by Matt WestonIn December of 1986 WNUR, the Northwestern University station, was counting down their top albums of the year. The number one pick, Green's self-titled debut, was announced by the DJ with nothing more than, "Here it is, the best album of 1986. You know what it is. We don't have to tell you." Hearing Green was like hearing The Beatles' Second Album for the first time; an overwhelming freshness coupled with eerie familiarity... like experiencing music for the first time for the second time. Green's debut has all the buoyancy and charm of The Beatles' Second Album filtered through the sneering recklessness of the punk movement(s) and the swaggering flamboyance of glam. It's one of the most startling debuts ever recorded, certainly the most accomplished debut of any of the band's mid-'80's peers. Vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Jeff Lescher possesses an emotional depth worthy of the influences he transcends (primarily Prince, Steve Marriott, John Lennon and Curtis Mayfield), and the deftness with which he could go from Marriott shout to Mayfield whisper is what defined their sound.
I got into Green around the same time I got into Big Star, and the similarities are obvious (pop-oriented guitar-based bands led by under-recognized geniuses). But I could never entirely wrap my head around the contemporary characterization of Big Star as "anachronistic," not with Badfinger and the Raspberries scaling the charts and filling halls around the same time. Green, by contrast, didn't have the slightest analogue not only in mid-'80's Top 40, but even within the "alternative"/"indie" scene(s) that were then starting to make awkward, tentative steps towards mainstream acceptance.
To us Green fans at the time, Green records were as important and as desperately anticipated as those by the Replacements and Husker Du. But while they seemed a part of that world (Green often shared bills with those bands and their contemporaries, and opened Husker Du's final Chicago show at Bob Mould's insistence), Lescher's voice put them on another plane entirely. His vocal approach (careful craftsmanship buttressed by a complete exploitation of edge-of-hysteria tension) made them anachronistic to their indie contemporaries, while the dry propulsion of their recordings made them anachronistic to a mainstream dominated by massive arena-sized sounds. And, as Steve Albini put it, they were the only band of their era to pull off "the sort of white Motown that assholes like the Replacements could never get right."
Lescher's vocals also provide a perfect illustration of the mystery of the Brian Wilson influence. Few of the bands to emerge since the mid-'80's who claim Wilson as an influence seem to have attempted to come to grips with the depths of Wilson's singing. To listen to the music of even some of his most obsessive followers, it's almost as if Wilson never opened his mouth. Apart from primarily drawing melodic and thematic inspiration from Wilson's fully-realized works ("Don't Worry Baby," "In My Room," "I Get Around"), Lescher internalized the subtext(s) of Wilson's vocal approach. The reason I'm skeptical every time someone raves about a band that's "Brian Wilson-influenced" is because Green set an insurmountable standard.
Their second album, 1987's Elaine MacKenzie, was nearly as accomplished as its predecessor, ramping up the ambition, and letting the frenzy fly ("My Love's On Fire" sounds like Prince fronting the Bad Brains -- only more intense). The new rhythm section, drummer Rich Clifton and bassist Ken Kurson, were slightly more reckless than their counterparts on the debut, drummer John Valley and bassist John Diamond -- the uncertainties of touring-as-employment resulted in relatively high turnover in Green, and yet Green still managed to out-tour just about all of their contemporaries. Their live shows at that time were untouchable, with Lescher's keening voice deftly pushing the band and the audience to their limits, and putting their peers on notice.
Critic Ira Robbins wrote raves about them in Trouser Press and Spin, ending his review of Elaine MacKenzie with "The Greening of America starts here." More than a few of Green's followers no doubt drew hopeful comparisons between that and Jon Landau's famous "I saw rock 'n' roll's future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen" review from 1974. With the Replacements and Husker Du making the leap to major labels, Green naturally seemed poised to follow. A near-miss with IRS was mollified somewhat with their surging popularity in Europe. Prior to setting foot on European soil, Elaine MacKenzie was making significant inroads on the Belgian and Dutch charts (at the time, it was the fastest-selling record in Pravda's history). To take advantage of this, they undertook their first of many European tours. As Lescher put it on the now-defunct rocksellout blog,...the European tours had been a startling revelation: we were respected as Artists, fed regularly, driven in road worthy vehicles to our shows, and put up in nice hotels. This made one mean meal a day at McDonald's and sleeping in an old van at the truckstop seem a might distasteful.Elaine MacKenzie was followed by the "REM" 7-inch, the necessary response to R.E.M.'s Green. This represented an expansion of Elaine MacKenzie's ambitions. The slower tempos and more considered arrangements of "My Tears Are Dry" and "Love On Thin Air" show a band that's maturing but without losing any of the manic energy of their previous releases. It also got them a mention on MTV News and a shout-out by Peter Buck on Chicago radio.
Flush with the newfound recognition brought about by their European tours, they proceeded to record what critic Bill Wyman called "the most ambitious, accomplished work by a Chicago artist at least since Cheap Trick's In Color, and maybe since Muddy Waters recorded 'I Can't Be Satisfied.'" New drummer Mark Mosher was lighter in touch than Rich Clifton, but more than made up for it in sensitivity and creativity. Ironically, though Mosher's more delicate approach altered their live dynamic, White Soul probably comes closer than any other Green release to capturing their live sound. On White Soul, Green dramatically expanded their sonic palette (strings, keyboards, tympani), helped in no small part by producer Iain Burgess. Lescher in particular rises to the occasion, layering multiple tracks of screams and whispers, and putting forth his best performances to date. His guitar work is finally allowed to flex its fretboard-tapping muscles; here he disproves those who assumed he was joking when he cited Randy Rhoads as one of his primary guitar influences, and neatly bridges the gap between Rhoads' neo-Coltraneisms and George Harrison's reflective deliberation. And while Kurson's bass playing is similarly unfettered and impressive, it doesn't compensate for his unevenness as a songwriter. While his "My Sister Jane" is endearingly goofy, "I Beg, You Cry" is a half-baked misstep, and doesn't even have Lescher's backing vocals (as on "Jane") to put it over. But White Soul is one of the key power-pop-soul documents, the continuation of the conversation started by the Kinks' Face To Face, Big Star's Radio City and Prince's Parade.
After White Soul, Kurson departed Green and formed the Lilacs. Ex-Slammin' Watusis bassist Clay Tomasek stepped in, first recording with Green on the Bittersweet EP (released in tandem with White Soul in the US). "Bittersweet" has one of Lescher's most stirring vocals, and the rest of the EP is nearly as winning as White Soul. "The Record Company Song" is a charging 90s update of Badfinger's "Back At The Ranch/Should I Smoke," and the two versions of the delicate "An August In Rust" seemed to portend for more ambitious works to come.
But the Bittersweet EP had two minor but worrying flaws: the drums sound light and distant, and the reprise of "An August In Rust" doesn't fade out as it seems like it should, instead devolving into a meandering breakdown. In a way, it recalls the unreleased Green track "Everything," a triumph of coruscating psychedelia and nasty glam-rock, but without "Everything"'s urgency. While probably a technical flaw, the lack of focus hinted at in "An August In Rust (reprise)" would nearly overwhelm the band's next release.
The Pop Tarts seems unable to decide whether or not it's the glam-rock homage the band-in-drag album cover implies. "Hot Lava Love" is the record's most effective song, an off-the-rails raver that nearly justifies the awful pun of the album title, but other songs either show no growth ("Hear What You Want To Hear" and "Skirt Chaser" sound like cast-offs from the Elaine MacKenzie, and "Long Distance Telephone" is too obviously derivative of MacKenzie's "Up All Night"), or are woefully ill-advised (Tomasek's "Nature Boy").
By stark contrast, and released around the same time, Lescher's collaboration with Eleventh Dream Day's Janet Beveridge Bean, the Gram Parsons tribute Jesus Built A Ship To Sing A Song To, renders Parsons' songs with heartfelt affection. Lescher proves reliably adept at the uptempo numbers ("Brand New Heartache") but "Hot Burrito #1" is the hands-down definitive version of the song, achingly choked-up, and delivered with disarming intimacy. Gram Parsons imagined it, and Elvis Costello gave it its pathos, but only Lescher could have fully realized the emotional depths of the song.
At this point, Green were at something of a crossroads. Despite write-up's in Spin, Musician, and Entertainment Weekly (and an MTV News mention of their "REM" single), they hadn't managed to break through. In 1993, Smashing Pumpkins were scaling the charts (several years after Green destroyed and embarrassed them at an outdoor festival show in Chicago), Liz Phair was hauling in critical accolades by the truckload, and Green -- the band that had made it possible for those Chicago artists to get noticed -- seemed to be at a low ebb From the 'rocksellout' interview:...we were probably the first group from Chicago (arguably) to really go out on a national limb at that point and tour and put out records and get some national press. Chicago was still a music backwater at that time. I like to think that we made the world safe for Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair et al., by our forays into the world outside Chicago, bringing some attention and cache for the music scene here, with the major labels.Mosher was replaced by former Teenage Radiation (as in, Steve Dahl And) drummer Gregg Potter for the Pathetique EP, a decisive rebound from the tentativeness of The Pop Tarts, and as strong and powerful a statement as they've ever made. "Live Without Love" is an engaging rocker, and "If You Want Me Part II" expands on Gram Parsons' vocabulary in a way that none of his other followers have been able to realize. The EP's centerpiece, "I Want What You Want," starts off deceptively sweetly, recalling Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me," but slowly begins to turn fearsome, setting Lescher's increasingly fraying voice against impossibly soaring falsetto backing vocals. If it's possible for one song to sum up all of Green's struggles and contradictions, this is the one. All of the confusion, disappointment, yearning, hope, and determination of the preceding ten years spills out in Lescher's delivery. He's singing to the audience: he wants what we want, and he's trying to give it to us, but based on the mediocrity being foisted upon us (e.g., the Smashing Pumpkins), he's not so sure what we want.
I saw them that summer on a bill with Eleventh Dream Day and the Fall. Things didn't go too smoothly for them that night. Clay Tomasek's bass cable broke, and he had to use one that was about a foot long; new second guitarist Jason Mosher broke a couple of strings. The momentum seemed to elude them. Then they ended their set with "I Want What You Want." Conversations abruptly stopped, drinks sat unattended, jaws dropped, and like all great music, it obliterated those logistical annoyances in your life that serve to distract you and knock you off course. The audience demanded an encore like no audience I'd ever seen before or since, but Green's equipment (and the club's time restrictions) wouldn't allow it.
Green seemed to be in a wilderness after Pathetique. As Lescher said, "...we were adrift and old hat. We couldn't find any labels that were interested in us and we all had to get regular jobs and stop the touring and stuff that was getting us nowhere -- a real point of diminishing return." Their European popularity hadn't boomeranged back into stateside success as they had not-unreasonably expected, and the U.S. contract they had passed on, with Rockville Records, was taken up by Uncle Tupelo.
So it was something of a surprise to see a burst of activity in 1997. They had recorded two Who songs ("Pictures of Lily" and "Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand") for the compilation Whodunit: Chicago Knows Who which, with the exception of the Waco Brothers' take on "Baba O'Riley," were far-and-away the most distinctive and imaginative renditions on the disc. They had also completed Green 5, which is something of a hodgepodge. There are actually two versions of the album, one released on the European B-Track label, and the other a self-release. Despite the wall-to-wall brilliance of Lescher's singing (and the vast improvement in Tomasek's songwriting), it presents an uneven picture. The highs -- "Mother," which is as close as any artist other than Prince will likely come to a definitive re-imagining of "Hey Jude"; the bittersweet "Heavy Metal Dreams"; and the stark "Jimmie," with the most profound throat-catch since Michael Jackson's "She's Out Of My Life" -- are offset by half-realized sketches ("She Does To Me") and too-derivative pastiches ("Photograph"). But Lescher's voice is as powerful as ever, which is to say, as powerful as any vocalist's. From the near-hysteria of "Tuesday" to "Jimmie," a song so direct that the feeling of near-embarrassment that comes with eavesdropping is nearly overwhelming, Lescher is without peer.
A weekend in France then produced Eau de Vie, returning Mark Mosher to the fold, but without Jason Mosher, in mid-2001. Lescher turns in seven solid classics, led by the hopeful defiance of "When All The Leaves Are Green" and another tour-de-force vocal performance in "Memories." Tomasek turns in four songs, which are his strongest yet, but Lescher doesn't appear at all on two of them, bringing the group dangerously close to Velvet Underground Squeeze territory.
Despite the lack of response generated by the lack of promotion of Eau de Vie, Lescher soldiered on with new compositions and recordings. But as quickly and frequently as opportunities were given, they were snatched away. Labels promised budgets that were rescinded in the next breath; offers to release the record came with bizarre and counterproductive caveats; members drifted in and out of the band. After seven years of walking against a firehose of bullshit, the fact that they were able to release a record at all was a surprise; the fact that it was nearly as ambitious and brilliant as White Soul was miraculous.
In 2009, they self-released The Planets, their first album of all-Lescher compositions since their debut. As such, it's also their most consistent album since their debut, and while the frantic recklessness of that record has long since given way to a no-less-thrilling but more contemplative approach. Jason Mosher's emergence as the group's second solid guitar voice is solidified on "I Just Can't Remember Your Face," a wistful reminiscence with a defiant kiss-off lurking beneath the surface. Tomasek turns in his most effective bass work yet, particularly on the otherwordly swagger of "Honey Hold The Rail." "Tonight" is typically subversive, drawing you in to something you aren't prepared for, from a whisper to a sneer to a joyous celebration. "Rockinville Road" is the kind of heels-dug-in statement of purpose that Green reliably trots out on each record, in this extolling the virtues of setting out for mysterious parts unknown, armed only with the music. Like the Who's "Sound Round," it's the cry of a band who hasn't given up because they can't give up, because there's nothing to give up on; and why did it seem like everyone else gave up?
With The Planets, Green have not only outlasted their mid-'80's peers, but more than any of them, they've remained truest to their vision. In a way, their insulation from the trappings of fame that have hamstrung and distracted, to varying degrees, Paul Westerberg, Bob Mould, and R.E.M. seems to have bolstered their faith in the power of their work. The Greening of America continues.
Also see the Green website
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