Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review of This Island Earth's "Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few minutes ago.


Review Summary: A little bit of alternative pop heaven.

Musically, the period from 1995 to 2005 became something of a lost decade for me, at least as far as the American national scene was concerned. The nineties had started out promisingly enough, with the grunge movement, and bands like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Pearl Jam providing a new twist on basic rock. Then Kurt Cobain killed himself, and radio lost interest in grunge. For a year or so, it seemed that Alternative Rock would be the next big thing, and this was fine with me. Unfortunately, it wasn't making enough money for the record companies, so they ditched it after about a year. What followed was a horror show, as record labels decided to go back to an updated version prefabricated pop. It was as if the sixties through the nineties, and the movement toward artists who wrote their own music, never happened. Atrocity after atrocity was foisted upon the public, from The Spice Girls to Britney Spears to the cookie-cutter dorks and divas of the American Idol movement. I retreated in horror, first to college radio and indie music, and ultimately to my own local Long Island music scene, where I discovered that actual good music, music that I liked, was still being created.

Right in my own backyard, I learned that there were artists from a variety of genres who were out there every night, working the clubs and coffee houses, ignoring the national trends and trying to make a name for themselves. A wave of Long Island emo bands, such as The Movielife, started to break through to the national scene on a small level. The next generation of bands of this genre then broke through in a much larger way, including Taking Back Sunday, Brand New and Bayside. This was great to see. But even more exciting for me was that my preferred genre of the period, alternative pop rock, looked as if it might follow the same path. Nine Days scored big in 2000 with their The Madding Crowd album, and it seemed as if there was a talented cadre of Long Island bands mining the alternapop style who were poised to make it right behind them.

One of the best of these bands was This Island Earth. A five-piece group that featured a lead vocalist with a Freddy Mercury-type range, a lead guitarist who occasionally played a Chapman Stick, and a talent for writing, tight, energetic and intelligent pop rock songs, these guys seemed poised to make it big as music moved into the 21st century. Their style was described by some as Beatlesque, but the quirky construction of some of their songs made them sound more like an American version of Squeeze. They released a fine self-titled debut album in 1996, and their 2000 EP Home Sweet Home drew them some music industry attention. One of those who became interested was the producer Armand John Petri, who had previously worked with bands such as Goo Goo Dolls, Sixpence None the Richer and 10,000 Maniacs. Petri then helped TIE to reach their musical zenith with the release of 2002's Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round.

Welcome to the Merry-Go-Round is a bit of alternapop heaven. It begins with "All for Love", which is one of those songs that you feel like you've heard before, but in a good way. (It kind of reminds me of Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me" or The Cars' "Good Times Roll" in that way.) It's a more-than-solid opener. 

The LP then goes on to deliver a variety of hook-laden rock tracks in a number of speeds and styles. Two of its best numbers share a similar theme, that of non-heroism. The first, "Superman", finds its protagonist disclosing to his love that "I know just what I am/I'm an ordinary man", before going on the explain that the role of Clark Kent fits him way better than does that of you-know-who. ("Hey that's OK/I don't like tights anyway for me/Don't wanna be your Superman"). The second, "Hero (I Don't Wanna Be)", is a raucous and funny track that describes in great detail why its main character would be a poor fit for a career in the military: "Ring, ring, it's 4am/I think I'll punch the alarm and go back to sleep again/I could never get accustomed to all of that reveille/I need some revelry." This one features some rousing slide guitar, and is the kind of an anthem that you just have to clap along to.

There are a number of other treats on the LP. The title track contains a really tasty guitar pattern that foreshadows the song's chorus, and "All the King's Horses" is a fun stop-and-start kind of song that gives vocalist Peter McCulloch a chance to show just how many words can be stuffed into a line of a pop song chorus. "The Girl Upstairs", on the the other hand, is a darker mid-tempo number that brings to mind The Smithereens' "Blood and Roses". And the band even gets the chance to show its sweeter side, with "How Like a God", wherein our hero compares being in love with the worship of a deity, and "Innocent", which declares that "We're all born beautiful/Innocent/After all".

As you can probably guess by the fact that you've never heard of these guys (unless you happen to be a Long Islander of a certain age), this album failed to land the band national fame or a record deal. I don't know why. Maybe the record companies thought they couldn't find a single here. Or maybe the country was just too far gone down the American Idol rabbit hole to ever come back. Either way, it's a shame. Because if someone claimed that they stopped making good pop rock music before the start of the 2000's, I'd be proud to hand them this album any day to prove otherwise.


Rating: 4 of 5 stars