By Stewart Mason
AUGUST 3, 1998:
Alibi "Fave Teen Idol" Rating Scale:
!!!!!= David Cassidy/Bay City Rollers
!!!!= Leif Garrett/Davy Jones
!!!= Andy Gibb/the rest of the Monkees
!!= Shaun Cassidy/Scott Baio
!= Fred Savage/McCauly Culkin/Jonathan Taylor Thomas/Zac Hanson
James McNew's albums as Dump lead to a certain sameness in reviews. First, they mention McNew's day job as bassist/ organist in Yo La Tengo. Then they talk about the cute little pink bunny doodle on all the album covers. Then they use three or more of the following words: charming, winsome, adorable, enchanting, delightful, irresistible.
And why not? Dump's albums (A Plea For Tenderness is number three, after 1994's Superpowerless and 1995's I Can Hear Music) are all of the above and more. Recorded at home on a cheap multitrack cassette recorder, with McNew playing every instrument save one harmonica part, A Plea For Tenderness cements McNew as the spiritual offspring of R. Stevie Moore.
Like fellow Jersey-based musical hermit Moore, McNew mixes and matches across genres, so that even his choice of covers becomes part of a personal vision. For most bands, covers are a convenient way to either pay lip-service to accepted icons of cool or do that increasingly tired hipper-than-thou "deconstruction" schtick.
McNew bends neither way, playing his covers of '60s French pop star Jacques Dutronc's "Et Moi Et Moi Et Moi" and Robert Knight's '70s AM classic "Everlasting Love" with complete sincerity. Roky Erickson's "On the Right Track Now" is so generously tender that pseudohipsters who know Roky only as "That crazy Texas guy who believes in demons" will be knocked on their pathetic asses.
McNew's own songs are his strongest yet--previous Dump albums were a little uneven, but A Plea for Tenderness has pure-pop bounce ("Clarity"), ghostly reveries ("Made For It" and the expansive, eight-minute "So Long"), sonic explorations ("Knicks Win") and trippy experiments ("The Big Bands"), all delivered in McNew's guileless voice over casually excellent guitar, organ and bass lines, along with drum parts whose occasional shambolic naivete are a large part of their charm. Yep, there's that word again. A Plea For Tenderness is an unbelievably charming album. !!!! 1/2
For their 1996 debut, Now More Charm and Tender, this San Francisco quartet was known as Pee, a name that's just ... well, dopey. I mean, as far as band names go, Come and Dump are in some ways moderately intriguing, because you can think "OK, do they mean verb or noun?" Fuck at least has chutzpah on their side, and Pee Shy reminds me of that scene in Real Genius. But Pee? Oh, please.
They seem to have recognized this, as the band is now officially known as P.E.E., a tic I'm going to ignore because it's a pain to type and is even more ridiculously inane than the original name. Between the meaningless abbreviation and the artwork, a tapestry of some kind of lizard-green cords overlaid with all-but-unreadable retro-futurist typography, part of me suspects they're trying to make people think this is an electronica album.
The Roaring Mechanism is a remarkably frustrating album because it's quite good, but in spots you can see how it could be great. It just never quite gets there. You can blame most of this on indifferent production. Pee, like a lot of indie-pop acts, needs to learn that the stage and the studio are two entirely separate environments. What works fantastically well live often sounds weedy and malnourished in the studio.
The flat and compressed production makes it difficult to get a grip on the songs, which have much to offer, starting with titles like "The Rewards of Gourmet Dining" and "The Misguided Self-Punishers." The vocal interplay between guitarists Jim Stanley (deadpan, laconic) and Kelly Green (sometimes cooing, sometimes shrieking) strongly recalls Versus, but in lyrics and structure, Pee owes more to late-'80s Britpopsters like Sad Lovers and Giants, McCarthy or even the Dentists. Over eminently hummable choruses, guitars jangle and slash, often at the same time, creating what must be an exciting tension on stage. Unfortunately, this album whimpers more than it roars. !!!
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