Saturday, December 31, 2005

Mountain Goats
Tell Me on a Sunday

John Darnielle, who records under the misleadingly plural Mountain Goats moniker, largely built his reputation on a series of cassettes released by Shrimper in the early ‘90s. Although the songs were usually recorded in one take using a cheap boombox, sound quality was never the issue with Darnielle, who used a forceful voice and incisive songwriting to cut through the layers of tape hiss. Hot Garden Stomp, released by Shrimper in 1994, is the only cassette that I’ve heard, but it is nothing short of astonishing. (Shrimper, why hasn’t this stuff been reissued??)

I listened to “Tell Me on a Sunday” for years before I even realized it was a cover of an Andrew Lloyd Webber song. The fact that I didn’t realize this speaks volumes about Darnielle’s talent. I just assumed this classic piece of songwriting was merely another Mountain Goats song. The guitar playing is sloppy and the sound quality is even worse than usual, but Darnielle’s reflective singing perfectly captures the songs’ complex mix of idealism and sorrow. Hope, it seems, is a tricky thing. On the one hand it reflects the optimism inherent in all of us; on the other hand it probably indicates unhappiness in the present.

Darnielle has recorded many albums since his early cassettes and he now resides at esteemed British label 4AD. In 1995, I decided to start a microcassette label as a conceptual joke. Every release would be a limited edition of one. I emailed a bunch of artists and Darnielle was the only taker. Of course. I should have gone through with it. He probably would have recorded a gem.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Dollar Bin

In 1996, when I was a junior at the University of Florida, you couldn’t download music for free. There was no Napster, no Audio Galaxy, no iTunes. If you wanted new music, you had to either buy it or burn a copy off a friend. Even making burns of CD’s was rare back then. Stuck in town working during spring break, I found myself thirsting for some new and interesting music besides indie rock. I also needed to get away from the endless parade of half-naked girls on MTV that I would never sleep with. But as previously stated, I was in college and therefore broke. Buying CD’s just wasn’t an option.

I went to the local record store after work one night to see what was going on and it finally hit me: the dollar bin. Most of what I found there was exactly what I expected: broadway soundtracks, classical albums, Barbara Streisand atrocities, and of course, Herb Alpert. But there were also bands I’d heard of, classic rock behemoths who’d sold more records than there were humans on the earth. In a word: Frampton.

My first few purchases – Saturday Night Fever, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed, and something by America – were far from good, but at least they made me cringe in new ways. The real find though, the one that kept me coming back to the dollar bin for the next ten years, was Todd Rundgren’s Something/Anything. Ambitious, original, and stuffed with inventive pop songs, this album was the gem I’d been hoping to find all along. And it was only a dollar!

Since I began perusing the dollar bin, I’ve noticed some gradual changes. Some would say it’s evolved, but that would imply that it’s getting better, and I tend to believe that everything is getting worse. When Esquivel suddenly became hip in the early-‘90s, I couldn’t walk more than two feet without running into some asshole who’d bought Esquivel’s entire discography for 50 cents at the local Goodwill. As annoying as this was, it still taught me a valuable lesson: there was gold in them thar hills.

Of course, Esquivel was an aberration; he was like the Arcade Fire of the dollar bin. His rise from dusty unknown to ultra-hip collector’s item was unexpected and meteoric. Moog records and Persuasive Percussion records also made the leap in the mid-‘90s, although the latter has inexplicably found its way back to the worthless pile as of late.

Many of the records that I used to call the dollar bin classics – albums by bands like Queen, ELO, Hall and Oates, Yes, Steely Dan, and Fleetwood Mac – have gradually moved off the floor and back to the shelves of self-respecting record stores. Sure, you can still find the occasional copy of Rumors or The Yes Album among the endless rows of Al Hirt LP’s but it’s getting harder to do, at least in New York.

For this article, I decided to go to three record stores in Brooklyn and Manhattan (Academy, Eat, and Gimme Gimme) to see what I could find that I would actually recommend for a casual music fan to purchase. Some of the records are extremely common – things I’m sure you could find with a little patience. Others are less common, and probably ended up in the dollar bin not because they were plentiful, but because no one cared about them. Below is the list of what I found.

1. Prefab Sprout – Swoon
Epic, 1984

This copy was in mint condition and looked like it had possibly been marked down a few times before getting consigned to the dollar bin. I can kind of see why it’s here, even though it is an extremely likable album. Paddy McAloon, the singer/songwriter behind this preppy British new wave band, is one of those smart alecks who can’t help reminding you of his superiority. There are songs about chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, the need to give up basketball and foil fencing, and falling in love with the wrong people. And yet, even at their most flowery and academic, the songs never fail to weave their way into your brain and ultimately, your heart.

2. Boz Scaggs – Silk Degrees
Columbia, 1976

I’m seeing this one less these days, but it’s still pretty easy to find. On principle, I always buy albums by people named Boz. Another good reason to pick this one up is the album cover, which shows Boz awkwardly perched on a bench by the ocean. A woman’s hand is visible, but we don’t see her face. I think we can safely assume that this is how Boz saw all of his groupies. And possibly his fans.

For some reason, Boz put all the hits on side two; I’m not sure I’ve ever listened to side one, so maybe it’s good too. The standout track is “The Lowdown,” which is a song you’ve most definitely heard at a doctor’s office or the supermarket, but never realized who sang it, and how genius it actually is. The guys who did the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever asked Boz if they could use “Lowdown” in the movie, but his clueless manager turned them down in favor of the not-so-classic Looking for Mr. Goodbar. The dollar bin is full of stories like that.

3. Doobie Brothers – Minute by Minute
Warner Brothers, 1978

The great thing about this album is that there is only a 0.001% chance that it will ever be stolen. If anything, Minute by Minute may mysteriously appear in your collection in place of another more valuable record. The only reason to own it, and the only reason why it is so common, is because of one song. And that song is “What a Fool Believes,” a critique of nostalgia that focuses on some hapless dude’s infatuation with a girl he kissed once in eighth grade. Many facts conspire against it -- Kenny Loggins helped write it, it’s on a Doobie Brothers album, and the song even won a Grammy -- but “What a Fool Believes” is great.

4. The Roches – The Roches
Warner Brothers, 1979

Don’t be fooled by the annoying intro track, “We,” this album is good from start to finish. This is what folk sounded like before the Moldy Peaches ruined it. Possessing gorgeous voices and dazzling wit, these three sisters from New Jersey charmed the world for a few years in the late ‘70s while harmonizing about strawberry apricot pie and the joys of screwing married men. Folkies had huge expectations for the band, but their next two albums fizzled and the rest went out of print before they were even recorded. Definitely worth more than a dollar.

5. Diana Ross – Diana
Motown, 1980

Here’s another album that sold oodles of copies at the time. Produced by Chic masterminds Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, Diana is easily the best disco album unfortunate enough to be released in the ‘80s. Recently remastered and reissued, Diana has been migrating away from the dollar bin in the past year. Snap it up while you can.

Side one is jam-packed with disco gems, especially “Upside Down” and “Tenderness,” which sound exactly like Chic but with Diana Ross singing. It’s like if the DFA collaborated with Britney Spears or something. Oh wait, they tried that already? Nevermind.

6. Genesis – Abacab
Atlantic, 1981

A friend of mine was recently looking through my records when he uttered the words I’d long feared: “Why the fuck do you have so many Genesis albums?” Sadly, I didn’t have an answer. Well, now I do. Abacab is the answer. This is the album where Phil Collins finally stopped whining about his divorce and started delivering the goods. (The sappy balladry was yet to come.) Besides the obvious hit “No Reply At All,” other winners include the title track, which is like Trans Am without the irony or German techno with a soul, and “Keep it Dark,” which one-ups Gary Numan. In a few years, every band is going to rip off this album. Sure, I’ve been saying that for the last ten years, but this time I really mean it. Really.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Company - Silver and Gold

Ladies and gentlemen, step right up to the most un-googleable band name ever. Just type the word "Company" into Google and try, if you dare, to find the band's webpage, or for that matter, any info on the band. After seeing the Brooklyn-based band in 2002 at a friend's recommendation, I became an instant fan. But it wasn't until a chance meeting with David Janik at another band's show two years later that I finally found out the name of their website and figured out when and where they were playing again. Jesus.

Although they formed in 2001, Company didn't release an official album until this past October on Jagjaguwar subsidiary Brah Records. The band's website features 2 mp3's from the new album, but I decided to feature the song that blew me away when I first heard the band play live. On "Silver and Gold," singer Stephanie Rabins injects equal doses of callousness and yearning into her lilting, lonesome voice to portray a view of love that is both practical and sad. When she sings "Make new friends, but keep the old," at the song's outset, it almost sounds hopeful. By the end of the song however, we realize that she had to learn her lessons the hard way.

Company's website

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Blog Roundup - The Best of October and November 2005

This is a new feature I'll be doing where I repost my favorite mp3's from other audio blogs.

Millbrook - Meet Me in the Fields
This comes from Marathon Packs. I saw a mention of Steely Dan in the blurb about this band and instantly knew I'd like it. The song actually sounds more like ELO than ye olde Fagen and Becker.

Crazy Penis - Lady T
This reminds me of the Scissor Sisters, in a good way. Totally gay, totally disco, totally great.

Moneybrother - It's Been Hurting All the Way Joanna
I think I was clued into this one by My Old Kentucky Blog. It's from a Swedish band who sounds a bit like the Verve with a dollop of Bruce Springsteen-style sincerity. Strangely compelling. From what I hear the band is huge in their native country.

The Knife - Heartbeats
Brooklyn Vegan hyped this one to death, as did Gorilla vs. Bear, but I love it too.

October Country - My Girlfriend is a Witch
October Country was a '60s band headed up by Michael Lloyd, a producer and songwriter who was also a member of the more well-known West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. His best project was with the Smoke, who only recorded one LP for Capitol subsidiary Sidewalk, but all of his projects from the '60s are great. He made all of his money however producing mega-blockbuster dreck like "You Light Up My Life" in the '70s.

Green - Gotta Get a Record Out
Franklin Bruno mentioned this in a Time Out review of Art Brut like two days after Jon posted it on Little Hits. It could be a coincidence, but I'd bet money that Franklin reads Little Hits.

Field Music - If Only the Moon Were Up
I'll take this over Maximo Park any day.

Modeselektor - Dancing Box
I thought this was some crazy grime shit at first, and then I realized they were singing in French.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Eleanor Roosevelt - Creepy Part of Town

The band Eleanor Roosevelt were loosely associated with St. Louis' nascent alt-country scene in the early '90s that also included Uncle Tupelo. In hindsight, Eleanor Roosevelt's inclusion in that genre is probably based more on their use of banjo than any affinity for country. The band, which was spearheaded by African History teacher Chris King, drew primarily from bluegrass, blues and dusty folk on the band's two albums, both of which were self-released.

"Creepy Part of Town," which originally appeared on Walker, has become something of a standard around town in the open-mic scene. King told me that he's not sure why, but the local folkies have taken to playing the song. He added that they probably don't even know who wrote it. Another cut from Walker, "Head in a Hummingbird's Nest," appears on vol. 1 of Tiny Idols the CD.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Anonymous - J. Rider


Rock scholars often point out the rapid evolution of music during the '60s. Just look at how much underground rock evolved from 1965 to 1967. One minute everyone is playing acoustic guitars and hanging Joan Baez posters in their dorm rooms; the next minute everyone is dropping acid and recording twenty minute free-form jams. This breakneck pace didn't slow down much in the '70s either, what with metal, disco, rap, funk, and punk all jockeying for position. Odd then, to discover this album by the appropriately-named Anonymous was actually recorded in 1976. One listen to "J. Rider," a standout track from their lone album, Inside the Shadow, immediately conjurs up the Summer of Love. Saturday Night Fever, this ain't. Today of course it's not strange to hear a band 10 years past their expiration date. Just ask all the bands that haven't stopped worshipping at the altar of Weezer since, oh, 1995. Still, even in the stylistically diverse '70s this record must have sounded way out of place.

It didn't help that the band only printed up 300 copies of Inside the Shadow . Now almost impossible to find, originals command around $500.

According to Fuzz, Acid, and Flowers, the group was from Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Soft - All That You're Shown


Holy Stone Roses, Batman! Soft has got that Manchester vibe down cold, right down to the shambling dance moves and big fat Gretsch guitars. I discovered Soft through ex-Fader girl Marisa Brickman who told me I had to see them live. Other friends started telling me the same thing and finally I broke down and checked Soft out at the Delancey. You know what? The hype machine was actually right for once; if anything, this band isn't hyped enough.

Soft has already played some shows in England and a bunch of hip parties in New York, one of which involved Paris Hilton, so I guess they're on their way to become coke addicts already. But this is gonna be one hell of a ride folks. By the way, I've heard the whole album and it's all awesome. Very Charlatans UK circa 1990. The lead singer told me the labels are swarming like pigeons on a stale bagel, but I don't think they've signed anything yet.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Jale - Nebulous

If Jale weren't Canadian and if their songs weren't owned by Sup Pop, this song would be prime fodder for my Tiny Idols '90s comps. It's definitely obscure enough. Formed in 1993 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Jale was made up of four talented songwriters named Jennifer, Alyson, Laura, and Eve. Take the first letters of each bandmembers' name and you have Jale.

I've only heard their first CD, Dreamcake, which I think is spotty, but occasionally brilliant. The follow-up, So Wound, is supposed to be more consistent. Jale broke up in 1997.

Thursday, October 20, 2005


Mareko - Here to Stay

While New Zealanders adore the whole American hip hop culture, right down to the Nikes and Allen Iverson jerseys, they also have their own homegrown rappers, almost all of whom are Maori. Local rap has existed in New Zealand since the '80s, but it wasn't until recently that it really broke through to the masses.

The song that forever changed New Zealand radio was Scribe’s “Stand Up,” which stormed to the top of the charts in 2003. Scribe's basic message was “I am unable to quit rapping. Seriously, I can’t stop. I also reside in New Zealand. Perhaps you have seen the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You have? Cool.”

I’m completely misrepresenting the song here. It’s actually a cute little call-to-arms that tells the locals to give up the Fat Joe posturing and represent their home turf.

Around the same time that Scribe dropped this single, a crew called the Deceptikonz also garnered a lot of attention. Two of that group’s most talented MC’s, Savage and Mareko, have recently become stars on their own. Mareko’s White Sunday sold a shitload of copies in 2004 and Savage just blew up in May when I was there visiting my sister. I downloaded Mareko’s “Here to Stay” when I got back to the States and it now resides at the number 3 slot in my iTunes Top 25. That’s pretty impressive for a New Zealand rapper that no one in America has heard.