• Listed

America’s Most Underrated

written by: on June 30, 2011

The man Paul Westerberg called America’s best songwriter pals around with The Decemberists, John Wesley Harding and Robyn Hitchcock when he’s not playing on their albums. Peter Buck’s best friend outside of R.E.M., his tenure as their sideman rivals that of original drummer Bill Berry. He’ll use Wilco as his backing band when he needs a team of mercenaries, as he did in 2000 when he taught them an album of new songs just hours before Chicago club Lounge Ax’s closing show.

“He” is Scott McCaughey, a mop-haired member of so many bands, David Letterman had to remark “you look familiar” when he appeared with rustic supergroup Tired Pony on that show last fall.

McCaughey is all over the place with record labels, too, and half his albums are out of print or very hard to find because of a fondness for limited releases. iTunes is hip, though, so there’s no need to wade through Amazon’s back pages.

Here’s where to start on your journey through the mind of McCaughey (all songs done as The Minus 5 except where noted):

“The Great Divider (My Ruffled Sleeve)”

This contribution to a weird little concept album is a forlorn sea shanty that sounds like Abbey Road underwater, with McCaughey’s surreal lyrics setting up his most heartbreaking hook yet. “Sometimes subtitled ‘better off dead,'” he cracks, “In the foreign film that shines sometimes on the back of my forehead/It’s like watchin’ butter spread.” Then he floats limply into the ocean, never to return.

“Rage On Regardless”

The title is mere trickery; instead of being a punk anthem, this stark acoustic number (recorded alone inside Madison Square Garden) quietly celebrates a drug-fueled tornado after the fact. According to this writer’s first encounter with McCaughey, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy was stunned that this was left off of The Minus 5’s last album, 2009’s Killingsworth.

“Out There on the Maroon”

“I had six White Russians tonight, and two of them were people” sounds like a Kanye line these days. At once viciously self-deprecating and wryly hilarious, this Orbison-via-ELO romp is a hoot on McCaughey’s excellent post-divorce album, the best one in rock since Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks.

“(I’ve Got A) Lyrical Stance”

Cooked up with Buck and Jeff Tweedy, “Lyrical Stance” wasn’t recorded until years after its backstage inception in 1999—they were too busy playing it on tour every night. This 86-second manifesto gets its rocks off with vaguely Arabic fuzz guitar and balls-to-the-wall weirdness like “I’ve got something in my pants, and it’s a lyrical stance!”

“Cemetery Row”

McCaughey loved this one so much he couldn’t bring himself to sing it, so he got someone who could do it. “Cemetery row is not such a bad place, don’t you want to go?” Colin Meloy inquires over achingly beautiful piano, bleeding slide guitar and falling snow sleigh bells, and you have no choice but to agree.

Young Fresh Fellows – “Let The Good Times Crawl”

McCaughey’s first band, the Young Fresh Fellows, were competent garage goofs in the ’80s, but when The Minus 5 turned from sad bastard side project into frontal focus, his songwriting grew exponentially. The Fellows got grandfathered in whenever they decided to get off the couch and make an album (which is every presidency or two). This song is a wonky ’60s send-up you don’t dare resist, recalling the days when “frat rock” was the best feeling money could buy (at least legally), cheesy organ is included.

“Retrieval of You”

Here’s Exhibit A: in a country holding hands, McCaughey stuffed a stalker masterpiece inside a sunny melody. “I’ve got a blanket for your precious head,” he says, detailing the involuntary picnic he has planned for an ex. “You’ll be fine once you get to know me again.” The album’s Brian-Wilson-meets-Pink-Floyd daze had anyone who listened feeling fine as well.

“You Don’t Mean It”

Who the hell needs verses? Part of a band-blending Minus 5/Young Fresh Fellows twofer, “You Don’t Mean It” is one big fat chorus, ready to crank whether you want to work out or rock out. Power-pop doesn’t come any purer than this, kids.

“Lies of the Living Dead”

This fan favorite still blows the doors off any show in which McCaughey sings, like it did when the Baseball Project played Chicago’s Cubbie Bear on May 30. “Lies” marked the point where he decided The Minus 5 had to be more than dirges in D, so he wrote songs that were actually fun to perform. He never sings more than half of this manic rave-up with his feet touching the ground, and when you see it live, you’ll get airborne too.

“There Is No Music”

It’s become standard to comment on McCaughey’s love of all things beer when talking about his songs, but these aren’t drunken laments. Instead, McCaughey’s minor-key memoirs reflect a sober morning-after clarity. Allegedly the title track from an abandoned 1998 opus recorded in both Minus 5 and YFF versions, this rumpled nod to Big Star shows even his trash is pure treasure.