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Taking a listen to Lotion's "full Isaac" album 17 years after its release

Andrew W. Griffin
The album cover of "full Isaac" by Lotion
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CD REVIEW:   Lotion –  full Isaac  (spinArt) 1994

Here at Red Dirt Report we love music – all kinds of music. Pop, jazz, rock, country, hip-hop, New Age – everything! And the music that played a role in our formative years and early adulthood – primarily music released between 1985 and 1995 – is of particular interest, when not listening to and reviewing the latest releases.

And for a talented, New York-based indie-rock band like the long lamented Lotion. Never heard of ‘em? Well, not long after seeing them open up for The Connells in late 1994 in an auditorium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, I really lost track of them. I think one of my guilty pleasure magazines, Sassy, had given them a cute-band thumbs-up back then. This would have been a few years after Sassy included R.E.M.’s “Dark Globe” flexi-disc in an issue. I still have it around here somewhere …

As openers, they didn’t play as long as The Connells. But I do recall thinking it was a bit more arty than the straightforward melodic guitar-pop offered up by the North Carolina-based headliners.

Anyway, I think I sought out their album at the time – the critical favorite and debut on spinArt called full Isaac. I never found it at the time, sad to say. Guess I didn’t look to hard, considering I was following so many other indie-rock bands at the time.

Fast-forward 17 years. Am perusing the cheapie CD bin at my favorite local vinyl shop, Guestroom Records, and I see a used copy of Lotion’s full Isaac. It was the album I had tepidly sought out back in ’94 but never found, and here it was. Oh, I had to listen to it now, and for a measley 4 bucks, to boot!

Back home, I popped full Isaac (a refrerence to Love Boat bartender Isaac Washington) in my old-school CD jambox and start to take in the sounds. Hot diggity! It’s better than I remembered. I think at the time I was so excited about The Connells show (a favorite on mine to this day) and initially viewed Lotion as keeping me from seeing The Connells all that much sooner.

As one critic described the foursome, they are “(a)mbitious, melodic, muscular, clever …” and they would be correct. Singer Tony Zajkowski, brothers Jim Ferguson and Bill Ferguson on guitar and bass, respectively, and drummer Rob Youngberg. They really worked well as a band and for a time, up until about 2000, they were pretty well respected, landing liner notes on their Nobody’s Cool disc from reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon and landed a brief spot on an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So, the first track, “Tear,” has that early-to-mid 90’s alt-rock wall-of-sound vibe, but in the British mod sense. We’re talking a sound reminiscent of “swirling guitar” bands like Swervedriver, Ride or Kitchens of Distinction.The production by Ultra Vivid Scene's Kurt Ralske is top shelf!

Youngberg is working those drums on “Dr. Link,” a song that has an unusual time signature and features the Ferguson brothers connected by what seems like a thread. Jim’s guitar is frantic and inventive. A neat song.

“Paas,” meanwhile, starts off with dreamy guitar sound that brings to mind the debut album from ethereal instrumental band Rivulets and Violets, a record also released in 1994. It’s a short track, with cryptic references to dinosaurs, and never really seems to get a chance to build, like you might expect. But then, this is an example of what full Isaac is all about – you really don’t know what the band will throw at you next. That may sound like a sign of the band’s inability to settle on a sound, but that’s not the case here. Zajkowski’s on the mark here. His voice may not be the greatest but it really has a tendency to sneak up on you.

There is a real palpable power to “La Boost” and the Fergusons really propel this song along with a youthful energy that gives you a taste of what Lotion would go on to create later in the decade.

The standout song on full Isaac, the one I get the most excited about, is the Indian-influenced “Long.” Anyone who has met someone from another country, someone we perceive as beautiful – and exotic, even – who we part ways with. It’s happened to me.

Sings Zajkowski over a tabla, acoustic guitar and finger cymbals …

Who did I talk to in circumstance
The words I offered, obligations
And I go back to sleep
She sent a pack of pictures in the mail
And in them I looked thinner
I'm not sure, can't be certain
She was after something

She was after something. Love? A green card? Something else. It’s all very mysterious, but with those lyrics and the almost psychedelic Beatle-George-Harrison vibe, you want more from a song that comes in at just over two minutes.

“Long” is followed by the fuzz-thump of “Pajamas,” which starts out sounding like The Breeders’ “Cannonball” but slightly slower and a little more dense musically and lyrically.

For those looking for more accessible, melodic alt-pop, “Around,” with its strummy guitars and cello and Zajkowski’s plaintive and lovesick vocals – “nearly drunk with desire” – really capture what was going on in alternative rock in those days when cloudy-day Britpop was all the rage. You really don’t hear this stuff much anymore.

What is going on with “Head”? Is the boy in the lyrics somehow trapped? The jangly guitar, which gets louder during the “help me, I’m burning” chorus is charming against wintry lyrics that echo with sadness.

“Dock Ellis” is a percussive pleasure that has big plans for the listener lucky enough to give it some time of day. Strange, haunting backing vocals – a “rumpus,” they say - appear suddenly against the tom-tom bounce and thoroughly cool bass lines.

“She Is Weird City” is straight-up Manchester-inspired rock  while the closer, the curiously titled “Love Theme from Santo Gold,” meanders and pulls the disc to a pleasant enough close.

Do I like full Isaac? Sure. I wish I’d picked it up at the T-shirt booth after that show all those autumns ago. Instead, I was swooning over The Connells show and trying to find a gal named Dee (she in a Chieftains T-shirt and looking too cute) whom I met prior to the show while my younger brother James and I waited to get inside. Memories …

Even the full Isaac cover art – a collection of Spanish imagery, a bar of green and a pixilated picture which is actually a scene from a concert hall in early versions of the cover – is totally random. There is even a box in the liner notes area that says “Notes” and space for the person to make notes, you assume.

All these years later, long after Lotion has broken up and the band members have (assumedly) real jobs (ha!) and other, more “adult” pursuits, full Isaac really holds up well as a debut album from a very promising band.

Grade - A

Copyright 2011 West Marie Media

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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