[13 February 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Cleveland’s Death of Samantha, seemingly so named from a Yoko Ono song, was the darling of the city’s local indie scene in the ‘80s. The Smashing Pumpkins? Opened for these guys. Nirvana? The Jesus and Mary Chain? Played with these guys. So why haven’t we heard more about this band? God only knows. Still, the history books show that Death of Samantha, originally a high school band of some 15 to 19 year olds, put out three albums and an EP’s worth of material before calling it a day in 1990. The members of the group, which were Doug Gillard on guitar, David James on bass, John Petkovic on vocals, guitar and clarinet, and Steve-o on drums, went on to be in either more famous or maybe not quite so famous bands, such as Cobra Verde, Gem, Sweet Apple and Nada Surf. Oh, and both Gillard and Petkovic would also take part in a little outfit called Guided By Voices, with Gillard sticking around for a rather lengthy tenure from 1997’s Mag Earwhig! until that group’s initial final swan song, 2004’s Half Smiles of the Decomposed, and that’s not counting side projects with GBV frontman Robert Pollard. Forget about the reunited “classic” GBV line up (which could be pretty much now DOA with drummer Kevin Fennell being recently given the boot); I would pay good money to see Gillard playing with Pollard once again in the Geebs. Not only is Gillard an ace musician, but, having seen GBV in the early 2000s and being at the front of the stage during a sound check where Gillard came out and chatted with his fans, I can vouch that the dude is one hell of a nice guy. But I’m probably digressing here.
In any event, If Memory Serves Us Well is the first album in 24 years from the newly reunited Death of Samantha. It’s a double record, running about 75 minutes, and it’s a bit of a strange one. You see, the band has, in the form of the 18 tracks recorded here, gone back to its ‘80s catalogue and re-recorded some of its old favorites. The results here are from a late 2011 rehearsal prior to a live concert that the full original group gave the following night. Which begs the question: why didn’t Death of Samantha go the live album route instead and let the tape roll during its reunion gig in front of a crowd? Especially considering that the band plans on re-releasing its old albums from the Homestead label, not to mention the fact that the quartet is additionally looking to release a new album of all original material in the upcoming year or so. If Memory Serves Us Well is thus a bit of a baffling release, in that its purpose and intent seem a bit cloudy. But that’s not to say that the end results aren’t entertaining or worthy. It’s just debatable that something could have been added to the proceedings with an audience cheering these guys on. Still, what we get with this album shows the band more or less on fire, even in a rehearsal setting, and it is a nice keepsake not only for fans of the original tenure of the group, but new fans coming aboard thanks to the Gillard-Petkovic Guided By Voices connection.
If one thing is proven by If Memory Serves Us Well—being cheekily released on the St. Valentine label on the same week as the holiday it is named after—is that Death of Samantha had a consistency of sound that stretches across its back catalogue. The bluesy “(Now It’s Your Turn to Be a) Martyr” practically rubs shoulders with the clarinet theatrics of “Coca Cola and Licorice”. It’s interesting to hear a song like the jangly R.E.M.-baiting “Conviction” and see just how much it sounds Guided By Voices-esque, which is a given considering that both bands were coming of age at the same time and shared an affinity for that particular southern U.S. college group. And it’s also something of a revelation to hear Gillard’s guitar leads: if you’re a fan of latter day Guided By Voices, then these 18 songs are a paean to a singular sound and direction that Gillard took that band in. And if that wasn’t enough, Petkovic makes the case for being an agreeable vocalist, even if his pipes are rather limited to a nasally whine. Listening to this album is like looking into a time capsule and being taken back to an age when pure love of music, and not necessarily having the most talent, could win people over to your side of the fence. In fact, back in the day, the band employed props, such as Steve-o jumping out of funeral caskets, during performances in order to sell its shtick to an audience. Still, the band proves that it had its share of songs that were generally pretty good and catchy, and its stuff was startlingly direct for a group that formed when its members were initially teens.
That’s not to say that there’s the odd dud to be had here. The album’s midsection seems to suffer from some silliness: “Rosenberg Summer” is an oddball tune, considering that the band members weren’t old enough to remember a summer in which the titular characters were executed for conspiracy. And the somewhat juvenile “Sexual Dreaming”, which kind of seems like half-baked Fountains of Wayne crossed with rockabilly, is no “Sexual Healing”, that’s for sure. Still, for these missteps, there is more than enough material to take up the slack. Particularly enjoyable is Petkovic’s sing-spoken vocals on “Couldn’t Forget About That”, which also has a certain Stones-y swagger to it. Even within the band’s streamlined sound, there’s much to take in and enjoy, particularly in a rather brainless way. “Good Friday” (presented here in its second take) has a rather crunchy Blue Öyster Cult-esque riffage to it. And, yes, I know I’m only really touching the front half of the record here, and looking over fun but silly songs such as “Geisha Girl” and “Monkey Face”. In the end, If Memory Serves Us Well shows that the band does, indeed, have a pretty decent memory for material that it probably hadn’t touched in decades. This is simply a rocking good time, front to back, and it’s good to have the dust blown off this material and have it aired out in public once again. While the rehearsal hall recording route might be a bit questionable, as noted earlier, this is still a pretty fine collection of songs. With Death of Samantha, you walk away going “this ain’t a half bad band for an outfit named after a Yoko Ono song, let alone a bunch of now middle-aged teenagers.” This is a welcome career-spanning cap, and makes one look forward to the new stuff that’s supposedly coming down the pipeline a year or so from now.