Deena Shoshkes (vocals, guitar, keyboards) and Jon Fried (guitar, vocals, keyboards), who subsequently got married, launched the Cucumbers during the early-’80s surge of musical activity in Hoboken, New Jersey, and — with numerous bassists and drummers — have been at it, with improving creative results, ever since. On the four-song debut, The Cucumbers, Shoshkes’ lead vocal on “My Boyfriend” is Brenda Lee magic set to a dB’s-like tune; elsewhere, the blend includes more edgy guitar work (by Fried) and less fizzy charm. The other three songs sacrifice some catchiness for added complexity, but all of them are plenty likable.
Who Betrays Me is a full album of peppy melodies, thoughtful lyrics, semi-intricate guitar-based arrangements and appealing harmonies by Shoshkes and Fried. The spare “Everything Goes” blends a sultry melody and a fine dual vocal; “Desperation” sounds like an update on the Everly Brothers; “Walking and Talking” mixes and matches rhythms for a kicky B-52’s effect; “Want to Talk” grafts on a mild Latin feel for a danceable slice of summer.
Produced (by longtime studio associate David Young, an English guitarist the band knew and liked) in London for as big a label as the band has ever been on, The Cucumbers leads off with a new version of “My Boyfriend” and then fails to deliver anything else equal to it. Overall, fancier production reduces the group’s amateurish appeal and obscures its quirky personality; smoothed out and spruced up, the entirely presentable songs blur together. That said, there are still some acute lyrics: “My Town” is a clever ode to the band’s hometown, while “Shower” makes a perceptive observation about men, women and water temperatures.
After a lengthy recording hiatus, Fried and Shoshkes (with the prior album’s rhythm section, drummer Jürgen Renner and bassist John Williams, back for most of the tracks) returned with Where We Sleep Tonight, an adult record of their romance delivered with their usual homey pop charm. Shoshkes’ voice can sometimes get too girlish, but the stirring guitars, carefully simple production and honest, open lyrics make the album feel like a letter from an old friend. Even “Girl Underground,” a lighthearted paranoid urban fantasy drama Fried sings, has a friendly, familiar tone.
Changing rhythm sections once again, the Cucumbers (with bassist Kurt Wrobel and drummer Dave Ross) settled into a five-year album cycle with Total Vegetility, the liner notes of which explain the title as a state in which “one can best accept the plant-like nature of the human species.” The sound is louder and livelier than on previous records; the lyrics are both more playful (as in “Birthday”) and more serious (“Charlie,” “Indivisible”). That makes for a more complicated listening experience, but a no less engaging one. (And don’t miss the moody Cure guitar/bass stylings on “Into.”)
All Things to You is, confident, accomplished, diverse, less revealing, a little slick but never glib, with a very helpful twist of country in the pop. (Singing with a little twang gives Shoshkes a lot to work with here: listen to the gorgeous “Bend Me Like a Willow.”) Self- produced for a Nashville label with lyrical contributions from local songwriters on two songs (one of which lifts, without acknowledgment or apology, the title and hook of Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now”), the album includes odes to “Whiskey,” “Happiness” and “Daylight” (which, regrettably, is about the travails of touring) as well as “Musicians I Know,” a musically plain song (think Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died”) with the breathless namedropping fun of the Mamas and Papas’ “Creeque Alley.”
The Fake Doom Years bundles together The Cucumbers EP, Who Betrays Me, a 1986 12-inch (“All Shook Up”) and the previously unreleased “Keep Your Cool” and a live version of “The Body Groove.”
Shoshkes and Alice Genese of Gut Bank organized Over the Moon as a delightful child-centric Hoboken bop ‘n’ roll band “when our kids were babies and toddlers.” The sweet quartet’s brief 1991 self-titled cassette, which is in no way condescending to infantry and gives up nothing in terms of smiley-faced energy (Jonathan Richman rarely kicks this hard, and his lyrics aren’t always much more adult), contains such peppy charmers as “The Counting Song” and “A Mouse in Your House (Please Say Please)” and “Rockabye Baby.”
The seven-song RockDownBaby mini-album sounds like an adult parent’s musical sexuality reclamation project: with tongue at least partly in cheek, Shoshkes coos and slings lighthearted come-on (and other types of) lyrics over burbling dance tracks that owe more to ’80s new wave than anything made in the 21st century. “TV Dog” sounds Josie Cotton fronting Devo; “I Am Your RockDownBaby” puts processed vocals over a house beat and skating-rink organ for a little “Planet Rock” flavor; “I Feel My Sex” lays it all out with a sultry Latin tinge. Fun stuff.