The Cavedogs: “Baba Ghanooj”
In my personal annals of unfair fates of talented bands in rock history, there are few bands that deserved better but ended up with less than The Cavedogs, one of the best (if not the best) Boston bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Their energetic rock and pop brought together all the best that the power pop genre had to offer — Big Star and early Who influences through guitarist Todd Spahr; Beatles, XTC, and Badfinger through bassist Brian Stevens; and some solid Cheap Trick and everything else to fill in the gaps through drummer Mark Rivers. I may not really be distributing the influences entirely correctly, but that was always the general impression I got when listening to their CDs and seeing them live.
I first came across The Cavedogs shortly after college, sometime around 1988-89, when I saw them open for Game Theory at The Rat in Kenmore Square. It’s an unusual band that can get me hooked the very first time I hear their music, and in a live setting no less. But they were clearly a well-rehearsed band, having fine-tuned their sound for at least a year or two on the Boston circuit, and they played with an enthusiasm that would have grabbed all but the most jaded of music fans. They were a true “triple threat” as well, as the trio all wrote and sang well, on top of being the excellent musicians that they were. There wasn’t a song that was tossed off half-heartedly — they were committed to everything they played, and I was certain by the end of the show that they were going to be big.
And for a while, it almost seemed like it would happen. Not long after that show, they released their phenomenally catchy 1990 debut album, Joy Rides for Shut-Ins — it was an excellent distillation of everything I witnessed at that show (and the several others I saw afterward, as I made a point of catching them live whenever possible and bringing any friends that were willing to be dragged along). Brian, Todd, and Mark each had a distinct personality to their songs, and they all meshed just right. A few of the songs got heavy airplay on WFNX and WBCN, the two Boston commercial stations at the time that were playing music otherwise only heard on college stations.
But sadly, something happened along the way, primarily a result of poor marketing and being shuffled around by their record label, Capitol, and although they released one more excellent (but somewhat darker) album, Soul Martini, they never got the recognition they deserved, and the timing couldn’t have been worse: Nirvana broke big with Nevermind between the two albums, and the labels all went off searching for more bands with the heavier grunge sound. The Cavedogs might as well have indeed been barking in a cave in the middle of nowhere, so quickly did they get dropped and left by the wayside. Certainly, this had to have contributed to their decision to call it quits after the second album.
Oh, wait: I’m almost forgetting the music! Among the many high points on The Cavedogs’ Joy Rides for Shut-Ins is Brian Stevens’ “Baba Ghanooj,” a song named for the yummy Middle Eastern eggplant spread for no apparent reason. I don’t really quite know what the song is about, but it sure does sound great: Stevens’ John Lennon-esque voice works with a slightly psychedelically tinged power pop riff to concoct a creamy delicacy that is pure Cavedogs. Todd Spahr’s tougher edge comes into play in the “Tell me, stranger…” bridge — doing the Lennon/McCartney thing of one songwriter bringing his strengths into play to balance the other’s. If this song does anything for you at all, do what you can to track down the rest of Joy Rides for Shut-Ins — I know you can get used copies cheaply on Ebay or Amazon (just click the album image above and go to the CD version of the album), or you can at least listen to it in its entirety on Grooveshark. The Cavedogs definitely deserve your attention.
[For more great music, also see the members’ later bands/albums: Brian Stevens (solo); The Gravy (Todd Spahr); Poundcake (Mark Rivers).]