Coming up with a great band name is hard. I’ve tried it enough times, and been around enough people as they tried to do it, to know that it might be an even bigger pain in the ass than writing a great song. The temptation can be great to just give up and pick something goofy to get it over with.
You never know, though — that name could end up sticking with you for years. If John Rzeznik had known he’d be saying “thank you, good night, we are the Goo Goo Dolls” every night as a 44-year-old man, I have to think he would have done things differently. Another fine example of this principle in action is Nu Shooz, the Grammy-nominated pop duo whose name, and whose sound, made perfect sense in 1986 — and then instantly fell out of style.
Everything about Nu Shooz, from their name to their totally synth-dependent records, exuded a very ‘80s air of impermanence, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise when they lost their deal and disappeared in the early ‘90s. Like T’Pau, Haysi Fantayzee, or Robbie Nevil, they had a name that shouted “too silly to last.” Here’s the thing, though: they made fun, slightly goofy pop music, but Nu Shooz (a.k.a. the husband-and-wife team of John Smith and Valerie Day) wrote some solid songs underneath all that plastic noise, and even if the Top 40 didn’t want them anymore, that didn’t mean they were going to stop making music.
Success is hard to find, though, and after 20 years or so, the temptation to trade in on your past triumphs can be pretty difficult to resist. They’ve been fixtures in the Portland, Oregon music scene for decades, but Smith and Day have never done anything that approached the level of popularity Nu Shooz enjoyed. The insatiable ‘80s nostalgia market has given us reunion tours and new music from plenty of bands we’d long since left for dead. Why not these guys?
Enter the Nu Shooz Orchestra.
Despite the implications of the name, the NSO doesn’t perform symphonic reworkings of Nu Shooz’s ‘80s material, or synth-pop renditions of orchestral favorites — not that both of those ideas wouldn’t hold a certain daffy appeal. No, what Day and Smith are into now is good old-fashioned dinner theater music — smart, subtle, and jazzy, not unlike the kind of thing Nu Shooz’s fellow ‘80s refugees in Swing Out Sister have been doing for years.
It isn’t a bad idea, really. Before making new music under the Nu Shooz banner, Smith and Day had to decide whether to embrace their old sound or trying to bring it up to date somehow; by going the jazz combo route — and by taking their music further into the past, they’ve avoided the pitfalls of either option. And the Nu Shooz Orchestra isn’t some chintzy home studio affair, either; it’s a ten-piece combo, with room for woodwinds, horns, and a pair of cellos. Their new album, Pandora’s Box, sounds like a million bucks.
I only wish I could say the same thing about the songs. It’s easy to understand why Day and Smith might have felt like they needed to get away from the synth stutters of their earlier work, but Smith — a.k.a. the songwriting Shoo — seems to have lost interest in the pop hooks that powered those albums. Pandora’s Box is subtle to a fault — an hour and 15 minutes of unbearably mellow sonic wallpaper that takes Day’s still-supple voice, puts it in front of a great-sounding band, and then fails to do much of anything with either.
Then again, Pandora’s snoozy overall vibe might have been by design; it extends to the album’s covers ( “Charade” and “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”) and infects updated versions of Shooz hits “I Can’t Wait” and “Point of No Return” (the latter cheekily titled [The Return of] Point of No Return”). And given that the whole thing starts off with the languid, six-minute “Welcome to My Daydream,” you can hardly accuse the band of hiding this album’s exceedingly laid-back aesthetic.
Times — and one-hit wonders — change, and it’s hard not to commend Smith and Day for branching out with the Nu Shooz Orchestra and Pandora’s Box. Unfortunately, it’s just as hard to stay awake listening to it. Here’s hoping they bring a few pop hooks the next time they convene the Orchestra — and maybe start a trend in the process. Who’s up for some Cutting Crew Quartet?