Perfect Sound Forever

Lotion's full Isaac

'90's Indie Rock Revisited
By Kurt Wildermuth

(August 2020)

Quick: what 1990's indie-rock band did Thomas Pynchon write liner notes for?

If you answered "Lotion" without Googling, you just might be a middle-aged New Yorker. At the time, Pynchon's interest in Lotion was such a big deal in some circles that it merited an item in The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town." The band claimed he turned up at one of their gigs, wearing a Godzilla T-shirt and introducing himself as Tom. Another version of the story is--or adds the detail--that a band member's mother was Pynchon's accountant. Those liner notes have become a very small footnote in the writer's career and a very big one in the band's, because Pynchon carries on writing novels and Lotion is history apart from occasional one-off reunions.

If you answered my quick question by specifying that the novelist's notes were for Lotion's second full-length CD, Nobody's Cool (1996), give yourself extra credit. And if you like Nobody's Cool or Lotion's third full-length, The Telephone Album (1998), or both, that's great. They're fine and fun. But they bring what can comfortably be called the rock, even the pop-rock, whereas the band's debut, full Isaac (1994), delivers stranger, less easily identified, and longer-lasting goods. full Isaac combines its elements in ways that may not be Pynchonesque but are as brain-teasing as they are brain-pleasing.

Here and there, the web presents evidence that Lotion existed, felt the love from denizens of small NYC music clubs, and were once up-and-comers. There's a minimal Wikipedia page. A music forum participant includes them in a list of bands poised for greatness that didn't make it. A blogger celebrates Nobody's Cool, which he sought out for Pynchon's notes, lost when an ex-girlfriend didn't give it back, then bought anew years later. Another blogger appraises their music in a nostalgic look at '90's indie rock.

At All-Music Guide, reviewer Daniel Browne labels full Isaac "one of the most inventive and unusual rock albums of 1994... The odd, cerebral song structures never settle into anything familiar, so each listen is like the first, an exploration of uncharted territory." Jack Rabid reviews Lotion's four-song Agnew Funeral EP (1995), which in the U.S. was released between full Isaac and Nobody's Cool. By the time of his review, Nobody's Cool was already out in the U.K., so while writing about the EP, Rabid took the opportunity to praise the album. However, he got things precisely wrong when he called that second album "masterful where the first LP was largely unrealized. The difference is the production of Jim Rondinelli, who brings out this New York band's power and a delicious bottom end without drowning them in the murk that characterized Kurt Ralske's work on the debut... All the faults have been corrected at last [on Nobody's Cool], and Lotion prove that they really are the New York band for the ages we all thought they'd be.. a nicely maturing one at that."

By contrast, consider a 2015 feature, "The Greatest Lost Albums," at the Uncut website. While the focus here is on the "bright and wry college rock [aka indie rock]" of Nobody's Cool, the piece notes that this CD "didn't quite match its predecessor... a fine debut." So if Uncut's pick doesn't quite cut it, that actually means full Isaac is Lotion's great(est) lost album.

Your preference for any phase of Lotion's trajectory depends on your taste for (1) formative but promising guitar-based indie-rock, as on two early EP's; (2) promise realized in the form of complicated song structures in difficult-to-determine time signatures, as on full Isaac; (3) indie-rock with more-conventional structures and signatures, as on Nobody's Cool; and (4) power pop, as on The Telephone Album. In short, methinks: clear away the murk, if murk it be, and you reveal an increasingly pedestrian outfit.

But all this is hindsight. At the time, the band's developments just seemed exciting. I recall an excellent New York show before the release of The Telephone Album, when Lotion truly seemed poised for stardom, but I don't recall seeing them before that. Two tracks on full Isaac include appearances from Babe the Blue Ox--another '90s New York indie-rock band poised for stardom, whom I celebrated in Perfect Sound Forever in 2006 (!)--but would that have been the connection for me? My initial interest in Lotion lies trapped in a synapse, and in a sense the band's just a name to me. I know it's not a cream, or the band L.O.T.I.O.N, or (I think) the punk-pop band with a female singer that has posted tracks on YouTube. Still, I've never been tempted to discard full Isaac. For long periods, years, I'll forget about it, then something will prompt me to play it and I'm reminded of how gripping it is.

The impetus for writing this piece was not a direct reference to Lotion. Instead, a friend cited Mission of Burma's Signals, Calls, and Marches EP (1981) and The Dismemberment Plan's Emergency & I CD (1999) as desert island discs. Hmm... if you like Mission of Burma and the Dismemberment Plan, you might like Lotion. Burma's bottom-heavy rhythmic rumble with melodic overtones and abstract lyrics was clearly an influence on Lotion. The Dismemberment Plan sounds Lotion-influenced, or else the two bands drew from similar pools of influences, including shoegaze, new wave, and '60's classics.

Also among Lotion's clear inspirations were their indie-rock forerunners Hüsker Dü and R.E.M.. Without those band's rhythmic swirls, melodic emphases, and plain-spoken yet abstract lyrics, Lotion wouldn't have concocted "Tear," the combination of jangle and bounce that opens full Isaac:

Kiss me when you go to bed
I'm leaving when you fall asleep
Kiss me and lay down your head
I'm leaving when you fall asleep
There was no other way
I could not gently go...
Be glad I did it now
Before you hold on tight
I'll make you hate yourself
Swear I will tear you up

Is there murk on the recording? Not so much; murk permeates Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade (1984) and R.E.M.'s Murmur (1983); here, the instruments simply have more clarity than the vocals do. On some songs, that lack of clarity can be frustrating, since the CD doesn't include the lyrics. For example, the mysteriously titled "Dr. Link" begins with a phrase I've never been able to decipher. "Jack suit"? "Jack Sui"? According to a lyrics website, which of course is only as trustworthy as its contributors, the phrase is "cat soup." As in:

Cat soup
If I asked you nicely
See through
You know I'm all over you
I should say it louder
Sugar bear's been pushing me around for days
Come in my room and I smell it again
Well it brings me back to Demi on the bus
She sees me acting mean
That's the first time that I felt the buzz
I feel good all over
You know I could still get you
Just move
Take a year to find it
Sugar bear's been f**king with my head today
Come in my room and I smell it again
Well it brings me back to Demi in my parents' bedroom
She sees me acting mean
That's the first time that I felt the buzz
(You don't think I want it any more and anything's wrong)

Interesting that a lyrics-site contributor bothered putting that last line in parentheses (and also, possibly, putting the asterisks in the expletive). Did a member of the band--singer and guitarist Tony Zajkowski, singer and guitarist Jim Ferguson, bassist Bill Ferguson, drummer Rob Youngberg--post the lyrics, perhaps as a postconsumer service? Once you know that Zajkowski sings "cat soup," it makes all the difference. No, it makes no difference. Well, it makes the difference that you have another phrase to play with.

Out of the mix of rumbling bass, tumbling drums, and guitars that ring and roar you catch words, some of which Zajkowski sings and some of which he shouts. You follow the music's motion, mentally plug in the syllables you discern and work to fill in the gaps, building meaning as you go. Clearly, the song's about memory. Others are too, through the play of events and time: "Dinosaurs still walk the earth." "She sent a pack of pictures in the mail / And in them I looked thinner / I'm not sure, can't be certain / She was after something." "She doesn't want to know him / But I can still remember." "She came shortly after I was born / Now I can't go in the rooms I used to own." "Lay my head down and try to forget her." "There's something different about you this year / Do you remember the time that we met / Back in the kitchen you talked about love / Took me through the house, showed me around."

Those last lines are in a song called "She Is Weird City," a title that, like most of the song titles on full Isaac, seemingly comes from nowhere, or from the singer's storehouse of references, or from (possibly invented) pop culture. "Paas"? "La Boost"? "Dock Ellis"? "Love Theme from Santo Gold"? The juxtaposition of songs and titles is the aspect of this CD easiest to imagine Pynchon loving. Whereas, say, Frank Zappa's titles often seem plucked from texts and randomly applied, these oddities seem purposeful, sitting comfortably next to easier-to-parse monikers such as "Long," "Pajamas," and "Around." The titles may be jokes, maybe in-jokes (according to Pynchon, full Isaac somehow refers to the character Isaac Washington on the '70s-'80s TV show The Love Boat), but they also feel like invitations to imagine, to fill in the gap between song and title, to take part in the music's construction.

At its most evocative, twentieth-century indie rock issued offers of this kind, because the central idea, drawn from punk and in opposition to the godlike status accorded prepunk precursors, was that we were all in this together. For better and for worse, indie became a club for the initiated, the people who got it, the musicians and listeners uninclined to swim in the mainstream. When the pieces and parts clicked in place, between the artists and you, you formed a special bond with something found that felt like your own. People took these things--songs, lyrics, titles, images, bands, scenes--to heart. Hence the indie-rock purism, the disdain for major labels and sellouts, that some of us are still working to overcome. Hence, also, the love that bubbles up for a blip on the radar of pop-cultural life, a no-hit wonder called Lotion.

Love or something like it burbles up repeatedly on full Isaac. A Robert Frippish guitar tone ushers in "Paas," as Zajkowski does his best Brian Eno croon: "Got your message while I walked around" (this is before cellphones, remember). Slow rhythms coalesce. On the lines "I hear electric music, solid walls of sound," the melody rises, so it can then drop in steps on "Drowning down the staircase after you." If you look for resolution to this musical or lyrical situation, you may be disappointed. Alternatively or simultaneously, you may be haunted by smart-but-not-alecky lines such as "Yeah, I knew it now / I know it then" and "On the back you'll find a sweet long scar / I made it with my belt." What is going on here?

"La Boost" roars and glides, stops and starts, progresses from chaos to strumming and harmonizing: "Want to climb all over you, on your back, favorite uncle / Tugging at your buckle, pull your hair and grab your glasses." Then "Long," surprisingly, takes a page from mid-'60's George Harrison in combining strumming with tabla and Indian-influenced melody.

"Pajamas" earns those Hüsker Dü meets R.E.M. comparisons, but "Around" raises the emotional and compositional stakes considerably. A thick carpet of acoustic guitars and thumping drums speeds up (it's a flying carpet). The music illustrates the scenario of a couple going around: "They take drugs and they go to the park / If you think you're in love, man / Well just wait until dark." Then the tempo breaks, the situation becomes more complicated, and out of the well of desire springs the indie-goth cello trio Rasputina, building a rising platform that conveys both the exhilaration of finding someone and the bittersweetness of subsequent days, as life goes on within you or without you.

"Head" plays the '90's soft-loud-soft game very well, with smoothness behind "I just want to go outside and run around" and attack on "Help me, I'm burning, I'm burning / Help me break a window" (threats of violence, possibly metaphorical, pop up on several songs). Next, on "Dock Ellis," the band adds swing and crunch to its Beatles influence. "Dream about my own personal hell / And make it sell" could be the Kurt Cobain story in a nutshell, but this surreal dream includes a person's "running faucet in my head," a "dorsal fin," a "head bone," "rum and charms," and a "joy new jar" (if the web lyrics are accurate).

The sweet hook of "She Is Weird City" is the line "One thing, only one thing could make me happy." The singer rides a wave of reverb-laden guitars that earn the Mission of Burma comparisons. Then the band allows the groove to drift and dissipate, and suddenly we enter surf-rock territory, gliding around a cove where the story remains unfinished.

Finally, "Love Theme from Santo Gold" comes on like a hangover sufferer stumbling around in dim light. The party's over for sure, "cause when it goes, it goes." Then suddenly the band builds its mighty rumble, though the singer's the bottom
I won't admit it
I've lost my senses
All my possessions
I've lost the good stuff
I will be sorry
Only a brave, ambitious band ends its debut with the lyrics
I am a cipher
I am a cipher
You light the pilot
You make the metaphor come true
There's too much time to think reverb-laden guitars ring, dub-heavy bass works its magic, drums pound, and it all ends with a curlicue of sizzling feedback.

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