and the reviews roll in.

CDs, evidently, generate more press than seven-inches do.  Either that, or Dromedary was beginning to develop a better reputation.  Or maybe nurture was just a good CD.  Because the press started rolling in, and the reviews were longer and better than they’d ever been before.

What’s more, the reviews actually described the music.  Check this one out, from Optional Art Newsletter:

Stamped with yearning vocals that remind me of an effective combination of Todd Rundgren and Chris Stamey, Cuppa Joe refuses to play normal power pop.  There’s no denying they’re accessible, but amid their repertoire of chiming guitars and gripping hooks, they tend to be rather unpredictable by suddenly sneaking offbeat rhythms and tempos into the stew.  Be it garage oriented rockers or whimsical pop ditties, ‘Nurture’ brims with imaginative arrangements that make you sit up and take notice!

Okay, so there’s a comparative reference in there, but at this stage I had come to understand that it was really difficult to write a review of a band nobody’s ever heard of without providing some frame of reference.  Write about cuppa joe’s heavy guitar passages, and a reader might think they’re getting Rage Against The Machine.  Mention Todd Rundgren, and it provides a little perspective.

Throwrug nailed just about everything about the record in four sentences, captured in a unique way – as a conversation between two reviewers named Mike K and Karl:

MikeK: Boy, is this naive.

Karl: I like the printing; it looks like they sat around and printed it themselves, and packaged it themselves, and it’s still kind of sticky.  I like it, because they sound like they got beaten up every day in front of the girl’s locker room when they were in high school.  They’re earnest.

It was still kind of sticky – it’s still kind of sticky.  But “earnest,” “naive,” yeah, that’s what they were.  Around the same time, people started using the word “twee” when describing music like cuppa joe; that worked as well as anything.  They’re “twee.”

Sick To Move did a better job, I think, of capturing what the band was about in the context of a more traditional review.  When press like this started rolling in, I started getting really excited about what we’d done.  It started feeling like we were documenting something.

It’s simple, soft indie-pop music, verging on (if not crossing over into) wimpy.  But this is part of Cuppa Joe’s charm.  They aren’t muscle-bound sweat boys warily circling each other in a mosh pit.  They’re just a band with some overtly flirtatious and lovely songs and a sense of hopeless romanticism.  This is truly great indie-pop for those who enjoy more melodic and gentle tunes.

Truly great indie-pop.  In late 1994, telling me that we put out “truly great indie-pop” was about the best compliment you could have given me, and with each review like that I gained a little more confidence.

Our friend Jim Testa passed over us in Jersey Beat but was kind to us in the Jersey Journal:

This South Jersey trio remains one of the Garden State’s best-kept secrets, even after two albums, but Cuppa Joe’s wistful, instantly memorable pop songs easily match the work of indie rock’s trendiest and most popular names.  The songs are usually sad, but not self-pitying, and there’s something in singer/guitarist Doug Larkin’s voice that imbues even the most hangdog lyric with a ray of hope.

Another Jersey zine, Powerbunny 4×4, was equally kind:

Yummy pop for me tummy.  Cuppa Joe is a trio that serves it up with just the right blend of milk and sugar to make for a fun indie pop listening experience.  Songs like “Sitting Limit,” “Bottlerocket,” and “Rollercoaster” had me humming all around the hub…This disc has a very nice look to it also, as its insert is a nice little orange and purple print on grey cardstock – it gives the disc a sincere down home indie feel to it and reminds me of the thrill of discovering so many new bands a few years ago when I became a dj at the college station…I don’t know, I’m a sentimental fool, and this disc just kind of embodies that whole wide-eyed indie rock feeling I had then, and not the cynical bullshit side of it that seems to be all we see today…well I guess Cuppa Joe proves that there’s still innocence left in the music world.

The big bombshell, for us at least, was the unexpected review in Magnet.  Magnet was the closest thing that indie rock had to a glossy, commercial magazine – it was well-done with lots of great interviews and reviews; a newsstand publication that brought indie rock to the mainstream.  It was probably my favorite straight-up music magazine, and it introduced me to a lot of the bands that I listen to even today.  

Whenever Magnet came out I would flip right to the reviews section first, and hit the “M” (Melting Hopefuls), “F” (Footstone), and “C” (cuppa joe) sections, to see if our seven-inches somehow managed to garner a review.  And much to my surprise, one day I found this in the “C” section:

New Jersey-based Cuppa Joe does its own take on the classic formula for quintessential classic rock: jangly open chords over sweet melodic songs about loneliness and emotional turmoil, which has been interpreted by everyone from Big Star to the Connells to Unrest.  On Nurture, Cuppa Joe serves it up with a particularly huge dose of sugar, with mixed results.  The music is aural cotton candy; it’s sticky sweet and tastes wonderful, but too much of it makes you sick after a while.  The disc has a few fine songs; the excellent opening cut, “Sitting Limit,” sounds like a more tuneful My Dad is Dead; but other songs veer dangerously close to Toad The Wet Sprocket territory.  Nurture is just a bit too delicate for its own good, and vocalist Doug Larkin’s reedy whine especially tends to grate at times.  But on balance, Cuppa Joe’s catchy tunes and raw, lo-fi simplicity make the band worth at least a listen.

That review was, to me, a triumph of epic proportions.  To read it today, it’s clearly a mediocre review, but it said just enough – and legitimized the record just enough, that I had finally bridged the gap in my mind from feeling like I was trying to start a label to feeling like I was actually running one.  We had a great new indie pop record out, and another one on the way, a couple of strong records following it up, and a massive indie “hit” planned for the late winter.

We were real.

Of course it’s easy to count on journalists to knock you down a few pegs, and when I opened up The Aquarian looking for more of the same home-cooking that we’d gotten since Elizabeth was released, I was surprised to find this:

More quirky college pop from yet another band of the genre in state.  Good thing we’re ultra-high, population-wise, or I’d be more worried than I already am about how many people are playing this kind of music.  Repetitive indie pop, mellow and melodic, with vocals that don’t whine as much as drone.  The singer is so pitiful and sensitive sounding that I don’t know if I wanna buy him an ice cream or just smack him.  “Bottlerocket,” a kinda mod, kinda Robyn Hitchcock tune, is the only uplifting moment on this disc, and actually makes the band sound like they’re alive.  I guess that shows their potential – too bad that’s the only one that does.

A bad review in The Aquarian.

The funniest review, though, was the one from Dumpster Dive, a punk zine that somehow managed to squeeze its way onto the cuppa joe mailing list without me realizing it.  By this point I had scrutinized my promo list, segmenting it so that each publication or radio station only got the “right” music; no way should Dumpster Dive have received nurture.  But they did, and they rewarded me with this review:

Nasaly dull pop crap.  Cuppa shit total fagness.

That was it.  That was the review.

All I could really do was laugh.  I just typed it and laughed again.

But then there was the best review.  The one that came from the least likely place – the San Diego punk zine Genetic Disorder, a great little zine with a sarcastic flavor and a real punk ethic.  I picked up the zine on my first trip to San Diego and wound up subscribing and sending them every record we released in hopes of softening them up for when we released the Footstone CD – I thought Footstone would go over great in San Diego as their scene featured heavy, aggressive pop/punk in large doses.  I figured they would never review our pop stuff, but I’d send it anyway, and I’d buy ads in the zine, so that when the Footstone CD came out they’d feel obligated to review it.

They reviewed nurture instead, and here’s what they said:

These 13 songs are a gift.  They’re a present handed down from those spirits which govern creative endeavors and they capture the sensation of spending late nights at coffee shops, drinking too much espresso, and staring across the room at the must beautiful person you’ve ever seen, trying hard not to let your eyes linger long enough for them to notice.  The catchy melodies adorning these ditties seduce the listener although they’re fairly quick about it.  “Sitting Limit,” “Broken Arms,” and “Rollercoaster,” among other cuts, are insidiously addictive pop, sugary sweet and loaded with chemicals and colorings nature never saw.  If you desperately need a comparison, think Sebadoh meets Unrest on a starry night in the middle of Nebraska, listening to the wind whistle through the corn fields as the band members strum acoustic guitars and slowly fall asleep to dream.

It was insanely flattering – not just the Sebadoh meets Unrest part (Sebadoh and Unrest were probably my favorite bands in October of 1994 and remain two of my favorites today), but the “These 13 songs are a gift” sentence.

A gift.  That’s just what I wanted it to be.

There’s a pride here that’s very difficult to explain.  I’ve tried a number of times, even in this blog, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to properly articulate it.  I’ll keep trying.

Suffice to say, though, that despite all the stories – even the negative ones – there’s not a song we released (except maybe Eternal Vision) that doesn’t still make me insanely proud, even today.

And it was about to get even better.

~ by Al on June 12, 2009.

5 Responses to “and the reviews roll in.”

  1. The last review was awesome.

  2. I think I’d only ever seen one or two of these. Some really nice stuff in there, huh? It almost makes up for all of that total fagness we were spewing.

  3. That’s the best part about doing this blog 15 years later, Steve – most of the bad stuff has just become funny, but all the good stuff is so much more vivid in my memory. Eventually in the story, I just get grumpy and angry and stop putting out records, but all this time later, it seems like I just overstated all the drama and that the bad stuff was really just not that bad. In trying to recreate those emotions in this blog, I’m having a hard time with a lot of the stuff because it truly was not that big a deal – it just seemed like it was at the time.

  4. It is a total head trip reading all of this, I must say. Keep writing, this is great to read.

  5. I’m glad you like it, Doug.

    One of the things I really struggled with before starting this endeavor was how to deal with the inevitable negative story. There’s at least one for every band we worked with, and for some there was more than one (find the one where I had to tell Ralph I wouldn’t put out the Footstone 7″ because it was so bad).

    Ultimately I decided that in order to properly tell the story, and in order for readers to understand what happened in 1996 and 1997 (and even after that), that the negative stuff would need to be included. It was the cumulative impact of all the negatives that got me cranky enough to stop. Today, it’s the cumulative impact of all the positives that encouraged me to tell the story.

    Still, I would imagine that 15 years later it’s no fun to read about how one of your songs was a “clunker,” or whatever. When Ralph read the aforementioned story I think he was taken aback as well.

    Hopefully you realize that, despite operating on as small a scale as we were, it was a privilege and a pleasure to have put out your records and become your friend. Gas money notwithstanding.

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