If you consider yourself to be any kind of educated R.E.M. fan, you are well aware of the Athens, Georgia, kingpins’ extended family of side projects and sidemen they’ve been connected to over the course of their near-30 years as a band.
While 3/4s of the group ventured out beyond the dichotomy of Michael Stipe’s mumblecore pop genius for what remains to this day the best R.E.M. side project, the loose-limbed 1991 jam session with the late Warren Zevon as the Hindu Love Gods, guitarist Peter Buck’s long-running collaboration with Seattle power pop maven Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows as the Minus 5 is by far the group’s most prolific endeavor outside R.E.M. yet. Over the course of the pair’s 16 years together, their rotating door of band members has included such alt-rock heavyweights as John Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies and Big Star 2.0, pretty much the entire line-up of Wilco, Kelly Hogan, John Wesley Harding, and, currently, members of the Decemberists — the bulk of whom comprise the line-up of the 2009 incarnation of the Minus 5.
Killingsworth, released concurrently with the first proper new Young Fresh Fellows album in ten years, finds the Minus 5 continuing in the mellow country vibe they capitalized on for the stronger portions of their 2006 eponymous LP, nicknamed “The Gun Album”. That plaintive, breezy twang features on key tracks here, such as the album’s quiet opener “Dark Hand of Contagion”, the (Untitled)-era Byrds-esque “I Would Rather Sacrifice You”, and the great “Smoke On, Jerry”, which features some of Buck’s most exuberant country guitar playing yet. Having seemingly found comfort in a style they can actually stick with for a change, Killingsworth is by far the Minus 5’s most consistent and enjoyable album to date.
I Think This Is, the 16th Young Fresh Fellows album in McCaughey’s three-decade career and one that marks the 25th anniversary of the release of their debut album (The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest, benefits greatly from a more streamlined course of action in terms of its creation. This is thanks to the enlistment of British rock legend Robyn Hitchcock — whom McCaughey serves as a member of the Soft Boy’s latest band, the Venus 3, alongside his Minus 5 bandmate Buck and current R.E.M. drummer Bill Rieflin — as its producer.
Unlike previous YFF albums, which have been criticized through the years as being too all over the place, Hitchcock succeeds in harnessing McCaughey’s unparalleled love for psychedelic power pop and helps him focus on crafting the 13 tracks here into a cohesive whole, rather than a scattershot run through the eclectic jukebox of the singer’s mind. The result is the best Young Fresh Fellows album that has ever come out, where songs reflecting the obvious influence of the album’s producer, such as the Globe of Frogs-esque “Used to Think All Things Would Happen”, rub shoulders comfortably with the proto-Turtles shimmy of “Let the Good Times Crawl” and the Orange Juice-copping romanticism of “Ballad of the Bootleg”.
Now that this extended family of artists is all in cahoots with one another on the same record label, how soon can we hope to witness some kind of Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows/Robyn Hitchcock and the Venus 3 super-duper-group to come together and officially wipe us all completely off the map with their uncanny melodies and indelible songwriting skills?