Graded on a Curve: Death of Samantha,
If Memory Serves
Us Well

Like a slightly portly but agonizingly suave figure emerging from the confines of a once-plush coffin, arms loaded with drumsticks, a bottle of whiskey and perhaps even packages of discount snack foods, Cleveland’s Death of Samantha hath risen again. If Memory Serves Us Well offers up an 18-song studio rehearsal captured in December of 2011 on the eve of the original lineup’s Beachland Ballroom reunion show, and it includes worthy selections from across their entire discography. Roughly functioning as a Best of/Greatest Hits, due to the focused intensity that spans across its four sides of vinyl, it very easily transcends that role.   

Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad’s extensively researched and strongly written tome of still relevant rock history comes adorned with the clarifying subtitle Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. It’s a book so hefty, especially in its hardcover edition, that many consider it the last word on the topic it covers. It’s an understandable but faulty notion; from introduction to epilogue the text consumes 501 pages that can easily lend the false impression of being exhaustive, but in its index you’ll find no mention of Death of Samantha.

This is partially because of its 13 chapters, each one devoted to a prominent band from the period (but also committed as its pages turn to detailing the era’s thriving spirit of regionalism), not focusing upon an act from the state Death of Samantha call home, namely Ohio. However, the omission is just as tied to the overall thrust of Azerrad’s narrative; while he obviously values the ‘80s rock underground on its own terms, the writing does end up focusing predominantly on the scene’s effects upon the wider culture.

This is certainly a valid approach, but it also overlooks one of the joys of the u-ground, specifically that the acts populating its nooks need not be burdened with the task of changing the world. Of course, impacting the listening habits of one solitary individual will have done just that, albeit on a scale much smaller than most people care to acknowledge as being significant.

While I’m definitely not accrediting this belief to Azerrad, to this day some do inflexibly persist in evaluating Death of Samantha as little more than a historical footnote, mainly because they never got signed to a major label and split up in 1990, the year before punk “broke.” A nice dissent from this spurious line of thinking comes via We Never Learn: The Gunk Punk Undergut, 1988-2001. Yes another book, this one authored by Eric Davidson of the still active ‘90s-birthed outfit, Columbus OH’s New Bomb Turks.

Death of Samantha’s section in We Never Learn comes early. It loosely assesses the group as a forerunner to/influence upon the ‘90s garage punk uprising (which Davidson houses under the titular umbrella moniker of “gunk punk”) that New Bomb Turks and others helped to comprise, a scene that frankly lent a needed escape-hatch to the decade’s inundation of increasingly polished and calculated Alternative and Indie Rock activity.

And listening to “Coca Cola and Licorice,” the opening track on If Memory Serves Us Well, makes it easy to understand why. The short answer is The Stooges, with their influence on the song placing Death of Samantha squarely into one of rock music’s finest camps. Specifically, they belong to the Unrepentant Outsiders of the American Midwest.

But even considering their links to such later entities as Guided by Voices, Cobra Verde, and Nada Surf, one could still fall too easily into thinking of Death of Samantha as the unloved prophets of ‘80s glammy punk. While it’s surely true that many folks hated them rather passionately (the clothes, the attitude, the noise, the whole bit) and many more were completely ignorant to their very existence (my Mom’s never heard of ‘em, for example), they also received quite a bit of positive attention while extant.

The band’s first two singles came out on local label St. Valentine, but the rest of Death of Samantha’s output (that’s three full-lengths, an EP and a 45, don’tcha know) carried the logo of Homestead Records, one of the period’s most prominent and discerning US independents. Additionally, DoS found support in print from sources large (Creem, Rolling Stone, Spin, Sounds in the UK), medium (Option, Pulse!), small (Forced Exposure, Away from the Pulsebeat) and even local (Cleveland newspaper The Plain Dealer.)

Never a touring juggernaut, the group did open important local shows for Jesus & Mary Chain and Sonic Youth, but more importantly both Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana warmed up the crowd for them. It suffices to say that Death of Samantha is far from a revived 1980s also-ran, and If Memory Serves Us Well (which returns them to the auspices of St. Valentine, Homestead having long bitten the dust) offers up a dynamic prologue to the band’s promise of fresh material on the not too distant horizon.

“Coca Cola and Licorice” stood as the a-side to DoS’s terrific second 7-inch, ‘85’s “Porn in the USA,” and also was the opening cut on their first LP, the equally powerful Strungout on Jargon from the same year. A gem of smart and defiant rock swagger, it combines the aforementioned Stooge knowledge (which is almost Australian in its assured oomph) with enough of an arty sensibility (notably the use of skronky clarinet by vocalist/guitarist John Petkovic) to firmly situate them as legitimate descendants of hometown legends Electric Eels and Pere Ubu.

It’s one of Death of Samantha’s signature tunes, and the version included here connects with no loss of the original’s bent firepower. To the contrary, the fullness of the recording leaps out of the speakers to impart that something quite rare is transpiring. The first of a Strungout on Jargon combo punch, it combines with the huge riffing of the adroitly trim “Bed of Fire” to easily vindicate Davidson’s claims for Death of Samantha as a direct antecedent to the beefed-up rawness of ‘90s garage punk.

And this is worth underscoring, for DoS’s penultimate and final long-players, ‘88’s Where the Women Wear the Glory and the Men Wear the Pants and the following year’s Come All Ye Faithless, both feature a wider scope of inspiration, notably a more evident if appealingly prickly pop agenda. The band’s dress sense always marked them as an exponent of Glam (as their aggressive stage antics tied them to its stylistic kin Shock-rock), but their last two albums made plain that DoS had it in them to pen tunes and craft extended statements worthy of prime Roxy Music and even Bowie (whose “Heroes” they covered.)

“Now It’s Your Turn (To Be a Martyr)” derives from their last LP; while the take here is slightly rougher than the initial recording, it easily retains the tart atmosphere of street-level refinement found in the original. There’s a whiff of the Stones by way of Mick Ronson in Doug Gillard’s guitar work, and Petkovic’s vocals, a source of much divisiveness due to his often over-the-top style, land in very inviting territory.

From there “Conviction” returns to the first album, and in so doing emphasizes the skewed consistency of Death of Samantha’s melodic vision. While the ‘80s u-ground is often depicted as the locale of surly noise-mongers, DoS crafted songs of no small value, a circumstance that brings them closer to the seemingly motley but ultimately endearing dishevelment of The Replacements than to the terrifying pummel of early Swans.

The extended canvas and rousing second half of Strungout on Jargon’s “Couldn’t Forget about That (One Item)” highlights the group’s level of ambition from a relatively early point in their existence, and that they can still navigate its twists with the verve of a fledgling outfit (bassist David James and drummer Steve-O are in fine form) is a very impressive feat. And this extends to their litheness in handling the more direct stomp and throttle of two key Where the Women Wear the Glory cuts, “Savior City” and “Good Friday.”

But If Memory Serves Us Well’s best moment is their deft treatment of what is probably DoS’s most splendid creation, Come All Ye Faithless’ centerpiece “Rosenberg Summer.” The initial recording saw them ushering their advanced glam into an unexpectedly baroque environment as Petkovic’s vocals abandoned restraint for a journey into the heart of strained sublimity. A quarter century has now elapsed since they waxed the original, and if Death of Samantha’s tangible spirit circa 2011 is admirable, their collective common sense is also in evidence.

The “Rosenberg Summer” of 1989 is about the intersection of severe chutzpah with artistic aspirations that greatly exceeded the norms of a punk-spawned hardcore-damaged underground. It was a majestic thing complete with historically-themed but ambiguous lyrics, heavily bowed cello and a keyboard solo absolutely brilliant in its strategic placement; at the end of the ‘80s, this is what the US u-ground was capable of producing. It’s no great surprise that many considered the rise and eventual (if temporary) marketplace dominance of Grunge to be a terrible misplacement of the scene’s creative heights.

DoS’s new version sensibly doesn’t attempt to recapture that aura though. The cello is absent, as is that lovely piano, and Petkovic also doesn’t strive to replicate his vocal mannerisms from the inaugural treatment, choosing restraint that might tie to age but just as likely relates to an interest in exploring the song’s considerable malleability. And Death of Samantha’s execution unfolds almost like an imagined demo of the tune. Once dominated by the success of its lofty ambition, here “Rosenberg Summer” is just an unusually strong composition delivered with the panache of veterans.

My only complaint is that the lyrics, including the culminating couplet (my favorite), have been altered somewhat. It’s a small quibble overall, and yet a hang-up nonetheless. But I’ve no such problems with the blistering “Sexual Dreaming” from Strungout and a slightly spongier reading of “Blood and Shaving Cream” from their classic ’86 EP “Laughing in the Face of a Dead Man.” And from here the stuff starts piling up like cars in an exquisitely messy multi-vehicle freeway collision.

All their releases get a lane. There’s the instrumental pound and clever wordplay of “Geisha Girl” from Faithless, the late-‘70s punkish “Monkey Face” and the anthemic “Harlequin Tragedy” from Where the Women Wear the Glory, the scorching intelligence of “Yellow Fever” from the EP, and the almost flagrantly popish “Simple as That” and the heavier but still hooky “Turquoise Hand” from Strungout. Even “Amphetamine,” the superbly Ohioan a-side to their first single, makes a welcome appearance.

Longtime live set closer “Blood Creek” ends a record of substantial pleasures; it unsurprisingly brings If Memory Serves Us Well to a fiery conclusion. And while this LP does easily eclipse its Best of/Greatest Hits trappings, due to the out-of-print status of their back catalog (a situation that’s apparently slated to change soon), this baby will (at least temporarily) provide many curious newcomers with an appropriately hefty introduction.

If this release has a lingering issue, for this writer it comes down to simple personal preferences. For instance, their fabulous cover of hometown hero Peter Laughner’s “Sylvia Plath” is sadly absent. And this is reflective of a bigger lack; since Death of Samantha dished out some righteous covers (along with Bowie and Laughner they tackled Warren Zevon and Fred Flintstone) it would’ve been nice to have at least one of those (and/or maybe even a fresh one) included.

In 1991, even though they’d broken-up roughly a year earlier, there was an attempt on the part of Mike Curb to coax DoS back into action specifically for the purpose of accompanying a “comeback” recording of “hip” covers from notoriously volatile Las Vegas “legend” Wayne Newton. If the previous sentence reads like a terrible idea, it would’ve very likely played out exactly that way. But Newton went bankrupt, Sammy Davis Jr. (who was also involved in the scenario) died, and the whole affair never happened. It remains unclear to me if Death of Samantha would’ve ended-up accepting the offer.

But if any bunch (save for Michael Cudahy and Liz Cox) could’ve stepped up to the task and made the endeavor interesting (if not necessarily wholly worthwhile), it was this crew. They pulled-off some major moves in the second half of the 1980s, and many of them are given top-flight readings on If Memory Serves Us Well. It’s great to have them back in action.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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