The Boston Phoenix
December 25, 1997 - January 1, 1998

[1997 in Review]

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Bests of the Boston music

1997 in Review

by Brett Milano

Nineteen ninety-seven was at once the best and worst of years for local music. Seldom before have so many good local albums been released to so little national attention. It doesn't seem like four years since the success of the Lemonheads and Juliana Hatfield brought about the great Boston signing binge -- but a lot has changed since then. What with the former hitmakers whose last albums didn't catch on, the newer artists who got dropped before their albums even came out, and the '80s heroes who didn't fill the Paradise last month, Boston's status as an underdog town looks secure once again. The good news is that the major-label bloodbath hasn't made the local underground any less vital. Yet if one album sums up Boston's place in the industry, it has to be Talking to Animals' Manhole (due February on Velvel). It's been two years since their high-profile signing to a (different) major label and the album still isn't out.

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The obvious exception to all this are the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, the first real success story since Tracy Bonham two years ago. But whereas Bonham got there on one album, the Bosstones embody the hard-working, road-dog ethic. Has there been a time in the past nine years when the band haven't been on tour or in the studio, whether there was major-label money around or not? Their now-platinum Let's Face It (Mercury) -- which we've disqualified from this list, since the Bosstones have moved on to the national ranks if anyone has -- sounds in retrospect less like a breakthrough than like just another good Bosstones album. But that only exemplifies the band's ideal of finding your niche and working it well until the world takes notice.

That said, the list below represents one of the strongest local batches in years, with a larger-than-usual number of major-label entries. If the Bosstones' formula holds up, we expect to see them all go platinum in 2006. Previous number ones on this list have been Sebadoh's Harmacy (1996), Helium's The Dirt of Luck (1995), and Come's Don't Ask Don't Tell (1994).

1. Jen Trynin, Gun Shy Trigger Happy (Warner Bros.). If one local album should have been a national success story this year, this was it. Always a smart turner of phrase and a sure slinger of hooks, Jen Trynin becomes a world-class songwriter the second time around. Although the songs here are at least as catchy as those on 1995's Cockamamie, she's become a versatile singer who's a lot more daring with the emotional territory she explores. With a solid team behind her (bassists Ed Valauskas and Josh Lattanzi, drummer Chris Foley, producer/keyboardist Mike Denneen), she also shakes up the three-piece sound of her debut, with some creative use of the studio. And the increased depth in no way interferes with her garage-rock roots.

2. Helium, The Magic City (Matador). The more you explore this one, the more you realize how easy it would have been to screw the whole thing up. Mary Timony's current obsessions with dragons, outer space, and synthesizers don't necessarily lend themselves to pop brilliance. Then again, The Magic City isn't necessarily a pop album; it's more an elaborate daydream set to music. Neither is it a one-woman show. With bassist/keyboardist Ash Bowie stepping forward and drummer Shawn Devlin remaining his dependable self, Helium are a full-fledged band again. And legendary producer Mitch Easter is practically a fourth member here. Crossing indie-pop edge with prog-rock imagery, plucked strings with synthesized soundscapes, this is a beautiful creature with concealed venom.

3. The Upper Crust, The Decline & Fall of the Upper Crust (Emperor Norton). Ah, the majesty of rocque. Following a year of self-imposed exile in their Versailles estates, the cultured gentlemen of the Crust are back with the overdue follow-up to 1995's Let Them Eat Rock (Upstart). Although the first album had more obvious cult classics, the new one's no slouch -- not with "Boudoir," "Hifalutin" and "Cream of the Crust" all attaining "direct to party tape" status. And the new one is even more shameless with its invoking of the holy trinity of Kiss, Cheap Trick, and AC/DC, all of whom could use material this funny/catchy. By far the best album to include a member of the Clinton administration (speechwriter Ted "Lord Rockingham" Widmer) and the best local band to hit the National Enquirer (due to the above).

4. Letters to Cleo, Go! (Revolution). Here's more proof that national success doesn't depend on how good you are. Letters to Cleo's third album hasn't (yet) reignited their national profile, which is still tied to the early, relatively unremarkable single "Here & Now." But Go! is far and away their best, delivering the mix of '60s pop sparkle and '90s guitar sound that they've promised all along. Kay Hanley projects sweet/feisty personality from start to finish, hooks fly in all directions, and nothing exceeds four minutes. "Co-Pilot" is still a summer single waiting to happen.

Charlie Chesterman 5. Charlie Chesterman & His Legendary Motorbikes, Dynamite Music Machine (Slow River/Rykodisc). If Charlie Chesterman had his druthers, he'd probably be making more of the sensitive country-based music on his last two solo albums. But this time he and his band got coerced into making a rock-and-roll album, and damned if it's not the best thing he's released since Scruffy the Cat's first batch of demos. Nothing remotely fancy, just a high-spirited, half-hour disc mixing new songs with borrowed ones, surf instrumentals, and whatever covers felt good at the time. Chesterman's vocals keep getting better, and his band have been known to shake up a storm during club shows; this time they managed to do the same in the studio. Romantic couplet of the year: "We go together, like bread and jelly/Whoa, Nellie!"

6. The Dambuilders, Against the Stars (Elektra). Yet another case of a band's best album landing with a relative thud. The Dambuilders likely realized they'd have to play all their strongest cards on their third major-label album, giving equal play to their free-form instrumental side, their melodic leanings, and their eccentric sense of humor (love that disco revisionism). The result is as weird as their first album (Encendedor) and as rocking as the second (Ruby Red), with their most obvious hit in "Break Up with Your Boyfriend." At the moment, the Dambuilders' future is uncertain -- and they've played Boston only once since the album's release last summer -- but I want to hear where they'd go from here.

Dambuilders 7. Chelsea on Fire, Once Is Never (Curve of the Earth). On a good night, Chelsea on Fire can be the most cathartic band in town, and it's always a perverse thrill to watch shaven-headed singer Josey Packard ripping both her throat and her ex-lovers to shreds. Improving on their demo-quality debut CD, this follow-up catches both Chelsea's fire and their big-guitar sound, taking the Led Zep leanings out of the closet. Furious but fun, this could have fit the title Lovesongs for Underdogs if Tanya Donelly hadn't already used it.

8. The Allstonians, The Allston Beat (Moon Ska). The Allstonians are my pick for the next local skasters to make big waves, providing they can go another year without changing half their personnel again. They can do danceable instrumentals with the best, but they've also got a songwriting know-how that harks back to the 2-Tone era of British ska, especially Madness. And their habit of dropping local references has grown from a novelty to provide a context for their love/hate relation with their hometown. If a backwater like Asbury Park could pass into rock legend, the possibilities for Allston-related songs are endless.

9. Slide, Whipdang! (Your Name Here). Too often the problem with jam-oriented rock bands, especially white ones from New England, is that their songwriting's weak and their rhythm section ain't funky (otherwise, they're great). No such hitches with Slide, whose second album (after an all-right but more restrained debut) drips with sweaty grooves, well-turned songs, and punk overtones. Slide's version of roots rock is one that takes the back streets instead of the main highways, detouring through the Clash's Sandinista!, the acidy side of Los Lobos, and a bunch of New Orleans maniacs. High points include the best-ever cover of a Willie Alexander song, and a spooky number about nearly getting killed by a short circuit in your amp.

10. The Gravy: Hangman's Pop (Q Division). Former Cavedog singer/guitarist Todd Spahr and company turn a cross between a straight-ahead pop disc and an art/horror concept album, though it's ultimately the poppier tracks that work best. More power to them for trying something as left-field as "Embrace Your Plague" -- sort of a "Bohemian Rhapsody" meets Hitchcock (Alfred, not Robyn). But hook-and-guitar-driven tunes are still what Spahr does best, and this album is heavy on them. "Absolution," "Memory" and "Pretty Krishna" are all as catchy as the Cavedogs' greatest hits, with an anything-goes approach to arrangement that the old band didn't have.

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