Seattle’s Young Fresh Fellows combine punk-derived recklessness and a bubbly garage-pop sensibility with an absurdist lyrical wit and a bittersweet vulnerable streak that has grown increasingly resonant as the band confronts the inconvenient realities of adult life.
From the back cover of Fabulous Sounds: “A collector’s disc of the sounds that we in the Pacific Northwest live and play by — a high-hearted, medium-fi recording of such nostrums as the whistle of a ferryboat, the hoofbeats of the rodeo, the roar of racing hydroplanes and the musical beat of our symphonies and jazz.” Nostrums? From the narrated grooves: mild frivolity like “Power Mowers Theme,” “Teenage Dogs in Trouble” and “Rock and Roll Pest Control,” played by an adaptable, skillful pop trio with folly in their minds and a tune in their hearts. Perfect.
Topsy Turvy only contains songs, but that’s no hazard in light of such bright, well-played numbers as the traveloguish “Searchin’ U.S.A.” and “You’ve Got Your Head on Backwards,” a “Tobacco Road”-styled beat raveup borrowed from the estimable Sonics. Armed with a winsome sense of nerdiness (check out the teen angst of “Hang Out Right”) and a finely tuned grasp of Culture 101 (“The New John Agar”), the Seattle’s four Fellows (bassist Jim Sangster’s arrival allowed singer/bassist Scott McCaughey to switch to guitar) put a humorous spin on everything they touch here, but not in such a jokey way that they can’t be taken seriously. Another delightful outing. (One ESD-label CD manages to contain the first two albums in their entirety.)
The characters assassinated by The Men Who Loved Music (entitled Chicago 19 on the spine), the Fellows’ strongest early album, include an assortment of old tube stars (on “TV Dream”), a rueful tune about “Hank, Karen and Elvis” and the white-funking “Amy Grant.” But there’s nothing cruel about these iconic invocations — it’s just the Fellows’ way of saying “hey!” The self- deprecating quartet’s best LP so far boasts winners in a number of mocking styles, e.g., the stomping “Get Outta My Cave” (a perfect song for the Troggs to cover), “I Got My Mojo Working (And I Thought You’d Like to Know)” and the blues-rocking “I Don’t Let the Little Things Get Me Down.” Despite their growing underground-band-makes-good coolness, they can still admit to selfconscious geekiness on the power-popping “When the Girls Get Here.” (The 21-song Men Who Loved CD, with Henry Winkler’s face on the disc, appends the previously unreleased “Happy Death Theme” and everything but the remixed version of the first LP’s “Young Fresh Fellows Theme” from the subsequent Refreshments mini-album.)
Refreshments gathers up seven outtakes and rarities, including “Back Room of the Bar” (recorded for, but omitted from, Topsy Turvy), “Beer Money” (included on the Men Who Loved Music cassette), “Young Fresh Fellows Update Theme” and the previously unissued “Broken Basket.”
Totally Lost is less overtly wacky and more out-front in its darker lyrical underpinnings; McCaughey’s songs give the Fellows the straightest things they’ve ever done. Despite flashes of familiar lyrical absurdity (“The Universal Trendsetter,” “Take My Brain Away,” “I’d Say That You Were Upset”), simplification, with a damaging air of haste, eliminates a lot of the band’s ebullient personality in favor of guitar-rocking forthrightness. Some of the music preserves the ambitious cross-pollination (“Picky Piggy,” “No Help at All,” “Little Softy”), but Totally Lost as a whole is disappointingly serious and unimaginative. The CD substitutes a longer version of “Totally Lost Theme” and adds “You’re Not Supposed to Laugh” and “World Tour ’88.”
Lead guitarist Chuck Carroll de-Fellowized himself after Totally Lost, leaving the “3 Young French Fellows 3” to cut a limited-edition official bootleg variously known as Beans and Tolerance or Simply Wonderful, Wonderfully Simple (thanks to the lack of a cover or label: the only identifying marks are cryptically scratched in the vinyl around the center hole). Recorded quickly with more enthusiasm than care, the twelve cavalier tunes — most in a gritty and/or psychedelic ’60sish vein — add up to a joyous, rock’n’rolling studio party with massed backing vocals, one-take chaos, meandering guitar solos, bum notes and everything else that such great undertakings require.
Guitarist Kurt Bloch (also of the Fastbacks), the newest Fellow, rocks out like crazy and contributes three cool tunes to the loudly melodic This One’s for the Ladies. Although the LP is a bit slow coming out of the gate, it picks up steam with kicky pop hooks, electric power and deft arrangements. A fab bare-bones cover of the Kinks’ “Picture Book” stands out, as do such sturdy originals as “Middle Man of Time,” “Miss Lonelyhearts,” “The Family Gun,” “Lost Track of Time” and the forlorn country corn of “Deep Down and Inbetween,” on which Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap guests.
Includes a Helmet, released on Billy Bragg’s Utility label, is an eight-song retrospective — a sketchy but effective introduction that contains few of the songs mentioned above but is still worth hearing if you don’t own all the records. (Collectors’ alert: Helmet includes the otherwise unreleased “A Thing Like That.”)
The Butch Vig-produced Electric Bird Digest rocks solidly throughout but sounds more workmanlike than inspired, and it’s hard to ignore the sense of ennui that suffuses the album. The melancholy in McCaughey compositions like “Whirlpool” and “Thirsty” seems genuine, but that doesn’t make the songs compelling. Seattle scene pal Jimmy Silva contributed one of the album’s best songs (“The Telephone Tree”) and co-wrote another (“Fear, Bitterness and Hatred”) with drummer Tad Hutchinson. Bloch’s three compositions don’t stand out.
It’s Low Beat Time — apparently the Fellows’ studio swan song — is an odd farewell, teaming the Fellows with five different producers, including Vig and, strangely enough, Memphis R&B veteran Willie Mitchell. Despite the patchwork approach, the album does restore some of the energy missing from Electric Bird Digest. Things get engagingly weird about halfway through, with a spacey cocktail-jazz instrumental (“The Crafty Clerk”), a straightforwardly groovy Mitchell-produced cover of the Young Rascals’ “Love Is a Beautiful Thing,” a collaboration with New York’s A-Bones on “Monkey Say,” and a pair recorded live to lo-fi two-track with Kearney Barton, who engineered the Sonics’ classic ’60s garage-punk sides. Flamboyant septuagenarian soul legend Rufus Thomas pops up to sing lead on the bizarre finale, which starts out as a rendition of the trad-folk “Green Green” but eventually devolves into…well, whatever.
The Fellows’ discography also includes a number of one-off albums and singles for a variety of domestic and overseas labels. The Spanish sixteen-track Somos los Mejores! best-of includes a handful of non-album gems, while the British eight-song Includes a Helmet sampler (including one previously unreleased tune) is a bit too skimpy to function as a useful introduction. Gleich Jetzt is a Japanese release consisting of motley but spirited live-in-the-studio covers and re-recordings of some old Fellows numbers. Take It Like a Matador is a slapdash but fun live set recorded in Spain. The seven-song Pop (actually, the front cover and spine are filled with other words, but you have to read Japanese; the word “pop” is prominently printed on the disc) was produced as an export item to coincide with the band’s December 1993 dates in Osaka and Tokyo; the nifty grab-bag of odds and ends includes the invigorating studio pop of “Dear Red” and “Everybody Said Was Wrong,” a sharp hit of beat-group nostalgia (“Rabbit Run”) and spot-on live covers of Jonathan Richman’s “Roller Coaster by the Sea” and the Dictators’ “Teengenerate.”
With Dennis Diken of the Smithereens pounding the skins (and members of the extended Fellows family pitching in), Scott McCaughey’s lightweight solo record contains more evidence of his flip wit and bizarre imaginings than the band’s recent LPs. (Not to mention a delightful version of the Dixie Cups’ “People Say.”) With unpredictable musical variety (“A Sobering Thought,” for one especially weird example, shifts between film noir and Imagine-era Lennon, adding garden shears, a hammer and a wacky guitar solo to further confuse things), My Chartreuse Opinion offers moderate fun without guilt. (The CD adds four tracks by Jimmy Silva and two songs on which McCaughey is blandly backed by the Ben Vaughn Combo.)
Related projects: As the Mighty Squirrels, the Fellows back singer Rob Morgan on his brilliant 1986 dual-concept album, Ernest Anyway and the Mighty Squirrels Sing the Hits of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates/Five Virgins. If the staff of Mad magazine — back when it was good — set out to make a fershlugginer indie-rock record, this would be it. Potrzebie! One side of the brilliant 1986 outing covers pre-Beatles classics (intentionally overlooking the best-known, “Shakin’ All Over” and “Please Don’t Touch”) by the Pirates. The flip, performed by a mixture of musicians dubbed the New Age Urban Squirrels, attacks representatives of the later ’60s (e.g., “Hair” and “Spirit in the Sky”), which they devolve into cocktail lounge laxative sleaze.
The second Squirrels LP, a mad assortment of Fellows-speckled lineups, covers and recording circumstances, is total genius. For such an irreverent assault on pop music, What Gives? (some of it retrieved from obscure 45s and compilations) has great playing and production, excellent vocals by Morgan and enough revisionist imagination to cover a dozen such undertakings. After a rollicking rendition of a gospel standard, a spunky revamp of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s doggy-do “Get Down,” a chaotic monster-heavy assault on Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (dissolving into Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen”), a relatively straight version of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ obnoxiously pushy “Let Me!” and the positively inspired (Wizard of) “Oz ’90” medley, the handful of Squirrel originals merely ice this monumentally entertaining cake. The perfect antidote to all fifteen volumes of Have a Nice Day!
Moving out of the Fellows’ orbit (although McCaughey does contribute a tad), Harsh Toke of Reality varies the Squirrels’ recipe with a greater proportion of eclectically styled originals and a new cast of cohorts, including Loney and singer Re Styles of the Tubes. The small and seemingly random selection of oldies includes an all-out Bee Gees disco version of Paul McCartney’s “Coming Up,” a speeding cornpone rendition of “Let It Be,” an extravagant reconsideration of Tommy James’ “Draggin’ the Line” and a relatively mild take on the Vogues’ “Five O’Clock World.” Witty rock’n’roll citations and funny bits abound as Morgan and his pals keep the joint jumping from jokey metal (“Bone of Contention”) to jokey boogie (“Bobo”) to jokey godknowswhat (“Swallowing Tadpoles, Poopin’ Out Frogs”), but Harsh Toke of Reality isn’t quite as effortless a blast as its predecessors.