Formed in the towering shadow of Hüsker Dü and the Replacements and a few years behind Soul Asylum, the Magnolias were doomed to be Minneapolis’ scruffy also-rans, the band that got left behind when everyone else graduated to the big leagues. And while the revolving-lineup group never developed a national profile anywhere near the scale of those other bands, singer/guitarist John Freeman has persevered, making music to be properly proud of.
The Mags spew back hometown styles with gusto on Concrete Pillbox, which they co-produced with Grant Hart. (Note the familiar drum sound.) Some of Freeman’s songs show real melodic and structural promise; a bit of power pop (and a faint Cheap Trick influence) emerges in the quartet’s aggressive playing.
Replacements soundman Monty Wilkes co-produced For Rent, a looser, better-developed collection that features a new bassist and a snare-happy mix. Roaring out of the starting gate with “Walk a Circle,” “Glory Hop” and “Goodbye for Now,” the Mags shed imitation (save an abiding Buzzcocks influence) for a loud, textured personality they can call their own. Over catchy riffs that put a nifty twist into the hard-driving songs, Freeman’s voice registers aggression in both hoarse rage and quiet poise. A very promising sophomore LP.
Recording the inconclusive Dime Store Dream in Prince’s Paisley Park Studios didn’t make the Magnolias funky, but it did give them a raging guitar sound. A busy new drummer and producer Jim Rondinelli’s overheated mix interfere with the group’s small-scale charm, but some cool songs (“Flowin’ Thru,” “Don’t See That Girl,” the pseudo-Replacements “Coming on Too Strong,” “In My Nightmare”) do cut through. While Freeman’s singing gives the album its reassuring consistency, bits of vocal syncopation add an intriguing new dimension.
That trio of records, however, was just a warmup for Off the Hook. Played with taut, scrabbly precision by returning drummer Tom Cook, super bassist Caleb Palmiter and guitarist Kent Militzer, the best songs of Freeman’s life portray a dispirited romantic avoiding anger and bitterness by discharging his emotional burdens into sensitive, tuneful, speedy rock’n’roll. Rarely has punk sounded such a winsome note. For an artless singer, Freeman’s voice is incredibly expressive; carried along on bracing rhythm-guitar riffs woven with pretty lead figures, his wry lyrics and catchy hooks help Off the Hook rabbit-punch back at disappointment with a poker face and the certainty of a better day coming. “When you ask me how I’m doing / Do you really want to know? / And I’m lying when I tell you I’m fine / I’m really kinda low / But I put on a smile / If only for a while / But when I’m not up to giving / And when I’m not up to living / I think of tomorrow.” Freeman’s world here is fraught with ambivalence. “Hello or Goodbye” attempts to resolve a bi-polar relationship; in “Matter of Time,” a lover is heading out west, and Freeman balances his disdain for the smog and sure-to-break dreams of Los Angeles with cocky hope for her return. Chalking up eleven fine originals and a bristling cover of Chris Osgood’s perplexed “Complicated Fun” — all inside 40 minutes — Off the Hook is everything a punk-pop record should be.
Hung Up On… piles together the album version of “When I’m Not,” a needless remix of “Hello or Goodbye,” a goofy Hanna-Barbera cartoon song (“Way Out”) and three live numbers, including “Last Train to Clarksville” and “Fathers and Sins,” a cruel attack on Hank Williams Jr. given a reprise from Dime Store Dream.
Street Date Tuesday brings a new set of Mags back to the racks with no diminution (or much change of any sort) in the power of Freeman’s terse, vulnerable spirit. The album’s extra-feisty sound is occasionally matched by lyrics of angry frustration (“Dropping Blood and Names,” “Bullet for a Badman”), but the strongest and most stirring tunes again allow hope to get a foothold (“Hello Belinda,” “Weather Couldn’t Get Any Better,” “Even Without You”). And the deliberate “Polecat Creek” is downright poetic in its affecting connection of private and public places. If not quite the equal of Off the Hook, Street Date Tuesday still flies the Mags’ flag high and loud.
The group broke up in 1997. Freeman formed the Bleeding Hearts and then the Pushbacks. Better Late Than Never is a combination career retrospective and cool outtakes collection (including otherwise unissued songs), with a couple of last-lineup live tracks. The two editions have different inside and back artwork and track order.
Concrete Pillbox bassist John Joyce went on to form Toadstool with guitarist Brad White and a drummer. Co-produced by Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, The Sun Highway is a promising but underdeveloped debut that frequently obscures great lyrics and intriguing ideas (the jazz horns and folk forays, f’rinstance) in an amorphous blur of loose’n’noisy post-punk.