This is how long it has taken singer, guitarist and songwriter Scott McCaughey to get within spitting distance of a major-label record deal: When his original band the Young Fresh Fellows made their LP debut in 1984 with The Fabulous Sounds Of The Pacific Northwest, that title was an impish nod to the Upper Left Coast party punk of the 1960s — the Sonics, the Wailers, Paul Revere & the Raiders — and grunge was just something you cleaned out of your ears. That McCaughey is now making music for Hollywood Records, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Empire, is an especially rich giggle. It’s nice to see some of those Little Mermaid royalties being put to good use, financing something as bold and bent as McCaughey’s gleefully ironic take on late ’60s and early ’70s pop.
Even by the Fellows’ deliciously eccentric standards, The Lonesome Death Of Buck McCoy — McCaughey’s second full-length album with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and their ad-hoc-band venture the Minus 5 — is surprisingly bitter froth. Most of the record’s 12 songs quake with the severely compressed intimacy and hazy chamber-ballad tension of recent R.E.M. (no surprise) and John Lennon (the vigorously confessional Plastic Ono era). The cover of Lennon’s “My Mummy’s Dead” is a virtual advertisement for Buck and McCaughey’s tough-love pop. With heavy-water guitars, a funeral-chapel organ and McCaughey’s nasally, elegiac singing, the song — originally a burst of stark, almost infantile grief — is turned into a thing of gauzy, seductive beauty.
This edition of the Minus 5 is rich with Northwest alt-rock royalty: drummer Barrett Martin of Screaming Trees; a couple of Posies; Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready; all three of the Presidents of United States of America. But this is essentially Buck and McCaughey’s show — they co-wrote the 11 originals on Lonesome Death — and they know how to stir the sour with the sweet. The chiming guitars and disciplined vocal harmonies in “Empty Room” are unashamedly Beatlesque.
The nagging feeling, though, of things being out of kilter, of someone walking into walls or falling to his knees, comes with the subtle, jarring blend of those guitars in the middle break, a little bit of weirdness that spikes the song’s surface pleasures. McCaughey’s snippy disillusionment in “Wouldn’t Want to Care” — “I’ve been to purgatory/It was pretty nice/And I might try it again” — actually goes nicely with the song’s buoyant kick and Buck’s rippling-tremolo guitar; the juxtaposition heightens the melancholy rather than cheapens or mutes it.
And although the damn-near-literal, verse-chorus evocations of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” and the Beatles’ “It’s Only Love” in “Wasted Bondage” seem incongruous on paper, in song they bond like a charm in a sing-along collision of minor-key complaint and sunshine jangle, reminding you of the way a lot of classic, supposedly carefree ’60s pop was actually charged by emotional disaster and spiritual discontent.
There is plenty of outright playtime here as well: the Marc Bolan-on-a-Rickenbacker jolt of “Bullfight”; the acid-candy corn of “Popsycle Shoppe” (although McCaughey can’t help putting a little Harlem in his “Blue Jay Way” with references to Ray Charles and James Brown). “Boeing Spacearium”, whipped up by Buck and McCaughey with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices, is a song of dizzy, medieval elegance, art noise and guitar feedback set against churchy contrapuntal vocals. If it has meaning, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
And sometimes a little hurt can be a sweet thing. For all its apparent self-loathing, “Hate Me More” swings with a weary, whispery tenderness that brings the record to the best kind of finish — the kind that makes you want to play it all over again. Scott McCaughey has been ready for the big time for years. With this album, he arrives in style.