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.
Chicago has such a rich musical history and one of the greatest talents to come out of our fair city was Sam Cooke. He bridged gospel roots with an urban sensibility — it’s like he found the midpoint between Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, capable of being as smooth as silk or gritty and down home. On top of that, he was a ridiculously talented songwriter, penning hit after hit and influencing so many of the great soul singers who followed him. What a wonderful world this would be if you would get your iPod/MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 tunes that come up! (NOTE: the 11th tune on my shuffle this morning was Cooke’s “Sugar Dumpling”).
Gaza Strippers — D Is For Dead (Laced Candy): The Strippers were Rick Sims’ band after Didjits. At one level, they weren’t much different than Didjits — more fast punky songs with Sims’ fingers flying on the fretboard making sounds like a mess of pissed off hornets leaving the nest and lots of lyrics about being a badass. But the Strippers had a bit more of metal orientation that both tied them a bit to the ’70s and even moreso to ’90s contemporaries like Hellacopters. As a result, I preferred Didjits, but still dug the Strippers, and this is one the better songs off of the band’s debut.
The Streets — Has It Come To This (Original Pirate Material): Gosh, remember how exciting that first Streets record was? A lot of songs about not doing much more than being lazy and getting high over grime and hip-hop beats. Mike Skinner yobbed his way through his insightful lyrics and someone would sing the hook. I wish Skinner would go back to doing that.
The Replacements — Androgynous (Let It Be): I like but don’t love The Replacements. The major label part of their career was more craftsman-like than inspired, in my (decidedly minority) opinion. Their inspiration peaked on Let It Be. Legendary Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau explained that on Let It Be, the ‘mats simply played the music they liked, whether is was loping rockabilly-ish pop (“I Will Dare”), Kiss (the cover of “Black Diamond”), or this tender exploration of folks who like to wear clothing of the opposite sex. Not the deepest treatment of the subject, but it’s not exploitative and is rather affecting.
Velvet Crush — Gentle Breeze (A Single Odessey): The duo of Ric Menck and Paul Chastain made plenty of classic power pop in the ’90s. This singles collection is a great place to start if you want to find out more. This might be my favorite Velvet Crush tune, a pure jangle fest that is steeped in The Byrds and Big Star (they even reference Big Star’s “Way Out West” in the chorus).
Channels — New Logo (Waiting for The Next End Of The World): Both of J. Robbins’ post-Jawbox projects haven’t really deviated from the style he perfected on Jawbox’s For Your Own Special Sweetheart. Jagged guitars, an ultra-tight rhythm section with surprisingly strong melodies. Channels is perhaps a hair less powerful than Jawbox or Burning Airlines and a touch more melodic. And Robbins is still articulately angry, as this song varies from clangorous roar to delicate middle eights.
The House Of Love — Sulphur (1986-88: The Creation Years): A British indie guitar rock band that wasn’t really a shoegazer band but meshed well with that style, House Of Love put out two terrific albums before getting lost trying to figure out its next move. This is from that early period, when they could really do no wrong. Lead singer Guy Chadwick had this interesting low key vocal style that exerted an all-knowing and comforting presence. Meanwhile, there were always lots of great guitar work on top of the sturdy compositions, like this one.
Polara — Allay (Polara): This Minneapolis band was lead by Ed Ackerson, who had previously fronted The 27 Various. Both bands played power poppish indie rock. On Polara’s 1995 debut, Ackerson created a really cool wall of sound, augmenting the guitars with an array of keyboards and percussion sounds, giving Polara a special texture that rocked out enough to hold its own in the alt-rock ’90s. Ackerson also had a voice that sounded a fair amount like Scott Miller of Game Theory and The Loud Family. The debut is great, as is this song, but on subsequent albums, the band got slicker, and less interesting.
Tommy Keene — Love Is The Only Thing That Matters (The Real Underground): Keene is a revered cult figure both in and out of power pop circles. For nearly 30 years, he’s been reliably churning out melancholy pop songs, supported by his wistful, reedy voice and his excellent guitar playing. Keene, who has collaborated with Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices in The Keene Brothers (Tommy’s tunes with Robert’s words) and has been Paul Westerberg’s touring guitarist, is skilled in Big Star style jangle, but also can produce riffs that are catchy and tinged with bittersweet emotion. This is more of a jangly tune.
Northern State — Trinity (Dying In Stereo): Three gals doing old school rap that calls to mind the Beastie Boys? Sure, they’re not as good as the Beasties, but there were some really good songs on their debut. Neither the music nor the lyrics reach the heights of their inspiration, but the bar was set pretty high. More importantly, they have loads of personality, making this a fun listen.
Shoes — Your Imagination (Present Tense/Tongue Twister): This is a pretty power poppy shuffle, and Shoes are also legends if you are into the style. The Zion, Illinois band graduated to Elektra Records after one classic DIY record, and managed to retain their low fi charm with bigger budgets. Shoes boiled down pop songwriting to its basics, drawing from everyone from Buddy Holly to The Beatles to The Raspberries and their best songs have two or three hooks and usually get right to the point. Kind of like a wussier Buzzcocks. This song fits that formula to a T.
CHIRP Radio has launched, we celebrated at the Empty Bottle the night before, and now you’re surely listening to the stream as you’re reading this. You may be thinking, “What more could CHIRP have in store for me from this past weekend?” Well, thanks to our friends over at High Frequency Media we’ve got video of the festivities from Saturday night for you. Enjoy the following, from The Yolks set at our CHIRP Radio launch party.
The station streams live from our North Center studios every day of the year. CHIRP hosts play a mix of independent, local, lesser-known, and underappreciated music from an array of genres and eras. We’re also in the process of developing some locally-focused news and talk programming.
You can interact with DJs via phone and IM, and you can offer feedback on individual songs, or on the station in general, on the front page of CHIRPradio.org.
We’re so grateful to all of the people who have worked so hard to make CHIRP Radio a reality! Thanks to the bands who have sent us their music, the supporters who have made donations, lent us their venues, or purchased CHIRP gear, and the volunteers who have built the station from the ground up. It’s been an amazing ride, and it’s only beginning!