Many college-radio guitar bands of the 1980s confronted a glaring gap between their critical acclamation and their sputtering commercial rewards. Such a contradiction is hell for an individual, but it's worse for a democratic band, encouraging all sorts of conflicts and second-guessing. So it's not surprising that band albums have given way to solo albums, among them new releases from Peter Case of the Plimsouls, Marvin Etzioni of Lone Justice, Chris Mars of the Replacements and Juliana Hatfield of the Blake Babies.
Peter Case: 'Six-Pack of Love'
Peter Case was the leader of the Plimsouls, L.A.'s best power-pop band of the early '80s, but he eventually tired of that scene. He broke up the band, became an acoustic singer-songwriter and made two delightfully understated solo albums. Now he has rewired his songs to rock-and-roll on "Six-Pack of Love" (Geffen), which offers the best of both worlds: the metallic kick of the Plimsouls and the well-honed songwriting craft of his solo albums.
Backed by three Elvis Costello alumni (producer-keyboardist Mitch Froom, bassist Bruce Thomas and singer Steven Soles), guitarist Michael den Elzen (from Australia's Birdbrain) and drummer Gary Mallaber (from Bruce Springsteen's "Lucky Town"), Case remembers how to use a thumping backbeat to reinforce a catchy melody (like the one on "When You Don't Come") or a bitter joke (like the one about disappearing girlfriends and disappearing old buildings on "Vanishing Act"). This spirit of collaboration extends to the songwriting, for Case wrote the album with contributors as diverse as Tonio K., Fred Koller, Tom Russell and Case's wife, Diane Sherry.
With John Prine, he wrote "Wonderful 99," a very silly parody of historical songs like "The Ballad of the Green Berets" and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." With Billy Swan, he came up with two infectious rockabilly numbers with witty hyperbole in the lyrics. With Tony Kenny, he wrote "It's All Mine," the hard-rocking story of an unrepentant thief. With Andy Williams Jr., he stacked Beach Boys harmonies on the romantically yearning "Dream About You." On his own, Case ripped off the piano riff from Traffic's "Glad" and used it as the basis for a great pun song, "Deja Blues." Crammed full with 13 songs, "Six-Pack of Love" is a wonderfully varied and delightfully rowdy comeback for this once and future rock-and-roller. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8141.)
Marvin Etzioni: 'Marvin the Mandolin Man'
Marvin Etzioni finds himself at the same stage Case was at seven years ago. A bassist and songwriter for L.A. cow-punk band Lone Justice, he soured on the bar-band scene and has now released an acoustic singer-songwriter album, "Marvin the Mandolin Man" (Restless). "Once there was a time," he sings on "Clarinet Row" (to the melody of Tom Waits's "Time"), "when singers could sing, 'cause they sang every Sunday in church. Well, today the snare drum is always too loud, and nobody cares 'bout the words." In search of that mythical parlor music, Etzioni sets his songs in chamber-folk arrangements that feature clarinet, tuba, upright bass, bells, a string quartet and/or his own mandolin.
The arrangements are often lovely, and Etzioni's songs have the elusive quality of moral-less fables that might have been written at either end of this century. The harmonica-laced "Rosemary Nobody" sketches a woman whom no one but the singer can really see; the string-swaddled "The Climb" is an allegory about ascending from a loveless relationship; the tuba-anchored "Balancing Act" draws an analogy between a tightrope show and a tenuous new love. Unfortunately, Etzioni allows every tempo to drag drearily, and this only emphasizes the monotonous quality of his voice. If the album weren't on CD, one might suspect that it was a 45 rpm record being played at 33. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8142.)
Chris Mars: 'Horseshoes and Hand Grenades'
During his tenure as the Replacements' drummer, Chris Mars had only one lead vocal (on an obscure B-side) and he never got a sole writing credit. So it's surprising to find that Mars is not only the first member of that band to release a solo album, "Horseshoes and Hand Grenades" (Smash), but that he also wrote and sang every song and played almost all the instruments himself on it. It's even more surprising that the album is as strong as it is. Mars's guitar riffs are so catchy, his rhythms so unstoppable and his wall-of-noise arrangements so tuneful that just his mumbly vocals and commonplace lyrics separate him from Nirvana's Kurt Cobain and the Replacements' Paul Westerberg.
Like Cobain's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Mars's "Popular Creeps" is largely indecipherable, but the same sense of disgust and fury at youth culture trends and elites is telegraphed by the galloping drums, the arresting melodic figure, the bellowing vocal and the eruption of guitar noise on the chorus. Like Nirvana and Husker Du, Mars (who plays guitar, keys and drums) and J.D. Foster (who plays bass) raise the stakes on every song with frenzied rhythms and thickened onslaughts of electricity and then save themselves from fast/loud punk monotony by making sure there are real pop hooks at the center of the noise. Simple lyric sentiments like "(Nobody Likes an) Ego Maniac," "Get Out of My Life" and "(I Know I'll See) Better Days" are given an irresistible urgency by the guitar, bass and drums. Only Mars's voice and lyrics prevent this from being a major triumph. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8143.)
Juliana Hatfield: 'Hey Babe'
Like Case, Etzioni and Mars, Juliana Hatfield first made her reputation with a 1980s college-radio guitar band, dominating Boston's Blake Babies as singer, bassist and chief songwriter. With her first solo album, "Hey Babe" (Mammoth), she moves away from the self-conscious artiness that often marred the Blake Babies' recordings for a more mainstream rock-and-roll sound. Backed by drummer Todd Philips, guitarist Michael Leahy and various guests, Hatfield is more willing to let a catchy guitar figure, a sweet vocal harmony or a solid rhythm pattern continue throughout a song where once she would choke it off to avoid sounding "pop."
Her melodies and vocals both sound a lot stronger now that they have harmonies to reinforce them and repeating motifs to set them off. Hatfield, a 24-year-old woman with a 12-year-old girl's voice, has often used her small, high-pitched soprano to personify victims, but on this album she also uses it to celebrate a young girl's giddy enthusiasm. When she leads the soaring vocal harmonies on songs like "Everybody Loves Me but You" and "Forever Baby," she recalls the feminist camaraderie of "girl groups" from the Marvelettes to the Go-Gos. When she wails over the raucous guitars on "Get Off Your Knees" and "Nirvana," her always incisive lyrics finally have some muscle behind their threats. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8144.)