Slim Cessna's Auto Club
In Defense of the Singer-Songwriter.
A Release that's Easy on the Ears...or the Best of the Worst, record reviews
The Disappearance of College Radio & the Emergence of Might Making Right
Blame it on Pop! The Webb Brothers
Love's Here Today, Then It's Gone
The Apples in Stereo
The Art of the Mixtape
Glam's Sparkle Darkens, A Bobby Conn Retrospectacle
A Cult for True Country Music Lovers
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has been cranking out near-perfect traditional country with a ragged punk spirit for over a decade. I recently exchanged emails with none other than Slim himself.
All right. My entire purpose right now is to grab your attention. Let me tug your sleeve, engage your ear, for just a moment. Always thirsting for something different, you haunt the “just-in” racks hunting for interesting new sounds. But you’re a bit cynical.
Right. Then, how does a damn fine country band recording for former Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label grab you? No fluke here. The godhead of punk saw these characters and was so blown away, he signed them. They thanked him by releasing one of the best country albums in the last ten years.
This should give you an idea of the sound. But you’re wrong. Slim Cessna’s Auto Club has punk spirit, as in huge dollops of integrity and spirited inventiveness. But they are as reverent as all get-out. These are down to earth people who respect the foundations of great country music.
Not dogmatic, though. Always bubbling under the surface is a hell of a sense of humor. This is but one facet, though--one of the ever-shifting tones of the auto club. On 2000’s indie country landmark Always Say Please and Thank You, halfway through, Slim threatens, “Lucifer you piece of shit, I should kick your ass right where you sit,” while by album’s end, another share of that bold hellfire-ish symbolism underscores and heightens the intrinsic desire for deep, human connection in “Hold My Head,” a superb paean to togetherness and profoundly resonant expression of need.
Modern country luminaries laboring in relative obscurity, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club betrays the sound of their name. There is nothing kitschy or cheekily ironic to overshadow their brilliant, honest country music.
And it is country. But an honest, deep, spirited country, the words modern and country too often evoking the image of tight and immaculate wifebeaters, large hats, and bad pop-rock. Their underground status suggests that the auto club is more “country” than most folks can handle.
As open-minded and genuine as he is wry and silly, Slim Cessna’s interview was just as entertaining as his band’s consistently stunning performances. Shows which feature more than just hyperexpressive lap steel, 12-string, organ, banjo, and some extremely sensitive rhythm work from the stand-up bass and drummer; the audience is also treated to synchronized dance steps from front men Slim and Munly (imagine a taller Hank Williams, Sr. and Vincent Van Gogh as backwoods best friends.)
Slim and I e-chatted about the cult of Slim Cessna, Slim
Whitman, and whether Munly’s drunken challenges to audience members (last time I
saw them, he offered a hug to an actively disaffected punk) put him in danger of
To keep me from having to ask the boring questions, but
also get the facts straight, assumed I asked a really brilliant question here
that compels you to go into really precise detail about everything Slim Cessna's
Auto Club--the lineup changes, the incarnations, the ability to stay fresh while
maintaining a consistent sound and vision. Yes, boring, but please briefly
discuss what the band is doing and hopes to be doing in the future, perhaps
"playing at the bar at the end of the world," as Jello Biafra put it?
The auto club has been a band from Denver, Colorado for 10 years. There have been at least 15 players, and I am the only original member (this could be that I am very hard to work with). I think its been about 5 years since Munly and the Reverend Dwight have been playing in the auto club. It is very important that Munly and Dwight and myself continue to play music together-we all agree to this and do whatever we can to continue doing it. We have some new people who we are playing with since our last album. The Reverend Glasseye, Judith Ann, and Tim Mahr. These are good people as well. The band is new and fresh for us, but still very much the auto club. As far as plans or what we want to accomplish - for us it is just to play our music and enjoy it.
Slim, you will be playing Schubas on Thursday. To give
the audience an idea of what to expect, who would you most closely reference
your music to? From the outside, I've always seen you as mixing the best
elements of early country (kind of around the Hank Williams period), an attitude
equal parts punk exploration and integrity, and the fuckoff of Outlaw Country. I
understand every band is unique, but who are your influences and how can you
describe your sound from the inside?
I usually let the music writers answer this question. It is too hard to say we try to sound like so and so - or we write songs with this kind of music in mind. But I have no doubts that our music has been influenced by things. Things like our favorite records, favorite singers, songs that have been on the radio, our friends, our friends bands, the Gun Club. When I started the auto club, I wanted it to be a country/western band - I think it still is that. But it wouldn't be a very good band if we didn't let the songs become what they needed to become. For us it’s about our songs - and where our songs need to go - rather than what kind of music we play.
Is "Slim" a Slim Whitman thing? I'm not cracking wise. I've just always wondered, because his "Indian Love Call" is certainly one of the most unique and well known uses of the yodel.
Slim is the nickname my father gave me when I was a kid - I was very thin. Cessna is my last name. Slim Whitman, by coincidence, is my favorite singer. This should be a part of question #2 - if I have ever tried to sing like, yodel like, or mimic anyone, it would be Slim Whitman (I have never come close). He is without a doubt, the greatest singer man has ever known.
You yodel. Aside from a small curio on NPR, I haven't encountered too much genuine modern yodeling, you know as a true mode of heightened expression. Yodels, banjos, lap steels, and all the accoutrements of country as they were seem to be on the fade. Why do you think this is?
I will only yodel if it seems like it needs to be in the song we are playing. Not all songs are yodeling songs. We play some yodeling songs. Most bands and most singers do not play yodeling songs. I don't really yodel. I'm more like Slim Whitman yodeling. He had his own yodel and I try to do that. This is where you take my answer to question #2 and throw it out the window.
We actually are a Slim Whitman tribute band.
That said, are there any modern bands you see helping bring something of an older, more honest, style of country back?
I don't know. It does seem like a lot of bands are playing old-sounding country music. I really think music people shouldn't worry as much as they do about what kind of country music or whatever kind of music they are playing. To play music exactly like it’s in Bakersfield in the 60's is actually not an honest style of music. Or you might as well be in a cover band--unless you are Buck Owens or unless you are in a Buck Owens tribute band. Or unless you are in the most awesome Slim Whitman tribute band. Or to be in a blue grass band and have to play exactly the right instruments and look a certain way-but really you sound just like Bill Monroe. And you don't even call your self a Bill Monroe tribute band.
Do you ever worry that Munly's going to get beat up? Do you practice those endearing, synchronized dance steps before each show?
Munly was a hockey player - a young hopeful in his Canadian homeland before he suffered some injuries. I'm not joking about this. You can look it up. Munly can take care of himself. Munly keeps me and Dwight from getting beat up. Mostly Dwight. We never practice anything.
Logistically speaking, how can you keep a band so tight and convivial that lives basically all over the country?
I have no idea. Basically it means that we aren't able to play, tour, record and such as much as people would like us to.
Why so long since the last album? Does being on Alternative Tentacles provide new opportunities, challenges, or both?
It’s really because we live all over the country. We are almost finished with our next record. It will be well worth the wait. Alternative tentacles will release it. They have been great for us and to us - consistently. I mean come on- we live all over the country- how the hell are we to record and tour and live where we do and play hockey all at the same time.
Does laboring in relative obscurity function as kind of a silent endorsement of your uncompromising honesty or does it just piss you off that it's tougher than ever to break into the machine?
Slim Cessna's Auto Club is an important special secret club. We are like the Freemasons. Not everyone is allowed to buy our records and come to our shows. We do, however, have a few catchy popular songs. Songs you can sing along to and kick your feet to.
Buy the fez, say the oath, do what it takes to kick up yer heels, son! Slim’s albums are available at the websites below.
s/t 8.0/10, How American Country Music Saved Her Life 9.3/10, Always Say Please and Thank You 9.6/10
Related band, The Blackstone Valley Sinners--Slim, Rich Gilbert (Frank Black, etc), (ex-Boogerhead) JudithAnn Winters: It’s A Sin 8.5/10, The Cold, Hard Truth About Christmas 8.7/10)
Born Liars, published 4/09/04 in Citylink
The Unicorns to this critic: “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jacobson?”
The fluff of youth, arrogance and talent go together like peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches: kind of wrong, but very, very right in the unusual mood. I think the Unicorns are very promising and, as such, did plenty of research for this interview and was ready for silliness, arrogance, even cruelty. The Unicorns have been known to spend an entire interview cussing out some poor schmuck who has the audacity to not know the intimacies of their sound, but the gall and curiosity to ask.
Fortunately nothing this bad happened to me. It was all irreverence and good fun until six minutes into the experience, when I could only watch as some Peter Tork-looking motherfucker stared me down, simulating fellatio on my mike as he removed the catsup he’d spread on it only moments before.
Even with behavior that ridiculous, I could still tell it was all a mixture of brashness and fatigue. I had read other interviews where they were much, much worse. I realized they were ass-end of a long tour. I also realized they’re pretty young. It also occurred to me that they may have not been quite themselves. But it also occurred to me that it’s not 1965 and they’re not Bob Dylan.
As it was clear to me with from singular Who Will Cut Our Hair When We’re Gone?, this is a band that knows who they are and where they’re going. I wanted them to displace critical bullshit with crystalline truth. Well, it didn’t work out so well. This interview is going to be more of a story because their playful insolence, ego, and bizarre sense of humor displaced any chance, or possibly desire, to tell the truth. That said, the conversation was actually pretty damned funny.
The cast: Beans, an underground rapper on support and very nice guy; Alden, singer/guitarist/bassist; Nick, keys/guitar/bass/vox; Jamie, drums/most of the lies; and this guy named Max, who is never mentioned anywhere in the press on these guys and I’m still not sure what his relation is to the Unicorns.
I sat down to the interview table, surrounded by what I naively took to be the friendly unicorns of that enchanted and peaceable kingdom we yanks call Canada. Though I didn’t notice at the time, catsup packets stared up at this writer menacingly. Alden picked up the feature I wrote on them last week and read it aloud. The band liked it. Alden playfully donned my headphones. The others conversed. Rambling ensued. I tried to hold it all together, but failed like so many before me. I tried to keep my sense of humor and barely succeeded. Here, my article is being discussed.
Max: At least you’re not completely brain-dead to these guys. Other critics: “So, what kind of music do you play?”
Alden: “Only old friends can chime their hatred to each other and plausibly skip off into a future of camaraderie...’ of course you mention ‘Child Star’. Nice.”
All concur. They express happiness with little details such as my word choice. This is going unusually well. Too well, apparently, for...Jamie chucks my questions across the room, suggesting Beans ask a question. I get up to fetch my sheet and facilitate this.
Me: Is there anything you want to know about The Unicorns? Perhaps unicorns, in general? Because they are the genuine article.
Beans: In a van with them for 12 hours, my questions are like, when are you going to the laundry?
Laundry talk ensues. I am met with groans as I steer this flaming drag-racer off into an attempt to congeal some truth from their conflicting prehistory. Oy vey.
Me: Lets’ begin at the beginning. Which of you wore the skirt to high school? Who’s the skirt-chaser?
Jaime: There’s this Canadian band Sloan...
Me: I love Sloan.
Jaime: I was going to say they’re really shitty, but their second album, Twice Removed, was really good. My friend dared me to wear a skirt to the show, I wore it to school the next day and Max thought from behind, I guess my ass kind of looks like...
Max: I usually just go for it. Penetrate first, ask questions later.
Me: And you had the confidence-inspiring clean underwear on, I assume?
Max: A “no underwear” phase, actually.
Me: So, you didn’t have to worry about any of that, nice.
Jaime: We became fast friends after that.
Me: You had earlier incarnations. Is any of it on tape? Is any of it as solid as WWCOHWWG?
Jaime: Nick and I collaborated on a chamber piece that was lute, harpsichord, and viola...
Me: Was that as Mad Daddy and the Patty Stackers?
Nick: No, we were 11 years old. Mad Daddy was our ska band. Three members, essentially the horn section, went on to form the Stills. And we went on to become the Unicorns. They’re out of control
Let me interject for a moment. Apparently there’s a rift. I collected supporting interviews and found this to be true. Maybe. I mean, anybody who thinks major-label sellout Twice Removed is any good and Sloan’s masterpiece Between the Bridges is “shitty”, is obviously toying with me...or insane. And Mad Daddy? I was going to ask if this band name was a put-on to see how many people would print it...this was before I realized that I was the conductor in “put-on central” and following my well-researched questions was not going to be productive with these mischief-makers. I think there’s a kernel of truth. To something. Somewhere. Maybe. Nick was a good barometer; often utterly transparent in the lie verification dept.
Alden: I’ll tell you what makes me horny: when an old priest gets his (guess the action) by a sweet young altar-boy.
Nick: This is the town for it.
Jaime: This is the seat of the national Priest-Boy Love Association.
Me: You know, dirty priests, dirty love, dirty politics. Welcome to Chicago.
Alden: The next part of the interview is going to be musique concrete actual.
Alden, who looks a lot like the nerdy “nice kid” in a bratpack film, applies my headphones to my mic.
Me: Pure expression, rather than questions. I can swing with that... C’mon, now. Don’t do that...
Nick looks me in the eye, applies catsup to the mike, and begins to pretend he’s a little boy and I’m a robot priest with a microphone proboscis, apparently. Nice eyes, but you’re not my type, son!
Me: I’ve seen you called “freak pop, twee, dance punk, electro-clash, indie pop, electro-pop, Lo-Fi, ‘Canada’, and Elephant 6-ish”. It seems to me like you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to do, if WWCOHWWG is any indication...
Nick: Sounds like we have no idea whet we’re doing.
Me: No, I want you to argue, dispel if necessary. You’ve also been analogized to the Zombies, Beach Boys, They Might Be Giants, etc. Do yourselves the favor of defining yourselves.
Jaime: We hate all those bands. Especially TMBG. Well, I like “Particle Man”, their early stuff.
Me: Well, TMBG’s mine. With your beginnings as a duo with a tape player doing the art scene and then growing and maturing, it seems like a pretty direct parallel...I see a lot of tension...
Nick: Shut up.
Me: The tension, I kind of see the perky tone of the music and delivery as a poignantly ironic counterpoint... Does your playfulness, this tension between delivery and subject, mask or even spotlight deeper concerns? The album is laced with death.
Jaime: The tone brings you in, so you don’t have to think. All that, the synchronized dance moves, the puppetry...it takes you in and then you can think about the deep stuff later, if you want.
Hallelujah, a (relatively) straightforward answer. One out of ten ain’t bad...
Me: Thanks very much, all. WWCOHWWG is a very promising and unique record. What can we expect for the future of the unicorns?
Alden: One of us will die within the next five years... You know, none of this has been picking up?
Due to the catsup, I could not transcribe much of last half of the interview. Thankfully, a lot of it was memorable. I’ll exchange the mike at the megastore where I got it. No big deal...actually pretty funny. But it’s kind of sad that this excellent band not only failed to take the opportunity to describe themselves properly, but they ruined the sound of what would have been a decent recording of that evening’s performance.
As I watched the band tussle with each other and the audience, I was amused. But it was kind of sad. Apology to Mark Lawson who engineered WWCOHWWG to sound like Pet Sounds on just $300, I don’t think the show came out well. But please let me know the next time they come through town. I’ll be sure to keep the mike on my lapel, ask some questions about Two-Tone and Edgar Varese, and be much much faster with the old reflexes.
The New 45:
Something I did not mention in the last piece I wrote on these guys is Nicholas “neil” Diamonds’s bizarrely inspired Crayola sleeve art. This one’s got a bit more of a collage feel to it, but features the gnarled trees, ghosties, and skulls of past alongside nice additions of a hanging dolphin, hypodermic, and an overt phallus in the de-rigueur skyline of kid’s art.
The A-side, “2014” is as dancepunk (sorry, it fits here) as the Unicorns’ve gotten and lacks ebb and flow in favor of a spare mix with a grinding rave-up thrown in at the end. On the flip, “Emasculate the Masculine” is as straightforward rocking as they’ve gotten, with an excellent, distorted funk riff adding flavor to the proceedings. Not as nicely put together as anything off WWCOHWWG, the 45 sounds a bit like a demo...but like the rest of their stuff, it’s as interesting as it is promising.
Back to the Top
In Defense of the Singer-Songwriter
Norwegian Sondre Lerche yanks this DIY ethos back to the side of the good with his release of Two Way Monologue. Lerche plays Martyr’s with a full band on May 19th.
INT: SOME POOR SHMOE’S APARTMENT
A man, the critic, in black-framed glasses and Soft Boys t-shirt harangues another, an apparently normal, well-adjusted person, except for the fact that he is backed into a corner.
I invite you into my house, make you dinner, let you play with my kids...damn! I shoulda known...
No! You don’t get it!! Hold on, this Sondre Lerche guy...he’s really clever and sincere, examining great matters via the important little things...he’s very...how else can I put this...uh...sensitive.
Shut. Up! Don’t..!
Hold it; hold it! I’m just trying to tell you about this rather new talent...a real fresh voice in so many ways; well, let’s just say he does it all, like...like an old-time troubadour...
Now, now...Woah! Put down the chair, friend. I can see why you’d initially be put off, but if you’d just give it a...CHAAAaannnce!!
Door slams. Exit music critic, having suffered just a few bumps and bruises in spirited defense of a genre that has been killed (and summarily raped) countless times.
On his first album, Billy Joel pretentiously notes in verse how he is a bard, a troubadour—nicely illustrating the invalidation of the singer-songwriter. For anyone who survived the seventies, a decade full of froggy-throated clumsily-conceived quasi-sensitive nonsense spewed from that clan of variously bearded, passive aggressively mellow, and painfully earnest (often ironic to the dippy content) singer-songwriters, even someone as distinctive as a romantic world-weary Norwegian may be a hard sell. Fie on everyone on that interminable list of phony, self-indulgent, mongoloids that have made this personal, direct form of music unpalatable. Fuck you, Billy Joel.
Of course, serious arguments for the genre abound. Let’s implicate a few. Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, and Todd Rundgren (who kicked the genre’s ass all over town with his release of Something/Anything?) all fall among an endless stream of artists who—bravely risking categorization alongside James Taylor and Jim Croce--followed this compulsion to express exactly what they needed in precisely the manner they needed to. No filtration. No bullshit. Add to this list a young man named Sondre Lerche.
Get past the cover, with Lerche staring his wearily-creased sensitivity into your soul (in a scarf, black and white, and against the artsy mainstay brick wall, no less!), throw on the record, and out flows not only an acoustic guitar awash with violins ala Nick Drake, but a lovely voice will soon confer: “Down came the sky/And all you did was blink/I would cry like I never do/In order to stay true”. Ad hoc emotion? Maybe. Delivered so well it wouldn’t matter if it was? Absolutely.
Sondre Lerche is an artist who, only on his second album, projects a stunning maturity, not only writing every lyric and note, but playing a number of the instruments as well. Yes, this suggests a lack of counter voice which virtually always makes for the awkward, overly-insular public humiliation that is trademark of the SS...like Morrissey without the balance of Marr. But Lerche? He’s Morrissey and Marr combined.
Lennon and McCartney combined as well? Sure, Lerche seems to know when to enlist some help, such as on most of the production and the gorgeous string arrangements. But split personality is what Two Way Monologue is all about, so he may just as well host a whole Steppenwolf-sized party of people inside his big, brilliant noggin.
The title track begins suspiciously with earnestness croaked over a sloppily-strummed acoustic guitar. Through the historically-disadvantaged veil of singer songwriter sucketry and a song whose first word is: “Mum”, the natural assumption that this will be a very bad way to spend time, that reflex towards the eject button—well, the feelings seem justified, especially with Lerche’s unfiltered emotional ballast. Pop luminosity dispels murky doubts. For after a mere 54 seconds, the pace doubles, a tight and dynamic rhythm section leaping into the fray, and all the important parts are underscored masterfully with cymbal crashes, neo-futuristic keyboards, funk riffs, and even a skronking sax hook just for kicks. Wonderfully synthesized, absolutely delightful...pure pop.
Perky horns, earthy organs, and layers of keyboards (space chimes and harpsichords imparting the band visual of robots in paisley bellbottoms) provide the kick-off for the chorus of “Counter Spark” which features some of the cutest “Ba-ba-ba baa-ba’s” this side of the Partridge Family. A love song for cynical times, “I chose you from a million/You were the choice of billions/wishing they would try to be like you/But I’d rather fall in love with you”, the pretty mess ends in nihilistic defiance: “I’ll pass you by and fall in love with you”.
Lend your ears and heart to Two Way Monologue all alone at first...but leave that bedroom door cracked so the earnestness of this “option-less, turkey-free, and blind” humanist with his seductive acoustic-cum-23rd-century support drifts out. Anyone with any feelings of romance (as in: “in love with feeling”) will pick up on the raw emotion, go absolutely ape shit, and understand that having an open mind and love of music means granting everything a second examination, even that DIY (thanks to Croce and his ilk, now come to abbreviate dreadfully inane yarbling) singer-songwriter.
No Strings Attached
Beautiful string and brass arrangements highlight Bostonian Paula Kelley’s career-defining album and singing-songwriting high water mark.
Let’s knock out the vocals right away. If you can take Mary Lou Lord--and I haven’t met a college radio music director that wasn’t in love with her yet, voice and all--then you’ll be fine with Paula Kelley’s wispily intimate, genuine delivery. The unique voice of this confident, inspired artist could become her trademark. I find Kelley’s delivery to be quite affecting rather than cloying, with a range and expressiveness which easily overcomes the thinness.
On her new The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World, Kelley broke the bank (literally, a friend told me she had to skip rent to hire the band) bringing on the 40-piece PK Orchestra to add color and flourish to the songs. It worked.
The strings and bombast not only support Kelley’s emotional outpouring, but they validate it as well. Anything that sounds this pretty—and I mean honest and pretty, we’re not talking obfuscation; rather gigantic, lovely support for equally huge and solid lyrics—is all right with me.
The first track, “My Finest Hour (Enter)” begins a lot like Sondre Lerche’s Two Way Monologue. Kelley’s harpsichord and Wendy Mittelstadt’s magnificently expressive violin set the mood, appropriately cueing in an album bursting to the gills with introspective expression.
Paula Kelley has made the album of her career. This is a mature, intelligent work which gives the listener plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the brilliant symphonic instrumental breaks. Call it what you will, but chamber/baroque pop certainly fills much of the album. The Trouble with Success... is kept constantly engaging via sprinklings of the best bits out of Pet Sounds, and the work of Carole King, Margo Guryan, The Left Banke, and ELO.
But of course it’s not that simple. Boston is a town full of music scholars and Kelley is no exception. She began her career with a variety of indie-darlings (Drop Nineteen, Boy Wonder, Hot Rod, Boy Joys) only to move along each time as she grew impatient with the need to convey her own ideas, a range at work on The Trouble with Success far beyond the pithy analogies above. Even the most seemingly mundane, virtually Cranberries-level pop, such as “Girlfriend” only seems so at first by virtue of its subtlety. Further listens reveal surprises--filled as it is with a delicious muted trumpet, inspired string arrangement, and equally distinctive delivery and perspective: “Write about the simple way that I don’t/Oh she’s staring at the sky/There’s quite a lot of space there/But nothing in her eyes”.
Juicy hooks fill The Trouble with Success. Urban horn grooves float the energetically driving “My Finest Hour” into the upper echelons. The ripping fury of the music grants ironic poignancy to its equally powerful and painfully subtle, lovely, earnest, and potentially deadly final words: “Every time I think I finally have the answer/In comes someone else to tell me that I’m wrong/Life/What a puzzling place to live/What a wonder we’re taking it on”.
The true feel of pop triumphalism that permeates the disc mitigates any slow moments. “I’d Fall in Love with Anyone” isn’t merely huge, sunny, gushing, and fun. It is complete. The words, “I’d fall in love with anyone/Tell me what needs to be done because/I’m dying over here in the sun”, don’t just serve to match the music beautifully but they offer compelling self-help via identification and catharsis. Sammy Kahn put it another way, “I fall in love too easily”. Duke Ellington also said, “If it sounds good, it is good”. Paul Kelley may have said both more effectively via a particularly lovely singer-songwriter resonance on the fascinating The Trouble with Success or How You Fit into the World, one of the best albums of its class.
A Release that’s Easy on the Ear!!
Tuck this under your arm, shut the door tight, and settle in, for these are the best musical craps ever taken. No concept albums, often no concept whatsoever? Dumb? Hell’s yeah! This is rock ‘n’ Roll for Christ’s sake!!
Mind numbing, unabashedly derivative shit or genius? You let me be the judge. Here’s my personal list of the best crappy albums of all time—a guide to music you may find yourself enjoying despite yourself (also what’s been annoying my equally irritating bass-bompin’ neighbors). Apologies for omissions of your faves; they’re probably just plain, unmitigated, garbage.
Special apologies and honorable mentions to Tommy Roe, Tommy James, The Lemon Pipers, Elton John, Harry James, Eddie Duchin, Frank Sinatra, John Mayall, Eric Burdon, Kool Moe Dee, The Stranglers, The Sweet, Slade etc. (all bands ripping off the ripoff master, Bowie), and all your brethren. A lot of your music is perversely enjoyable forehead-slapping derivative nonsense and certainly falls under the header of crappy, but works far better in compilation form. Not to mention that the fact that you couldn’t even release a single consistently enjoyable crap record is just kind of pathetic.
All contents, copyright, 2004 Alan Jacobson.
Left off the Dial
What is happening to that precious end of my radio dial, what is happening to my country?
The road trip...nothin’ like it. Quote me on that one if you want. And, of course, being a music junkie, I always bring a stack of music to fill them long hours. As a music critic, there’s also the CD’s I feel obligated to review. If you see a tiny, gold rice burner veering off the road, while an inspired yet ignorant dork maniacally scribbles notes, the latest Sub Pop or Bloodshot release whispering out his cracked windows, that’ll be me.
But I am a former radio professional, amateur historian, and confessed fiend for all things human and random that one can only find on the radio dial. Ideally, anything can happen. But, with the markets ever tightening, you are less likely to hear anything interesting these days unless it is on NPR or that old standby, the college radio station.
There was a minor panic a while back when NPR tried to gobble up come college radio stations. A valid concern: with no outlet for independent music, it would die. However, this was not such a big deal compared to what happened while nobody was looking.
Skipping through half the country recently, I had just finished listening to new stuff by Planet Asia, Dizzee Rascal, Destroyer, and Paula Kelley. It was uniformally excellent. But I was getting sleepy and needed the kinds of random surprises that radio is supposed to provide by design. I decided to throw on the radio and I don’t remember where it was. But geography seems to matter very little. All radio is the same these days; it’s just a matter of volume. A tiny amount of whitewashed corporate-humping, meaningless sewage in Nebraska is just as bad as that cesspool overflowing in Philly.
I threw on NPR. It can be a bit boring, but it’s dependable and rock-solid in quality. Prarie Home Companion made me laugh for the first time in years. Good deal. But that soon faded away into low-wattage obscurity as I pulled around a squat hill. I flipped in the new Bobby Conn, a superbly interesting and invigorating disc...but already in place, nothing new. I lusted for, needed random.
Back to radio, I found a show exploring the origins of classical music. Fantastic. This soon also went the way of NPR, which I think it also was, but it wasn’t around long enough for me to hear much of it or to know one way or the other.
Then I hit upon “Today’s Hit Music!! 88.3 The Saint!!” Say what! Christian Fundamentalists used to be happily crammed into AM obscurity. Now they are superseding the precious haunt of NPR and college radio? Say it isn’t so! Yet, as I whizzed through states quickly enough to pick up the new batch of homogenous Clear Channel emetic, this was often all I heard. And their signals are HUGE, often chillingly taking over an NPR or college signal I had been enjoying, not content in the mere symbolism of its girth.
I was on the road a total of 50 hours. I happened upon four or five excellent shows. I laughed, cried, learned, and cheered when some DJ had a show called: “The Flower Power Turned Sour Hour”. Not only was the show’s title uber-clever. Not only did the DJ sound like a human being—a political act these days! Not only did he play the Pink Fairies, which I knew I liked. But early Bee Gee’s. Good stuff. Who knew?
NPR seems safe. I see it as being the last bastion of the freethinking moderate left. But I see it shifting as the need arises to the extreme left as other outlets disappear. I mean, you’re not too likely to hear Free Speech Radio on the Saint, are you? Is college radio on the way out as the Christian right stormtroops its way across the country? I heard Christian corporate radio in every state I drove through, which made college radio’s increasing lack of presence all the more chilling; it seems it’s on its way.
Paul Westerberg described an unusual and wonderful relationship as “Left of the Dial” on the underrated and poorly-produced Replacements album Tim. Was this what the sophisticated songwriter Paul, able to craft a touching ballad about the androgynous one moment and a clever rocking homage to hero Alex Chilton the next, had in mind? To quote another college radio poet of the day: “Dear God”.
Alan Jacobson still loves radio, though it hurts so very much. Chicago’s left end is working all right, though, unsurprisingly, their signals suck ass, check out: 88.3, 88.7, 89.3, 90.9, 91.5, and 98.7.
All contents, copyright, 2004 Alan Jacobson.
Blame it on Ol’ Pop!
*...where the hell was I?*
An embarrassingly regular feature, here I take a moment to alight upon music missed or dismissed from days past.
This time’s feature: The Webb Brothers (who’ll be playing live at The Bottom Lounge on the 18th).
All right, I admit it. I’ve had this near-perfect pop platter recommended to me dozens of times. Maroon by the Webb Brothers was hard to take into my heart for several reasons, though. The “off-put factor” is in heavy effect here. The album is produced to glossy imperfection by good old Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur, etc.), so the sound is too unified, polished, marooned...in addition to being downright viral in the first place, and the cover is equally slick featuring the kids on some planet doing something or other. Which leads me to what initially threw me off this great album: the pedigree. Being an American means that I favor the underdog. Can’t help it. So, I just naturally assumed that super-successful pop song meister (“Wichita Lineman”) Jimmy Webb’s brats had it too easy.
I had it wrong. Turns out it was a bit of a struggle, actually. As students at Boston University, Justin and Christiaan Webb began their musical career together. After struggling in a town with too many bands, the kids packed up for Chicago, where they were similarly ignored. London was the next stop. Good choice, since it meant notice from an important record label rep, a sold-out show and EP, and ultimately their own imprint within a contract with Warners.
Beyond the Biosphere dropped shortly thereafter in 1999 and was universally lapped up by critics and fans alike. Strange for a debut to have such a readymade following, but their EP and promo had gained them quite the cult status. Gigantic, ambitious, fun—many of the things a debut often is not, Biosphere is a fully rewarding listen.
But nothing like the textured masterpiece that follow up, Maroon, would be. The millennium saw los bros. Webb with stronger confidence and clearer vision than perhaps they’d ever have in their entire career. The tunes serve as weary indictment of liars, false love, drunkenness, and gettin’ fucked up amidst a seemingly incongruous romanticism sweetened occasionally by well-guarded optimism.
Maroon kicks off with the symbolically orchestral bombast one might expect from an initial excursion to the moon. Mullets, check! Flashlights, on! Pop sensibilities, well-bred! Then, easing the listener into this rich, dense, textured platter, “The Liar’s Club” begins with brother Justin’s strummed acoustic and mundane establishing shot of people who “get together to pretend that everything is fun/where everyone looks perfect and the party’s never done/’til we see the sun, see the sun”. Brother Christiaan’s lumbering Roland provides the grounding bedrock which naturally leads to the morning after’s “you’ll give yourself away/and everyone will see/that you’re unhappy”.
The album’s obvious single “I Can’t Believe You’re Gone” kicks off with Neal Ostrovsky’s solid, expressive, heartbeat-suggestive, thumping, and a sole voice extolling the wonders of a relationship. Naive romanticism bleeding into cynicism, “I can’t believe you’re gone/this was part of your plan for me/I can’t believe it”. Repetition is expert in this case, suggesting a totally confounded individual and the rest of the album’s wonderfully packaged pop singles behave in this manner, “Summer People” being the strongest and most unusual of the bunch. “Winter’s over again/summer people/some are even, but then/some are evil”. Poignancy or bullshit? At the heart of it, it doesn’t matter. The tune is so jaw-droppingly, mind-numbingly, hyphenation-necessary-for-explanation great that it just doesn’t matter.
What elevates Maroon to semi-mystical “classic” status, though, is the filler. Filler used to be a good thing—just grab hold of an old Dave Clark 5 album. Compare the draggotry of something like a “Catch us if you Can” to an inspired hyper-amphetamined dirty sax showcase and you’ll catch my drift. “All the Cocaine in the World” is a plainly remarkable work from a pair of pop scholars. Who writes about coke anymore? No one but a mercenary harkener, son. And what a connection as they explain in angelic chorus and over snowy percussion how it “couldn’t bring back the girl”!
A weisenheimer desert island (or jupiter, mars, moon) creation by these super-gifted lads...a collection of the sounds that pop addicts would hope to have with them if isolated for long periods of time, Maroon, is an unquestionable, resounding success and one of the best pop records of its time, no question. The fact that I am, indeed guilty, of having left this cake out in the rain, having come to it a couple years back, and enjoy it immensely still is testament both to its lasting impact and severe pop brilliance.
The Webbs have hired on a new member, unsurprisingly young brother James. With their eponymous release last year, they have made their stake for permanence in what could have easily been a career-defining, brilliant one-off. Instead of shuffling the meditative amongst the crystal-sharp pop tunes, they’ve halved them, kind of a silly thing to do in the CD age--but another fine album nonetheless. Consider me though, for the nonce, plumb stuck where I “think I’m going places/but it’s only in (my) mind....marooned again/marooned again/marooned again/again”.
The Art of the Mix Tape!
The mixtape as a valid form of (self) expression, Alan Jacobson (aka Mix-O-Matic 2000) demystifies this highly personal process.
You cannot get away from these things! Take a look at High Fidelity—a book and film essentially hinging on them; This American Life recently aired a how-to by Sara Vowell; even my old college radio station now has a program called something like, “the ultimate mixtape”; and hell, http://www.artofthemix.org, just about says it all for this article!
Mixtapes are everywhere these days. More accurately, people keep making them and talking about them. This is exactly what I am about to do.
Quick sidenote: I will not be discussing mix CD’s in this article. CD’s are OK, but your control over the congruous, continuous sound of the mix will invariably be off. A laborious process, generally CD mixes take me at minimum 5 attempts to perfect. Also, segues are not do-able, it is hard to tell what songs sound like together until the mix is burnt, and flaunting that record collection is difficult, if not impossible.
A mixtape is like a symbolic, highly personal, richly-textured aural photograph. Appropriating and recontextualizing others’ work to create something new, the mixer creates a synthesis of his concept and their expression—a good semi-creative outlet.
The well-planned mixtape goes perfectly with a letter, perhaps used to express feelings the mixer is too chicken to make plain; “Let’s get married today,” croons Al Green for you!
On a more mercenary level, DJs use them for marketing.
Also, normal people like you and me accompany and sonically describe books with the well-planned tape. On an amateur level, I have a mix entitled Dear Fascist Bullyboy which musically explores Ellis’s American Psycho; and I know several books such as Like Water for Chocolate come with supporting soundtracks.
Then there is the hipping factor. This has been done for me, I’ve done it for others. Let’s say you have a nephew that really digs Nick Cave. Well, for better or for worse, Cave obviously really dug Scott Walker. So, include some of that.
But be careful not to make negative statements about the mix recipient, like including the White Stripes and other albeit worthy choices, but potential box-store purchases. Hipping is done not to insult, but to help, to introduce musical sophistication (and a lifetime of music nerd-dom) to someone.
The Mechanics of the Mix.
Use type II, high bias tapes of a good lasting brand, and a high-quality deck with soft-touch controls, if you can find one. Make the sound as true as possible or your messages will be obfuscated—who will be able to marry you, if they don’t understand, cannot feel what you’re laying down for them in words and sounds expressed inadequately, because they’ve been filtered through crappy equipment?
Adjust bass/treble/loudness/presence dials to make differing songs more level--overproduction on a new tune can both blow an adjacent old song out of the water and make said tune sound very tacky by comparison.
Always be aware of what you are laying down, especially the intros and outros of each song. The more that goes into the mix—say, you know your stuff and profoundly love the music—the better and more weighty the mix will become. It’s all about fidelity, “true sound” in so many ways...
Two styles of mixing exist with plenty of grey matter in between. Copy either “on the fly” or arrange your mix. Copying on the fly is just what it sounds like. Do it quick, almost like DJing. Here you have to count more on clues, like the Watchers used Sly Stone’s production equipment, so mix the Watchers into Sly & the Family Stone. If you can get a mixing board, don’t pause the tape—make one continuous, spontaneous soundtrack.
But KNOW YOUR MUSIC either way. Arranging your mix is usually a better way to go. Listen to your records and CDs for a week. Take notes. Pull these notes together. Record the mix: listen to segues, re-record if you have to. Listen to it when it’s done. Take notes. Re-do parts.
But don’t overdo it. Go by “feel.” Note, you don’t really want to rerecord the mix due to a segue that may sound a bit “off” because, it may sound OK to the recipient and when you tape over something, the fidelity degrades a bit each time.
Do’s and Don’ts
A chef cooks for his guests. A mixer mixes for his audience. This is not just appropriation expression. Know and hip your audience, but don’t play it too safe. Let’s say you are a really big Earth Wind and Fire fan. That is fine for you, but don’t push it on someone who is really into Radiohead. You’re better off knocking some Grandaddy, Kraftwerk, or even Syd Barrett their way (or even the Talking Heads song from which they derived their moniker). Remember, you want the intended to listen to this mix over and over (and over) until they finally understand that they should: hire, fall in love with, or just make a mix for, you.
Using blends and segues is important, but don’t overdo it. It is very difficult to blend songs without the aid of a mixing board. Besides, a dignified pause can give your audience room to breathe. Avoid bad synthesis; program songs that strengthen each other, thematically and sonically—and always be sure that the end of a song sounds great with the beginning whether you’re blending them, doing a cold cut, or adding a space between.
Be clever: similar titles, motifs, juxtaposing a cover with its original with a great feel can be very cool. But be careful, if you go too cute, it ends up feeling wrong...you end up cloying and saccharine. Show you care. But be cool, humping the listener’s leg isn’t good for anyone.
Don’t be ashamed of your sources: beg, borrow, and steal (burn) to get tunes w/good enough variety...Built to Spill’s OK, but don’t make an all “BTS & bands what sound like ‘em” mix.
Avoid the trendy. Sorry, no Jesus Jones, Presidents of the USA, Fannypack, or Junior/Senior. You want this mix to be contemporary, but also have legs! You need for it to be an eternal expression of your love for someone that’ll hold up just as eternally. “Cameltoe” will not do this for you.
Also, avoid “sonic Formica”. Formica was once a brand. It became a type of countertop after everyone used the term. As a result, Formica lost its trademark. In other words, “Lust for Life” used to be a great tune, a deft blending of punk and Motown. But can you hear it without immediately thinking of Trainspotting, Nissan, or Carnival Cruise Lines?
Don’t bother using songs from albums filled with long, powerful, insular tunes. Masterpieces usually don’t work so well for mix fodder. Avoid the suicide suites in particular, Closer and Pink Moon. Albums with too much weight will weigh the mix down. Sadly, these are often personal loves.
On the flipside, do not dismiss best-of’s. For indy bands, these are often not just radio singles, but what they really hold to be their best material. And the rarities usually included because of this are simply made for mixtapes. Speaking of putting a cover by an original...”I Wanna Be Your Dog”, Uncle Tupelo side by side with the Stooges at last!
Be aware of moods and manipulate them, but don’t mix too self-consciously. For example: Eleanor Rigby flows into the Kronos Quartet which in turn plays up to Tom Waits which all adds up to a nice voyage from morose to gruesome to pulling out via cabaret.
Or a mixer can manipulate by precedents: Beatles to Nilsson, then blend this with anyone else with a great rhythm section (like the Smiths). Or how about Chuck Berry to early Stones then some NY Dolls and finally The White Stripes? Or the Velvet Underground to anything, really. After all, it was Lou Reed who once said, “the possibilities are endless”.
“Filler” has bad connotations, but wedging in a dirty sax tune or transcendental Chet Atkins instrumental can elevate your mix while giving the recipient a little room to breathe.
Side note: the “Terrible Mix” can work. Years ago, my friend tried to make the most careless, shitty mix possible. The entire tape’s contents were to be a function of whimsy. Glen Miller followed Shonen Knife followed VU followed The Psychedelic Furs. And you know what? It was one of the best, most textured and variegated mixes I have ever encountered. But don’t count on luck; in mixtaping a certain amount of precision is indicated.
Towards the end of their career, The Beatles became the best mix-tapers ever; even those lofty concept albums were just goofy collections of excellently arranged, yet perfect tunes. Take Revolver. The whole album kicks off with “Taxman’s” reel-to-reel wackiness. What follows is a perfectly arranged mixtape bursting with tunes which flow together in both an inspired and augmentative fashion, each clamoring towards the peak in creative potential: Art.
A Grasping Towards the Artsy-Fartsy
The slip cover. Ahh, yes. This is where, if you are a fine draftsman of letters or an artiste sans outlet, you can truly, purely express yourself. Here, there is no filter...just you to the intended. Perhaps you have truly fine lettering skills. Your printing is divinely crisp. Show this off. This is excellent, but there is plenty more potential for that 4” x 5” space.
I have seen mixes lettered with white-out on black paper. The entire mix, painstakingly dripped on dark paper in white fluid. This person has also written on white out. Thank god for Michael Nesmith’s old man, no?
Not only was the lettering and concept fascinating on this next one, but some personal audio was added as well. A gifted and prodigious mixer once made a tape for my brother, named Dan, voicing interludes from mock radio station WDAN between sets containing artists as diverse and equally brilliant as Public Enemy and Mojo Nixon.
Of course, there is the art side of creating a good slip...photo montages, paint, markers: expression! On the digital flip, clip art with unique fonts, backgrounds, paint shop...I don’t really swing with computers all that often if you can’t tell. But my good friend made me a Britpop mix entitled Common People, brit pop a go-go! that not only featured a great shot of the Who at their moddest, but it also had a really nice background and sharp sense of design.
Creation, Watch it Happen.
Yours Truly will be discussing the in’s and out’s of the mixtape way up north at Mess Hall, 6932 North Glenwood Ave. Chicago, IL 60626 'MORSE' Stop on the Red Line on Sunday, March 7th at 8 pm. Bring a mixtape for show and tell and take part in creation; or just watch and have fun.
Also of note, DJ Jump Cut (aka me) spins live at Danny's on Tuesday, March 2 Yes, this musical blowhard occasionally shows what he's made of. Drop by and request a song or two at 1935 W Dickens (at Damen). I will begin around 10 pm.
But in the meantime, look around --and within-- for inspiration. Need to propose to someone or just get a gig at the boards? A mixtape is a powerful tool of manipulation when wielded responsibly.
Alan Jacobson makes mixtapes a bit too often, apparently...
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Love's Here Today, Then It's Gone, published 2/13/04 in Citylink
Love’s Here Today, Then It’s Gone...
In a special Valentine’s Day installment of Tales from the DJ Booth, Alan Jacobson explores the constructive catharsis of the love song.
It was Valentine’s Day. There stood the lonely conquering mix master, locked away in a booth several feet above the lovelorn guzzling body. I was lofty, I was separate, I was ready to kill....but ever so softly with a specially prepared set about love, romance, togetherness, and the like.
One thing I immediately noticed looking down on this particular hipster drinking establishment was that most of my audience had arrived alone. The original plan had been to play a set consisting of songs about love and all that kind of thing. Not too hard, I figured since most pop songs are about that particular universal. However, some quick re-thinking was in order. Or so I thought.
My audience just wasn’t predisposed to a slow dance to, say, the Ramones “I Want You Around,” nope, much better described by the same band’s “I don’t care about this girl/I don’t care about this world.”
I lumbered in with a crate full of records extolling love and happiness, as the great Al once said, but had to get creative fast. Instead of “Love and Happiness,” I went for perhaps Al Green’s most heartrendingly perfect vocal performance on “How Do You Mend A Broken Heart.” This quick shift from the astute observational tone of the former to the bleeding pain of the latter was tailored to the audience: a group of lone, early-30 somethings who, by virtue of their solitary position at a bar on the great date night of the year, damn-well needed this expression of their feelings, this surrogate catharsis.
And I really did know what they wanted. I received many requests like this written one I saved for the scrapbook: “80’s stuff? Joy Divison? Bauhaus? The Firs (sic)? (Psychedelic) Cramps Magazine, if you’ve got em, can I review some tracks?”
Needless to say, the aging hipster shot me a heartfelt thumbs-up when I threw on the sarcastic lament, the subtle and complex “She Is Mine” from The Psychedelic Furs’ brilliant Talk Talk Talk. This tune bespeaks such an eye-blearing, head-aching, defensively cynical level of exhaustion that I was able to happily break the evening’s anti-bitter rule.
However, I really couldn’t see myself paying homage to Eros with say Bauhaus; sample lyric: “Hair of the dog! Hair of the dog that’s HATE!” or Joy Division, “Carefully watched for a reason/Mistaking devotion and love/Surrendered to self-preservation/From others who care for themselves.”
Ever laboring to gauge my audience—the true work of a DJ--I borrowed my masterstroke from the music critic’s cliché favorite LP; but instead of knocking the dancing couples dead with the originally planned “God Only Knows,” I chose the underappreciated gem positioned just two songs after that standby of gorgeously weepy, if a bit strangely-phrased (“If you should ever leave me/my life would go on believe me/But the world would show nothing to me/So what good would living do me?”) togetherness.
I need to take a brief pause here to say to those of you who think you don’t like the Beach Boys: you are wrong. Get copies of Pet Sounds and Smile, respectively the wellsprings of chamber pop and experimental wackiness invading the mainstream. Give them a chance. They’re acquired tastes, like aural mushrooms—requiring a few tries before you really get into them. But once you get in, there’s no getting out; and the listens invariably become more rewarding every time. Often hype elevates the commonplace; and these are heavily-vaunted platters. But they really hold up; sounds Music ridiculous—but I began as a cynic, pushed in by friends. Point being, you’re better off with rather than without this Catcher in the Rye (or better yet Russel Banks’s Bone) of pop-music.
Valentine’s soapbox rhapsodizing? Check. That out of the way, let’s finish this off gracefully, tossing in a bit of the coolness of the trucker-capped Lothario ignoring the glances of someone he obviously digs...
Where was I? Oh yeah...“Here Today” is a mini-symphony of living for the moment because love is “here...and gone so fast.” Confessional and advisory lyrics mesh perfectly with expressively bombastic music peppered with touches of the Boys’ surf accoutrements (suggesting the honest concern these complex emotions are laced with):
“It starts with just a little glance, now/right away you’re thinking ‘bout romance now/you know you oughta take it slower/but you just can’t wait to get to know her/A brand new love affair is such a wonderful thing/but if you’re not careful, think about the pain it can bring.”
Never resentful in matters of love, I felt no need for the romantic wrecking balls of a “Love Stinks” or an “I’m Not Your Stepping Stone.” “Here Today” was perfect for the evening because it imparted a really nice “respectful of love yet with eyes wide open” feel, and I’ve never been a particularly bitter person (well about relationships anyway...)
I’m more into the sweet of the bittersweet. And I’m glad I didn’t bring it down to the “Love Stinks” level. Occasionally we all need a little cathartic aggression in our lives. But it’s ultimately a senseless struggle that gets you nowhere.
I think the worst I got was when I had received my 80th request for 80’s music, yanked out some Cure, received thumbs up treatment from the requestor, and threw on the mysteriously treacherous, yet fabulously and ironically danceable, “The Walk” versus the beautiful, more appropriate, yet overplayed “Just Like Heaven,” or fuckoff invitations like “How Beautiful You Are” and “The Snakepit.” Side note: my god, what an amazing album, and wellspring of bitterness Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me is.
My mission was so pure and strong that Valentine’s Eve that I had to be yanked bodily from the booth at shift’s end. I spun that night for over 4 hours and all for one measly, under-nourishing Pabst. Buzzing (obviously not from the swill) for three days afterwards, apparently this set did the trick for me as well as my audience. Music, the food of love, the most direct form of human expression, etc...I personally have always found it amazing how it can be both descriptive and ambiguous...mocking and ever so comforting.
Alan Jacobson suggests no shows or activities for this Valentine’s Day; stay in and cook for each other. Make it sweet...unless you are on your own. If you are, perhaps the DJ will play your request!
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Pure Pop for Now People
The Apples in Stereo are one of the best pop bands you've never heard of.
It all began in Chicago. On a worldwide tour for Heaven Tonight, favored sons Cheap Trick played for young Southern girls and boys alike. Robert Schneider and Jeff Mangum, yes that Jeff Mangum, were in the audience at one particular concert. The pair of future indie-pop geniuses rushed home and kept Mangum’s mom up all night with a bedroom hysterical version of “Dream Police”.
Schneider’s blood now infected by power pop genius, the stage was set for him to begin an idealistic record label community of sorts. And until the now-legendary Elephant 6 collective folded last year, Robert Schneider did everything for them short of sweeping the hallways. He produced records in and out of Elephant 6 by the Olivia Tremor Control and others, including possibly the best album of the Nineties by old friend Jeff Mangum’s outfit, Neutral Milk Hotel--their breathtaking In the Aeroplane over the Sea.
Schneider’s 1997 Marbles album alone would have been enough of an accomplishment. A four track small-scale solo outing, Pyramid Landing & Other Favorites is his Smile. But this is an album he recorded for “my friends, my kid brothers and my cats”, one that brought him closer to pop brilliance, not cracked madness. Pyramid Landing is as precious as an album can get without being saccharine, as cute as it is inventive. Life anthems that cheer the fact that there is the “Sun to Shine” could be nauseating if they weren’t delivered so well.
Throughout the balance of the late nineties, Schneider’s band The Apples in Stereo skirted the edges of indie rock masterfully. Their early recordings display an affinity, but no allegiance, to garage rock. As Schneider shifted his kaleidoscopic spectacles from nuggets of kontroversy to the vast strawberry fields of pet sounds, their 1997 coup de grace and best album to date, Tone Soul Evolution, was unleashed upon throngs of joyous college radio music directors. This 24-track platter is bursting with not only tenderly propulsive psychedelic ruminations on the inner life of the soul, but a generous stash of thrilling pop goodies like “What’s the #” and “We’ll Come to Be”.
Super-Beatles pop filled 1999’s highly-regarded Her Wallpaper Reverie EP; when I say this, I do so with the emphasis on the word, “super”, to indicate that the Apples in Stereo do not slavishly imitate, but used the tools the Beatles created and helped bring to the mainstream. With these tools, the Apples filled this EP with wistful, wonderful, pop—catchy tunes which alternately slow-crash and buzz. This incredibly rich 30 minutes, also filled with some lovely toy piano interludes, gained them much notice.
2000’s ambitious Discovery of A World Inside the Moone found Schneider and his band of merry men exploring funk and a sunnier, louder pop that would be fully fleshed out in a couple of years. A fine record on its own, its only failing may lie in that nomadic je ne sais quoi that often accompanies great ambition. But tunes like the almost harmfully addictive “Go!” and the masterful Parliament homage of “The Bird that You Can’t See” create in Moone the most textured Apples disc to date.
The result of solar poisoning contracted from the band’s involvement with the Powerpuff Girls, sunshine met aggressive decibels head on and exploded into the loudest record of the last 100 years, late 2002’s Velocity of Sound. This is a power pop record with an emphasis on the power.
Now Hilarie Sidney’s left the Apples to embark on her own tweedorable pop in the High Water Marks (RIYL Dressy Bessy’s first album) and though her solid drumming, song craft, and sweet voice will be missed, the group is Robert “Brian Wilsonoid” Schneider’s baby alone. This isn’t to say that Eric Allen’s bass work and John Hill’s guitar (also of Dressy Bessy) aren’t equal parts sharp and inspiring.
But Schneider is running the show with more confidence and sincerity than ever. The last time they came through Chicago, they killed. The Apples used to be very spotty live. Schneider would never use his microphone properly, the shyness of this studio hermit translating to stage coyness that only makes for a drag show. However, last time this band was: huge. Giant and loud (even the vocals); just amazing.
But The Apples in Stereo has never been Schneider’s only project. He has recorded songs with fellow pop mastermind Andy Partridge (XTC) and has collected them as Orchestra Fantastique. Though Schneider has become a studio architect of great power and precision, the pure fun of kids hysterically thrashing out Cheap Trick riffs just for the sake of rocking continues to infuse his music. The future of the Apples seems uncertain, but Thursday’s show promises to be all the things great pop ought to be: bright, sunny, harmonic, gigantic, and, most of all, fun.
The Apples in Stereo play Thursday, May 6th at the Bottom Lounge, 8 pm 18+. Fresh faced happy poppers Apollo Sunshine and High Water Marks, featuring former Apples drummer and songwriter Hilarie Sidney on vocals and guitar, open.
Fun Trick Noisemaker 7.5/10, Science Faire 7/10, Tone Soul Evolution 9.5/10, Her Wallpaper Reverie 8.3/10, The Discovery of a World inside the Moone 8/10, Velocity of Sound 8/10, The Marbles Pyramid Landing and Other Favorites 8.8/10
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Glam's Sparkle Darkens: the Odd Politics of Bobby Conn.
Bobby Conn plays the Empty Bottle on Saturday, June 5th and The Bottom Lounge on Sunday June 6th.
How to describe Conn? He inspires equal amounts of love and hate, but is just as hard to describe for his fans as he is for his detractors...in other words: just as hard for people to pin down as any sophisticated, intelligent, and now, perhaps, revolutionary artist of any pop era.
A comparison to T. Rex is that rare combination of obvious and dead on, though Conn is an original with lyrics less inspired by incense than, say, an impending apocalypse. He is an aging teenage messiah in denial, diminutive and communicative, who pulls off superbly imaginative and difficult guitar licks effortlessly.
Which leads to the Prince (the good stuff, don’t worry) comparison: charisma, costumes, and presence, presence, presence, BABY, presence! A man with vision, you can tell Conn knows where he’s taking you.
He began this bizarre journey in a prog outfit called Conducent. In 1994, he split off to begin in earnest as the self-described “Antichrist,” knocking out an interesting yet somewhat off-puttingly abrasive record for Truckstop in 1997. Then came his (locally) famous friendship with new uber-indiegodhead/ producer Jim O’Rourke and Bobby Conn’s masterpiece, 1998’s Rise Up! which spotlights the Conn-ival with precision: outrageously glam distopiatic funk, navel-gazing rock star-isms, MC5/Panthers calls-to–action, and Monica BouBou’s electric violin jammed tightly against the four-octave freak’s soulful wailing. It’s a carwreck, but one from which everyone not only survives, but gets it on, and lives very stylishly from there on in.
2001’s The Golden Age is a fascinating album in that it conflates everything “Conn” to utterly cartoonish levels. A fantastically ambitious, glam-symphonic, epic record and one of a kind Conn would not repeat on his next album.
Where have all the Dirty people gone? Bobby Conn’s taken a step back and he’s pissed off at what he sees. On The Homeland he’s still an illuminatus antichrist, yadda yadda yadda. But he uses this character as a vehicle of outrage. Teeming with all the self-hatred of an alcoholic experiencing a moment of clarity, his thinly-veiled whip-smart criticisms of the US of A**’s way of life and death these days are still set to similar glam, funk, and metal grooves.
But the darkening and shifting of the scope to reality are plain. Dubya’s America is skewered endlessly via attacks on homogeneity and imperialism, “God’s on our side/We know we’re right/Come to the light/Say goodbye to all your history/Come and join our family”. The music is tighter and sharper than ever, with excellent production by John McEntire, one dude who knows how to use distortion. The sheer variety and economy of the tunes has undeniably improved over prior releases.
But while you’re doing the underoos and wife beater hop in your living room to the disco redux of “Relax”, the lyrics, “Relax, there’ll be no warning for the next attack/Relax, and there’s a discount on your income tax”, may bring down the dance a bit. Whether Conn has crippled an otherwise solid and ambitious step forward or made it a classic for the ages by contextualizing it so specifically...only time will tell.
So, I alluded to some car-crash partying somewhere’s back in there. You’ve got to wonder, “How good is it, though?” For Conn’s live shows, which we’ve got a pair of in early June...well, depends on if you like cartoons…about sexually ambiguous neo-glamrockers. You see, way back when Conn began flying solo, he had already begun to collect notoriety and rabid cult celebrity for insane live shows featuring a variety of bizarre costumes, including a Priest getup and mud facials.
The best show of theirs, was one I caught at The Fireside featuring the Gypsies dressed in true Let’s Get Physical-era Olivia Newton-John regalia. The sound was huge, the songs were tight, and fun was had even by the most jaded of hipsteristas. Even if you have heard Conn and hate him or the music didn’t really do much for you, his shows really must be seen to be believed. His music and persona come off as a big, heart-ripped-bare homage to his heroes. It is almost as if the audience is inside the bedroom mirror an adolescent Marc Bolan wannabe is performing into…but Conn pulls it off with such style, grace, integrity, and musicality that we feel honored (and, yes, a bit embarrassed) to be there.
Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies will be playing the Empty Bottle on Saturday, June 5th and The Bottom Lounge on Sunday June 6th, with Trans Am and Frequency in tow.