So the opening tune on a CD makes clear it’s a guitar band that knows how to use power chords. You grab the CD box to see who’s playing what and something jumps out at you — electric banjo. What? A pop rock band with an electric banjo? Well, that’s just part of the eclectic nature of The Univited, a now-defunct California band. If you’ve never heard the band or it’s eponymous national release, that’s your tough luck. The album is on my list of Desert Island discs.
Released on July 21, 1998, The Uninvited isn’t the band’s first or only album. In fact, the band has released seven — but this is the only release on a national label. And to that extent, it’s almost kind of a greatest hits recording. That’s because the majority of the songs come from prior independent releases, Pop This (1992), Too High (1995), and, mostly, Artificial Hip, released in 1996.
The band, formed in the late ’80s by brothers John and Steve Taylor, signed a deal with Atlantic Records on the strength of Artificial Hip — and about 500 gigs in support of it. Atlantic wanted a few of the tunes recut so there are some differences in arrangement, length and even tempo between the originals and those on The Uninvited. While the CD didn’t produce any Top 40 hits, “What God Said” and “Too High For The Supermarket” achieved some attention on alternative radio and other songs popped up on various TV shows.
“Too High” is the song that led me to the band. I was driving in Omaha one day when it came on the radio. It’s about a guy who needs supplies for a tuna fish sandwich but, before hitting the grocery store store, decides to “roll a joint Bob Marley style/and smoke it ’till it makes me smile.” The title tells the results and the song is emblematic of the levity the band can bring to its music. Yet there’s still no doubt you’re listening to a tight guitar band that can rock when it wants to.
That listen also demonstrates the benefits of the original Napster. I wasn’t sure who even performed the song so I looked there. I downloaded a number of Uninvited tunes. Today, I am the proud owner every CD in their catalog except one — and I bought each CD because I was able to hear the band through Napster. While I am partial to the earlier independent label CDs simply because they were the band’s own effort, the self-titled CD released by Atlantic has a permanent place on my MP3 players.
You can’t easily describe or categorize what the band does. The closest I can come is alternative power pop, aking to the solo work of Ben Folds — but with an electric banjo and heavy guitar work thrown in. In fact, yhis band restored my faith in both independent rock bands and that music can and was meant to be fun. The same sardonic humor of “Too High” is in any number of songs yet most still carry some underlying, more serious meaning. “Mega Multi-Media Hero” is actually a rather biting commentary on modern media. And although “What God Said” gives the impression of a farce because God said “nothing special” during the conversation, the reason is that he’s telling us “”nothing that we shouldn’t already know,” such as “start with the basics: just be nice/and see if that makes things all right.”
The more serious songs look at and give insight to relationships and life. Thus, “Velcro Heart” is about a person who uses lovers and friends like a drug du jour. “Is That Me?” and “Down in Flames” look at the risk of letting life slip away and taking efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen. “Bottle of Thunder,” “Box of Nails” (called Peter Christ” on Artificial Hip) and “That’s What You Get” look at relationships in turmoil or past the point of destruction. What may be my favorite, “Rose Street,” is a beautiful tune about a homeless guy who plays guitar (“God himself would be happy as hell/If he could play maybe half as well”) on the street to get enough money for his next heroin fix.
Put simply, the band writes songs about life. The Uninvited collects tunes that cover most of life’s spectrum, be it good, bad, ugly, joyous or silly. Throw in great instrumental and vocal performances and you unquestionably have a Desert Island Disc.
This half-empty beer is kinda like my life
Old and tasteless, pisses off the wife
“Down in Flames,” The Uninvited