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Music Retrospective Review | Let’s Active’s ‘Cypress’

Musicians say clearance bins are where records go to die, but I disagree. There are some records in clearance bins that have never really lived – at least not in the headspace of the record-buying public.

Eleven years ago, I happened upon an antiquated analog album – a cassette, of all dead media formats – at the dawn of the Age of the Digital Download. It was in a clearance bin along with a warped copy of The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream that sounded like it had been submerged in dishwater. I was at Vintage Vinyl in the U. City Loop in St. Louis, MO, and I walked away with about ten albums that day: The aforementioned Pumpkins album, the Housemartins’ The People Who Grinned Themselves to Death, and Depeche Mode’s superb Some Great Reward, among others. But the prize catch was a beat-up copy of Let’s Active’s 1984 album Cypress. I had heard of Let’s Active before, but I knew very little about them. It cost only a solitary dollar, and as an entry level public relations grunt, it was probably one of the only dollars I had.

I had no idea I was buying what would soon become one of my favorite records, and something of a lost album in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll history. Sure, Cypress was reissued in 2003 through Collector’s Choice by EMI, but it’s already out of print again. On Amazon.com, Collector’s Choice offers the following statement about the record: “One of the biggest gaps in ‘80s rock – nay, THE biggest gap – would have to be the absence on CD of R. E. M. producer and southern underground rock icon Mitch Easter’s band Let’s Active.” Now that Cypress is out of print again, but still available in limited quantities for reasonable prices on the Web, its absence is like a gap in the grin of a 6-year-old whose front teeth are missing. Four songs from Cypress are inexplicably available as isolated musical islands on iTunes and eMusic, but the rest of the record is mournfully M. I. A.

Cypress is a wonderfully weird collection of jangle-pop songs written and performed by a trio that had its own musical vocabulary, its own melodic language, and a seemingly built-in ability to disappear from pop culture’s collective memory for no good reason. Cypress’s unique sonic signature is the result of Mitch Easter’s nuanced guitar noodling and his untrained tenor yelp as well, Faye Hunter’s spindly, propulsive bass playing, and Sara Romweber’s capable skills behind the drum kit. The ladies supply stunning background vocals as well – their throats cut through the mix like sunshine through leaves on a cypress tree. Then there is the occasional flourish of New Wave synthesizers that season, rather than saturate, the mix.

Of all the ‘80s records I own – and I own a few, people – Cypress sounds the least like an ‘80s record. It is not encumbered by an overabundance of meat-headed, athletic guitar solos or dated, overbearing synthesizers. Unlike so many musical Jacob Marleys of the era, Cypress tows no aesthetic burdens behind it – no ponderous production chains pinion it to that plastic decade. Frontman Easter and co-producer Don Dixon – who produced R. E. M.’s debut LP Murmur and its follow-up, Reckoning, together – foreground every sweet musical morsel here, making every song savory and decadent. Not only is Cypress one of my favorite records – it is one of my favorite recordings as well. With headphones on, I can hear the band burrowing deep into my brain, with bass lines and guitar leads crawling over one another like ants do in their subterranean tunnels.

The songwriting is as idiosyncratic as any set of fingerprints. In this sense, it reminds me of Love’s Forever Changes. It is not nearly as epic in scope as Arthur Lee’s masterwork, but the melodic curveballs Let’s Active lobs on this album are easily as elegant and unusual as any of the musical voodoo Arthur Lee conjured up in 1967. Then there is the tonal tightrope act that finds the band balancing melancholy and whimsicality with ease. The members of Let’s Active are like cartoons casting shadows, offering the listener something undeniably playful, but also peculiar at the same time. If these descriptions seem vague – more like impressions than detailed descriptions – know that vagueness is among Cypress’s chief virtues. It is vagueness, in fact, that gives the record a certain timelessness that it will probably retain indefinitely.  

Finding this on cassette for a dollar was a bit like dropping quarters into a trinket machine at Walmart and opening the plastic bubble container it dispenses, only to find a Rolex inside instead of a cheapo plastic watch. I have since purchased the album on vinyl as well, along with band’s 1983 debut EP, Afoot, which is also superb. The Collector’s Choice reissue of Cypress features Afoot as well, along with two session B-sides from the era.

I knew this record would stay with me the instant I listened to it, but the reasons for its extended residence in my ears have only multiplied over the years. The lyrics, like the music, are picturesque and leave impressions more often than they express anything concrete. Thanks to the Internet, there are seemingly infinite Web sites dedicated to hosting song lyrics, thereby demystifying so many otherwise obtuse songs. The fact that Let’s Active’s lyrics – or at least the ones from Cypress – are obscure enough they cannot be found online only makes the album more of a cultural curiosity in my book.

While most of the songs are standouts, songs like “Prey,” “Waters Part,” “Lowdown,” “Flags for Everything,” and “Ring True,” are my personal favorites. For strange serendipity, however, “Crows on a Phone Line” is worth mentioning. Melodically, it recalls “Soma” from The Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream – or really, “Soma” recalls “Crows on a Phone Line,” chronology considered. Remember, I bought both records on the same day, and in cassette form. I only opted for this archaic medium because I had a cassette player in my 1993 Dodge Spirit. 

Maybe clearance bins are where records go to be born again – to experience something of a resurrection. Maybe – just maybe – there is even an Easter for dead media.

Need more? Read Chad’s interview with Let’s Active frontman…


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.primeparentsclub.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/author2.jpg

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[author_info]About the Author

Chad Thomas Johnston writes music reviews on Prime Parents’ Club under his column, Somewhere Over the Audio Rainbow. He is an aspiring author, sonuva’ preacha’ man, PhD-dropout, singer/songwriter, daydreaming doodler, cinemaddict, & pop-culture obsessive.Visit Chad at his subterranean, subcutaneous Interweb lair: http://chadthomasjohnston.com/, or on Twitter as @Saint_Upid.[/author_info]

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Chad Thomas Johnston is an aspiring author, sonuva’ preacha’ man, PhD-dropout, singer/songwriter, daydreaming doodler, cinemaddict, & pop-culture obsessive. He is represented by Seattle, WA-based literary agent Jenée Arthur, who is currently shopping his manuscript, The Stained Glass Kaleidoscope: Essays at Play in the Churchyard of the Mind, to major publishing houses. Chad is happily married to Rebekah Christine, and lives in Lawrence, KS with his wife and five cats. Chad and Rebekah look forward to welcoming Baby Evie into the fracas of their frantic fold in October 2011. Visit Chad at his subterranean, subcutaneous Interweb lair: http://chadthomasjohnston.com/

5 Comments

  1. Chad Thomas Johnston

    September 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Hey thanks a million! :) Glad you enjoyed it. I just forwarded the review and the interview to the band’s frontman, Mitch Easter, a few minutes ago. So he will probably be reading this very post on your happenin’ site. :)

    The album is DEFINITELY worth buying. It’s funny. I was playing it for my wife the other day, as she was skeptical. By the end, she said, “I actually like this! I can’t believe it!” Ha! :)

    Everyone’s a critic until I tell ’em to ‘shaddup and sniff the musical flowers. ;)

    Thanks again for the very kind words.

  2. Jacqueline Wilson

    September 13, 2011 at 7:56 am

    This review was like music itself. I *LOVED* the opening paragraph.

    Anyway, seeking out the music for this, DEFINITELY.

    (PS…I’m always in awe of your amazing writing talent. It’s such a joy to read you.)

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