ALBUMS: Strumming and Thrumming Left of the Dial

The overlooked mid-80s American College Rock movement finally gets its salute with Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

The Windbreakers (Art: Ron Hart)

In the early ’80s, jangle pop and its variants took off in a few discrete scenes around the world, but as New Zealand found its Dunedin Sound and the UK had its C86 moment, nothing coalesced in the US in the same way.

The States, though, certainly produced a wave of bands that could jingle with the best of them, though without a central narrative or noteworthy scene, many of these recordings have largely disappeared. As Captured Tracks launches its “Excavations” series – a string of compilations focusing on music that influenced the label’s acts – founder Mike Sniper seeks to highlight this music with Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987.

Artist: Various Artists

Album: Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987

Label: Captured Tracks 

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

American underground music took an aggressive turn in the 1980s with hardcore, no wave and noise-rock, but this compilation tracks down the more melodic, structured music that can, as Sniper says in his introductory essay, “bridge the gap between post-punk and indie rock as it was in America.” In these 28 tracks, we certainly get a presentation of that forgotten thread (aided by the wonderful and lengthy liner notes), but if Strum & Thrum were simply an academic document, it would have less value than it does. It makes its case, but its introduction to these overlooked bands should open doors to new and enjoyable listening forays.

Various Artists Strum & Thrum: The American Jangle Underground 1983-1987, Captured Tracks 2020

Surprises abound here, and while if you look closely you’ll see Archer Prewitt and Barbara Manning, almost none of these bands will be familiar to casual listeners, even if many of them should be. The surprises extend to sound, though. Jangle pop is usually connected with a certain melancholy or wistfulness, a standard song structure, and a steady beat (usually in 4/4). By covering the American experience and not just a tight circle, the set also reveals the variety of influences within the genre. A band like the Windbreakers has an expected affinity to the Paisley Underground, but they’re a short jump away from the Replacements. With “All My Friends,” the Primitons hint at early U2 and a possible turn toward post-punk before getting into Southern power pop. The movement might be stereotyped by the Byrds and a Rickenbacker, but a set like this one breaks down that ideal.

Finding highlights on the set can be a challenge, but two of them arrive immediately. The Reverbs open with “Trusted Woods” and a quintessential college rock feel. Start quickly shifts to a more indie-driven approach with the spare and (relatively speaking) off-kilter “Where I Want to Be.” “Misery, Me & You” by the White Sisters puts a memorable and melodic spin on a lo-fi presentation; the pitchiness becomes part of the joy. 28th Day, though, grinds the prettiness into a grungier sound, a reminder that many of these bands weren’t as separated from that developing scene as their guitar tones might suggest, much like Sniper’s understanding of this music as holding a liminal space in the United States.

Salem 66 (Art: Ron Hart)

By the end of the set, as we go past the countryish “The Meeting” by Pop Art, the compilation makes a strong case that American had a strong jangle underground (clearly beyond the success of R.E.M. or a group like the dBs). It’s also a reminder that, whether due to geographic distance or varied influences, the era never developed a precise sound or singular scene.

Strum & Thrum turns that scatteredness into something coherent, not only creating an archive of like-minded music, but also serving as a historical document to reject the idea of an era of “Dark Years” in rock in the ’80s. It’s an enlightenment well worth exhuming.



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Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake, based in central Virginia, has worked in publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing has focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music. You can follow him on Twitter @jcoberlake.

One thought on “ALBUMS: Strumming and Thrumming Left of the Dial

  • January 24, 2021 at 1:57 pm

    What’s not to like about this? Jangle collection where the biggest names are Sex Clark Five and The Windbreakers. Captured Tracks ROCKS!


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