A Long Overdue Appreciation of a Great Defunct Powerpop Band

by delarue

In a career that spanned the better part of three decades, Skooshny played a grand total of one live gig. It was an Arthur Lee benefit.

That pretty much sums up what this band was all about. But a lack of gigs didn’t stop them from making great albums. Frontman/guitarist Mark Breyer, guitarist/bassist Bruce Wagner and drummer David Winogrond started right around the time punk was getting off the ground, finally packing it in sometime in the late zeros. Undeterred, Breyer continues as Son of Skooshny, releasing both new material and somewhat more lush versions of old Skooshny favorites. For a taste of where this cleverly lyrical, purist tunesmith is these days, check his Bandcamp page.

Although their substantial catalog is still in print, probably the best introduction to the band is their lavish 2004 best-of collection streaming at Spotify, coyly titled Zoloto, Russian for “gold” (the band name means “boring”). As you might expect, they have a cult following in Russia, and for many years were popular with the Bucketfull of Brains crowd. The songs span the band’s career, beginning in 1978, although the tracks don’t follow any kind of chronological sequence.

As a singer, Breyer pushes his airy voice to the limit without breaking: craft is one of this band’s defining qualities. Wagner is the rare guitarist who knows that less is more, and Winogrond’s stadium-riser drums are integral to the group’s often majestic sound. Lyrically, Breyer writes in the same vein as Elvis Costello or Steve Kilbey: he can’t resist a double entendre or a wry pun. And like those two, he’s a psychopathologist, dissecting relationships with a finely honed scalpel.

Alcohol is a frequent prop in Breyer’s bitter tableaux, right from the first few lines of the wickedly catchy Even My Eyes, which borrows an old Alice Cooper riff and reinvents it as vintage Cheap Trick-style powerpop. Flawed depicts a romance that was doomed from the start, over a tune that would be perfectly at home in the Marty Willson-Piper catalog.

Beautiful Bruise has a tasty blend of twelve-string and electric guitars, a ponderous waltz beat and a painterly (pun intended) Breyer lyric. The band bring in wistful Britfolk ambience with Sad Summer Spring and follow that with the even more gorgeously melancholy Holy Land, a vividly metaphorical passenger’s tale. Private Jokes nicks a classic Elvis Costello riff and beefs it up: it’s the hardest-rocking track here other than Masking the Moon, which finally goes over the edge into raw rage.

Science Changes Everyone has one of Breyer’s more clever lyrics…and a trick ending that totally blindsides you. The Water Song is the saddest number in the collection: it’s something of a more low-key update on the Stones’ Paint It Black. I See You Now maintains a jangly, Churchlike melancholy edge, while Ceiling to the Lies is the closest thing to 70s radio rock here.

Wagner takes over vocals on No Life Story, which could be a Stiv Bators ballad, and the epically aching, intense, Kevin Ayers-ish  Lullabye. And Michael Penn makes a guest appearance, playing jaunty chamberlain – which sounds like the flute setting on a mellotron, appropriately enough – as well as bass on the low-key Dessert for Two, which he also produced. It makes a good segue with Mike Thompson’s organ intro on the otherwise much more roughhewn It Hides More Than It Tells, the first of the 1978 tracks.

I Never Change My Mind sounds like the Church circa 1984 covering a catchy psych-pop hit from 1967 or so, while You Paint My World evokes that band’s jangly originals from the 80s, particularly when Wagner’s solo kicks in. And the guitarist also wails on the snarling post-Byrds anthem Crossing Double Lines. The last of the 25 tracks here is Clicking My Fingers: “Sterno in a paper cup, drink up, we’re having a party,” Breyer sardonically orders over a backdrop that’s part Byrds, part Magical Mystery Tour. Including an unexpectedly elegant cover of Davie Allan & the Arrows’ psychedelic pop classic Angel with a Devil’s Heart makes sense especially considering Wagner and Winogrond’s longtime membership in Allan’s band. What’s most striking about these songs is how consistent they are: clearly, the three had a vision and stuck with it throughout a career that deserves more than cult status.