording on L.E.S. Records. Oddly enough, a couple of members of Trona later found themselves involved with, of all things, Blue Man Group. Drummer White played in the Las Vegas version of Blue Man Group for a while during the mid-2000s; Dyas became musical director for the New York BMG immediately after Trona broke up, performing live with them and cowriting thair Grammy-nominated album Audio in 1999.

It's only been within the past year or so that I've revisited Trona's first album. And I have to say that, upon hearing it with ears fifteen years older, I can't understand why I dismissed this disc the first time I heard it. I made a mistake. The entire album - not just "Wow And Flutter", but all of it - is actually pretty doggone good. Sure, Trona probably isn't ever going to be considered for the Pantheon of Great Boston Indie Bands - they really weren't at the level of the aforementioned bands. But Trona had enough chops and execution to at least allow them to look groups like The Pixies square in the eye. Although their time on the scene was short, they have nothing to hang their heads about.

Don't take my word for it - have a listen yourself, and (as always) let me know what you think:

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