In today’s world of affordable home recording equipment and easy access to worldwide distribution, it’s easy to forget that music was once extremely difficult to release. Recording in a top-notch, professional studio was cost-prohibitive to many, and before the digital revolution many projects simply did not see the light of day for a variety of reasons. By the 1980’s, things were beginning to change, and indie music was gaining momentum towards its eventual mainstream acceptance. Many “unsigned” bands were beginning to record self-released albums, EPs and singles that rivaled their major label counterparts in quality, even as they labored in obscurity and worked with severely limited budgets.
Junk Ranchers were one such band, and “86” is their long-lost masterpiece. It would have been completely forgotten if it wasn’t for the efforts of producer Kirk Swan (also of the band Dumptruck), who mixed and mastered the audio in 2020 – 34 years after the fact. The resulting album sounds surprisingly fresh today, perhaps due in part to the slew of modern bands who still pull influence from the college rock scene of the 1980’s. But there’s something else to it as well, an indefinable something extra. When music is this good, it almost doesn’t matter what year it was written or recorded in. Its appeal has not faded with time.
Album opener “Disappear” begins with a tight, muscular rhythm section pushing and pulling against bright and shimmery guitars in a way reminiscent of many post-punk records of the time. As the rhythm section propels the entire band forward, the song takes shape and moves into an almost gothic atmosphere, channeled through a jangle-pop sensibility. Lead singer and guitarist Tony Pinto sings his opening lines “The sun hides itself away/The darkness speaks in ways/That shade the day/Run away, you’ll never find me” and the melancholy atmosphere of the entire album is established. “After All” ramps up the angst a couple notches with its angular bassline, dark chord progression and noisy guitars. After this, there aren’t too many surprises as the feel of the album is very consistent throughout, and this isn’t a bad thing at all. With music this moody, you don’t want the spell to be broken. This album feels like a completed work, best enjoyed in its entirety, in sequence, and on high quality 1980s stereo equipment.
“Remains the same,” another album highlight, brings to mind the Cure at their best, with perhaps a bit more indie rock influence. The 6/8 dirge, driven by perfectly paired bass and drum tones, is overlaid with some beautiful jangly guitars and vocals haunted by a spooky reverse reverb. “Promise anything again/To me so I don’t see that it/Remains the same” Pinto sings, creating a perfect lament for a lover or friend who can’t seem to change their self-destructive patterns of behavior. It’s dark, dramatic, and overall very effective. “Shadows” is yet another highlight, a propulsive track with an unexpected and rather spooky breakdown featuring chimes, guitar feedback and other noises colliding with each other before the song’s final chorus.
The album works well as a whole, songs flowing into each other effortlessly and creating an atmosphere throughout. It also makes for an interesting listen as it combines gothic moodiness with melodic and catchy songs, R.E.M-inspired jangly guitars with a neo-psych, paisley underground feel. To say that “86” was an ambitious undertaking for an indie band at the time is quite the understatement. I suspect that if this had been released immediately upon completion, it would have been highly regarded by fans of this kind of music and remembered as an excellent example of genre cross-pollination, but alas, the band had already broken up before the album was even completed. Some of the band’s members did go on to start other projects, including Blood Orange, Five Dollar Priest, and Speedball Baby, making this an interesting piece of music history. One of the advantages of the era we live in is that it has become easier to rescue excellent pieces of music like this one from being completely forgotten. It deserves a much wider audience, and with this extensively delayed release, hopefully it will find just that.
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