Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Fierce Creatures

I wrote the album review below in early '97 for the critically acclaimed but hit-deficient TV GUIDE music website. There's a backstory, so read the piece and then bear with me afterward while I update it.

SOMETHING FIERCE: A Sound For Sore Ears
(Kattywampus)


Something Fierce -- the best pop band you've probably never heard of unless you're from Minneapolis -- began the '90s as local indierock heroes poised on the brink of something bigger, with two terrific albums full of tuneful, verbally dazzling stuff worthy of Elvis Costello or XTC behind them and a small but devoted national cult following that cherished their every melodic quirk or play on words. Then in late 1991, Fierce's bassist (and one of their two principal songwriters) Jeff Carpenter had a near fatal auto accident that left him with only partial mobility and impaired speech. Stunned and depressed, his bandmates -- guitarist Jerry Lefkowitz and drummer David Russ -- moved on to other projects, but fans (including this critic) lived in hope that the group wasn't over.

Which turned out to be the case: Witness their new "A Sound for Sore Ears," begun before the crash but finished over the past six years as Carpenter began a slow recovery. Surprisingly, this is the most stylistically wide-ranging record they've ever done, with everything from lounge jazz ("The Big Idea") to accordion-laced metal ("Insignificant Other") to spooky psychedelia ("Heart Murmur") tossed in with their trademark sunny Beatles-esque pop. And the wordplay is sharper than ever. In "Watergate," for example, Carpenter posits -- over a hilariously overdramatic instrumental bed -- that A Girlfriend From Hell is the metaphorical equivalent of the Nixon scandals and sustains the conceit for more than five minutes. (If nothing else, this must be the first song in history to contemplate rhyming "spill the beans" with "Haldeman, Mitchell and Dean.")

Elsewhere, there's the gorgeous "Oscillating Fan," with a swirling Revolver-ish instrumental section that doubles back on the lyrical conceit; the demonically catchy "Vegetable Guy," which has to do with shyness and the Elephant Man (you'll have to hear it); and "Feel Like Professor," in which the band suggests the American experience may not be much more edifying than that of Gilligan's Island. And the rest, including "Stormsong," Lefkowitz's leftfield McCartney-esque closer, suggests that there might yet be more where this came from.

Bottom line: a really terrific CD, and all the more unlikely given the circumstances of its creation. Order it by mail ($14 postpaid) from Kattywampus Records, 2220 Springwood Rd., Wayzata, MN 55391. -- Steve Simels


Obviously, after ten years, that mailing address is defunct, but otherwise I wouldn't change a word of the above. So here's the rest of the tale (and there's a new address at the end).

What happened was that in 1989 a fan of the group sent me their then current album (the wonderful Franklin Pierce) with a note saying, basically, it's designed with your mind in mind. The guy was right, I went gaga over the record and proceeded to write a tremendously adulatory column (including bits of an interview with Jeff Carpenter) for the Magazine Formerly Known as Stereo Review. The piece ended with the above address and me urging readers to order the CD, and a few months later Jeff called to tell me that, amazingly enough, they had gotten almost a thousand requests as a result. Even more amazing, not one check had bounced. (Apparently Stereo Review readers were as upscale as the sales staff always claimed to advertisers). At twelve bucks a pop, that meant the band had made enough money to finance the recording and production costs of their next CD, and needless to say, both band and myself were mightily pleased at the entire turn of events.

Anyway, Jeff and I became phone friends -- he was a huge movie fan and we talked a lot about films and flicks -- and then in '91 I heard the awful news: on the way home from a friend's wedding, Jeff and his own bride-of-two-weeks were involved in a horrific traffic accident in which he was seriously injured -- in fact, unlikely to really ever come back. I was pretty shook, frankly, and to my eternal shame I didn't keep in touch after that; the whole thing was just too heavy to deal with and I was going through some serious emotional problems of my own. Then in late '96 I got the word that Jeff had in fact recovered enough for the band to finish the album they'd been working on prior to the accident. Hence the review, which I wrote with a certain mix of pleasure -- I genuinely loved the record -- and something like survivor guilt. A bit later, just after the release of the album, there was a benefit concert -- called, if memory serves, "We Miss You Something Fierce" -- staged by the band's fans and friends and the kid who had first turned me on to them actually sent me a round trip ticket to Minneapolis so I could attend the show. I couldn't face it, and returned the ticket.

After that I lost touch -- again -- with the guys, which kind of gnawed at me from time to time over the years, although I didn't do anything about it. So a couple of weeks ago when a Google search turned up the fact that you could still order the album(s) online -- from the Carleton College Bookstore no less (the guys all met at CC) -- I thought, okay, now's the time to give them another public plug and let them know how much their music had meant to me.

I couldn't locate Jeff, but I did manage to track down Jerry and Dave, both of whom were still active in music-related fields, and told them I wanted to write about them again. They couldn't have been nicer, but I sensed a certain ambivalence on their part -- Something Fierce was a major part of a time in their lives that they've since moved on from -- and I also sensed that Jeff's accident had been a trauma for them in ways I (or anybody who wasn't in the band) couldn't really understand (for some reason, neither of them would tell me exactly what kind of shape Jeff is in these days). But in the end, although I explicitly offered not to write anything if they didn't want me to, they didn't say no. For which I'm grateful.

Okay -- I'm getting a little verklempt now, so that's the end of the story. All you really need to know is that these guys were a great little rock band who deserved to be household words, and that their albums hold up wonderfully. Order them here immediately and you won't regret it -- I promise. (BTW, the Satan Claus EP is an absolute pisser. Forget the title song, which just may be the coolest rock Christmas number of all time -- you haven't lived until you've heard "Poetic Justice Thurgood," a big Elton John-esque piano ballad in honor of the architect of Roe Vs Wade.)

And on a final and very heartfelt note, let me just say to Jeff, Dave, and Jerry -- hey, you did some damn fine work back in the day. Be very well and I hope this little tribute makes you smile, at the least.


[h/t John McPartlin]

27 comments:

Kid Charlemagne said...

Why have I never heard of this band? They sound right up my alley. Actually, your description reminds me of Sex Clark Five, who write historically-inspired lyrics.

steve simels said...

KC --

I can't thank you enough for the work on the graphics.

This post meant a lot to me, so the fact that it looks so good is a big deal.

Really -- thanks mucho!

Kid Charlemagne said...

Steve,

Can't take credit. Mary must have beat me to it! I logged in to do it and it was already a fait accompli! GREAT post BTW.

steve simels said...

KC --

My copy of Franklin Pierce is in storage, but I'm burning you Sound and Satan Claus.

You'll love 'em, trust me.

Kid Charlemagne said...

Thanks Steve! I'm still working on the Emmit R and Merry Go Round discs, the only thing that is holding me up is that I can't find the damn thing! I've got piles of CDs lying around.

Anonymous said...

steve,

I may or may not know some folks that ran with them back in the day (and I'm almost sure that I could've played in one of their may incarnations around town).

I'm waiting for a friend who went to St. Olaf College around that time (just down the road from Carleton) who's coming back into town (he lives in Jersey City right now). He may know something.

Either way, I'll let you know.

-Zap Rowsdower

steve simels said...

Zap --

Thanks. That's very cool that you may have known them, BTW.

Incidentally, I just heard from one of the other guys in the band who said he's actually getting back in touch with the Carpenters.

Brought a tear to my eye, actually.

half glass full said...

I was one of those thousand that purchased Franklin Pierce after reading the original review almost 20 years ago. It was a great pop album. After getting on their mailing list I bought a few other cd's and tapes by them.

Gone All Wobbly was a cassette from 1984. It had several classics including, "SWAT Team for God" and "Beach Bitch", with the cute couplet: "She's a beach bitch, a sand witch."

Completely Unglued, a cd originally released in 1986, was another pop gem from start to finish. Catchy hooks and clever lyrics, plus, how can you not love an album with a killer surf instrumental like "Delightful Pineapple Recipes?"

And finally, a live compilation from 1987 titled Something Fierce This Way Comes was released on cassette. It consisted of various live recordings from 1984 through 1986, including the most requested live song of all-time, "Free Bird". It's been awhile since I listened to the tapes. I need to get my deck hooked back up and give them a listen.

For some reason I never bought "Satan Claus," I don't remember why. I completely missed "A Sound For Sore Ears." I would get an occasional newsletter from them and eventually recieved the one that mentioned Jeff's accident. The mailings stopped shortly after that.

Thanks for the update on Something Fierce and the link. I look forward to hearing the last two discs.

Jim

steve simels said...

Jim --

I'm stunned.

And I'd kill to hear the live tape if you ever find it....

Dave said...

Jeff just called me to say he loved your review. BTW, the original address would still work!

shrimplate said...

I also have a copy of Franklin Pierce that I mail-ordered after reading the review. "Still Born Again" is kind of a personal anthem that I hear in my head whenever I run into anybody who is; well, that way.

Carolyn said...

Satan Claus, Franklin Pierce and Sound for Sore Ears can be purchased from Something Fierce, 2220 Springwood Road, Wayzata, MN. The prices are $12 for Franklin Pierce and Sore Ears, $6 for Satan Claus + $3 for shipping.

Carolyn said...

Oops - the zip code for orders (Wayzata, MN) is 55391.

ben said...

Thanks for this

My older sister was at Carleton from 88-92 and brought home a "Franklin Pierce" cassette she never got back once I discovered it. Something Fierce's smart, funny and well-crafted music is part of what encouraged me to go to Carleton several years later. I'm off to find "Sore Ears" and rip it to my powerbook - ashamed of myself for not having done it sooner.

Thank you again, Steve.

Craig C Clarke said...

I also was one of those who you introduced to Something Fierce. Mentioned it to you some months ago over at Eschaton (I think.)

It's great to find what you've written here. The band, their experience, and the way I found them through you means something to me that I can't really express here... some things about my own accident, continuing recovery, struggling with my disabilities, my own lost dreams, etc.

Your Stereo Review article came along when I was still hopeful about my own future as a composer... something I started at when I was 3 years old, my whole identity.

I just bought a new digital piano last month and am playing and composing again for the first time in close to 20 years. Whatever had gone silent in me is back it seems. No expectations this time other than to please myself and let this thing in me have an outlet again.

Anonymous said...

I was daydreaming of bygone days at Olaf ('89-'91) and went searching the web for Something Fierce....and found this blog. Woohoo!
I never bought any of their tunes but I knew a townie that had some and they rocked. I'm glad to see you can still track them down.

Steve said...

Oh, I would love to get my hands on a copy of something fierce this way comes and/or the other first two records....
('89-'92 Ole above...)

Anonymous said...

I'm from Minneapolis, and Something Fierce were my absolute favourite band back then--I think I saw more of their live shows than any other local band. It broke my heart when Jeff had his accident--life is cruel sometimes. Thank goodness the records exist.

C. Bryan said...

I'm one of the few, the proud, the South Carolina Something Fierce fans. I saw a review back then too -- I was just out of college and I guess it probably was Steve's. Now I appear to own the entire SF catalogue (except for Satan Clause). I am ripping Gone All Wobbly and This Way Comes to mp3 as I type! I am ripping all my music and tend to Google around on whatever I'm ripping at the moment so I found this blog. May it live forever as a memorial to the all too brief life of Something Fierce.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting about this. I was lucky enough to live about a block from the Carpenter's, and although I'm only 18 now, I vaguely remember his Mother bringing my family Something Fierce Records. As you can imagine, I've listened to them my entire life. One of the last things I did in Minnesota before I left about 7 years ago was go over to where Jeff was living and have Jeff sign our CD's. (My brother and I had just stained his parent's deck, and they encouraged us to go.) Obviously, it was a few years after the accident so I couldn't get a full understanding of what Jeff was really like, but being as beat up as he was he still spent his time putting a smile on our faces. But yes, it is extreemly difficult to listen to Vegetable Guy without feeling a little survivor's guilt. "I am not an animal, I'm a human being" Ouch.

Todd said...

I lived in Mpls from 89 to 91 and still listen to the first 2 cassettes. I might just have to order the CD's as my cassettes are starting to wear out.

Not only are the albums good, there shows were witty and fun. Saw them at least 5 times back in the day.

jerry and sara said...

Hey there folks, Jerry Lefkowitz here.
Jeff's class at Carleton is in the midst of planning their 25th year reunion for next June and have decided to include the band as a theme for the festivities. Not sure yet if a performance will be part of the deal, but Dave Russ, Eric Tretbar and I are on the ready if called upon. We'll keep you posted, just wish Jeff was more able to play bass and sing. His spirits are high though and is looking forward to reunion. One thing that we are considering (thanks to longtime Fierce co-conspirator Scot Covey), rather than re-issuing the old CDs, is putting together a 1 or 2 disc mp3 collection of ALL the released material with some bonus tracks too. Hopefully sound quality won't suffer too much.
Take care, more news to come,
Jerry

Anonymous said...

I first heard Something Fierce while going to school at the U of M. They were the semi-regular Tuesday band at one of the bars on the W bank, might have been The 500 Bar.

They were so much fun as a live band, even better than the recordings. The guys had a great way of connecting with the fans, I remember a hand written note on one of their postcards (pre-web days!)

It was so sad hearing about Jeff's accident just after his wedding. (I remember friends wondering if his getting married would affect how often the band played) Some time later there was a benefit concert called "I miss U Something Fierce". I still have the T shirt from that show. Jeff was in a wheelchair and smiling but I was so sad I could only wave. Still wish I had gone over to say hi...

I heard "Vegetable Guy" on a TV show and then found this blog. What a nice flashback...

All the best to the band and all their fans!

Watch an episode of John Doe on Hulu and you'll hear the song near the start: http://www.hulu.com/watch/10790/john-doe-manifest-destiny#x-0,vepisode,1

AdamJuntunen said...

Their shows were awesome - I used to look forward to the one-liners between the songs as much as the music. I still remember Jeff asking "what's that watery smell?" when a bandmate opened a can of mendota springs water. And there was something about a Del-Monte sponsorship for vegetable guy.

I also remember that at the 400 bar, they'd put a piece of plywood down on the pool table so more people could sit and watch. It was pretty cool that you could see the stoplight change through the window behind the stage. I also remember that sometimes they didn't charge a cover, but sent around an empty pitcher of beer for people to dump money in - which a lot of us actually did.

They also had a sister band that their drummer played in - I think it was called Holiday Ranch. They were pretty good too. I still need a few cd's to round out the collection, so I'm really glad you had this post.

Anonymous said...

^^ nice blog!! ^@^

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Anonymous said...

I was just thinking about Jeff again as Something Fierce streams across my iTunes player window. It's amazing how many people have been moved by his music.

I was a freshman at Carleton and he was my RA. I don't think anyone on the dorm floor ever missed an on-campus show. Jerry lived a few floors down.

I recall my younger sister's glee as "Where could you be, Rudy's sister??" was sung out of speakers during Amelia at a student hall performance.

Me, I'll be going home from work today and plopping down my albums (no, not tapes or cd's) on the turntable for a spin. I'll sit and have a beer and admire the arwork and autographs on the covers.

For those of you lusting after the complete collection, check here: http://www.redpets.com/somethingfierce/

jerry and sara said...

Okay folks... another Somewhat Fierce gig is scheduled for March 31st, 2012 at the Aster Cafe in St. Anthony Main Minneapolis.

Hope you can make it!

https://www.facebook.com/events/353102261396497/