Curt Almsted is a talented songwriter with a great sense of humor, an adequate if colorless voice and connections with every other local Minneapolis musician (except maybe Prince), many of whom played on his first album. The tracks are energetic rockers in a niche between Marshall Crenshaw, Bruce Springsteen and George Thorogood, but much rawer and less predictable.
Damage Is Done is a more mature record that draws further on sources like primal soul to stretch Almsted’s expanding skills (most notably as a singer, now showing signs of Van Morrison and Willy DeVille as well) and to better display eleven well-drawn, heartfelt songs. The production is generally quite sympathetic, but the drums sound like distant cardboard boxes, and that significantly cuts down on the album’s impact. There’s still something missing — maybe a grander setting — that keeps Almsted a minor-leaguer, but he certainly has the wherewithal to move on up.
Almsted then went through a bad patch, losing longtime sideman Bob Dunlap to the Replacements, suffering a death in the family and ultimately winding up in jail on a battery charge involving an ex-girlfriend. Piling up years of bitterness over a number of women, Almsted spews out his pain on A Scarlet Letter, with NRBQ guitarist Al Anderson producing and heading up the backing band. Nakedly emotional missives like “I Wanna Make You Happy,” “Starting to Cry,” “I Can’t Call Mary Anymore” and the brilliantly titled “(I Feel Just Like George Jones When He Was a) Heel to Tammy” get soulful treatment from Almsted’s impassioned voice, which has really come to resemble DeVille’s. Easily his best record, A Scarlet Letter — unironically dedicated to Ike Turner — avoids hysteria for deep feelings that translate into resonant roots rock.
Almsted’s early band, Spooks, debuted in ’78 with a 7-inch EP of weird, punkish rock’n’roll (including “Scum of the Earth,” a tribute to Travis Bickle) that bears little (but not no) resemblance to his subsequent work.