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

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