BRIGHT ORANGE LOTUS PARTY Volcano Suns

A pair of long-overdue reissues – out next
week on Merge – brings the Boston band back into the limelight.

BY MIKE
SHANLEY

“I
always felt like the one place the lead singer should not be is behind the drum
kit, but there was nothing to be done about it,” says Peter Prescott, with his
trademark wry wit. The Boston
drummer launched the Volcano Suns in 1983, a year after he and his Mission of
Burma bandmates ended their initial run. Despite Prescott’s reservations about
singers, the new trio frequently often found him handling most of the lead
vocals as he pounded away, punctuating his snare rolls with a loud yell.

The
band went through four different lineups in eight years (with Prescott
as the mainstay) and recorded for Homestead,
SST and Touch & Go. Their first two albums, The Bright Orange Years (1985) and All Night Lotus Party (1986) are being released on CD for the first
time January 27 as two expanded reissues via Merge Records, each including
numerous live and unreleased studio tracks. Both provide significant looks at
the music that paved the way for what would be labeled indie rock over the next
five years, and the blend of overdrive and harmony still sounds remarkably current
two decades later.

Jon
Williams (guitar) and Jeff Weigand (bass) played on both albums, replacing
founding members Gary Waliek and Steve Michener, later of Big Dipper. The
band’s sonic qualities owed something to Mission of Burma. A crunch of feedback
the opens “White Elephant” on Lotus Party could pass for Roger Miller, for instance. But the trio advanced beyond their
predecessor’s Wire-inspired art punk, singing in harmony over the wall of noise.
“The Suns were almost sing-song, almost like nursery rhymes sometimes,” Prescott says. “It was
even more melodic than Burma,
but layered with something skuzzy on top.”

That
top featured an absurdist lyrical streak that, along with Prescott’s bellowing voice, became his
calling card. “Cornfield” and “Jak,” from their debut, sung about the foibles
of human nature and the struggle to survive day-to-day routines. Lotus Party got more diverse, from the
somber cynicism of “Sounds Like Bucks” to “Cans” (with the chorus “I wonder
what’s inside”) and “Walk Around,” which has few lyrics beyond the title. “Burma was known
for being serious. And I think the whole thing [with the Volcano Suns] was to
take that ball of anger and funnel it through a funhouse,” Prescott says. “It was more lighthearted
because it was ridiculous. Burma
tends not to be ridiculous.”

Both
discs each include another album’s worth of bonus tracks that give a greater
picture of the band’s outlook. A live version of the Amboy Dukes’ “Journey to
the Center of the Mind” sits near “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” a cover
originally sung by Leonard Nimoy on one of his own albums. Prescott was on a prolific streak during
these years. Songs that were rerecorded for Bumper
Crop
, album number three, appear on both discs. The Bright Orange
Years
also rescues some of his best from oblivion: the catchy/chunky between-album
single “Sea Cruise” / “Greasy Spine” and “Tree Stomp” which appeared on a
compilation.

Prescott,
who continues to play with Mission of Burma since their 2002 reunion, prefers
not to consider himself the leader of the Volcano Suns. “I think I just ended
up writing more stuff and I was the guy that people knew from somewhere,” he
says. “I like the fact that the band mutated as it went along. And these
records are me and those particular guys. Their personalities are definitely in
there.”

A later
version of the band, with guitarist David Kleiler and bassist Bob Weston (now the
sound and tape manipulator in Burma),
reunited for two shows in 2005 at the behest of Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan. But Williams
and Weigand live in different cities so the reissues won’t trigger any new shows,
which is fine by their bandmate.

“As
much fun as it is to be nostalgic, I don’t expect anyone to be, and ultimately,
they shouldn’t be,” Prescott
says. “You’ve gotta move on.”

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