Graded on a Curve: World of Pooh,
The Land of Thirst

The San Francisco trio World of Pooh only managed one full-length album, the very scarce and highly-sought after 1989 LP The Land of Thirst. It endures as a cult item in part due to the achievements the band members chalked-up outside of the group, most notably the long and excellent career of Barbara Manning. Due to that extreme rarity, the record’s rep is maintained almost entirely through passionate word-of-mouth and shared MP3s, and that’s an unfortunate circumstance for one of the finest examples of pure potential in the entire late-‘80s/early-‘90s US underground rock scene.

By the time most folks had heard of World of Pooh, the band was no longer in existence. Championed almost entirely through fanzines and a few small-press music publications, and lacking in the resources of a large record label to help publicize their efforts, they broke up without much fanfare. But the people who did hear their stuff (and were able to catch them live) couldn’t keep from enthusing about what a special group they were, and as the subsequent activities of Barbara Manning, Brandan Kearney, and Jay Paget gained a higher profile, World of Pooh’s importance continued to grow.

For many, initial knowledge of the band came through an interest in the works of Manning. She first emerged on the scene via the Chico, CA guitar-pop outfit 28th Day, a trio where she played bass and sang, Cole Marquis played guitar and also worked the vocal-pipes, and Michael Cloward dished it out in the drummer’s seat. In a manner similar to World of Pooh, 28th Day’s fame was mostly posthumous, though the sole record issued during their existence, an eponymous 1985 LP released by Enigma, received a rather favorable reaction at the time.

After 28th Day’s breakup Manning joined World of Pooh, but also simultaneously completed the first LP to bear her own name, the classic Lately I Keep Scissors. It came out in ’88 through the Heyday label, garnering a fair amount of attention and providing the necessary kick-start for her emergence in the following decade, where she recorded both solo and in numerous bands, the San Francisco Seals most prominently, frequently via the auspices of Matador Records.

But the other two-thirds of World of Pooh also had a hand in shaping the events of the ‘90s indie/u-ground scene. Along with membership in such wild-assed groups as the legendary San Fran noise-whackos Caroliner, the Archipelago Brewing Company, and Faxed Head, Brandan Kearney is also known as the man behind the Nuf Sed label, a tiny, eclectic and long defunct vinyl-centric label that possessed a very appealing visual and aural aesthetic.

In addition to putting out The Land of Thirst (the first LP issued by the imprint), he was also responsible for the production of a whole bunch of that sweet and tart Caroliner junk along with pressing notable discs by Cul De Sac, Tarnation, and Culturcide. And particularly germane to this review is his assemblage of a very nifty 7-inch comp from ’92 titled Not All that Terrifies Harms, a record that includes the post-breakup World of Pooh knocking-off a truly Swellsville low-fi reading of Blue Öyster Cult’s “Dominance and Submission.”

In addition to all this action, Kearney also waxed up a massive 1990 45 by rocking experimentalists The Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. And that just also happens to be the band Jay Paget ended up playing in after World of Pooh’s demise. While today the Fellers are conceivably shorthanded as just one of the hundreds of groups to benefit from the ‘90s indie label boom, at the turn of that decade they figured as part of a handful of highly-esteemed acts (with Royal Trux, The Dead C, and early Pavement amongst the others) that supplied a real alternative to the rising tide of Grunge.

Those who might casually know Barbara Manning from one of her Matador records, or maybe through the guest-vocal she provided “San Diego Zoo” on Wasp’s Nests, the first album by Stephin Merritt’s all-star project The 6ths, or perhaps even by her outstanding cover of The Verlaines’ classic “Joed Out” on the ’93 AIDS-benefit compilation No Alternative could possibly be thinking that Kearney and Paget are unlikely compatriots for her often very accessible (but never commercially shallow) style.

But the reality is that she has occasionally cultivated an experimental streak of her own, most notably in the Glands of Eternal Secretion, a duo with Bananafish magazine publisher Seymour Glass, though it’s certainly true that a major part of what makes World of Pooh so rewarding is the tension between Manning’s more pop-inclined personality and the tougher elements brought to the table by Kearney and Paget. In fact, the group began as Kearney’s baby in 1983, self-described as a “keyboard-heavy trio,” and after Manning’s involvement became (again in his words) “pretty straightforward indie-rock” by 1987.

That’s accurate, but it doesn’t really communicate the unique nature of the band, for The Land of Thirst offers up 13 tracks that while never abrasive, are at times shrewdly edgy. Opener “Playing One’s Own Piano” reveals a group with a strong grip on instrumental spacing and texture, which is critical for a rock trio, and it also presents an immediate taste of their distinctive qualities.

Kearney’s half-spoken vocals are ominous yet calmly delivered, which only serves to increase the palpably violent nature of the lyrics (e.g. “Go take a board with nails in it/Beat father over the head with it”), as the music explores a melodic terrain that’s both catchy and just a touch foreboding. The briskly strummed guitar, for the majority of the record in Kearney’s hands, issues a clean tone that while downright attractive on its own terms also allows for substantial and beneficial sonic clarity.

For the impressive movement of Manning’s bass and the forceful finesse of Paget’s drums bring the song considerable heft. And the tempo and the instrumental dexterity is heightened on the following track “Mr. Coffee – Nerves,” with the urgency only deepened by the shared vocals of Kearney and Manning as Paget splits duties between crisp rhythmic hitting and a well-controlled workout upon the cymbals.

“Laughing at the Ground” is a wickedly coiled-up exercise for Kearney’s guitar as the tandem-singing attains a level of delicious strangeness; the whole can be considered an exemplary slice of claustrophobic pop. And “Scissors,” one of two tracks on the album featuring Manning on guitar, is also one of the earliest examples of a US band conjuring up the sound of those great New Zealanders The Clean, with Manning additionally turning in a terrific vocal on one of her signature songs.

“Zorch” continues the Flying Nun vibe, though this time it’s a bit closer to the gorgeous strum of The Bats (though maybe that’s splitting hairs a bit, as Robert Scott was a member of both Kiwi acts), the group hopping upon the back of an exceptional jangle-ache bull and riding that beast like an experienced rodeo cowboy.

That tune finds World of Pooh diverting a little from the aura of oddness that’s established on the record’s first three tracks, and this redirection (which sorta continues for the rest of the LP) is cultivated even further on the pleasant instrumental “Untitled,” with Kearney’s string-work blending into Manning’s rolling bass lines as Paget takes a washboard-like turn.

And side one’s closer “Bone Happy” subtly shifts gears yet again, with Manning and Kearney’s voices flirting with a spiffy John Doe/Exene-like vibe as the music unravels in a manner not unlike the material found in the discography of the first-rate Los Angeles art-punk label Happy Squid. Plus, the bass is also somewhat reminiscent of the deluxe Thunderbroom dexterity of Mr. Mike Watt.

Side two opens with “I’m on the Wrong Side,” which again locates that Flying Nun sensibility, this time combining it with Manning’s assured expressiveness, her delivery in consort with the stronger threads in the ‘90s gal-voxed indie weave. And this makes total sense since she was a leading exponent in that whole state of affairs. “Mogra” however, is a nicely ragged piece of dual-voiced guitar-pop construction with Paget shining like a lighthouse behind the kit, and “On, On & One,” with Manning switching to guitar once more, is a generous helping of nervy, choppy moodiness.

From there “Cake Flotilla” scores as another crisply rendered guitar-pop winner, and it contrasts well with the boldness of “Somewhere Soon,” that track showcasing not only Manning’s reliable talents as singer but also the thick bedrock of her fuzz-laden bass. Closer “Drunkard’s Dream” returns to the Flying Nun template for a final, confident go-‘round, and the song helps to seal The Land of Thirst’s deal as one of the most impressive debuts in the whole of the US-based indie/u-ground scenario.

Sadly, the aforementioned tension that emits from the band’s work also bled over into their personal dealings, specifically concerning Kearney and Manning. Early on, the pair had become a couple, but by the time of the album’s appearance and especially by their final tour, it’s been said that they’d simply had their fill of each other, and apparently much of the aggression in the lyrics derived from their deteriorating relationship.

So, the very thing that numbered World of Pooh’s days is also a huge part of what shaped them into such a killer combo. After refection, maybe it’s not so sad after all. Along with some additional comp tracks, World of Pooh also issued a belated 12-inch on Nuf Sed in ’91 titled A Trip to Your Tonsils, and that one includes a pretty snazzy Manning-sung reading of “Blow the Smoke Away” by those pre-rock smoothies Les Paul and Mary Ford.

But one of the band’s greatest achievements is also their most prominent, a 45 that was released in 1990 as part of K Records-honcho Calvin Johnson’s International Pop Underground series. The disc’s B-side, the perfectly executed hunk of strum-pop anxiety that is Manning’s “Somebody Wants You Dead,” is perhaps the apex in World of Pooh’s entire oeuvre (if not, it’s certainly close), and since it appears to be still available for order from K, any parties interested in getting conversant with the band’s work should definitely start right there.

For The Land of Thirst’s solitary pressing of 1,000 copies (and to my knowledge it was never issued on CD), is going to be one tough truffle for even the most indefatigable of piglets to snort out, and that’s to say nothing of the substantial hunk of moolah that will surely be required to finalize the whole acquisition.

Now, it’s possible some longtime fans of the group might feel this review leans a bit too much toward the direction of Manning’s talents in waxing enthusiastic over World of Pooh’s undiminished worthiness, but if so let the record state that all three members were absolutely crucial ingredients in the band’s delightful stew.

More than just about any other record of its era, The Land of Thirst really deserves a quality reissue, and naturally on vinyl. Putting the music aside for just a sec, the zonked vividness of that striking cover needs to be in as many homes as possible, and enhanced by the jacket of an LP, it’ll unquestionably go down as a real doozy. Don’t you agree?

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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