Monday, April 29, 2013

The Figgs - Lo-Fi At Society High (Imago, 1994)

The Figgs have released 11 full-length albums over their 26 year history, and honestly you can't go wrong with any of them. But if I encountered hostile visitors from another planet and had to convince them of The Figgs' unequivocal greatness in order to save the world from obliteration, the album I'd play for them first is the band's 1994 major label debut.

Saratoga Springs, New York's Figgs were one of countless underground bands to get signed amidst the early '90s major label feeding frenzy on "alternative" acts. Inked to Imago Records (a faux indie BMG subsidiary whose roster featured the likes of the Rollins Band, Love Spit Love, and Basehead), The Figgs were hardly newcomers on the scene. They'd been together since 1987 and had already released two highly praised cassette albums on Brad Morrison's Absolute A Go Go Records. And while Lo-Fi At Society High didn't exactly tank, clearly The Figgs were atypical of what was passing for "alternative" music in the post-Nirvana world. Musically influenced by the likes of Elvis Costello, The Replacements, Kinks, and Buzzcocks, The Figgs had little interest in teen angst or self-loathing. Lo-Fi At Society High is exactly what you'd expect from a band renowned for its high energy live performaces: an upbeat pub rock/power pop record made to be played loud and thoroughly enjoyed. And while it may be a little on the formulaic side (What great power pop album isn't?), the band's brilliantly sardonic lyrics and incredible musical talent elevate the record from standard genre exercise to overlooked classic. Blessed with two superb songwriters (actually three if you count the unheralded Guy Lyons), The Figgs did not hurt for A-level material. Mike Gent and Pete Donnelly, the indie McCartney and Lennon, were both just coming into their own as artists. But while The Figgs may have gone on to make even better records, there's just something about their early stuff that hits the sweet spot for me. Anytime I'm jonesing for classic Figgs, I go for Lo-Fi's punchy melodies and exhilarating hooks.

Nearly two decades later, it's the songs that make Lo-Fi hold up so well. Donnelly's "Favorite Shirt" is still a manic jolt of pop perfection. And Gent's mid-tempo masterpiece "Wasted Pretty" remains the best song Graham Parker never wrote. "Step Back Let's Go Pop" is one of my all-time favorite album openers, while the hyper-caffeinated "Stood Up" embodies the kind of band The Figgs were at this point in time. And while it's the faster stuff that everyone remembers most, fine ballads like "Shut" hint at the varied repertoire this band would later cultivate. Many of the album's best tracks were re-recorded versions of songs from The Figgs' two tapes - which accounts somewhat for Lo-Fi's "all killer, no filler" feel. From start to finish, it's a flawless collection of rockin' pop songs. Whether you're cranking it in your car or just chilling on the porch with a cold beverage, this is one of those albums that never gets old.

After Imago Records folded in 1996, The Figgs landed at Capitol Records and issued the spectacular but overlooked Banda Macho. It would be their last major label release. Undeterred by the loss of their deal with Capitol and the eventual departure of second guitarist Lyons, the band probably made its finest recordings in the late '90s and early 2000s. And even in recent years, they've continued to turn out consistently excellent releases. The 25-song retrospective 1000 People Grinning, issued this year on Stomper Records, is a great summation of The Figgs' long and brilliant career. But if that's where you start, make sure Lo-Fi At Society High is your next stop. 

-Josh Rutledge

Friday, April 12, 2013

SUBSETS - Ape Facin' EP (Granado Records, 2013)

(BOMB-001): That's the official catalog number of the first release from Cincinnati-based Granado Records. Appropriately, a pull-the-pin weapon used in warfare and other hostile conflicts such as deciding where to eat chili serves as the company logo. The already-iconic visual will undoubtedly explode upon targeted stationery, bumper stickers, buttons and T- shirts. Territories mapped in the label's crosshairs include several STOP signs on Ludlow Avenue, a trash receptacle behind Darou Salam African grocery, Foxy Shazam's bloated tour vessel, Andy Slob's mailbox, the rear bumper of whatever the hell Kenny Roa is driving these days, an overlooked bin at Shake It Records, the bulletin board at a nearby Kroger, a "Crave Zone" spot at White Castle, a City Beat paper box and Timothy "Treebeard" Adams' apartment door. The apparent hostage situation will actually be a rescue attempt to save the chosen ones from their everyday gunpoints of eating soggy sandwiches on white bread, texting "OMG" and "LOL" to Facecrack "friends," placing orange wedges in faux-microbrew bottles and watching the latest bits of phony reality on an idiot box. Forget the Taylor Swift breaking-up bullshit, and start a relationship with an artist who cuts more to the quick.

Like a stray shark who's hungry for an inexperienced surfer's leg, SUBSETS draw blood on the menacing title track and tear at the limb until it is completely severed. Utilizing the Screamers- with-guitars behaviorist attack of The Spits, they dine on "electric eels," "mall losers" and "turkeys" amidst the backdrop of a purple-haze horizon. "Make You (Do It Again)" repeats the B- movie madness on terra firma "with a switchblade." Though the knife-related lyric is all I can decipher from the transmission, tension stabs reminiscent of an old Dangerhouse 45 or Shawn Swifty's favorite Kill The Hippies record require no assistance from a code talker. The Spits' Ramones-y side punches its time card on "I Don't Wanna Be Here," and the 1-2-3-4 beats on the mundane routine of a 9-to-5 existence. Hey, SUBSETS: Could you steal some good pens for me? The ink from this Rollerball has been flowing inconsistently throughout the review. 'Pprech! Lastly, "Suffocation" chokes like Iggy Stooge fronting the Wipers in a venue constructed out of a giant Ziploc bag. Some might ask, "Well, ain't that grunge?" They can go suck on John Varvatos' exhaust pipe with that crap.

(BOMB-002) will drop soon. Stock the shelter with Star-Kist. You've been warned.

-Gunther 8544