Pop Goes the World: Tribe, “Sleeper”

Written by Music, Pop Goes the World

The sophomore album. I hear it’s tricky.

So begins the second and final chapter on our tribute to one of Boston’s finest. It was 1993, and in those pre-internet days, information on your favorite band when they were between projects was rather hard to come by. (There is a part of me that actually misses that, but I digress.) The band continued to play around town – their most frequent opening act was a similarly styled rock band called Letters to Cleo – and had been working some new material into their sets, namely “Miracle of Sound,” “Smile” (more on that one later) and “Sing to Neptune.” They were also playing around more with other people’s songs. I saw them perform “Goldfinger,” which they had recorded in the studio as well, and “To Sir with Love.” My brother, however, saw them cover Roxy Music’s “Out of the Blue,” and I still kind of hate him to this day for it.

Then the Pixies broke up. Suddenly, Tribe were the biggest band in town (yes, even bigger than the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who would make the jump a couple years later), and their new album had been finished for release that summer. It was their time to shine, baby! No way anything was going to stop them now. I rushed to Newbury Comics to pick up my copy of Sleeper on the day of its release (which I think was the same day that U2’s Zooropa came out, but I’m not sure), and literally yoinked a copy of the CD from the front display.

Then I took a look at the cover. What the hell is this?

The first sign that all was not well in Tribeland was right there in front of me. This is not the album cover of a band that is on good terms with its record label. Five naked mannequins with the band members’ faces cut and pasted on the heads? Yikes. This album isn’t going gold, no matter whose music you put inside it. Okay, flip it over, what does the back cover look like? Much better, picture of the band – though Greg looks like he’s been hypnotized, and for some reason, everybody looks wet – and wow, it was produced by John Porter, the man that helmed “How Soon Is Now?” and several other Smiths gems. (He also produced Roxy Music, strangely enough.) Hmmm, maybe things are all right after all. I popped the disc in as soon as I got home.

All right: that about sums it up. Sleeper is not without its charms; the two singles, “Red Rover” and the driving “Supercollider,” were the best chances the album had of scoring a radio hit, though neither of them would have nudged a single track off of Abort had they been proposed for their debut. (Who knows, maybe they were written around the same time, in which case the band was wise to bump them to album #2). “Romeo Poe” is another personal fave, as is the haunting ballad “Nevermind.” The album’s closer was “Sing to Neptune,” and the version here bested all of the pre-album live performances I had seen.

One thought kept bubbling to the surface, though: did John Porter really produce this album? It’s all so dense and murky, a stark contrast to both the production on Abort and Porter’s work with the Smiths. The drum tracks sound particularly cluttered, which surprised me considering that drummer Dave Penzo seemed to be coming into his own in some of the band’s more recent gigs…or so it seemed. I later learned that Penzo had been kicked out of the band before the album had been completed (apparently he had been acting a little too much like a rock star), which would explain the ‘Additional drums and percussion by Ben Wittman’ credit in the liner notes. Let this be a lesson to all you drummers out there: never wear sunglasses during an indoor gig.

Another problem is the songwriting. The dynamic had shifted considerably between albums, as our cute little couple Eric and Terri had become the dominant voices, while Greg only contributed two and a half songs. And one of those songs, the aforementioned “Smile,” was done no favors in the studio. It had a nice verse but a lousy chorus – more of the chain gang stuff, but with Janet squawking into a megaphone while Greg and Eric yell nonsense words – and under normal circumstances it probably would have been scrapped. I’m guessing band politics led to its inclusion, lest they go down the “My voice isn’t being heard” path. Then again, it’s not as though Eric and Terri had something to take its place, since their own song “Making a Plan” had no business making the record, either. It appears their wells both ran dry at the same time. I saw them once or twice after Sleeper came out, with new drummer Mike Levesque, and the shows were good. But something was definitely off.

I moved to New York in early 1994 (six longest months of my life), and got a call from my brother back in Boston that Tribe had broken up. Damn, that didn’t take long. I continued turning people on to the band (well, Abort, anyway), and heard rumors for years about a Janet LaValley solo album, but nothing materialized. Flash-forward to 2005, and my editor at Bullz-Eye and I are throwing around ideas for new features. I came up with the idea of Lost Bands for the sole purpose of finding out what the hell happened to my favorite Boston band. As it turned out, I was not alone in the quest to catch up with them, and fortunately, a man named Steve Latham took it upon himself to set up a site in the band’s honor, including hard-to-find mp3s, their promotional videos, and even a bootleg of their final live performance. Janet has also since set up a web site within Steve’s site, and it’s worth checking out solely for the pictures of her incredible Halloween costumes (click on the Page II tab). Amy Winehouse never looked so good. Ever.

Shortly after the initial Lost Bands piece ran, I sent an email to Boston modern rock station (and ardent Tribe supporters) WFNX with a link to it, asking if they knew how to get a hold of the band. Greg promptly wrote me back, and agreed to an email interview in early 2006. He set the record straight that I was not the only one unhappy with Sleeper‘s sound, and admitted that the band’s goose was pretty much cooked when Slash did not pick up the option for their third album. He also mentioned that he loved touring and is baffled by the notion that they have a cult following. (“We do?”) As I mentioned last week, Greg, Eric and Terri got into video game design and are doing just fine, thank you very much. I believe Janet works in publishing in New York (there are mp3s of songs from her unreleased solo album on her site), and last I heard, Dave lives in New Hampshire with his kids. Funny to think about that interview back then, just as the original “Guitar Hero” was released. I wonder if Greg and Eric had any idea how much their lives were about to change.

In truth, Sleeper never had a prayer simply because it had to follow such an extraordinary album. Had this been their debut…you know what, never mind, it still wouldn’t have done terribly well, but the album has quite a few bright spots, if you can get around the production. Thank you Janet, Eric, Terri, Greg and Dave for some great tunes and providing the soundtrack to my life in Boston. I’ll listen to these albums until the day I die. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

1. Miracle of Sound
2. Red Rover
3. Crawl
4. Supercollider
5. Dogflower
6. Smile
7. Making a Plan
8. Romeo Poe
9. Nevermind
10. Mr. Lieber
11. Sleeper
12. Sing to Neptune