Detail of Untitled #112 by Cindy Sherman, 1982
I've been meaning to write a "We Love the Beatles" entry about the Green Pajamas. They seem like an obvious candidate, given that the band was born out of a 1984 conversation about the Beatles' b-side "Rain". The Green Pajamas' mastermind Jeff Kelly and bassist Joe Ross supposedly bonded over their love of the song and decided to start recording music together. And it's not hard to see the influence of "Rain" on the Green Pajamas - since 1984, they have released about twenty albums of tuneful psych pop. They had a minor hit in the early days with a song called "Kim the Waitress" but they didn't have huge success right away. Instead, they have bounced from one obscure record label to another, releasing impressively consistent records in spite of periodic hiatus periods. The Green Pajamas have been fairly active in recent years, and Poison in the Russian Room is their latest from Hidden Agenda Records.
Poison in the Russian Room is split into two parts, a set of eight stand-alone pop songs followed by a suite of songs titled "In Search of the Elusive Fairy Queen and Some Pleasure Unknown". Seriously, that's what it's called. And, as goofy as that sounds, it represents one of the most compelling aspects of Jeff Kelly's songwriting - his intense interest in Victorian themes and the folk revival scene of the '60s that set British history to music. Some of Kelly's interests are slightly more contemporary - two of this album's best songs are tributes to actress Louise Brooks ("Any Way the Wind Blows") and flamenco legend Cristina Hoyos ("Cristina Dancing"). Multi-instrumentalist Laura Weller adds some nice harmony vocals to these songs and delivers a nice lead vocal on the excellent "Queen of Broken Hearts". And, as is typical of recent Green Pajamas records, keyboardist Eric Lichter sings three of his own tracks. I like Lichter's songs, but his weedy voice and twee drum-machine arrangements sometimes grate a little against the band's usual rich psychedelia. His choices of subject matter also skew toward the more modern - his best song on Poison in the Russian Room is "Suicide Subways", about the trend of Japanese youth jumping in front of trains.
But Eric Lichter's songs are not the album's most distracting aspect this time around. That award goes to the terrible decision to include saxophone in two of the song's arrangements. Jazz sax man Ronnie Pierce may be a legend, but his jarring, wailing solo pretty much ruins the otherwise great "This Angel's on Fire". A second saxophonist, Craig Flory, shows up on the seven-minute "Who's That Calling" from the "Fairy Queen" section of the album. The sax here sounds like bad TV music from the '80s, and it goes on and on. A long-lived band like the Green Pajamas needs to try new things to avoid making the same album over and over, but I cannot abide solo sax in pop music. Without the sax, Poison in the Russian Room would be one of my favorite Green Pajamas releases to date. Most of the tracks are catchy, with an interesting sound that combines loud guitars with folk sounds.
In spite of the seven-minute sax nightmare of "Who's That Calling", I love the "Fairy Queen" section of the album. The highlights are the appropriately-named "The Fairy Queen I" and "The Fairy Queen II". The first "Fairy Queen" is typical upbeat Pajamas pop with backward guitar leads and tambourine. The second has a more modest palette but is just as nice, with a great vocal from Kelly and lyrics like, "All my life I have been captive to the Fairy Queen."
"The Fairy Queen II" by the Green Pajamas