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GREEN (Buy CDs by this artist)
EP EP7 (Gang Green) 1984
Green (Gang Green) 1986 (Hol. Megadisc) 1989
Elaine MacKenzie (Pravda) 1988 (Hol. Pravda/Megadisc) 1989
White Soul (Hol. Megadisc) 1989
White Soul & Bittersweet (Widely Distributed) 1991
Bittersweet EP (Bel. Megadisc/Play It Again Sam) 1991 EP 10 (Rokchik) 1991
The Pop Tarts (Futurist) 1992
The Flowers in the Grass (Bel. Megadisc) 1993
Pathétique EP (Widely Distributed) 1993
Green 5 (B Track) 1998
Eau de Vie (Jettison) 2001
The Planets (GangGreen) 2009
JEFF AND JANET
Jesus Built a Ship to Sing a Song To (KokoPop) 1994
LILACS
The Lilacs Love You! EP7 (Widely Distributed/Pravda) 1991
Rise Above the Filth (Widely Distributed) 1992

Drawing his initial inspiration from a bipolar quartet of influences — the Kinks, Small Faces, Prince and Motown — Chicago singer/guitarist Jeff Lescher has been the mainstay of the group Green since the mid-'80s. An ace pop songwriter with a knack for assessing the ups and downs of romance without malice, he possesses a phenomenal voice that can shift between stirring pop-rock singing, an ear-pinning shriek and a gospelly falsetto — but also an uncertain sense of artistic judgment that doesn't always present his talent in the best light.

On the debut EP (a four-song 7-inch), the trio overcomes rudimentary production values to skirt nostalgia and introduce Lescher's mix of '60s Anglo-melodicism ("Gotta Getta Record Out," "Better Way"), punky rock ("Not Going Down (Anymore)") and soul ("I Don't Wanna Say No"). Amateurish but inspired.

Re-makes of those songs join ten new ones on Green, an inadequately produced but brilliant collection of weirdly derivative originals played with spirit and power; Elaine MacKenzie improves the ambition and results on all fronts and sports a neat cover painting by Lescher. Occasionally pedestrian lyrics (as on "Big in Japan") don't interfere with the rugged pop tunes, a uniquely energetic pairing of Merseybeat and punk. "She's Not a Little Girl" seemingly takes its chorus straight out of the Hollies songbook; "Technology" employs a catchy Bolanesque bop; "For You" and "Curry Your Favor" are ballads that display a tender, sensitive side. "I Play the Records" introduces the group's Princely side, while "She, Probably" is achingly beautiful. Most unpromising title for an exquisite song: "Don't Ever Fall in Love With Someone When You're Already in Love With Someone Else." (The European CD adds both sides of a 1988 single entitled REM in response to R.E.M.'s Green album.)

Hooking up with a Dutch label (which happily reissued the band's catalogue on CD) and fielding a new drummer, Green released another great collection of memorable romantic pop songs. White Soul (which, ironically, downplays the group's R&B side) benefits from two significant steps forward: improved production quality and the consistency and maturity of Lescher's songwriting. (No more punny nonsense or obviously derivative tributes.) Subtle emotions and striking melodies fill simply executed gems like "She's Heaven," "Night After Night," "Monique, Monique" and "I Know." Kurson's boppy "My Sister Jane" is a delightful pop-punk vestige of his hardcore background, but it was his swan song with the band. (Although not with the notion of Green-ness: he grew up to become a successful financial journalist who named his newsletter, magazine, website and Esquire column Green.)

The band's first release with ex-Slammin' Watusis bassist Clay Tomasek in the lineup, the Bittersweet EP consolidates all of Lescher's stylistic impulses into five fine new songs. The '60s-soul title track gambles with lush strings and horns but laces it all up with a spectacular vocal; "I'll Have Her" is alluring pop; the brutish hard-rock guitars and punky backing cheers of "Maybe You're Right" are topped off with an inveigling Kinksy melody and Gary Numan synth for a really strange effect. Lescher unloads his professional frustrations in "The Record Company Song," a wry torrent of regret ("I'll do anything you ask/My will is broke and I'm tired and sad") set to a catchy rock tune. (The belated American release of White Soul includes Bittersweet.)

At that point, the indie-label stalwarts — Lescher, Tomasek and drummer Mark Mosher (all of them inexplicably dressed in drag on the cover) — moved onto a bigger small record company and made The Pop Tarts with Chicago studio hound Iain Burgess, a keyboard-playing guest and a horn duo. The uneven effort fares well on several fronts: the simple soul of "Broken Promises" handsomely introduces the Zombies and Style Council to Antonio Carlos Jobim, "Hear What You Want to Hear" expands a snippet of Elvis Costello melody into fully formed brisk British Invasion pop and "Marga-Marguerite" deftly appropriates the high-toned sweetness of Curtis Mayfield. But other than Tomasek's goofy "Make Believe," the harder-rocking songs aren't so appealing, and Lescher sings "Long Distance Telephone," "Hot Lava Love" and "B.I.T.C.H." in a horrible shrill falsetto, making those songs unlistenable interruptions in what would otherwise be a pretty good record.

After The Pop Tarts failed to deliver the band onto the alternative freeway career path, Green returned to Widely Distributed and made the dispirited but winning Pathétique EP, a diverse triad of new songs, including the surprise country swing of "If You Love Me (Part II)." Lescher then pursued that stylistic interest on a wonderfully touching Gram Parsons tribute album made with Janet Beveridge Bean (Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater). A dozen selections written or just recorded by Parsons, Jesus Built a Ship to Sing a Song To benefits enormously from the modesty of the just-right arrangements, which are reverent and original, as much as the careful passion of the singing. Lescher and Bean alternate verses on "Brand New Heartache," join on the choruses of "Return of the Grievous Angel" and meld their oddly harmonious voices for the entirety of "Sin City," "You're Still on My Mind" and "Hearts on Fire." Lescher makes the most of his somber solo readings of "Love Hurts" and a bluesy all-piano "Hot Burrito #1," while Bean solos on a fast-paced "Luxury Liner" and a warbly, slow "She," letting the flaws in her delivery intensify the conviction in her voice.

The Flowers in the Grass is a solid career compilation that recapitulates the band's first decade without adding anything new to it — a commendable place for novices to meet the band.

Green's first new album in six years, 5, is an underproduced but encouraging collection improved by Tomasek's emergence as the band's second strong songwriter; the chorus of his "Thinking" — a blunt '70s rock funk breakup throwback — is especially impressive. The rejuvenated quartet (with Mosher's brother Jason on guitar) balances Beatlesque tunefulness (as on the gorgeous "Lying in the Grass" and the acoustic "Jimmie") with ambitious arrangements (between the organ and wailing backup vocals, "Mother" nearly reimagines "Hey Jude" as gospel) and blasts of garage power, occasionally veering off the edge into uninspired sludge. As ever, idiosyncrasies — as well as wailing guitar solos — abound. Green deftly dashes off a disguised cover of the Bee Gees' "Holiday" (as "Photograph") and titles a crazed arena-leaning Bolanesque boogie "Seize the Means of Production." (The sound of "Heavy Metal Dreams" is, disappointingly, cat-screechingly literal.) On "Tuesday," Lescher sings the jacked-up romance rock with a frenzied edge that threatens to upend the lyrics.

Three years later, Green (the trio) spent a week in France, recording Eau de Vie with Burgess, who sharpens and clarified the sound as never before. Lescher reins in his unmelodic impulses and lets his restrained and tuneful flag fly to heartening effect, mostly rooting around in the popcraft of early-'60s England (so much for any overpowering Gallic influence) for such originals as "I'll Be Waiting" and "Pardon Me," which get the album off to a sweet start. Like an echo of the Gram Parsons album, Lescher sings the shit out of a stirring and gorgeous minor-key original, "Memories." Even the two punky singalongs are mixed within safe sonic borders and owe more to the Move than Motörhead. Tomasek wrote (and sings) four of the eleven songs; despite his unexceptional voice, the country-rocking "Inside Out" and the country soul lament "The Fool Who Fell in Love With You" are catchy charmers. (Worryingly, Lescher scarcely contributes to Tomasek's tracks; Clay plays all the guitar, and a spot of piano, on them.)

The Lilacs, a quartet in which ex-Green bassist Ken Kurson played guitar and sang, debuted in '91 with a four-song 7-inch of his witty post-adolescent rock and pop originals, produced by Jim Ellison of Material Issue. Displaying the careless zeal of a high schooler on graduation day, the band suffers from a puppy-like incapability to keep its enthusiasm in check, which occasionally leads things astray on the album, ineffectually produced by Brad Wood. Still, the spunky and unpretentious Rise Above the Filth contains attractive examples of Kurson's sprightly '70s-styled youth-pop that compares favorably to Green's early work. Highlights: the catchy automotive anthem "Hop in the Stanza," "Jennifer," "Roller Derby Queen" and a country-pop oddity, "Choking/DiamondDisgrace."

[Ira Robbins]
   See also Slammin' Watusis, Blow Pops, Eleventh Dream Day, Freakwater