Happy 30th Anniversary to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians’ debut album Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, originally released August 9, 1988.
Perhaps I’m in the minority here, but I’m of the opinion that the clichéd phrase “one-hit wonder” is an overused and easily abused phrase, one far too often assigned to artists who are undeserving of such a dubious qualifier. It’s also emblematic of the average music consumer’s (and more than a few journalists’) lazy complacency in seeking out the fuller breadth of artists’ discographies, beyond what they’ve been force-fed, spin after spin after spin, on the radio or, at least back in the day, MTV.
Unfortunately, too many artists’ recording careers haven’t received the recognition and appreciation they arguably deserve because of this one-hit-wonder engendered myopia. A prime example is Edie Brickell, who, with her Dallas-bred band New Bohemians, struck gold back in late 1988 with their lyrically and sonically unconventional debut single “What I Am.” The album from which it came, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, received plenty of critical applause on its way to reaching double-platinum commercial heights, largely as a result of its ubiquitous single’s warm reception.
However, three decades later, Brickell and her bandmates (drummer Brandon Aly, percussionist John Bush, bass guitarist Brad Houser and guitarist Kenny Withrow) are still rigidly associated with that one song by far too many folks. But for those of us who weren’t merely satisfied with “What I Am” and instead used it as fodder to dig deeper into the group’s debut album—and subsequent recordings (1990’s excellent Ghost of a Dog and 2006’s Stranger Things), including Brickell’s solo fare (1994’s Picture Perfect Morning, 2003’s Volcano, and 2011’s eponymous Edie Brickell)—the rewards have been plentiful.
As I’ve written about here in these pages before, much of my musical discovery during my pre-teen and teenage years can be credited to my older sister. In stark contrast to my stubborn obsession with all things hip-hop during the late ‘80s into the mid ‘90s, my sister cultivated a considerably more expansive aural palette than I did at the time (though this pendulum has shifted in recent years, I think). Though I invariably snubbed my nose toward most of her musical offerings out of ignorance and flimsy adolescent-male bravado, Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars was an album that I immediately embraced, as soon as it appeared in her cassette collection back in the summer of 1988. Coupled with the band’s simple yet inviting melodies, there was something so warm and earnest about Brickell’s voice, along with the mix of seriousness and quirkiness peppered throughout her lyrics, and I found it hard to resist becoming enamored with the songs that comprise Shooting Rubberbands.
Originally formed in the early ‘80s, the New Bohemians cut their performing chops primarily in the clubs of Dallas’ famed Deep Ellum neighborhood during the middle of the decade. Signed to Geffen Records within a few years’ time, the band recorded their debut long player at the famed Rockfield Studios in Wales with the guidance of the late Pat Moran, who counted albums for rock luminaries such as Iggy Pop, Queen, Robert Plant, and Rush among his production and sound engineering credentials. In describing the recording sessions’ organic stimuli, Brickell told the New York Times back in November 1988, “A lot of the time, we don't have any ideas at all and start with a really silly image, like biscuits or paper plates, to see how it goes. When we come up with a melody we all like, we blend it all together and somehow a song naturally arrives.”
With its instantly unforgettable guitar riff that, somewhat surprisingly, has been a sampling mainstay of hip-hop artists (most famously on Brand Nubian’s 1990 single “Slow Down”), the aforementioned “What I Am” was a no-brainer selection for the LP’s lead single. Lyrically, the song unfurls as an anthem of embracing one’s individuality, free from the soul-sucking, mind-numbing constraints of various forms of groupthink.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the opening verse, in which Brickell cleverly proclaims that “Philosophy is the talk on a cereal box / Religion is the smile on a dog,” dual metaphors that always go over very well with my young daughters when I sing “What I Am” to them at bedtime, I must say. “I took this world religions class, and I was immediately annoyed at the chatter going on in the classroom,” Brickell confided to Vanity Fair in 2011. “To adopt behaviors, to adopt some sort of dogma, I felt defeated the purpose of evolution. ‘What I Am’ just blossomed from irritation.”
Although “What I Am” became the band’s initial calling card, for better or for worse, it’s simply one of multiple standouts across the twelve-track LP. For whatever it’s worth, my personal favorite remains “Love Like We Do,” an uplifting, shimmering ode to the enduring power of love to supersede all of life’s troubles, trials & tribulations. The sobering second single “Circle” explores the limitations of friendships to keep us stimulated and sane, while extoling the virtues of solitude. Sometimes, for some of us, being alone is indeed “the best way to be.”
An existential examination of the possibility of parallel lives, “The Wheel” conjures a question that I know I’ve contemplated from time to time, namely whether my spiritual doppelganger is out there somewhere in the world, leading a life very similar to my own, unbeknownst to me.
Possessed of a melody that sounds as if it could have very well been included on one of her then-future husband Paul Simon’s albums, ironically enough, “Nothing” offers another perspective that hits close to home for me. Brickell crafts the song from the perspective of an increasingly exasperated partner who wants to have an open exchange with her loved one, but the other party is dismissive and reluctant to speak, as she rightfully confesses, “There's nothing I hate more than nothing / Nothing keeps me up all night / I toss and turn over nothing / Nothing could cause a great big fight.” I can certainly relate to the dynamic Brickell presents here, as there are times when my wife perceives that something’s eating at me, but I respond to her inquiries with the flippant “nothing” so as not to burden her with my own problems or to cause conflict between us, which makes her even more curious about what’s going on inside my head. “Nothing” is seldom, if ever, the right answer.
Other highlights can be found on the downtempo breakup song “Air of December,” the lament for a lost love “Now,” the Bohemians’ “let loose” moment on the frenetic, insistent rocker “Keep Coming Back,” and the jangly, buoyant arrangement of “Little Miss S.” that belies its cautionary tale about the darker sides of fame.
Do just a little bit of digging, and you’ll discover that Edie Brickell has actually been quite productive and prolific in the three decades since Shooting Rubberbands surfaced. In addition to the two successive New Bohemians albums and her trio of solo efforts, she has collaborated with the likes of The Gaddabouts, The Heavy Circles, and most notably, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers on two wonderful bluegrass LPs (2013’s Love Has Come For You and 2015’s So Familiar).
And much to her and New Bohemians’ fans delight, the band is currently touring with a new album apparently on the near horizon. So cue up your copy of Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars today and get ready to enjoy the next chapter in the evolution of this distinctive singer-songwriter and band’s collective musical repertoire.