TOP 50 ALBUMS OF ALL TIME: #50
THE SCENE IS NOW - Total Jive LP
I should note, firstly, that this list isn't really in any great order: I just thought this'd be a good place to start. Ahem, anyway, beginning with TSIN may seem like a hell of an esoteric, audience-killing way to start things, but for me, there's no better way to kick things off.
I first read about the band in about 1988 in an issue of the great and long-defunct B-Side mag penned by the similarly great James Curran (or James C., as he was known then). That gets me thinking: what the hell ever happened to him? He was a fantastic writer for his age (he was but a teen when involved with the mag), yet slinked off to seemingly nothing when it dissolved. I met him once in about '93 at a Dumb & the Ugly gig and, after remarking at how shocked I was by his youth (I think I expected a 35 year-old or something), promptly chewed his ear off for roughly an hour about what an "inspiration" he was and have never seen him anywhere since. More to the point, he's never written since, which is the biggest shame.
Enough of the diversions: James' review certainly piqued my interest: a NYC quintet featuring a Pere Ubu member who dabbled in vaguely "accessible", "quirky" post No-Wave pop with a somewhat rootsy edge. I filed it in the back of my brain until 1991 when I stumbled across it in the bargain bin at Exposure Records for $5. Naturally, I took the punt.
TSIN are a hard band to pin down. By all accounts their "avant-rock credentials" are impeccable: ex-Ubu member in the ranks (Tony Maimone), the estimable Chris Nelson as leader (he being the head of Lost Records and Mofungo part-timer, a loose collective linked up to other noteables like Fish & Roses, Elliott Sharp, etc.) and rave reviews by the usual suspects like Ajax's Tim Adams and Byron Coley. Unfortunately, all that added up to zip in regards to their public profile. Fact of the matter is, I've never met anyone else who's even heard of this LP, let alone owned it. It's a pity, coz it's a scorcher of the highest degree.
Upon first listen, you may be shocked by its sheer "accessibility". There's no "skronk" here, no screams of angst and no riffs of the ball-tearing variety. The pop hooks are a-plenty, the guitar lines pleasant and the "brass section" jamming. However, a listen or two in, and you'll start to notice something very strange happening: TSIN sound like roughly three bands playing at once. A guitar lick flies that way, a keyboard plonk jumps in another direction, and Chris Nelson's broken vocals seems to come in at random moments when the urge takes him. What at once sounds like a fairly simple '80s u/ground "pop" album starts to take a very different shape. If precedents must be mentioned, I'd undoubtedly throw around names like Beefheart, Pere Ubu, Slovenly and Red Crayola, though TSIN's pop sensibilities are more finely honed than any of the above. Throw in maybe a bit of the Feelies or Dream Syndicate VU-style strum into the mix and you're getting closer to TSIN territory. I've listened to this album a few hundred times since purchase and have never tired of its off-kilter rhythms, oblique lyrics or bizarre sense of '80s Americana (cover included). As far as I know, it hasn't been available for well over a decade, though it's a cut-out fave I'm glad I gambled on.
Pros: Awesome, criminally under-rated u/ground '80s gem. NJ indie-geeks Yo La Tengo covered one of its songs on Fakebook.
Cons: None really, so obscure it exists within its own universe. Those who only dig their Rock noisey, however, will be put off by its flagrant displays of "niceness". Too fuggin' bad.
Related: TSIN's Total Jive LP from '86, another killer well worth grabbing.