xtc and food.

The press for Flying Suit was ridiculous.

We had, by this point, gotten a pretty strong reputation for getting good press.  Bigger indies than ours commented on it.  Guys in bands that were on bigger labels talked about it.  I couldn’t explain it.

But if you took all the press we had gotten up to that point and put it together, it wouldn’t equal the press we got between nurture, Flying Suit, and a Footstone interview that really changed the way we looked at music pubs.

The Flying Suit reviews were on a whole different level.  And there were a million of them.  Despite my penchant for hyperbole, I had never seen a record – or a band – referred to as “perfect,” or some other word implying “perfect,” so many times, in so many places.

Dumpster Dive, the zine that called nurture “cuppa shit, total fagness,” was only slightly nicer to the Mommyheads.  It was one of the only two bad reviews we got:

Light hearted frolicking fun, perky poppy crisp production, lackluster lyrics.  These guys need more pain and hardship in their lives, and distortion.

Okay.  Fuck you.

The second bad review was from The Aquarian.  By then, I had fully entrenched myself in the “The Aquarian is a piece of shit” camp, and since they were the closest to me, geographically, they were always the first publication to review our record.  This was no exception, and they had nothing meaningful to say:

More of that whimsical, quirky collegiate pop rock that compels kids to wear grade school-style book-bags and plastic barrettes well into their late teens.  Nothing outstanding here, and even though there is definitely more variety in sound than your average band of this sort, it is still agonizingly repetitive.  The vocals are the focal point here in a slightly Violent Femmes wannabe kinda way, surrounded with light drums, guitar, bass and piano.  This album is too gentle to evoke emotion and the band’s deliberate wimpiness makes me wanna force feed them incredible amounts of caffeine or speed or something.  Live, dammit, live!

What bugged me most about The Aquarian was something that Jim Testa had very deftly solved with Jersey Beat.  If one of your reviewers doesn’t know shit about a particular genre of music, don’t give that reviewer the record.  Barrettes and Violent Femmes and “deliberate wimpiness” was such a horseshit copout that I had resolved myself never to send another record to that pub again.

But my anger was softened by the rest of the reviews.

There were so many reviews that I lost track of where they all came from.  Ordinarily, a review would come in and I would cut it out of the publication, write the name on the back, and then make a copy of it.  There were so many Mommyheads reviews that I didn’t always bother.  They came in zines, they came in tear sheets, and Adam sent me weekly envelopes filled with press clips from the road.  Fifteen years later, I can only take my best guess at where some of these came from – so I think this is the review from New York Magazine:

It isn’t just any band that can shamelessly use a Fender Rhodes electric piano as one of its primary instruments.  You have to be a special kind of crazy to consider it and another more twisted sort to actually pull it off.  Well, that fairly well describes the Mommyheads, whose quirky approach brings to mind the best aspects of XTC, Todd Rundgren and 10cc.

Stepping in line with the current resurgence in melody based alt-pop, the Mommyheads have a knack for arrangement, but it is their rock solid songwriting and perfectly blended vocals (courtesy of Adam Cohen and Michael Holt) that are the band’s greatest assets.  The songs are all basically about relationships – not necessarily to call them “love songs” – but titles like “Worm,” “Spiders” and “Henry Miller is Dead” let you know that the trip will not be down familiar paths.

The off-the-cuff “Valentine’s Day,” a paeon to a beautiful stranger on a bus, is a rough, one-take track reminiscent of a vintage Matt Wilson onstage improv: when I looked at you, you looked away/and when you looked at me, I did the same/just like proper New Yorkers/do you wanna put down the Walkman with which you are obviously bored?

The brevity of the 8-song disc, just over 25 minutes, makes Flying Suit play like a delicious appetizer, satisfying while it lasts by leaving the listener wanting more.  You’ll just have to pick up their two previous albums to curb that appetite.

The review carried on two long traditions that I was beginning to notice:

1) The Mommyheads got compared to XTC a lot.

2) Reviewers of pop records often liken the music to food.

A local publication, the name of which I did not write down, wrote such a fantastic review – and a long review – that I can’t even truncate it here in this blog:

XTC’s Andy Partridge once said that his goal was to write songs that were “so good that they hurt to listen to.”  The Mommyheads have been doing that for the past four years, at least.  The Californian foursome have carefully crafted songs so full of yearning and winsomeness, so beautifully original, that it’s a shame they’ve only been rewarded with obscurity.

When the band began in the late ’80s, lead Mommyhead Adam Cohen filled his compact songs with Captain Beefheart-like musical quirks and squawks; with each lineup change, the band has grown more “normal,” but no less inventive.  Flying Suit, their new eight-song EP, downplays the unsettling tempo shifts and complex melodic lines of past releases (such as the rococo Acorn from 1989) in favor of a more focused approach.  With songs like the simple, Kinks-ish “Annabelle Ann” and the earthy, tripping waltz “Saints Preserve Us,” this is one of their best releases.

“Sandman” begins the disc with a dreamlike mood reminiscent of their best song, “(Waiting for a) Remedy” (which can be found on their Simple Machines 7″ from last year – buy that now).  As with all Mommyheads songs, “Sandman” evolves, ending up someplace completely different from where it started.  The band knows the power of dynamics and how to arrange a song.  With its trebly, distorted guitars, angular melody, and over-the-top vocals, “Henry Miller” shakes more walls than an earthquake and transports the listener into the narrator’s unstable, crumbling world.  And when the vocalist wails “web, web, web” at the climax of “Spiders,” a disquieting effect is created, making the listener realize that, for its entire duration, the songs has been gracefully and subtly spinning toward its breakdown.

Unlike most modern pop, Mommyheads songs qualify as full-blown compositions – every note, every instrument is there for a reason, contributing something to the texture and melody of the song, like the keyboard at the end of “Bottom Out” that sounds like a jack-in-the-box being wound up, reflecting the anxiety of a boy visiting a girl at her house.  There’s not a wasted note to be found.  After being subjected to the sonically flat, similarly-recorded MTV hits by such grounded acts as Aerosmith and Stone Temple Pilots, listening to Flying Suit is the aural equivalent of putting on 3-D glasses.

All eight songs on the EP (and the rest of their repertoire, especially the brilliant Coming Into Beauty) are kaleidoscopic, sophisticated, and tuneful, each using strange shades of sound that don’t seem to exist anywhere outside of the Mommyheads’ colorful world.  Surreal emotional pop doesn’t come any more beautiful than this.

F-U-C-K.  How do you get a better review than that?  There were enough adjectives in that interview to choke an English professor.

And yet the XTC comparisons persisted, this one from Brooklyn’s Sound Views:

Yet another collection of brilliantly constructed pop from these former Brooklynites, who now reside in San Francisco.  Infectious melodies and out-of-left-field hooks run throughout thanks to singer/guitarist Adam Cohen’s blooming Andy Partridge (circa Big Express) songwriting complex.  The overall high musicianship level of this band is shocking and is best witnessed live, but until they come back through town, check out this and any of their other impressive releases.

And this one, from our new best friends at Magnet, who suddenly liked to review our records:

Even while the indie scene’s stylistic sediment begins to ossify, a few warped visionaries manage to slip and slide at will through the inevitable, and lucky, cracks.  SanFran’s Mommyheads have an eclectic, spazz-pop charm as addictive as opiated molasses.  And while in my book “clever” is next to “pejorative,” these four roadhogs make the word a positive tag through a clean simplicity.  A nominal, almost nursery rhyme tune like “Spiders” (as in “getting bitten by”) is like the allegorical jingle Andy Partridge never wrote, all spiraling riffs, casual rhythms and sing-songy vocals that have you humming along after less than one listen.  Or the itchy syncopations and screwball lyrics of “Worm,” plus a self-deprecating and slightly bitter lyric, offer a glimpse of what David Byrne could have become had he kept his sense of humor.  Yes, the lads are thinking person’s pop, but are neither irritatingly intellectual like They Might Be Giants or dauntingly progressive like Shudder to Think; they never forget the power of the solid backbeat and a great melody. And man, they rock like motherfuckers onstage.

Come to think of it, that one had the XTC reference and the food reference.

Then there was this one, again from a pub I can’t recall:

A hidden treasure that’s been roaming indie-rock byways from Brooklyn to San Francisco for years, the Mommyheads specialize in winsomely low-key, perfectly cut gems of avant-pop.  There are keyboards but of the clunky, Modern Lovers variety; there are guitars but overlaid and cross-hatched with a baroque imagination worthy of XTC.  The surreally poetic lyrics and quirky arrangements give way to gorgeous vocal harmonies and hooky, Beatlesque choruses that last and last.  This record, like their last for the superhip label Simple Machines, is an embarrassment of riches, but the unfashionably clean production and note-perfect playing shows anything but embarrassment.

XTC again, and two “perfects.

Stating the obvious, some local pub in Maine, writing in advance of the band’s October 29 show, wrote:

The Mommyheads play an adventurous and quirky style of pop that has led nearly everyone who’s written about them to compare the group to XTC.  Adam Cohen, the band’s guitarist, singer and lyricist, is flattered by the comparison, although he doesn’t feel it’s totally accurate.

“We all love XTC, but we’ve been losing that sound,” says Cohen, who correctly notes that “any band these days that plays non-generic, intelligent pop inevitably gets compared to XTC.  They’re poppy and innovative and yet remain underground, so I suppose there’s some similarity (to the Mommyheads) there, but we’ve got our own thing going.”

The band’s third and latest CD, “Flying Suit,” is one of those out-of-the-blue surprises that occasionally shows up in the mail and makes the preparation of this column such a joy.  This album is better than 90 percent of the glossy, sanitized stuff that currently passes for Top 40 music.  If you can find it, which should prove next to impossible, buy it.

“Which should prove next to impossible.”  Yes.  The press – both quality and quantity – was overtaking our ability to get records out there.  It was making me crazy.

~ by Al on June 16, 2009.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: