By ED MASLEY - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There's always been a playful "Let the Bad Times Roll" philosophy guiding the records once-and-future Young Fresh Fellow Scott McCaughey has written for The Minus 5, a pop collective he started as a side project with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck in 1993.
But there may be a darker-than-usual vision at work on the Minus 5's new album. And it goes beyond the handgun on the cover or the gunplay in the lyrics. The opening track of the self-titled effort, a devastating breakup ballad titled "Rifle Called Goodbye," sets the stage for a brutally honest account of relationships going to hell, from the furious blues-punk attack of a track whose title can't be printed here to "My Life as a Creep," in which he wraps the album's sweetest melody around the lyric "I just hope one day you understand I'm not supremely evil and I can be better than I am."
It's "probably" darker, McCaughey will admit, than his earlier records. "But it's probably based a little bit more on reality."
As for the gunplay, the singer, who's taken to calling his masterpiece of odd, unsettling chamber-rock "The Gun Album," says it's just the way the words came spilling out.
"Towards the end, when I started to notice, I probably changed a few lyrics just to bring it in a little more," he says. "Like, I rewrote the lyrics to 'Hotel Senator' from the version on (an earlier) EP, and I thought 'Well, God, if I'm rewriting the lyrics, I might as well slip in another gun reference.' I'm really into conceptual albums. But it wasn't conscious at first. I'd seen this picture of this woman holding a gun, and it inspired 'With a Gun.' And 'Rifle Called Goodbye' just came into my head."
It has a lot to do, he figures, with the way he looks at guns.
"I associate guns with bad things," he explains. "I hate guns more than anybody. I don't think that people really have a right to bear arms. I think people are way too stupid to have that right. And they've proven it time and again. At the same time, in the Fellows, we'd always make jokes about guns. They'd make us laugh for some reason. And I'm not above putting private jokes in songs. In fact, I do it all the time, probably to my great detriment as a songwriter."
That habit of shooting himself in the foot, as this album would put it, with private jokes and other offbeat touches dates back to the Fellows' 1984 debut, "The Fabulous Sounds of the Pacific Northwest," an outrageous collection of spirited pop songs hailed as "perfect" in the Trouser Press guide. With no hits to speak of, the Fellows went on to amass a modest if rabid cult following based on one of rock 'n' roll's most entertaining live shows and eccentric little albums whose highlights increasingly ranged from introspective gems as inspired as "New Old Song" and "Thirsty" to moments as loopy as "Why I Oughtta," "Amy Grant" and "Taco Wagon."
At a typical Fellows performance in Portland, Ore., lead guitarist Kurt Bloch handed off his instrument mid-song to a starry-eyed kid in the front row named Colin Meloy, who's all grown up now, fronting indie darlings the Decemberists and agreeing to sing on a Minus 5 album, providing the haunting lead vocal to the bittersweet piano-driven "Cemetery Row."
Other fans of his work through the years have included Jeff Tweedy and various members of Wilco, who went on to give McCaughey his biggest-selling album ever when they backed him on 2003's ridiculously titled "Down With Wilco." And, of course, there's Peter Buck, a founding member of the Minus 5 who also brought McCaughey into the R.E.M. fold as a sideman, a lucrative side gig he's held now for more than a decade.
There's a core band these days (Buck, McCaughey, John Ramberg and Bill Rieflin), but this latest album features guest appearances by Tweedy and the Wilco boys (who leave their fingerprints all over "Hotel Senator"), Meloy, John Wesley Harding, Kelly Hogan, the Posies' Ken Stringfellow and Mott the Hoople's Morgan Fisher.
McCaughey's not suggesting you call it an indie supergroup, but people have been known to do that. And the label banking on this album, Yep Roc, clearly doesn't mind.
"I think they feel that that's the selling point," McCaughey admits. "But I'm not really sure that does sell records, the fact that people from R.E.M. and Wilco and, you know, the Decemberists or whatever, are on it. It probably gets a little interest, but I don't think most people really delve into it that deeply and try to buy everything that everybody from their favorite group has something to do with."
While Buck suggested making this one sound as stark as "Plastic Ono Band," even the eerily Lennonesque "Rifle Called Goodbye" is more textured than that. McCaughey can't help himself, although he swears he did his damnedest to resist his "usual temptation of ladling on vast amounts of sleighbells and acoustic guitars and 90 backing vocals."
He can't add those kind of extra features live, though, not with what they're taking out on tour.
There's no piano even.
As McCaughey says, "We're playing everything with loud guitars. It'll be pretty raucous and fun. We'll do some covers, no doubt. There'll be liquor consumed. There'll be quiet, touching moments, moments of pathos and moments of hilarity, one would hope."(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com.)