Debut albums (like debut novels) contain an entire lifetime of ideas and ambition. The really great ones are those that make everything fit together as neatly as possible. But sophomoric albums? They’re a trickier proposition, because with your first attempt you’ve said everything you’ve always wanted to say – and if you’re lucky enough, you’ve reached a wider audience who now wait for what happens next. Any band that endures past their debut will find themselves in this position. Tullycraft’s reputation as suppliers of the finest twee pop was assured after their first album Old Traditions, New Standards. But of course you can’t just leave your new fanbase with nothing! Tullycraft (who at this point consisted of Sean Tollefson, Jeff Fell, Gary Miklusek, Chris Munford, and Jen Abercrombie on backing vocals) duly started recording their second album. They worked day jobs and Tullycrafted new music by night.
City of Subarus was the result. The reviews at the time weren’t hugely enthusiastic. In fact, there seemed to be a general sense of confusion. It seemed City of Subarus wasn’t the album people quite expected to follow Old Traditions, New Standards. “The best thing about Tullycraft’s City of Subarus is the album’s title,” wrote a critic on AllMusic. “Ramones without the production values,” said another. According to the band themselves, they never considered the thought they might have recorded a bad album.
For me, the reality is somewhere in between. For me, this was their debut album. I hadn’t heard Old Traditions, New Standards and never knew anything about Tullycraft, having discovered City of Subarus at Borders in Glasgow, home to one of the best CD shops for obscure bands from America. I had no frame of reference for Tullycraft, which meant I had no preconception – so when the sales assistant told me I’d like them if I liked Hefner, I thought…why not?
City of Subarus is low-key and lo-fi, the sort of bratty racket that I loved more than anything during my college years. The twee songs are there in the form of Vacation in Christine, ND and Miss Douglas County. But for me the most interesting stuff on this album are the songs that sound like the band are having all the fun in the world. Weirder fare like The Lives of Cleopatra, a pop music biography of Elizabeth Taylor that sounds like those cool songs with sparse beats, sloping guitars, and fab vocals that the ’90s sometimes threw up. Susan’s House by Eels. Bran Van 3000’s Drinking in LA. Those songs. Lives of Cleopatra, in hindsight, would never fit into Tullycraft’s debut album, but at the time it didn’t need to. And it stood (and stands) tall in its own right. Then there’s Crush This Town, which sounded sad and steely at the same time, something Tullycraft could do to perfection whenever they felt like it. Crush This Town summed up my thoughts and feelings about life, which were mostly very gloomy. Other songs are minor gems: Bee Sting Stings, Godspeed, and Ticket Tonight. They might not have been ‘twee’ enough to sit comfortably with tracks from their debut album, but they didn’t need to. This was Tullycraft as I first knew them. In fact, after hearing this album and listening to their debut later, I felt the confusion fans must have felt when they heard City of Subarus after loving and living with Old Traditions, New Standards – but in reverse.
City of Subarus is a misunderstood record that works a sort of background magic while you listen. It might be strange and silly and even confusing at times – but it’s never dull, not for a single second.