A few months ago, a mid-list author writing under the ridiculous pseudonym "Jane Austen Doe" contributed an article to Salon entitled "The Confessions of a Semi-Successful Author" which described the decidedly unromantic life of most full-time writers. According to her, the world of a "semi-successful author" consists of solid (but not spectacular) reviews, less-than-blockbuster sales, and a never-ending quest for attention and respect. Critics attacked the article for being too melodramatic and self-pitying, but it successfully argued its main point: It is difficult to muster the energy to produce works of art with the knowledge that only the most popular and the most critically hyped works are able to break through the nonstop glut of releases.
The underappreciated Cucumbers provide the rock and roll take on Ms. Doe's article in the song "Musicians I Know" from their new release All Things to You. Although simply a list of fellow musicians and their day jobs, "Musicians I Know" shatters the romantic myth that one's favorite musicians are able to focus all of their time and energy to their music. Instead, many bands, particularly those with cult audiences, must survive on unromantic day jobs while devoting their free time to their own passions. Whether or not it is factually true that, as the Cucumbers sing on "Musicians I Know", that "the guys from the Fleshtones / They make clocks", the line adds some sense of poignancy to what could have easily become a mere novelty song. The whole song feels like the moment when you recognize that drummer from your favorite local punk rock band behind the counter at Denny's.
The Cucumbers themselves probably had to take a break from their paying jobs to make All Things to You. Led by married couple Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried, the Cucumbers have been around for 20 years but have made only five full-length albums. In general, critics have given them some good reviews, but the Cucumbers have failed to make any end-of-the-year lists or achieve any amount of chart success despite an MTV almost-hit back in the mid-'80s. This popular and critical indifference is not surprising: Their style of music, a distillation of two decades' worth of guitar-based alternative rock that incorporates everything from folky jangle-pop to alt.country, was neither surprising enough nor innovative enough to capture underground attention, while their songs came from a perspective too askew for mainstream pop audiences.
On All Things to You, the Cucumbers turn these marketability minuses into musical pluses. Their dedication to the craft of songwriting may prevent them from achieving the shock of the new, but it produces memorable pop music that lingers in the listener's head long after the last Next Big Thing has hit the clearance bin. The combination of Shoshkes's sweet-but-firm voice and the band's melodic gifts contrast sharply with the often gloomy subject matter. "Look Out You", for instance, disrupts a simple, gorgeous melody with a reminder from Fried that "we're almost dead". The Cucumbers seem to delight in throwing just a kick of despair and strangeness into their songs, just enough to keep them trapped in college radio rotation. Perhaps it's for the best. If the album highlight "Whiskey", which is either a whiskey-fueled ode to love or a love-fueled ode to whiskey, were to hit the radio airwaves by some cosmic accident, the populace at large would suffer from one of the biggest earworm infestations since that cursed Justin Timberlake album.
The limbo between commercial success and underground credibility suits the Cucumbers so well that their attempts to play it straight detract from the rest of the album. On "Bad Attitude", they attempt a purely sarcastic put-down on would-be punk rockers. Their attempt to sound punk sounds as calculated as their target's. Worst yet, by-the-number ballads like "Bend Me Like a Willow" and "The Warm Sound of Your Voice" sound like the Cucumbers are trying to fill the void left behind by Sixpence None the Richer's dissolution. The Cucumbers are at their peak when they are both unafraid to be quirky and uninterested in being shocking and original. The last song, the banjo-driven sing-a-long "Daylight", cheerfully describes the simultaneously awful and refreshing return to reality that occurs when daylight finally bursts through night's illusions. It is the most affecting song on this album, an uplifting anthem for the eternally downbeat which leads to a frightening question: If all the musicians in "Musicians I Know" were to drop their silly dedication to rock and roll, and all the mid-list writers were to concede to the John Grishams of the world, who would speak for all of us who are disappointed and overwhelmed? So, if you just want to hear an almost great album of well-crafted pop tunes, and don't mind the fact that it doesn't provide you with any hipster cred, you might want to pick up All Things to You, if only to ensure that the successful and the notorious aren't the only ones making music.