All Star United: Ain’t it grand when you’re livin’ in La La Land?

1997_AllStarUnited_AllStarUnitedArtist: All Star United
Album: All Star United
Year: 1997
Grade: A

In Brief: A classic power pop album from my college days. Really, you can’t go wrong here, unless you just hate happy music (and even then, you gotta love the sarcastic songs).

The year was 1997. The summer between my sophomore and junior years of college was long, hot, and more than a bit lonely. With many of my friends off on their own little adventures, and me stuck living at home, working retail, and battling a bit of lingering depression, I needed whatever pick-me-ups I could get. Bi-weekly trips to the local Christian bookstore to get a few new tapes (yes, cassette tapes!) whenever I got paid certainly helped, because if there was one love that was constant in my life at the time, it was music. While my tastes at the time were entirely limited to Christian music, because I dared to venture out beyond that as if “secular” music would bite or something, I was quite excited to stumble across a band with a sarcastic sense of humor, a willingness to skewer the little tidbits of Christian subculture than didn’t make sense to them, and above all else, a gift for massive melodic hooks. Perhaps you could consider All Star United my first true taste of power pop – the kind of music that had the crunch of rock & roll and that special zing that went two steps beyond simple pleasant radio-friendliness and to the point where you just couldn’t get a melody out of your head, no matter how hard you tried. ASU’s self-titled debut album was one of those rare finds that consistently and spectacularly hit the ball straight out of the park in that department. On numerous occasions, it almost seemed to make fun of its own insipid cheeriness, as if to let you know these guys were having a blast and didn’t take themselves too seriously. At other times, when they slipped into sarcasm mode or flirted with the occasional bit of angst, they were equally effective. This album was like a crash course through all of the emotions that I needed to get off my chest at the time.

What’s weird about All Star United in comparison to a great many of the poppy, sort-of-alternative rock albums that I had in my meager collection at the time is how strongly it’s held up over the years. If anything, I came to love it more over time than I did when I first heard it. This isn’t the kind of album that needs to grow in you by any means, because it’s so immediate and unpretentious. ASU pulls off a rare balance between versatility and cohesion here – the energy level is high from start to finish and only occasionally seems to let up on a few tracks that start off like quieter ballads. But as they sway from edgy rock songs to unapologetically fluffy pop songs and back, the instrumental core of strong vocals, drums, guitars and keyboards remains consistent and engaging. For a while I’d feel like I’d find a different way to harmonize with several of these songs when singing along, which gives you an idea of how melodically rich they are. A lot of what I was listening to at the time didn’t turn out to have that same staying power, so while I’d say that there are definitely albums with more artistic ambition or emotional depth that came out in 1997 (even when limited just to Christian music – Jars of Clay‘s Much Afraid and Caedmon’s Call‘s self-titled come to mind), this was probably the most fun I had listening to any album that year.

INDIVIDUAL TRACKS:

1. La La Land
The album begins with what might be the strongest song in the entire ASU discography, as jaunty piano chords create a false sense of security just long enough for the band to lure you in. If the insidious melody, with its gradually augmenting chords climbing up the scale, wasn’t enough to hook you, then by the time the first chorus ends and the guitars come screeching in, there will certainly be no option for you but but unconditional surrender. Ian Eskelin‘s written a doozy of a lyric that suits this big musical sneer quite well, as he satirically sideswipes contemporary Christian subculture for its own self-centeredness. We’re talking like, Steve Taylor levels of brilliance here: “All the saints and martyrs alike/Well, they would have called a national strike/Demanded less pain, more personal gain/If only they’d known their rights.” It would certainly be enough to throw more conservative listeners for a loop as soon as they realize how close to home this hits, but context makes it clear that ASU isn’t hating on Christianity – they’re just a bunch of Christians making fun of humankind’s awful habit of taking a faith that is supposed to be about grace and sacrifice and giving your entire life over to the one who saved it, and instead making it about petty things like praying for good parking spaces and putting on an insipid smiley face all the time. “Well, I take it very personally/I gotta know what’s in it for me!”, shouts the chorus, like a child throwing a temper tantrum. I figure it’s better for this stuff to come from within the Church than from outside of it (not that it hasn’t, but the inside jobs tend to be more accurate). If you’ve ever landed on TBN while channel-surfing and wondered what those clowns were on, then this song might just be for you. (Ironically, I first heard Ian Eskelin on TBN way back in the day, when he was attempting a solo techno/dance gig. The corny lyrics he had at the time did not appear, as far as I could tell anyway, to be satirical.)
Grade: A+

2. Bright Red Carpet
The silly and the serious collide in this overdriven blast of a song that takes a page from Audio Adrenaline‘s “Never Gonna Be as Big as Jesus” in its examination of the Christian faith through the lens of pop culture. Nothing terribly deep comes to the surface, with the message basically coming out something like, “It’s cool if you want to be well-dressed or famous or whatever, just don’t get too big of a head because the Kingdom of Heaven blows all that away.” In a sense, it’s good that it stops short of lambasting Hollywood – celebrity isn’t inherently a bad thing, and it’s too easy for a lot of Christian bands to launch into tirades about the sins of Tinseltown. ASU doesn’t get into all that here. Their view is more like: “And that’s alright, but if you demand spotlights/Get ready to blow/’Cause Heaven steps on false attempts to glow/I gotta know/Will you be there when they roll out the BRIGHT! RED! CARPET!” Yes, they shout the chorus much like that. And it’s a big ball of cheesy fun. It might be the nostalgia filter, but I think the inherent cheesiness of it all adds to the likeability of the song – these guys love Jesus and aren’t afraid to be a little goofy, but they want to be careful not to come across as overly judgmental. Also? Christian Crowe‘s drums on this song are absolutely OFF THE SCALE.
Grade: A-

3. Angels

It took me a while to notice this track, what with there being so many other high-energy songs on the album. Then for a while it was my favorite, admittedly for personal reasons, but still, it holds its own after the tracks that preceded it by continuing to ROCK MY FACE OFF. You’d expect a song about angels comforting a wayward soul to be more of a sensitive ballad, but ASU’s not quite ready to play that card yet. Instead the guitars are wigging out and the melody is wandering every which way and it’s all one big poppy, gooey mess that I just love. Though the female protagonist of the song is determined to wander into dangerous places that God never wanted her to go, the message is not one of fear but one of hope, with the band insisting, “Angels hold her hands when she walks in the dark.” The note that they hit on the word “dark” just kills me – this is power pop at its finest and yet they keep throwing in all of these colorful, unexpected chords. The reason that this three-minute blast of a song really caught me on a deeper level had to do with a young woman I knew in college, also a Christian, but who had started to explore more alternative (read: liberal) ways of looking at Jesus that I, with my conservative upbringing, wasn’t ready to process yet. So I rather judgmentally thought of her as being this wandering soul in search of the truth, when in fact that’s kind of what we all are. What Tolkien once said was true, and the band sums it up beautifully in un-flowery contemporary language here: Not all those who wander are lost.
Grade: A

4. Drive

Something about the tone of the electric guitar in this song sounded old-school to me when I first heard this song… I still can’t quite place the era, but it seems to crunch less and sing out with more emotion than the typical alt-rock bands on the era. I get a picture of the guys in an open garage with their amps up to eleven when I listen to this one… they’re not rocking out full blast, but just letting the good vibes flow and getting geared up for a big finish later. There’s nothing explicitly “Christian” about this track, which is simply about noticing that a friend is under a lot of stress, and offering to take that friend for a long, scenic drive to nowhere in particular, whatever provides ample time to talk about the problem at hand and all of life’s other mysteries. Fast-forward about eight years and I could have imagined The Elms recording a song like this. (Or rewind a few decades, and any number of bands that influenced both The Elms and ASU could have recorded it.) It all seems straightforward enough, until the last chorus turns a blind corner and slides headlong into a wicked awesome breakdown, switching the time signature on a dime from 4/4 into 6/8, and really letting the guitars squeal. It comes right the heck out of nowhere, and it is one of the most awesome moments on an album that has a dangerous amount of them.
Grade: A

5. Torn

I have one very, very minor complaint about the pacing of this album, and that’s that they put the two “slow songs” (if you could even call them that, given how manic “Drive” gets at the end) back to back. This being, the quietest, moodiest, and least slick of the ten tracks provided, perhaps it could have found a better home in the back half of the album? Alas, this was during the waning years of cassette tapes, when it still seemed like you had to end side one on a “down” note so that you could open side two with a big crowd pleaser. Anyway, none of this is meant to reflect poorly on the song, which may be the one reminder of the angsty “alternative” era in which it was released. Everything about it is subdued at the beginning – the drums limp and cautious, the guitars thin and tentative. It’s a perfect fit for a lyric that expresses some major misgivings about getting into a relationship. Is she the right one? Is she just a distraction? Most distressingly, if he sits around hemming and hawing over it for long enough, will he lose his chance altogether? This one didn’t seem like much to me at first, perhaps even bugging me a bit with its tense melody, until the following summer, when (not so coincidentally) I was hemming and hawing over whether to get into a relationship. Remember that curious co-ed I described a few paragraphs back? Yeah, our friendship was on the verge of becoming a lot more than that, and I was simultaneously stoked (being the guy who couldn’t get a date to save his life for the first three years of college) and terrified (because, stupidly, I kind of also liked someone else who hardly even knew I was there). So this was like my theme song for that entire summer, right up to its screeching, dissonant, not-at-all resolved ending.
Grade: A-

6. Smash Hit

This was my very first exposure to All Star United back in early ’97, when I still sort of thought Christian radio might serve as an informative guide for discovering new music. I basically wrote this one off by its title alone, wondering what sort of band would have the pretentiousness to actually call their first radio single “Smash Hit”. Well, it turned out to be the song that put ASU on the map, but that’s beside the point, since it’s not about them being popular, it’s about how to make Jesus more popular. If that sounds like “Bright Red Carpet” all over again, then well, you’ve got it all wrong, because this is another healthy helping of sarcasm in the vein of “La La Land”. Basically Ian and the boys have a blast consulting Jesus as if they were a bunch of dog-eat-dog PR guys, insisting that the Son of Man really shouldn’t be so picky when it comes to cross-promotion: “Join His name to any cause/Drop His name to get applause/They never get enough/Nothing here to be ashamed of/Those ever loyal fans/They wanna get their hands/On His newest merchandising/Ignoring overpricing.” Ouch! (And exactly how much was reunion Records selling this CD for at your local Christian bookstore? I’m gonna go with $17.99, Bob.) The Christian radio stations that played this one and loved it must have been in on the joke. Those were the last few years before the labels completely bought them out and reduced their playlists to all of 20 songs rotating throughout the day (with Chris Tomlin and MercyMe occupying roughly half of those slots), so I’m glad those DJs lived it up while they still could. Musically, this is just about as bouncy, goofy and harsh as ASU gets, with a jerky stop-start beat, lots of bent guitar notes, and a little Queen-referencing “LA LA LA!” thrown into the pre-chorus, apropos of absolutely nothing. Good times!
Grade: A

7. Saviour of My Universe

Hearing this song on a sampler (anyone remember Release magazine? No? Never mind.) was what I think finally tipped the scale and convinced me to buy the album. It’s about as straight-ahead pop radio friendly as ASU got without getting rocky enough to irritate the adult contemporary audience on this album, starting out with high-strung, over-driven acoustic guitar chords, and bringing in the electric later, sweetening it up just enough with a string arrangement to give it all of the proper ingredients for a mid-90’s contemporary Christian radio hit. It was nothing deep, but the arrangement was crisp, clear, and still had that zing to it that made a lot of other pop music feel downright sleepy by comparison. Ian doesn’t win a whole lot of points for witty lyricism here, imagining his own little universe as a fragile glass ball or a leaky bubble, which only becomes durable and expandable after meeting Jesus. It’s the tasteful arrangement (done by none other than Matt Slocum, who was still a few years out from hitting a big break with his own band Sixpence None the Richer) that really sells it. It’s more neatly groomed than much of the album, but you can tell the guys are still pouring every ounce of passion they have into it, and it’s that level of dedication that makes it work despite the lyrical shortcomings.
Grade: A-

8. Beautiful Thing

It’s a weird thing to say, but I think Ian Eskelin actually has a gift for intentionally corny lyrics that make you put a smile on your face in spite of yourself. It took me a while to fully get into this song due to how thick he lays it on here, but it’s a Silly Love Song taken to the nth degree, and he’s not gonna apologize for that. Get a load of the second verse: “I’ll take the Rockies gift-wrapped, or the Grand Tetons/Add a truckload of those cherry bon-bons/A ’54 fire red collector’s car/A doggy-bag trip to the money super bar.” Yep, that’s how much being loved by you makes him feel! Throw in a truckload of “Woo-hoo-hoo!”s in the chorus (which would be uncomfortably close to the Barenaked Ladies‘ “It’s All Been Done” if this song hadn’t come into existence a year earlier), and a sweet guitar solo from Mr. Dave Clo, and you’ve got the basic template for a catchy little song that exists for no purpose other than a ton of good clean fun. (Bizarrely enough, this one got picked up several years later for the soundtrack of the movie Saved! Now wrap your head around that for a second. A movie which was designed to lampoon the hypocrisy of Christian subculture, and they’re aware of the existence of All Star United, and they don’t pick “La La Land”? Sigh.)
Grade: B

9. Tenderness

More bouncy piano chords and a swaying, vaguely swing-inspired rhythm conspire to create a late-album favorite that’s determined to to either pick up your dampened spirits. As with a lot of CCM songs, you can read it as either a romantic love song or a song of comfort from God to man. ASU has shown enough predisposition to be equally mushy in either mode that it works either way (though I wouldn’t blame you if you’re feeling borderline diabetic from all the sugary sweetness at this point). Again, it’s that attention to the melodic twists and turns that gives it enough extra zing to succeed where a lot of simplistic pop songs fail. A cheerful little synth solo and plenty of hand claps near the end of the song certainly don’t hurt. From the aggressive blast of a chorus to the calming comedown at the end, this one almost feels like it could have been the perfect finale for the album. But instead…
Grade: A

10. Lullaby

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ… You’re likely to think that your CD player got stuck on a pretty deep scratch due to the annoying droning sound at the beginning of the song, which sounds like a keyboard stuck in time. Mercifully, a guitar melody cuts in after a little while just to let you know that there’s still a song here. Despite being the final track on the album, this was another one of those that I overlooked, since at this point we might be leaning a tad heavily on the big, fun comforting songs from the Man Upstairs, and I just thought “Tenderness” did it better, to the point where the album sounds a little better to me if you swap the positions of the two songs. However, this one has some straight-ahead rockage going for it, building up slowly through the verses and chorus until it finally explodes in a big, screaming party at the bridge. Even with these simplistic pop songs, they never ceased to have a total blast cranking ’em out. I also noticed that much later on how effectively the chorus melody expands with each iteration – first it’s just Ian singing a fairly basic melody, then he provides a harmony line the second time around, then by the final chorus, the harmonies feel like they’re at least three levels deep. The ending fade is the only truly dissatisfying thing here, sort of letting the song fizzle out where they really could have put an exclamation mark on the entire album. Ah well.
Grade: B

11. Vitamins

So, back in the days when technological inertia made me slow to convert to compact discs and music wasn’t freely available to sample to my heart’s content on the Internet, there was this thing called the “hidden track” that could very easily be kept a secret if I didn’t actually have a friend who owned the CD. So I had this album for a t least a good six months before I became aware of the cutesy little joke at the tail end of the album. Really, it’s just a brief little ditty that sounds like it came from some kids’ show in the 1950’s, with a slightly off-key female vocal telling us in the corniest possible way that “You don’t need vitamins, you need love”. I’m sure it must be meant to spoof old novelty recordings from when our parents were kids or something. (Well, my parents anyway. I know, I’m getting old.) It’s one of those things that I could hear once and not really need to ever hear again, though it does make for one heck of a great recurring gag when a similar song (“Hurricane Baby”) shows up as a hidden track on their next album, only to be turned into a full-band affair. Now that’s worth listening to multiple times!
Grade: C+

If there’s one downside to this brilliant debut album, it’s the frustrating realization that All Star United has yet to match the level of quality demonstrated here. Their follow-up effort, International Anthems for the Human Race, just barely squeezed in at the tail end of 1998, and it was a pretty good attempt, just a bit guilty of trying too many things at once. Then the band disappeared for a few years and pulled a Weezer by coming back in 2002 with the disappointingly short and trite Revolution. From there, it’s been a series of stops and starts with only two more albums under their belt (2006’s Love and Radiation, which had about one song that brought back the old All Star magic, and 2009’s The Good Album, which to be honest, I never got around to hearing). Technically, the group’s still active, but with so many member and label changes, I’m starting to feel like they’re only continuing to muddle their legacy at this point. All of this is to say, if you’re new to the band, start with their first and best effort.

WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
La La Land $2
Bright Red Carpet $1.50
Angels $1.75
Drive $1.50
Torn $1.50
Smash Hit $1.75
Saviour of My Universe $1.50
Beautiful Thing $1
Tenderness $1.75
Lullaby $1
Vitamins $.25
TOTAL: $15.50

BAND MEMBERS:
Ian Eskelin: Lead vocals
Dave Clo: Guitars
Christian Crowe: Drums
Patrick McCallum: Keyboards
Gary Miller: Bass

LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
http://open.spotify.com/album/7dcNgHh8gh9Y09BbpqpCvL

USEFUL LINK:
http://www.allstarunited.com/

Originally published on Epinions.com.

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