This is a review about the new-ish album just reissued on Ominvore Records, from a group you probably haven’t heard of before called TV Eyes, fronted by two guys from Jellyfish and the former drummer from Redd Kross and Air.
However, before I get to talking about their fine eponymous album, TV Eyes, a little lesson may be helpful in putting this album in historical perspective. You see, there is something of a grand tradition in the deep recesses of the entertainment business for artists to step outside of themselves and take on a new persona. Certainly among comic actors from Charlie Chaplin to Jim Carrey, assuming new roles is de riguer. Live Theater and Opera stars transform themselves nightly into other beings, from other times and places.
So it shouldn’t be surprising to any of you to learn that in the music world there are similar parallels.
One of the first recordings like this — which I learned about from an older business associate many years ago — was made by two artists from well before my time in the 1950s who created a quite fun serio-comic sensation (in some circles at least) on LP that was far from their pristine Big Band / Pop roots. That album, called The Piano Artistry of Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, was an hysterical (ahem) tour de force (if you will) that was made for those in-the-know who could understand what they were doing. The novice only heard incredibly BAD music being played — really, it was so bad that it was funny. And that was the point. Yet if you stopped to listen to it you heard two artists of such a high caliber who were in such control of their game that they were able to intentionally play off-key, almost drunkenly and singing intentionally out of tune. It’s really quite remarkable. This was made in the days before digital processing software like Auto-Tune (which would’ve probably made something like this easy to fake in a studio). So, in real time, these two — who were singer Jo Stafford and her husband, bandleader Paul Weston — used to play like this for their celebrity friends at parties in Hollywood and it became so popular that it led to a recording contract with Columbia Records.
But that is comedy… And as fun as it its, TV Eyes isn’t comedy, but it is a lesson in song craft and studio production detailing. More on that in a bit…
Let’s consider for a moment the “what ifs” of the potential for artist to get outside their normal persona and become someone else if only for a little while. Some very famous people have attempted this sort of thing over the years, with mixed results, often brilliant.
Paul McCartney issued an album of easy listening music based on his 1971 rock album RAM under the guise of an imaginary conductor ala Lawrence Welk named Percy “Thrills” Thrillington (A pop rarity that has thankfully been reissued in the digital age). Heck, the genesis of the landmark recording Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (by McCartney’s original band, The Beatles, for those of you unfamiliar with it) was conceptualized as a way for the group to get out from under their “Fab Four” image that was strangling them; as Sgt. Pepper, they could (and did!) play most any sort of music so it can be argued that this precedent was set boldly in 1967.
Ex-Bonzo Dog Do Dah Band musician Neil Innes helped steer some of his cohorts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus through the brilliant Beatles parody group called The Rutles. Despite its comic roots, the recordings put out by The Rutles — initially released as a soundtrack album on Warner Bros. records, a companion to the film All You Need is Cash — were done at such a high caliber that even hard-core Beatle fans grew to love them.
Just last year I heard a DJ here in San Francisco spinning Rutles tunes before a set by The Flamin’ Groovies!
In the early 1980s British “new wave” pop heroes XTC put out a six-song EP under the guise of The Dukes of Stratosphear. This psychedelic mini masterpiece was released with a video and clever promotional support and no mention of it being XTC! An imaginary group, their music aped the sounds of the mid and late 1960s so convincingly that it became a hit in its own right. But it did so on the power of the music — it was pretty much hardcore fans who knew it was XTC but there was no mention of them on the cover. They even assumed pseudonymous names — such as Sir John Johns for main singer and songwriter Andy Partridge. No, The Dukes’ EP — called 25 O’Clock — was so good that they put out a second full-length LP which further mined the depths of 60s pop, psychedelia and bubblegum, showing their influences ranging from the Hollies to The Byrds and even The Royal Guardsmen. It was fun to play “spot the influence,” of course, but quite honestly, the tunes on those records are so good that the albums have stood the test of time and fans play them to this day in their own right. There have even been deluxe edition box set reissues of those recordings (The Complete and Utter Dukes) which came out in 2009 complete with 180-gram vinyl, remastered CDs and special exclusive fun stuff (T-shirts! puzzles! 45s!).
]]>Even in the 1990s there have been “tributes” which resulted in some stunning homages. One in particular stands out for this writer, from the film Velvet Goldmine, a song by Grant Lee Buffalo called “The Whole Shebang,” which sounds like it could’ve been on David Bowie’s Hunky Dory album in 1971. I find it quite spectacular, actually, totally capturing Bowie’s essence at that period.
All this history is an admittedly somewhat long-winded (but I think necessary) way of bringing you, Dear Readers, up to the present day, when we now have an almost brand-new album called TV Eyes that continues in this vein, but this time diving into the music of the early 1980s as its point of reference.
TV Eyes is the brainchild of former members of Jellyfish – a group from the 1990s who were arguably something of a real-world American answer to XTC’s Dukes, combining 60s British Invasion pop glory with 70s glam rock splendor in quite stunning fashion. Like The Dukes, TV Eyes started out as a lighthearted project where the artists — Jason Falkner and Roger Manning plus Brian Reitzell from Redd Kross and Air — could get out of their own skins for a bit and have fun exploring other sounds and ideas.
Once they got into it, they found themselves carefully crafting a batch of tunes that could have easily been played on the radio in the early 1980s alongside hits from the likes of Duran Duran, Gary Numan, ABC, Spandau Ballet, and others. This music comes replete with all the necessary and appropriate production touches, from the bubbling synthesizer arpeggios to the smacking gated snare drum sound to slapped bass lines plus passionate, nearly over-sung back-of-the-throat vocals.
Now, this has been a curious album for me to review and in some ways I had to step out of my skin as a music fan to do this justice; in order to look at it objectively I put on one of my other hats as a producer and songwriter. You see, while I am a fan of Jellyfish and also Jason Falkner’s side projects like The Grays, I admit that I was not a particularly a big fan of some of that “hit” music from the early 80s that this release references. That said, I also recognize much of that music was very much a part of the soundtrack of my life while I was in college — like “Stairway to Heaven” in the 70s, you could not escape hearing those songs everywhere you went.
With that in mind, I consider TV Eyes a total success because the songs sound just right and are real good. I’ll go so far as to say that they are so good that if you put them on a mix tape — ‘member them? playlists didn’t exist in the ’80s 😉 — alongside tunes from the times, they’d blend in perfectly.
You can play your own game of spot the influence while listening to TV Eyes. I hear certain touchstones but other details might resonate with you. That is cool. The bottom line is there are some good tunes in here.
I’m really fond of tracks like “She’s A Study” and “The Party’s Over,” a groovy little new wavy rocker (which, honestly, Jellyfish could have pulled off with some different production touches). “Mission: Submission” feels like a sort of Gary Numan homage, while “Love To Need” and “Over The City” sort of echo Duran Duran. It’s kinda funny when you hear a track like “What She Said” and you hear that drum sound that was on so so so many hits of the early ’80s, you almost don’t hear their song … you get lost in the sound. Along the way here I am hearing touches of Depeche Mode, New Order, Yazoo and The Human League. I could go on and I’m sure you could too name checking any number of 80s bands that ruled the airwaves at that time.
And there in lies the fun rub behind this music: you see, this recording by and of TV Eyes was made in the early 2000’s and was released only in Japan in 2006!
TV Eyes has a fun background story which you can read about in the nice little booklet that comes in the CD package, explaining how the project evolved. I encourage you to buy this recording if you do like the music of Jason Falkner in particular and also if you like the sounds of the early 80s. Like The Rutles and The Dukes of Stratosphear, it is really handy to be able to put on a disc like this which sounds like stuff you’ve heard before but which isn’t. Music that doesn’t feel particularly retro, even though it sort of is, but yet which sounds just right.
You get to enjoy the familiar sounds you loved from the period while also experiencing something new. Ultimately, isn’t that a good thing? If it’s done well, absolutely!
And this album from TV Eyes is done very well, with high production values and a clear respect for the original sounds to which it pays tribute.
There are some fine pop songs here and that ultimately is all that matters. So if you like good pop music with catchy hooks galore, and enjoy that sort of 80s vibe, you should check out TV Eyes.
Who knows, maybe if enough people buy this album perhaps the band will even get together again to play some live shows.
Now that’d be kinda rad and, like, totally bitchin’ …
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound & Vision Magazine, HomeTechTell.com and many others. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.