The mercurial Cheepskates began life as an anomaly on New York’s garage-rock scene: when most of their peers were scouring exurbia for vintage paisleys and vinyl (the more primitive the better, on both counts), this low-key quartet was creating some of the most carefully crafted pure pop to escape from those Seed-y halls. Run Better Run, dominated by Shane Faubert’s bouncy (but not overly retro) Farfisa organ and clear, expressive voice, attests to the group’s originality. Usually smart, occasionally precious songs like “Gone for Good” and “That’s When I Say Goodbye” are reminiscent of the Zombies’ art-school pop. Refreshingly cover-free (all four members write; three swap lead vocals), the disc is a timeless pleasure.
The original lineup split while recording the follow-up (hence the title), and the attendant tension is audible. The songs are looser in structure (though not overlong) and rely a bit too heavily on David Herrera’s whammy-bar fills. The diffusion does yield some positive by-products, notably Herrera’s “Good Life” (essentially a rewrite of Neil Young’s “Barstool Blues”) and bassist Tony Low’s “Every Man’s a King,” the album’s best song. Still, novices should stick to the debut.
After losing Keith and guitarist David John Herrera (who went on to release the underwhelming A Handout From a Cheepskate in 1989), the ‘Skates continued on as a trio of Faubert, bassist Tony Low and new drummer Jeremy Lee. Remember is a spare, atmospheric collection of dark pop that would forever put the revivalist tag behind them. Although the songs are still shaded with Farfisa, Faubert proves himself a very good guitarist in the Roger McGuinn vein on songs like “Backwards Boy” and the moody “Better off Alone.”
It Wings Above continues the Cheepskates’ creative ascent: it’s a small-scale pop revelation with sturdy tracks like the breezy “Someday,” the haunting, beautifully constructed “Baybee” and the vividly descriptive, boppy “Cathode Prison.” There are swatches of saxophone and glockenspiel, and the overall tone is brighter. Songs like the stunning “Goodbye Princess” and “From Light to Pouring Rain” occasionally swirl in a heady Game Theory (or even “Ride My See-Saw”-era Moody Blues) direction.
Recorded in Berlin in 1988, the live Waiting for Unta is a loose, generous eighteen-song set that includes a bundle of Faubert-written songs from the band’s ample back catalogue as well as covers of the Equals’ “Baby Come Back,” the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” and, oddly, Peggy Lee’s “Fever.” Besides their well-documented pop intuition, the trio — here augmented by ex-Wind/future Noel Coward’s Ghost guitarist Lane Hollend (né Steinberg) — reveals a harder, Quicksilver-like side with plenty of guitar interplay.
To further complicate critical matters, the band’s next release, Songs Volume One — Perry Como, a five-song curio that finds Faubert wrapping his pipes around such standards as “Catch a Falling Star” and “Dream on Little Dreamer.” Strange, yet somehow fitting — and not nearly as strange as Songs Volume Two, which contains Cheepskates interpretations of six Residents tunes.
Guitarist Rich Punzi joined for 1990’s consistently successful Confessional, the edgiest Cheepskates disc yet, with stark shifts between the sugary (“Bear Down,” “Come Close to Me”) and the cyanide-laced (“Sorry,” “It’s Up to You”) being made between almost every pair of tracks. Among the fourteen tracks are chewy pop morsels that run the gamut from the cheery primer “How to Pick Up Girls in Germany” to the downcast “How Long Can It Rain.” Unnecessary, dopey cover: “Sixteen Tons.” (Hopefully there isn’t a Songs Volume Three — Tennessee Ernie Ford in the cards.)
Original guitarist Herrera indulges his dual fascinations — spacey, Santana-styled jamming and British blues — on his solo LP. If you can bypass the fact that he has nothing even resembling a singing voice, you’ll find his fluid playing more attuned to the former (as evidenced by “Frog Booth”). Handout‘s meanderings, however, merit little more than a cursory listen.
Faubert’s two solo albums follow an introspective singer/songwriter path (not unlike Richard Barone’s chamber- pop excursions). Kalkara‘s high points include the sadly beautiful “I Wanna Hide” and “Just a Girl,” while the more focused San Blass finds Faubert aided by Rich Punzi and Lane Hollend, as well as other New York scene vets. Stirring and compelling, San Blass includes Faubert’s take on Dave Davies’ “Death of a Clown.”
Opting out of the Cheepskates in 1992, bassist Tony Low and drummer Jeremy Lee formed their own group, which became, by mid-decade, a tuneful hard-rock quartet named Static 13.