Album: retreat from the sun
. . .
that dog.’s first two albums — the 1994 self-titled and 1995’s Totally Crushed Out spent too much on the avant side of their post-Breeders avant-pop conglomeration.
But on their third album, 1997’s retreat from the sun, they leaned straight in to the pop, and produced an album that I think is one of the finest records of the entire year — the only ones I loved more were Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac and a little thing called OK Computer — and a record that has a handful of songs that I would put up against anything else that came out that decade. Or ever, as we’ll see.
For those of you who might not know, that dog. is a band that consisted mostly of what people would call “nepo babies.” Lead singer and songwriter Anna Waronker was the daughter of legendary record man Lenny Waronker, who ended up being president of Warner/Reprise records, and signed folks like R.E.M. and Prince — her brother Joey played drums with R.E.M. after Bill Berry left, as well as Beck — and produced many many Randy Newman albums from 1968 through 2017. So, it’s far to say Anna had some connections, regardless of her considerable songwriting skills.
In that dog. Anna Waronker was joined by violinist Petra Haden and bassist Rachel Haden, daughters of legendary jazz bassist Charlie Haden, which didn’t give them any real industry in, but definitely contributed to the avant side of their music, especially the off-beat harmonies when all three women sang together.
Which you can definitely hear on the only one of their songs that ever even became close to a hit, the lead single from retreat from the sun, “never say never,” which opens with big fuzzy period-appropriate guitars from Waronker, and driving drums from Tony Maxwell before it dropped down in to a bass-driven somewhat quieter opening verse.
I was blind
As a bat
And still knew
Where you were at
I was deaf
And still knew
That you’re the only one
At this point “never say never” pulls out its first surprise: a big fat Cars-style synthesizer hook from none other than once-and-future Go-Go Charlotte Caffey, who knew a thing or two about hooks. It was jarring at first: a synthesizer hook on an indie rock single? Heaven forfend! But of course it was catchy as all hell, and Anna Waronker lit into the second verse as if it never ever happened in the first place.
I could show up
At your door
And still know
What you’re looking for
I could wait
In your line
And if you had no money
I’d give you my last dime
Whereupon they all roar into the first chorus, Waronker now supported by the Haden sisters’ perfectly placed and perfectly lovely harmonies, and the still missing in action.
I never (Never, never)
Took it out
No, I never (Never, never)
Took it out on you
No, I never (Never say neverrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr)
Take it out on you
One of the things I love about “never say never” that while it took two verses sandwiching a synth break to reach the chorus, they realize that once they hit the chorus, there’s no reason to ever go back to the verses, and instead of the the chorus, there’s a long violin solo by Petra Haden while Maxwell goes four-on-the-floor with his kick drum. Yes, I said violin solo, with the third Hayden sister, Tanya, supporting her on cello. Even Waronker’s guitar drops out here — which is another one of the cool things about “never say never:” the continual merry-go-round of the mix, in which you never know what instrument is going to pop up next. Which means that after the Petra Hayden’s violin solo, Waronker takes a guitar solo while Maxwell accents her licks with his drums.
All of this leads into the second chorus, which brings Caffey’s synth back into the mix, leading to an-all-hands on deck outro where the Haden sisters are chanting “never say never” while the Waronker is holding out long “ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhssss” and the synth is going “whoodlewhoodlewheeedlewheeedlewheeedlewheeedle” and it’s a total and utter hook cacophony.
And while by 1997 I was well over brooding about “that should have been a hit,” godsdamnit, “never say never” should at least have been as big of a hit as “Cannonball” Alas, the best it did was make #27 on the Modern Rock charts or whatever that was called back then.
But I couldn’t quite let it go, so when I voted in the 1997 Village Voice Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, I posited a world where “never say never” was the smash it should have been
One thing we can all agree on is that 1997 will be remembered as the year of that dog. Remember how, after “Never Say Never” hit no. 7, the radio was overloaded with one pop gem after another? Remember? Next there was “Long Island,” where the opening “You’re pretty dreamy for a boy from Long Island” meant instant radio volume boost. Remember? Then there was Summer Single ’97, “Hawthorne.” How many cars full of teens were blasting its ode to SoCal life in the 90’s as it scaled the charts and clogged our radios? Remember how that was No. 1 for the entire month of August? It was as if Gwen Stefani and Meredith Brooks never existed. And remember, when they played their surprise Lilith Fair gig, there was almost a riot? Remember? Finally, remember how just as El Nino and global warming were conspiring to delay autumn, they dropped the cool breeze of “Minneapolis,” and it started to rain? Remember? Remember?
Because as great as “never say never” was, it was still on the fourth-best song on the utterly-stacked retreat from the sun. I love each of the other songs I mention in that paragraph even more than this one, as we’ll soon see.
“never say never” Official Music Video
“never say never” live on MTV Oddball, 1997
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