As the popularity of indie rock burgeoned in the ’90s, cities that hadn’t been producing much in the way of original bands discovered themselves flooded with groups that, if not actually novel, were at least in workable synch with the sounds of the times and could contribute incrementally to the fun by making minor adjustments in the finest formulae. Such was the case with New York, where clubs were suddenly inundated by young outfits raised on ’80s college radio.
Lotion, a Manhattan quartet formed in ’91 by brothers Bill (bass) and Jim (guitar) Ferguson, singer Tony Zajkowski and drummer Rob Youngberg, took its early cues from a transatlantic delegation of R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, Happy Mondays and Echo and the Bunnymen. “Tear,” the song that — in different versions (edgy/fierce and smooth/majestic) — leads off both the four-song ’93 Lotion EP and Full Isaac, crossbreeds the ringing guitars of Manchester power pop with a Stipe-like melody and a Mouldy vocal. While the Lotion EP, produced and released by Kramer, gladly lays bare the band’s stylistic sources (and becomes trivial as a result), the Putney Swope-quoting Full Isaac, produced by Kurt Ralske (“a prince”), garbs them in surprisingly diverse and pretty arrangements. The brisk and tuneful “She Is Weird City” (a song recycled from the three-song ’92 EP, also untitled) could be a Stone Roses outtake, but cellos (courtesy of the New York group Rasputina) and layered harmonies give the coda of the driving “Around” a baroque Moody Blues feel; tremolo guitar and Babe the Blue OX’s “rumpus” (?!) pack the pulsing “Dock Ellis”; tabla, finger cymbals and droney strumming paints “Long” into another musical galaxy. But Lotion’s songwriting isn’t yet strong enough to connect the dots of this eclectic canvas, and Zajkowski lacks the vocal presence to hold the pieces together. As nice as the parts are, Full Isaac scatters at the mildest breeze.
Taking its title from another bit of Putney Swope business, The Agnew Funeral maladroitly previews the brilliant Nobody’s Cool with the unmemorable but pleasant “Switch” and surrounds it with a gorgeous cover of the Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee,” the perplexing “Marijuana Vietnam,” “Famous Redheads” (five minutes of pretty pop with billowing distortion and power drumming), “Treat Me,” a noisy window-steamer that also rises and falls in an impressive display of dynamic control, and — 21 minutes later — an unlisted bonus version of it.
In a stroke of extraordinary collegiate luck, reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon took a shine to Lotion, and wound up visiting the studio and writing the liner notes to Nobody’s Cool. To the band’s inestimable credit, his three paragraphs of prosaic musing is the record’s least imaginative and involving component. Produced by Jim Rondinelli, the exhilarating album folds great gushing storms of friendly guitar noise into casually (but clearly) sung songs equipped with strong melodies and potent lyrical character. Substantial content underpins the pure thrall of sound here: beyond the breathless rush of “Dear Sir” and the shapely enigma of “The New Timmy,” “Sandra” — which ends coyly with the tinkle of toy piano — avoids sensationalism despite taking the disconsolate vantage point of a man kept at restraining order’s length. “Rock Chick” strikes that peculiar balance of vulnerably farcical serious irony well known to Pavement fans; “Precious Tiny” turns familial affection into ten minutes of droney feedback extravagance and still comes off tender. (For those Robert Downey aficionados with exceptionally discriminating ears, there’s a chunk of dialogue from Putney Swope inaudibly sunk into the song’s noise coda.)