North Carolina’s Let’s Active was probably the most misunderstood of the South’s ’80s new-pop bands. Though dogged by a rosy-cheeked nicest-guys-of-wimp-pop image, they could be downright moody. Producer/multi-instrumentalist Mitch Easter assembled the trio in 1981, but it only emerged nationally in the wake of R.E.M., whose first two discs Easter co-produced at his Drive-In garage studio outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Joining that band’s label, Let’s Active released a six-song EP, Afoot, bringing new meaning to such overused pop adjectives as crisp, bright and ringing. All the songs, even those with melancholy lyrics, are hook-filled, boppy and ultra-hummable. Pick to click: “Every Word Means No.”
But things were not as they seemed. Although perceived as the engineer of the now-sound-of-today in American guitar pop, Easter’s own tastes were running towards the electronic gadgetry of techno-rock. (His career as a producer was also taking off.) Also, his two original partners — bassist Faye Hunter and drummer Sara Romweber (sister of Flat Duo Jets’ Dexter Romweber) — were viewed as sidepeople, despite Easter’s egalitarian efforts to the contrary. In real life, the trio were not just simple, cheerful popsters. Both Easter’s love of “sounds” and the band’s inner conflicts were explored on Cypress, a record that is deeper and more enduring, though not as immediately winning, as Afoot. Denser, rambling textural pieces — some wistful, even angry — came to the fore. Few records sound so multi-dimensional, and Let’s Active has, for that reason, been tagged psychedelic — they make sounds you can almost touch. (In 1989, IRS combined Afoot and Cypress on a single CD.)
After Hunter and Romweber (who went on to Snatches of Pink) left the band, Easter did shows with other players (including Windbreaker Tim Lee) and recorded Big Plans for Everybody piecemeal with four people, including Hunter and two permanent associates: Angie Carlson (the future ex-Mrs. Easter; guitar, keyboards) and Eric Marshall (drums). Far less twinky and hardly cute, Big Plans for Everybody is disturbingly downcast, a doleful version of pop music that isn’t about sad things, but still leaves you feeling that way. The album connects emotionally, its offbeat songs making a strong impression.
Adding bassist John Heames and a few dBs of electric power, Every Dog Has His Day effectively combines Easter’s homey studio approach with co-producer John Leckie’s chartworthy British experience. From the blazing-guitars title track and the stomping romance of “Sweepstakes Winner” to the overtly Beatlesque “Mr. Fool,” the best songs (most of them on Side One; “I Feel Funny” dominates the flip) are classic Easter: unsettled emotional lyrics and eccentric pop melodies that have him straining on vocal tiptoes to reach the hard bits.