Album of the Week, July 6: Fun and Games by the Connells

Fun&GamesThe Connells formed in the early 80s in Raleigh, NC. Guitarist Mike Connell teamed with his brother, David on bass and vocalist Doug MacMillan. Within short order George Huntley came on board as a second guitarist and backing vocalist with occasional keyboard duties and Peele Wimberley replaced short-term initial drummer John Schultz. This quintet quickly coalesced as a regional force to be reckoned with. Their dual 12-string jangle attack, wry lyrics, and clean sound fit in nicely with the growing group of southern college rock bands.

Their first album, Darker Days, was released separately in the US and UK with slightly different tracks; it featured local soon-to-be-star producer Don Dixon behind the boards. Based on the local success of that disc, they shopped around for a label, eventually settling in at TVT. Working with another local leading light, Mitch Easter, as producer, they recorded the solid Boylan Heights. A much stronger set, it featured a more distinctive sound with an almost Celtic folk tone underlying the jangly power-pop. That album received significant critical notice and college airplay. Building on that success and sound, they went back into the studio and recorded their most rewarding album.

Title Fun & Games
Act The Connells
Label TVT Release Date April 1989
Producer Gary Smith, Anthony Battaglia, Matt Matthews, and the Connells
U.S. Chart  163 U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Something to Say
  2. Fun & Games
  3. Sal
  4. Upside Down
  5. Fine Tuning
  6. Motel
  7. Hey Wow
  8. Ten Pins
  9. Inside My Head
  10. Uninspired
  11. Sat Nite (USA)
  12. Lay Me Down

Fun and Games isn’t the band’s most consistent disc. In many ways that’s its strength, since it finds them trying out new sounds that they would later fold back into their tried-and-true Connells magic. The album also finds Huntley emerging as a stronger presence. The first two albums each had one song that he wrote and sung — the majority were written by Mike Connell and sung by MacMillan. This time around the writing credits are generally more shared and diverse and Huntley features on four. His contributions mesh well with MacMillan’s and help avoid the same-sounding challenges that  keep some of the band’s other output from being truly brilliant.

The band’s sound is generally harder edged here as well, presaging the move from jangle to power pop that continued with each successive disc. Five of the tracks are solid 90s alt-pop.  Hey Wow and Upside Down are typical Connell/MacMillan fare (and that’s a good thing). Inside My Head and Lay Me Down show Huntley’s growth and potential nicely. The latter serves as a wonderful closing track with a chanted outro that wraps up the proceedings nicely. Saturday Nite (USA) is a cheeky nod to the Bay City Rollers and features a nice horn riff. Based on these tracks alone, Fun and Games would be a nice addition to any collection of charming southern college rock.

The other Connell/MacMillan tracks are even finer, matching or outshining most of Boylan Heights. Something to Say opens things with a bite, showing of stronger wordplay and musicianship and welcoming listeners to a new Connells experience. Uninspired shows a maturity that rings through the resigned lyrics. Ten Pins features some lovely vocal interplay between MacMillan and Huntley and is the strongest hint of the sound that would come to be associated with the band on later albums. Fun and Games is the best song Connell wrote for the band and features one of MacMillan’s finest vocals. An urgent, dark lyric driven by a band that has become a tightly kinetic unit serve as a wonderful anchor and title track.

The remaining two tracks are Huntley’s finest contributions. Sal, which became a live staple, is a bittersweet ode to growing up and taking responsibility. Motel is the best song in the band’s solid catalog. An aching lament of trial and resignation, it finds Huntley channelling everything that’s best in the band’s sound. Overall, the sound of Fun and Games is a bit unpredictable and uneven but the highs are astonishing and unmatched in the band’s solid — if underappreciated — career.

FURTHER LISTENING: The Connells released eight albums over 16 years before fading into semi-retirement in 2002. Discs two through five are far and away the best. Boylan Heights is a stunning sophomore release that has some freshness and joy that get burnished off with later albums. One Simple Word is a consistent, enjoyable listen with a couple of strong tracks; it simply doesn’t rise to the heights of Fun and Games. Ring was the band’s most successful disc, finding them almost achieving real alt-rock recognition and sparking some decent sales in Europe. After that, the band continued to release enjoyable music, but the sound got harder and less distinctive.

Sadly, the Connells have yet to be anthologized. A single disc of highlights — especially from the four best albums — would be a lovely gift to fans of smart, well-crafted pop.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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