Monday, May 12, 2008


PELL MELL - Interstate CD (DGC/1993)
Been on a major Pell Mell kick of late, and got this sucka from ebay for about 99 cents a few weeks back (plus the obligatory $10.95 shipping - or whatever - which unfortunately negates the bargain status of such a purchase). Pell Mell? Been around for nearly 30 years. Don't confuse 'em w/ the Australian band from the '80s known as Pel Mel - a mistake often made by my peers - as I'm speaking of the long-running instrumental combo featuring such luminaries as Steve Fisk and Greg Freeman. Fisk didn't actually join the band 'til '83, though he's a fairly reputable producer known for cutting sides w/ outfits such as Beat Happening, Screaming Trees and zillion-sellers such as Nirvana and Soundgarden (you've probably heard of them). Freeman is a Bay Area-located knob-twiddler who manned the console for folks such as Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and Barbara Manning. But enough of the background material; let's see what this guy - upon Googling the band name - had to say about Pell Mell...
Pell Mell is hands down my favorite instrumental band. They had a long, if sporadic, run of nearly 20 years and 5-6 albums (if you count the cassette releases), most notably their three tremendous albums from the 1990’s. They had some line-up changes over the years, including the ’83 addition of future producer Steve Fisk and even later addition of guitarist extraordinaire Dave Spalding, made their way from SST to Geffen to Matador, and were known for writing by mail as the members often lived far away from one another (can anyone verify that factoid?). Hard to believe that at the height of grunge an instrumental band could make it as far as they did. Which wasn’t that far at all. But at least you’ve heard of them, right? Now you can’t turn around without a post-rock instrumental band rooting through your trash can. You should at least own the three 90’s albums Flow, Interstate, and Star City. Pell Mell were brilliant musicians, songwriters, and arrangers. I wish I was in Pell Mell.
I didn't reproduce that because it was the most mind-blowing summation of the band, or just to fill space. It's just there because it gives a different perspective and sums them up pretty neatly. As noted, Pell Mell, in their lifetime (and my guess is that they don't really operate as a unit anymore, since they've released nothing for years, even for their haphazard release schedule), released records on labels such as SST, Geffen and Matador. The album Interstate is on DGC/Geffen, released at the height of the "grunge" boom. You can thank Ray Farrell for that. He's one of the more interesting characters in American underground music of the last 30 years. Rumour has it he made his first splash as part of the original Maximum Rock 'n' Roll radio show in San Fran in the '70s/'80s (can anyone confirm this?) before finally landing at SST in the latter half of the '80s. He was also the manager of Pell Mell at the time, and scored them a deal w/ the label, then skipped on over to DGC and signed Sonic Youth and Nirvana... and the rest is history. Once Nirvana sold a squillion albums he was - I'm willing to assume - the golden boy of the Geffen empire and given carte blanche to indulge himself. And that he did. He signed Pell Mell to the label and released Interstate. It's a magnificent album which probably sold nothing. Soon thereafter they were dropped - as was just about every weirdo scooped up in the grunge boom by the mid '90s - and released their subsequent album, Star City (equally as good), on Matador.
Pell Mell are/were strictly instrumental, their sound and approach crystal clear, slick and never a dud note be hit. When friends ask me what they sound like, I usually tell 'em they're the mixing link twixt the Ventures, Booker T and the MGs, Link Wray and Steely Dan. I say that w/ a straight face, especially that last act. Pell Mell sound like they're recorded in a science lab w/ white gloves. The music is clipped and almost emaciated, though the clinical approach suits them to a tee. Their music was neither cleaned up (not necessary) nor grunged up for their major-label debut, since who would've cared anyway? This is the sound of a billion-dollar company indulging itself on the coattails of a "movement" it owned (at least in the public eye) for approx. two seconds, and Pell Mell came along for the ride. Glad they did. All of their records are out of print, though they're more than worth the trouble hunting down. The lyrical interplay between the different elements of the band - guitar/bass/percussion/keyboards - make them an absolutely unique combo in post-punk rock 'n ' roll. You'll find yourself humming along, possibly even making up lyrics. Pell Mell can be summed up in one word: inspired.

4 comments:

Mrow said...

PELL MELL = TEN EAST LITE

Yeah I never woulda made the connection but now that you mention it, these guys do have that precision STEELY DAN sheen to em, don't they. This is actually their only rec I've ever heard, but it is a good one for sure. Thanks for reminding me.

Dave said...

Actually, I'd say PELL MELL = YAWNING MAN LITE. The similarities are eery, though Yawning Man "rock out" a whole lot more. Still, I'd recommend hunting down all those other Pell Mell discs: they're ALL good.

Anonymous said...

Dave- Ray Farrell here. Great post on Pell Mell. You are on point with the post Nirvana Geffen days. Although I wasnt exactly given carte blanche, it was relatively easy to sign artists that could make cool records without the budgets associated with next big thing status,like PM, Southern Culture On The Skids, Garrison Starr. Geffen/DGC was a powerhouse and I worked with a lot of great people there fron the top down.
Originally, I was trying to get Rough Trade US to release a Pell Mell album. SST was a good place to be. Greg Ginn was particularly interested in releasing instrumental guitar records, I also brought Blind Idiot God and Henry Kaiser to him. No Age is a semi legendary comp of instro artists on SST that apparently inspired the band with the same name. On the Matador/Pell Mell association, the album was recorded for DGC but we were in a downsizing mode. Matador jumped at the chance to release it.
Of Maximum R&R, yes I was part of the original group with Al Ennis and Yohannon. I started before there were enough new punk records to fill a weekly two hour radio show. Don't take my word for it though, look at the back cover of the MaxR&R comp," Not So Quiet On The Western Front".
In closing, if you are the same Dave with the random rant post, good to see Slovenly referenced..
Over and out,
Ray

Dave said...

Wow, that was the real Ray Farrell. Ray, if you're reading this, what are you up to now?