To bite a phrase from The Simpsons, is there a more misunderstood and underrated new wave band than the Waitresses? Those familiar with them in these post-millennial times probably only know their trio of radio hits—”I Know What Boys Like,” “Christmas Wrapping,” and the theme song from the sitcom Square Pegs. While these songs don’t misrepresent their work, their songs were weirder, complex, and more interesting than those three tracks would suggest. For many years, the only way curious listeners could hear the band’s deep tracks was to seek out The Best of the Waitresses, a remastered-for-CD compilation from 1990. Omnivore Recordings has finally given the Waitresses their Just Desserts with a two-disc collection of their recordings for Polydor.
For the uninitiated, the Waitresses performed off-kilter pop songs replete with angular melodies, dressed in ambitious arrangements that spoke to a cornucopia of surprising and eclectic influences. The band’s focal point was Patty Donahue, who spoke and sometimes warbled the tart, wryly observant lyrics of head songwriter Chris Butler. Much has been made, both now and during the band’s heyday, of the female perspective Butler assumed in his work with the Waitresses. Though many of the songs could have been performed by a male singer (in fact, Butler performed an early version of “Heat Night” with his previous band, Tin Huey), the songs written specifically for Donahue do speak to the female experience in an accessible way. Butler’s lyrics reveal a particular skill at subversion, whether in the Bob Newhart-refuting “It’s My Car” or the gritty, determined “A Girl’s Gotta Do.”
Since Butler’s lyrics and Donahue’s witty, deadpan performance and crack comic timing are the main talking points for the Waitresses, the complexity of their music doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. After recording “I Know What Boys Like” and its B-side “No Guilt” with a few co-conspirators, Butler pulled together a supergroup-of-sorts from the CBGB scene, with former members of Television and the Contortions playing cheek-by-jowl with session players and up-and-comers. Butler’s influences ranged from Moroccan music to bubblegum pop, all of which swirled through the Waitresses’ songs. The first thirty seconds of “Go On” sounds like a cross between a Tetris game and a marching band on speed, and the perfection of its writing and execution made the hairs on the back of my neck bristle when I first heard it. Likewise, “A Girl’s Gotta Do” moves from cheerleading chant to creepy organ solo without breaking a capo, and strobing breakdown towards the end of “Heat Night” amplifies the anxiety and excitement in Donahue’s vocal.
This collection marks the CD debut of Bruiseology, the Waitresses’ ill-fated final album. Butler speaks candidly of the intra-band squabbling during the album’s sessions, but even without that background Bruiseology has a harsher musical and lyrical approach that must have come as a surprise to fans of the more optimistic Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful. Butler had written and demoed a third Waitresses album, in which Patty’s character emerged triumphant, and in the liner notes he wished that the members could have reconciled and recorded some of that material. Unfortunately, Patty Donahue’s death in 1996 left the Waitresses with what Butler regards as an “unfinished” legacy. (The 2001 release Un Petit Gouter by Eastern European duo Kilopop features some Butler compositions in the same vein as the Waitresses.)
The remastering on Just Desserts sounds as good as the Waitresses’ vinyl releases, and doesn’t suffer from the compressed production and bricking that befalls many reissues from the analog era. Though Omnivore bills this as “the complete Waitresses,” the track listing doesn’t include the pre-Polygram singles Butler made under the Waitresses’ name, and “Hangover 1/1/83” had appeared on a digital reissue of Wasn’t Tomorrow Wonderful. Butler’s scorching indictment of early Reaganomics, “Bread and Butter,” appears three times, twice as a Gang of Four-influenced dance remix. If you’ve been waiting for the Waitresses’ full albums to appear on little shiny discs since the advent of the digital format, eat up.
Just Desserts was released by Omnivore Recordings on September 24.