1. Not On the Radio
Sometime in the late 90s my car radio died. First, it ate a cassette tape (yes, I still listened to cassettes), wouldn't play it, and wouldn't give it back. Then it quit completely. So I went for five years or so with silence in the car. And since the only time I listened to the radio was in the car, I missed a good chunk of "current hit music."
Not that I missed it much. By then, I had stopped caring about what was new and exciting; most of it sounded neither to my ears. It wasn't interesting to me. Even before the radio died, when I was driving all over L.A. delivering magazines, I would just skim the dial, stopping for anything that held my attention, then moving on. So I listened to a very random mix, everything from rock to hip-hop to country to mariachi to (at least once) Asian reggae. But for music I truly enjoyed, I already had to look elsewhere, to the fringes, to the far left of the dial, or off the dial entirely.
Okay, I will confess that there was one popular group in these years which really grabbed my attention. Garbage. They were Blondie for the 90s. To me, they had the same appeal catchy tunes; Phil Spector style vocals over hard, punkish rock; a sneering yet sexy attitude, and lead singer. I heard their first album and I was hooked. In love even.
I saw Garbage in 2002, touring in support of their third album, Beautiful. I enjoyed that album, it contained some great songs such as "Cup of Coffee" and "Silence is Golden". Still, I found it flawed, as much for its organization as its material. There seemed to be no logical order to the songs; it really drove home the idea that people no longer listened to albums all the way through, they just picked the songs they liked. So why waste time on sequencing?
Similarly, I enjoyed the show, but wasn't as excited as I had hoped. I was curious to see how they would translate their studio recordings, which seemed to rely a lot on studio wizardry, into live performance. They did quite well, using primarily just guitar, without disrupting the orignal arrangements very much.
My disappointment started with the song selection; they didn't play many of my favorite songs. Of course, this often happens at concerts because my faves are often obscure deep cuts. But, to be honest, I was also disappointed by Shirley Manson. Put bluntly, she wasn't sexy enough. She had switched from her trademark red hair to bleached blond, and she wore baggy white pants instead of the hoped for mini-skirt. She looked more like she was ready for the gym than a rock concert. And her attitude came off as more straight forward aggressive than aggressively seductive. But the audience, heavily geared towards college-age women, loved her.
The other artists I really got into in these years (late 90s into the new millennium) rarely, if ever, got played on the radio. Primary were Sonic Youth, Ween, and Nels Cline.
It is a bit surprising that I got into Sonic Youth so late, considering my love for noise and guitar. Further, Sonic Youth came out of the No Wave scene I had followed during my last year of college. Perhaps if I had not moved to Idaho, where I had no way to follow what was happening in the New York lofts and warehouses, I would have been a Sonic Youth fan from the very beginning.
In any event, in 1996 my roommate Ian loaned me Washing Machine. It was an excellent introduction to their musical mayhem. Their most commercial album, it was released in the wake of Nirvana's success, and much of it felt like a blatant attempt to get on the radio. In fact, an edited version of "Diamond Sea" got some airplay on alternative stations. Edited because the full song is 20 minutes long. It starts with five minutes of absolutely gorgeous music (the part that became the single) and then descends into 15 minutes of pure feedback a practical joke on unsuspecting new listeners.
I fell in love. I'll admit the catchier aspects of the album helped, but I enjoyed the rougher parts as well. I also liked the way the album (to my ears, at least) paid tribute to their influences. The title track evoked Patti Smith; "Little Trouble Girl" directly referenced The Shangri-Las (Close... very, very close...); "No Queen Blues" seemed inspired by 60s garage rock; and other songs seemed to pay tribute to Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground. Or maybe all that was my imagining, my hearing my favorite bands in the music.
Furthermore, at times it was a spoken word album. "Skip Tracer", "Little Trouble Girl", "Saucer-Like", "Panty Lines", and the title track all included spoken word sections. In fact, Sonic Youth had often included spoken word pieces on the albums, usually by Lee Renaldo and/or Kim Gordon. Their following album, A Thousand Leaves, included a long tribute to Allen Ginsberg. I even reviewed both albums (together) as spoken word for Next...
Still, when I saw Sonic Youth (in 2003, many years after I got hooked), it was all about the guitar. They hardly played anything I recognized that night, but I didn't care. I wanted wave after wave of guitar and feedback washing over me, and that's what I got.
I was introduced to Ween by Lob, a good friend, musician, and fellow poet. We spent a very stoned afternoon listening to them, as he played selected cuts from their first four albums (GodWeenSatan: The Oneness, The Pod, Pure Guava, and Chocolate and Cheese). In that condition, their twisted music and humor really appealed to me. A stand-out cut was "Buenos Tardes Amigo", off Chocolate and Cheese, but I loved enough of it to quickly buy Pure Guava.
How to explain Ween? Ween started out as two childhood friends playing around with singing over tape and primitive rhythm machines. Over time they graduated to real instruments, eventually adding other musicians to become a full band. They developed a talent for writing and perfoming in almost every rock music style in existence (and some of their own creation). After seeing them live, in 1999, I attempted to explain them, writing,
[Ween] are a couple of audiophiles who are really into sounds, whether it is a guitar tone, a vocal effect, or a whole musical style. When they hear a good one, they have to figure out how to recreate it... [and then] they build a song around it."
They put on a great show, three hours covering nearly every style imaginable. They also demonstrated their musicianship; they (and their band) played excellently, especially on an extended jam on "Voodoo Lady." They left me completely impressed with their showmanship.
Queens of the Stone Age opened for them. Honestly, I thought they played decent hard rock, but otherwise didn't make much of an impression on me.
I first saw Nels Cline playing guitar with Mike Watt at the Holiday Fun-Raiser I described in my previous column (a show which included Henry Rollins, Flea, Phranc, and the hostesses, The Ringling Sisters). In that context, he played primarily straight ahead hard rock guitar. A notable moment for me was their cover of Blue Oyster Cult's "The Red and the Black". Cline held his own against my memories of Buck Dharma.
The next time I saw him was a different affair entirely. It took place at The Smell, a tiny all-ages punk club in downtown L.A. Actually, "club" is a bit of a misnomer. The Smell was a small, unadorned room with concrete floors and brick walls, and nowhere to sit. But it put on a variety of interesting shows.
That night Cline did everything imaginable to get sound out of his guitar, except play it. He hit the guitar, bent the neck, utilized feedback, rubbed the strings with a kitchen whisk, and employed a number of other techniques to create soundscapes which were, in fact, quite interesting and entrancing. For most of the show, he was accompanied by a bassist, who used similar techniques on his instrument. It was a fascinating show.
Also on the bill was a band called Mechakucha. On record they sounded like an updated Larks Tongues in Aspic era King Crimson; live they too veered far into noise rock territory.
A few years later I saw Cline perform with SoCal supergroup Banyan. In addition to Cline, the version of Banyan I saw included Steve Perkins (Jane's Addiction) on drums, Mike Watt (Minutemen, fIREHOSE) on bass, and Willie Waldman (Snoop Dogg's band) on trumpet. They played hard rock like it was free form jazz. Very loose and improvisational, but also rocking, shredding, blowing the audience away with energy and ferocity. At times I reached moments of musical transcendence during that show.
Finally, I saw him back up singer Carla Bozulich at All Tomorrow's Parties, a huge music festival at the Queen Mary in Long Beach in November 2003 (an event which deserves its own chapter). Here he demonstrated his versatility by alternating between country licks and pure noise, as the songs demanded.
Cline's solo records usually get classified as jazz, but they rarely sound like any notion of jazz which I have. I guess it's because they are generally instrumental, experimental, and based on improvisation. But I believe his music really transcends genre. My taste was moving towards this sort of music. In 2000 I wrote a column on what I called "Post-Genre Music", for the Orange County punk zine Skratch. Here is some of it:
The very best [CDs} transcend genre altogether. They're just music, drawing on numerous influences, but in the end just playing whatever sounds right at the moment. I call this post-genre music.
There are two basic forms of post-genre music. One takes the various elements of different genres, and mixes them up, refuses to be boxed in by them. The prime example of this type of music today is Beck. His music is a gumbo of styles (hip-hop, soul, folk, etc.), blended into a coherent whole, where each flavor still retains its presence. But in this style, the various genres still show up, if only as identifiable ingredients in the stew. It may cross and blend genres, but it does not transcend them.
There is also pure post-genre music, music that simply ignores the notions and conventions of genre. I recently attended a show by the band Critters Buggin'. I have heard them labelled as a "noise" band, but what they played wasn't noise, or jazz, or anything in particular. It was just music, music without boundaries, without labels. Five people on stage, playing together, playing whatever sounded right for the moment. Just playing.
2. I Become a Critic, Again
Ah, Skratch Magazine. I was back writing music reviews. Once I folded Next... it was very easy to transition to writing reviews for other magazines. After all, I wrote plenty of reviews for Next..., some of them even of music. I had made plenty of connections, and editors actually jumped at the idea of having me write for them. At least I could deliver a story on time. I primarily wrote for Skratch, Panik, (I guess 'k's were big back then), and, online, The Independent Reviews Site, and occasionally other publications. I wrote CD reviews, book reviews, show reviews, and, here and there, interviews and opinion pieces. Most of these publications were pretty easy going; they had to be considering they paid in CDs and show passes. Skratch, however, would send me ten CDs and want reviews in ten days. Luckily they printed mainly one paragraph reviews.
Reviewing did introduce me to a ton of new music. And every now and then, some of it was good. (A quick note on reviewing: the hardest CDs to review were the mediocre ones. I wouldn't have anything to say about them. The easiest ones, often, were the terrible ones.) Actually a fair number had at least one or two good songs. And there were a fair number of CDs I enjoyed all the way through, including the aforementioned Mechakucha and Critters Buggin'. More important, there were a small handful of bands I became a huge fan of, where one CD made me search for more by that band, and I loved all of them.
The first couple I discovered while I was still publishing Next... Kanary (again with the 'k's) were passing out CDs outside a Zine Fest Converence. When I played it, a number of the tracks were straight spoken word. So I reviewed it and became a fan. Although they were a local L.A. band, I didn't get to see them until several years later when they opened for Dee Dee Ramone in a small bar in Marina del Rey. With solid songwriting, strong rock'n'roll chops, and a powerful vocalist in Leslie Knauer, they were worth the wait. (Dee Dee put in a strong set himself, mostly old Ramones tunes.)
I also got a copy of the Walkabouts' Setting the Woods on Fire while publishing Next..., along with a phone call from their publicists encouraging me to attend their gig that night. Unluckily, I had a poetry commitment for that evening, and so missed what would be my only chance to see the band, which I soon came to love. Also, although they had very literate songwriting, I really couldn't find an excuse to review the CD.
I describe The Walkabouts as what X might have sounded like if they had been Neil Young fans instead of Doors fans. They had the same mix of punky rockers and country flourishes. Based in Seattle, they released a couple of albums on Sub Pop, but never achieved much U.S. success. Eventually they moved to Europe, and continued to record on various European labels, finding a much larger audience there. Their European recordings did take a mellower turn, into spacey folk rock. Luckily, over the years I have been able to find several of their CDs in various used record stores.
As I mentioned, Skratch would send me ten CDs at a time. This sometimes presented logistical challenges for reviewing them all. Once, out of frustration, I threw a bunch in my CD player, and hit shuffle. Every so often a song caught my ear. When I took them out, I realized all the songs I had liked came from the same CD, Eclipse and Debris by Donovan's Brain. A delicious cross between Pink Floyd and the Cure, the CD was pure ear candy to me. Because of their sound, I assumed they were British, but when I found them later on MySpace (!), they turned out to be from Bozeman, Montana. I ordered a couple more CDs from them, which I definitely liked, though not at much as Eclipse and Debris.
Finally, Lindsay Smith, a songwriter from Georgia, blew me away with her first CD, Tales From the Fruitbat Vat. Sensitive songwriting and philosophical musings tied to sweetheart melodies made for repetitive spins. Particularly powerful for me were songs grappling with the distance between the message of Christianity and the religion. Her second CD, Were You Prom Queen?, although still solid and fun, didn't quite have the same charm.
But even more than encountering these artists, reviewing CDs showed me that there was a lot of great, new music being produced. That the radio only skimmed the surface of what was available, what was being performed and recorded. It reaffirmed my faith in the overall state of music in the U.S. It was obvious that, independent of the "hits", there was a vast quantity of interesting, exciting, and original music being produced in our country.