Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Bully Pulpit - You Flatter Me

Bully Pulpit was a truly strange band from LaGrange, IL. Their only CD Beyond Elysium... was released on the interesting '90s label Lotuspool. It was hard for me to find information on the band at first since all the bandmembers used pseudonyms. Luckily, Lotuspool co-founder Chris Garibaldi finally helped me get my facts straight.

According to Garibaldi, "the album was recorded in LaGrange and at a barn in Kansas from 1992 to 1994. Most tracks were laid in the loft of a large dairy barn with electricity coming from a single extension chord, which stretched from a Jerry-rigged light socket in the milking facility, just one building away from the barn. The recording was moved to the farm house when the owners of the property discovered the recording and the many highly flammable situations it fostered."

Garibaldi's notes also include a cryptic reference to the band's relationship with William S. Burroughs. Apparently, they all used to shoot various weapons together at the barn.

Beyond Elysium, a demented amalgam of country, avant-garde rock and psych, got some notices at a few CMJ stations and from John Peel, but failed to generate much interest nationally. The band was clearly influenced by the San Francisco music scene of the '90s, especially the skronky experimentalism of the Thinking Fellers. Unfortunately, Bully Pulpit's songwriting rarely reached the same heights as their innovative impulses, and the album is a patchwork affair that is listenable only in spurts (or with the aid of drugs.) Album opener "You Flatter Me" effectively summarizes the band's interests, and remains an intriguing and original artifact of the era.

Bully Pulpit recorded a second album Jockeys in 1995 which was never released, but was available online at one point. I can't find it now. It's supposed to be more cohesive and accessible.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Great Lakes - Storming

Pitchfork's recent feature about the best songs of the '60s was definitely an impressive achievement. To me, it was a coming-of-age moment for the site. Still, I was a little surprised to see the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" listed as the best song of the '60s. Sure, the song is gorgeously produced and arranged, evoking that melancholy nostaglia that Brian Wilson perfected. But I thought all the hipsters had moved on to psych-folk now (or some other hip new thing) and they'd pick a Fairport Convention track as the song of the decade.

See, in the mid-to-late '90s, the whole Beach Boys obsession got really out of hand. Every band in Magnet and Spin was clamoring to cite Pet Sounds as an influence when two days before they thought it was junk. It was a weird shift to live through, because in the '80s and early '90s the Beach Boys were reviled by the indie scene. In 1993, a couple friends and I gave the album a listen and couldn't hear what all the Rolling Stone hype was about. "Isn't this the band that did Kokomo?" we asked. Well, something in the air changed because two years later, in 1995, everyone I knew suddenly realized what a monster Pet Sounds was.

I know this is true because of all the bands that emerged with thinly veiled knock-offs of Pet Sounds at that time. The mother of all these is of course Hawaii by the High Llamas, a record that isn't so much a tribute as it is the sound of an obsessive music fan stalking Brian Wilson's legacy in a very creepy way. By the time Athens band the Great Lakes joined the Beach Boys bandwagon, most of the others had already moved on. Too bad, though, because this is a wanna-be record of the highest order. Opener "Storming" not only matches Wilson's melodic grace but it makes the most of a makeshift orchestra of friends and acquaintences that probably wondered in the room after a bong hit. The rest of the album splits the difference between late '90s twee pop and orchestral flourish and for the most part, it works.

In 2006, the Great Lakes came out with a third album called Diamond Times. Check here for info.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Tiny Idols, Vol. 2 is out today!

In case you didn't know, this site is an extension of a compilation series of the same name. Tiny Idols, Vol. 2, subtitled "Transmissions from the Indie Underground, 1995-1999" is a survey of the best obscure and out-of-print tracks from this fertile decade. Go on over to my website for some mp3's and info on how to buy.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Madder Rose - Madder Rose

English people are always great at repackaging American music and selling it back to us. Perhaps you have heard of the Beatles? Well, in 1993, the British did it again.

Inspired by the influx of American indie-pop singles, influential British label Rough Trade decided to put out a compilation of the best emerging talent. Titled Unnecessary Niceness, the compilation begins with one of Madder Rose's finest compositions, "Madder Rose," and proceeds to offer up nine more equally great tracks by bands like the Spinanes, Helium, Lois, and all-time indie comp fave Lorelei. That many of these bands are now considered staples of the genre testifies to Rough Trade's amazing ability to spot talent. Either that or this compilation made these bands.

Madder Rose's career got started around the same time this compilation came out, and at first they seemed destined for stardom. This New York quartet had all the right influences (Velvet Underground, Jonathan Richman) and a great frontwoman in guitarist/vocalist Mary Lorson. The band's songs were simple, catchy, and a little lethargic in that late-night kinda way that Galaxie 500 tried so hard to perfect.

Lorson made it look easy. Madder Rose's chord progressions and melodies were often deceptively simple, hiding oblique, sometimes cynical lyrics that concealed more than they revealed. While Madder Rose's intellectual spin on indie pop solidified their status as the archetypical New York band of the '90s, it also may help explain the group's lack of album sales. What I don't understand is why Luna was able to mold a similar sound and have a more successful and lasting career.

Madder Rose's first two albums still stand as fine examples of smart, sleepy-eyed indie pop and have not aged a bit.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mary's Danish - These Are All the Shapes Nevada Could Have Been

In 1985 two college friends went to see X play a show in Los Angeles. It was a night that would dramatically alter the course of their lives. Inspired by X's off-kilter harmonies, Gretchen Seager and Julie Ritter decided to form a band that would ultimately become Mary's Danish. Ten years later, the band would break up after signing to a hopelessly mismanaged indie label that burned through loads of money before burning out themselves.

But in 1989, everything looked rosy for Mary's Danish. The band's first album, There Goes the Wondertruck introduced Mary's Danish's formula -- countrified vocal harmonies atop slippery swaths of funk and headlong rock. It was a quite successful sound at the time, and it yielded a huge college radio hit, Don't Crash the Car Tonight. But it is a sound which has not aged well. Slap-pop bass, wha-wha guitar solos, and blaring saxophones are to the '90s what big hair and shoulder pads were to the late '80s: trends that even the most retro hipsters are doubtful to imitate.

Circa, Mary's Danish' follow-up, casts an even wider net than the debut, tacking on instrumental mood pieces, a Jimi Hendrix cover, heavy metal guitar moves, social protest songs, and a horn section. Although there are plenty of embarrasing moments, the album remains a highly enjoyable, if admittedly patchwork affair. "These Are All the Shapes Nevada Could Have Been" finds the band adding disco to their to-do list, and it comes up sounding great, to these ears anyway. (Most of my friends ridicule the band.) Another standout track, "Hoof," displays Seager and Ritter's sensitive side with a ballad that fits their twangy vocals perfectly. Unfortunately for Morgan Creek, the label that put a great deal of money into releasing the album, Circa's sales did not measure up to the debut despite solid critical support.

After a hastily recorded follow-up that sanded down the band's splintered edges, Mary's Danish, and their label, called it quits.