Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Cavedogs: College Radio Denizens and Kings of the 99 Cent Bin

A little while back I went into a record store and was looking through the racks of used CDs before I unexpectedly crossed the threshold into the 99 cent bin. One second I was looking through discs of The Who, XTC, Yes, and Zappa, and the next I found myself sifting through a number of cutout albums by bands I had never heard of, CD singles by rightly forgotten 90’s artists, and budget compilation CDs (second rate imitations of packages like Now, That’s What I Call Music). I diligently combed through the discs, reasonably sure that I was not going to find anything of any real quality, until I came across an EP by The Cavedogs, entitled Six Tender Moments.

Their 1991 EP, complete with the cutout scar
The Cavedogs, a Boston-based power-pop (if you must label it) trio consisting of guitarist Todd Spahr, drummer Mark Rivers, and bassist Brian Stevens released the EP in 1991 on Capitol Records after the band had left their first label, Enigma. It was a much more rag-tag affair than their albums, comprised of alternate versions of songs from their first album, non-album cuts, and a couple of covers (including a cheeky version of “What’s New, Pussycat?”). Also, with two of the songs being in-studio performances (one from KCRW at Santa Monica College and another from WERS at Emerson College) this EP just has a made for college radio feeling to it.

It was a serendipitous find. I had recently rediscovered the Cavedogs when listening to my iPod on shuffle and the song “Right on the Nail” came on. I hardly remembered the song, from their first album Joyrides for Shut-Ins, and in that moment, I found myself hearing it again for the first time. The song was cryptic, full of attitude, and with a hypnotic melody colored by a sneering vocal delivery, all propelled by frenetic acoustic strumming and the most solid power-pop drumming since Pete Thomas of the Attractions. It compelled me to check out their albums again.

I had not given them a listen since they first came out when I was thirteen. I was not listening to much current music at that time (I don’t think I was listening to any music by any band that wasn’t named The Who). I only bought Joyrides because The Cavedogs were friends of my step-brother, and I had met Todd and Mark a couple of times when he was visiting home on weekends and would drag his friends along. He also had played me tapes of theirs, one with the handwritten title Seven Songs Destined to Change the World (I cannot find anything in their discography by that name, so was either an off the cuff title scribbled on the cassette or merely a product of my unreliable memory) and a tape replicating a radio broadcast with songs interspersed with comedic commercials (à la The Who Sell Out), one of which featured a peanut-chocolate candy bar called “Kick in the Nuts” and the unintended consequences that would occur when it was asked for. I dug their humor and they wrote good songs.

Joyrides for Shut-Ins didn’t find its way into constant rotation at that time, but it was cool knowing guys, even if really only in passing, who had a record out. Their blurb in the “New Faces” section of Rolling Stone in October of 1990 was the first time that anyone I knew personally appeared in those hallowed pages, and I just thought that was so cool. I also remember Spin Magazine giving favorable reviews to Joyrides and its follow-up, the somewhat harder edged Soul Martini. It seemed to everyone that this band’s intelligent and sardonic version of power-pop was going to be huge.

Sadly, it was not be. I can’t say why it never happened for them, and I don’t suppose it matters. I am not going to try to be Bob Lefsetz and lecture on the nearly impossible task of capturing lightning in a bottle (and then selling it), on whether it was a failure in marketing, or whether it was a matter of timing (it is tempting to blame the grunge movement which occurred at the same time for overshadowing many great bands on the east coast). It’s just sad. Not only for the band, but for other people who might have really liked what they were putting across, something that had the energy of the stuff that was coming from Seattle, but never overshadowed their melodic sense or penchant for harmony.

Listening back to their two albums and the EP, I couldn’t say that they didn’t show their age, but I was pleased to find that they had aged well. Their sound was definitely of the era, but it doesn’t sound as dated as many records from that time. I can think of many people my age who would listen to these albums, particularly tracks like “Right on the Nail,” “Tayter Country,” and “Proud Land” from Joyrides and “Here Comes Rosie,” “Boy in a Plastic Bubble,” and “Sonny Day” from Soul Martini, and feel like they were hearing their favorite songs from their teenage years for the first time. It makes me want to tell everyone to go out and buy these records.

A good place to start
Unfortunately, all of their CDs are out of print and, with the exception of one live track on a compilation of 90s Boston bands, none of their music is even available on iTunes. If you want to find their stuff you have to comb the 99 cent bins (I have found used copies of their albums on, all for 99 cents or less). It’s a depressing prospect. Since I started finding Cavedogs CDs in the bins (and all of their discs that I own were bought there, as even my copy of Joyrides is a replacement of my first copy which my brother stole), I now get curious whenever I find an album in there by a band that I don’t know. After all, many of these albums were recorded for major labels, some A&R guy believed in these acts, somebody put some money behind them. Many great bands never get signed and these bands did. How many masterpieces have been dumped in there? (I’m not trying to argue that being signed to a label indicates artistic merit, but it is something to think about.)

The only good thing about their relegation to the bin is that one can buy their whole catalog for a few bucks, and I think that people should. These guys are really worth (re)discovering. Their music was by turns propulsive and lyrical, intelligent and silly, basic and progressive. They had a brand of humor and cynicism that was distinct (and distinctly Bostonian, which may be one of the reasons I latched onto it), an acute pop sensibility, and a way with a hook. Maybe it would be helpful if they made it easier for potential fans by creating a compilation of the best cuts from their albums and EPs and releasing it as a digital download. They could call it The Kings of the 99 Cent Bin. They have a good sense of humor, they might find that cute. Probably not, though.