O Positive - Is It?
The envelope was smaller than the one I got in 1993. I pulled the orange bubble-wrap envelope out from under the other mail our landlady left for us on the stairs, turned it over in my hands, and opened it. As I walked up the stairs, holding the CD in front of me like a tray of hors-d’oeuvres, I remembered taking the stairs two-by-two, an 11-by-17 fiberfill envelope under one arm and the good headphones wrapped around my wrist and the jack gripped in my hand so I wouldn’t trip myself.
At the time I’d requested a review copy of Home Sweet Head on behalf of my school newspaper. Promo CDs were still a novelty for me, and opening this package felt like Christmas in March. I pulled the tab back, and the much-awaited follow-up to toyboatToyBoatTOYBOAT fell from the package, accompanied by the de rigeur photocopied press kit. In lieu of stickers, the band had included a poster that was personally signed to yours ever so. Nice to see that they hadn’t forgotten their longtime fans.
In 1993, sludgy, confrontational grunge had taken over the airwaves from the jangly pop and heavy goth of the previous decade. The distancing use of irony and the embrace of tacky 1970s pop culture had further alienated me from the arts and the media. I felt as though the culture had passed me by. Though my radio presets had switched from WFNX to “Standing Room Only” on WERS, I’d hoped the release of a new album by my favorite band would make me reconsider my all-showtunes musical diet.
As I unwrapped the CD and surveyed the liner notes, my recollections of the music played in my mind. My mind’s ear heard a confluence of angular tunes with direct, aphoristic lyrics, cacophonous arrangements, and production with that mid-range, vaguely compressed sound that passed for clean production in the mid-1990s.
The songs that played as I ripped Home Sweet Head to iTunes challenged this memory. While the blanket of reverb was replaced with a hi-hat/wah-wah guitar that was au courant in the early 1990s, the melodies and arrangements were far more dynamic than I had remembered. The “Madchester” fillips were balanced by the eerie, spare “Cold World”, on which Herlihy’s vocal was complemented only by a mournful saxophone chart and a looped marimba part. The previous album’s title track, “Toyboat Toyboat Toyboat”, likewise strips back the production to find the band in a more contemplative mood. Even the uptempo songs – like album opener “Hey Dave” – experimented with the use of tribal drumbeats contrasted with triumphant guitar crescendos.
The album’s weakest spot was the lyrics. At the time, the frequent use of the second person made me feel as though they were yelling at me. Listening to it now, the lyrics are leaden with literalism, and come off as a little too on-the-nose. One can understand the anger they felt at being left for dead by Epic, but after a while the pained, angry perspective gets a little wearying. “Is It”, the song I’ve chosen from Home Sweet Head, highlights some of the best and most problematic aspects of the album. I love the sense of unease created by the literally phoned-in vocal and the distended synth line that plays behind it, but the opening line “I just got off the phone with a doctor of the law/he’s giving me high-priced advice about my song” made me shrug a bit.
At the time, I felt a mix of relief and disappointment that my lukewarm review of the album was cut from the school paper in favor of an article on the badminton team. (I swear I’m not making this up.) Listening to this album fifteen years later, it strikes me as much better than I gave it credit for at the time.