“The Minus 5” by The Minus 5 (No. 85)

The Minus 5 may be one of the best bar bands ever assembled. Made up of a rotating cast of alt-rock heroes like former R.E.M.’er Peter Buck and drummer Bill Rieflin, and headed by Scott McCaughey of the Young Fresh Fellows, the self-titled The Minus 5 is a loose, rollicking set of songs that practically beg to be performed live.

I can thank Robyn Hitchcock for my introduction to The Minus 5. Several members of The Minus 5 (Buck, McCaughey, and Rieflin) backed Hitchcock on his 2006 album Olé! Tarantula as “The Venus 3,” and I had the chance to catch the bands in Seattle, playing the Crocodile Cafe in November 2006. So I nabbed The Minus 5 too, to see what they had to offer. Quite a lot, as it turns out. (Spoiler alert, this isn’t the only time Hitchcock or Buck will appear in the top 100.)

The Minus 5 runs the gamut from hard, fuzzed-out rock to country-ish crowd-pleasers. “Leftover Life to Kill,” for example brings a heavy wall of guitar backed by straightforward drum/bass and keyboard/organ noodling straight out of the 60s. IT dissolves into a total mess of a jam session before leading into “Hotel Senator.” This number begins with a drum/bass signature that reminds me just a little bit of the intro to “Come Together.” It’s got a bit of a menacing vibe, until breaking into a chorus that would fit comfortably on a Monkees album. Then reverts to mild menace once again, and then back to Monkees mode. (Seriously, I can picture Peter Tork and Micky Dolenz harmonizing on this one.)

“Aw Shit Man” is a number that could have been by The Ramones, by way of Warren Zevon. At less than two minutes, it’s over before you know it – but will stick with you for quite a while. McCaughey has quite a knack for writing solid hooks.

“Rifle Called Goodbye” still puzzles me, lyrically. It sounds vaguely like a break-up song, but its references to wolverines and quartermasters make little sense if I try to interpret them literally. Doesn’t matter, though. It’s solid music, and McCaughey sells the delivery so well that pure feeling makes the song go. This is, I suppose, not new territory for Peter Buck – working with a lead singer who delivers stream-of-consciousness lyrics expertly.

“Cigarettes Coffee and Booze” shifts gears into a faux-country mode, complete with some steel guitar and McCaughey adopting a bit of a nasal twang. This is a mid-tempo number with a solid bass thrum and drum kit shuffle that will keep you tapping your foot throughout and it’s almost guaranteed you’ll find yourself singing the refrain (“All you really need / cigarettes coffee and booze / cigarettes coffee and booze…”) for days afterwards.

“Bought a Rope” is a little more introspective and dreamy. And dark. Definitely dark. “All Worn Out” keeps a similar tempo, with McCaughey’s vocals echoing or distorted to sound like they’re coming over a bad connection. This is a piano-driven piece that has some lovely steel guitar.

The album picks up the pace closes with the foot-stomping “Original Luke,” a guitar-driven piece played at top speed. No finesse in this one, just straightforward and full speed ahead. All the stops are pulled out for this one.

The Minus 5 is a fantastic slice of unpretentious rock music, ready to be served up live. These are the kinds of songs you’ve heard before, even when you haven’t, and feel immediately familiar from the get-go.

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