Angry Salad’s self titled release (and swansong) from 1999 is a re-recorded and re-sequenced version of their ‘Bizarre Gardening Accident’ full length from two years previously. By this point, eight years into a ten year career, the Rhode Island band had finally gained a little recognition from the industry after years of hard work and extensive touring schedules. Re-titled ‘Angry Salad’, the Atlantic Records release is, naturally, somewhat of an improvement over the independent release, but the band’s gift for song-craft – and Bob Whelan’s vocal abilities, especially – were always more than evident.
With a heavy use of drum loops, ‘The Milkshake Song’ does not – at least to begin with – do this album any favours with regard to first impressions. Its mechanical nature adds too much of a throwaway air. Listen beyond that, though, and you’ll find a great pop number bristling with energy. Its ringing guitars have a strong presence, while the lyrics bring a strong sense of reminiscence. Dress that up with a sharp production and sharper chorus and ‘The Milkshake Song’ screams “summer hit”. It was not. Once you can get past those drum machines, ‘The Milkshake Song’ is a more than reasonable opener, but in some respects, it sets the listener up with a misguided idea of what follows…
The poignant ‘Rico’ – a track recorded by the band three times in total – captures the Angry Salad “sound” in a near-perfect four minute nugget, as well as highlighting their knack for a well-phrased lyric. A warm bass and melodic guitar riff that’s tailor made for radio – kind of Matchbox Twenty-esque, but harder – would have been enough to ensure this number stands out, but the lyrical content concerning a man who lost his life in a car accident gives this a real sense of poignancy. Angry Salad’s deep storytelling is in a style which Matchbox Twenty (and so many other similar bands) could only dream of writing. The fact that Bob Whelan is able to deliver sad lines regarding loss (“It’s coming back to me in my dreams; bad news never sleeps, bad news never heals”) alongside more flippant lines like “you don’t make snow angels with your face down” while making everything feel so natural is rare talent indeed. Even sadder than ‘Rico’, ‘Saturday Girl’ recounts the thoughts of a hospitalized teenager after a misadventure with drugs. Once the life and soul, she’s now comatose in a hospital bed watching car lights streaming past her window, dreaming those lights belong to her friends who’ve come back to take her back to her old life. This heartbreaking tale is given a suitable send off, with clear ringing guitars and an emotionally fuelled vocal which, in another world, would have suited Counting Crows man Adam Duritz.
Rather more uplifting – but ultimately throwaway by comparison – is a top-notch cover of Nena’s 80s hit ’99 Red Balloons’. In the second half of the 90s and beyond, a few punk bands gave this well-worn tune the once over, but none of their energy could match the great version featured here. The lead synth translates exceptionally well into a jagged guitar riff, which Angry Salad use to their full advantage. Since they don’t really deviate too far from any other version of ’99 Red Balloons’, there’s little else to add regarding the bulk of their performance. Listen carefully during the fade-out, though, and you’ll catch Bob Whelan amusingly name checking a few other German exports: “autobahn and sauerkraut, Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine”…
Bringing the band’s rockier tendencies to the fore, ‘How Does It Feel To Kill?’ opens with an acoustic guitar and piano intro followed by an electric guitar riff shamelessly lifted from the KISS classic ‘Detroit Rock City’ (not just inspired by – it actually is the ‘Detroit Rock City’ intro replayed by Angry Salad!). This then transpires into a no nonsense rocker – all crashy rhythm guitar chords and slightly distorted lead guitar lines. The trebly ringing sounds are put in their place by some well arranged, wordless harmony vocals across the chorus and a somewhat out of place bridge which, surprisingly, reinstates the piano and guitar last heard during the intro. In honesty, it’s more than a bit cut ‘n’ paste (especially once you factor in a few funky hard rock riffs), yet somehow Angry Salad make this hotch-potch of sounds work in their favour. Another upbeat track, ‘Empty Radio’ contains some top lyrics (“I was kneeling before the parts on the floor / Of the radio I took apart to find Elvis”), and a great tune, but it’s real stroke of brilliance comes via a stupidly, stupidly infectious hook, as the band fill musical passages with catchy “woo-woos”. Sure, it doesn’t sound so special on paper, but in reality, they’re possibly the most effective set of “woos” since The Rolling Stones’ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’ thirty years earlier. Those combined with a great jangly guitar riff should be enough to keep you listening. It’s a shame this wasn’t enough for Atlantic Records to keep listening and give the album a decent promotion.
The rock numbers are good, but once you’re acquainted with Angry Salad, it becomes obvious it’s the more reflective moments which show the band in their most positive light. While not as perfect as ‘Rico’ or ‘Saturday Girl’, ‘Red Cloud’ has a great atmosphere. Most of this is down to Alex Grossi’s guitar work which is full of muted chords working in near perfect harmony with Hale Pusifer’s understated drumming, lending the arrangement a strong vibe of mid-80s U2. This is strengthened to the nth degree with a big key-change and chorus which sounds unavoidably like ‘The Unforgettable Fire’. Rather than sounding like total plagiarism, it’s actually really flattering and Whelan’s lead vocal finds a perfect balance between big notes and breathiness – possibly his best ever performance. “And what Red Cloud wants, you can’t give back…”
The only track on ‘Angry Salad’ which could be considered filler is ‘Scared of Highways’, but even then, the track is better than most similar bands could care to write. Granted, a lacking chorus puts this in the weaker category of Angry Salad’s output, but the musical arrangement has some really strong moments – namely the subtle, vibrato edged guitar during the bridge section and Brian Holland’s fantastically busy bassline, which fills as much musical space as possible throughout.
Angry Salad manage to pull off something very difficult with this release: they combine wonderfully heartfelt, emotional songs alongside numbers which feature elements of quirky song writing and humour, without said humorous moments ever cheapening the whole package. The whole album is a joy (even the weaker moments), and it’s an absolute travesty it has often languished in bargain bins across the US, destined for a life of relative obscurity. Do yourselves a big favour and seek it out – and soon.