When Machinery Fails (It’s Good to Have a Backup Option)

I’m spending about two hours total commuting each day, which I actually don’t mind, since the scenery’s beautiful and I’ve got a six-CD changer stereo in my car. Or at least I had one until last weekend, when something jammed up inside it, it groaned, and went silent, ruefully flashing “error” at me as I frantically pressed buttons. Radio’s not really an option for me (I don’t like to listen to other people talk, and I don’t like when someone else picks the music), so until I can get the CD player fixed, I was forced to dig into my cassette tape box, which hasn’t been tapped since around 1995 or so. While sound quality’s not quite the same, and it’s a nuisance not to be able to instantly jump from track to track, it has been fun to listen to albums that I love, but had completely forgotten about over the years. Two in particular have been tickling me:

Seven Days in Sammystown, by Wall of Voodoo, from 1985. This was the first record WoV (of “Mexican Radio” fame) released after distinctive founding singer Stanard Ridgway left, along with distinctive drummer Joe Nanini (now deceased), and not quite as disctinctive bassist-keyboardist Bill Noland. That left guitarist Marc Moreland (also now deceased) and synth player Chas T. Gray to rebuild a band, which they did with admirable results, recruiting singer Andy Prieboy and drummer Ned Lukhardt, and getting Moreland’s prodigal brother, Bruce, to return on bass. At the time of its release, the most that anyone was really willing to note from a critical standpoint was that Prieboy was not Ridgway. But I got to tell you: that wasn’t a bad thing. Prieboy’s actually a better, stronger singer, and he’s a crack songwriter (he’s been covered by Concrete Blonde, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris in years since). Seven Days in Sammystown is not quite as weird as as some of the early Wall of Voodoo, but it’s a smoking, stoking, stonking good stomper of a record, and it has aged exceptionally well. “Far Side of Crazy,” “Room With a View,” and “Don’t Spill My Courage” are all spanking good smart rock songs, performed con gusto. (Here’s a great video for “Far Side of Crazy,” right after the interview with Prieboy and Gray). Wall of Prieboy issued another great album (Happy Planet) before disbanding, freeing Prieboy up to record three great solo albums during the ’90s. If you ever see any of them, snap them up. They are great records, every single one of them. As is Seven Days in Sammystown. Had the group released it under a different band name that wasn’t so fraught with comparitive peril, I think it would have been regarded as on the classic records of the ’80s. It’s that good. No kidding.

Closer to God, by Television Personalities, from 1992. TVP is generally viewed as the vehicle for naive/dark/quirky songwriter Dan Treacy (who disappeared for years in the late ’90s, early ’00s, leading to reports of his demise, which were happily proven false when he re-merged from the prison ship on which he’d been incarcerated and began recording again), but for a good long spell, the band was a functioning, deft trio featuring Treacy, bassist Jowe Head (of Swell Maps fame, a player I like a lot) and drummer Jeffrey Bloom. This is the group that made Closer to God, and it is a masterpiece: Treacy was in and early, still productive, phase of his depressive death spiral, and his words just ooze ache, while he delivers them in his cracked and fragile voice atop a collection of impressively crunchy and well-arranged pop gems. The best cuts on the album open and close it: “You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are” rides a gangky Jowe Head bassline to a very angry place, while “Closer to God” plays out over a long, slow-developing riff that sucks you in, then pummels you when Treacy hits to anguished chorus. A very dark, very cathartic album, but crackling with creativity and craft. Head and Bloom are playing together in a new band. They made a formidable rhythm section on Closer to God, so this might be worth checking out.

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