June 17, 2010
Last week, we talked about a brief resurgence in popularity of 30s and 40s big band music, aka “Swing.” Swing was wildly popular for a hot minute, the bands critically accepted (if not always acclaimed), and lots of hip people dumped lots of money into zoot suits, dance lessons and the various other accoutrement’s of the genre. A few bands made some big dollars, got to perform on Leno, and then that was it. Nobody bought Big Bad Voodoo Daddy’s second album, because nobody cared about swing, once popular culture had deemed the movement passé, and labels stopped pumping money into them. Eighteen months after the 90s became the 40s, it was over. Britney Spears came around. Things got dark for a long time.
Most fads (for swing was truly a fad-no one gets dressed up like that every Friday night forever) happen just like this. The 90s were chock full of them: Tamagotchi, sour gumballs, punk-ska (which lasted longer than swing, but still died a lonely death), etc. I’ve begun to realize that part of the reason there was no great guitar hero in the 90s-note that Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White weren’t joined by a 90s counterpart in It Might Get Loud-is that the 90s; even more so than the 2000s; were all about style over substance. Even in the wake of Nirvana, the radio was inundated with cut-rate imitation groups, bands that copied the sound but never approached the heart. It’s amazing to me, now, that the Goo Goo Dolls are experiencing a resurgence in popularity, trucking out the familiar old hits on a culture that never (non-ironically) asked for them. I imagine it’s the same feeling folks who grew up in the 80s felt when I was laughing and screaming Eddie Money songs in 1996.
There’s one group, however, that gets lumped in with all the other ridiculous fads of the 1990s that deserves a hell of a lot more credit than they get. This is a group who have weathered a declining music industry and universal ridicule by all the world except their fans. Despite zero support from radio or MTV, they’ve sold millions of records over the last twenty years. That group is the Insane Clown Posse.
June 8, 2010
Aside from the crass commercialization of the underground rock scene of the 80s, the invention of “alternative” music, and the subsequent deluge of thinly-veiled, entirely corporate rock groups sent to piss on Kurt Cobain’s grave, the 90s were a hotbed of ill-advised genre revivals. Every couple of years, something that had already been done came back. These revivals were alternately good (punk-ska melding the positive vibes and dance-y rhythms of 2 Tone with punk rock’s manic energy), and horrible (while “Boy bands” may not seem like the real stuff of revival, the Backstreet Boys, et. al, reminded me of nothing more than the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0). In the case of the former, the revival happened on the underground – it was great to live in Detroit in the mid 90s, seeing ten or fifteen different ska bands every weekend, and not being bombarded with it on the radio – until the end. In the case of the latter, the revival was all over the mass media, radio and television coated with slickly produced teen idol pop (and if you were just a few months too old for the New Kids on the Block, version 2.0 wasn’t even bad in a good way. It was just bad).
A truly weird genre that came back into prominence in the 90s, though, was the swing revival. Overlapping the punk ska scene and the Boy band juggernaut, there were a couple of funny years in there where it was somehow cool to put on a zoot suit, consume cigars and fine whiskey, dance in an antiquated and difficult-to-master way, and eke out a living selling pencils and dice on street corners. Okay, not so much that last one, but swing WAS a completely period fetishistic movement based as much around aping the fashion of the day as it was about the music; which, itself, was not updated from the music of the period, beyond heightened production values.
The movement, as far as I can tell, began with the 1989 formation of Royal Crown Revue-who you may remember as the “Hey! Pachuco!” band Jim Carrey grooved to in The Mask. For a few years, Royal Crown Revue and their ilk (Cherry Poppin’ Daddies, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, etc.) served a strange, commercial-yet-not-in-your-face role as “the band that plays when something zany/hip happens” in movies and commercials. To be fair, though, this was how most ska bands that transcended the underground scene made their first impression on the commercial map-remember the Mighty Mighty Bosstones as the cool dance group that Alicia Silverstone and friends groove to in Clueless, or the rally band at Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s home games in BASEketball (a role that Reel Big Fish ultimately played in real life, too, briefly providing theme music for the Florida Marlins in the late 90s).
May 23, 2010
In an age where fewer and fewer people are buying new music, it helps to have your record housed in a distinct package. Everyone can do jewel cases, and frankly, what’s the point of them? If you’re anything like me, you live in a small apartment in Brooklyn, and if you buy a new compact disc, you disassemble the jewel case and throw it out, first thing. The jewel case is passe, not to mention horrible for the environment.
And it’s not like one can’t afford to do better these days, either. When I released my first album, Metal and Wood, in 2003, one thousand compact discs, in shrink-wrapped jewel cases, cost around $1,200. In 2009, I released my fourth album, A Brighter Light, in shrink-wrapped, full color eco-wallets (they’re the cardboard ones, where the CD slips into it like a record, rather than sit on a plastic tray). Due to increased economic downturn and ever-waning public interest in CDs, this run of a thousand cost pretty much the same as my first album (basically half what they cost in 2003). Today, one can release a CD that sounds good, lasts a long time, and looks cool, for a fraction of what it used to cost.
Some examples, throughout the years:
1. Spiritualized-Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space (12×3″ CD “blister pack” edition)
Spritualized‘s 1997 crowning achievement, the spacey, drone-y Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space, sonically, earns its’ place among the canon of psychedelic music. The album was available on traditional compact disc and vinyl, but was also released in an ultra-limited form that included each of the album’s twelve songs on a 3″ CD. The mini-CDs were then packed into a “blister pack”-basically the cellophane and plastic contraption that Claritin comes in. Though I hadn’t heard the record when I saw it in January 1999-and I have only a passing familiarity with it today-that CD box was the ultimate drool-inducing fetish object for a guy like me. It sat on the shelf of Radio Kilroy-where I was employed and, because my boss thought I was stealing anyway, could easily have stolen it-until it went out of business a few months later. The blister pack edition of Ladies and Gentlemen was the coolest record by far in a store full of cool records-so modern and somehow so reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World. The boss wanted $180 for his copy at the time; today, the same album goes on eBay for eight times that.
2. The Velvet Underground-Peel Slowly and See (5 CD boxed-set)
The Velvets’ four, commercially stillborn but unprecedentedly influential albums were collected (and expanded with dubious bonus tracks) for the first time in 1995. Having all of their classics, many omissions that ranged in quality from essential to horrid, and a pre-Velvet Underground and Nico CD of Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison rehearsing their earliest material was reason enough to shell out forty five bucks for the five CD package. That the package aped the cover of the group’s debut album-a banana with the words, “Peel Slowly and See” next to the stem-only with a Colorforms-style banana logo that actually peeled away, once again made the package an absolute necessity for nerds. Nevermind the fact that the CDs don’t begin and end one bit like their source material (and indeed the entire third album is presented in a weird alternate mix), the banana on the cover is cool as shit. I already had all the groups albums when my girlfriend’s roommate was hard up for cash and offered me the box for thirty bucks. Maybe not the coolest thirty bucks I ever spent, but certainly in the running.
April 26, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses Great Splits in History. For earlier installments, go here.
As things started to crumble in the executive echelons of corporate rock, the (smart) little guys started to think of other ways to get new folks into their music. With your continued interest, I’d like to spend the next few weeks talking about innovative ways in which rock musicians have thrived in the decidedly lower-stakes climate of the last twenty years.
First, the split release. Kind of like rock star “team ups,” e.g. Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks’ “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around,” David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure,” etc., though not nearly as crassly commercial (and usually just plain better, as I can think of few other “team ups” in history that have stood the test of time), split releases typically combine bands from two different regional scenes, who share a similar sound or aesthetic. Also, typically, the release is available in a limited quantity, which (ideally) causes great fervor around the record, driving it quickly out of print, and into legend. Here are four splits that sound great and worked really, really well.
The Rudiments/Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines | Skank for Brains (Self-Released)
If you’re into ska, there’s no better place and time to have come of age than Detroit in the mid-90′s. According to some, the national ska scene grew from a dozen or so groups at the dawn of the 90′s to about five hundred by the time the scene hit critical mass in ’97 or ’98. Though most early-90′s ska bands featured the horn sections typical of the 2nd Wave or 2-Tone ska of the early 80′s, by the middle of the decade, just as many bands were doing ska without the horns, dubbing the new microgenre “Punk Ska.”
Whether these bands were eschewing the horn element out of fiscal necessity (I think most ska bands fell apart because it’s so hard to keep eight or more musicians on the road and fed) or an interest in standing out from the crowd (think of how the Minutemen approached punk, if they were rude boys), I never heard anyone on the scene griping that Punk Ska wasn’t legit.
Skank for Brains celebrated Punk Ska with a short album’s worth of songs each by Toledo’s Rudiments and Detroit’s Jack Kevorkian and the Suicide Machines. The Rudiments were a three piece group that barely seemed to be able to keep it together: this release alone features multiple lineup changes, and the front half of the disc never quite excites.
April 16, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2004. For earlier installments, go here.
We’ve spent the last several months trying to figure out what went wrong in the corporate rock world. I’ve blown the whistle from my little corner of the internet on a week-to-week basis, pointing my self-righteous finger at publishers (Jan Wenner), record execs (all of them, really), lame “stars” (Mickey Dolenz, et. al) and even my own heroes (They Might Be Giants, etc.).
I’m. Tired. Of. Pointing. Fingers. I’m tired of going on and on about what’s gone wrong. And I’m also tired of pretending that there’s any feasible solution on the horizon. Best to gut the fish, I say: cut off the best hunks of meat, and throw the carcass back to sea. Had the Old Man in Hemingway’s story done so, he would probably have had food for a month. I don’t want to be the one to keep dragging the industry’s useless body around, trying to find safe passage home, only to arrive and find his kill picked clean by sharks.
I want to start talking about what’s gone right. I want to talk about the crazy bastards who keep finding a way to release good new music in an era where no one gives a shit about good new music anymore.
In June 2004, some friends and I attended the 10 Year Anniversary celebration of Plan-It-X Records, in Bloomington, IN. My introduction to Plan-It-X had come about three years earlier, when I was thrust on a bill with the greatest band ever out of Pensacola, FL, This Bike is a Pipe Bomb. In the weeks leading up to that gig, I’d heard from just about every kid in town that TBIAPB was a hardcore band, known for violent crowd antics at their shows. It didn’t make any sense to me why I’d been asked by the venue staff to play with a violent hardcore band; the music I played then sounded much like the music I play now (folky punk [I hate to use the term folk punk]), albeit the music then was pretty heavily influenced by cheap beer.
March 9, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2003 and the good old days when kids took the time to ride their bikes to record stores to pick up new albums instead of downloading songs with a simple and thoughtless click. For earlier installments, go here.
If the moment upon which the music industry gave up the ghost for real can indeed be pinpointed to a single date, I would posit that it came with the release of Good News for People Who Love Bad News, the commercial breakthrough from Modest Mouse, long beloved Washington indie rock darlings. And I can’t even blame the death of the industry on Modest Mouse: while Good News is not nearly as good as the albums upon which Modest Mouse’s reputation was built, the album is still quite good. I would posit, though, that the end of the old standard came with Modest Mouse’s crossover because I can’t for the life of me think of one other new album that’s had anywhere near the impact of Good News.
(Before you get started in on me about music over the last seven years, let me just say: Animal Collective, M. Ward, Rilo Kiley, Bright Eyes, Bon Iver, !!!, Neko Case, My Morning Jacket, Screaming Females, etc. I know. Shut up.)
But given that I promised to wrap things up in 2003, let’s just go ahead and say that any events dating after December 31, 2003, are epilogue. I would point out that 2003 is the year Radiohead, previously the bastions of adventure and limit-testing in modern rock, first failed to live up to the hype surrounding them. Where moments on each of their previous albums carry unmistakable resonance to this day (discounting 2001′s Amnesiac, which was more of a companion piece than actual album), 2003′s Hail to the Thief was the first more or less unmemorable Radiohead album. Considering that Thom Yorke and Co. are hailed in the media as industry saviors on a more or less daily basis, I would guess that a lot of guys who wear ponytails and $1,000 suits started bucketing water out of the higher floors of the Capitol Records building when Hail to the Thief failed to reinvigorate the industry.
February 23, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2002, the melancholy mood of the year, exemplified in the album releases by Beck, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips (with a healthy dose of Brook’s own nostalgia thrown in, as he set off for the Big Apple to pursue his personal musical ambitions). For earlier installments, go here.
On September 1, 2002, I made good on my as-long-as-I-can-remember dream of leaving Michigan for New York City. Like senior year of high school, (and the subsequent summer) those final Midwest summer days crawled by, like sweet tea tectonic plates. I worked something like ninety hours a week, “saving” money—but really spending most of it on crazy record store finds, things only I could care about—like the Meat Purveyors’ “Madonna Trilogy.” A big part of my problem has always been that no one around me can match my enthusiasm for miniscule little records by cheeky, insurgent bluegrass bands (and, in fairness, I’ve come to realize that a bigger part of my problem is that I care less about the music than I do about the acquisition). I have long had a reputation for only caring about music, which until recently felt like a character flaw, something to be pilloried for. Unhealthy obsession with those twelve notes and the multitude of possibilities within has permeated every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember, and acquisition of music (and arcane knowledge of its minutiae) has taken precedence over friendships, food, shelter, education, you name it. The list goes on.
February 14, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2001, specifically 9/11/2001, and the significance of four albums released on that day. For earlier installments, go here.
So, our exploration of music in the 1990s has come to a close. Things were “bad” for creative rock music at the beginning of the 90s, then they were “good” for a while, then by decade’s end, things were “bad” again. The modern record industry didn’t die entirely on January 1, 2000, though; things crutched along for another couple of years, and so we’re still here, trying to figure out exactly when the industry hit critical mass.
Rather than do a serial exploration of 2001, as we have about other years in this column, I’d like to talk about one specific date: September 11. Many New Yorkers who were living here on the day have insinuated to me over the years that all things New York City can be divided into two categories: “pre”-9/11 and “post”-9/11. I was still living in Kalamazoo, MI, at the time, staring at my watch through my last year of college, obsessing over alt. country, and doing my small part to run one of the nation’s few remaining freeform independent radio stations, 89.1FM WIDR Kalamazoo.
WIDR’s director’s staff, myself included, were booked and all set to attend that fall’s CMJ Music Marathon, four days of music and conference all across Manhattan’s greatest clubs and shitty bars. Sure, it’s corny now, but we’d attended the year previous (my first visit to the city), and I’d gotten to meet some of my heroes (David Lowery, John Flansburgh), see shows that I still talk about to this day (Low, PJ Harvey, Sean Na Na) and left what was supposed to be my last pack of cigarettes on the bar at CBGB (the actual physical sight of the marquee made my breath stop in my throat). I was hooked, and my (then) girlfriend and I swore we’d be living in New York as soon as we could.