Category Archives: Your Next Favorite Band

Wanna Read The Article That Got Me Into Guided By Voices?

Sometimes I get emails or messages from people who let me know that I introduced them to a singer or band and it’s changed their lives. One of the great joys of being a hardcore music fan is getting turned onto new music and then doing the same for someone else. Back in the summer of 2001 I was fresh out of high school and working my first-ever job at a drugstore chain called Walgreens. One of the perks, actually the only perk of working there, was that I got to read magazines for free in the break room during my lunch. I’m pretty sure I never paid for a single issue of Revolver magazine, but I was quite taken with it. I remember one issue where a singer/songwriter named Robert Pollard was interviewed about his band, Guided By Voices.  The thing that got my attention was the description author Tom Beaujour used when describing the band:

“The Guided by Voices songbook is a place where the two-minute pop song is pushed to the very limit of expressive capabilities, where melodies soar with unabashed grandiosity, and surreal characters and bizarre parables coexist peace fully with beefy riffs (imagine the Who performing an arena-shaking rendition of the Beatles “Nowhere Man”). “

Now, as a fan of both The Beatles and The Who, that got my attention. I immediately went home and spent 90 minutes downloading “Hold On Hope” and “Glad Girls” off of Limewire (look it up, kids). I was stunned by what I (eventually, it was dial-up) heard. I made a beeline for the nearest CD Warehouse (look it up kids) and bought every Guided By Voices record I could lay my mitts on. To this day, I owe the discovery of one of my favorite bands to that article and Mr. Tom Beaujour. Just for fun, I did a search this week to see if the article was available online. Revolver magazine turns out to still exist, but I couldn’t find it on their website. The band’s now discontinued website has the article transcribed, so if you’re interested, you can check it out and read what I read 16 years ago! Nothing ever dies on the Internet, kids. 

Also, just for fun, I did an internet search for Mr. Beaujour, and I think I might have found him. It looks like he’s a record producer in New Jersey now, and even owns a recording studio, Nuthouse Recording. He even went on to work with Guided By Voices! Because I always enjoy hearing from people when I turn them onto a new band, I decided to write Mr. Beajour an email thanking him for turning me on to GBV.

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If you take away nothing else from this post, take this: people like being thanked so go out and thank someone who’s improved your life by sharing music with you.

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ROCK ‘N READ: Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story

One of the most influential pop bands of the last thirty years, Jellyfish is one of those bands that barely registered a blip but has a massive cult following. I’ve been saying for years that someone should write a book about them, well now someone has! Craig Dorfman’s book Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story is a slim, but not unsubstantial, volume that records the band’s history. From the humble childhood beginnings of Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. and Andy Sturmer to the dizzying production of the band’s seminal album SPILT MILK all the way to the present with a “where are they now?” segment that ties up the narrative of this legendary pop band.

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The band only recorded two albums, 1990’s BELLYBUTTON, and 1993’s SPILT MILK, but the band’s legacy lives on. When I started Dorfman’s book, I was looking forward to finally discovering three things: 1. What happened/why did they break up? 2. What are the band members doing today? And 3. How did an overlooked 90’s act wind up being so influential? Dorfman, who interviewed all the major players in the Jellyfish story, does a good job answering my first two questions (mostly, I’ll get that my beef with #2 in a moment). But as I finished Brighter Day I found myself still unable wrap my mind around their lasting legacy. By all rights, Jellyfish should be household names and expect for a few bright spots on the Internet; they aren’t. Dorfman’s book doesn’t shed any light onto how Jellyfish ended up influencing so many fantastic pop bands that came after them. I thought perhaps that it was music critics who kept the band’s memory alive, but Dorfman’s book details the numerous brutal reviews of contemporary publications for the band. While there were some positive reviews, my take away from Brighter Day was that critical reception to the band during their active years was mixed at best.

I often sit and wonder about what happens to members of bands I love after the band calls it quits. I had hoped to get a nice accounting of what the members of Jellyfish had been up to. I’ve done research over the years (and have all the solo albums that there are) but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around how these Gods of pop music had, for the most part, just quietly slipped into obscurity. I knew that a band like Jellyfish hadn’t made millionaires out of them, so how were they supporting themselves? Dorfman’s book provides answers to this question: they work behind-the-scenes in the music industry or as hired guns for more popular artists. Brighter Day gives the answers I was seeking, but I wished more details were given about the post-Jellyfish careers of the various band members. Only because I know we’re never going to get a Jason Falkner book (sadly).

Brighter Day is written in a way that presents many pivotal moments and conversations like a novel would. Dorfman acknowledges at the beginning of the book that these conversations are not to to be taken literally and that some creative license was taken. This bothered me a bit at first, and I found myself wishing that Dorfman’s book was an oral history like The Beatles Anthology, but when I reached the end and read the acknowledgments page, I realized that getting all the parties involved in Jellyfish to talk must have been a massive undertaking. The idea of recording them and then parsing out a narrative would have been too great an undertaking. Still, the book’s central conceit, which Jellyfish was a vehicle for Sturmer and Manning’s songs and that meant the contributions of the other band members was very limited, thus creating a great source of tension, is somewhat underplayed. Dorfman repeats over and over that Manning refused to stick up for the various guitarists the band went through because he didn’t want to betray Sturmer as he had by writing commercial jingles when they were just starting out. This idea is tirelessly repeated throughout the book, and while I’m sure it’s not an incorrect assertion, I find it hard to believe that Manning’s motives were so simple. Andy Sturmer’s personality quirks are also mentioned, but it feels as though there’s more to the story than what Dorfman presents. Sturmer sounds like a bit of an asshole and perhaps on the spectrum maybe? None of this is explored. I suppose that is the price one has to pay to get official input from the band.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a great book, and I’m so glad that it exists. Dorfman should be praised for doing what so many of us thought about and recognized should be done but did not have the will to do ourselves. Dorfman should be forever blessed for getting this story written before any of the principal players died. And considering how short the life of Jellyfish was, it’s amazing that Brighter Day has so much content. This book has got me seriously thinking about Jellyfish again, which in a way is like having Jellyfish back. I’m also re-listening to the last few Jason Falkner albums and trying to hunt up my copy of Manning’s CATNIP DYNAMITE. Sturmer’s lack of solo material isn’t explained in the book either, which is disappointing (though he hints that the singer does record at home and that perhaps some of this material will see the light of day). Brighter Day is a book for hardcore “Jellyheads” who’ve listened to every outtake and b-side, who’ve bought the boxset and the live albums, the ones who’ve listened to the arty solo albums and studied the music videos for decades. Everyone else should seek out the band’s seminal dual albums to join the rest of us in pop nirvana.

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Rock Heroes Wyldlife Return With “(It’s Called) Rock ‘n’ Roll”

New York bad boys Wyldlife make down and dirty rock ‘n roll, a commodity in short supply these days. Imagine the swagger of The Ramones smeared with the blood of Iggy Pop–that’s Wyldlife. The band has a primeval rock sound that I thought was dead until I stumbled upon their 2013 album THE TIME HAS COME TO ROCK & ROLL. I’ll never forget that first listen, I thought somebody had slipped something into my drink. Or that I’d died and gone to world where rock hadn’t died/gone underground. What impressed me the most about THE TIME HAS COME TO ROCK & ROLL was that it didn’t feel like just another nostalgic rehash. Wyldlife don’t reheat classic rock and try to pass it off as their own thing, instead the band is a real contributor to the modern rock scene. Their songs are well written and infectious, their singer possesses a brash confidence that charms and disarms…in short, they’re the real deal.

“I never had no religion, believed in nothing at all, till I found that one thing bigger than God…and it’s called Rock ‘n’ Roll!!!”

So you can imagine why I was super-stoked when I found out this week that the band has just released two brand-spanking new songs: “(It’s Called) Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “Rock Candy.” I sincerely hope that these songs are only the opening salvo of their next mind-blowing opus of awesomely sleazy rock. “(It’s Called) Rock ‘n’ Roll” is your classic tribute to good times and good tunes. The song is a musical manifesto extolling the virtues of rock music. It’s basically like The Ramones covering AC/DC. This is raise your lighter kind of music and I love it. “Rock Candy” is (shockingly) not about candy, but in fact a girl. This song has a super-sweet hook, this track straddles the line between rock and pop—again I love it. The quality of these songs is just as high as the bar the band set on their last album, which fills me with so much hope for the band’s next album. I highly recommend you check out both of these songs. Then go listen to the first two Wyldlife albums, because they are excellent.

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About a month ago I posted an article about another really great New York garage band, The Star Spangles. If you enjoyed The Star Spangles you owe it to yourself to check out Wyldlife. While not as punk-influenced as The Star Spangles, Wyldlife possess the same in-your-face brashness and youthful spirit that many bands today are sorely lacking. Plus, they can write one helluva a song…but don’t take my word for it.

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Defending Shoegaze/Dreampop/Synthrock

I recently explored the growing world of streaming music and one thing that I found was that Pandora is the best at recommending new music. I pay for Spotify because I usually know what I want to hear, but when it comes to finding new artists, no one beats Pandora. Pandora’s music genome sounds a bit like a con until you compare it with similar recommendation features of competing streaming services. My beloved Spotify has an absolutely atrocious “radio” mode that winds up playing the same ten songs by roughly the same four to five artists. And usually these so-called recommendations are so oblivious that I’m rarely surprised by anything that gets played when I use this feature. I have access to a premium Pandora account where I work, and on Fridays when no one is around I like to pick an artist I’m currently grooving on and see what new stuff I can find.

Now I’ll freely admit that I’ve always been a sentimental fool. I like quiet, moody songs that are bittersweet. Dream pop. Chillwave. Shoegaze. Whatever you want to call it…I love this kind of music even though I don’t know much about this genre. One of my current favorites is the French pop singer Melody Prochet, who fronts the psychedelic dream pop band Melody’s Echo Chamber. I discovered Melody’s Echo Chamber via label mate Tame Impala, an Australian psychedelic band who kick all kinds of ass. Anyway, I took it upon myself to create a Pandora station based around Melody’s Echo Chamber. What happened? I fell down a rabbit hole of electronic-psychedelic-dream pop that melted my mind and made me fall in love.

One of the great things about myself, if I can take a moment to brag, is my ability to love a lot of different/conflicting things. Like, for example, I really love cock rock. Give me a hard-charging guitar riff and with some semi-sexist lyrics and I’m happy as a pig in shit. The more dunderheaded, the better. But I’m also a sensitive soul that likes to be lulled by a sweet melody and lush wall of quiet noise. This music that Pandora showed me was amazing in that it was both distorted and crystal clear. It was intimate and human, while at the same time adorned with the trappings of modern electronic music. This music was full of synthetic sounds and real emotion. It was like discovering a new color.

The branching spectrum of music Pandora showed me was absolutely breathtaking. It was like having a cool older brother with a kick ass record collection show me what’s what. I was certain that all the music I was hearing was brand new, but with a little research I found out that most of it was several years old. How on Earth had I missed the stunning pop of Hannah Georgas? Or the cool electro-funk of Walter Meego? What if I’d never decided to play around with Pandora and these amazing songs had remained unknown to me? This post is part advertisement for Pandora, which is an amazing service, but it’s also about stumbling out of one’s comfort zone. I love The Beatles, but you shouldn’t listen to them 100% of the time, this experience only reinforced that.

If you haven’t played around with Pandora in awhile go give it another shot. Let it show you things you didn’t even know you wanted to see. Or go visit a record shop and talk to that weird guy behind the counter. You know, the fat guy with Elvis sideburns who sweats all over you purchases and mumbles to himself. That guy knows stuff. Pick a genre you don’t normally listen to and give it shot. Or go on r/Music on Reddit and see what all the cool Internet kids are chatting about.

I feel like a kid on Christmas having discovered all these cool new bands! Here are a sampling of my favorites. If you have a chance, take a listen. And if you like this kind of music tell me about it in the comments. I want to find more of this mellow, dreamy, electronic music.

Currently in heavy rotation in my Shoegaze Playlist:

  1. You and I” by Washed Out. Washed Out famously provides the opening theme to Portlandia a hilarious sketch show on IFC. This song is hypnotic and mellow, I love it.

 

  1. “Happy Birthday Party” by Dom. This song totally feels like more upbeat, less drugged-out Animal Collective. This song should have been a monster hit with it’s rad hook and goofy-fun lyrics. It’s time to get gnarly, happy birthday party-party indeed…

  1. “Gasoline” by Alpine. A mix of dance and indie pop, Alpine are a really cool Australian band that have this weird knack for writing really fun songs that are catchy and fun as hell. These people should be household names.

  1. “Walk in the Park” by Beach Fossils. This is probably the only song on this list that I’d heard prior to falling into my shoegaze rabbit hole. This song is so ethereal and dark, but also really beautiful. I love this song.

  1. “Bullets” by Rebecca & Fiona. This is 100% pure dance music. Straight from Stockholm, Sweden, Rebecca & Fiona are these two really hot DJ’s who are making embarrassingly good dance music with sweet pop hooks. This song “Bullets” is rad and makes me want to dance. I never want to dance.

  1. “Standing on the Shore” by Empire of the Sun. I’ve been a fan of The Sleepy Jackson for many years but had no idea that Luke Steele was also the member of a synthpop band. Totally theatrical and totally glammed out, “Standing on the Shore” is a dreamy pop masterpiece. Weird? You bet. Over-the-top? Sure. Fun? You bet.

  1. “Robotic” by Hannah Georgas. This song is a real heartbreaker. There’s so much soul in her voice. This is one of those songs that feels old and worn in the first time you hear you it—like it’s been a part of your life this whole time. Sad and wistful hurts so good. I love it.

And in case you’re interested, here is my Shoegaze playlist on Spotify. There’s a ton more really cool songs and artists with more added every Friday:

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YOUR NEXT FAVORITE BAND: The Star Spangles

Back in 2003, I was going to school during the day and working overnights as a security guard. It was lonely, boring work that involved a lot of sitting around and listening to late night radio. On Saturday nights, I’d snuggle up next to my $2 pocket radio and listen to Little Steven’s Underground Garage. Those were halcyon days, or rather nights, and it was during this period that I discovered many great artists thanks to Steven Van Zandt and his show. One of those bands was The Star Spangles.

I can still remember the first time I heard The Star Spangles. Their song “Which One of the Two of Us Is Gonna Burn This House Down?” was featured as the Coolest Song In The World on Little Steven’s show. Despite the impossibly long title, the song was a lightning quick burst of punky-pop. And it totally knocked me on my ass. Over the next week or so, Little Steven played the song a few more times, as well as the band’s other single “I Live For Speed.” I immediately got a digital copy of the band’s album BAZOOKA!!! and found that all songs were fantastic.

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You might recall that the early-to-mid 00’s (the aughts) was a period known as the Garage Rock Revival. This was a heroic return of basic, balls-to-the-walls rock that spawned a series of great albums by a half-dozen or so bands. These bands typically hailed from New York/East Coast and featured “The” in the band name. The Hives. The White Stripes. The Vines. The Strokes. The Star Spangles were cut from the same cloth, though their sensibilities skewed heavily towards punk. Their lead singer, Ian Wilson, had a sneering Sid Vicious quality and a Nick Cave haircut.

BAZOOKA!!!, as stated, had two great singles but it was the deeper cuts that really impressed me. The kinetic “LA” with its gritty, chugging guitar riff seared itself into my mind. This song should have been in a Grand Theft Auto video game and made the band a huge overnight success. Similarly, “Crime of the Century” with its Keith Richards-esque riff should have burned up the rock charts…had their been relevant rock radio in 2003-2004. Timing and changing musical taste worked against The Star Spangles, which happened to many bands in this era. Indie rock was getting huge and The Star Spangles were seen as a quaint throwback.

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The band did appear on Letterman and toured a bit, but for the most part they dropped off the map. I was a bit crushed, but as the 00’s wore on it became obvious that the Garage Rock Revival wasn’t going to last longer than a few years. Only the super-talented Jack White was able to survive the Revival’s sad collapse.

I cherished BAZOOKA!!! but had written the band off for dead when sometime in 2006 I found out that The Star Spangles were back! Their follow-up album, DIRTY BOMB, was self-released and featured a new band lineup. Both of these facts filled me with a sense of dread, would the second record stack up to the great first release? Happily, DIRTY BOMB turned out to be wonderful.

Though DIRTY BOMB is a bit less polished than BAZOOKA!!! it’s also a bit more complex and, in my opinion, the better of the band’s two albums. Still featuring a heavy dose of punk, DIRTY BOMB had a few slower songs as well as the (awesome) country-tinged “Someone In You.” The album was also more commercial and poppier, especially tracks like “This Side of the Sun” and “I’m On A High.” Both of these songs should have made a big impression on the music world.

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The band’s propensity for fast songs full of hard charging guitars and killer lyrical hooks remained, and I had renewed hope that the band would continue to record and tour. But sadly, DIRTY BOMB was the band’s swan song.

What the hell happened to The Star Spangles? Part of the reason I’m writing this post is to hopefully find out. The band’s web presence is limited now. You can find DIRTY BOMB on iTunes and CD Baby, but BAZOOKA!!! has now vanished falling out of print. According to the band’s threadbare Wikipedia page, the band had a “falling out” with Capitol Records in 2006. What happened exactly? Would the band be a household name if they’d managed to stay on Capitol Records? DIRTY BOMB’s pop-heavy sound could have easily landed the band on the radio if they’d just had a bit more promotion.

The band’s lineup change probably had something to do with the band’s failed commercial prospects. Originally The Star Spangles featured Nick Price on bass and Joey Valentine on drums, however on DIRTY BOMB Chris Orlando and Todd Martin replaced them. Only lead singer Ian Wilson and Tommy Volume remained in the band for The Spangles whole run, which has led me to believe them to be the Mick & Keith of the band. I assumed that Wilson or Volume would go onto to do other projects, but after an extensive search online I’ve turned but zilch. Did both of these guys fall of the Earth? Did they get straight jobs working in cubicles? If they’re working in the music industry they’re doing so under different names…of they need to hire a better marketing team. Anyone with information please either comment below or email me at DefendingAxlRose@gmail.com.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to accept that sometimes really great bands only put out one or two albums. Rather than be greedy and whine about all the great songs/albums I didn’t get from them, I try to focus on what the band did put out. Honestly, fate and a fickle music industry was stacked against The Star Spangles.  Dropped by their label and faced with a lineup change, we had no right to expect a second record and we got one. I’m satisfied with that, though I do wish these guys were still around.

Do yourself a favor and check this band out because they’re fucking fantastic.

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Everybody Drowns Sad And Lonely: I *Heart* Beulah

Other than Nirvana, I can’t think of another band besides Beulah that makes being depressed sound like so much fun. The sunny, wistful sound Beulah made in their very short life as a band still haunts me to this day. I discovered Beulah back in early 2002 while on a lunch break. The band had released their album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR in September 2001 (yes, it came out on 9/11) and the music magazine I was reading had the album prominently placed on several of the staff’s best of the year lists.

At the time, I was really into The Apples In Stereo and Neutral Milk Hotel, bands who had formed this weird collective called The Elephant 6 Recording Company. This collective was really just a group of music nerds that revered pop music of the 1960s, specifically The Beach Boys. The whole thing was out of Denver, Colorado, which I find a bit amusing, as this is where I now live.

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Anyway, The Elephant 6 Recording Company had a lot of mystical sway with my early 20-something mind. When I saw Beulah’s album THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR show up on a bunch of “Best of 2001” lists I was mildly curious. When a more than one review mentioned the Beatles/Beach Boys-like quality to their songs, I was intrigued. But when I found out that they were part of the Elephant 6 I knew I had no choice but to get their album.

It wasn’t just me that took notice of the band, THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is/was the band’s biggest album. This is thanks to the album’s slicker, more refined production and an abnormal (for modern indie pop) use of horns. Ah, the horns. The horns add an extra layer of sweet icing to songs laced with bile and bitterness.

Beulah, at first blush, lulls the listener with golden harmonies and the sunny melodies. But all that sweet sound belies the dark, murky complexity of singer-songwriter Mike Kurosky’s lyrics. Rife with Brian Wilsonian-angst and anxiety, Kuroksy always seems to be on the verge of cutting the poetic bullshit and telling us how he really feels. But he never really does. Instead, we get gorgeous hook-filled pop gems. Gorgeous pop gems that raise an eyebrow and give the listener pause as they wonder: is this song really about…that? Holy shit, that’s kinda fucked up. The best part is that these bright, shining songs with such dark undertones also stick inside your head for weeks upon end.

When I get to California  Gonna write my name in the sand  I'm gonna lay this body down  And watch the waves roll in

When I get to California
Gonna write my name in the sand
I’m gonna lay this body down
And watch the waves roll in

Of course THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR’S most well known song is the most straightforward: “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.” You’ve heard it, even if you’re not aware that you’ve heard it. About a year after THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR was released the song was ubiquitous, appearing on the soundtracks of many sappy TV shows and in at least one car commercial. I often wonder how many of those ad/TV executives took the time to really listen to the lyrics. There is a lot of dark shit in “Popular Mechanics for Lovers.”

Such as:

 “Just because he loves you too

He would never take a bullet for you

Don’t believe a word he says

He would never cut his heart out for you”

 THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR can only be described as a sublime musical experience. I still get goose bumps when listening to “What Will You Do When Your Suntan Fades?” The song compares a slide into inevitable depression to the end of summer vacation. All the drugs, all the women, all the smiles don’t mean anything once the darkness comes. Kurosky is telling this to someone but the uncomfortable reality is that he’s telling this to himself. He’s telling this to us:

“Will you be alright when you’re in the shade?

Tell me tell me you’ll be alright

When you start to fade

Have you heard?

The days are getting shorter

And what will you do when your suntan is fading and the summer’s gone?

Do you feel afraid?”

My favorite track on the album is the staggeringly awesome “Gene Autry.” An epic, rambling song, “Gene Autry” is both about the legendary singing cowboy and also about the ugly beauty and promise that is California. A land of milk and honey, but also one full of loneliness and hopelessness. The chorus of this song is: “That the city spreads out, just like a cut vein, everybody drowns, sad and lonely.” Every time I hear “Gene Autry” the song punches me in the guts. I’m amazed that something so unbearably sad can make me feel so exhilaratingly happy.

I like to think that my feelings of despair are driven away by the fact that I recognize a lot of my own personal hang-ups and sorrow in Beulah’s music. The band doesn’t sing about Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band they are Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band! But the more likely source of my euphoria is really just the result of the band’s upbeat delivery and extreme musical craftsmanship. Oppressive sadness extends into Beulah’s other albums, but it’s never quite as bright and shiny as it is on THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR. And while it’s not my favorite album of theirs (that would be YOKO, the 2003 album that broke them up), THE COAST IS NEVER CLEAR is my favorite Beulah album to be sad with.

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BIG STAR: NOTHING CAN HURT ME

Big Star is one of those bands that prove that life isn’t fair.  We like to tell ourselves, especially here in the United States, that the cream always rises to the top.  The deck may not always be stacked in our favor, but with a little hard work and talent you’ll always succeed. Wrong.  Sometimes the best and brightest, the most talented people on the planet are ignored.  When this happens we search for a reason, a why that fits with our grand vision of an inherently fair universe.  English rockers XTC are a good example.  They didn’t get famous because their lead singer developed crippling stage anxiety, right?  Well that didn’t stop Brian Wilson, who stuck to the studio and still managed to find success. The truth is not everyone with big talent winds up a big star.

I happened upon Big Star the way most people do: by reading album reviews.  Once I got into indie bands, I started reading reviews in which critics compared bands to The Beatles and Big Star, always it seemed it was those two bands.  The first band I knew pretty well and so I was able to make the connection the critical shorthand was conveying.  But what the heck was Big Star?  Bands that I thought sounded a bit like Cheap Trick were often said to be “Big Star-ish.”  At a certain point, I got tired of being out of the loop and I ordered a copy of #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY.  That this disc was actually a bastardization of two albums was something I only learned later.  By fusing the band’s first two albums together, Big Star’s current corporate owners created the single greatest dollar-per-song ratio of any album I’ve ever purchased.  For video game fans, #1 ALBUM/RADIO CITY is the musical equivalent of Valve’s Orange Box.  The damn thing is basically a Greatest Hits record.

Except, there were no hits.   I didn’t understand what happened, or why, until I sat down and watched Drew DeNicola’s documentary NOTHING CAN HURT ME.  The answers aren’t as simple as the band didn’t sell albums because “X” happened.  The band formed in Memphis, Tennessee in the early 1970’s and got hooked up with the floundering STAX records.  Known more for soul/R&B music, STAX and its demise are a large part of the reason Big Star remained unknown for so very long.  But just blaming a label is an oversimplification.  The truth, which NOTHING CAN HURT ME explores, is more complex.

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Lead singer Alex Chilton and singer/guitarist Chris Bell formed a fragile, Lennon-McCartney relationship that produced the confidently-titled #1 RECORD. The album failed to connect with rock fans despite a frustratingly large amount of critical acclaim.  Dejected, Bell left the band and sort of lost his mind.  This is where Big Star started to fall apart.  A second album RADIO CITY, was produced, and was met with even greater critical acclaim and even less commercial success. Part of the album’s failure certainly had to do with the aforementioned STAX going belly-up after years of mis-management.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME follows Chilton and Bell as they spend the rest of their post RADIO CITY-lives in a stunned dazed wondering how had something so good gone unrecognized?  Bell winds up working at a fast food restaurant where fans eventually find him and track him down.  Chilton, who stayed in the public eye by remaining in music, became the target of ire because he chose to step away from the power-pop of Big Star and record avante-garde punk.

The film does a good job of charting the band’s rise.  In fact, it does such a good job that when the band’s albums fail to make an impact I found myself a little surprised, even though I knew the band’s history.  I also appreciated the interviews with Bell’s sister near the end, who is both bitter about how the music industry had so deeply hurt her brother and amazed that fans now make pilgrimages to his old home.  There were very few startling revelations in the film, with one notable exception.  As someone that got on the Big Star bandwagon very late (but then again, aren’t we all?) I was shocked to learn that Big Star was really Bell’s band and not Chilton’s.  Listening to Bell’s posthumously released solo album, I AM THE COSMOS (which I hadn’t even known existed), it becomes apparent where the bulk of the Big Star magic originated.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME while worth watching, isn’t perfect.  The documentary doesn’t feature any interviews with either Bell or Chilton because, sadly, they’re both dead.  Bell died tragically at age 27 and Chilton a few years before the 2012 documentary was shot.  Their absence from the film is glaring and the unfortunate result of the band’s delayed fame.  Another glaring omission, in my opinion, is a proper explanation of  Big Star’s legend and how the band’s cult following grew over the years.  This should be the heart of the documentary but instead is glossed over.  I’d have liked for NOTHING CAN HURT ME to show me how this obscure Memphis band appreciated over time until I had no choice but to seek out their albums just so I’d know what everyone was talking about.   Alas, the documentary choses to focus on the sad trajectory of Chris Bell’s life rather than explore how Big Star got so much underground notoriety.

Overall, I enjoyed NOTHING CAN HURT ME, but I still feel like there’s a better Big Star documentary out there somewhere.  Or at least, one that’s a more definitive look at the band’s life and resurrection.  Of course, without Bell and Chilton, that’s probably not true.  I’d recommend the film, but only after you’ve listened to #1 RECORD and RADIO CITY a few times.

NOTHING CAN HURT ME is available now on Netflix’s US instant-streaming service.

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New Jellyfish Live Album Released Today

All I want for Christmas this year is Omnivore Record’s Jellyfish live album RADIO JELLYFISH.  Jellyfish were a super-talented, super-overlooked power-pop band from the mid-1990’s.  The band has built up a massive cult following over the years, which isn’t a surprise once you give a listen to either BELLYBUTTON or SPILT MILK.

Someone please buy this for me!

Someone please buy this for me!

Omnivore Records has been slowly giving us what we’ve all wanted: new Jellyfish releases.  They released both of the band’s albums sans-vocals earlier in the year…but this live record is on a whole other level.  RADIO JELLYFISH contains ten acoustic live tracks recorded in 1993 during the band’s SPILT MILK tour.  Of the album’s ten tracks, only one has been previously released. This is not the first Jellyfish live album, that would be LIVE AT BOGARTS which was recently released, but RADIO JELLYFISH being 100% acoustic really intrigues me.

If you’re a fan, check out the label’s trailer for the record and then run over to Omnivore’s website and order your copy.  I guarantee that this thing will sell-out quickly.

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Your Next Favorite Band: Jellyfish

They say that stars that burn twice as bright burn half as long.  I want to introduce you to a really amazing power-pop band from the 1990’s, but before I do I must warn you: they only put out two records.  If you’re the kind of person that obsesses over really awesome shit that never got its proper due, maybe you should sit this one out.  Jellyfish was a band that I grew up with and to this day I still love them and smile whenever I hear one of their songs.  I’ve met precious few people who’ve even heard of them (or can remember them) and that’s a real shame because they put out two damn near perfect records.

A word about “power-pop.”  I really feel stupid using that term and not just because it sounds like a super-caffeinated soft drink.  In general, I really dislike the concept of “genre.” But I must admit that it does serve as a nice bit of short-hand when you’re trying to talk to people so I’m going to use the term “power-pop.”  Power-pop is basically rock music that features strong lyrical hooks and big guitar riffs.  Melodies and harmonies are also really important in power-pop.  A lot of the British invasion-era rock could be considered power-pop, but for the most part the term is applied to bands that came after/were influenced by those bands.  So The Beatles are not considered power-pop but Badfinger (who came later and are basically the same band) are power-pop.

BELLYBUTTON-era Jellyfish. Awesome musicians with terrible fashion sense.

Jellyfish was formed in 1989 in San Francisco, California. The band had several members over the years but the foundation of the band was two super-talented, multi-instrumentalists: Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.*  Andy was primarily the drummer and Roger played keyboards.   For their first album, Roger and Andy were joined by bassist Chris Manning a duty that was also shared by Steven Shane McDonald (of Redd Kross-fame, another great power-pop band from this era) and guitarist Jason Falkner.  To say that these  lads had talent is the worst kind of understatement–there really were four geniuses in the band. And while that helped make the first Jellyfish album, BELLYBUTTON, an instant-classic…it also lead to a lot of tension.

BELLYBUTTON came out in 1990 and was met with moderate success.  The album spawned three singles, “The King Is Half-Undressed,” “That Is Why,” and “Baby’s Coming Back.”   Some quirky music videos and a funky day-glo image helped get people’s attention, though the band was never a true household name.  BELLYBUTTON’s sound is one of lush harmonies and catchy-as-hell choruses.  The Beatles and Beach Boys are all over this record (they even mention The Beatles by name in  “All I Want Is Everything”). And while the band doesn’t ever quite go full-on psychedelic, they get close.  It’s a bit difficult to say “this is what Jellyfish sounds like” because like late-period Beatles (and super-druggy Brian Wilson), Jellyfish experiment with different sounds and instruments.

Among the kaleidoscope of 1960’s-ish sounds there are are two really nice ballads, “I Wanna Stay Home” and “Calling Sarah.”  “I Wanna Stay Home” in particular almost sounds like it belongs on a totally different record.  It’s a very sincere song that’s about having to go even though you just want to say home.  The very next song “She Still Loves Him” is a haunting tale about an abusive relationship, it’s a great song, with some really sharp lyrics and an awesome guitar solo…but it also feels very odd after “I Wanna Stay Home.”  BELLYBUTTON, while a fantastic record, is not a unified work of art.  Instead it’s more of an awesome Frankenstein’s Monster of a record, with a bunch of really awesome bits sown together.   There are a ton of really nice little details that really don’t appreciate on the first few listens.  Some of my favorites include: the nice trumpet part at the beginning of “Bedspring Kiss”, the faux-live effect/crowd sound on the Cheap Trick-like “All I Want Is Everything”**, and the dreamy piano noodling that plays before “She Still Loves Him.”

In 1993 the band put out their second album SPILT MILK.  This album sadly did not feature most of the band from the first record–gone was everyone but Sturmer and Manning Jr.  A new bassist, Tim Smith, was added to the mix along with a few session guitarists.  Despite the change in personnel, I actually prefer SPILT MILK and think it’s the stronger of the two records.  SPILT MILK is interesting because Jellyfish takes the 1960’s British-Pop aesthetics of BELLYBUTTON and apply a thick coating of Glam Rock.  What you get is something that sounds like Queen-by-way-of-The Beatles.  Oddly enough, despite losing their guitarists, SPILT MILK also has way better guitar parts/solos, though Roger Manning’s keyboards do wind up taking a more prominent role.  SPILT MILK is full of such dualities: it’s a keyboard album with awesome guitars, dark and angry but has a playful song about masturbation (“He’s My Best Friend”).

The album opens with the quiet, lullaby-like “Hush” which ironically leads into the explosive “Joining A Fanclub.” I can’t say enough about how awesome “Joining A Fanclub” is.  Ostensibly about the dangers of stardom and hero worship, the songs is a really headbangger.  It’s the kind of song you hear while driving and it causes you to get a speeding ticket.  Every time I hear it I think about Robert Downey Jr. (who at the time this song was written was constantly getting into trouble with the law).  I also really love “New Mistake” with it’s twisty-lyrics about an “oops” pregnancy–the best part? At the end the baby grows up and marries a pop singer (because it’s time for her to make her “first mistake.”).  This is the kind of song that keep me up at night it’s so awesome.  I almost don’t believe it was crafted by mere mortals.  I also can’t help but marvel at “The Ghost Of Number One” which seems to poke fun at the fact that the band knew that they weren’t going to reach the level of success that they deserved.

Like BELLYBUTTON, Jellyfish’s second record also features some interesting experimentation. I’m confident that I’d never been exposed to Klezmer music*** before I heard “Bye Bye Bye.”  That song alone is worth the purchase price of the album, it’s simply a stunningly awesome song, and was definitely not something you heard on the radio in 1993 (or hell today for that matter).  The album ends with the magnificent, circus-themed “Brighter Day.” The song is a fantastic way to close the record and unfortunately the recording career of Jellyfish.  And when it ends all you want to do is start the whole thing over again. 

So what happened? Well a lack of success and bruised egos led Jellyfish to die an unglamorous death, alone and relatively unmourned.  Jason Falkner and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr. both have had relatively successful solo-careers (Falkner in particular has recorded some amazing records).  Lead-singer Andy Sturmer gave up being in bands and is how a producer.  Over the years the band has developed a somewhat cult-following online.  I wrote my one and only Wikipedia entry in 2006 when a greatest-hits compilation called BEST! was released.  It’s not a very long article, more like an album stub but for some reason I felt compelled to write it.  Jellyfish is one of those bands I simply can’t imagine living without and it bums me out that so few people are aware of them.  I highly, highly recommend Jellyfish. 

 

ENDNOTES:

*Fun fact, the “Jr.” had to be added to Roger’s professional name because it turned out there already WAS a semi-not-really famous musician named Roger Joseph Manning.  What are the chances of such a thing?  Now go win that super-obscure power-pop bar-trivia.

 

**It sounds like LIVE AT BUDOKAN, get it?

 

***Jewish Eastern European music. It’s as awesome as it sounds. 

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Your Next Favorite Band: Guided By Voices

It was the summer of 2001 when I discovered Guided By Voices.  I had just graduated high school and was working as a cashier at a drugstore.  The job was pretty lousy, with even lousier piped-in music to add insult to injury.  Anyway, the one perk was the magazine rack.  Every day I’d take my break in the employee lounge and read a magazine.  At the time REVOLVER magazine was a real rock magazine and not the rag it’s unfortunately become–anyway I was leafing through an issue with REVOLVER that had a feature on a guy named Robert Pollard.  What I discovered  from reading the article was that Pollard was some kind of prolific songwriter and that his indie-band, Guided By Voices, was about to release it’s second “mainstream” album on a major label. It was a pretty standard article and it didn’t do much in the way of make me curious about Pollard or his band, until the very end.  At the end of the article, the author compared Guided By Voices sound as “The Who performing an arena-shaking rendition of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man.”

As a dyed in the wool  Beatlemaniac, I was intrigued to say the least.

That comparison launched a love affair with GBV and Pollard that goes beyond mere fandom.  Robert Pollard is not the greatest songwriter of all time. Guided By Voices is not the greatest band of all time. Don’t get me wrong, I deeply love Guided By Voices, but it’s not just the music that makes them so special.  The band is a symbol for what it means to be an artist–I mean that in the broadest sense of the word, not just a musician but as a general creative force.  That the music is awesome  only cemented Pollard’s position as my personal rock hero.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  In order to talk about all of this you need to know a little bit about Pollard.

Calisthenics are an important part of the Guided By Voices experience.

Robert Pollard was a 4th grade school teacher in Dayton, Ohio.  He was on track for a pretty ordinary, average life but something was missing.  If you’re an artist and aren’t creating it causes all sorts of problems.  Pollard needed an outlet so he started jamming with friends on the weekend.  Pollard also liked to write very (very) short little songs.  Maybe “song” isn’t the right word, these were almost pieces of songs, snippets.  They were catchy as hell.  Using very primitive home recording gear (like a boombox with a cassette deck and microphone) Guided By Voices was formed and Pollard starting making albums.  The band became critical darlings in the mid-1990s and Pollard was able to quit his job as a teacher and became a full-time rock star.  The band went mainstream for two albums and were then promptly dropped when the band didn’t catch fire and sell millions of albums.

Now, that story probably makes Pollard a hero in the eyes of many, but it was what he did after being dropped that makes him MY hero: he kept making music.  Pollard made a LOT of music.  So much music that he started other bands, a solo career, and recorded GBV albums.  I know a lot of people say they’re prolific, but Robert Pollard is the real deal.  The closest mainstream person I think of who seems to be like Pollard is Jack White.  But whereas Jack White puts out an album or so every year, Pollard usually releases 3 to 4 albums a year (sometimes more).  He also designs his album’s artwork and writes poetry.  Being prolific makes him special, but he’s my hero because he never gives up.  If we all turned out backs on him I know he’d keep writing and recording albums because he’s an artist and that’s all he knows.  He could have done what most people do and give up, push aside childish things like making art, but he didn’t.  As someone who wishes he was a writer and not a office drone, Robert Pollard is my  hero.

But the music is good.  It’s really damn good.

Just like the REVOLVER writer pointed out years later, Guided By Voices sound a bit like The Who and other British Invasion-era rock bands from the 1960’s.  Pollard, born and raised in Ohio, even sings with a bit of a British accent.  However, GBV wasn’t an ordinary rock band playing ordinary rock songs. Pollard’s songwriting generally consists of taking his little song snippets and fusing them together.  A lot of it is very poetic and very catchy, some of it is just bizarre.  Pollard’s songwriting leads GBV to the precipice of art-rock and progressive (“prog”) rock.  In fact, I would say Guided By Voices often sound like The Who meets Peter Gabriel-era Genesis on occasion.  The songs are pretty much 89% hook and chorus.  A major criticism of Pollard and GBV is that the songs feel undercooked or too much like a snippet.  An argument could be made that Pollard and GBV never found massive success because he wrote 20,000 two minute songs instead of 14 killer 3-4 minute polished gems.  I can’t argue with this criticism completely, but I can’t dismiss Pollard’s genius either.  He’s written so many amazing songs that might not exist if he didn’t throw everything at the wall and then run away.

The aesthetic, in regards to recording, can also be criticized.  Back in the 1990’s people didn’t have a lot of options when it came to recording, being “lo-fi” was less a conscious artistic choice and more of a necessity.  Many long time GBV fans became hyper-critical when the band joined a major label and recorded in a proper studio.  I can listen to both era’s of GBV and appreciate it but I can definitely recommend that newbies start with the newer albums and work back to those prehistorically recorded classics.  Since being dropped from the major label TVT, Guided By Voices has adopted a nice balance of lo- and hi-fi sound.  As a true lover of the band I’m perfectly fine with this, but it’s still annoyingly cool to bitch about GBV not being homemade.

Robert Pollard knows that hydration is a key ingredient to successful rocking.

I keep talking about Robert Pollard because he really is Guided By Voices.  I read once that Pollard estimates over 100 different people have been in the band at one point or another.  I’m not sure how accurate that figure is but it seems accurate enough.  For a while guitarist Doug Gillard (from Cobra Verde) was an integral part of the band, but that partnership ended in 2004 when Pollard inexplicably shut GBV down.  He claimed that it was also his plan to stop recording when the band made a “perfect” album.  A lot can be said of 2004’s HALF SMILES OF THE DECOMPOSED but a perfect record it was not–and Pollard must have realized this because in 2010 he reformed the band.  Pollard  didn’t retire during the brief period when Guided By Voices was dormant, he recorded a shit ton of solo albums.  I am a pretty big fan and I can honestly say that I have not heard (or heard of) about 45% of Pollard’s output.  There are simply too many songs.  Too many records.  I haven’t even heard all of the Guided By Voices early stuff (most of which I’ve heard is a bit unlistenable).

You pretty much need to buy this. Right. Now. Don’t make Bob cast a spell on you.

In 2003 Matador Records did newbies a huge favor by releasing HUMAN AMUSEMENTS AT HOURLY RATES: THE BEST OF GUIDED BY VOICES.  They also released, at the same time, a pretty hearty boxset HARDCORE UFOS.  I guess the best place to start is the greatest hits compilation.  I don’t usually recommend that to people, but it’s the best way to dip your toes in the world of Robert Pollard.  From there I recommend you check out MAG EARWHIG! and UNIVERSAL TRUTHS AND CYCLES.  The former being the last album before going to a major label and the latter being the first one the band released after being dropped. The band’s major label albums are not terrible, they’re just a not the best place for newbies to start.  You have, in fact, probably already heard one Guided By Voices song and not even realized it: “Hold On Hope.”  The song comes from the Ric Ocasek (the weird dude from The Cars) produced album DO THE COLLAPSE.  The story goes Pollard did not want to do “Hold On Hope” but because he wanted to play ball with the record company (and get on the radio) he did it.  It’s not a terrible song, it’s a nice ballad.  Anyway, it’s been featured in a bunch of indie-minded TV shows and films (like SCRUBS).  It’s the kind of song a lot of bands would kill to have and it’s nowhere near as good as 99% of  GBV’s other songs.

Guided By Voices is a band I’m seriously passionate about.  On one hand the catchy, weird-ass songs delight me on a pure visceral-level but as an artist, I find I love and respect Pollard for chasing his dream and pursuing his own unique vision of  song and song-writing.

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