By 1992, grunge had been exported from Seattle to the department stores of America’s malls, and the pop-punk buried beneath the city’s fuzz pedals finally found room to shine forth. Among others (notably the long-lived, crucial Fastbacks), Flop exploded with noise-pop, sporting a mod-influenced edge, loud, sunny guitars and bittersweet underpinnings. Produced by Kurt Bloch, Flop & the Fall of the Mopsqueezer! is one of the ’90s’ finest debuts. Packed with singer/guitarist Rusty Willoughby’s crisp, gifted songwriting, the disc offers wry humor, buoyance and flashes of brilliance. The Kinks cover (“Big Sky”) doesn’t hurt, but following it immediately with the gorgeous, anthemic “Hello” (“The seed of a hesitating sun/Has given birth to the woman that you will become”) clinches Willoughby’s gift for both sweet juxtapositions and moving harmonies. While Mopsqueezer is drenched in kinetic, powerful rock (“Anne,” “Entropy,” the ferociously catchy “Ugly Girl Lover,” “Asthenia,” the nearly reckless “Parasite”), the record’s depth comes from its wonderful mood changes. The shimmering “You Would Be Right” gets a waltzy treatment that places it neatly in between the Left Banke and the Who; the soulful “Sister Smile” mines doo-wop for influence; the psychedelic “Morton the Venereologist” provides weight rather than mere indulgence.
The association with a major label didn’t hurt Flop so much as toughen the task facing the band in trying to better its stunning debut. Whenever You’re Ready is a tad overproduced, with a Big Rock sound (credit Martin Rushent’s mix?), but the basic elements are all there — Willoughby’s engaging writing and wonderfully delicate voice, his interplay with outstanding co-guitarist Bill Campbell, the sturdy rhythms of drummer Nate Johnson and bassist Paul Schurr. If the presentation obscures some of the debut’s coy charm, Flop still does well in its two- and three-minute song format. A Beatles fixation comes through clearly on the Lennonesque “A Fixed Point,” while “The Great Valediction,” “Port Angeles,” “A. Wylie,” “Eat” and “Woolworth” reprise the craftiest, hookiest moments from Mopsqueezer. The instrumental “Z2+C,” “Need Retrograde Orbit” and the cerebral “Parts I & II” (with a nice cello arrangement) prove Flop hasn’t lost its imaginative touch. Though avoiding the sophomore jinx, Whenever You’re Ready still lacks its predecessor’s immediacy.
Unveiling a new lineup with Dave Fox (ex-Posies) on bass, World of Today returns the band to form, as well as to producer Bloch (of the Fastbacks and Young Fresh Fellows), who renders a friendlier, more straight-ahead recording. With fewer studio embellishments, Willoughby’s songwriting sounds tougher, livelier. Then, with a lyric like, “You’ll get more disillusioned with age” (from “April Ate Our World”), maybe he simply is tougher. No matter. Bolstered by a winning cover of the Move’s “Yellow Rainbow,” Willoughby exposes his wounds (he has consistently displayed an intriguing disease fetish) and makes a swirling musical wonder of it all. The simple synth horns on “Vancouver Door Company” succeed far better than When You’re Ready‘s overindulgences. “Of Today” mines “Taxman” in an homage similar to the Jam’s “Start!”; “Eggs and Ash” turns mellifluous and tender with a knockout backward guitar solo, and “Around” sounds like the best song Frank Black never wrote. Despite the inclusion of more long songs, Flop still sounds economical and intelligent on its impressive, exciting third record. Johnson, who has moonlighted as the Fastbacks’ drummer (as has Willoughby), subsequently quit Flop.