Blister Pop opens with an edited assembly of The Embarrassment trying to characterize themselves for local radio programs. They bounce back and forth between categorizations—rock, punk, calypso, new wave, even coining their own, after which this album is named. But along the way, one member chimes in with this to offer:
“In Wichita, it’s garish.”
Garish in Wichita. Between 1978 and 1983, when The Embarrassment had their most voluminous underground sway, you can only imagine what else was garish in Wichita. Punk of course, rock most likely, new wave very possibly and calypso—well, that probably garnered a huh? followed by a gasp. Add to that list of no-nos disco culture, the sexual revolution, Andy Warhol, Three’s Company, and every major metropolis in the free world. Which puts The Embarrassment in pretty good company, in my book.
For a band you’ve most likely never heard of, this compilation of 19 rarities, outtakes, and live favorites sure sounds familiar. Blister Pop is a package of numbers that bounce around delightfully, and lives up to the album’s name by raising welts on some old favorites. In fact, all the while, if you’re at all an aficionado of garage-y DIY, you’ll probably be wondering why you haven’t heard of The Embarrassment. And you’ll be kicking yourself for not tuning into them sooner.
The first song, “Podman”, has a wholesome but insistent quality to it—like Wally Pleasant (Michigan-based DIY folk singer) on amphetamines. You’d be hard-pressed to guess from its pleasant surface and effervescent singing that it was inspired by Invasion of the Body Snatchers. John Nichols singing is as even as a Kansas plain, and the guitar, bass, and drums are tight, sparse, and equally level. The next track, “Proof”, changes styles dramatically—sounding much more wild, shaken up, thrashed about, distorted. Nichols loses control of his voice, cymbals crash, and it sounds as though they might have destroyed the studio afterward. This oscillation continues throughout the album—a song like “The Time Has Come”, which is a Devo/early Talking Heads-ish morsel of psychedelica, is followed immediately by an version of “Oh, Pretty Woman”, that you want to write off as pure sarcasm until you hear just how earnest it is.
Speaking of covers, there are a few doozies, including Buddy Holly, The Stooges, and even “On Broadway”. Indeed, The Embarrassment move across the musical spectrum easily, without any quips about who they are and what their four-piece can do. “I Wanna Be Your Dog” becomes a barebones, frenetic display; Buddy Holly’s “Maybe Baby”, Embarrassment-ified becomes almost ska, bounding about with the energy of an un-housebroken puppy. In all of their own stylistic turns, one thing remains certain: their ability to pare down and purify sound, to its grainy, organic bases.
With this compilation, along with the 1995 disc Heyday, longtime Embarrassment fans, along with appreciative newcomers, have nearly the full repertoire of what the band produced in the studio as well as on-stage. And while it may have been garish in Wichita in 1978, here and now, it’s understandable, and just fine.
// Notes from the Road
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