Boxed In; Part Four
The Boxed In series makes it to another year with its fourth fantastic edition. This installment looks at two box sets that are currently taking up shelf real estate at your local wax shack. If you were always wondering what was shaking the college radio dial in the mid eighties then read on my inquisitive little troglodytes and for the love of God (Alex Chilton) turn that treble up.
Various Artists - Strum and Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987
(Captured Tracks Records)
We are living smack dab in the middle of the streaming generation when it comes to how most of us will choose to digest music, and even old analogues such as myself have to applaud certain aspects of it. The accessibility and ease of use is obvious but these new fangled algorithms have also dragged me by the collar down dark digital alley ways with rich rewards awaiting. If you should happen to punch in power pop greats like the Shoes for example don’t be surprised if the Dwight Twilley Band, 20/20 or Pezband are shoulder to shoulder and patiently waiting on base with their skinny ties and Rickenbacker guitars at ready. Every possible subgenre that was previously only known to acne ridden record store clerks is now at our fingertips. Even with vinyl geek bloggers and YouTube collector personalities turning us all on to uh, ”funeral doom” or “depressive black metal”, some genres still manage to escape the algorithms. It’s these slippery eels of genres that even music nerds like myself can’t seem to saddle up.
The fine people at the always awesome label Captured Tracks have searched far and wide to find the most rare and obscure bands to ever live left of the dial and have invented a term for this loose grouping of guitar strummers - “American Jangle”. Released this week is the compilation Strum & Thrum; The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987 and if you are into pre-Nirvana independent music that proliferated for those four brief years in the eighties than you need to have this.
Although the genre “American Jangle” is newly coined it certainly fits these tunes like a pair of cheap and frayed Chuck Taylors. This style of indie rock really proliferated when hardcore had begun to lose its yelp while heaving its last sigh by ’87 to make way for the explosive Minneapolis sound that packed a fistful of nickels in its pop mitt. Compiler and curator Mike Sniper seems to take over where Lenny Kaye left off on the classic seventies garage encrusted Nuggets or Julien Cope’s uber rad psych/kraut rock Head Heritage site. Sniper digs deep and really gives a beer soaked stage to the truly overlooked and underrated that politely announced their presence with jangly guitars and thrift store threads.
Well aware of the emotional heft of Husker Du and their SST brethren as well as bands like Louisville’s Squirrel Bait the vitriol was tempered with this new breed of bespectacled college bookworms. These Janglers liberally stole from the psych/pop sounds of the sixties with bands like The Seeds and the Byrds as well as the paisley underground of the early eighties with bands like The Dream Syndicate. While the influences of Velvet Underground, The Monkees, The Smiths, The Feelies, Jonathan Richman, etc., are all here in spades it’s the overwhelming influence of Georgia’s R.E.M. who were burning up the college charts that really take the cake here.
Not only were these young upstarts tuned into the college stations but more often than not were actually the managers or DJ’s there. The common theme here though is the distorted guitars and guttural caterwauling of punk rock was nowhere to be found while lyrics were aimed inward as opposed to blasting away at Reaganomics. These were the kids from the drama club that were routinely shoved into high school lockers and their freaks and geeks lyrics perfectly reflect this outsider status.
Of course much kudos should be given to Sniper for exposing this under exposed genre but the point would be moot if this jangle didn’t dazzle you in the heartstrings. With 28 killer tracks by 28 bands you have never heard of strewn over the two record set here this is nothing short of a mesmerizing listen. Although your mileage may vary upon listening my stand out track is The Reverbs’ sixties Love style chugger “Trusted Woods”. This is just explosive pop that could easily sit next to any of the Who stunners before they lost the plot (which is Tommy btw). Now what would American Jangle be without the treble blast of a twelve string guitar and Huntsville, Alabama’s Sex Clark Five answers the call with the sublime “She Collides With Me”. For a great song that may encapsulate everything American Jangle all in one frenetically charged blast look no further then the killer slab from Beantown’s Salem 66 and their treble kicker “Seven Steps Down”.
Sure there is nary a duff number in the bunch but like any box set, is it really worth your sawbucks? You betcha Poindexter! This is an absolutely gorgeous package that will shine out in your record collection. Two LPs are housed in a thick cover with incredibly researched extensive notes featured on the two inner sleeves. Just like the Pebbles comps of yesteryear reading about bands that had previously slipped through your grip is guaranteed to contribute to your deep listening experience. Although the jangle and sparkle pressed into the four sides here is the real reward the accompanying book entitled Talk About the Passion, (dig the REM snag there), is easily worth the price alone. This tome is absolutely gorgeous and will take up most room in the box as it stuffed to the gills with full colour photos, gig flyers, original demo pics and is laid out in such a fashion that it can easily exist on its own as a beautiful coffee table book. Helping make the listening experience that much more immersive is the oral history that every band on the comp manage to contribute to in its lavish 80 pages. Its this incredible book that will have you forgoing the download route altogether and will provide multiple evenings of delight.
Again, Captured Tracks really knock it out of the park here while really putting the pressure of the second edition in the archival series, which hopefully will see the light in 2021. If they show even half the passion on the upcoming editions as they did with Strum and Thrum I will be all in with bells on.
Don’t walk to the record store for this - Run!!!
The Replacements - Pleased To Meet Me
“Cult legends”. The two words look like an oxymoron when they’re stacked up together but in the case of The Replacements the two words go together like stoners and cookie dough.
Hot on the heels of last year’s Replacements box set Dead Man’s Pop, Rhino proves to know a good thing when they got it and give the deluxe box set edition to one of the “Placemats” most shining examples of razor sharp songwriting with down and dirty rock and roll, 1986’s Pleased To Meet Me.
Last year’s Dead Man Pop was nothing short of a revelation as it miraculously breathed new life into the Replacements second worst record. That dubious title of “worst” is reserved to the Replacements last gasp, the adult contemporary All Shook Down. On Dead Man’s Pop though the host record Don’t Tell a Soul is given new life by stripping it of its dated eighties production by exposing a recently discovered warts and all production of a rough mix made by Matt Wallace. Not to mention that things are stretched out with demos which includes the band exchanging barbs in an impromptu jam session with a well soused Tom Waits (yep, it’s as good as it sounds), demos and a full devastatingly good concert from ’89.
Due to the overwhelming reaction to Dead Man’s Pop it seemed that another deluxe edition from the Mats was imminent. This second Replacements deluxe box set doesn’t throw any curve balls this time around and picks a decidedly fan favourite, 1987’s Pleased To Meet Me.
Just a game changer of a record that shows a band having another whack at the major label piñata after delivering a great record in 1986’s Tim that despite critical and fan acclaim could not commercially perform, a tradition that would plague the band throughout their existence. With their label Sire records demanding a hit this time around, the band were clearly under pressure. This also marked a period in the band when they managed to turn on themselves by firing founding guitarist Bob Stinson for substance abuse (Stinson would soon pass away in a few short years due to his hard living), and long time manager and silent sufferer Peter Jesperson. With these solid foundations no longer there to help shoulder the weight, the band was forced to look within to find their strengths. The newly hatched trio would set up shop at Memphis’ Ardent Studios with Big Star producer Jim Dickinson and actually beat the odds with their last crowing moment, while never losing sight of what made them so great in the first place. To a certain extent Dickinson’s hands off approach to production is what makes this such a fun ride. Dickinson is no stranger to perilous pop damage as witnessed on his work on Big Star’s shambolic yet genius third record and knowing when to coddle the Replacements and when to crack the whip is what gets stuck in the grooves here . The distilled magic with classic songs like “Alex Chilton” or “The Ledge” that boldly chronicle Westerberg’s suicide attempt and the absolute stunner “Can’t Hardly Wait” makes this more than just a casual listen.
But you probably already knew that, in fact if you have made it this far you probably already own it. With the recent remastered version that included a smattering of bonus tracks Warner knows that the dyed in the wool life long fan will easily shell out for this panoramic edition that is packed with 3 CD’s and one LP edition but I would even go so far as say, this also provides a perfect first hit for the non converted.
The main reason most will gladly shell out again on this record is it includes the Blackberry Way demos and represents the last time the original founding four members would sink some beers while crumbling into a beautiful mess like only they could. If you are wondering if there is any pure gold laying on the cutting room floor like Dead Man’s Pop glorious “Portland” I can’t say that there is anything like that on this collection. As far as the brilliance in songwriting they kind of got the track listing right on the original release. Having said that though there are a ton of outtakes and rare singles tracks that will definitely help spice up things here. The amazing cover of Hank Mizell’s rockabilly nugget “Jungle Rock” has just the right amount of Lux and Ivy in it while the slathered and sloppy kiss of “Birthday Girl” proves Westerberg’s pen, even on an outtake can mop the floor with most lyricists. Although the original mix of the album is forever in my DNA I was shocked to find I actually prefer most of the rough mixes. With the rough mixes stripped of their sheen the low-end force and rumble comes more to the fore with bassist Tommy Stinson proving himself equal parts Paul Simonon and James Jamerson while Dickinson’s touch only gets more intimate.
Not to say it is all gravy here, much like a Replacements show there is a couple of false starts. First off, do we really need an LP edition of the rough mixes as the third cd remedies this and the cost of adding vinyl is surely tacking on $20 to the retail cost. Also, not all songs on here should be really seeing the light of day. Historically interesting? Sure! But you would have to be completely brain dead to not skip limp, drunken songs like “Time Is Killing Us” that just plods and drones along. As any Replacements fan knows it’s really what is dripping at the end of main Placemat Paul Westerberg’s pen that has us all waking the neighbours about the genius of this band. So why include duds from drummer Chris Mars and bassist Tommy Stinson’s odes to Johnny Thunders? Also the single mix of Can’t Hardly Wait by major label hump Jimmy Iovine is utter heartbreak all the way with all the blood and guts completely neutered to one of the greatest songs that ever leapt from the loins of the eighties (yep, it’s true!). You can give these a go if you insist but for maximum pleasure give these ones a skip after your initial listen.
If you have never heard this stunner of a record or even if you have memorized every vinyl pop and scratch it’s the hooks and beautiful couplings that Westerberg manages to string together here that will get you every time. For my money he strikes gold in “Valentine” when his ravaged voice croons out “If you were a pill, I’d take a handful at will and knock you back with something sweet and strong”, or the absolutely perfect, “Jesus rides beside me and he never buys any smokes”, on Westerberg’s watermark, “Can’t Hardly Wait”. If this song doesn’t grab you by the marrow and reduce you to a puddle you may be suffering from a callous heart.
The included book also provides depth and is written by Replacements biographer Bob Mehr. If you loved Mehr’s amazing bio on the Replacements “Trouble Boys”, you know exactly what to expect here. Also included are never seen photos that should prove to thrill any ardent fan of the band.
I am praying that Rhino continues with these Replacements box sets because so far they are making me love the Replacements all over again. If you have never heard this stunner of a record snag this one up and if you grew up with it like I did you really need to get this and get ready to hear it again for the first time.