Five long-forgotten Artists/Albums
For the last few months I’d been meaning to write a short essay documenting five albums that are on the lowest end of the spectrum of commercial success and yet have been listened to, by me, with a certain frequency over the last five years.
This list is to be distinguished from something like Weezer’s Pinkerton, which is a prime example of a cult album made by a mainstream band (not being a Weezer fan I’m unfamiliar with it). This phenomena is not unfamiliar; there are lots of cult/lost albums by mainstream artists: the Cure’s Pornography, Lou Reed’s Berlin.
These are tiny, personal little records that are a brief escalator-ride in an artist’s career (also see Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night). They are often recommended (by ‘rock snobs’) in conjunction with an admonishment to: “forget the other stuff and listen to this…” Some artists make this injunction easier by dividing their catalog in half, Rod Stewart is a prime example, in that there is a definite, historically documented turning point in his career.
What I’m looking for here is something very different from the “cult” album, which is accessible to anyone who happens to already be aware of the aforementioned bands. You might say that I’m looking for the cult band that never was, but really I’m looking for something that I had to stumble across in the most inconspicuous of ways.
Perhaps some of these artists will become the next Big Star, but I write this with the definitely -maybe sensation that this will not be the case. My intention in listing these albums is to force myself to put into words, five groups whose albums I have been listening to on a fairly consistent basis –with no external, pop-cultural incentive to do so.
With the internet, everything is now searchable and given over to the possibility of instant de-mystification. As Susan Sontag has pointed out: “By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.” I would like to add that the art of biography does this as well, if not more-so. In acknowledgement of this I will keep these listings brief, devoid of investigation, and idiosyncratic (as if I could write any other way). It’s nice to see some things, at least for me, remain myths.
Band: The Chamber Strings, Album(s): Gospel Morning and Month of Sundays
Month of Sundays, the one that supposedly ‘broke through’, was also my introduction to The Chamber Strings (I found it used at Amoeba sometime around 2002), though, I prefer Gospel Morning, there is not one bad song on either album, and there are not many established bands who’ve come close to writing songs as good as Everyday is Christmas, Telegram and Flashing Star, not to mention Cold, Cold Meltdown, which I had to stop myself from declaring my personal favorite. Gospel Morning, like every truly great album forces you to constantly change your mind as to which song is best. And this constant re-evaluation is a slow evolutionary process –no-one who cycles through favorite songs on an album does so over a short period of time. It’s a process that is the result of deep and consistent listening.
Artist: Even Johansen, Album: Quiet and Still
I think I had read about this album in some obscure, short-lived indie rock magazine; coincidentally (and I only recall this now) this same issue had a review for Month of Sundays …I think? Anyways, I’m sure that when I die and go to heaven, god will have all the obscure magazines that ever enchanted me, as well as every episode of Robotech –on bluray, awaiting my perusal.
Quiet and Still is haunting and difficult to get over –Johansen himself couldn’t quite get over it, he has re-recorded most of the songs from it with his new(er) band Magnet. The Magnet stuff is good but it can’t top Quiet and Still’s perfection. The commercial trope of recording gentle acoustic versions of older rock songs has been ably exploited by dozens of Starbucks-worthy artists, and it’s unfortunate that Johansen didn’t get a piece of that action with his version of Thin Lizzy’s Dancing in the Moonlight.
In the context of Quiet and Still’s narcotic detachment Lynot’s lyrics take on spectral heroin-drenched connotations. This album came out around the same time as Ed Harcourt’s first album and there is a definite similarity in terms of production. There must have been a whole slew of songwriters who stormed out of the late 90s, influenced only by Radiohead’s first three albums and Jeff Buckley’s Grace, and though this analogy makes them sound hopelessly derivative, I found their efforts to be legitimately engaging –Jacob Golden is another one of these guys, I had to order his Hallelujah World from Amazon.comuk.
Band: The Hangmen, Album: Metallic I.O.U
The first time I heard The Hangman‘s “Downtown” I was driving around listening to KXLU ten years ago. I enjoyed it for what it was: a solid throwback to 70’s style New York punk rock. There was, however, an extra kick to the song: near the end, a voice recites the words “Bonnie Brae, Fifth and Union”. Brian Smalls has probably the most legitimately rock n’ roll voice of anyone playing music today, it along with the music itself is an amalgamation of all the best elements of The Dead Boys, Johnny Thunders, Primal Scream and The Stones.
As Los Angeles continues to change we will always have Ultramettalic I.O.U. as a document of the gritty, desperation that will always (and should always) be in the heart of downtown; and more importantly: it is sonically convergent with the way these same elements were translated by New York punk artists two decades earlier, it is almost as if time has stopped.
Band: The North Dakota, Album: The North Dakota
In 2001 I met a singer/multi-instrumentalist named David Pohl. I had answered an ad he had placed in The Music Connection seeking musicians to perform live, songs from an album he had just self-released. I don’t remember if I had any contact with him after he gave me the CD; at the time I was unimpressed with the album and eager to play aggressive music instead.
Well, since then I have found myself going back to this album repeatedly. I have found albums I like to go in two different directions, the usual one is: I like the entire album, but certain songs stand out, soon the songs I neglected to like become my favorites… This is probably the most common fan-album -obsession -phenomenon, everyone says something like I just wrote at some point in their life. (This is the case with The Chamber Strings).
However, unlike everyone else, there is a rarer tendency I have, to only like the first few songs on a record and stop it after those, then within a couple of years I’ve pushed myself beyond those three or four tracks and now like tracks one through seven but swear that everything after that is crap, finally like five years later I will love the album as a whole (this is the process I underwent with Everclear’s Sparkle and Fade album).
I’m sure you can find this album cheap online, and when you do check out sick of feeling happy all the time, the noise I’m bringin’, and my personal favorite: distortion, which I would put up there with any of the best Wilco songs you can name. David Pohl probably gave up on playing music, but if he’s ever looking to start again I hope he stumbles across this post and hits me up.
Band: Gren, Album: Camp Grenada
This last pick was difficult because I don’t really listen to it that often. This fifth choice was a toss-up between Gren and Daisy Chainsaw, another band I never listen to anymore but remember for the fact that they were featured on an episode of Beavis and Butthead, and more idiosyncratically: mentioned in an episode of Roseanne.
For the Proustian involuntary recall factor, Daisy Chainsaw is a Madeleine unto itself. However, Gren was much smaller, they signed to IRS (REM’s old label) and got one song played on 95.5 KNAC, the power-popish She Shines.
I had actually saw Gren at Santa Monica City College in, I think, early 1995. The singer was a stone-cold Kurt Cobain clone and the drummer had dreadlocks. I guess the music was like a cross between Nirvana and Green Day, but it was enjoyable and catchy.
I picked up Gren’s CD used for around five bucks. For the next few years I would see Camp Grenada swimming around the same bargain bins that would also lead me and my loser friends to the likes of Spooky Ruben’s Modes of Transportation Vol. 1, Shudder to Think’s Pony Express Record, and Eric Avery’s short-lived Deconstruction [fyi I have this long-standing tradition where every time I see Dave Navarro, which is like every 6-7 years, I tell him how much I liked Deconstruction.
My reasoning for this being: he will eventually mention in some interview the fact that either a) people still approach him and tell him how great that album is or b) he will say that the same guy approaches him every 6 or 7 years and tells him how much he likes that album… [It just occurred to me that this interview might already exist!]
After the excitement around grunge had dissipated, around 1997, all the bands in West L.A. were trying to sound like a cross between Nine Inch Nails and Jane’s Addiction. It was dreadful. I saw one such band playing a tiny non-stage at Warped tour that year, and lo and behold, the drummer from Gren was playing with them. Who knows whatever happened to the other guys.
The best songs will never get sung
The best life never leaves your lungs
So good you won’t ever know
You’ll never hear it on the radio
Can’t hear it on the radio