Bulbous Monocle presents a 12″ 45rpm of arguably the purest distillation of this band’s discography. Newly re-mastered for this edition.
Formed in San Francisco in 1986, Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 had the bad luck to display a range of cultural and musical reference points, and an openness to organized and disorganized sounds, shared by relatively few members of that era’s archconservative “underground culture.”
Listeners who hoped to fit them into an indie-rock straitjacket were dismayed that they kept getting loose, as was anyone else who expected them to conform to the prevailing mood of genre essentialism. On any given day, you might hear that their records were too manicured or too chaotic, too cerebral or too absurd, too personal or too impersonal, too experimental or too pop. Above all, they were derided as “self-indulgent” by critics who – even more so than today — expected artists to tiptoe deferentially around their audience’s blind spots.
To be fair, their early records had about as much relation to their in-the-flesh grandeur as a dripping faucet does to Iguazu Falls. Against steep technical odds, Greg Freeman of Lowdown Studio — whose intuitive grasp of the Fellers’ tortoise intent was exceeded only by his geologic-scale patience with their compulsive twiddling of his knobs — made their early records work beautifully as monumental tours de force. Still, listeners who lacked access to the Rosetta Stone of a live show could be forgiven for finding this portion of the Fellers’ catalog a bit forbidding. That’s especially true of 1992’s Mother of All Saints, an endlessly inventive but neurologically daunting double-LP weighted toward the experimental side of their songwriting and the monochrome extremes of their frequency palette.
Which brings us, only a little clumsily, to Admonishing the Bishops — a wholly unexpected breakthrough release comprising four down-home, crowd-pleasin’ tracks engineered by Volcano Suns / Shellac bassist Bob Weston during the Fellers’ epochal tour with Sun City Girls in fall 1992.
“The studio was in Steve Albini’s basement, and we stayed there at his house for a couple days while we recorded and mixed,” vocalist/guitarist/bassist/banjoist/trombonist/etceterist Mark Davies explains. “Working with Bob was a lot of fun; he’s a very good-natured guy and had a lot of cool ideas.” The relaxed, low-stakes atmosphere — along with the band’s tour-hardened performances and what Mark calls “the joy of getting our minds blown every night” by Sun City Girls—yielded tracks that were polished and approachable without sacrificing any of the band’s complexity or ferocity.
Back in San Francisco, with all members privately harboring doubts about the band’s future, they decided to release these tracks as a 10-inch EP rather than saving them for a full album. Mark notes that bassist Anne Eickelberg spearheaded the project: “She wanted to put out something concise after the somewhat bloated double-LP.”
Upon its release in 1993, Admonishing the Bishops’ concision, clarity and accessibility went over like a duralumin-and-fabric zeppelin, winning enthusiastic converts and quelling suspicions that the band was some sort of elaborate joke at the expense of a good-hearted but unsophisticated listening public. With its 20/20 focus on the band’s songcraft, it’s an ideal introduction for curious neophytes and a natural choice for the first installment of Bulbous Monocle’s highly anticipated TFUL282 reissue series. Long-time listeners, meanwhile, will appreciate this reissue’s meticulous remastering by Mark Gergis as well as its abandonment of the (let’s face it) depressing 10-inch format.
In a fair-to-middling world, the story of Admonishing the Bishops would end with the Thinking Fellers waving from an open limousine at the adoring crowds lining some balloon-festooned holiday boulevard. Instead, they drifted into a year-long hiatus during which Jay Paget moonlighted with Pansy Division; Brian Hageman co-starred with David Tholfsen and Margaret Murray in “Heinrich, Goose and Mallard” (later renamed U.S. Saucer); Hugh Swarts tended to his sprawling gesamtkunstwerk “Sunset on Hair Mountain”; Anne Eickelberg translated the Voynich manuscript into Cypro-Minoan; and Mark Davies nursed an assortment of pint-sized projects — including The White Shark, Job’s Daughters and Heavenly Ten Stems — before embarking on a lengthy trip to Indonesia. Having benefited psychologically and artistically from this trial separation, the band would reconvene late in 1993 to record the astonishing Strangers from the Universe with the equally astonishing Greg Freeman.
But that’s a whole other story, and I need a drink.
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