All those who suspect they'd have a problem with a record whose liner
notes say "all songs recorded in various Vassar dorm rooms" should
just hit the back button on the browser right now. Ditto for anyone
who believes the old anti-indie-incompetence T-shirt slogan that
"Calvin Johnson has ruined rock for an entire generation." That said,
The Last Letter is a small treat, the last we're likely to hear
of this rare, fragile bird of a band.
The Receptionists were to rock what backgammon is to hockey. A trio
that broke up when they graduated from Vassar, they were amateurs in
every sense: they could barely play their instruments or sing, but
they played out of love, and for their own delight first and foremost.
They wrote songs that didn't merely work around their limitations but
ran up to them and hugged them. A dozen or so of the songs appeared on
various singles and compilations, and this disc accounts for the rest
of their repertoire and reprises a few early favorites like "You, Me,
Sweet" ("Who never runs when there is a bee? Not me. Not me").
Their songs politely refuse any kind of display of power -- they'd
rather win you over by flirtation and suggestion than by force. The
instrumentation is two-finger guitar, accordion, pennywhistle,
occasionally tambourine or mandolin, and two breathy voices earnestly
struggling for the notes. The lyrics are clever in that same sort of
tenderly awkward way: "There are two kinds of chills ... The kind I
get watching open-heart surgery/ And the kind that I get when you're
nice to me." When they sing "let's go to bed" at the end of "Witch
Hazel," it's not a come-on, it's sleepy-time.
What separates the Receptionists' classical amateurism from the
amateurism of, say, bad cafe performers is that the Receptionists were
bold about it: the idea was to have fun, not to avoid embarrassment.
You can hear them fighting to make it from one end of these
minute-and-a-half songs to the other, singing out as proudly as they
can manage and sounding like they're about to melt from joy. The last
time anybody was this dizzily messy on record and got away with it, it
was the Raincoats barely holding their guitar and violin and gasps
together on "In Love," 20 years ago; it's not a surprise that there's
a song here called "In Love Again." The Receptionists never got to
make it past that gangly early stage, but at least they left some
evidence of the fun they had.