The Figgs have certainly had their share of foul luck with record labels, but the biggest thing working against the long-running group from upstate New York might simply be the difficulty in categorizing the group or tethering it to any specific scene. Throughout a long history (starting in 1987), the Figgs have been a word-of-mouth cult phenomenon, making some of the finest, strongest and hook-ridden music far from the public eye. They have also remained a tight, nervy little live outfit, a fact that led Graham Parker and former Replacement Tommy Stinson to both employ the Figgs as a backing band on the road. (One such outing is documented on the lukewarm 1997 live album The Last Rock ‘n’ Roll Tour, credited — Rumour-style — to Graham Parker & the Figgs.)
The future Figgs came of age in the relatively rural (if somewhat well-appointed) environs of Saratoga Springs, New York. Singer/guitarist Mike Gent, bassist/singer Pete Donnelly and drummer Guy Lyons formed the first incarnation in 1987. Pete Hayes stepped in when Lyons headed off to the army two years later; after his hitch ended in ’92, Lyons returned as a second guitarist and singer and the four-piece spit out a cassette they called Ginger. Songs like “Sleaze” and “Bitch Theme” indicate the goodnatured band’s middle-finger attitude. The Figgs honed a reputation around the Northeast as a high-velocity live band, and Ready, Steady, Stoned was the result, a great album, rife with melodic hooks and full of loud, energetic and blissfully unsophisticated power pop and punky adolescent swagger. In 2004, Sodapop Records, a label from Boston (by then the Figgs’ adopted hometown), released the album on CD in a “deluxe edition” of 29 tracks, including unreleased material, demos and live stuff.
The ill-fated Imago label picked up the Figgs for 1994’s Low-Fi at Society High, another solid effort of short, sharp, clever songs — but the young band was still long artistic strides from their much more accomplished work of the late ’90s and beyond. The bouncy, punky “Favorite Shirt” became a minor alternative hit, and was put in steady rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes. Hi-Fi Drop-Outs is a five-song EP that pairs “Favorite Shirt” and “Chevy Nova” with three non-LP tracks, including a picturesque cover of the Kinks’ “Village Green.”
In 1995, with another Figgs album ready for release, Imago lost their BMG distribution deal. Capitol, imagining another ’90s pop-punk boy band, picked up Banda Macho, another solid effort of revved-up guitar pop rooted loosely in the Kinks and Costello. With a group of strong songwriters, a bristling live presence, a major label and exhaustive touring, the Figgs looked ready to break, but didn’t, and Capitol dropped them.
Undaunted, they turned out the excellent The Figgs couldn’t get high … on a shoestring, with Andy Shernoff (Dictators) producing. The group’s finest collection of songs to date includes Gent’s ruggedly bitter “Not Involved,” Donnelly’s slinking “Cat” and Hayes’ roughed-up rocker “The Bar.”
Lyons, who had come into his own as a songwriter, left after the album, and the remaining trio willed itself into a more complex, tough rock outfit, with Gent emerging as a lean, acerbic and hungry frontman in the Paul Westerberg tradition.
The seven-song For EP Fans Only, Sucking in Stereo and the Badger EP were paydirt for fans who had hung on through frustrating times. Heading toward their 30s, Gent and Donnelly had finally perfected the balance between hook-saturated melodies and gutsy bar rock. Donnelly seemed to mostly succeed with heartworn, melodic material, wrapping his glass-blown rasp around muscular pop beauties like “Waiting for the Sun to Rise” and “The Trench” (which turned up again on Slow Charm). Gent, perhaps influenced by the fierce grit of his emerging side band, the Gentlemen, seems to find his strongest material in balls-out rockers, such as the crowd sing-along pub-rocker “I Thought I Drank the Drink Drank Me,” as well as more brooding explorations. (In the late ’90s, Donnelly also began playing with the Candy Butchers.)
The booty-shaking, tight rhythmic slam of Sucking in Stereo fully (and fairly seamlessly) distills all of the influences that had been nipping around the edges in the past — all the glammy touches, the Kinks/Jam guitar clang and the ’70s Costello/Parker urgency. But this is undeniably original: blunt, edgy and melodically savvy. The band has lost none of its charge, but has matured from clever to excellent. This, their defining album, is a culmination of all of their nervy and wired pop classicism. Highlights: Donnelly’s “Reaction” and Gent’s “Daylight Strong.”
Slow Charm heralds a sea change for the group. “Back to Being” and “There are Never Two Alike” could fit nicely on the previous album. But the tough, hookless rockers “Metal Detector” and “Sit and Shake” sound more like the Gentlemen, while the drifting, acoustic psych-pop of “Public Transportation” recalls the Small Faces’ rural period. Though mature and pensive, the album is less immediately likable as Sucking in Stereo, and Gent’s outside endeavors in hard rock seem to be bleeding more and more into the Figgs. There is still much to recommend it though, such as Donnelly’s near-perfect “The Trench” and Gent’s soulful “Protocol,” one of the best tracks he has ever written.
In 2003, Gent released a wildly eclectic, home-recorded solo album, The Intake, which is for hardcore fans only. After touring as Stinson’s band in late 2003, the Figgs returned in May 2004 with Palais.