Why the New Jersey originals remain brilliantly quirky after all these years
The Cucumbers broke out of Hoboken, New Jersey in 1983, part of the scene that spawned acts like The Feelies and The Bongos.
Their first single, “My Boyfriend,” hit the College Radio charts and they soon had a video on MTV, but the pressures of touring, working day jobs and starting a family took their toll. Deena Shoshkes and Jon Fried, the songwriters at the heart of the band, kept playing locally, but raising their sons took up most of their time.
At the turn of the new century, Shoshkes and Fried joined a songwriting collective that morphed into The Campfire Flies. They put out a well-received album, Sparks Like Tiny Stars, and played locally, but with all the band members busy with day jobs and other bands, they kept a low profile.
Then the pandemic hit. “Jon and I couldn’t get together with anyone to play,” Shoshkes said. “Luckily, we had each other and our acoustic guitars. We were able to play as a duo and did a lot of live stream performances through Facebook Live. We teamed up with food banks and other organizations to play fundraisers. We performed outside, safely, whenever possible. It was a great way to get out and socialize again.
“In the process, Jon and I worked up a bunch of songs I’d been writing over the past couple of years,” Shoshkes said. “I was trying to figure out how to record them and put them out in the world, but putting together a new band was daunting. We were rehearsing a set for another outside performance, while our son Jamie, who is a drummer, was home studying for his med school exams. He started sitting in and jamming along, and it sounded great. He grew up playing our music. He’s more interested in jazz and more complex music, but he can play anything. We asked our neighbor, Rick Wagner, to play bass and headed into the studio.”
The result is Old Shoes, the first album of new songs by The Cucumbers in almost 20 years. Here, the band takes a more acoustic approach to the arrangements than before. Fried plays the melodic hooks on his banjo, in a decidedly non-bluegrass fashion, but the seven songs remain identifiable as potential Cucumbers hits. “Mister Moon” is a laid-back country tune, with a chorus driven by the memorable harmonies of Fried and Shoshkes. “Blue Guitar” has a hint of R&B in its rhythm. Shoshkes sings softly, longing for the return of an absent lover. “Keep Doing What You Do” is an ardent love song, with a Latin lilt in its rhythm, while the title track is a folky ballad that describes the rewards of a long relationship. It has a memorable banjo hook and subtle percussion supplied by Jamie Fried.
“We recorded everything live at Magic Door Studios in Montclair, NJ,” Shoshkes said. “I produced it, as I do with my own demos, so I knew what I wanted. There was no sweetening or adding instrumental parts. I took the mixes home to add my vocals, but we’d been working out the arrangements during the time of the pandemic, so we just let the songs speak for themselves.”
Shoshkes said the band will be releasing Old Shoes digitally, on their own Lifeforce label. “The world doesn’t need more plastic and most people I know no longer have CD players,” she said. “Making vinyl albums is really expensive. We also have no relation to the heavy metal Lifeforce label in Germany. There’s also a metal band called Vintage Cucumber in Germany. They might be our alter egos.”
Old Shoes will be released on July 21. You can hear it on The Cucumbers’ website: www.thecucumbers.net.
VIDEO: The Cucumbers “Old Shoes”