Drawing his initial inspiration from a quartet of influences — the Kinks, Small Faces, Prince and Motown — Chicago singer/guitarist Jeff Lescher has been the mainstay of the group Green since the mid-’80s. An ace pop songwriter with a knack for assessing the ups and downs of romance without malice, he possesses a phenomenal voice that can shift between gentle romance, stirring pop-rock, an ear-pinning shriek and a gospelly falsetto as well as an uncertain sense of artistic judgment that doesn’t always present his talent in the best light.
On the debut EP (a four-song 7-inch), the trio overcomes rudimentary production values to skirt nostalgia and introduce Lescher’s mix of ’60s Anglo-melodicism (“Gotta Getta Record Out,” “Better Way”), punky rock (“Not Going Down (Anymore)”) and soul (“I Don’t Wanna Say No”). Amateurish but inspired.
Remakes of those songs join 10 new ones on Green, an inadequately produced but brilliant collection of weirdly derivative originals played with spirit and power; Elaine MacKenzie improves the ambition and results on all fronts and sports a neat cover painting by Lescher. Occasionally pedestrian lyrics (as on “Big in Japan”) don’t interfere with the rugged pop tunes, a uniquely energetic pairing of Merseybeat and punk. “She’s Not a Little Girl” could have taken its chorus straight out of the Hollies songbook; “Technology” employs a catchy Bolanesque bop; “For You” and “Curry Your Favor” are ballads that display a tender, sensitive side. “I Play the Records” introduces the group’s Princely component, while “She, Probably” is achingly beautiful. Most unpromising title for an exquisite song: “Don’t Ever Fall in Love With Someone When You’re Already in Love With Someone Else.” (The European CD adds both sides of a 1988 single entitled REM in response to R.E.M.’s Green album.)
Hooking up with a Dutch label (which happily reissued the band’s catalogue on CD) and fielding a new drummer, Green released another great collection of memorable romantic pop songs. White Soul (which, ironically, downplays the group’s R&B side) benefits from two significant steps forward: improved production quality and the newfound consistency and maturity of Lescher’s songwriting, here free of punny nonsense and obviously derivative tributes. Subtle emotions and striking melodies fill simply executed gems like “She’s Heaven,” “Night After Night,” “Monique, Monique” and “I Know.” Bassist Ken Kurson’s boppy “My Sister Jane” is a delightful pop-punk vestige of his hardcore background, but it was his swan song with the band. (Although not with the notion of Green- ness: he grew up to become a successful financial journalist who named his newsletter, magazine, website and Esquire column Green. Then he became the editor of the New York Observer.)
As the band’s first release with ex-Slammin’ Watusis bassist Clay Tomasek in the lineup, the Bittersweet EP consolidates all of Lescher’s stylistic impulses in five fine new songs. The ’60s-soul title track gambles with lush strings and horns but laces it all up with a spectacular vocal; “I’ll Have Her” is alluring pop; the brutish hard- rock guitars and punky backing cheers of “Maybe You’re Right” are topped off with an inveigling Kinksy melody and Gary Numan synth for a really strange effect. Lescher unloads his professional frustrations in “The Record Company Song,” a wry torrent of regret (“I’ll do anything you ask/My will is broke and I’m tired and sad”) set to a catchy rock tune. (The belated American release of White Soul includes Bittersweet.)
At that point, the indie-label stalwarts — Lescher, Tomasek and drummer Mark Mosher (all of them inexplicably dressed in drag on the cover) — moved onto a bigger small record company and made The Pop Tarts with Chicago producer Iain Burgess, a keyboard-playing guest and a horn duo. The uneven effort fares well on several fronts: the simple soul of “Broken Promises” handsomely introduces the Zombies and Style Council to Antonio Carlos Jobim, “Hear What You Want to Hear” expands a snippet of Elvis Costello melody into fully formed brisk British Invasion pop and “Marga-Marguerite” deftly appropriates the high-toned sweetness of Curtis Mayfield. But other than Tomasek’s goofy “Make Believe,” the harder-rocking songs aren’t so appealing, and Lescher sings “Long Distance Telephone,” “Hot Lava Love” and “B.I.T.C.H.” in a shrill falsetto, making those songs unlistenable interruptions in what would otherwise be a pretty good record.
After The Pop Tarts failed to deliver the band onto the alternative freeway career path, Green returned to Widely Distributed and made the dispirited but winning Pathétique EP, a diverse triad of new songs, including the surprise country swing of “If You Love Me (Part II).” Lescher then pursued that stylistic interest on a wonderfully touching Gram Parsons tribute album made with Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater). A dozen selections written or just recorded by Parsons, Jesus Built a Ship to Sing a Song To benefits enormously from the modesty of the just-right arrangements, which are reverent and original, as much as the careful passion of the singing. Lescher and Bean alternate verses on “Brand New Heartache,” join on the choruses of “Return of the Grievous Angel” and meld their oddly harmonious voices for the entirety of “Sin City,” “You’re Still on My Mind” and “Hearts on Fire.” Lescher makes the most of his somber solo readings of “Love Hurts” and a bluesy all-piano “Hot Burrito #1,” while Bean solos on a fast-paced “Luxury Liner” and a warbly, slow “She,” letting the flaws in her delivery intensify the conviction in her voice.
The Flowers in the Grass is a solid career compilation that recapitulates Green’s first decade without adding anything new to it — a commendable place for novices to meet the band.
Lescher’s first new album in six years, 5, is an underproduced but encouraging collection improved by Tomasek’s emergence as a second strong songwriter; the chorus of his “Thinking” — a blunt ’70s rock funk breakup throwback — is especially impressive. The rejuvenated quartet (with Mosher’s brother Jason on guitar) balances Beatlesque tunefulness (as on the gorgeous “Lying in the Grass” and the acoustic “Jimmie”) with ambitious arrangements (between the organ and wailing backup vocals, “Mother” nearly reimagines “Hey Jude” as gospel) and blasts of garage power, occasionally veering off the edge into uninspired sludge. As ever, idiosyncrasies — as well as wailing guitar solos — abound. Green deftly dashes off a disguised cover of the Bee Gees’ “Holiday” (as “Photograph”) and titles a crazed arena-leaning Bolanesque boogie “Seize the Means of Production.” (The sound of “Heavy Metal Dreams” is, disappointingly, cat-screechingly literal.) On “Tuesday,” Lescher sings the jacked-up romance rock with a frenzied edge that threatens to upend the lyrics.
Three years later, Green (the trio) spent a week in France, recording Eau de Vie with Burgess, who sharpens and clarified the sound as never before. Lescher lets his restrained and tuneful flag fly to heartening effect, mostly rooting around in the popcraft of early-’60s England (so much for any overpowering Gallic influence) for such originals as “I’ll Be Waiting” and “Pardon Me,” which get the album off to a sweet start. Like an echo of the Gram Parsons album, Lescher sings the shit out of a stirring and gorgeous minor-key original, “Memories.” Even the two punky singalongs are mixed within safe sonic borders and owe more to the Move than Motörhead. Tomasek wrote (and sings) four of the eleven songs; despite his unexceptional voice, the country-rocking “Inside Out” and the country soul lament “The Fool Who Fell in Love With You” are catchy charmers. (Worryingly, Lescher scarcely contributes to Tomasek’s tracks; Clay plays all the guitar, and a spot of piano, on them.)
The Planets is both reassuringly traditional and a notable departure for the group, here constituted as the same quartet that recorded Green 5 more than a decade earlier. Interspersed between the heartfelt, wistful melodic numbers are four brief solo piano interludes, which are played (by Lescher) imperfectly, but lovely in themselves. The pieces, titled (with variations) “Gomez 7,” serve an unclear thematic role on the album, although they do provide aural palate refreshment like ices between courses and make The Planets distinct from past Green releases. It’s like seeing a guy you know from work wearing a suit for the first time: the contrast is both surprising and distancing.
Leading off the album, “I Just Can’t Remember Your Face” plucks at the melancholy side of Ray Davies with affecting force, challenging the tenderness in Lescher’s vocals with sturdy rock playing. The brief (and also Kinksy) “I’m Waiting for the Sun” is a stately paean to hopefulness that proceeds on a blend of piano and organ redolent of ancient European cathedrals; following another song, as if to drive the atmosphere home, it reappears for a minute as a handsome baroque harpsichord instrumental. “She’s a Mystery to Me,” another fragment, buries repeated intonation of the title in reverb and gothic organ.
With airy vocals, a leisurely tempo and a gently pulsing minor guitar figure, “Be That as It May” floats on vintage charm, somewhere between the Association and Pink Floyd; the lovely “Little Superstar” explores a similar dynamic range, adding tympani and harp for a more expansive feel that Brian Wilson might appreciate. “Farther and Farther Away” continues the slow pace, but has a very different feel, with keening slide guitar and a bold, swaying step, that ends the album (save for the final “Gomez 7”) with a stirring farewell.
Stepping out from under the Green umbrella, Lescher announces, on his first official solo album, All Is Grace, that he’s a bad man. (It’s in the chorus of “She’s a Good Woman,” a title that can only be gleaned from the track listing on the disc itself.) But he’s not that kind of bad man – not Leroy Brown, a desperado or a bad-to-the-bone kind of “Bo Diddley is a gunslinger” bad man. No, he simply shamefacedly considers himself unworthy of the song’s heroine. That’s not a very rock and roll stance, no, but it is characteristic (in my experience) of Midwestern power pop, which weds maximum musical talent to minimal cockiness.
Not surprisingly, then, a few of the songs here are about breakups: “I’ll Never Love Again” (somber and slow, not from A Star Is Born), the filigreed prettiness of “Without You,” “Lie to Yourself,” a reprise of “I Just Can’t Remember Your Face” from The Planets. Others offer nostalgia (“Do You Remember?”) hope (“Give Us the Answer,” the lovely “The Word Is Love,” “I Might Shine Again,” “Maybe Someday”) and calculation (“Take Some Action”).
All the familiar Lescherian elements are here: great, affecting tunes, real sincerity, that otherworldly falsetto (“I Just Can’t Do It Without You,” “Lie to Yourself,” “Without You”), a little shrieking, a dose of heartfelt soul (“You Make Life Sweet”), melodies and chord structures channeled from Kinks songs that never were, an ample dose of garage guitar pokery and general diamond-in-the-rough pop gemology — the charm of raw talent delivered a little on the raw side. Fair to say that those not engaged by the overall aesthetic might well find fault in the vocals’ occasional pitchiness and brief bouts of raucous solo disunity. Other than a guest drummer on one track and a pedal steel player on three (notably on the amorous Sweetheart-era Byrdsy “One Hundred Times a Day”), Lescher produced and played all the instruments (guitar, bass, drums and piano) on the album, so there’s a weird achievement in one-man looseness that sounds like a band hacking around in the studio.
Midway through the 20 songs, Lescher revs up raucous punk energy to race through the infectious nonsense fun of “#1 Record” — I expect the Queers’ cover is already in the works — and then running a bit off the rails as “High Time” turns messy. (Is there any significance to the titular borrowings from the Raspberries and the MC5? Dunno.) But then he dives into the wiggly rock noir instrumental “Life and Time” (“Air on a String” is the other lovely unsung here) and all is right again.
The album’s only non-original, the penultimate track, is Nick Drake’s resigned and rueful “Place to Be,” done simply with one acoustic guitar. Gorgeous.
The Lilacs, a quartet in which ex-Green bassist Ken Kurson played guitar and sang, debuted in ’91 with a four-song 7-inch of his witty post-adolescent rock and pop originals, produced by Jim Ellison of Material Issue. Displaying the careless zeal of a high schooler on graduation day, the band suffers from a puppy-like inability to keep its enthusiasm in check, which occasionally leads things astray on the album, ineffectually produced by Brad Wood. Still, the spunky and unpretentious Rise Above the Filth contains attractive examples of Kurson’s sprightly ’70s-styled youth-pop that compares favorably to Green’s early work. Highlights: the catchy automotive anthem “Hop in the Stanza,” “Jennifer,” “Roller Derby Queen” and a country-pop oddity, “Choking/DiamondDisgrace.”