One of the better families of entertaining Atlanta indie rock swims in and out of the corpse of the Coolies, a group of high-concept jokers (and cover-song boys) led in the ’80s by singer Clay Harper and guitarist Rob Gal.
The Atlanta jokesters made an underground splash with dig..?, a collection of goofy Simon & Garfunkel covers (plus a version of Paul Anka’s “Having My Baby”). Great concept for a frat-party set; the psychedelic-funk “Scarborough Fair” and surf-instrumental “Mrs. Robinson” would have made chuckleworthy B-sides, but the idea of devoting an entire album to such tomfoolery is a product of the same sort of thinking that produced the music-free Having Fun With Elvis on Stage.
Amazingly, the Coolies followed the one-joke dig..? with the brilliant Doug, a trenchant “rock opera” about a skinhead who murders a transvestite short- order cook, gets rich by publishing his victim’s recipes, falls into paranoia and substance abuse and ends up in the gutter. The sad tale is related through ingenious knockoffs of the Who (“Cook Book”), John Lennon (“Poverty”), the Replacements (“Coke Light Ice”), rap (“Pussy Cook”) and metal (“The Last Supper”), and in a comic book — not included with the cassette or CD, alas — designed by Jack Logan, of Pete Buck Comics fame. A quantum leap from its predecessor’s one-dimensional silliness, Doug is a work of demented genius.
Besides forming the Ottoman Empire in the ’90s, Harper recorded solo and with his brother Mark for his own Casino Music label, which reissued the Coolies’ catalogue as the two-CD Take That You Bastards!, complete with three previously unreleased cuts.
Lester Square is a rustic epilogue to the Coolies: joined by a different set of instrumental associates, Harper and Gal downplay (if not eliminate) their past silliness for lighthearted personal sincerity in an easy and engaging semi-acoustic folk/pop mode. The better songs here — “Train,” “Ol Duke,” “Do You Know What You Like?” — are unprepossessing but mighty sweet.
Gal is only the fill-in bassist on Ottoman Gold, which pairs Harper instead with (Wreckless) Eric Goulden; the English Stiff veteran co-wrote three songs, produced the album (in mono) and sings and plays on it. (In turn, Harper co-wrote a song for and released Eric’s own ’94 album, 12 O’Clock Stereo, on Casino.) A rocking pop slab, Ottoman Gold subliminally interlaces the Coolies’ old zig with Eric’s old zag to frolic with vintage garage zest, fired up to a delightful club sweat that never loses sight of the tuneful songs. The repeated references to England are strange given Harper’s drawly Southern voice, but it’s all in keeping with the, well, recklessness, of the venture.