Balancing an accessible melodic sensibility with a more unhinged, unsettling edge, this Mississippi combo — centered around singer/writer/guitarists Tim Lee and Bobby Sutliff — was one of the most under-appreciated gems of the ’80s Southern pop boom. Despite the unfortunate band name (one hopes the reference is to jackets…), they brought something distinct and unique to the power pop genre, reflecting more of an American than English influence with strange melodic turns and a ragged Southern vocal style. Following the group’s introductory salvo, a 1982 debut 7-inch on their own label, Mitch Easter produced Any Monkey With a Typewriter, assisting the trio instrumentally as well. (Richard Barone of the Bongos also appears on the record.) The six-song 12-inch is amateurish but well worth hearing.
Recorded as a duo with help from Easter and others, Terminal is a brilliant raw pop-rock-folk record with insidious melodies, fuzzed-out guitars and bristly lyrics, all delivered with unselfconscious sincerity. An appropriately atmospheric version of Television’s “Glory” — produced by and played with the Rain Parade — led to Lee’s side project with Parader Matt Piucci. The Gone Fishin’ album, Can’t Get Lost When You’re Goin’ Nowhere, was recorded in Mississippi in February 1986. While the arrangements mix things up effectively, the pair co-wrote only two tracks — the rest are individual efforts. The creative collaboration is unproductive: meandering acoustic doodles with electric guitar overdubs, poorly sung rock tunes and dusty pop songs that suffer from the incompatibility of their voices. The nerdy organ on the joint “Lift It Up” suggests a possibly functional period approach that is otherwise ignored on the LP.
A planned outing with another Rain Parader, Steven Roback — announced as Distant Cousins — didn’t actually take place. But Lee did complete another side project around the same time. The low-budget Paid Vacation LP Lee cut in 1985 with Howard Wuelfing (an ex-Slickee Boy bassist who led the Washington-area Nurses in the late ’70s and then worked with Half Japanese) offers sketchy previews of three Windbreakers’ songs: “Run” (from Run) and “Fit In” and “Forget Again” (from A Different Sort). Besides a cover (Tommy Hoehn and Alex Chilton’s “She Might Look My Way”), the LP also contains Wuelfing singing his own originals, one of which (“The Week You Were Mine”) is quite lovely. Unfortunately, muffled sound and indifferent performances limit the value of this seven-song artifact.
The French-only Disciples of Agriculture recaps the Windbreakers’ career up through Terminal.
The engaging Run is another collaboration with Easter, who had by then become a virtual (non-writing) bandmember, and longtime associate Randy Everett. A bit less quirky than prior releases, the electrically energized pop could have been mixed more evenly, but that’s not a major distraction. Although the coolest song concept is Lee’s anxiety-ridden “Braver on the Telephone,” Sutliff’s “Visa Cards and Antique Mirrors” runs a close second.
After that, Lee and Sutliff parted ways. Lee kept the Windbreakers name for the equally worthy A Different Sort…, which he co-produced with Everett. The album offers another striking set of unsettling lyrics, powerful, inventive playing and production, and emotional singing. From the bells on “Knowing Me” through the affecting piano on “We Never Understand” to the pained roughness of “Forget Again,” Lee demonstrates his multifarious talents and abundant creativity.
Meanwhile, Sutliff went solo with the wryly titled five-song Another Jangly Mess in the UK and the full-length Only Ghosts Remain in the States. Magically produced at the Drive-In by Easter, who also plays drums and some guitar, on the record, Sutliff deploys his pretty voice, piercing guitar solos, understated keyboards and Beatlesque pure-pop sensibility to make a state-of-the-art exposition on the power pop genre. Only Ghosts Remain repeats the EP’s five songs and adds six more (including a spiffy cover of Richard Thompson’s “Small Town Romance”) of equal quality, four of which employ Wuelfing as bassist.
Left to his own devices on What Time Will Tell (relativity speaking: members of Let’s Active, the Bongos and the Wygals all lend a hand), Lee comes up with another winner. His first actual solo album, produced by Gene Holder (of the dB’s and Wygals), offers sparkling, occasionally beautiful guitar pop and richly resonant lyrics about romance and life (mentioning religion a bunch of times) in the South. Trimming his tendency to experiment, Lee plays his songs (and one by Faye Hunter) with straightforward arrangements and evident craft. Lee’s second Holder-produced album, The New Thrill Parade, went unheard until New Rose issued it a few years later.
Lee and Sutliff got back together the following year for the confident-sounding, smoothly crafted At Home With Bobby and Tim. The pair sounds as strong as ever on bittersweet originals like Lee’s “Just Fine,” Sutliff’s “On the Wire” and a cover of Russ Tolman’s “Portrait of Blue.” Tolman returned the favor by producing Electric Landlady — equally strong material with a slightly harder-rocking edge. “Big Ideas” and “Colorblind” rank with the pair’s strongest work.(The At Home CD also contains Terminal.)
Like a pair of old Stratocasters, the Windbreakers’ sound continues to gain richness and roundness with time. Produced by Russ Tolman, Electric Landlady has some of the duo’s most immediate and resonant creations, played and sung with rare pop insight. Closing a circle of sorts, the Windbreakers do a new version of Sutliff’s “The Devil and the Sea,” a song which Tolman recorded on his ’90 LP.
Lee made a strong return to solo action the following year with Crawdad, a rootsier, somewhat more acoustic record that highlights the confessional aspects of such numbers as “Friday Night” and “Like Sand.” Also included are impassioned covers of Sutliff’s “You Could’ve Told Me” and Mott the Hoople’s “I Wish I Was Your Mother.”