While every one of these bands has indisputably defined its own singular identity, the restless, incestuous pool of members and intents forming the core of each renders them analogous to a single beast with multiple heads pointing in different directions. Evolving from late-’70s CBGB teenage power-poppers the Limit, Band of Outsiders began by self-releasing a no-big-deal ’81 single of spiky two-guitar indie rock. A year later, hot downtowners Certain General came out with their five-song debut, Holiday of Love, a fresher and more immediate mix of spartan semi-funk, drifting/scattershot guitar and male/female vocals akin to a reserved Peter Murphy (admittedly a contradiction in terms) duetting with Exene. Despite a borderline tendency to then-typical new wave conventions, the songs still sound fresh — even refreshing — today, as befits what must be the only record in history to be co-produced by Peter Holsapple and Michael Gira.
Come 1984, with both bands established as NYC club regulars, they joined forces to form Sourmash Records and release Far Away in America, an album to which each contributed two live and two studio songs. By this point, the groups had grown closer in sound; Band of Outsiders in particular evincing an atmosphere and range barely hinted at on the previous 45.
Minus drummer/co-vocalist Marcy Saddy, Certain General eschews much of their jagged arhythm for a more straightforward pop moodiness on November’s Heat, which includes new versions of several Far Away songs. The album emphasizes the band’s morose poetic imagery (especially vocalist Parker DuLany) in a manner paralleling R.E.M. (with whom they’d shared tiny stages) while continuing to chart a characteristically oblique course.
That same year, Band of Outsiders released the six-song Up the River, further developing a sound that compared favorably to both Television and the then-nascent Cali-zona bands (True West, Green on Red, Thin White Rope): heartland songsmithery with guitars in uneasy collaboration and/or comfortable rivalry. Dropping the raucous but poorly recorded live cover of “Child of the Moon,” the remaining Up the River songs reappeared on Everything Takes Forever, along with the two Far Away studio tracks and three outtakes from those sessions.
The all-new I Wish I Was Your Kid offered their best material to date, particularly the somnolent yet barbed title cut. Bringing all of the group’s preceding efforts to a head, Longer Than Always is a soft, sizzling set of songs to sing through clenched teeth while handcuffed in the back seat of a patrol car.
Certain General, meanwhile, had more or less crumbled, prompting guitarist Phil Gammage to nab a new rhythm section and take center stage in the Corvairs. Temple Fire is quite similar to latter-day Certain General, albeit less arty and tortured (thanks to his Gene Pitneyesqe vocals). The latent/blatant Morricone/Scotty Moore rhythms retreated a bit for Sad Hotel, an undistinguished and ill-conceived extended dance track backed by a competent surf instrumental and little else of consequence.
Reflecting the bands’ growing European following, New Rose released These Are the Days, a half-finished compendium of material recorded by Parker DuLany and a new backing group (notably Sprague Hollander), under the Certain General name. By 1988’s Cabin Fever, the band had effectively condensed to just the duo plus incidental musicians; Hollander produced this slick and seamless set of lyrically haughty, musically specious tunes. Jacklighter offers superior material and comfortable production by (alternately) Fred Maher and Lloyd Cole, positing the band as neo-soft-rockers, comparable to Giant Sand if that group were drained of all grit and attack.
Back to Band of Outsiders: Act of Faith recycles all three tracks from I Wish I Was Your Kid in different versions, along with a new “Conviction” from the live half-album. Acts of Faith (the pluralized US edition) drops two tracks and adds the Longer Than Always EP in its entirety. Like the subtler concurrent New Zealand bands couching their pop in muted tones and colors, Band of Outsiders relied not so much on hooks or abandon as an ensnaring ambience.
Armistice Day catches Band of Outsiders in a November 1988 one-shot reunion — eighteen months after their split — airing the archives, but also doing a few newies and covers. Recorded in almostereo, the miserable US pressing undermines the relaxed versions of — inexplicably — the band’s non-hits, focusing mostly on less-memorable material. A visiting Nikki Sudden plucks a few guitar chords and warbles undiscernibly on the last two tracks; Jeremy Gluck did the liner notes. (Members of the BOO/CG axis had previously played on both Sudden and Gluck records and tours, and continue to do so.)
Released in 1988, Rio Blanco (the Corvairs’ first full LP) is a distillation/reduction of Gammage’s career to date, as produced by Fleshtone Keith Streng. With all the initial spikiness gone, the Corvairs here play familiar rock’n’roll, from worn heels to fuzzy chins. Hitchhiker spreads out a bit sonically, allowing for a better sounding version of the same old thing. In its finer moments, Hitchhiker presents a likable band playing forgettable material.
The opposite is true of Gammage’s solo debut, Night Train, wherein a more fluid and versatile group (comprised largely of familiar gene-pool faces) puts some personality into oddly underwrought darkside Americana echoing Nick Cave’s fascinations minus the melodrama. Which might well make Gammage this generation’s Hank Williams.
Meantime, Band of Outsiders singer/guitarist Marc Jeffrey — on his way to becoming this generation’s Nick Drake — delivered his best LP yet. On Playtime, he delves deeply into melancholy, utilizing axis backing for non-rock instrumentation and approaches, neatly avoiding any maudlin and/or baroque temptations. Playtime unfolds like a series of stark confessionals, morose romanticism curiously reminiscent of Peter Perrett’s England’s Glory; low-key, unfinished yet attractive blueprints just waiting for that dose of electroshock to kick them into the annals of greatness.