Scott McCaughey beats the odds with Stroke Manor
Artist: The Minus 5
Album: Stroke Manor
Label: Yep Roc Records
★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Stroke Manor is a true document of triumph over great adversity, as Minus 5 founder Scott McCaughey beats the odds to come out swinging with yet another great record.
When the legendary musician (whose band resume also includes such acts as the Young Fresh Fellows, Filthy Friends, R.E.M. and Tuatara, among numerous others), had a stroke in November 2017, he found that much of his musical memory was gone. “I lost all the speech stuff, the lyrics — that was all wiped out,” he told Billboard. But his friend Peter Buck brought him a guitar while he was still in the hospital, and he found he could still remember how to play chords. And as he slowly began re-learning how to play the songs he’d once written, he realized there was another option for him if he wanted to keep on making music: write new songs.
And so he started putting down lyrics in his notebook while working his way back to recovery. “Goodbye Braverman” was the first such composition to be unveiled to the public, recorded with his Minus 5 compatriots and released on SoundCloud. It’s a swirling number drenched in fuzzy psychedelia, whose surreal stream of consciousness wordplay (“A sorry typewriter, both spewing and choked/The cigarette lighter, small coffin for mice bones”) is the result of McCaughey’s struggling to find the right words for what he wanted to express. Other songs followed, now compiled in this release that gives a vivid depiction of what it’s like to be stuck in “Stroke Manor,” having to retrain your brain to do what once came without thinking.
VIDEO: “Beatles Forever”
Of course there are songs directly referencing his situation. “Top Venom,” which closes the album, is the most sobering number, a sad, droning litany of misery and a plea for release from the purgatory of hospital existence (“When is this tube coming out?”). That unhappiness is balanced by the more quirky observations in “MRI,” a chipper falsetto piece about the perils of “tunnel time.”
There’s also a lot of TV viewing in the hospital, to help pass the time, and the flotsam and jetsam of late night movies surfaces in the jagged “Beacon From RKO,” with Howard Hughes and Citizen Kane making cameo appearances. And it’s not surprising that the Beatles also provided a touchstone. Knowing he was a keen fan of the Fab Four, Buck loaded an iPod with Beatles tracks for McCaughey to listen to, inspiring the song “Beatles Forever (Little Red).” It’s an odd, off kilter waltz, with a plaintive chorus, and girl group-esque backing vocals adding to the dreamlike state, like hearing a Shangri-Las song played at a slightly wrong speed. (The vinyl version of the album includes a handwritten list of Beatles songs titles McCaughey tried to remember, coming up with such variations as “Do You Don’t Do You Secret” and “Strawberry Reunion.”) “Bleach Boys & Beach Girls” is a similarly warped slice of nostalgia, fractured surf rock that’s shaken, not stirred, as McCaughey and the gang glory in singing the mantra, “The world is just one big towel.”
McCaughey gets by on this journey with a little help from his friends, including not only Buck, but also Corin Tucker, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Wynn, and Jenny Conlee, among others. You certainly don’t have to know the backstory of the songs to appreciate the startling imagery of the lyrics. But the knowledge of what it took to create Stroke Manor obviously heightens the experience, a magical mystery tour of one musician’s determination to work his way back into the light.
VIDEO: “Bleach Boys & Beach Girls”