In a September 2002 piece for The Boston Phoenix, writer Brett Milano vividly evoked the Cavedogs’ salad days: a riotous gig at a Sunset Strip venue, throaty screams for an encore, the Boston-based trio agreeing to play “a quick one” before playfully barreling through all nine minutes of the Who’s “A Quick One, While He’s Away.”
This was the Cavedogs’ philosophy neatly encapsulated in one splendid moment. Be clever, be carefree, be ambitious. But similarly: be self-aware, be unpretentious, be genuine. And it was a philosophy that allowed the Cavedogs—despite a relatively modest discography (two studio albums and one EP)—to carve out a sizable niche in Boston’s crowded underground rock scene of the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
Bassist/vocalist Brian Stevens and guitarist/vocalist Todd Spahr originally performed together while studying at Ohio’s Miami University. Following a move to Boston, the duo linked up with drummer/vocalist Mark Rivers. The change in geography and lineup eventually paid off: the Cavedogs self-released a cassette-only album, inked a deal with Restless Records, and then recorded Six Tender Moments, an EP that included a cover of Tom Jones’ “What’s New Pussycat?”
Now with Restless’ parent label, Enigma Records, the trio began toiling away on its first proper LP. During the recording process, Stevens told Spin: “You know that album you’re always looking for when you don’t know what to play? That’s what we’re working on. We’re making that album.” Joy Rides for Shut-Ins, issued in 1990 and produced by Ed Stasium, is a brawny, infectious meld of assorted styles (power pop, punk, Merseybeat, British indie pop) and influences (Big Star, R.E.M.). It’s precisely as Stevens described: an album that wholly satisfies an array of tastes while spiritedly urging listeners to visit it again and again. Lyrically, it’s bleak (“Bed of Nails,” “Leave Me Alone) as much as it’s bratty (“La La La”’s oft-quoted lines: “We’re just three white, rich kids bitching about the world / We think we got problems / Well, we ain’t got problems”). Sonically, there are just as many contrasts: tight playing and expansive arrangements; glimmery guitar melodies and raucous solos; fluid vocal harmonies and sudden tempo shifts.
Following Joy Rides for Shut-In, Capitol Records, which had a distribution agreement with Enigma, took over the Cavedogs’ contract. Now on a major label, the threesome got cracking on a follow-up with producer Michael Beinhorn. Sessions were marred by disagreements between the trio and the producer, primarily over how the album should sound. Said Stevens: “If we’d done the album we’d originally pitched to Capitol, then it would have been great.” Released in 1992, Soul Martini was more shadowy, more audacious, more smoothed over than its predecessor. Unfortunately, it failed to find an audience; sales were poor and Capitol ultimately dropped the band.
Milano’s story for The Boston Phoenix described a ’92 show at the Paradise that concluded with fans rushing the stage during an encore. The chaotic gig ended up being a farewell of sorts; the group broke up shortly afterward. Long known for their collective sense of humor—the “Cavedogs Funtime Hour,” which aired on WERS, featured songs and comedy bits; label-less, the guys once played a gig decorated with “for sale” signs—the Cavedogs were no longer having any fun.
Following the split, Stevens hooked up with Aimee Mann, playing on her first solo album and touring with her backing band. Stevens later signed with Boston independent label Q Division Records, which released his first solo album.
Meanwhile, Spahr and Rivers formed Meringue and issued a single, “Drunk and Quartered” before joining their ex-bandmate in signing with Q Division. Spahr founded Gravy while Rivers started Poundcake. Rivers then went on to enjoy success in Hollywood: he wrote for “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and composed music for a number of television programs, including “Parks and Recreation,” “Lucky Louie, and “Mr. Show.”
In 2001, Stevens, Spahr, and Rivers played a reunion set at the International Pop Overthrow festival in Los Angeles. An album of rarities and radio broadcasts, titled Fall Back in It, was also released. Reunion performances followed in 2002 and 2010.
(by Ryan Foley)