Plenty of albums released in 1988 will be celebrated in breathless anniversary thinkpieces this year, listed among the greatest of their decade. Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars probably won’t be one of them.
And yes, some truly groundbreaking work that was released that year:It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back,Daydream Nation, ...And Justice For All, Spirit of Eden. By comparison, the debut from Brickell’s Texas folk-pop ensemble can feel like a trifle, a palate cleanser between main courses.
But as with all the albums I’ve mentioned, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars maintains a kind of dual existence, sounding completely in line with the era from which it emerged while also lacking any clear markers that would designate it as “an ’80s album.” What it lacked in innovation, it made up for with easygoing melodicism, stoned poetics, and the singer’s sweet allure.
I was, admittedly, more susceptible to the charms of Shooting Rubberbands than most 13-year-olds in 1988. I’d been weaned on a diet of my mother’s record collection: Judy Collins, Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, and similar artists whose careers straddled multiple genres. As I formed my own tastes, I leaned toward the rootsier, janglier quadrants of the modern-rock universe. So when my local AOR radio station put “What I Am” into heavy rotation, I was smitten. I begged my parents for a copy of the cassette, which I promptly wore out, flipping it over and over in my knockoff Walkman.
With a warm-bath pleasant sound that dips freely into the wells of jazz, folk, and world music, Shooting Rubberbands wasn’t that far removed from the worlds the Grateful Dead and Talking Heads had built up with their music. But there was no grit or blues in the New Bohemians’ work (not yet—they brought those qualities into their 1990 follow-up album, Ghost of a Dog), just the gentle glide of Kenny Withrow’s finger-picked guitar leads and the loping bass lines of Brad Houser. Most importantly, there was Brickell, a fantastic singer whose vocals bent and flowed around each song like a tuft of hair that popped free from a ponytail.
Lyrically, Shooting Rubberbands vacillates between the loopy charm and THC-fueled philosophizing of songs like “What I Am” and “The Wheel” (“Somewhere there’s a person in a faraway place/With a different name and a face that looks like you”) and deeper explorations of life’s darker corners. The chiming “Little Miss S” is a tart ode to “just another famous dead person” who does heroin and makes out with gutter punks as a self-destructive form of rebellion. “Nothing” and “Circle” are far more delicate as they look in on friends struggling with depression, offering them an ear to bend and a shoulder to lean on. And it’s hard to resist the allure of the starry-eyed sentiments of the perfectly jangly “Love Like We Do.”
While I felt like an outlier among the other spotty teens in my own circle of friends, I was clearly not alone. Shooting Rubberbands sold over two million copies and “What I Am” cracked the Top 10. Brickell and the band became, for a while, inescapable, with videos in heavy rotation on MTV and VH1, TV appearances everywhere from Saturday Night Live to The Arsenio Hall Show, and a Rolling Stone feature that dubbed Brickell “Rock’s Hip Hippie.”
Just as quickly, Brickell and New Bohemians fell out of favor. Ghost of a Dog didn’t sell nearly as well, in part due to the band’s embrace of a more rock aesthetic, as if they were willfully writing songs aimed at filling the air of the large venues they had been playing. The band soon went on hiatus, with Brickell doing some solo work, collaborating with Steve Martin, and keeping busy raising three kids with her husband, Paul Simon.
The New Bohemians would reunite occasionally during that stretch, but only recently have they brought their extended break to an end. Earlier this month, the group released their fourth album, Rocket, and are in the midst of a U.S tour that stops by First Avenue this Saturday.
Like the larger record-buying public, I also lost my taste for the group around the time of album #2. My interests started leaning more toward hip-hop and punk and, in typical defiant teenage fashion, I became suspicious of any music that dared to sound commercial. But as I’ve softened my stance on such matters over time, I’ve circled back to the New Bohemians and been charmed anew by their first album, while falling prey to the more dynamic and expansive musical and lyrical worldview of Rocket and 2006’s Stranger Things. Like the band, I’ve matured considerably over these past three decades.
Edie Brickell & New Bohemians
Where: First Avenue
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27
Tickets: 18+: $30/$35; more info here