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Record Collection Reconciliation: Thee Speaking Canaries, Camper Van Beethoven, The Darling Buds, Volcano Suns, Funkadelic

51. Thee Speaking Canaries - Life-Like Homes - Scat, 1998

Thee Speaking Canaries' Life-Like Homes

Why I Bought It: Even though I enjoy Don Caballero’s albumsDon Caballero II and What Burns Never Returns in particular—I’d never checked out Damon Che’s other group, Thee Speaking Canaries. Maybe I’d taken a thousand drummer jokes to heart, maybe I was concerned that Damon Che’s rather antagonistic stage demeanor (an understatement to say the least) wouldn’t translate well to his frontman role in this group, maybe those Van Halen comparisons (and covers!) scared me off, but no matter how many times I saw Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged in CD bins, I passed it up.

After seeing one of their LPs at RRRecords in Lowell, I told my friend Scott about it and he attested to Thee Speaking Canaries’ greatness. Shortly thereafter, he swung by Amoeba in San Francisco and picked up Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged and Life-Like Homes for me and mailed them out as a birthday gift. I don’t want to think of what I’d do with such close proximity to the heralded Amoeba—I’ve only been to San Francisco once and didn’t make it to the store—but I’d like to believe that I’d share the privilege as well as Scott does. More likely, I’d run up a ton of credit card debt and have to quit cold turkey.

Verdict: Given his propensity for dramatics—nailing down his drum kit, performing in his boxers, kicking out band members—it’s difficult to enjoy Damon Che’s music without appreciating the utmost gall with which he approaches it, and Life-Like Homes is no exception to this rule. Putting just three songs on a rock record requires some stones, especially when it requires splitting up the twenty-seven minutes of “The Last Side of Town” over side A and B. Proving that dealing with his gall isn’t unrewarded, the split even makes sense, with the song’s math-rock explorations and drifting noise segments coming on side A before blasting back to melodic, overdriven rock with part two on side B. It’s a bit of a shock to hear Damon Che yell “Woo!” before launching into a Van Halen–esque guitar solo on part two, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t work.

It’s tempting to focus on how Che can switch between being a technically accomplished, powerhouse drummer in Don Caballero and a guitar-shredding frontman with surprisingly melodic vocals in Thee Speaking Canaries, to emphasize that he can pull off both roles, but that approach loses sight of what Life-Like Homes has to offer beyond Che’s signature gall. Between the enthusiastic arena/math hybrid of “The Last Side of Town (Completion),” the noisy bluster on the title track, and the mid-tempo melodies of “Song for Fucking Damon,” these songs hold up to multiple listens. (I already know this because I initially listened to side B first.) The combination of arena rock panache and math-rock precision is particularly compelling, making me wish that more ’90s math-oriented groups showed an extroverted side.

As much as I enjoy Life-Like Homes, I might have been better off ignoring Thee Speaking Canaries’ existence from a collector’s perspective. Che pressed both lo- and hi-fi versions of Songs for the Terrestrially Challenged (the former on Mind Cure, the latter on Scat), released the 1996 Opponents EP in an edition of 400 numbered copies (one is on eBay for $89 right now), and issued two versions of Get Out Alive, their 2004 album, a vinyl pressing of 39 minutes and a CD pressing of 76 minutes (which contains two songs from Life-Like Homes). Have I mentioned their long out-of-print 1992 debut The Joy of Wine? 500 copies are out there, somewhere. Good luck tracking all of this down.

2. Camper Van Beethoven - Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart - Virgin, 1988

Camper Van Beethoven's Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart

Why I Bought It: I knew of Camper Van Beethoven through David Lowery’s post-CVB group Cracker, whose bitter mid-1990s buzz bin hits “Low,” “Euro-Trash Girl” (I hate even thinking of that song), and “I Hate My Generation” were staples of 120 Minutes. Nothing had pushed me toward hearing them, however, until Floodwatchmusic listed II & III as his favorite record of 1986. Although I haven’t come across an LP copy of that record (update: yes, I have), I picked up their self-titled LP from Looney Tunes in Boston and then grabbed Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart from either RRRecords or Mystery Train last fall.

Verdict: Even though this album marked the beginning of Camper Van Beethoven’s stay on Virgin, I was nevertheless surprised by the polish of Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, in both production values and performances. There are some hot guitar licks on this record! Once I accepted the major label sheen, I realized that the general aesthetic isn’t too far off from another eclectically styled 1980s group, the Mekons, especially given the fiddle. It’ll be interesting to see how much their self-titled LP differs from this album; even with their edges smoothed over, there’s still a good amount of spontaneity in a few of these songs, although none of that spontaneity could be misconstrued as ramshackle charm. (Terror Twilight it ain’t, thankfully.) It’s too bad the LP didn’t come with a lyrics sheet, since I recall hearing some choice lines in great tracks like “She Divines Water” and “Life Is Grand,” but the album as a whole was solid enough to merit another listen in the near future.

53. The Darling Buds - Shame on You - Native, 1989

The Darling Buds' Shame on You

Why I Bought It: I tend to pull things out of dollar bins that look like records I might be interested in, even if I’m completely unfamiliar with the band name. The Darling Buds’ Shame on You is a prime example of this tendency; I even have one of the twelve-inch singles that’s represented on this singles compilation thanks to a similar purchase. The colorful, ultra-saturated cover isn’t too far off from My Bloody Valentine’s album-art aesthetic, which makes sense given its release in the late 1980s, but there’s a more specific pop/shoegaze reference that came up once I put the needle down.

Verdict: The British Velocity Girl. The Darling Buds came first, of course, being inspired by the C86 cassette and scene, just like Velocity Girl (who took their name from Primal Scream’s contribution to the cassette), so the comparison is admittedly backwards, but from the opening strains of the title track I could think of no other point of reference. I remember buying Velocity Girl’s Simpatico from a cheap bin in high school and being overwhelmed by the chipper vocals and perky melodies. (I’m just not a power-pop fanatic.) I never got around to giving their debut, Copacetic, a chance, but I imagine it’s got fuzzier guitars and less defined hooks. As for the Darling Buds, they’re essentially a hybrid of C86-styled pop and the Go-Go’s. When the songs lean toward the former, like “That’s the Reason,” I can stomach it, but when they sound closer to latter, like “Valentine” and too many other songs, I begin to rethink my cover art policy for dollar bins.

54. Volcano Suns - All-Night Lotus Party - Homestead, 1986

Volcano Suns' All-Night Lotus Party

Why I Bought It: Along with a previously discussed Bullet Lavolta LP, I found two Volcano Suns LPs at a Champaign record sale a few years back. I wasn’t hugely into Mission of Burma at the time, but I probably knew that their drummer, Peter Prescott, had been a member of Volcano Suns following his initial stay in Burma. No excuse for waiting this long to listen to either of the records (I also have The Bright Orange Years on my shelf), but with their recent reissues on Merge, I’ve read a considerable amount about these records in the past few months. Plus, I see Prescott whenever I stop into the Cambridge location of Looney Tunes.

Verdict: Thanks to the recent surge of reviews, I had a fairly good idea of what to expect from All-Night Lotus Party: a more straightforward, less atmospheric version of Burma’s art-punk. Considering that I have to be in a certain mood to enjoy most of Burma’s catalog (with the exception of the early singles and most of The Obliterati, which is heavier on the pop hooks), a more approachable version of the group’s sound shouldn’t be viewed as a slight. All-Night Lotus Party is filled with abrasive, hard-edged art-punk—material that could (and probably did) inspire countless early 1990s Touch and Go groups—but a number of the songs lack memorable hooks amidst their steamrolling verses and shouted choruses. According to Pitchfork, The Bright Orange Years has more of these hooks, so I should give that album a spin and see how it compares, but “Engines” and “Village Idiot” stuck out on my first spin of All-Night Lotus Party. The album doesn’t lack energy or aggression, however, especially the album’s final salvo, “Bonus Hidden Mystery Track,” which one-ups any number of contemporary hardcore bands.

55. Funkadelic - One Nation Under a Groove - Warner, 1978

Funkadelic's One Nation Under a Groove

Why I Bought It: My introduction to George Clinton was the Animal House redux PCU, which I inevitably got sucked into whenever it came on HBO during high school. (Part of a larger trend of me getting sucked into mediocre-to-awful movies, but I digress.) The film’s huge party scene comes courtesy of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, who were directed to Jeremy Piven’s party-to-end-all-parties by Jon Favreau’s stoned assistance. Favreau doesn’t realize exactly whom he’s helped until partway into their truncated set (damn those deans!), at which point he freaks out and goes wild. A clichéd scene, but I give the filmmakers some credit: Imagine if it had been G. Love and Special Sauce or some other mid-90s party band.

I found this worn copy of One Nation Under a Groove in a dollar bin, missing its original bonus EP (the Heavy Maggot Disk) and coming with enough surface scratches to make me think twice, but I knew that I needed to buy it in case of any future party emergencies. You can’t count on encountering Clinton’s broken down tour bus whenever you’re throwing the biggest party in campus history.

(Or when you’re enjoying a nice Sunday afternoon with the AC on.)

Verdict: Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove is a great instance of fulfilled expectations. Nothing threw me for a loop on the record, but I still found myself getting into the vast majority of the songs, enough to research other good Parliament and/or Funkadelic albums and add them to my eventual want list. Only the lower energy “Groovallegiance” left me wanting, but the title track, “Into You,” “Cholly (Funk Getting Ready to Roll!!),” and “Who Says a Funk Bank Can’t Play Rock?!” could have gone on much, much longer without any complaint. As I feared, the record’s in pretty bad shape, but the raunchy cartoon liner notes are in fine condition. I'll gladly buy a second copy of this album.