We Need To Talk About... #1: Rosy Overdrive, Part I


Presenting We Need To Talk About... , a new feature where a certain artist(s) is examined, appraised or defended. In this first issue of a two-part discussion, I (Zach) spoke with Rosy Overdrive about some bands that we both feel need more recognition: The Cleaners From Venus, Pere Ubu, Brainiac and The Flaming Lips.

I've been reading Rosy Overdrive, a blog from a passionate music fan/writer much like myself, ever since they interacted with me over Twitter in December of 2020. The blog's writing style - conversational but articulate, passionate but not punishing, humorous but humble - is something I always am looking for in the music writing I read, especially when I fail to accomplish that tone in my own writing.

The blog has some excellent columns, notably Pressing Concerns, where new releases are examined in depth with plenty of knowledge and imagery to boot. These columns also include a long list of additional releases you should be aware of, providing a treasure trove of DIY gems to wade through. All the while, they make sure to make playlists that are both archival and contemporary, to show a holistic vision of the person they are musically. It's this dedication I admire about the blog, and something I wish to see continue for them wherever this endeavor takes them.

As a result of me bein' a big ol' fan in all, I decided to reach out to them about the possibility of a collaborative post - one where we would wax poetic about bands we feel need more love. Below is the first part of that conversation, along with a playlist of songs from the bands we mention. Be sure to be on the lookout for Part II, being released next week, and make sure to check out Rosy Overdrive at www.rosyoverdrive.wordpress.com.

Zach: Hey! Excited to finally be doing this. It’s always good to be up to date and covering what’s new. But that's not really what we’re doing here. 

As with every music fan, sometimes it's best to shoot the shit over bands you really love, who you feel are either underrated or underappreciated in the current online music sphere. A simple truth, right?

Rosy Overdrive:  To be clear, this list we’ve come up with is far from comprehensive, of course, but rather a snapshot of a few strong contenders. Every band here is cosigned by both of the authors. Without further ado...

Zach: Let’s start!

So I wanted to begin by talking about The Cleaners From Venus. You’ve written about Martin Newell, the project’s mastermind, a lot in your work before. I haven’t really gotten a chance to on my end, but they’ve been a group I’ve loved since I was a freshman in college. “Corridor of Dreams” and “Arcadian Boys” were the perfect lo-fi accompaniments to my heavy listening schedule of the Cure (should give a taste as to how college started out for me).

In many ways I view them as the quintessential bedroom pop project, although that term has been so watered-down and conflated in its modern use that the label may be disarming. But at their core, Newell’s songs are pop songs fascinated with pop forms. It just so happens that most of these songs are either innovations on or deconstructions of forms past - especially from the British canon. 

RO: Yes, I think my first exposure to Newell was his 1993 solo album, The Greatest Living Englishman. I’d heard that Andy Partridge of XTC produced it, and I was the kind of nerd with which it carried significant weight. I still like that album, and its polished, cleaned-up renditions of Cleaners songs might be a good spot to start if the lo-fi intimidates you, but I think that the home-recorded, reverb-y sound of The Cleaners’ initial 80s run is part of what makes Newell’s songs as impactful as they are, so I gravitate towards those more often these days. That sound is also why they come up on my blog with some frequency - because of how striking it is, it’s not hard for me to pick out when a band has been influenced by Newell’s songwriting and production.

Zach: Oh absolutely. When I think of Cleaners I think of jangle, and because of how the group almost exclusively released material on cassette, that became a defining part of the “cassette” sound. It’s kind of funny to me that most of the band’s best releases came before C86 was even a trendy thought - more of a comparison in sound here than in songwriting styles, but still. 

You can definitely hear Newell’s tone throughout the modern jangle-sphere and through how bedroom pop producers aim for a lo-fi, tape-flickering sound. But what makes the Cleaners definitive for me is how they are able to have that one-of-a-kind tone and use it to the benefit of the song, as opposed to letting it wash out the production and distract the listener from what’s going on. “Only A Shadow” has a gothic rip to it, which adds a haunting quality. But that same tone is used for “The Jangling Man” years later, a pensive and political song rife with imagery. Newell embraces a specific style of guitar playing as the central ingredient of his songs, but not the only flavor. 

If you’re looking for this signature tone and the songs to back them up, I’d say either Midnight Cleaners or Number Thirteen are good starting points. What are yours?

RO: I like what you’re saying about the tones clarifying the song rather than being distracting. I’m thinking of all those hypnagogic pop bands from the past decade and a half that clearly were indebted to the Cleaners in some form, but were more about creating something psychedelic and hazy rather than striving for Newell’s more traditional songwriting. I like a lot of those bands, of course, not criticizing them - but working within these confines to create something as lucid as Newell’s songs so frequently is incredibly impressive as well.

I can’t argue with either of the two albums you referenced, and I’d put In the Golden Autumn up there with them in terms of being just as great front-to-back. You can throw a dart at any of those 80s Cleaners albums and hit some great songs (“Mercury Girl” from Living with Victoria Grey and “Drowning Butterflies” from Under Wartime Conditions are two of Newell’s best songs), but any of those three would be the best ones to dive into first. 

Photo credited to Janet Macoska

Up next, I want to talk about one of my personal favorite bands - Pere Ubu. Ubu, for me, is at least three different great bands rolled into one. Most music nerds, if they know of Pere Ubu at all, are most familiar with the early singles and the first two albums, The Modern Dance and Dub Housing. The original run of the band’s paranoid, self-destructing version of punk and post-punk deserves the appreciation that it gets (and then some), but just as worthwhile are the Quirky Pop Band Pere Ubu of the late 80s and early 90s, and the Dark Americana Pere Ubu of the late 90s and early 00s. Like, Cloudland is one of the best pop rock albums ever. Also, like you alluded to with Newell drawing from British culture and tradition, I love just how Midwestern Pere Ubu are. So many good bands have come out of Ohio, and all their Rust Belt and Cold War lyrics and allusions feel ripped from the heartland. 

Zach: I love how you allude to their midwestern-ness as such a crucial factor - it’s felt in their music through what you describe, and the band finds themselves as part of that great Ohio lineage of “weird rock” acts that have defined alternative music for generations.

I think what I love most about Pere Ubu is how, at their core, they embody innovation. Lately, I’ve thought that the flagship “post-punk” that gets rallied behind in the blogosphere sucks. Like, IDLES to me sounds like the football hooligan’s Arctic Monkeys, and Fontaines D.C. - while astute songwriters - feel more caught up in the need to present themselves as “high art.” None of it feels innovative or challenging, more like hunting for the ghost of one's self. Even with the post punk I DO enjoy (Western Mass’s Landowner is a particular favorite), I tend to only listen briefly before the music wears out its welcome for that particular time. Ultimately I end up just gravitating towards the acts that defined the genre in the late 70s, and Pere Ubu often because of how they reflect on time without existing in it. 

The Modern Dance and their earlier, harshest work viscerally examines the decay of cultural identity, something I think was a common anxiety in the Rust Belt of their time. David Thomas is a poet amongst lyricists in the rock realm, and their sound has always adapted to find new ways of expressing the tone and mind of Thomas’ soul. It’s easy to write off his voice - in his words and tonal quality - as surreal and bizarre, but they’re still reflections of that Midwestern culture the band is grown from. Like, “Turquoise Fins” from Raygun Suitcase feels like a heartland love ballad that melted in the sun. It hits that itch, man.

Being as they're amongst your favorite groups, do you have a rough “top five” songs?

RO: I’m glad you brought up Raygun Suitcase, because that’s my sleeper pick for the best entry point into the world of Ubu. It’s got a very nice balance between the weird stuff and the accessible stuff. I’ve been feeling burnt out on a lot of “modern post-punk” bands lately, so I get you. I remember Black Midi garnered some Ubu comparisons back when they were the hottest new thing of the moment, which might explain why I can get down to them a little more than most of their peers. But yes, 9 times out of 10 I’d rather just throw on New Picnic Time or The Tenement Year

Any top five Pere Ubu songs list would have to include “Breath,” which is perhaps the best song ever written by anyone, ever. I’d also have to go with “Heart of Darkness,” which is maybe a “basic” pick but it’s as good as its reputation suggests. I’d round it out with “On the Surface” from Dub Housing, “Something’s Gotta Give” from The Tenement Year, and, for a fun curveball, “Vacuum in My Head” from Raygun Suitcase. But there are plenty of other worthy contenders. I couldn’t even fit anything from The Modern Dance in there!

Speaking of Ohio weird rock bands, the next act on the list keeps us in the Buckeye State. We’re going to talk about Dayton’s Brainiac. Unlike the first two bands on here, Brainiac sadly do not have a huge discography to pull hidden gems from, due to the tragic death of Tim Taylor just as the band seemed to be starting to get some indie attention. I should’ve watched the Transmissions After Zero documentary to prepare for this, but that would’ve required me to be a more organized person than I currently am. I know you’ve seen it, Zach, so perhaps you can share some insights you got from it. Or just talk about how Brainiac were so good, and why they were so good. 

Zach: Oh for sure! There are certain films I feel every person in a band should watch - This Is Spinal Tap, Some Kind Of Monster, that Anvil movie. Transmission After Zero feels like the quintessential “DIY Band” documentary: it captures brilliantly minded people in all their quirks, making something greater than themselves for a brief moment. Because of Tim’s unfortunate death (he died in a car accident caused by carbon monoxide poisoning), there’s a strong, lingering nostalgia of what could have been with the band. But they cherish what they accomplished with blunt reflection, all the while sharing some of the most ridiculous and heart-wrenching stories I’ve ever heard in a doc - whether that’s finding out great grandparents were the backing band for a cockfighting ring, or having an existential panic while applying for a job at a chili shack. 

The key point of the film, and the band itself, is Tim Taylor - their guitarist, he viewed sound as something that could be broken and reconstructed into a new configuration, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. That desire to destroy - tonally, sonically, compositionally - adds such an invigorating kick to the band’s music, a blistering assault of post-hardcore that is perfect for when you have a shrill brain. 

One of the best parts of the film is how bassist Juan Monasterio says you had to be careful about what parts of songs you said you liked when working with Tim - if they were enthusiastic about something they loved, he would get angry and completely rewrite the part, or leave it out entirely, because it meant it was “accessible.” I’m not sure I know of a better example of a rebellious spirit than that. 

RO: I don’t think you get something like Brainiac without Tim Taylor having that kind of outlook. It’s essential to why they made music as good as they did, and also why I’m not totally sure if they would’ve broken out the way some thought they could’ve. Like, that shit is abrasive, man. Could I see something like “Pussyfootin” being smoothed out into a modern rock radio staple? Sure, but I don’t know if Tim could’ve ever let that happen. That’s something the leader of my other favorite Dayon band, Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, also struggled with - and they were significantly more radio-friendly than Brainiac at their hookiest.

Either way, it’s hard not to wistfully imagine what Brainiac would’ve achieved had they kept going, regardless of whether or not that included commercial success. They really were one of those bands that kept getting better and better over the course of their three LPs (in my humble opinion), and although I can’t say necessarily that Electro-Shock for President continued that trend by being better than Hissing Prigs, it hinted at really exciting new directions for the band. Nothing quite exudes coolness, paranoia, and danger like “Fresh New Eyes.”

I’ve noticed a trend so far with all of these bands--they’re all very influential, probably more so than most people realize. I can’t imagine how many songs have been described as “Beatlesque” when they were really going for a Martin Newell thing, or a “Talking Heads influence” really being that of Pere Ubu, or a band “taking cues from Nine Inch Nails” that were really just listening to a lot of Brainiac.

Zach: That’s definitely been what I’ve wanted to get at - and not just for the sake of being “obscure,” either. While the bands you mention as being reference points have their cache, and are easy to identify, it does a disservice to those more “lightning in a bottle” acts that made a more idiosyncratic impact in their genre while influencing it all the same. I notice bands in this regard get pigeonholed to one or two records rather than allowing for their full discography to be regarded upon.

Photo credited to George Salisbury

I think this kind of pigeonholing is actually currently taking hold on the Flaming Lips. I know that may be hyperbolic when concerning one of the greatest American rock bands of all time. But when you bring up their name in a musical context, the two records that will probably come to mind are The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Both are stone-cold classics, yet viewing these albums through the critical lens of the band achieving their peak is incredibly detrimental. 

For one, it feels like it ignores the group’s constant, consistent evolution and willingness to experiment. You don’t get The Soft Bulletin’s studio-realized psychedelia without Clouds Taste Metallic - my personal favorite Lips record. That album’s sizzling grime accomplishes the feat of getting high without the drug using a much more limited palette, in a way making it more admirable. And while Yoshimi’s psychedelia could be deemed “Beatlesque,” it’s a domineering term that brings specific lyrical connotations. It mislabels and even understates the lyrical development of Wayne Coyne’s innocent perception into the void, which was set with In A Priest Driven Ambulance and continued to steep with each subsequent release. 

All this is to say that I believe the Flaming Lips' best material has been their later career work. Embryonic, The Terror and American Head all embody the hallmarks of past Lips peaks, but I believe they’re even stronger meditations on the themes present in the seminal works, and more intriguing sonic experiments. I prefer American Head to Yoshimi in how it’s haunted with the sobering nostalgia of childhood, all the while being grounded in human constructions of psychedelia, rather than a surrealist or galactic approach. None of this is saying that instrumental Lips whimsy isn’t good, but what is signature to the Lips is emotion - and sometimes it’s best achieved with less! 

RO: Oh, I like this twist, because I’m very much partial to the earlier Lips material. For me, In a Priest Driven Ambulance through Clouds Taste Metallic is what I think of when I think of my favorite Flaming Lips moments. I’m not a purist, though. I have done a lot of reading about 90s underground music as someone who wasn’t really “around” when it was actually happening, and from there I’ve discovered the contingent of people who don’t want anything to do with the band after Ronald Jones left/was kicked out and “they abandoned rock music." This is silly thinking, and does a disservice to The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi, which, as you mentioned, are both great albums - let alone to what came after those two.

Truthfully, I would even consider getting people to think about those two records when the Lips are brought up a minor victory in 2021, because to a number of my less musically-obsessed acquaintances they’re known for being “the bubble band” and for whatever goofy antics Wayne Coyne’s gotten himself into today. Like Weezer, they’re a band whose legacy would probably be more secure if they didn’t get in their own way as frequently (although they’re not really like Weezer, because they have a lot more great albums than them, hah).

Your impassioned support of their recent material makes me want to go back and really consider those records, especially American Head. That album sort of got drowned out in a sea of exciting new bands for me, I think I gave it a cursory listen, was like “Yep! This sure is a Flaming Lips album!” and moved onto something shinier - as if this band doesn’t have an arsenal of classic material that should’ve earned their later work my undivided attention. But regardless, I’ll always go to bat for those early-to-mid-90s records, particularly the underrated Hit to Death in the Future Head.

Up Next: Part II of this conversation, featuring thoughts on bands from across New Zealand, Cymbals Eat Guitars and Club Night.

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