Uncle Green was formed as a nondescript cover band by four New Jersey high school freshmen; after graduation, the friends relocated to Atlanta and began spewing out equally nondescript pop originals. Using airy harmonies and acoustic strums to spiff up their mild-mannered mainstream creations, Uncle Green breezed through three blandly inoffensive albums produced in turn by John Keane and Brendan O’Brien, neither of whom was able to locate a strong personality among the group’s assets.
O’Brien also oversaw What an Experiment His Head Was, focusing the maturing band’s unexpectedly prickly, literate lyrics and energized musical attack into a sharp, hot beam. Using dense and diverse arrangements that owe equal debts to the Beatles and Elvis Costello, the band’s two singer/songwriters — guitarists Matt Brown and Jeff Jensen — push the sturdily tuneful material toward accessible psychedelia and baroque folk-rock with enough emotional and musical bite to leave marks.
The band’s move to a major label was accompanied by a deeper descent into romantic bitterness, distrust and disgust; Book of Bad Thoughts, complete with a needless remake of the previous album’s catchy ode to willful relationship ignorance, “I Don’t Wanna Know About It,” continues the association with O’Brien (playing organ on enough tracks to count as a fifth member), who helps the group up its rock kick. At the album’s most extreme point, Jensen’s “In Good Time” roars with ferocious despair. Brown’s “Bellingham” rests easily on a jaunty piano figure, but the band’s dynamic range doesn’t simply follow individual members’ impulses: Brown punches out “He Woke Up Naked” with the chunky force of the Smithereens and slides into boogie mundanity on “A Good Man,” while Jensen wraps his weedy voice around the temperate balladry of “The Blue Light.” Although not a great album — oo much of the writing is overweening, and there are times when it sounds like the work of two separate bands — Book of Bad Thoughts is a solid effort from a thoughtful and practical outfit.
Evidently convinced that Uncle Green had run its course (or perhaps feeling lonely in the record racks since the demise of the adjacent Uncle Tupelo), the four rechristened themselves 3 lb. Thrill and, with O’Brien and co-producer Nick DiDia, made Vulture, a thick, powerful rock record that opens new lyrical vistas and sublimates pop into soaring electric onslaughts with stirring melodies. The opening “Born Again” heralds the new beginning more in the feedback and buzzing distortion than the religion-versus-evolution lyrics, but still makes it clear the group is on a new sonic mission and that Uncle Green’s derivative digressions are a thing of the past. Big, modern guitars dominate the album, accompanied by forceful voicing of songs about suicidal depression (“Mary Tells Me”), incestuous child-abuse (“Diana”), nuclear testing (“Bikini Island”), abject alienation (“Coffin Nails”) and societal imposition (the blustery bonus track that follows “Piñata”). What a difference putting on a couple of pounds can make.