The Tape of Only Linda
St. Louis Riverfront Times:
SOMA, left coast culture
SOMA, left coast culture
Witness, friends and neighbors, the transmogrification of a power-pop band into a Rock Band, whether or not the members thereof like it or not. Scott Miller and his newest Family - guitarist Zachary Smith, bassist Rob Poor, keyboardist Paul Weinike and ex-Thin White Rope drummer Jozef Becker - have released their second album, The Tape of Only Linda (first caller to pin the reference gets the Big Star's Greatest Hits boxed set). In comparison to Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, The Loud Family's second album offers fuzzier, harder and wider sounds and attitudes, among which are the edgy, trance-rock of "Marcia and Etrusca", the power-balladish "My Superior," the startling vitriolic "It Just Wouldn't be Christmas" (some of whose lyrics would almost seem more normal coming from some caustic hair-rocker rather than from the composed ex-frontman of the late great Game Theory. "You should have owned me while you could / and harvested a cotton field / filled up a uniform, fleshed out a war / went for drinks afterward, gone in half on a Cambodian whore"), the raw guitar-fest of "Soul Drain," and -- land ho! -- the 'young-adult-hurt-feeling-athon' "Ballet Hetero," which hearkens back to the hangdog "Even You" on Plants and Birds. A straight-ahead, stylistic sampler and an exciting promise of loud things to come.
Back in 1993, a lot of critics (me included) reacted to Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, the debut of the Loud Family, as if it was the second coming of the Beatles' White Album. And with good reason:in terms of sheer musical inventiveness, it nearly was. Now, faced with the Louds' sophomore effort, The Tape of Only Linda, two more things can be said without fear of contradiction: (1) these guys have the best album titles in the business, and (2) pound for pound they're the smartest, most imaginative rock band in America, the closest we Yanks have ever come to a homegrown version of XTC.
There've been some changes made this time out, of course. Plants was essentially an extended sound collage, with non-sequitur sound effects, songs, and snippets of songs running into each other. Only Linda is, superficially at least, more conventional, just twelve well-crafted tracks with beginnings and ends, and the production, once again by Mitch Easter, is considerably more live-sounding than before, when every instrumental noise and vocal seemed artificially processed.
What hasn't changed, though, is leader Scott Miller's luscious, melodic songs, Beatles and Big Star-influenced confections filled with the kind of teasingly oblique wordplay that (back in the Sixties) used to get a songwriter tagged as Joycean. Miller led the similarly inclined Game Theory through several highly regarded Eighties albums, but whereas his early stuff often seemed too clever for its own good, by now he's learned to relax. On "Baby Hard-to-Be-Around," for example, when he drops references to Iggy Pop and Jacques Cousteau in the same verse, your reaction is laughter rather than "How pretentious."
The rest of the album? Oh, just think chiming guitars, brilliant playing by everybody involved, spectacular sound, and, underneath all the craft, the heart of a bruised romantic. Unlike most progressive rock, which Only Linda resembles in all the best ways, the music here is unmistakably being made by folks as vulnerable and human as the rest of us. In short, a great album.
What's that? You say you've heard this before? Well, certainly Scott Miller's paid his dues, serving time as frontman for '80s art-poppers, Game Theory, where he honed his ability to crank out a catchy riff and well-turned phrase. But it seems Miller has settled down, eschewing the hit-and-miss experimentation that led to uneven albums and instead zeroing in on a sound that's rich yet pristine in its jangly, hook-filled crush. Producer Mitch Easter turns up the volume with a Spector-ish melange of sonic shadings, harmonies, and big, big guitars. There's something familiar in the sound - that loving ode to Big Star. Happy, reconstituted Beatle melodies romp around, underscored by synthesizers and the straight-ahead energy of power pop. Miller's lyrics hide in the luscious folds of the music, jumping out to surprise you from time to time. The songs are firm and well-constructed, if indistinct, with more than half the cuts being potential singles. Occasionally the familiarity becomes problematic -- "My Superior" and "Baby Hard-to-Be-Around" sound a bit too much like Big Star -- and I found myself constantly replacing The Tape of Only Linda with Radio City.
The Loud Family's second album is essentially Game Theory redux. If you swooned to hookmeister Scott Miller's Chiltonian whine and pencil-necked, rococo rock, you'll want The Tape Of Only Linda. As with 1993's Plants and Birds and Rocks and Things, Miller plows the same field he's been working since the early '80s. Yeah, the land's not as fertile anymore but Miller is resourceful, ringing subtle changes on old tricks. While Plants seems more ambitious than the new one and possesses more great melodies, which is Miller's raison d'etre, Linda has enough silky and gnarled gems to woo any fan of exquisitely crafted rocque. Cross out the two tracks on which Miller doesn't sing, forget the oversweetened cuts (is that a glockenspiel on "Still Its Own Reward"?) and you're left with about five (out of ten) songs to put on that summer road-trip tape. Two of these -- "Marcia and Etrusca" and "Ballet Hetero" -- are as good as anything Miller's done. How long can he go on like this? For quite a while longer, evidently.
St. Louis Riverfront Times
St. Louis Riverfront Times
One reason pop-rock doesn't get the respect it deserves is because too often it has no reason for existing other than to pay homage to an already-perfected style. Pop usually sounds good, and really, that should be enough justification for any music; but sing-along, melt-in-your-mouth songs often give fans precious little to chew on.
Well, Scott Miller's pop offers challenging gristle for the sweet tooth of pop addicts. After nearly 10 albums -- first in an obscure aggegation called Alternate Learning, then Game Theory, and now the Loud Family (not a reference to the SNL sketch, but rather to the "Typical American Family" of the '60s, as featured in a notorious PBS special) - Miller has transformed obscurity and pseudo-pretentiousness into something that you can sing in the shower. He's the master of the esoteric reference, whether you consider his beating R.E.M. to the punch with a song from 1987's Lolita Nation called "Kenneth, What's the Frequency?" (like R.E.M.'s track, it was based on that super-weird assault on Dan Rather), or the name of the new album, The Tape of Only Linda (Alias). The title alludes to a cruel bootleg that featured Linda McCartney's vocals isolated from a live-performance mix, a recording that made the perfect gift for masochists and fans of her frozen dinners.
Miller's pop songs are both organic and futuristic, full of great lines like "Give me some false hope I can take seriously" (from Lolita Nation's "Last Day That We're Young"), "Girl, the camera loves you but I'm not sure I do" (from TToOL's "My Superior") and "Lord knows that I'm not exactly the boy of my own dreams (from LN's "The Real Sheila"). Although the music, on first listen, seems to emphasize style over substance, Miller's style is all about substance -- each syllable he utters is a piece of a tight, puzzle-like hook. His songs percolate with keyboards and grunge-nasty but catchy guitars, and they're whipped-creamed with his compelling, Chiltonesque tenor. Actually, Miller used to face accusations of ripping off Big Star, which is rather like saying the Beatles ripped off Chuck Berry. In reality, Miller takes that Big Star influence to places that Chilton could only dream of. And, believe it or not. Miller perfected his sound long before he ever set stylus to "September Gurls."
His sole misstep on TToOL is that he's too nice a guy, occasionally letting the other band members write and sing. Their tunes are better than their vocals, but it's Miller's immaculately chiseled songs that are the real attraction. He could fill a triple album with just the shavings of his brilliance.