R.E.M. | Life’s Rich Pageant | I.R.S, 1986 |
The fourth studio album from R.E.M. was my first encounter with the band. I bought it on cassette in 1986, and the LP version three years later. It’s still the favorite album from a band I never stopped adoring. Characterized by a cleaner production than on their previous efforts (thanks to Don Gehman), a punchy sound while maintaining their enigmatic presence and jangly roots. And of course, it has some of the band’s greatest songs, including the killer opening trio of “Begin the Begin”, “These Days” and “Fall On Me.” I wish I still was in college, bury magnets, swallow the rapture.
The Beasts of Bourbon | The Axeman’s Jazz | Big Time 1985 |
A super supergroup from Australia, including members from Hoodoo Gurus, The Johnnys and of course The Scientists (Kim Salmon). This is their debut album, originally released down under a year before. With a mix of swamp rock, psychobilly and country blues, somewhere between The Cramps, Nick Cave and Hank Williams, this here beast was created during one particularly dark and gloomy evening in Sydney. The opening track and leadoff single, where singer Tex Perkins does a convincing take on Leon Payne’s classic murder ballad “Psycho” still remains one of the highlight on an album packed with stories about death and misery. The Beasts of Bourbon were confronting, abusive and filled with desperation and despair. This album gives you plenty of it all. Pour yourself a glass, turn the lights down low and join this band along the lost highway and into the night.
American Music Club | California | Frontier 1988 |
‘To the left, a beautiful California landscape
Dead ends in the sky
And to the right, beautiful mountains rise
High and dry
Another futile expression of bitterness
Another overwhelming sensation of uselessness’
Mark Eitzel is one of the great American storytellers and voices; deep, stoic and soulful, he fleshes out personal anguish and wry observations with an unmatched eloquent pen. American Music Club lived up to their name and incorporated many different styles into their music over the years, always gravitating around Eitzel’s magnetic presence, and on California they played it all out so extremely well. There is a barren feeling deep inside this golden landscape, where dreams meet the sea, a sense of sadness, longing and hopelessness so wonderfully conveyed on tracks like “Last Harbour”, “Western Sky”, “Laughingstock” or “Firefly”, but all conducted with elegance and beauty. Into a story not only about inner demons, or the state of California, but of America itself.
The Band of… Blacky Ranchette | Heartland | Zippo 1986 |
When Howe Gelb got the country itch, he let Giant Sand rest for a while, saddled up Blacky, teamed up with some of his finest compadres and set out on the western trails. The first Blacky LP came back in 1985, ‘Heartland’ followed a year later. Both albums are a testament to the sparkling relationship between Gelb and Rainer Ptacek, two creative geniuses and close friends until Rainer sadly passed away in 1997. Blacky pursued a more pure country sound than the Giant Sand moniker could provide, but always bumped into the usual detours that makes Howe Gelb’s music so irresistible. This is a “lost” Americana classic way before that became a hip term.
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ | Mystery Road | Island 1989 |
Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ masterfully merged Southern indie with Southern hard rock and country, and managed to unify it all into a stirring hot cocktail under the guidance of singer and main songwriter Kevn Kinney. Their two previous albums are both wonderful, but Mystery Road shines with confidence, power and the sharpest set of tunes in their entire album catalog. The country/folk songs are particularly strong, “Ain’t It Strange,” With the People,” “Peacemaker,” and of course the wonderful “Straight to Hell” are classics in its own right and also remains a missing link between Gram Parsons and Uncle Tupelo and the whole Americana resurgence of the 1990s. But Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ always had the urge to rock off too, Aerosmith style (“Toy Never Played With,” “Wild Dog Moon”) and ‘Mystery Road’ gives you plenty of it all. This is an album you can drive and cry to.
Pixies | Surfer Rosa | 4AD 1988 |
This is one of my definitive favorite albums of all times, and both Surfer Rosa and Doolittle are on my Top 10 Album List of the 1980s. Pixies was brand new to me when I bought ‘Surfer Rosa’, on a warm springs day, and it became the soundtrack for the summer when I turned 17. How fortunate! I believe the combination of their super catchy songs and disturbing lyrics (“He bought me a soda and he tried to molest me in the parking lot”, “I got no lips, I got no tongue, where there were eyes, there’s only space”, “I’m the horny loser”) somewhat resonated to a teen life being equally carefree and confusing. Needless to say, all these songs here are classics in my book, and every time I put on the album, not as often as before I have to admit, but it’s just as rewarding as in 1989, I’m being transferred back to this time in my life. So grateful Pixies was there to guide me into adulthood. PS: On the back cover, I still see the fingerprint marks from the day I bought it. I hated the stains back then, now it’s almost like a stamp of remembrance, something that would never occur in the digital world. There’s a beauty in that as well.
The Feelies | Only Life | A&M 1988 |
Some discovered The Feelies on their 1980 debut album, and I guess that must’ve been a thrilling experience. I bought my first Feelies-album on a hunch (I believe) some time in 1989. Their legacy didn’t matter to me, it was all about the moment. In hindsight, Only Life might not be considered such a seminal album, but to a perpetual nervous teen it was mind-blowing and just the best thing ever. I was well into jangle pop at the time, but was starting to look out for something with more punch, and The Feelies served just the right mixture of restless indie charm and groovy rhythms. As a huge fan of all kinds of horror movies, I remember how the cover art appealed to me big time, imaging these five fellas standing in front of Amityville, Elm Street or whatever VHS flick I was watching at the time. I guess that is what I still find fascinating; the dreamlike, hypnotic sounds of innocence and the tempting undertows towards something darker. I never tire of The Feelies, and I’ll never stop listening to this album.
Dinosaur Jr. | Bug | SST/Blast First 1988 |
Remember the last time you heard a new album and instinctively knew it would not only blow your brains out in the moment, but also mark the beginning of a life long relationship? An album of such impact that you just had to play it over and over again, share its brilliance with anyone with the slightest of interest and memorize every word and note? Not too often these days for my part, but hopefully youngsters still do, it’s a glorious feeling. I went and saw Dinosaur Jr in this tiny club after buying Bug in the summer of 1989, holding my under-aged breath while sneaking in, squeezed in right by the speaker and witnessed a loud, loud mess of guitar insanity, the songs hardly recognizable, buried deep below endless layers of feedback and noise. My ears were ringing for weeks afterwards. Bug is also a noisy mess, but with this brilliant mixture of emotional vulnerability, slacker coolness and full on assaults that makes it such a classic. “Freak Scene” is the obvious key track, a super catchy indie anthem if there ever was any. I was not the only kid yelling out lines like these on a frequent basis, but it was like J spoke directly to me:
“Sometimes I don’t thrill you
Sometimes I think I’ll kill you
Just don’t let me fuck up will you
’cause when I need a friend it’s still you
What a mess” ‘Bug’ is a lot more thank “Freak Scene” though, “They Always Come”, Budge” and “Let it Ride” are equally addictive, and I’ve always adored hazy slow burners like “Yeah We Know” and “The Post” just as much. One of my fondest memories is tied to the sludgy, epic finale of “Don’t.” Remember how I occupied the DJ booth at our weekly youth club disco and blasted it on max volume, giggling at the horrified faces in front of me. Oh the days of joy and guitar noise.
Black Sun Ensemble | s/t | Reckless 1988 |
Much of the music from the American southwest is rooted in the dusty ground with the barren landscape as a majestic backdrop, but some went even further. I was deep into many of the bands being labeled as ‘desert rock’ at the time, but Black Sun Ensemble was something else indeed. There is an undeniable flavor of the frontier twang in their sound, but as they reached for the sky, they also discovered other horizons, including ritual music, Medieval patterns, space rock and Indian raga. This album is a collection of some of their early hard-to-get cassette releases (‘Sapphire Sky Symphony’, ‘Raga Del Sol’) and a couple of new tracks, and works as a great introduction to one of the many overlooked bands from this time and place. It is a magic carpet ride of hypnotic cosmic desert psychedelia centered round the intricate guitar work of Jesus Acedo (1962-2013), imagine a mix of John Fahey, Jimi Hendrix and Ravi Shankar, instrumental explorations of the outer world and of the inner mind. It’s a trip alright, this is Country & Eastern at its finest.
The Leaving Trains | Transportational D. Vices | SST 1989 |
The Leaving Trains came out of the same vital Los Angeles scene that spawned likeminded artists like The Gun Club, The Flesh Eaters and The Dils. They were a wild ride in the glory days and left behind a string of great albums in the latter half of the 1980s ranging from rambling punk frenzy to introspective, self-loathing material. Transportational D. Vices leans towards the former, with its hard-hitting down-and-out tunes mostly between 1-2 minutes long (including a cool cover of Urinals’ “Black Hole”). Falling James Moreland was the only steady member in a band with a constant revolving lineup, and his keen melodic sense always shines through their ramshackle sound. Falling James is quite a story by the way, notoriously known for his crossdressing appearances, a super brief marriage with Courtney Love, name-dropped by Tom Waits (“Gun Street Girl”), and now retired from music he’s a writer for L.A. Weekly. ‘Transportational D. Vices’ is produced by Earle Mankey (the Weirdos, Runaways, Concrete Blonde, The Three O’Clock, The Long Ryders) and the album cover is a photo of Howe Gelb’s very own ’66 Barracuda. Such is the life of Falling James, packed with fame and tragedy, peculiar incidents and surrounded by cult figures, living in the gutter and looking at the stars. Just as the songs he made.