April 10, 2017
Released On September 14, 2004
Released By Polyvinyl Records
What is it about basements anyway? Sacred space of the rock and roll teen. Place where all the good things start. Sweaty shows attended by a clamoring few. Demos written and forgotten and not good enough anyway. Place where all the best ideas lay low, like a scientist in their workshop waiting for the lightning to strike. The basement has a certain mystique in the music world, and a certain sound. Fuzzy, hazy, lo-fi. Basements embody everything organic and special about the underground scene. Hmm, yeah, there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
I first heard Saturday Looks Good To Me when I was fourteen. At that point in my life, I had already begun amassing a music collection all my own, separate from my parents’ tastes. I dabbled in boy bands and pop stars heavily, before discovering Alanis Morissette and Michelle Branch. Then I couldn’t get enough of ’90s alternative and female singer-songwriters. I couldn’t find a CD binder big enough to hold my collection. My pride and joy. But everything I had listened to and loved up to that point was music that was solidly entrenched in the mainstream. Popular music. Songs everyone in my class knew all the words to.
So when my coolest friend made me a mix of music (culled from her even cooler older sister’s music collection) and I didn’t recognize a single artist or song, I felt my entire musical universe change. And the song that I loved the most on that mix was “When You Got To New York” from Saturday Looks Good To Me’s 2004 release Every Night. I think the thing that grabbed me was that sound. I didn’t have the words to describe it at that age. I didn’t know anything about production or microphones or tracking. All I knew was that it sounded real and right on the surface. A basement recording project brought to light.
Right after I got that mix from my friend, my family moved from Birmingham, AL to Tampa, FL. We moved right at the beginning of the summer. It was so hot. And I had no friends. I spent my days pacing my room, writing songs, emailing the boy I had left behind, and listening to Every Night. It was the perfect backdrop to those lonely months. It spoke to my long distance heartache: “Somebody told me that everyone’s lonely, but I was the only fool there waiting down by the ocean with my heart half the way broken.” It spoke to my self-identified outsider status and my ever-developing sense of what means to be cool in the world. Parties, cigarettes, secrets, paying rent, getting lost. I loved the world that these songs lived in, and I loved the stories they told. More than movies and TV shows, Saturday Looks Good To Me made me want to live in New York City.
To me, Every Night has a perfect balance of feeling. Lyrics that say something special, without trying too hard. Great dynamics in the instrumentation. Arrangements that elevate the song as a whole. And most influential to me and my songwriting is the sense of joy that’s in every song on this record. Even when the lyrics are sad, even with minor chords, there’s a certain warm glow that permeates everything.
A decade ago when I discovered Saturday Looks Good To Me, my favorite song was “Lift Me Up.” A perfect irreverent love song, upbeat and catchy, with a line about shooting a helicopter out of the sky. I loved being in love, I relished my heartache, and the songs I wrote that first summer in a new town were some of my most honest, if not my most musically accomplished. These days, with a band of my own, it’s the ruminations on trying to make it as a musician that resonate with me most. “How many autographs can anybody sign, before the people get tired of standing in line?” and “Now you wonder why the notes are always bruised and bent / You think that it’s your song / but it’s your instrument / You want to turn invisible and try again.” Making it means coming out of the basement. It means facing the world. But what do you lose when you leave it behind? Yeah, there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.
An indie pop collective as ambitious and adventurous as they are endearing and enchanting.
Every Night exudes this very light and floating sound quality — particularly when the piano of opening track, “Since You Stole My Heart” kicks in — that reminded me instantly (to a lesser but similar degree) of the kind of indie pop that was shining pretty brightly just a few years ago in the 2013-15 range. (See exhibit 1: Toronto’s Alvvays.) Then, when I noticed saxophone increasingly peeking its bell up in the background, combined with varying soul/Motown-tinged melodies (The opening rhythmic groove to “Lift Me Up” sounds like a long lost cousin of The Supremes’ hit, “You Can’t Hurry Love“), thoughts of the uptick in pop soul and big band appreciation crossed my mind as well. Lead guitar with reverb and a plucky, metallic tone perfectly suited to surf rock even makes a splash (“If You Ask“). Then you have “Dialtone,” which sounds like that impromptu and less structured acoustic song that your best college-guy-friend-with-a-guitar recorded in his dorm and likes to play during the popular open mic night. And of course, I can’t leave out the completely left field chamber strings outro from the opener. This almost potpourri-like course of tonal offerings shows just how severely underserved Saturday Looks Good To Me is, when coupled with the phrase, “they’re an indie pop band.” Bands like this point out the utter vastness of the music world because, even when you’ve been signed to a label and develop a substantial and appealing discography, the stylistic choices you make on an album like this, (which is from 2004, far before my 2015 and Alvvays tinted impulses) somehow don’t manage to turn the trend dial at the time they hit the shelf. The bright side to this however, is that we can listen back now and think, “Damn they were ahead of their time!” The group wasn’t too fixated on its unintentional progressiveness though. There’s plenty of a cohesive sonic backbone when plays from start to finish and for the cautious listener of uncommon arrangements, tracks like “Keep Walking” bust out a more conventional indie pop/rock sound — the kind that’s infused with just a drop of lo-fi quality — over bouncy enough tempos to make the thought of seeing them in a familiar, semi-loud NYC venue like Mercury Lounge or Cake Shop (RIP), very easy to vividly imagine and enjoy.
It is so weird going back to an older Saturday Looks Good to Me record after having been obsessed with Fred Thomas’ recent personal opuses, which are full of dense stories and those little moments that stick together to equal the lifetime of memories you keep looking back on. Every Night seems so much simpler compared to Thomas’ 2017 release Changer, but the throwback ’60s songs are also better and stronger than I remember. The record holds up much better than other indie pop of the same era — there were many devotees of a similar sound who also had killer melodies. People loved to debate the ’60s-ness of SLGTM — is it genuine? Are they mocking it? Is it too twee? Now, the answer clearly is “I don’t give a shit” because these songs are so damn good. As soon as this was announced as one of the next OYR choices, I played it at home, alone, at top volume. New discoveries via OYR are wonderful but there’s a lot to be said for listening to something you’re comfortable with and already enjoy. Three minutes into the psych pop-tinged “If You Ask,” I noticed I had stopped what I was doing and tears were coming down my cheeks. I guess the melody of the slide guitar part touches something in me — it’s definitely an instrument, but also sounds like eerie backing vocals. I’ve listened to it almost every day since. There’s some preciousness that was in SLGTM’s previous (and better-reviewed) record All Your Summer Songs that is missing in Every Night, which makes it a more enjoyable listen to my nearly 38-year-old ears. Every song that Thomas sings is fucking tops. His voice, while not perfect by any means, is dripping with longing and sadness. “When The Party Ends” could have been performed by Stuart Murdoch on a particularly dour day. “Keep Walking” sounds like an outtake from an early Ted Leo record. When I was in my 20s, I skipped over these songs in favor of the poppier ones sang by women, and I definitely regret that choice. While I probably would have come back to these SLGTM releases eventually, I am so thankful to Kerry for giving me a jumpstart — they are all worth revisiting.
Saturday Looks Good To Me’s Every Night is immediately charming, and has aspects that remind me of some of the same references I made when speaking recently of Mal Blum, or even back in the very first edition of this newsletter in reference to Standard Fare. I’m not sure how strongly linked this band is with the whole ’90s twee/indie-pop scene that centered on K Records in the US and Sarah Records in the UK, but I definitely get those vibes from Every Night. The countryish twang that shows up in a lot of the guitar parts on this album, and Betty Marie Barnes’ sweetly melodic voice, combine to make me think of Tiger Trap or Heavenly. Meanwhile, there are touches that hark back to several other eras of 20th century pop music, from the occasional wall-of-sound horn and orchestral flourishes a la Phil Spector to the slightly tough early rock n’ roll girl-group vibe of “All Over Town” or “If You Ask.” The album’s shortest cut, “The Girl’s Distracted,” is a highlight for me, partly because of the way Barnes and bandleader Fred Thomas trade off vocal lines and share the occasional harmony, and partly because the tune is just so damn catchy. What’s more, its running time of two minutes flat makes it the shortest song here, and leaving them wanting more is always a solid approach. SLGTM take that same approach with this album as a whole, getting through a dozen songs in less than 40 minutes and keeping listeners smiling and tapping their toes throughout. This one begs for repeat listens. Let’s throw it on again, shall we?
Every Night has all of the earmarks of an album that I will eventually think of as a classic. It starts off strong with the first four songs letting us know where the band is coming from, but not taking us to a place we’re not comfortable with. Then there’s the quick “The Girl’s Distracted” to let us know that there’s something different coming up. That leads us into the heart of the album, “If You Ask,” “Empty Room,” and “When The Party Ends.” These songs are rich and robust (two of the songs are the longest songs on the album) compared to the first five tracks. They’re like the meat of the sandwich that is this album. They have lots of odd sections (please refer to the coda at the end of “If You Ask” as a guide to what I mean) that really make you pay attention. These songs aren’t going to be so easy to digest as the ones at the beginning, but they might be a little more satisfying. When “When the Party Ends” ends, it flows seamlessly into what appears to be a live version of a song called “Dialtone” (although I’m not quite sure I believe this wasn’t just studio pyrotechnics and atmospherics). This song is a nice comedown from the trio that proceeded it. It’s a palate cleanser at the exact right time. After that, you have two songs that are more on par with the opening salvo, but now the band has hit their stride and it feels almost like these two are the sonic boom that follows the acrobatics of the middle three songs: effortless and inevitable. I especially love how “Lift Me Up” puts me in the mind of Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher“. And thus we reach the end. The audience has gone home, but the band is feeling reflective, the way you do after all the amazing heights they achieved on the preceding songs. The closing song “When You Got To New York” feels like a finale or even an epilogue and it contains the title of the album. I just love when the closing track contains the title of the album. It makes everything feel intentional and organized. So, in closing the most essay-like blurb I’ve written for this publication, let me restate my thesis: This album has a lot in common, in terms of sequencing and emotional flow, with many of my all-time favorite albums and I wouldn’t be surprised if it joined that list very soon.
Live shot of Fred Thomas & Betty Marie Barnes demonstrating some sweet vocal interplay over a subtle cello in the background.
My photo studio, mid-’90s. A package arrives from the BMG Music Club. “Ok,” I say to myself as I open it, “I’m finally going to hear Belle and Sebastian.” I had read about this Scottish indie band and thought they might be something I would love. But their debut, Tigermilk, had been released in some absurdly limited edition and was basically impossible to find outside of the UK. So I was kind of pissed off about being left out when I spotted If Your Feeling Sinister in the BMG catalog — but not so annoyed that I didn’t carefully transfer the order number to the reply card. Now that I had the CD, I wasted no time in peeling off the shrink wrap and putting it in the high-end boombox I kept in the studio. My first thought upon hearing Stuart Murdoch’s voice at the beginning of “Stars Of Track And Field” was “Huh? Why is this guy even singing?” I almost turned it off. Then, halfway through the album, something happened and I was on the phone with my sister saying, “You have got to get this album!” I have a feeling that Fred Thomas, leader of Saturday Looks Good To Me had a similar epiphany before starting his band. In any case, Every Night has some of the same ’60s-infused twee charm of early B&S, with some of the same lack of slickness that might come off as amateurish at first. But gift it a chance and let the sense of fun come through — along with some pretty canny songwriting. While Thomas is the main man, SLGTM sounds a bit like group of friends making music for the heck of it, which is only emphasized by the rotating cast of singers, some more polished than others. And if the songs don’t cut to the emotional quick like Murdoch’s masterpieces, there is more than enough room in the world for songs like “Dialtone,” with its echoes of “(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame” or “If You Ask,” a sweet mix of Zombies pop with Elvis Costello angst. And I’m delighted to note that there are many more albums by SLGTM to discover — many thanks to our guest contributor Kerry Alexander for shining a light on this nice (and underappreciated) little corner of the world.
While other groups around the same time, like The Make-Up and The (International) Noise Conspiracy, were lifting from the garage and soul sounds of the ’60s, Saturday Looks Good To Me leans heavy on girl groups. The band is led by prolific songwriter Fred Thomas, who somehow released about eight solo records during the time frame that SLGTM released the same number of albums. Good luck catching up! Creative mixing plus a slew of instruments keeps Every Night from getting repetitive. Multiple lead singers help break things up too, and reinforce that girl group sound; or maybe I’m just used to hearing compilations? I’ll definitely go back and check out the rest of their catalog, and not just because Melissa ordered them all from Polyvinyl.
In our recent issue covering Muddy Waters, I highlighted some of the recording techniques used by modern engineers to achieve the sound of yesteryear. I was delighted to again see some of the same devices, and more, employed by Saturday Looks Good To Me this week. I really enjoyed the retro feel of Every Night. The late sixties/early seventies organ break and horn arrangements of “Since You Stole My Heart” immediately caught my attention, only to seal the deal with the deliberate mono panning on “All Over Town.” Saturday and their producers definitely took the time and effort to source some dirty, dusty vintage analog gear (the stickiest of the Icky, if you will) for the heart of Every Night. The spooky organs strike again on “The Girl’s Distracted” and “If You Ask,” the latter also dopes in a subtle and well-timed vibe section (and no, I don’t mean “vibe” in the goofy rapper sense — I mean the actual percussion instrument played by musicians with mallets). And then Saturday puts the cherry on top with a little touch of Motown. You can’t tell me the tambourine rhythms of “Empty Room” and “Lift Me Up” didn’t get your feet tapping immediately. Every Night is a quaint collection of feel-good music with all the sensibilities of the music we miss the most in 2017.
SLGTM mastermind Fred Thomas in his home studio, most likely deep in thought about the next addition to his imposing catalog.
A friend of my wife’s helped an older neighbor with some spring cleaning recently. What does that have to do with Off Your Radar? Long story short, that cleanout resulted in my receiving about a hundred unsorted records, including three Supremes albums: I Hear a Symphony, Reflections, and The Supremes At The Copa. It’s some of the best music ever made, so deciding to keep them (dozens weren’t in such good shape) took about five seconds, which happens to be the same amount of time it took me to decide I liked Saturday Looks Good To Me. So much of that winning Motown formula is intact, all those years later. The horns. The tight verse-chorus construction. The thin, clean guitar sound with spring reverb, which is articulated so clearly at the start of “If You Ask.” (I can’t get enough of the breakdown that starts at 2:15.) The way certain choruses build to a stop so the titular payoff line can be delivered to maximum effect, like on “All Over Town.” The breaks that quick pentatonic guitar riffs fill in, like after the chorus of “Keep Walking.” I’ll often hear elements of classic soul in music made decades later, but Every Night feels especially loving and devotional — both in the way it nods to its inspirations and in the themes communicated by the lyrics. These songs ache in the way the very best Supremes albums did. Anyone know if Diana Ross is looking to do a few cover tunes?
It seemed like fate that Every Night was the pick for this week. I just got over a long-standing obsession with The Libertines (still love them, but I’ve plateaued, thankfully). I’ve always been a sucker for truly good indie rock. There are plenty of bands out there that court the title, but few can actually deliver. I love the dynamic guitar riffs that coat this entire release, from “All Over Town” to “Empty Room” both of which had me swaying in my chair. This record maxes out on the lo-fi without being pretentious about it — everything about it takes on this effortlessly cool mood that one could argue is comparable to bands like The Strokes and Wyldlife. “When The Party Ends” reminds me of older Bright Eyes tracks, both in its vocal delivery and composition. The guitar takes on its own personality in “We Can’t Work It Out” and it blows me away every single time I hear it. There are so many things going on within this album that it’s tough to pin down the band as having one distinct direction here, but trust me, that seems to be the point. Without getting too long-winded, I will lament that this is one of the most energizing and original sounding indie rock records I’ve heard in some time. That’s right, I said it. Fun fact: I’m having a staring contest with the 180-Gram pink vinyl of this album on the Saturday Looks Good To Me Bandcamp — not only is it gorgeous, but it would make for the perfect addition to my record collection. I’m just glad I know about Saturday Looks Good To Me, and I can’t wait to take the dive into their dense discography.
The first time that I went to the Motown museum, it was with my friends Eddie and Mark who were from Detroit band, The Sights. They were in high school at the time, and I had met them through my friend Mike. I held two historic Christmas parties — one where we invited Phencyclidine Kevin, and my friends Aran and Gene of Detroit band The Schmods played a light set that night while a different friend passed out on Kevin’s homemade concoction of grape codeine and alcohol on my roommate’s bed. He had been in love with her and she was kind enough to let him pass out for the evening there…. it was a party after all. I met Matthew Smith of the band, Outrageous Cherry and The Volebeats one year at Earth Fest, I think that was in my final year of high school. We would talk on the phone sometimes while we listened to the radio: about music, artists, and the different iconic people we’d met, either in bands, or producing bands. Although I don’t think I ever met Fred Thomas of Saturday Looks Good To Me, I met my friend Stephen Cramer, who introduced me to my friend Neal. Neal was the first person that I met when I moved to Philadelphia. Listening to Saturday Looks Good To Me makes me think of Stephen and Neal, and the early ’90s in Michigan — a lot — and even though Fred didn’t start performing as SLGTM until closer to the end of the ’90s, it still takes me there. Every Night makes me think of the band The Icicles who dress in homemade dresses, use ‘Say Yes to Michigan’ jokes between songs, and play in backyards… and of Belle Isle, of the bowling lanes in the Magic Stick, and the Michigan people and bands like Windy and Carl, His Name Is Alive, Outrageous Cherry, The Waxwings, Jim Diamond, or The Go…. When you grow up on a steady stream of Motown and sixties rock’ n’ roll, you have something in common — you wear these influences on your sleeve. It’s a badge of honor, really, being Detroit-made or — even — being proximity-of-Detroit-made. Fred Thomas is prolific when it comes to songwriting in that garage ’50s and ’60s style — a wink-sure and sparkling talent whose musical river runs deep. Every Night is layered in influences from Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson to Spector and Joe Meek: a veritable quadruped of both equally magnificent and equally evil measures. It certainly makes me think of home. Personally, I think everyone should lie in bed listening to Every Night on headphones.
You can’t talk about Every Night without mentioning the yesteryear sounds — not effectively at least. ’60s by aural memory, the songs Fred Thomas built here also have hallmarks of the late ’50s and the early ’70s, the former of which was a burgeoning time for this style of writing while the latter was a time when said style was becoming dated and obsolete. It’s all well and good to pat Thomas on the back for being able to expertly match this time period, but what’s impressive here is his ability to effortlessly trade back and forth between the solo doo-wop style and Stax soul. Similar in design, the goals of the two are wildly different, with one focusing on the vocal performance and the other on the instrumentation. It’s remarkable how comfortable Thomas is within both confines… though that may be because of the addition of Betty Marie Barnes, a huge factor in Every Night‘s overwhelming quality. She is the Neko Case to Fred Thomas’ A.C. Newman. Or maybe she’s the Feist to his Kevin Drew. Or what about the Claudia Gonson to his Stephin Merritt? I’m getting off point. Restrained and understated, her singing is one that will instantly grab you: the kind of voice that will turn a head in whatever setting from smoky dive bar to bustling street corner. Personally, I’m a big fan of her more forceful, almost twee-like moments (“The Girl’s Distracted“), but I can see the impact her swaying style on a song like “We Can’t Work It Out” has. (Can’t prove it, but I’d bet my life singers like Madeline Follin of Cults have a record or two of SGLTM in their collection.) Speaking of impact, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention seeing the fingerprints of Every Night on songs written by our guest contributor Kerry Alexander like “It Hurts,” the title track to Bad Bad Hats’ 2013 EP. Assumed influence and nostalgic sounds aside, I’m left walking away from Every Night more stunned over Fred Thomas’ ability to blur the line between modern and classic, most of the time without anyone noticing. There are hints here and there, like the anachronistic inflection on “Keep Walking,” but there’s also the break near the middle of the record with two songs straight out of the modern indie rock canon, “When The Party Ends” and “Dialtone.” Structural, lyrically, and musically, they are much more in the modern vein of someone like Ben Folds than a songwriter like Smokey Robinson. That style doesn’t stay long — it’s quickly followed up with the loungey “We Can’t Work It Out” and Holland–Dozier–Holland style “Lift Me Up” — but it’s enough to make you wonder if this is more of a statement from Fred Thomas than happenstance. Maybe he is saying that modern sounds can fit well with the classic under the right circumstance. Maybe that every listener has a bit of old soul in them. Maybe that good songwriting isn’t bound by a time period or available equipment. Who knows? Maybe he just set out to make an astoundingly great album. If so, then job well done, Mr. Thomas, because this is one astoundingly great album in every sense of the phrase.
Blood, Guts, And Pizza by The Dolts
Chosen By Catherine Dempsey