One of Minneapolis’ major musical resources of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Suburbs maintained the same lineup from their recorded debut, a Spring of 1978 nine-song 7-inch red vinyl EP of above-average punkish rock’n’roll (the first single to be released by the estimable TwinTone Records), to the band’s 1987 dissolution.
Already armed with one of the great logos of the era (five generic man icons side by side), the Suburbs displayed signs of incipient musical greatness as well on their first album. The ominous calm of the vocals (by Beej Chaney and keyboardist Chan Poling) provides perfect counterpoint for the band’s enthusiastic playing; guitarist Bruce C. Allen adds tension with scrabbly rhythm and violent lead. The songs unpredictably explore real-world subjects like “Hobnobbin With the Executives” and “Cig Machine.”
After demonstrating what they could do on In Combo, the Suburbs proved how well they could do it with the double-album, Credit in Heaven, a slickly delivered opus that refines the band’s approach and fairly bubbles over with creative concepts, great playing and bizarre songs. The Poling comparisons to Bryan Ferry — cool in the eye of the storm — are amplified by his blasé delivery, but the music — powered by Hugo Klaers’ busy drumming — is something else, blending cool funk with nervous disco and jazzy aplomb. A highly recommended stunner.
Things heated up for the Suburbs in ’82, when they started attracting significant club play for a 12-inch of the song “Waiting.” They included that track on the Dream Hog EP (in original and extended remix form), along with two sharp new funk tunes (one of them about dance music) plus a restrained near-ballad. When the band signed to Mercury, the label reissued it before sending the ‘Burbs into the studio to cut a new album.
The result of that maneuver, Love Is the Law, is easily the Suburbs’ apex, a powerful and personality-laden set of songs that incorporate more rock than usual, as well as horns and some of the band’s most offbeat lyrics. “Rattle My Bones” is brilliantly demento bebop; the superb title track has the most memorable hook in the repertoire; “Hell A” got one of its verses from a Los Angeles phone booth scrawl. A great, great album.
Making the probably inevitable local Prince connection via the production guidance of Robert Brent (better known as Revolution drummer Bobby Z), the Suburbs came roaring back three long years later with another powerful record, albeit one whose character is less firmly held in its musical approach than its lyrics. Gone is the antsy, skittish urgency of yore; Suburbs is utterly listenable (but not overwhelmingly unique), with equally subtle nods to both the band’s traditional crypto-funk and Prince’s happy-feet dance rock. Thankfully, Chaney and Poling’s nastily humorous lyrics — notably on “Every Night’s a Friday Night” (…in hell), “America Sings the Blues” and “Superlove” — are as clever as ever.
That, unfortunately, was the end of the Suburbs, although they did release a 12-inch single (“Little Man’s Gonna Fall” b/w “Don’t Do Me Any Favors”) on a local independent label the following year before vanishing. Ladies and Gentlemen, The Suburbs have left the building is a useful 19-track retrospective that would have benefited from more exhaustive annotation.
Poling’s solo album is an ambitious affair, extrapolating the dark jazz noir subcurrent in the Suburbs’ tightly wound rock into a smart, moody and ironic character study with varied instrumentation (from brass to strings to accordion) and atmospheres. “Dig the World Spot” is insistently catchy in much the same way some of the Suburbs’ tunes were, but it gets weirder than that. There’s a melodically lovely and tender first-person monster narrative called “Frankenstein,” while “I Don’t Want to Kill Anymore” is crooned as if it were a smoky night down at Chez Louis. Throughout, Calling All Stars offers such delicious paradoxes of form and function, and adds a solid new chapter to the band’s after-life.
An eclectic collection of covers done in a deeply relaxed, non-rock jazz idiom that disperses the tired clichés of lounge music, The New Standards is the namesake debut of a trio formed by Poling, Trip Shakespeare/Semisonic bassist John Munson and vibraphone player Steve Roehm. The eclectic selection of songwriters includes Curtis Mayfield, Paul Westerberg, Neil Young, Kurt Weill, Frank Loesser, Bryan Ferry, Blur, Beck and David Bowie in a what-comes-next? parade of surprises. Not all of the songs work equally well in this setting, but the album has an off-kilter charm that is both shocking and sublime.