The Album with the Perpertual Nervousness,
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This review is from: Crazy Rhythms (Audio CD)
Look at the album cover for this album and tell me what you see. Four chalk white kids gathered in a row at the bottom of a pastel blue canvas ; neutral expressions on oval faces perched atop rail-thin necks; an assortment of "poindexter"-esque spectacles; haircuts so ostentatiously uncool they have to be intentional, replete with buttoned-up polo shirts, jumpers and tanktops. The very antithesis of rock'n'roll glamour - they might have called it "Nerd chic" had such a concept existed. An album cover couldn't better exemplify the music held within it; the only other sleeve that comes to mind is perhaps Guns'n'Roses' Appetite For Destruction. Is it any wonder that 14 years after its release, spiritual descendants Weezer would use a very similar motif for their own classic debut Weezer (The Blue Album)?
Each of the original 9 tracks (there are a further 5 bonus tracks available when you buy the album) on this taut, jerky document of late 70's suburban New Jersey would be a classic on its own and, as a whole, between them they create one of the great un-acknowledged classics of its time, easily rivalling Talking Heads' Remain in Light for best US indie of 1980. The question has to be: how did they do it and why didn't I hear about this earlier?
One clue is in their sound. There's likely to be inevitable comparisons to Devo but this would be mistaken - they were more akin to a new wave "Kiss". Rather their contemporaries were less from Akron Ohio and more from the other side of the Atlantic; Scottish bands such as Joseph K, Orange Juice and The Fire Engines were true kindred spirits. By deliberately limiting the sonic palate, the band was free to expand to fill the space. Each song's roster consists almost entirely of the following elements: twin-interlocking guitars - often clean or complemented by the odd tremolo effect or overdrive - combining together often to form single droning chords; twin vocals with occasional harmonising - of a style now intimately associated with teenage emotional angst and release; finally, the percussion. This is where the band really stand out from their peers - the tom-heavy drum-kit (infamously sans all cymbals other than hi-hats) combines frequently with klaves and wood-blocks to create a poly-rhythmic beat that raises their sound far above the usual two-step polka that defines a huge amount of contemporaneous Punk, Hardcore and New Wave. Having said that, they chose to eschew the "dance" route of Liquid Liquid - rocking out was always the goal here.
Like the instrumentation, production is strictly limited - close micing of the kit (to prevent "wash"), entirely flat vocals and only the barest hint of natural room reverb lends the record a parched tone while at the same time not sounding "demo" or "lo-fi" (that was to come later). Clearly, the just wanted the unadorned sound of their instruments to sit at the front of the speakers, much like aforementioned cover-art.
It's almost impossible to choose highlights, but perhaps album opener "The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness" best encapsulates what makes their sound work - other tracks to investigate would be the title track and "Moscow Nights".
What isn't clear to me is why they haven't received the acclaim of other contemporaries, or indeed that of bands that were influenced by them (e.g. REM were big fans). Perhaps it was their short-lived nature - 2 albums in their original lifetime and not even with the same lineup. Maybe it was their deliberate avoidance of the NY scene (they mainly played in their native NJ). Whatever the reason, this album deserves re-discovery, particularly with rock music being in such dire straits at the moment.