Recorded by college friends between 1988 and 1992, Baron Zen's At the Mall sounds, well, a lot like something some music-loving kids would record between 1988 and 1992. The Joy Division, Black Flag, and Dead Milkmen influences are all there, as are the early hip-hop, pop, and even disco ones. It's clearly music made by people who liked a lot of different styles (one of Baron Zen's members, Chris Manak, aka DJ Peanut Butter Wolf, though he doesn't show up on every song on the album -- only Sweet Steve, the band's songwriter and main performer, has that honor -- went on to form the Stones Throw record label), and who have some fun toys (a four-track and drum machine, as well as a keyboard and some guitars) and a lot of free time. The covers of Joy Division's "Walked in Line" and Debbie Deb's "When I Hear Music" (which takes an almost industrial spin, and is actually pretty cool) are unpretentious and catchy, and the original pieces, albeit a little purposeless and messy, are guiltily enjoyable. Which means that although At the Mall isn't a great record, it's still a fun record; it's about having a good time, not taking yourself seriously, hanging out with friends, and simple, fuzzy guitar riffs. No, the musicianship is not mind-blowing, the lyrics are not particularly inventive (an exception being "Shoes," which has Sweet Steve rapping about how he loves the accessory "more than the behind of a female"), and the raw attitude and anger that often define the work of young male artists and make it exciting even when it's lacking in other areas is instead replaced by a more suburban apathetic -- or at least bored -- view of the world, but somehow this renders it all the more charming. It's a glimpse into the life of some college students having fun and making a little fun of themselves and things around them in the process, and it's worth checking out.
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AllMusic Review by Marisa Brown