Prolific to a fault, involved in a dizzying array of side projects and the leader of a long-lived rock group with a rotating membership and a penchant for low-fidelity recordings, Stewart Anderson might lazily be taken for an English Robert Pollard. However, Anderson’s brand of noisy, slapdash guitar pop is more Wedding Present than Who (despite his membership in a Who-inspired mod-punk group, the How), and — unlike Pollard — he’s perfectly willing to submerge his ego and play a backup role (in a wide array of bands that has so far included Hood, the Cannanes, Empress, Huon, and Fog and Ocean). Anderson also supports dozens of his fellow underground artists via a labyrinthine set of creative alliances and his stewardship of 555 Records. Though his fame does not extend much beyond than the Flagstaff, AZ, home he shares with his wife, the former Rabbit in Red bassist, solo artist and current Boyracer bassist Jen Turrell, Anderson has stamped his imprimatur across a significant swath of the indie rock world.
Anderson formed Boyracer — named for the young men who dragged the streets at night in flash sports cars — in a suburb of Leeds in 1990 with Richard Adams (guitar/keyboards), Simon Guild (guitar) and James Chadwick (drums). (Bassist Anderson and Chadwick had already recorded four future Boyracer songs as members of the Special Guests.) Following two shoegazer-leaning singles and a split single with Hula Hoop, Adams left to form Hood in 1992 and Boyracer soldiered on as a trio. The group’s sound — boyish, almost whispery vocals barely audible above a rush of buzzing guitars, like a 12-year-old Morrissey fronting a Ritalin-soaked Jam — emerges fully on the split LP with Hula Hoop, particularly on the unlisted track “This Has Gone on Too Long,” a chirping, hyper nephew of Hüsker Dü.
A format fetishist partial to 5-inch singles, ultra-limited-edition lathe-cut EPs, CD-Rs and cassettes, Anderson had the cojones to release a double flexidisc EP not long before the floppy things became extinct. Boyracer Go Flexi Crazy, recorded partly in Anderson’s house, is a bootleg-quality step backward. The obvious care taken in writing the songs is completely absent from the recording process. The tedious “Tested” recalls the group’s early singles, and “I Love You, Shut Up” and “Kitten With a Whip” reveal Anderson’s facility for tender, tuneful acoustic numbers. “Bitter” sounds like a Boyracer classic…recorded inside a giant tin can.
Fans of wimpier fare actually wrote letters of protest when Boyracer became the noisiest band on the influential twee pop label Sarah, but the group earned its sole British indie chart success with the jittery “I’ve Got It and It’s Not Worth Having” from B Is for Boyracer. The EP ushered in a punkier, more economical sound, aided by tighter performances and a real recording studio, untarnished by the frippery Anderson refuses to leave in the can when left to his own devices. The boys play it a bit looser on From Purity to Purgatory, but the songs are none the worse for it, especially the excellent “Doorframe.”
The AUL 36X EP is an angrier, louder release filled with lyrical frustration and recrimination, partly because Anderson took tighter control of Boyracer (for the first time, he wrote all the songs on the single), indulging his affinity for overdriven, buzzy guitars, and partly because the lads weren’t getting along very well. It’s not hard to believe the tense, pounding opener “Short Changed” is directed at the rest of the band (“You must see this is coming to an end / Run out of excuses / Burn our priorities / Sold ourselves short”), especially in light of Guild and Chadwick’s acrimonious split with Anderson shortly after its release. At any rate, Anderson is feeling betrayed by someone, since he sings about being stabbed in the back by the sun (“Stabbed”) and bristles mightily on “Spiteful Punk Rock Song No. 2,” with an acerbic bite that bubbles under Boyracer’s sunny surface.
Within weeks, Anderson recruited guitarist Matty Green, bassist Nicola Hodgkinson (Hood) and drummer Kevin Parry and set about recording Boyracer’s first full length. More Songs About Frustration and Self-Hate is Boyracer’s best early LP, a string of feisty, endearingly slapdash noisy bursts. It’s a close sonic and spiritual cousin to the lo-fi landmark Bee Thousand (released four months later), with a similarly distinct ethos and sense of purpose. What might sound like dross on lesser records, like the four-track solo acoustic numbers “Fifteen” and “Giving Way,” are perfect in this context, offering respites from great songs bursting with breathless energy and enthusiasm. The CD appends appends AUL 36X, a song from the double flexi and an alternate version of “Railway” from Boyracer’s first single.
Crossing the line back from charming low fidelity to plain old horrible sound, Best Flipstar is the hangover to More Songs‘ intoxicated revelry. It’s the kind of sludgy, sonic mess one expects from an EP drunkenly recorded in one day, though it’s not entirely unlikable. The speedy original “Meadowhall” and a passable cover of a Henry’s Dress song (“Feathers”) are joined by two noisy droners.
Boyracer righted itself and filled the first four tracks on We Are Made of the Same Wood with fabulous overheated pop. But the crackling start is short-circuited by “Finger Pie,” an ill-advised foray into retro synth hell that sounds like bad video game music. It’s both an early example of Anderson throwing a wrench into his own creative works and a nod toward his mostly fruitless mid-career detour as Steward. “Bring Me the Head of Phil Ochs” and “Serious Teeth” are two more incorrigible stepchildren best left at home, but the remaining short pop blasts, which feature new drummer Ged McGurn, are more than enough to make up for the dodgy bits Anderson sprays about. The bonus flexidisc that comes with the vinyl is worth having for a rocked-up rendition of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark’s “Electricity” but not for the awful-sounding live version of “Sex.”
Since Pain, Plunder and Personal Loss is presented as a set of (mostly) acoustic home recordings, barrel scrapings like “Intentions Are Redefined” can be forgiven long enough to appreciate gentler, more articulate versions of “Passionflower” from the first full-length, Best Flipstar‘s “Meadowhall” and “You’re Breaking His Heart” from We Are Made of the Same Wood. The phone messages and shards of noise between songs are annoying, but since the long EP is essentially a musical sketchbook, doodling in the margins is no great sin.
The racer 100 e.p. is the band’s finest short-player, shorn of half-baked ideas and gnarly experimental leftovers. “Baleen,” “Your Unspoken Desires” and “Untouched by Conversation” are all top-notch, and the other two songs do not lag far behind. The similarly titled LP includes all the songs from the EP and adds five non-essential cuts.
In Full Colour is Boyracer’s only true flop. For once, the group is clearly starved for material and runs out of gas at the halfway point, stuffing the 20-track turkey with dry, tasteless filler. There are a few standouts (“Small Consolation”) and the first eight numbers hold up fairly well, but a fit of electronic bloopy bleepy signals that the party’s over. Did the world really need a version of “West Riding House” backed by the pre-programmed backing music from a $20 Casio keyboard? (The far superior original version appeared on a 5-inch Zero Hour single.) The guitar-based tracks are not much better; while some achieve averageness, most are plodding, perfunctory B-side trifles.
In the midst of a three-month tour to support the album, Zero Hour dropped the group due to what the band called “excessive spending [and] poor sales.” Thus chastened, Boyracer disbanded at the end of the tour, though posthumous releases reveal a group as creatively vibrant as ever. Live on WAHM, recorded on the first day of the 1996 tour at the Amherst College radio station, begins with a so-so version of “Baleen” but quickly gets to ripping stabs at “West Riding House” and two other In Full Colour songs. The Live at Stache’s mini-LP is even better, capturing the scattered raw energy of a Boyracer live show despite squiffy sound quality. One of their finest songs is stashed at the end of A Mistake That Cost You Dearly, the pretty, mid-tempo “G/A Minor.”
Anderson hardly slowed his pace after Boyracer’s demise. He issued an LP and EP as Hulaboy with Eric Stoess of Hula Hoop (uneven, sometimes striking experimental pop), teamed with Amy Linton of the Aislers Set for a four-song single (more like Linton’s Henry’s Dress than Boyracer), performed and recorded with the Cannanes and released a slew of homebrew records under the Steward moniker, relying heavily on low-rent synthesizers and drum machines.
The Steward years consist mostly of jackleg experimentation with electronica and industrial lite, often featuring ungainly arrangements and dole queue production of songs deserving at least a semi-lavish treatment. Frustratingly, Anderson stretches his songwriting talents only to obscure them with synth burps and farts; he never seems to throw his soul into any Steward project the way he did (and does) with Boyracer.
Give Me a Seat Next to Someone Nice attempts to adapt Anderson’s songs to a new musical medium, highlighted by the sad, gorgeous “Waste,” quite similar to his concurrent and equally affecting work with Empress. “Towpath Legacy Pt. 2,” however, sounds like the demo for a Human League B-side and leads to rubbish like “Denied by Circumstance,” a wisp of a tune buried by what sound like robot bowel movements.
If the whole Steward project was anything more than an excuse for Anderson to fiddle about his home studio, There’s No Money in Rock and Roll began a downhill slide away from anything productive, a slide completed by Goodbye to Everything You Love. Though “Can’t Force the Hand” effectively lays bare Anderson’s tender side in a way Boyracer rarely did, much of the album busies itself with obscuring the many shards of good ideas it contains, like the pleasant piano phrase in “An Unpaid Debt” or the catchy lounge music riff in “Loverboy” that is eventually overcome by sampled drum rolls and distorted bleats. “Bit Part Actor Come Good” could have been a Boyracer classic if not for the R2D2-quality drum machine and a lazy, off-key vocal that wanders in and out of coherence. The Darla CD of Goodbye lops seven tracks off the original vinyl release and adds selections from the first two full-lengths, a single and two compilation tracks.
Anderson lost his chance to make a great Steward record with Horselaugh on My Ex, the depressive product of a nasty breakup that plasters over generally excellent songwriting with an impenetrable facade of electronic tomfoolery. He’s playing with toys rather than breaking new ground, burying his angst under overbearing drum machine beats, distorted synth squawks, inappropriately placed samples and the no-fi quality of his four-track recorder. “Waiting for Our Pasts to Catch Up With Us” is an exception, using a Wedding Present vibe and Farfisa organ to good effect, showing how the Steward project might have expanded Anderson’s sound without obliterating it. A dozen guests, including members of the Cannanes, Beatnik Filmstars, Hood and Girlboy Girl, add little to the LP, since most of their efforts are overwhelmed by Anderson’s jarring racket.
I Was the Only Boy on the Netball Team contains Anderson’s remixes of songs by other artists (Acetate Zero, Aube), remixes of Steward material by the likes of Kid 606 and Accelera Deck and four otherwise unreleased Steward songs. Steward Loves You is a cassette given away at the Slumberland Records’ 10th anniversary show.
Having satisfied his basement electronica bug, Anderson reformed a rejuvinated, improved version of Boyracer in 2000 with Green and two new members: bassist and wife-to-be Turrell and drummer Frank Jordan. A best-of-disc (Boyfuckingracer) and a tour ensued, although Green was deported and Anderson was unable to play guitar after breaking his collarbone on the first night. (Guitarist Ara Hacopian was drafted as a fill-in and became a Boyracer tour fixture and part-time songwriter/studio band member.)
Recorded on three different continents with help from Hacopian, Jordan, McGurn, Green and others, To Get a Better Hold You’ve Got to Loosen Yr Grip is a fuzzed-out, joyously imperfect document of Anderson’s pent-up need to rock after the Steward years. Ragged and lovable, like a gnarled old eyeless teddy bear, the album has an unbridled energy that infuses nearly every song, especially new noisy pop classics like “Tell Me Where My Hands Should Go” and “Heaven Is Not Broken.” Anderson and crew take brief breathers on the contemplative “Grand Rapids” and the lovely “Everyday Is Christmas With You,” both of which owe a bit to Steward, but most of the album is a happily messy explosion that effectively recaptures the Boyracer spirit.
Anderson burned copies of Racer Deluxe to hand out at 2002’s CMJ Music Marathon, but most of the new studio material appears on later releases. Bsides and Besides is a for-serious-fans-only odds and sods collection with a healthy share of discarded scraps and a few worthwhile gems, including the heretofore unreleased “Patric Walker,” an excellent two bass/no guitar version of “My New Shoes” and two untitled instrumentals.
Boyracer’s hit-and-miss Girlracer half of the split album with 2003 tour mates Kanda features covers of songs originally by women, leading to the surprising juxtaposition of the Shangri-Las and Yazoo. Versions of Dolly Mixture’s “How Come You’re Such a Hit With the Boys, Jane?” and the Primitives’ “Stop Killing Me” are right up Boyracer’s alley, but a version of Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s “Murder on the Dancefloor” proves Anderson should stay off the disco floor.
Check Yr Fucking Hi$tory contains three very good takes on the Boyracer fuzzpop template, a jaunty pop song with a female Japanese vocalist who sounds like she ingests helium before each line and a decent tune that devolves into a self-indulgent feedback fest.
The cassette-only Acoustically Yours is a revelation of sorts, since Anderson’s songs look great naked, without layers of trebly noise. None of the energy and earnestness that fuel his songwriting is missing here, just the distorted scree that sometimes buries his better tunes. New songs and alternate versions of old ones are joined by a great cover of “The Others Way” by the obscure New Zealand trio Doublehappys. We Have Such Gifts, a lathe-cut vinyl EP in a pressing of 70, offers four live songs and a version of “You’ve Squandered Yr Talents” among its nine tracks.
Though not quite as good as the first post-reunion LP, Happenstance is another solid collection of Boyracer finery, at times sounding a bit like Reckoning-era REM, spouting Morrisseyesque lyrics (“I Thought Even More of You When You Told Me You Wanted Me Dead”) and throwing in the odd explosive pop ditty about paranoid acquaintances (“Where to Place Your Trust?”).
The flurry of discs released in the wake of Happenstance are mostly excellent, though issuing two long-players of top-drawer songs would have been wiser than upchucking a mini LP and five EPs that include scrapheap fodder. Despite alternate takes of three previously released songs, Absence Makes the Heart Grow Harder is hardly a B-sides and castaways collection. In fact, adding the best songs from Fool Around With Boyracer might have produced one of the group’s best LPs, leaving a fine Fall cover from Fool Around (“Lucifer Over Lancashire”) for one of Boyracer’s countless compilation appearances.
Yorkshire Soul starts strong with the fiery “Concede” and a great version of “Heaven Is Not Broken” with acoustic guitar and bells. The remaining six songs, however, are merely adequate, save perhaps for the instrumental “Pop Holiday,” which sounds like the theme song to a Japanese children’s cartoon.
Initially released as a crummy-sounding cassette, It’s Not True Grit, It’s Real Dirt sounds much better as a vinyl single that pairs four electric songs with their acoustic counterparts. Continuing the Boyracer tradition of odd record formats, the EP is double grooved — where the needle drops determines whether the listener hears the fine acoustic versions or the too-noisy, less satisfying electric versions. Winners, Lo$ers, Cuts and Brui$es is sorely in need of a similar sonic upgrade: the limited (100 pressed) lathe-cut EP features some great songs, but it sounds like five layers of sediment separated the band and the studio microphones. Insults and Insights marks a return to listenability, including a Girls at Our Best! cover (“Fast Boyfriends”) that’s loads of fun.
A Punch Up the Bracket delivers yet another fine set of songs to an ever-shrinking crowd of ardent Boyracer fans, but anyone with even a passing interest in indie rock would do well to pick up the stupendous 75-song, two-disc Punker Than You Since ’92 compilation. Since Anderson and Turrell couldn’t locate the masters for the Zero Hour and Sarah material, the “1991-1996” disc features nine faithfully re-recorded songs, some of which sound better than the originals. Worthwhile tunes from the relatively hard-to-find Sarah EPs are on this disc (no Boyracer release is easy to find), as well as cherry-picked nuggets from spottier early releases. The “2001-2006” disc is similarly solid, culling the best from the quixotically profuse stream of Boyracer music.
Since the sum of Boyracer’s 2006 album sales came to less than the number of cows on Turrell and Anderson’s farm (about 350), Anderson announced the group’s semi-retirement — songs from the still-gushing Boyracer spigot will only appear on the extremely limited edition, self-released odd recording formats Anderson favors. To that end, Anderson delivered no less than four new recordings in early 2007, all of them scarce as promised.
Without straying too far from Boyracer’s signature sound, Flickering B+W finds Anderson maturing, stretching song lengths past the three-minute mark and coming to grips with the fact he’s stopped being one of “the kids.” “The bar is buzzing but it’s no longer our night,” he muses on the album-closing “In My Previous Life,” among a younger crowd to whom he can no longer relate. Detachment and disaffection, an ever-present Boyracer theme, is brought to the fore by songs that grow and breathe without inducing yawns. Boyracer’s whizz-bang fizzpop still stands tall (check the sharp, spazzy “I Don’t Want No Trouble”) but Anderson speaks with more clarity and gives folks a few more reasons to keep listening by broadening his sound, if only by a few centimeters.
Anderson recorded Victory Bruises as Stewart, hurling another six songs, using something akin to bossa nova beats, at the wall to see what sticks. A dandy cover of Alternative TV’s “Love Lies Limp” (nice drumming, Stu) and a jazzy, reworked version of “They’re Making Money Off You” stand out. “Nottingham” and the title track are adequate, and the other two should have stayed at home.
Judging from the first CD-R in a supposed series, Boyracer Jukebox Vol. 1 is more a shout-out to bands that influenced Anderson and Turrell than inventive reworkings of favorite songs. The faithful covers are far from boring, however, since precious few rock fans have even heard of Aussie punks Scrotum Poles (“Pick the Cat’s Eyes Out”) or friends of the band like Ashtray Boy and Hula Hoop. The energetic Boyracer paeans to these obscure chestnuts are sure to spark curiosity (Black Tambourine, anyone?), overshadowing the often flat versions of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” (credited to Cyndi Lauper, who covered it on She’s So Unusual).
the genius of (the) HULABOY strips away most of the Boyracer brand distorto-fuzz, revealing a wealth of songwriting prowess and potential in both Anderson and his co-writer/performer Stoess. “Gay Boys on Your Battlefield” draws heavily from Raspberries/Big Star style power pop without papering over Anderson’s charming, shambolic fragility. The retro electronica of “Horses” fulfills the wasted promise of the Steward experiment. Elsewhere, Hulaboy explores a mellow blend of Sebadoh and the Velvet Underground’s third album (these songs usually feature a Stoess vocal) and uptempo Boyracer cousins (generally sung by Anderson).
Turrell, a talented and prolific recording artist in her own right, steals the show on the Boyracer/Mytty Archer split EP. Mytty Archer is essentially a Turrell-led version of Boyracer, and while Anderson’s two Boyracer songs are perfectly adequate, Turrell’s four short pop numbers stand out. No different from typical Boyracer fare, they’re appealingly short, sharp and sprightly, even the ones that deal with an abusive relationship (“Be Brave”) and alcohol abuse (“Rocco Au Go-Go,” which effectively swipes the central riff from the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun”). Her bright, wispy voice and light touch are a fine counterbalance to Anderson’s moodier outlook. More of her songs might really spruce up the next Boyracer LP.