Led by two Massachusetts singer/songwriters, Salem 66 played generally delicate electric guitar music that embraced folk more than rock traditions. The trio’s six-song debut EP — produced by Neighborhoods guitarist David Minehan — has plenty of poetic ambience and some surprisingly complex arrangements, but consistent jangly-trebly sound makes it hard to stay engrossed, and occasional bum notes also interrupt the mood. Guitarist Judy Grunwald and bassist Beth Kaplan both sing, but their voices don’t harmonize all that well.
With the arrival of a new guitarist, the Salems became a quartet for A Ripping Spin, a full-length LP also produced by Minehan. The songs and playing are better, but the vocals are still hit-and-miss. Kaplan takes an indecisive approach to the issue; Grunwald’s gurgly warble can also be a trial. The brief “Fragile” shows their potential, but other tunes are less mellifluous.
A guitarist switch brought Stephen Smith into the lineup for Frequency and Urgency, which resulted in noticeably improved music on the Ethan James-produced album. With stronger, more assured playing, the simple pop-rock provides a firm basis for the alternating 50-50 mix of sensitive, occasionally offbeat tunes written and sung individually by Grunwald and Kaplan. The latter’s lighter tone and smoother delivery is generally more attractive here, but neither is remotely qualified to be a lead singer.
Your Soul Is Mine, Fork It Over is a compilation — seventeen selections from the first three records plus “Across the Sea,” a 1984 single.
Taking another instrumental step forward, Natural Disasters, National Treasures finds Kaplan and Grunwald ably supported by a different guitarist and a new drummer. The Salems’ productive relationship with James results in the most accomplished and appealing sound of their career; amazingly, Kaplan’s vocals are nicely Bangleish and Grunwald’s are slowly approaching adequacy as well. (Caveat to Eddy Grant fans: the “Electric Avenue” here is a different song entirely.)
Stylistic tensions surface on Down the Primrose Path. Amid some of their most unpalatably pretentious lyrics in years, surprisingly loud arrangements all but overwhelm Kaplan and drive Grunwald to sing worse than usual. A few songs (the inquisitive “Bell Jar” and “Primrose Path,” for instance) are treated gently, but the band’s overriding readiness to rock this time out leaves them sounding wan and stranded.