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
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]