A new, exhaustive compilation casts the brainy ‘80s popsters in an appreciative new light.
BY MICHAEL BERICK
The Waitresses’ big hit “I Know What Boys Like” is such a signature song of ‘80s New Wave that it was used as a title for a compilation album covering that era. That adorably catchy tune and their other well-known tunes (the still-popular yuletide ode “Christmas Wrapping” and the Square Pegs theme song) are all whimsical ditties make it easy to lump them in with other New Wave novelties like Toni Basil and JoBoxers. The new 30-track compilation Just Desserts: The Complete Waitresses (Omnivore Recordings), which contains the Waitresses’ two albums (Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful and Bruiseology), one EP (I Could Rule The World, If I Could Only Get The Parts) and assorted miscellanea, serves as an overdue reminder that the band created some really smart, adventurous pop music that was far more substantial than New Wave bubblegum.
The NYC-by-way-of-Akron band was the brainchild of Chris Butler, who created an imaginary band named the Waitresses for songs too pop for his more avant rock groups (legendary Ohio cult bands Tin Huey and 16-60-75). When the “Boys Like” demo scored him a record deal, Butler had to assemble an actual group, which eventually solidified as former Television drummer Billy Ficca, jazz trumpeter Mars Williams, keyboardist Dan Klayman, bassist Tracy Wormworth and Patty Donahue (who sang on his demos). Together, they created a unique sound that combined danceable New Wave pop with downtown jazz elements, which arrived fully realized on their exuberant debut Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful. This sound, both sweet and spike-y, is exemplified a track like the excellent “Quit,” where its jittery rhythms take an unexpected turn with Williams’ skronking sax solo
“Quit” also represents the Waitresses’ most distinctive qualities – the wickedly witty songs that explore a twentysomething woman struggling to get her life together. Like the rocking rant “Quit,” “Wise Up” offers a self-help pep-talk about learning from mistakes and not giving up. The marvelous title tune is a quirky anthem for single working girls that advises to not “work your buns off for a fool who can barely tie his shoes” nor “answer phone calls from that old boyfriend who’d lose to see you lose.” In the sharply observant “No Guilt,” a woman informs her ex that “I’m sorry but I don’t feel awful/It wasn’t the end of the world” while reeling off a humorous list of things she has learned while on her own (“Needed new posters, so I got/I know the costs of stamps now/The 31st is when I pay the phone bill.”).
The closing cut, “Jimmy Tomorrow,” serves as a terrific summation what the Waitresses are up to. Musically, the band stretches out (the song lasts nearly 6 minutes) with Butler’s noisy, scratchy guitar playing off Williams’ dissonant sax, Ficca’s big drum beat and even some arty audio clips. Donahue, meanwhile, delivers a provocative sermonette about not wanting “to be somebody else’s learning experience/Some rich kid’s way to spend his allowance” and proclaiming (in one of the best ever closing lines for an album) “my goals are to find a cure for irony and make a fool out of God.”
While clever and caustic, the album’s lyrics also feel very real, so, it might be surprising to learn that Butler was the band’s songwriter. He had a special creative partnership with Donahue, which was a key, and distinguishing, components of the Waitresses. Not a trained singer, Donahue had a conversational vocal style that had just the right ratio of sass to gawkiness – imagine actress Greta Gerwig (Francis Ha, Lola Versus) as a New Wave singer – for Butler’s literate lyrics that play out like little scenarios.
The I Could Rule EP is that rare between-album release that isn’t just a packaging of filler material. It was the place to find two of the band’s high-profile songs: the Square Pegs theme song and “Christmas Wrapping,” which remains a Xmas favorite through its blend of humorous storytelling and genuine heartfelt emotions. A live version of the title track shows how Butler’s old Tin Huey song could be effortlessly rebuilt as a Waitresses song, while “Bread and Butter” hints at the funkier sound the band explored further on its second album, Bruiseology.
The Waitresses’ sophomore effort does suffer in comparison to Wasn’t Tomorrow because it doesn’t flash the debut’s quotable couplets and high-spirited performances. No only is there no breakout track like “I Know What Boys Like” but the Bruiseology also lacks the sense of fun that was revealed on the debut’s madcap joyride “It’s My Car.”
Bruiseology, however, does have its share of virtues. Recorded with XTC producer Hugh Padgham, the album boasts a richer, deeper sound with the music delivering more punch and funk. Both “A Girl’s Got To Do” and the title track hold memorable dance-floor hooks and, along with the two other standout tracks (“Everything’s Wrong If My Hair Is Wrong” and “Thinking About Sex Again”) build upon the debut’s off-kilter look at a twentysomething woman’s life. This time, however, Donahue’s protagonists are women who has wised up – if only by a little bit (in “Thinking About Sex Again,” she states “this time I know what I’m doing” before her thoughts return to sex again.
As in Tomorrow, the Waitresses end Bruiseology on a twisted philosophical note. “They’re All Out Of Liquor, Let’s Find Another Party,” as the title suggests, resembles the rambling, semi-drunken advice you get from a friend while heading from one party to the next (“you should show up at their parties/Frankly state their music’s lousy/Their art is stupid, don’t be cool”). While the lyrics are amusing, the song doesn’t sound as fresh as “Jimmy Tomorrow.” Bruiseology’s main shortcoming, in fact, is that it lacks the effervescent spark that made Tomorrow so wonderful. This might be due to the band’s discord while making this album – Donahue left the band briefly during the recording and quit for good after it was finished, with the Waitresses called it a day not long after that.
Like their more famous predecessors (Blondie, Talking Heads and B-52’s), the Waitresses found a way to mix pop hooks and artful experimentation; however, the magical creative collaboration between Chris Butler and Patty Donahue resulted in a set of smarty written and truly distinct songs. While the Waitresses mainly are remembered as one-hit wonders, this compilation reveals them to have been a one-of-a-kind band.