Of all the eighties groups to affix the word “human” to their name (League, Sexual Response), Ohio’s Human Switchboard were arguably the most deserving of the moniker. A garage-y threesome who combined the boho sensitivities and sounds of early Velvets and Patti Smith with a more poppish flavor, the group released one great album in 1981, Who’s Landing in My Hangar? It was the only studio album this unit would release (a ROIR cassette of an in-concert performance came out in 1982), but it stands as a major moment in the early days of indie rock. After years of being out-of-print, the disc has finally gotten its long-deserved CD reissue courtesy of Bar/None Records.
Composed of Reed-y vocalist/guitarist Bob Pfeifer, keyboardist/singer Myrna Marcarian, propulsive drummer Ron Metz — and a revolving set of bassists — Switchboard specialized in relationship songs that primarily alternate between pissed off and desperate. In the title song, Pfeifer rants against an unfaithful lover, pushed along by Marcarian’s sparkling Farfisa, while “(I Used to) Believe in You” uses the singer’s striking guitar to emphasize his sense of betrayal. In two of the album’s tracks, Marcarian takes throaty vocal lead to portray the wounded distaff side of the relationship wars. In “(Say No to Saturday’s Girl,” she and the boys recall the late-night melancholy of “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” while “I Can Walk Alone” pits our beleaguered heroine against a presumably unfaithful, overly needy storytelling lover.
It’s in Hangar’s magnum opus, “Refrigerator Door,” where the band’s keen-eyed and unsentimental take on missed connections gets its fullest delineation. Called “the ‘Stairway to Heaven’ of punk” by band admirer Kurt Cobain, the track features a duet with Pfeifer and Marcarian singing at cross-purposes in both English and Slovenian over a slowly building rock backdrop. When Marcarian gets the last word, plaintively waiting for the ring-ring-ring of the telephone, we know she’s doomed to disappointment.
All is not complete doom and gloom on this disc, though. Another album high point is Pfeifer’s sax-fueled “Book on Looks,” a full-bodied bragfest with the singer rhapsodizing about how hot his girlfriend is — even as he chastises his friends for their “locker room talk.” It’s a surprisingly playful moment in a predominately pessimistic take on modern romance.
Sparely produced by sometime bassist Paul Harmann, Hangar favors an Exiles on Main Street readiness to bury its vocals within Pfeifer and Marcarian’s compelling guitar and keyboard work. I’ve been listening to this platter since its initial release as a Faulty Products long-player, and there are still moments when I don’t know what the hell its singers are saying. Still, the band’s sound is so solid and compelling that even when you don’t get the specifics, you get the point.
In addition to the album’s original ten tracks, Bar/None’s reissue also features eleven more tracks that will get the group’s admirers wishing that the trio’d been able to hold it together long enough for a second polished studio disc. The band’s sound expands over the four years repped on these tracks: from sixties-ish dance rock (“Shake It Boys”) to country (“Always Lonely for You”) to a song that wouldn’t sound out of place on a John Hughes movie (“A Lot of Things”). But in a way thoughts about What Might’ve Been are apt for this band — since you know their songs’ protagonists are spending much of their days and nights pondering that same unanswerable question.