The Minus 5 is a loose collective of musicians that’s been spearheaded by the Young Fresh Fellows’ Scott McCaughey since 1993. The main players on this latest offering are Scott McCaughey, Peter Buck (of R.E.M.), John Ramberg, and Bill Rieflin. Other musical contributors are Chris Ballew, John Wesley Harding, Ben Gibbard, Kurt Bloch, and “Hoss” Singleton. I had avoided the Minus 5’s last album, Down with Wilco, only for the silly, selfish, and preposterous reason, that I’m not down with Wilco. Rather silly reasoning isn’t it? I thought Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was very over-rated. Naturally, I was fooled in the end, because I soon heard the Down with Wilco record and discovered that, yes, the Minus 5 are still pop craftsmen. Despite the Wilco involvement, who’s going to argue with them for having some fun with their friends?
With that said, the Minus 5’s Let the War against Music Begin, which was released by Mammoth in 2001, possessed some insanely well-crafted, beautiful-sounding indie rock/pop. I turned up to see them at the Mercury Lounge in New York’s Lower East Side that year, and it was probably one of the most fun gigs I’ve ever seen in my life, complete with a cover of “Ohio” by Neil Young. Why the Minus 5 song “You Don’t Mean It” wasn’t a massive worldwide hit is one of the biggest mysteries/tragedies of modern “independent rock and roll” in my opinion. It’s been long apparent to indie rock geeks (and bigwigs like Paul Westerberg) that the Minus 5 have an uncanny ability to do sophisticated, brilliant pop songs, as well as Pet Sounds-reminiscent experiments, and deliver them all with an extemporaneous, “only having fun” approach (with an open-door policy regarding band members), which only makes it all the better and worthwhile for the listener. In fact, when things are done merely for “fun”, as opposed to for profit or for commercial reasons, it’s something very refreshing in these days of Top 40 crappola.
Here on In Rock, Scott McCaughey states in the liner notes that this latest Minus 5 record is the result of some loosely rehearsed songs he performed with the three Wilco boys at the closing ceremonies of the Lounge Ax in Chicago in January 2000. From there he went into the studio for a day with the “core” Minus 5 members and the results were 1,000 copies initially released by the Book Records label. We now have this “Deluxe Edition re-mastered” version, which Yep Rock has kindly released. I have to say that, after hearing this record, I might have to send Yep Rock a case of beer with a note of thanks.
The opening instrumental, “Bambi Molester”, sounds like a Trashmen outtake, but it’s delivered with enough freakout tremolo to make the hair on your spine stand up. From there we go into “Dear My Inspiration”, which is a certifiable pop classic. There are some great, catchy analog organ sounds that bring a sense of buoyancy to the songs, and it enhances the melodies. “Courage Is the Smallest Bird”, as its title reveals, is well-worth hearing. It sounds like the Monkees singing about how they got wasted and couldn’t remember what they did last night, with McCaughey craftily adding, “Courage is the only word I’ll never understand”. With the song “The Girl I Never Met”, Scott McCaughey proves himself to be possibly the only guy in rock who can sing about a girl “walking in fields of buttermilk” without making the listener want to get sick. As for “Dr. Evil: Doctor of Evil”, I’d take this hilarious song over Madonna’s homage to Austin Powers any day. If this doesn’t turn up in a future installment of Austin Powers, I might cry myself a river.
In Rock has a resounding ’60s feeling, and it’s not in a bad way. If anything, Scott McCaughey and the Minus 5’s gift for melody is a breath of fresh air. I have to say, while I thought Let the War against Music Begin was a great record, I was lost with some of the experiments and the patchiness of the record. This time around, there’s no sonic weirdness or offbeat experiments. The majority of the songs clock in at the two-minute / two-and-one-half-minute range, kept concise and the timing just right. You can hear Peter Buck’s chiming Rickenbacker sneak it’s way in with adornments, as well as some great, energetic drumming by Bill Rieflin that really holds every song together, as it should. It’s almost like power-pop, but the production here is a little undercooked, and served up just right. The biggest fault of great power-pop bands like Teenage Fanclub is that they don’t know when to tell the engineer to stop cleaning them up. Thankfully, with some smart engineering and raw production, Scott McCaughey and the Minus 5 successfully created a raw sounding, great pop / rock and roll record this time around. I could toss in the word indie, but it’s still rock in the end. I suggest you pick this record up immediately, you won’t regret it.