They say that if you have a choice between printing the facts and the legend, print the legend. But with the immortal Nigel Tufnel, the legend and the facts are one in the same. Since he first came into the public eye with the beat group The Thamesmen, Nigel has been turning it up to eleven night in and night out, blazing heavy metal trails that are still too hot for anyone to trod upon and follow. This Spinal Tap axe god, who shares a birthday with actor-director Christopher Guest, is still working on his first solo album, and perhaps we can all encourage him, by getting out your iPod/MP3 player, hitting shuffle and sharing the first 10 tunes that come up.
The Go-Gos — Yes Or No (Talk Show): The third Go-Gos album is a hidden gem, fueled by stylized production by Martin Rushent. The album crackles with prominent drums, ultra jangly guitars and Belinda Carlisle’s dramatic singing. This mid-tempo track was a collaboration between guitarist Jane Wiedlin and Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks. The song is decidedly more conventional than most Sparks tracks, but has a few clever lines here and there.
The Last — And They Laugh (Confession): The first reunion album from The Last ditched some of the garage-ier elements of their classic early work (like the L.A. Explosion album) in favor of the folkier Paisley Underground aspects. This wasn’t a problem, because these guys added teeth and guts to their post-Beau Brummels jangle. This is one of the best tracks on an album that overflows with passion.
Gary Numan & Tubeway Army — Bombers (single version)(The Plan): Brittle sci-fi punk from Numan in the days before he discovered a synthesizer and began finding his direction. This song is based on a clipped guitar riff and Numan’s equally choppy vocal phrasing. His distinctive voice always oozes discomfort and paranoia. A reasonably catchy song indicative of the promise that his future work fulfilled.
Jim Croce — Stone Walls (50th Anniversary Collection): I’m a big fan of Croce’s work. He found a unique conversational bluesy vocal style to go with his poppy folk story songs. Without looking at the CD, this is clearly an early work of his, as he sounds a lot more like a conventional folk singer on this far from authentic tale of prison life. Better things were ahead.
Nomads — Stranded On A Dateless Night (Showdown! 1981-93): This Swedish garage rock band laid on the guitars thick but never too heavy. This sounds like a ’50s rock and roll number, a la “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care”, beefed up. The Nomads didn’t often venture into Cramps territory, but this comes close.
Eleventh Dream Day — Dream Of a Sleeping Sheep (Lived To Tell): This is an electrified country stomp with the patented Crazy Horse-ish guitar stylings of early Eleventh Dream Day. Rick Rizzo’s lead guitar work is magnificent, while Janet Beveridge Bean slams out a bopping beat.
Darker My Love — Waves (2): This L.A. band melds retro psychedelic rock with shoegazer dreaminess on its most recent album. Some songs reach a midpoint of those two styles, but this leans heavily on the psych side, with some genuine guitar freak outs, with a mellotron breakdown in the middle before one last dash of feedback and spectral harmony vocals.
Nick Heyward — Whistle Down the Wind (North Of A Miracle): I’m still baffled why the first solo album from the former leader of Haircut One Hundred wasn’t a worldwide smash. Heyward knows how to write a big hook and this widescreen ballad sounds like it would have been perfect for the early-‘80s pop charts. It’s the rare song of this type that isn’t overwrought, which is a credit to Heyward’s measured vocal performance and the lovely string and horn arrangements that make this emotionally affecting instead of manipulative cheese.
The House Of Love — Touch Me (1986-88 The Creation Years): Another appearance by Guy Chambers and company. This mid-tempo song is keyed on a gently ebbing drum pattern with accompanying strumming guitars. Chambers’ vocal is doubled up in a very ’60s style harmony vocal, making for a pleasingly retro pop song. Then Terry Bickers rips off a spectacular dramatic guitar solo which gives the song a lot more heft.
Neil Finn — She Will Have Her Way (Try Whistling This): Neil’s first solo album found him experimenting more with keyboards and textures, freed from a band format (not that Crowded House didn’t do some of this) leading him into some new territory. But there was still room for a straightforward guitar pop song, and this showed that Finn hadn’t exhausted his supply of silky smooth melodies. The way he draws out that melody in the chorus and little arrangement tricks show why Neil Finn is a pop master.
This Friday, let’s pay tribute to an underrated figure in rock ‘n’ roll history, Tommy (Erdelyi) Ramone. This native Hungarian was originally going to manage the Ramones, but when they needed a drummer, he stepped behind the skins and pounded out that super fast beat. Moreover, he is an unknown legend in sports arenas everywhere, as he was the primary writer of “Blitzkrieg Bop”. On top of that, he actually played some of the guitar solos on the band’s records, because Johnny Ramone just liked to play rhythm guitar. He also played on the Too Tough To Die LP, and has produced some swell albums, including The Replacements’ Tim and Redd Kross’ Neurotica. Please salute Tommy by grabbing your iPod/MP3 player, hitting shuffle, and sharing the first 10 tunes that come up!
The Psychedelic Furs — Dumb Waiters (Talk Talk Talk): The first two Furs albums are a fascinating tandem. The first album is dark, bleak and angry with the Furs’ accessible take on post-punk sounds. But Talk Talk Talk manages to be brighter, overall, showing a wider array of influences. This track might be the closest to what transpired on the first album. This is a prickly rant, with Duncan Kilburn’s off-kilter saxophone keying the proceedings as the band lurches and drones very effectively.
Split Enz — History Never Repeats (Corroboree): A sparkly jangly Neil Finn number. After the success of “I Got You” on the band’s True Colours album, it’s obvious that Neil’s confidence rocketed sky high and suddenly he was dashing off one hooky number after the other. This one relies on a somewhat sing-songy melody with a very creative arrangement with lots of cool keyboard embellishments by Eddie Rayner. This song had a terrific video, with Neil singing to his brother Tim, who was on a small TV screen, with Tim dressed in the garish costumes of the old mid-‘70s Split Enz.
Pixies — Oh My Golly! (Surfer Rosa): Because the Pixies are certified rock deities, I think I have some of their stuff on my iPod out of obligation rather than because I like every track. Don’t get me wrong, Surfer Rosa, Doolitte and Trompe Le Monde are big faves of mine. But they had more than their fair shore of throwaways. This speedy rush of a track is a nice burst of energy, but there’s not a whole lot to it. But it breezes by in less than two minutes, and nobody gets hurt, so I suppose it’s okay.
Number One Cup — Ease Back Down (Wrecked By Lions): Number One Cup played a nifty arty alt-rock that fit somewhere between the aforementioned Pixies and Pavement. There were hooks in the songs, but none were obvious. Indeed, a lot of their best material avoided obvious directions while remaining memorable. Wrecked By Lions was the best of their three albums, with copious amounts of guitars framing serviceable melodies and those not-so-obvious hooks. This would sound great on CHIRP Radio and I need to play this soon.
Jason & The Scorchers — Last Time Around (Lost & Found): For a few years, Jason & The Scorchers were one of the best bands on the planet. They loved hard rock and they loved country music and they jammed it together and made it work. Some called it “cowpunk,” but whatever it was labeled, it was quintessentially American music played by one of the hottest band’s around, with the surprisingly rangy drawl of Jason Ringenberg and all-world guitarist Warner Hodges. This is the opening track on the album and it smokes. And it’s not even the rockingest track on the album.
The Sugarplastic – Arizona (Radio Jejune): This L.A. band always garnered XTC comparisons, since singer Ben Eshbach’s voice has a bit of a resemblance to Andy Partridge’s voice and the band played a herky-jerky brand of rock. There is a little XTC in the band’s sound. but Eshbach has noted The Monochrome Set as a big influence, which is pretty obvious. If you take more XTC-ish melodies and lay them on circular chord patterns reminiscent of The Monochrome Set, Orange Juice, Josef K and others from that era, that gives you a clue as to where this criminally overlooked band is coming from.
Didjits — The Man (Little Miss Carriage!): This is from a five-song EP which featured Rey Washam of Scratch Acid on drums. This is a mid-tempo song, thus much slower than most Didjits tunes, which features some typically stinging Rick Sims guitar work. This isn’t a great song, but when a band is really great, and Didjits was really great, even lesser efforts fly, because the overall sound is worth hearing.
The Fall — The Steak Place (The Frenz Experiment): The Frenz Experiment is a good but not great album from the first Brix Smith era. Mark E. Smith’s first wife propelled the band into more accessible directions, as not every song was a grinding dirge or off-kilter rockabilly track. Her love of jangly guitars melded at times with Mark’s love of Can like drone, as illustrated by this moody composition which features a finger snapping rhythm section.
Ramones — Now I Wanna Be a Good Boy (Leave Home): Finally! I get a shuffle track for a birthday artist! This is probably my favorite of the early Ramones albums, as they tempered their power with a bit more of their pop influence. Their music is so basic and immediate, it’s hard to fathom how difficult it was for them commercially, as it wasn’t really until “Do You Remember Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio?” that they got substantial airplay nationwide. And now you see grade school kids wearing Ramones shirts. Better late than never.
Brett Smiley — VaVaVa Voom (Velvet Tinmine): I have three or four collections of obscure British glam rock singles. Basically, every band on these collections picks someone to ape — T. Rex, Slade or Sparks — and then gives it their best. Mr. Smiley certainly does his best to emulate Marc Bolan’s fey vocal stylings and the music is pepped up ’50s rock and roll. Not as good as the inspiration, but it’s bloody fun.
In a matter of days, I went from hipster-platinum to waeguk-nobody. In the beginning of May 2009, I packed up my crates of LPs, stepped down as Music Director of the burgeoning Chicago Independent Radio Project, quit my job at Reckless Records, handed over the helms of Plustapes/Addenda Records to my co-founder, canceled all my DJ gigs around Chicago’s west side (Whistler, Burlington, Danny’s, etc.), handed my cat over to my little brother, and left the city. Days later, I stepped off an airplane at Incheon Airport and took a late night bus to Daejeon, a city located in the heart of South Korea. I slept that night on a single-sized mattress, the only piece of furniture in my allotted studio apartment. Moments before I fell into a deep sleep after my 24-hour journey, I heartily questioned my decision.
I had no idea what to expect coming to South Korea; I had little time to prepare. On a whim, I inquired about a teaching job and not three weeks later reluctantly accepted one. It happened fast and with little premeditation. All I knew was that Chicago was feeling stuffy and redundant after four years. I needed adventure and a setting where I could effloresce into adulthood without too many outside influences. “Individuality” was the word of the moment, and nothing was more foreign to me than South Korea.
Innately, Korea is very different. But superficially, it’s rather westernized. Besides the Hangul script and the copious amount of dragonflies in late spring, Daejeon didn’t seem that far out. The kids dress rather stylishly, the technology is modern (if not slightly ahead of the U.S.) and commerce bustles. Daejeon is certainly a city, but it’s no Chicago. It’s about the size of Portland, OR actually. With the rather uneventful cultural touchstones and nightlife though, it’s much more akin to the Charlotte, NC’s of the world. It’s a city built around a particular business ethos (technological innovation in this case), not around the arts. The opportunities and communities that I gravitated toward in Chicago were obsolete.
Everything, and I mean everything, in Korea is animated. Nearly every store on every corner is blasting music out its doors. Or, at the least, there are dedicated and luminous neon lights for décor. My senses were saturated, and that I was thankful for. But where my sight, taste, smell and touch were satisfied, my hearing was left dumbfounded. Throughout the country, Korean pop is ubiquitous. And not just in placement, it’s loved in the hearts of the people as well. I have yet to meet a person who does not like the sugar-loaded, bubblegum techno, pop-rap, pseudo-soul of K-pop. Even after years of careful music listening, I have a tough time differentiating the groups, even after 7 months. But I have nary a student who can’t list every song on the current pop charts from memory (along with a quick rendition of each song’s chorus).
The song-of-the-moment – and moment in K-pop terms is about 6-8 weeks of chart dominance – when I arrived was Big Bang and 2NE1’s “Bubblegum.” Big Bang, a substantial veteran of the scene for being around for three years already, is a hit-making machine. Every female student of mine has a pencil cased covered in stickers of the five members’ smudge-free images. The production company behind them, YG Entertainment, is dominant and sly. They had just finished fastening the female equivalent of the Big Bang mold, 2NE1, and paired them together for a promotion song for a cell phone by LG Cyon. It is a popular strategy by promotion companies at the moment: crossover jingles. The song was a smash, two Big Bang members would go on to release lucrative solo albums in the fall, and 2NE1 would win numerous awards and accolades during the many year end award shows.
I, on the other hand, needed refuge. The culture I enjoyed, the music industry I loathed. That would change (somewhat). But for the moment, I needed escape. I turned to Miles Davis, an artist that I respect but don’t really get up in arms about. In fact, besides Sketches of Spain, Get Up With It is my only real focus in the vast discography of the archetypal jazz trumpeter. Its inch-thick haze of electric-organ-derived ambience was the perfect opposite of the crystalline K-pop. Composed of a series of session ranging from 1970-74, it also helped that the album was 2 hours-plus of music. Whenever the three-minute onslaught of hook-hook-hook would wear me down, I’d hole myself up in my apartment and lose myself in the endless funky grooves of Reggie Lucas’s static electric guitar and Michael Henderson’s loping bass lines. The tectonic shifts of atonality and seemingly structure-less jam sessions became just the rabbit hole I needed on those special occasions. It’s no wonder this record was so influential on Eno. Even without drugs, it easily trips you out.