If Sydney, Australia’s Smudge seems like one big footnote to the Lemonheads, that’s unfortunate: Tom Morgan’s band is a nifty little pop group in its own right. The singer/guitarist is best known for co-writing half the songs on Come on Feel the Lemonheads with Evan Dando. Smudge drummer/occasional singer Alison Galloway is purportedly the subject of Dando’s “Alison’s Starting to Happen” (from It’s a Shame About Ray, an album to which Morgan also contributed lyrics). Nic Dalton, who operates the band’s label, Half a Cow, played bass in the Lemonheads. (Morgan and Galloway are both regulars in Dalton’s own band, Godstar; recent Smudge bassist Adam Yee works at the like-minded Fellaheen label.) It’s easy to see what Dando saw in Morgan — he’s a gifted songwriter with a tangy wit, a way with power pop hooks and a similar song-connoisseur mentality.
Smudge’s first two EPs are combined on Tea, Toast & Turmoil, along with a handful of rarities and the trio’s first single, “I Don’t Want to Be Grant McLennan,” a brilliant two-minute joke about plagiarizing Go-Betweens records. Other delights include three very short songs about food (one of which rhymes “wuss” with “babaganouj”), a cover of “Make All Our Dreams Come True” (better known as the Laverne & Shirley theme) and “Divan,” an offer of crash space with a perfect little pop melody. Still, most of the record (notwithstanding an unlisted straight punk-pop rendition of John Waite’s “Missing You”) is more promising than actually good.
At 21 tracks in 41 minutes, Manilow is promising and good. Beyond its remakes (“Divan” and “Pulp”), giggles (a three-second funk parody, the theme from Charles in Charge, the “Kelly Kelly Kelly” song from Cheers, “Scary Cassettes,” about confusing Lou Barlow with Lou Reed) and Dando collaborations (“Down About It” and “Desmond”), there’s some solid in-house songwriting and tight, muscular playing. “Dave the Talking Bear,” “Not Here for a Haircut” and “Impractical Joke” are all cryptic but heartfelt; the last was released as a single in Australia, Europe and Canada, with four different extra tracks on each version.
The Outdoor Type includes three songs from Manilow (one acoustic), plus a cover of You Am I’s “Berlin Chair” and the title track, Smudge’s best song to date. Insanely catchy, funny and honest, it’s about lying to someone to win love and then having to live up to the lies (“I can’t go away with you on a rock-climbing weekend/What if something’s on TV and it’s never shown again?”); it’s been covered by Sharon Stoned and — of course — Dando.
The subsequent Hot Smoke and Sassafras is a bit of a comedown. Despite some great song titles (“I Am Not the Cosmos” and “All The Money in the World Can’t Buy You a Near Death Experience”), the record relies too much on turning up the volume to compensate for absent or borrowed hooks. “Coal Surge” is the only track of the eight listed that’s really up to Smudge snuff, and the “hidden track” joke is funny once.