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It's not your average pop band that writes heartfelt paeans to Karen Carpenter, chronicles the traumas of "Teen-age Dogs in Trouble," or sings the joys of "Beer Money." But on the Young Fresh Fellows' first few albums, the Seattle trash-meisters proved themselves to be anything but average. Maybe early YFF efforts didn't offer much in the way of musical expertise, but they did serve as handy compendiums of junk culture.
On "TV Dream," from 1987's The Men Who Loved Music LP, the Fellowship paid tribute to television immortals like Johnny Quest, Barney Fife, and the Solid Gold Dancers. The record also included the hilarious college-radio hit "Amy Grant," a torrid expose of the Christian sex kitten: "Alone in bed late at night/She fantasizes about Barry White."
But after a while the Freshmen outgrew their roles as campy cutups. Lead singer Scott McCaughey wasn't interested in writing sophomoric epics like "Rock 'n' Roll Pest Control" anymore. The Fellows eventually decided it was time to change their perennial wiseacre image before they degenerated into becoming the Buddy Hacketts of the alternative-music scene.
In 1988, the band released an introspective and virtually yuk-free album. The LP was titled Totally Lost, and most everyone agreed that the Fellows sounded just that. Even McCaughey now admits that the self- consciously serious album was a mistake.
"We definitely tried a little too hard on Totally Lost," acknowledges the singer in a recent telephone interview from the band's Seattle headquarters. "I remember at the time we were trying to make a record that would shut everyone up and get them to stop calling us wacky and zany.
"Then I think we realized that trying to do something to live up to or confound people's expectations was a really bad idea. It really wasn't what the Fellows were all about. The whole spirit had always been to do pretty much whatever the hell we wanted."
On the basis of its leadoff tracks, it'd be tempting to call the band's latest album, This One's for the Ladies, a zany return to form. The title cut, a hysterical heavy-metal send-up, sounds like it could be the lost track to Spinal Tap's Smell the Glove. Just as funny is the boss surf romp that opens side B, "Taco Wagon." This Watusi-friendly number would fit snugly onto any old Beach Boys album if it weren't for the lyrics, which just repeat the title a dozen or so times. Regrettably, these two tracks are the record's only throwbacks to the whacked-out Fellows of yore.
Despite the generally straight-faced mood, McCaughey claims the band isn't trying to live down its goofy past on the new record as it was on Totally Lost. "The fact that only a few songs on This One's for the Ladies are funny is something that we really didn't think that much about at the time," insists the vocalist. "Although maybe when we sequenced it, we realized it and put the funny ones at the beginning of each side so people would be tricked into thinking it was a funny record."
Unlike Totally Lost, the band's new LP isn't unlistenable, just a little bland coming from such a wildly inventive bunch. Many tracks, like "When I'm Lonely Again" and "Don't You Wonder How It Ends?," have the Fellows waxing confessional, but the band can't pull off sensitive self-reflection the way it could snotty one-liners.
Listeners can whine all they want about the record's lack of comic relief, says McCaughey, but the introspective stuff is here to stay. "I just get more satisfaction out of the serious songs--not necessarily serious--but the ones that are more meaningful to me," explains the singer. "Some songs I can whip off really fast and know that they're going to be funny, maybe a little topical and really fun for the Fellows to play. But I still don't get emotionally involved in them."
McCaughey cites "Amy Grant" and "Beer Money" as the kind of dopey, disposable material that just doesn't interest him much anymore. Like his pal Paul Westerberg of the Replacements, the singer seems hell-bent on charting a more mature--as well as more commercial--course. "I don't think either of us would mind having a hit record," admits McCaughey. "But I think Paul's a little more concerned with it than we are."
Top 40 fantasies aren't the only things the Fellows and the 'mats have in common. The two bands also share a raucous live style, which can be beery and hard-driving or just plain sloppy, depending on the evening. "The way they approach playing live is similar to the way we do," agrees the singer, "which is pretty much an every-night's-completely-different, play-whatever- songs-you-want-to-even-when-you-don't-know-how-to-play-them kind of thing."
Fans who pine for the zany schtick of the Fellows' early days will be happy to know that--straight-faced records aside--the band's live shows are still as off-the-wall as ever. This means that concertgoers shouldn't be surprised if the band suddenly cuts loose with a loving rendition of Bobby Goldsboro's "Watching Scotty Grow" or The Love Boat theme.
"We still tend to be really stupid live," notes McCaughey proudly, "so people won't be disappointed. I don't know whether we'll be funny or not, but you can at least count on us to be stupid."