I Love that Album! #3: Klaatu’s Sir Army Suit (1978)

alan headshot from schoolBy Alan Haber – Pure Pop Radio

klaatu sir army suit cover“We all rose to the challenge,” Terry Draper says about “Calling Occupants (Of Interplanetary Craft),” Klaatu’s momentous signature song that opened the band’s debut album, 3:47 E.S.T., but he might as well have been referring to Sir Army Suit, the Canadian trio’s triumphant third album, released in August 1978 and now celebrating its 40th anniversary.

klaatu juicy luicy 45 labelThe challenge Terry, John Woloschuk and Dee Long were faced with, as they gathered to work on Sir Army Suit–really no challenge at all–was to write and record relatively short radio-friendly songs that would increase Klaatu’s marketplace footprint. And with wonderful nuggets such as “Juicy Luicy,” a catchy disco parody; “Tokeymor Field,” a hummable soft-pop romantic romp inspired by the music of the Young Rascals; and “Older,” a rocker about making time count before it’s gone, success should have been a fait accompli. And it was, for fans who held 3:47 E.S.T. and Hope, Klaatu’s previous two albums, dear.

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(l to r) John Woloschuk, Dee Long, and Terry Draper

John, Dee and Terry’s mandate was always to write and record songs that were different from each other, and for Sir Army Suit, they came up with their most diverse set yet. Songs about long getaways (“Everybody Took a Holiday”), the gift you didn’t know you needed (“Perpetual Motion Machine”), falling in love from a berth on the high seas (“Dear Christine”), and leading a humdrum existence (“A Routine Day”) were brought to life with fanciful, creative arrangements. Working with producer Terry Brown, the band’s George Martin, Klaatu delivered exactly what was called for– an album stocked full of unique treasures that is as enjoyable today as it was 40 years ago.

One of Sir Army Suit’s most engaging slices of songcraft is the cinematic number that opens the album. John’s majestic “A Routine Day,” about a man living possibly the most humdrum existence imaginable, offers up exquisite and complex chord progressions, one of the loveliest, most seductive melodies in Klaatu’s catalog, and a surprising Twilight Zone-esque ending, in which the hapless narrator waits on the pier, as one does, for Charon, the ferryman of Hades.

Then, there are the tremendous songs written by Dee Long, charming, melodic wonders all: the aforementioned “Everybody Took a Holiday” and “Perpetual Motion Machine,” and “Older,” “Mr. Manson,” and “Cherie” (Dee also cowrote the wild sci-fi closer, “Silly Boys,” with John). “Cherie” may well be the loveliest of all of Dee’s creatures on this album:

Of course, a band is more than just one member’s vision; Sir Army Suit wouldn’t be the creative triumph it is without John Woloschuk, Dee Long and Terry Draper working together to fuse their ideas into a successful whole. And, it cannot be said often enough that the trio, working together with Terry Brown, were collectively a tremendous close-knit, creative force.

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Sir Army Suit’s Back Cover

All of this sterling work came wrapped inside Hugh Syme’s beautiful, imaginative cover art that finally provided visual proof that the members of Klaatu had never been Beatles, even if the band members and fellow travelers depicted didn’t come with names attached. That would have to wait until Klaatu’s next album, Endangered Species.

Klaatu produced five albums in their relatively brief lifetime; all of them offer slices of hope and a little courage, but Sir Army Suit is perhaps the most courageous of all.

radio1Alan Haber’s Pure Pop Radio is the premiere website covering the melodic pop scene with in-depth reviews of new and reissued recordings, and a wide variety of features. The 24-hour Pure Pop Radio stream ran from 2013 to August 25, 2018. Welcome to your number one home for coverage of the greatest melodic pop music in the universe from the ’60s to today.

I Love that Album! #2: The Roches (s/t) (1979)

by Alan Haber alan 5 small

the rochesIt seemed to fall from out of the sky, so different was it from everything else, its descent to earth slow and determined and harmony bound, as if protected by angels who knew that it was a gift from heaven. So it was, and on into the marketplace it went.

The Roches, Maggie, Terre and Suzzy, clearly a collective gift so pure and honest and true, recorded their first album as a trio with Robert Fripp, who produced the self-titled collection at New York’s Hit Factory in “audio verité,” with engineer Ed Sprigg at the controls. Instrumentation was spare throughout, with only acoustic guitars, synthesizer, bass, triangle, and shaker supporting the sisters’ lovely lead and harmony close-miked vocals, positioned up front where they clearly belonged. These are intimate performances, beautifully realized.

Released in 1979 on Warner Brothers, The Roches was like nothing that had come before in the rock era. It wasn’t rock and it wasn’t roll; it wasn’t folk or strictly pop but, rather, a meeting of the genre minds with glorious harmony singing and lovely melodies. The 10 songs were pretty and clever and, really, pretty clever. Written by the three sisters both separately and as a trio, they were, and continue to be, powerful specimens.

maggie and terre roche seductive reasoningMaggie and Terre had come into view earlier in the seventies; they sang backup on Paul Simon’s There Goes Rhymin’ Simon in 1973, on a wistful song called “Was a Sunny Day,” a lazy kind of summer, slice of life character number. Two years later, the duo released an album called Seductive Reasoning, a collection of astounding songs mostly written by Maggie and with the cleverly-titled “If You Empty Out Your Pockets You Could Not Make the Change,” which was produced by Simon.

phoebe snow against the grainAnd then 1979 beckoned, and The Roches was released. Maggie’s “The Married Men,” a song about women hanging on to the words of cads who promised their secret crushes everything and, in the end, delivered nothing everlasting, was one of the highlights of the album; the song was recorded by Phoebe Snow on her Against the Grain album a year earlier.

But there were other astounding songs on offer. Certainly the opener, “We,” a wry musical introduction to the sisters, was a blast of a melodic calling card, a two-and-a-half minute how-they-got-here song that spelled it all out, including admissions that the Roches didn’t give out their phone numbers, and lived in New York City by way of “deepest New Jersey” (“We better get [outta] there/Before the shit hits the fan”).

Maggie’s glorious “Hammond Song” and “Quitting Time” were highlights, too; the former about keeping from going down the wrong path, and the latter about living the life that makes you happy (“You can go south in winter/Be what you are a goose/Honk all the moon out the ocean/Your clothes can fit you loose”). Clever wordplay was clearly in evidence.

Terre’s “Mr. Sellack” tells the story of a person who pleads with the owner of a restaurant to give her her job back, even though he might not remember her (“O Mr. Sellack/I didn’t think I’d be back/I worked here last year/Remember?”). Melodically strong and full of rich vocal harmony, the lyrical wordplay is clever: “Waiting tables ain’t that bad/Since I’ve seen you last/I’ve waited for some things that you would not believe/To come true.”

train carSuzzy’s atmospheric, practically Hitchcockian “The Train” charts the travels of a narrator who is trying to make it through, but has to endure obstacles (“I spy on the big guy/Sitting next to me/He’s drinking two beers/And reading the New York Post/Trying not to get in my way/Everybody knows the kind of day that is”).

the roches nurdsThe Roches was followed by the otherworldly Nurds in 1980, a different kind of album stacked full of classic songs such as Terre’s examination of the inner psyche, “My Sick Mind,” and Suzzy and Terre’s hysterical, tongue-planted-so-firmly-in-cheek-it-hurts “The Death of Suzzy Roche” (in which the battle for top dog in the laundromat is settled with comically violent results). A sterling, a cappella rendition of Cole Porter’s “It’s Bad for Me” provided, perhaps, some much-needed balance.

The Roches’ rich, natural vocal blend is a collective thing of beauty, just as it was on the sisters’ debut album, which sounds as fresh today as it did 37 years ago. The Roches continue to sound pure and honest and true.

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I Love that Album! #1: Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway (1999)

fountains of wayneFountains of Wayne | Utopia Parkway (Atlantic, 1999)
by Alan Haber

If Frank Capra had made a movie based on the songs populating Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway album, he might have called it It’s a Mundane Life. For 14 songs, Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingwood explore the normal, everyday concerns of a population of everyday people, giving life to everyday acts of observation.

A well-imagined tour de force, Utopia Parkway chronicles the dreams of a hopeful musician (the title song), of momentary escape to the stars (“Laser Show”), of the boy who loves an airhead (“Lost in Space”), of mall explorers and bargain hunters (“The Valley of Malls”), of the clueless throwbacks to a spacier time (“Go, Hippie”).

Working both left and right of a decidedly pure pop center, and always with an eye on crafty turns of phrase and musical verbiage, Schlesinger and Collingwood pay attention to the details, whether they’re delivering a ’90s version of a Warner Brothers cartoon (“Hat and Feet”) or getting inside the head of a clueless guy who’s trying to get the girl (“Red Dragon Tattoo”).

red dragon tattooThe hopeful hero of “Red Dragon Tattoo” is a nebbishy boy whose plan to convince a girl to declare her love for him comprises a drunken trip to a tattoo parlor and a proud proclamation that, after being inked, he looks “a little more like that guy from KorN.” If he’s “fit to be dyed,” he wonders to the girl “Am I fit to have you.”

The song’s wordplay swings for the fences always. At the tattoo parlor, the boy observes his surroundings: “I hear the man say you want to see the others/A mermaid and a heart that says mother/But I don’t know from maritime/And I never did hard time,” he sings, offering a snapshot of his experience. “I brought a .38 Special CD collection/Some Bactine to prevent infection/And in case I get queasy/A photo of Easy Rider,” he continues, rattling off his ideas of protection.

The world-class lover narrating the sprightly “Denise” pines for the girl, but his concept of her being hardly comes to grips with what makes her attractive in the first place. Or does it? “I heard she used to be married/She listens to Puff Daddy/She works at Liberty Travel/She got a heart made of gravel,” he tells us, not quite getting to the heart of what makes Denise tick and puts his heart into flutter mode.

Another clueless mope sees himself reduced to the bare minimum and not necessarily the bare essentials in “Hat and Feet.” Dumped by his girl, he tries to run, only to be reduced to a chapeau and a pair of limbs. The couple drawn in the heartbreaking “Troubled Times” have slipped through each other’s fingers. “The way the days and hours pass you’ll never understand/Falling like rain through your hands,” the narrator observes. Yet, they might make it through after all, however tenuously: “Maybe one day soon/It’ll all come out/How you dream about each other sometimes/With a memory of/How you once gave up/But you made it through the troubled times.”

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Fountains of Wayne

The songs on Utopia Parkway together constitute the script for a gripping reality show, delivered with customary verve by Fountains of Wayne.  In “Prom Theme,” Schlesinger and Collingwood accurately, and painfully, present a wistful snapshot of the momentary highs of the ubiquitous prom night experience. “The moment soon will pass,” Collingwood sings. “It’s all downhill from there.” But the kids will have their moment before night passes into day and the real world milieu sets in. “But tonight we’ll reach for the stars/We’ll rent expensive cars/And dream our dreams/Of a perfect night.”

The art of observation, especially in a three-minute pop song, can be a tricky proposition, but in the hands of Schlesinger and Collingwood, it’s the definition of truth. They may be dealing with the lesser lights living on Utopia Parkway and elsewhere across this great land, but they harbor great affection for them. They don’t judge their subjects; they report on their movements and give them room to breathe. Sometimes, their characters don’t have to put words together in a sentence. Sometimes, in fact, all they have to do is mutter “Sha la la la la la,” as does the lost-in-love target in the wistful “The Senator’s Daughter.”

Dressing their colorful songs with lovely melodies and tried-and-true song constructs, Schlesinger and Collingwood tell the stories of our lives in three-minute frozen moments in time. “I got it made, I got it down,” the future big time rock star sings in “Utopia Parkway.” Schlesinger and Collingwood, working with powers far beyond those of mortal songwriters and performers, have done the same, and saved humanity in the process.

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