THINKING FELLERS UNION LOCAL 282 – Strangers from the Universe (1994)

Review by: Dinar Khayrutdinov
Album assigned by: Andreas Georgi

Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, whatever that ridiculous name must mean, is a little-known yet really interesting band from San Francisco, which might at first give the impression of being yet another late 80s – early 90s postpunk/alternative/indie/noise-rock/guitar act, much in the vein of Sonic Youth or Pavement and such. But don’t be fooled by that first impression, because at least on this record Thinking Fellers offer enough diversity, weirdness and creativity to escape that kind of pigeonholing. This album manages to combine bizarre atmospheric experiments with melodic fun in a uniquely quirky way. 

To be perfectly frank I have never heard of these guys before I was assigned to review this album of theirs, so I’m not sure whether it is representative of this band or not, but here is my take on it anyway: it rules! Tight, minimalistic and precise arrangements, interesting, but never overly poppy melodies and plenty of tasteful guitars! Indeed, the guitar playing is possibly the strongest point of the band, which is not surprising considering that it features three (!) guitarists. From atmospheric texture-creation to melodic soloing to distortion and weird noises – most of the sound here is created using guitars, with only minimal synths or percussion added here and there. That said, this is in no way ‘classic guitar rock’ – the songs have more of a post-punk vibe to them, with the production being kept to a lo-fi minimum and the vocalists not even trying to err… “sing” in any conventional sense. 

What’s more, the structure of the album is as precise as their playing – it alternates ‘real’ songs with experimental noise/ambient links which are all very different from each other – from the excellent drony ‘Bomber Pilot WWII’ that invokes the very images its title suggests to the slightly silly ‘Communication’ which is obviously just some random studio dabbling. But even if you’re not a fan of experimental noisemaking, these tracks are never longer than 2 minutes, so they never overstay their welcome. The actual songs are of course even better, ranging from power-pop (‘My Pal the Tortoise’) to melancholy folk-rock (‘Hundreds of Years’) to krautrockish explorations (‘Cup of Dreams’) to friggin’ lullabies (‘Noble Experiment’). My favorite track here, however, is the gorgeous ‘The Piston and the Shaft’ – easily the most heavily-produced song on the album, with amazing interplay of the bass and several guitars and even some semblance of vocal harmonies in the chorus. This kind of song could make a fine radio hit too, if it weren’t for the dark lyrical matter (and maybe it WAS a radio hit on some alt-rock stations for all I know).

However, probably none of the above descriptions will give you any true impression about what ‘Strangers from the Universe’ actually sounds like. And even if I say that this is a weird cross between geometric guitar precision of Wire, noisy sincerity of The Fall and warped songwriting of The Residents, with a heavy dose of Can and Neu to boot, that still wouldn’t be even close to what you’ll actually hear. So if the named artists mean anything good to you, you’d better check this album out, I daresay it’s going to pleasantly surprise all lovers of indie-rock with experimental edge. 
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Author: tomymostalas

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