Spotlight: The Glands

Spotlight: The Glands

Thursday, 27 August 2020
‘I Can See My House From Here’ from The Glands’ self-titled album.

As good or remarkable as any band could eventually prove themselves to be, history has proven conclusively that it’s truly rare for any band to arrive that way (see Nirvana, Ween, Wilco, etc. for examples of bands which developed over time) out of the proverbial box. In that regard, The Glands were no exception; when they started, this little band from Georgia was a perfectly average-at-best band, drawing inspiration from punk and college rock. They produced music of a quality which might have thrilled audiences at the local college bar on cheap beer night, but would likely (and rightly) have found their fortunes waning, had the band not ended up improving dramatically (and unexpectedly) as time moved forward.

The Glands might have gone down as unsung heroes, had they emerged at any time other than the waning days of the alt- and indie rock-identified 1990s. But at the time, the infrastructure had been set up and thanks to other bands like R.E.M., Matthew Sweet, Vic Chesnutt and (later) Drive-By Truckers, Georgia was already on the public radar. So getting noticed wasn’t so great a reach for The Glands. While it still wasn’t easy (because yeah – The Glands did not start strong in 1996), eventually the band found their footing and managed to take a couple of solid steps up… before collapsing. Even in that, the band didn’t completely dissolve or fade into complete obscurity; The Glands did leave a mark which managed to endure. That is as unbelievable as it is respectable.

The Glands
Double Thriller LP (vinyl reissue)
(New West Records)
Almost a quarter-century after The Glands released their debut album on their own (Double Thriller first appeared as a self-released album in 1996 before being reissued on indie stalwart Bar/None Records in 1998), it remains difficult to ascertain how or why or where the album came from. Granted, on first listen, it’s easy to assemble the form from which the album sprang (a healthy love of Eighties indie rock coupled with infusions of college hardcore and 90s-informed alternative rock), but what’s not so easy to decode is the album’s staying power. Conversely, Dinosaur Jr. had the chops and Sebadoh had the heart, R.E.M. had the songwriting talent and Butthole Surfers had personality for days. The Glands had hints of each and some ambition, but Double Thriller just isn’t there yet – it’s still under-cooked and doughy where documents by those other aforementioned bands came off as fine baked goods. The Glands’ aspirations here are easy enough to map, but much of the music comes up well short of its desired goals.

From the moment the A-side of the album opens and the ethereal beats and vibes which power “Sunshine Happiness” materialize in the mix without the benefit of a lyric sheet attached (the sounds don’t exactly fade in, they just sort of assert their presence), listeners will get an idea of where this album is coming from. Not because “Sunshine Happiness” is representative of the album’s sound, just because it exists boldly and then evaporates, never to be thought of (within the context of this runtime) again. In fact, ‘Sunshine Happiness” sounds nothing like anything else Double Thriller, it just functions as an opening for the album in the same way a sunrise opens
the day; it’s here and that’s important, but it is not at all a focus point.

The build begun by “Sunshine Happiness” does sort of carry over into the cut which follows it, “Free Jane,” but the moment does improve, albeit incrementally. There, incredibly nasal vocals compete with a really loose brass section and – like Calvin Johnson was given to doing with Beat Happening – the song sort of paddles along rudderless for two and a half minutes (in a perfectly innocent and heartwarming way). Like a stream of consciousness progression, THAT loverly and heartwarming sense informs the simultaneously warmer and tighter “Pretty Merrina” before the whole game changes and The Glands wander onto habitable ground with the great – and the blessedly short – “Grey Hats.”While the music which came before it wasn’t unlistenable (the harshest critics might call it tedious), there’s no question that “Grey Hats” is the first great moment in a very small number if great moments on Double Thriller.

Here, as was often the case when Jason Lowenstein and Eric Gaffney would wrest control of Sebadoh from Lou Barlow, The Glands spontaneously develop greater energy and focus as they turn the volume up on their amps and rail out a two-minute triumph. There – for the first time to that point in the side’s running, really – singer/guitarist Ross Shapiro finds the volume control on his instrument and really begins lambasting it for all its worth. At the same time, bassist Derek Almstead begins to let his instrument off its leash a little (snarling beautifully in response) and drummer Joe Rowe begins to beat his kit like it owed him money – and the effect is marvellous. Within the context of the album, “Grey Hats” marks the first occasion where The Glands exert a presence in their own music and the result is spectacular – at least within this runtime – and it changes the face of the sound.

Suddenly, after “Grey Hats,” the spacey “Two Dollar Wine” and the songwriter-ly “Welcome To N.J.” take on a new energy which sounds exciting even when they’re obviously more subdued in demeanor. That change is the greatest thing about the A-side of Double Thriller: it’s exciting and makes listeners want to get to the B-side of the album in hopes of finding something comparable.

And even though “World Half Over” opens the B-side in exactly the same way as “Sunshine Happiness” opened the A- (read: poorly), it somehow plays easier and proves to be forgettable and forgivable when “This Is The Coat” (the second cut on the B-side) trips through lazily. There – just as Flaming Lips did in their early years – The Glands play up a loose and medicated vibe which probably wouldn’t work so well if the song was more than a minute and a half long, but proves to be excellent because it is. The spare, march-y drumming is the perfect thing for listeners to get behind, while the multi-tracked vocals let them feel like they’re not alone. It’s great and “Call The Doctor” follows that energy with a great contrast in its stripped down but polished presentation (think akin to “Blackbird” by McCartney).

While the B-side of Double Thriller isn’t without its flaws (“No. Zero” proves that “medicated” is not The Glands’ best state and “The Virgin Loses Again” reinforces the same point while also sounding like The Flaming Lips), its successes far outshine them. Cuts like “Skin” and “Son-O-Mine” make the most of more acoustically-focused styling and “Two Dollar Reprise” features greater musicianship than anywhere else on the album – which can bait a listener into making it through the album (or at least its B-side) more than once. At most, that might sound like damning with faint praise – but it shouldn’t. Simply said, the number of pitfalls that Double Thriller could have fallen into when it was released in 1996 or when it was reissued in 1998 were numerous, and loosely resembled the size and shape of chasms – but the album missed most of them. Yes, Double Thriller isn’t perfect – in fact, it’s pitiful in its flaws; but in them also lies the chance that the band could get better.

The Glands
s/t (2LP reissue)
(New West Records)
While it didn’t really sound like it ever had a chance of happening in a century, The Glands proved that they were capable of not just evolving, but actually getting really good in a short amount of time with the release of their self-titled sophomore album (originally released on Capricorn Records in 2000, then reissued on Velocette Records in 2001, now reissued on vinyl by New West Records in 2018). Right away, from the moment the stylus penetrates vinyl and “Livin’ Was Easy” bleeds out of the grooves, the improvements made and the work put in by the band is easy to hear. Just exactly like Flaming Lips did on Transmissions from the Satellite Heart, The Glands bounce along as if on a series of elastic bands as vocals, bass and guitars all stubbornly refuse to commit to pitch – but The Glands’ performance is far less likely to give listeners motion sickness than the Lips’ results on “She Don’t Use Jelly”. In fact, it actually plays better, twenty years later, than “She Don’t Use Jelly” does. 

Perhaps encouraged by that start, The Glands keep the same kind of surrealist energy going through the “doo-do-do”s of “When I Laugh,” the shockingly tight neoclassical start of “Swim (Prelude)” and then the almost Iggy/Bowie-esque “Swim” as well as the brilliant and solid rock of “Straight Down” before returning to the hallucinogenic territory of The Flaming Lips at the close of the set’s first disc. It’s actually pretty amazing to hear how far The Glands had come in such a short period of time, and even more exciting when one considers that the band clearly knew it; having the audacity to release a double album was uncommon back then (Smashing Pumpkins had done it, but that’s about it), but even less common was having so many songs of such a fine calibre in reserve.

Now, there isn’t really a thematic or stylistic divide between discs one and two in this set, but the growling guitar tone which drives “Work It Out” certainly makes the cut stand out from the running. There, singer Ross Shapiro knocks out a beautiful melody in such an offhand way that it feels as though he’s almost treating it like a throwaway performance – but everyone listening knows it is something to appreciate. The exact same thing is true of the spacey/sleepy vibes and papery vocals on “Ground,” the folksy “Favorite American,” the stiff and synthetic harpsichord sound which colors “Breathe Out” and the classic rock-infused “U R The Mountain.” In each case, that the band develops so quickly and so satisfyingly it is almost unfathomable. As the second platter begins to taper down, chillier but no less fascinating sounds take the fore as “Holiday Walk” celebrates movement wordlessly while “Head That’s Mine” sort of spins directionless but well enough – and then “Doug’s Hall Rag” takes the band out to the sticks for a good, old-fashioned stomp like the one Zep did at Bron-Y-Aur to close out the show. In the end, it doesn’t feel like there’s anything else the band could have done; so “Breathe Out” swings through gently to close out the album and leaves listeners to digest what they’ve just taken in.

And while it wouldn’t be the final album to bear The Glands’ name, The Glands ended up being the final document from the band as a group. The odds and sods collection Double Coda (so named, presumably, as a response to the title of The Glands’ debut – Double Thriller noted Michael Jackson’s breakthrough with its title, and Double Coda notes Led Zeppelin’s final album with its title) would arrive in 2018 (about fifteen years after The Glands’ first hiatus) and would be the final album from the band – singer Ross Shapiro had already died of lung cancer by then (he died in 2016), so the book was already closed on the band, for the most part.

The Glands
Double Coda (2LP)
(New West Records)
After shutting down in the early new millennium, it was assumed that The Glands were no more – but somehow the band just kept holding on. A couple of reunion tours kept the band’s name from fading completely, but it wasn’t until 2018 (after singer Ross Shapiro had died of cancer) that it was revealed the group actually had a fairly impressive store of songs which had gone previously unreleased. It was then that Double Coda appeared but – unlike other such posthumous releases which leave no stone unturned in search of any tripe they can slap on a disc to make a buck, The Glands’ last creative breath was a full and rich one which easily qualifies as essential listening for fans of the band in specific, or just fans of Southeast American indie rock in general.

As soon as “Get High” eases out to open the A-side of Double Coda, listeners will marvel at how fair a leap the sound of the song is from anything on Double Thriller. Sounding like the reincarnated spirit of John Lennon (and I’m really not overstating that), Shapiro proves that he, his voice and his worldview have all aged incredibly gracefully. The singer just nails the sounds and forms inhabited by lines like, “I got so high – baby forgive me or don’t, I don’t mind” and really makes believers out of anyone within earshot – it’s just so good. The going gets even better as “Pleaser” finds The Glands touching believably on an Eagles tip before moving in a fantastically well-appointed Flaming Lips direction for “Electricity” (which also sees the group play with language and meaning as they repurpose the concepts of positivity and negativity), and then settling on something that is just all their own in “Every Time I Listen To A Stranger” to close out the side. There, Shapiro languishes beautifully through the song and will have listeners rushing to prop him up – it mirrors real rock star practice, performance and presentation, and leaves listeners just aching for more. Conversely, the B-side opens with a classic rock hybrid in the form of “Todd Work” (were it to feature a distorted guitar, it would eerily resemble CCR’s “Fortunate Son” – but comes closer to “Let ‘Em In” by Wings without it) and keeps the energy up with the cowbell-driven “Sofa” and reaching a whole other spire with the positively bombastic “Have Your Cake.” After that spectacle, The Glands contract the scope of their ambition with some aptly-named “Piano Jazz” and “Great Waves” to close the side. Even on first listen, there’s no question that the A- and B- sides feature some great, mature music from The Glands which easily stands as crown jewels in their catalogue.

To its credit, the second plate in Double Coda does feature a few really, really good ballads, but nothing on the C- or D-sides of the set could be mistaken for uptempo. Everything about songs like “Pie,” “Rose,” “Body and Soul” and “Save A Place For You” makes the most of downtempo, moody college rock predispositions, and The Glands do it so well that even those “sort of mobile” moments like “(A Screwed Up Way of Saying) I Love You,” “Feelies” and “Tom Robertson” don’t quite save it and only stand out if one removes them from the context of the album (read: digitally cherry-pick them for your iTunes account).

But so what? Even though the C- and D-sides of Double Coda don’t rank even close to the quality of the songs on LP1 in this set, that first disc easily helps the second get over. And after it does get over, the cloud of there not being any more music coming from The Glands will make those exposed to Double Coda cling to it that much more tightly. After listeners are won by the A- and B-sides of Double Coda, nothing will be able to shake them off. [Bill Adams]


The reissues of Double Thriller, The Glands and Double Coda are all out now on New West Records. Buy them here on Amazon.

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