The Angular Records’ 2012 re-release of Eleven Pond – Watching Trees / Portugal single comes across somewhat ‘standard issue’ from the surplus of the recent past. Originally released in 1986, this moody synth-pop single was mostly distributed in Europe (according to Angular) and has yet to be caught by Discogs at the time of this articles release.
A-side track Watching Trees is milked for everything its worth over 3 versions on the re-release, though the Bedroom 4track Mix bookend version is “completely identical” to the opening Bedroom Demo version according to Bandcamp user Chrisdee. Percolating synth lines blip and bubble across an undercurrent of ghostly synth wails. Steady drum machine rhythms thump back and forth while vocalist James Tabbi pines for the incidental attention of being seen in a tree.
I fail to catch anything noteworthy or particularly distinct from b-side track Portugal. It all comes across a bit quaint, dated, or simply lacking. But b-sides never really were the star, were they?
Watching Trees lives on via digital giants of music discovery; an algorithmically transmissible Spotify track and on Bandcamp with inconsequential bonus versions of its a-side. It’s not a record that will change anybody’s life, but is worth interrupting one’s doom scrolling to check it out.
You read that right, folks. Record is the 1981 release by Boston avant-aware new wave group Family Fun. A project of Arf! Arf! Records owner Erik Lindgren, the band consists of Sara Goodman (vocals), Russ Smith (bass, vocals), Erik (Moogs, keys, theremin) and Rusty Lindgren (guitar, vocals),
Family Fun kicks off Record with opening track Games. Surf-y guitar and bass reminiscent of The B-52s is punctuated by agile drum-machine patterns. It’s fun, if not a little predictable at first.
Sara Goodman’s rock vocals are somewhat reminiscent of Missing Persons, while Russ Smith’s bass playing is notable across the entire album. This provides some steadiness to the avant garde antics of the Lindgren siblings, a necessary contrast keeping things from going too far one way or the other.
This contrast in steadiness and chaos makes Family Fun stand out from others’ forays into new wave. Family Fun is part Devo, part Suburban Lawns, and part outsider music. It’s interesting and exciting to hear the risks taken by Family Fun, as they have held up incredibly well.
That’s not to say Record is a masterwork waiting to be rediscovered and put atop the throne of music revisionism. The a-side comes with the trappings of new wave in 1981. Its compositions in rock can be a little predictable for the time, while tonal aesthetics haven’t aged well either. Simply put, often the song writing isn’t quite strong enough to break away from the rabble of new wave.
That is until we get to the b-side: EZ Listening Music.
“WARNING: Do Not Listen To This Side.” The behemoth of a track totals out with a 16 minute run time, the b-side’s label adorned with the aforementioned warning. EZ Listening Music slowly swells into being like the beauty of day break underscored by looming anxiety of life. Sara Goodman’s spoken monologues pin an all too real human element. Guitar strings are held on, agitated more than strummed while blips of Moogs and other electronics tweak in and out of ear shot. All of this underscored by slow swelling bass guitar. Ultimately, the song’s direction finds itself much like a movie score.
“Elevator music for 1990. Right, Erik?” is etched on the b-side runout. I can’t even imagine.
I will refrain from calling it one of the worst records I’ve ever heard only 30 seconds in.
Perhaps high on the fumes of possibility, Eponymous is a slathering of 80s cheese processed through the band’s take on new wave hard rock. It’s got keytar, out of place sax licks, masturbatory guitar noodling, cowbell, and a bunch of other stuff we gave up on as a culture 30 years ago. With even the slightest air of authority, anyone could convince me that Eponymous was an avant garde novelty record, made this way entirely on purpose. The unbridled audaciousness of Bronx Irish Catholics goes past respect, past disdain to a new level of respect.
There’s almost too much to bite off to even begin a rundown of individual songs. Eponymous is litany of crimes against the arts. Typically championed on this site, artistic exploration should be balanced with doing at least a few things well. Instead, Bronx Irish Catholics fails to claim merit in any of the directions they’re pulled towards.
Both presenting and sounding like Julee Cruise on PCP, Irish Bronx Catholics consisted of core members LaRaine Warfield (vocals, synthesizers) and John Jansen (synthesizers, vocals), along with a slew of session musicians. To give credit or fault to either member would be nearly impossible, as all points of instrumentation blend into one unattainable slurry of sound. While the tonal qualities of the instruments work fine together, the composition is so busy with inconsequential instrumentation that it all means nothing.
LaRaine Warfield’s barked vocals are possibly the only memorable part on the album. But even Warfield’s performance as a powerful front person isn’t utilized well. As the instrumentation flounders on, Warfield is left exposed to criticism. While the lyrics are still a point of contention, LaRaine Warfield’s vocals are at least delivered with bold confidence.
Be it hard rock, new wave, ballad, synthpop or even the broad yet recognizable ‘rock n roll’, no one angle is played well enough to warrant a sense of accomplishment.
Closing track Ulster Defense is a surprisingly good turn of events for anyone having held out long enough. It’s stripped of most bells and whistles, with exception to Warfield’s gated reverb vocals. Distorted guitar overlays a heavy undercurrent of pummeling drum machine gallops. A quasi-psychedelic cacophony of vocals twist and melt from their barked origins. Ulster Defense could have easily worked on a split 7” with Alien Sex Fiend or even Paul Barker-era Ministry.
Perhaps they really were high on the fumes of possibility. At their most raw, Bronx Irish Catholics not only make-do but make something quite enjoyable. It pains me to think of the overwhelming facility granted to beginner musicians in today’s digital era. It’s clear we aren’t pushing the artistic limits of our newly granted facilities but obsessing over and creating a smorgasbord of inevitably dated ‘must have’ sounds.
Cut the crap. Learn to set healthy artistic limitations and remember: don’t get high on your own supply.
Nonnie and The Onnies is far from a household name. The group’s singular 12″ release isn’t much more than a relic of an industry in an era, but perhaps we can find new respect for such an album.
I’m in Love With A Rent Boy‘s sound is what’s to be expected from an American pop group only 2 years after the release of Madonna’s self-titled debut, albeit lacking Madonna’s synthetic-disco sound for something straddling the Bangles.
The mix is delightfully punchy, the album’s cover art amusing, and its absurdity somewhat intriguing. Rent Boy may be brief, but that only makes it more consumable.
Titular a-side opening track Rent Boy comes with all the trappings of new wave overindulgence and electronic trend following, much to the anguish of any current listener. The absurdity of I’m in Love With A Rent Boy may be the only thing not somewhat forgettable about this track, unfortunately.
Under all of Rent Boy’s commercial cheese is an extravaganza of American generica. Flavorless, plugged in, and devoid of self-reflective or interpersonal emotion. An overproduced musical jingle reminiscent of over-the-top TV ads.
A swing and a miss perhaps, as following track My Hearts in Bondage (Dance Mix) is so satisfyingly engaging. Hearts inches towards EBM with pounding drum machine rhythms driving under dark synth pads. Choppy self-sampling punches up the song’s pop vocal delivery. Its lyrics may not be particularly inspired, but Nonnie’s performance sells me on the emotions at play.
A shame, really, that a track so good would be hidden behind a pop single so bad. Hearts in Bondage may have been overlooked by a loving audience due to the EP’s titular track, but perhaps our current state of retromania will help unearth previously overlooked gems.
Rent Boy‘s A-side closes out with the instrumental …And The Car Was Stolen. It explores a further industrial element over it’s 42 second runtime before disappearing into the void. Far from a substantial song, Car Was Stolen functions as the perfect cinematic mood-setter for a would-be album of Hearts in Bondage.
The album’s b-side should at least be mentioned as a formality; a radio edit of Hearts in Bondage with an instrumental remix of Rent Boy to close out the EP. Unforgivably 80s in an unlovable way.
There is good work to be found on Rent Boy, if only the right crowd were to find it.
If you’re curious what Nonnie Thompson has been up to since, this article from 2006 will have to suffice. Ariel Powers wracked up some more credits to her name throughout the 90s, and is still playing to this day. Gary Pozner, last I heard, is playing music around the south-west US.
For fans of: Madonna, Bananarama, Ministry (With Sympathy-era)
Part of the new wave of new wave, or of the Mark E Smith-speaking ‘post-punk’ vein coming out of the UK right now, KAPUTT is perhaps the most overlooked and under appreciated group out of this new batch of bands.Carnage Hall explores the sweet and aggravating with a surrealist bent.
KAPUTT builds off the sound of its saxophone fueled dance-punk predecessor James Chance, while ditching the self-important disdain (and racism) for short melodic motifs interlaced in a roller coaster of walking disjointed riffs. Carnage Hall features punched up versions of all the songs on KAPUTT’s 2017 demo while new angles are explored with tracks like Accordion. Using the band’s standard countering angular motifs, Accordion manages to pull off the beach side relaxation we could all use in a time like this. Think About Your Face explores a level of funky festivities not seen previously by group, while Suspectette’s sweet and caring nature could work the right listener into a good cry.
Carnage Hall demands a level of focus, each note (and there are many of them) only as rewarding as the attention you give them. This is why a song like Hightlight! is not only great fun, but also necessary to Carnage Hall’s vibrancy. Highlight!’s emotions are accessible and needed. Falling saxophones lead organically into a stomping chorus, backing and lead vocals come together before the chorus turns to its anthemic instrumental b-part.
KAPUTT wastes no time jumping back into the fray with following Hi! I’m The Wasp. Updated since its debut on Demo 2017, The Wasp is still its slow, creepy self, though now with filled out backing vocals and light reverb.
The whole album is more or less this way. Far from over produced, but no longer the dry bare-bones tracks presented on the demo. The songs are all strong to start with, but with just the right amount of production they really shine in their full potential.
Their face-value goofiness is reminiscent of prog-punk legends The Cardiacs. But like The Cardiacs, under any face-value goofiness is an emotionally intelligent current of decision making. Surely, KAPUTT is the thinking-man’s Shame.*
There are far too many ‘standout’ tracks (Parsonage Square in particular) to point to a handful and say ‘try these’! If you’re a seasoned new wave/punk fan searching for refreshing energy, or simply looking for something offering a slight challenge, Carnage Hall can’t be beat.
*Not to knock Shame. Songs of Praise is a great album and given the chance you ought to see them live.
For fans of: Crack Cloud, James Chance & The Contortions, Devo
This post originally appeared on the 10th Dentist blog on Tuesday, March 4th, 2021. The following version has been lightly edited for clarity.
As if standing in stark contrast to taco-laser-cat t-shirts and ‘millennial whoop’ overdosing (how noble), the rise of 80s worship in the mid-teens has brought back the worst of bad hair days and their musical counterparts. So if you’re looking to spice up your new-found identity or if you’ve finally realized that Africa by Toto isn’t worth it, than this list is for you!
Soft Cell – The Art of Falling Apart (1983)
Soft Cell (a band that, yes, has released more than 2 songs) started in 1978 and rose to prominence in the early 80s with their hit cover of Gloria Jone’s 1964 single ‘Tainted Love’. But enough of that. 1983 would see the release of Soft Cell’s second full-length release The Art of Falling Apart and the glory of it’s titular closing track. ‘The Art’ is a song about drugs that isn’t trying to be anything other than a song about drugs. Big synth stabs and an under swelling reverb makes this a ‘no duh’ for anyone looking to dip their toes in the weird and wacky world of the 80s (FOETUS is only a few steps away from here).
Naked Eyes – Promises, Promises (1983)
There is always something there to remind me that there were much better songs on Naked Eyes’s 1983 album Burning Bridges. The best album to ever be recorded at Abbey Road Studios (Flippant? Maybe. The truth? Definitely), Burning Bridges gave us great songs like its titular track, When The Lights Go Out, Fortune and Fame, and Voices in My Head. But it’s Promises Promises with its minimal production, back and forth melody, and vague funk influences that rounds out this album as one of the best closing tracks on a pop album ever. Naked Eyes is 2 British guys, a Fairlight CMI, and a lot of vague romantic dance tracks. Do I need say more? Well, except to clarify I mean that entirely as a good thing (in this case).
Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark – So In Love (1985)
So In Love may not be stupid enough to meme-ify, but it’s an emotionally powerful song with all the melancholic nostalgia seeding you could possibly want. In this dreamlike state, you may feel as if your feet will lose rhythm to it’s smooth dance beat as you float away off the dance floor. Don’t worry, no modern DJ will be playing this any time soon, and your drinking that night will likely leave you face first on the floor. Look, were they a great band? No, not really. But if we’re going to collectively obsess over singular 80s pop tracks, OMD has all the trappings (and just enough good songs) to get a mention here.
Sharon Redd – Can You Handle It (1980)
While you were busy fetishizing the 80s, disregarding the AIDS epidemic and the CIA starting a racialized drug war, black and/or queer people were out there making some of the best music of the decade. If you’re looking for peak 80s (in a good way), this is it. Just because it’s not Madonna-white doesn’t make it not so. So, can you handle it?
You may think, ‘why Sharon Redd? Why not something even more 80s like Chaka Khan, Cherrelle, Evelyn King, etc.?’ Those artists are amazing, but they’ve all had second-winds in the age of music streaming and cock and bull ‘I grew up with this’ nostalgia boasts. Either way, if you’re a trend sycophant than you’ve probably stopped reading a while ago. So kick back and enjoy this 6min+ jammer.
General Public – Anxious(1984)
Why are we culturally pining for the 1980s to begin with? Has sociopolitical pressures made us look for a ‘simpler time’? Is it 70s babies grasping for a time that they were the forefront of commercial culture? Can we simply blame all of it on vaporwave and Stranger Things? Who knows. Maybe culture is dying. In a press-play world that awards content and volume over quality and craft, why would anyone take the time to enrich their lives culturally? It may be my upbringing that put General Public on this list, but if the 80s are relevant now, than a track like Anxious is more relevant than ever.