Friday, January 28, 2011

The Connells - Boylan Heights (TVT, 1987)

It wasn't an easy decision to choose which Connells album would be discussed on these pages. Along with R.E.M. and The Smiths -- two undeniable influences of these Raleigh, NC pop gods -- Mike Connell (guitar/vocals), David Connell (bass), Doug MacMillan (vocals), George Huntley (guitar/vocals) and Pelle Wimberley (drums) logged many hours on turntables and tape decks during my junior and senior years of high school. I remember Darker Days (1986) helped me cope with an otherwise uneventful bus ride one cold morning. "Seven" pressed its luck with a case of vocal hiccups, jangly guitar heroics, steady basslines and skilled stickwork. This and the other eight tracks on the disc were almost like a permission slip for the Hatful Of Hollow T-shirt I'd worn in regular rotation. Fun And Games (1989) was a tour my brother Mike and I caught at The Boathouse in Norfolk, VA. After taking several wrong turns in the Bondo-covered 1977 Chevy Malibu, we finally made it inside in time to hear catchy cuts like "Something To Say," "Upside Down," "Hey Wow" and "Sat Nite (USA)." There were at least 25-30 of our Salem High School classmates at the gig, which made us refer to The Connells as an unofficial local band for years afterward. Mike and I also saw the fellas in support of their follow-up effort -- the crunch-pop classic One Simple Word (1990). "Stone Cold Yesterday," "Speak To Me" and "Take A Bow" hit the hardest, but gentle caresses from "What Do You Want?" and "Waiting My Turn" were welcome stopgaps. The band's playful side was best shown on "Too Gone," via a lyrical lift from '80s R & B star Shannon's "Let The Music Play." Ring (1993) called repeatedly with perhaps The Connells' most direct pop songs to date. "Slackjawed" was showcased on Conan O'Brien's gabfest. " '74-'75" garnered massive airplay in Europe. "New Boy" headed an EP that also featured an interesting take of Jethro Tull's "Living In The Past." "Burden" had such a killer Byrds-y hook, Tom Petty would've reached for his cash drawer. Unfortunately, Mix Master Mike and I weren't able to witness the Carolina gents at one of their peak moments. But thanks to a big brother who'd kept his left ear glued to a Sony boombox, our appreciation for The Connells began in modest circumstances.

Moving from Portsmouth to Virginia Beach during the summer of 1987 forever changed the way I listened to music. Because of independent stores like The Music Man and cutting-edge DJs such as FM-99's Carol Taylor, I was presented with more audio options than the default dross emanating from 97-Star and Z-104. Instead of Bon Jovi and other tarts for teens, I recorded songs from the likes of The Alarm, BoDeans, Midnight Oil, The Insiders, Rainmakers and many more onto my ever-growing collection of mixed tapes. One of my favorite moments from the homemade stash of C-60s happened to be the first shot from Boylan Heights. In spite of a line that read, "I delight in my despair," "Scotty's Lament" captured vivid images of angels and windmills that betrayed any self-loathing. With infectious choruses and clanging guitars, it brought to mind another Southern pop act from my tapes who would later strike "green" in a major record deal. Often considered The Connells' answer to R.E.M.'s Murmur, Boylan Heights shares a kindred spirit in legendary producer Mitch Easter. Once again, he's at the helm of a disc that's by turns dark, uplifting and folksy. The blaring trumpets and 1776-style snaring of "Over There" are an inspiring call to arms when the "boys hit distant soil," but the instruments become tuneless when facing anti-war rhetoric ("Lead the sheep in their sleep to slaughter"). So much for using it as a recruiting pitch, huh? Staying on the battlefield, "Choose A Side" finds a "soldier" not willing to discuss his painful experiences ("When they've torn you every way/ Put your past away/When they said to choose a side/It made you want to hide"). Whether the hurt is caused by wounds from shrapnel or a woman named Sherry, you're left with a bitter smile all the same. "Try" makes an attempt to revive a relationship that was once strong, even though the finality is like the Dead End sign on We No Longer Court ("But if you should feel confined/Then take the step and you could leave it all"). A stab at reconciliation highlights "Home Today," but the Morrissey/Marr bounce is popped with a pocket knife ("I like your face, but I can't anymore"). A final meeting on "I Suppose" fails to take place ("All the way down to the park/And I never saw you there"). This is also branded by marks from The Smiths. Perhaps Miss No Show prefers The Cure.

Should the key lineup of The Connells decide to perform at my 25-year reunion at Salem High School in 2015, I'll be the portly man in the crowd wearing a Bayside Marlins sweatshirt. Hope Timbaland doesn't beat me up.

-Gunther 8544

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