[16 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Seattle’s longstanding power pop/garage band Young Fresh Fellows is likely a band you might have heard about as opposed to actually heard, owing to the fact that much of their output has been on small, somewhat rather obscure indie labels. They’re probably most famous for being ‘80s indie rock associates of such bands as the Replacements – I can’t find an official source for this, but, reportedly, when ‘Mats frontman Paul Westerberg got married for the first time in 1987, the wedding band was none other than the Young Fresh Fellows. Probably for that connection, I recall that a lot of ‘Mats fans loved the Fellows quite a bit: there was quite a bit of chatter about these guys on the Replacements Usenet group in the mid-‘90s when I used to frequent quite regularly (okay, daily). Since then, singer Scott McCaughey has arguably gone to much more widespread acclaim for his work with his other band, the Minus 5, which, of course, also features Peter Buck, ex of R.E.M. That’s notwithstanding the fact that, from 1994 until the band’s demise last year, McCaughey was basically a de facto member of R.E.M., contributing to their live shows and albums. However, while the Young Fresh Fellows never really got lumped into the Seattle Sound of the ‘90s and never reached an ascendant level of fame (a problem shared by fellow Seattle power-popsters the Posies), they have been lauded in some quarters – making them, perhaps, more of an indie pop musicians’ favourite. They even have had a 2004 tribute album to their name, and have been namedropped in song by none other than They Might Be Giants, which is kind of fitting because McCaughey and the Giants share similar vocal tics.
In any event, the Young Fresh Fellows are back with their first album since 2009, Tiempo De Lujo, which is purportedly Spanish for “Time of Luxury”, but Google Translate spits the term out as “Class Time”. Regardless, Tiempo De Lujo has all of the hallmarks of a quirky, garage-based album: it was purportedly cut in a period of 12 hours, and the band was very focused in making the record. “We never even stopped to get beer. Or burritos,” notes McCaughey. “I think we had a cup of tea once. Or a seltzer water with a hint of lemon. Rick Buckler of the Jam came by to return a blazer, but otherwise we forged ahead pretty much uninterrupted.” McCaughey has even said elsewhere that “no alcohol or drugs were involved with the making of this record.” And it shows, to a certain extent. Tiempo De Lujo is a record of 12 sometimes silly, but otherwise no nonsense rock songs. It is a pretty fun, good times disc, notwithstanding the fact that midway through the album there’s a song called “The Say Goodbye Centre” which gives way to “Funeral Factory” which, in turn, is followed by “Death of an Embalmer”. However, the overall feeling of Tiempo De Lujo is one of uplift and you get the sense that its principles or creators had a whale of a excellent experience in making the disc.
If anything, Tiempo De Lujo is an album that clearly belongs to drummer Tad Hutchison, at least in its opening three shots. (There’s even a song titled “Tad’s Pad”, which would appear to be a homage to him.) First song “Another Ten Reasons” starts out with a flashy punk rock beat put to tape by Hutchinson, and the song gradually shifts tempo from fast to super-fast, making it an agreeable slice of poppy punk, augmented by some flashy guitar fret work that feels almost like speed metal. “Tad’s Pad” features a solo by Hutchison playfully rolling along the toms. Follow-up song “A Fake Hello” features a disco-like military marching beat put down largely on the hi-hat. From there, the disc settles down into more poppy territory by and large, harkening back to the classics of the ‘60s as the longest song on the disc clocks in at a very radio friendly three-and-a-half minutes. “Margaret” is a nice jangle pop tune, and sort of sounds a little R.E.M.-like, at least if they had more of a demented sense of humour. “Broken Monkey” is a Mellotron-led piece of minor key pop that might make you a bit misty-eyed. And “Love Luggage” with its harmonica-led blues riff and spoken word lyrics, sounds a little like Nuggets-era pop. Clearly, Tiempo De Lujo is a bit all over the map in terms of an overall sound and approach, but this has the effect of keeping things a bit lively.
If there’s anything to find at fault with Tiempo De Lujo, it’s that it’s nothing remarkable. There’s a certain sense of déjà vu that permeates the proceedings: “Tad’s Pad” features a garagey guitar line that seems vaguely familiar of the Hives (the guitar tone is a carbon copy of “Hate to Say I Told You So”, which would be an example of a band copying a band who is copying another band of yore). And “So Many Electric Guitars”, while a nice rockabilly-esque scorcher, feels pretty rote and been there, done that. A great deal of the material also harkens back to unusual pop of the ‘90s, such as bands as Too Much Joy and They Might Be Giants, which is not necessarily a knock, per se, but does have a bit of an effect of “dating” the material a bit. Still, Tiempo De Lujo is a largely hooky and appreciative rock album, one that doesn’t light the world on fire with innovation, but is a nice primer for those new to the Young Fresh Fellows sound as well as being an album fans are sure to embrace. Regardless of what it means, Tiempo De Lujo is not a bad album to spend some time with, and is a fun, delightful album of slightly off-kilter pop. Here’s hoping that it will reach the audience it so cleverly deserves.