[26 February 2001]
Trust Scott McCaughey to come up with something completely different—a double album featuring in one corner, the Young Fresh Fellows (with McCaughey, Kurt Bloch, Tad Hutchinson Jim Sangster) and in the other, The Minus 5—McCaughey’s loose conglomerate of artists, most regular members of which are Peter (REM) Buck and the Posies’ Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow. The common denominator being McCaughey and a residence in Seattle Washington!
Truth be told, blindfold me and play either of these albums and it would be nigh impossible to discern whether it was the Young Fresh Fellow or Minus 5 you’re listening to. Not that the concept put forward of a “Battle of the Bands” should have any bearing on the music, but it does contribute overall to an enjoyable experience.
And that, faithful readers, is basically what Scott McCaughey is about. The sense of fun permeates every song (all 26 of them) and it never matters who’s behind the instruments as long as ringleader McCaughey is in command.
If nothing else, the Young Fresh Fellows are just about able to distinguish themselves (barely, mind) with the guitar antics of Kurt (Fastbacks) Bloch, especially on the punky “She’s a Book”. Elsewhere, McCaughey and company make a mockery of labels and genre by calling on soulful rock ‘n’ roll (“Lonely Spartanburg Flower Stall”), classic ‘60s surf-pop (“For the Love of a Girl”), glam rock (“Worthless”), folk-rock (“Summerland”) and loads of ‘70s era POWERPOP (“Barky’s Spiritual Store”, “I Wonder What She’s Doing Tonite”, “Little Bell”). Keeping with the concept of the work, songs like the gorgeous Fuselage with its fluid guitar, throbbing bass and McCaughey’s disembodied voice singing praises to a favorite recording studio, the offbeat “My Drum Set” (“is better than this”), the wacky “Mamie Dunn, Employee of the Month” with its Tommy-like rock operatic touches and the strange piano soliloquy “The Ballad of Only You and the Can Prevent Forest Fires” with aggressive strings, prove that McCaughey is a pop genius not to be taken lightly. An accomplished effort by all accounts and we’re only halfway through!
Amazingly, the songs on The Minus 5 are even more diverse and equally bizarre. The last Minus 5 album—The Lonesome Death of Buck McCoy—lent itself to a greater emphasis on Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s ragged glory, a factor attributed to Peter Buck’s co-writing credit. It’s virtually all McCaughey material here and the quality of the songcraft will give you a nosebleed.
“Great News Around You” brings to mind a Pet Sounds inflection (courtesy of the High Llamas). “Got You” is breezy and ramshackle—“it’s a picnic and a nightmare.” “Ghost Tarts of Stockholm” comes across like a ghostly Mott the Hoople (doing the Beach Boys) with fuzzy rock ‘n’ roll and garbled vocals. “The Rifleman” is just too weird for words, wrapped in a Lennonesque baroque piano sound. “You Don’t Mean It” is simple powerpop from the consciousness of Big Star (backed appropriately by the Posies). “A Thousand Years Away” is pure cosmic American music (or country rock if you like). “The Amazing Dolphin Boy” is uncomplicated and straightforward with more bizarre lyrics. “Thirsty Bird” is a psychedelic folk gem which would not have been out of place on Revolver. “One Bar At a Time” is country-folk in the Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb tradition. “John Barleycorn Must Live” is dynamic and vibrant pop. “Desperate for Someone” is affecting and haunting in the Roy Orbison style and the two part “Your Day Will Come” ups the ante on general weirdness. Even as Part 1’s gentle, cheerful and pastoral pop settles you into easy euphoria, Part 2’s spoken monologue courtesy of Mr. Robyn Hitchcock will surely shake you from your reverie.
Even as music critics lament the erosion of traditional pop values, Scott McCaughey has thrown down the gauntlet in the face of what passess for modern pop and rock music. With his sense of timing, humour, melody and textures, McCaughey never forgets the most important element of the greatest pop music—dollops of fun, fun and more fun.
In the back of the sleeve, the listener is exhorted the judge the battle between the Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5. if I had a say, I’d decree it a score draw, a win-win situation and the winners are every pop fan fortunate to listen to these fine double album, soon to be one of the classics.