I’ve been meaning to do this for a while, but I had to work my way through that Big Dipper anthology over the last couple of months to do it right.  A post cataloging my finds from our March trip to PREX is coming soon.

Artist:  Big Dipper
Album:  Supercluster: The Big Dipper Anthology (2008), compiling Boo-Boo EP (1987), Heavens LP (1987), Craps LP (1988), and a good deal of previously unreleased material.
Notes:  Mike and a few of my friends at school can testify to my recent preoccupation with this excellent but mostly little-remembered band.  To lift several lines of text from a “song of the week” post I wrote a few weeks ago, Big Dipper was an indie band from Boston who released an EP and a pair of LPs in the late ’80s before making the jump to the majors.  Epic signed them to an absurd eight-album contract; they laid an egg with a subpar album, Slam, that didn’t sell and were promptly dropped.  They broke up, but (apparently) reunited recently and put out a new album last year.  They sound kind of like R.E.M., but with more of a post-punk twitch (instrumentally only, they sound similar to the Pixies on Doolittle); now imagine that combined with the whimsy of Devo or Camper Van Beethoven.  Well, I bought their flop of a major-label album, sound-unheard, after finding it in the bargain bin at the Princeton Record Exchange last August.  At the time, I thought it was pretty good.  Then, this January, I bought an anthology compiling all of their indie-label stuff, and it is indeed way better.  I’ve been listening to it studiously over the last few weeks (more intensively than in the previous month-and-a-half, certainly), and I’m eager to share some of the cool tunes I’ve found.  There are parallel-universe radio hits like “Ron Klaus Wrecked His House” and “Faith Healer”, and then there are deeper cuts written about things like supernatural subjects (e.g. “Loch Ness Monster”), the imagined tribulations of historical figures (e.g. “Humason” and “Hey! Mr Lincoln”), and God-knows-what (e.g. “Younger Bums” and “A Song to Be Beautiful”).  This, in other words, was a terrific find.
Sample song: “Hey! Mr. Lincoln”

Artist:  The Psychedelic Furs
Album:  Forever Now (1982)
Notes:  The follow-up to Talk Talk Talk was kind of a transitional album for the Furs, as they began to shift from their brand of post-punk towards synth-pop and a somewhat larger audience.  Tapping Todd Rundgren as producer both symbolizes that transition and marks that shift in sound.  There’s some pretty excellent music on Forever Now, but I think it doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor, and certainly sounds significantly more dated.
Sample song:  “Goodbye”

Artist:  Mission of Burma
Album:  Vs. (1982)
Notes:  I was really excited to find in the bargain bin a copy of Vs., the only full-length studio album Boston’s Mission of Burma released during their original run (they released more in the 2000s after reuniting).  This is generally regarded as being among the finest and most important albums in the history of punk and post-punk.  While that may seem hyperbolic, and while I’ll admit that it’s not something I’ll listen to all that often, I think it’s pretty hard to dispute that it’s a remarkable piece of music worth listening to many times over.  If you’ve never heard this album, you should definitely check it out.
Sample song:  “Einstein’s Day”

Artist:  The Strokes
Album:  Room on Fire (2003)
Notes:  I’ve had an MP3 version of this album for years, of course, but I was pretty thrilled to finally find a hard copy in the bargain bin.  With all our chatter about how great Is This It is, it’s easy to forget that the Strokes’ sophomore album was damn near perfect too.  I’ve accordingly placed the CD in my car stereo semi-permanently.
Sample song:  “What Ever Happened”

Artist:  Rilo Kiley
Album:  Under the Blacklight (2007)
Notes:  I bought Rilo Kiley’s acclaimed 2004 album, More Adventurous, the year it was released, and I’ve always thought it was a quite good album with some genuinely great tracks.  With that in mind, I picked up their follow-up, 2007’s Under the Blacklight, in Princeton.  Dismayingly, I got home and found out it’s widely acknowledged as their worst album by far.  I could easily call this a sellout record or a move towards pop in conjunction with their jump to a major label, but that doesn’t quite do justice to the situation.  What Rilo Kiley actually did on this album is adopt the style of modern pop-country, which to my sensibilities is far worse than a move towards mid-2000s pop-rock or top-40-pop would have been.  The subpar music isn’t the only problem, however; lead singer Jenny Lewis’s lyrics leave a lot to be desired here.  Reviews of this album tended to note that Lewis’s songs on Under the Blacklight tended to be sex-obsessed, and that the album was a little tiresome for lack of variation in theme.  This is kind of true, but the bigger problem is that her sex-obsessed lyrics are by and large clumsy and poorly written.  Far more enjoyable are songs wherein the female singer’s sexual preoccupations are expressed in a way that comes across as more street-wise or slick, and expressed a little less bluntly.  The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O on Fever to Tell and, for that matter, Lewis herself on “Portions for Foxes” (from More Adventurous) prove that this can be pulled off quite well.  Under the Blacklight proves how easily this theme can be bungled.  Rilo Kiley broke up after this record, mirroring Big Dipper’s breakup after the disaster of Slam.
Sample song:  “Close Call”

Artist:  Aloha
Album:  Some Echoes (2006)
Notes:  Pitchfork gave this an 8.0 when it came out in 2006, and while there has been a concerted effort over the last few years to change what it means to get a high grade from Pitchfork, in 2006 it meant it exactly what you’d think it would.  This is textbook hipster music.  That’s not to completely write it off, of course, and in fact there are some quite good songs here that manage to be simultaneously psychedelic and tight.  Notably, when Aloha incorporates organ into their music, as in songs like “Summer Lawn,” it pays dividends.
Sample song:  “Summer Lawn”

Artist:  World Party
Album:  Goodbye Jumbo (1990)
Notes:  When I bought this CD, I was unfamiliar with World Party but intrigued by Goodbye Jumbo‘s album cover, which features a man wearing a gas mask and huge cloth elephant-ears.  When we put it on in the car on the way back up from Princeton, we quickly determined that it was aggressively average classic-rock revivalism, the UK’s hamhanded answer to Tom Petty.  After listening to a few tracks, including the mind-numbingly stupid “Put the Message in the Box,” we hastened to put something else on.  Once I got home, I went online to figure out what the deal was with World Party.  I was shocked to discover that not only was this album released to general critical acclaim, but in fact was ranked the #1 album of 1990 by Q, a notable British music magazine.  What’s more, its two singles were rock radio hits, and fucking “Put the Message in the Box” was one of them.  And, further bolstering the idea that this is an album that lots of people actually bought, I subsequently found this both Goodbye Jumbo and the preceding World Party album, Private Revolution, in the CD collection of a house I recently visited.  Unbelievable.  Anyway, the song below is actually rather good, if derivative, for what it is.  It’s the exception to the rule on this album, though.
Sample song:  “God on My Side”

P.S. This was a pretty damn good trip to the record store; for Mike, the bargain bin yielded, among other things, cheap copies of Franz Ferdinand and Live at Folsom Prison, and an obscure compilation from the ’90s that included a lost jazz-rap gem called “Stoned Again.”

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