Who Are These Girls & Guys?

That's a bigger question than usual in our 1996 new music poll.

           It's that time of year again--time for the Minnesota Music Awards, our own little home-industry shmoozefest, and for the sixth installment of the CP new music poll. But something strange happened this year when the time came for music writers, promoters, musicians and fans to give us their top-five lists for the poll. People began reporting a discontent with the '96 state of the scene, decrying everything from the demise of live music in Uptown to the decay of our Alternative County. The question was out: Are we entering a local-music slump?

           The results of this year's poll are similarly disconcerting. Mind you, I'm not complaining about who finished on top. 12 Rods, a thoroughly exciting group, have pulled off an all-time high landslide score of 43 points from 11 voters. What I'm perplexed with is their lack of healthy competition. Way down at number two, we have the ostensibly new Semisonic, a great band of veteran players. At number three, power poppers National Dynamite, with the same number of points they earned last year. But most of the other truly new bands are stuck down in the lower teens or less, with no big consensus vote to pull any of them out.

           What's going on here? A lot of things, I'd imagine. As the new-artist glut in this town continues to fatten, and as CD production, retail, and radio play keep bringing more bands to more people, there are more and more names and relatively fewer standouts. Indeed, as Minnesota music caterwauls through the decade, we're seeing a steady breakdown of consensus--that centrifugal force of taste.

           Then again, what's so bad about that? We're only talking about the rookie crop here, and a consensus breakdown can only lead to the establishment of newer, fresher regimes. Already, changing tastes and new acts are making the club scene safer for non-rock genres. Take for example the Joint Chiefs, who are pumping the market with their freestyle funk & improv (a.k.a. acid jazz) most recently at the Front's Wednesday night hip-hop/jazz sessions. Then there's the rock/rap/funk/occasional-DJ collective of Who Are Those Guys, who threw a much-buzzed string of parties at the Red Sea (before booker/soundman Rob Curtis left that club and took the scene with him); and Detroit, the Curbfeelers-spawned funksters who're making noise all over the West Bank and beyond. If you want to read about variety in new local music, check for example the disparate poll entries from punk scene stalwart Jason Parker, Christian rocker Stephen Knight, and KFAI's Chip Tenille.

           But truth be told, chart-toppers 12 Rods did have a lot going for them. It's notable that two-thirds of their points come from writers and critics--how odd that we all agree on something for once. Applying a hefty prog-rock tint to the unsatisfactory pigeonhole that is "dream-pop," the Rods have unwittingly struck a nerve in the current rock-crit vogue. Like Kelley Deal, they come from Ohio, but they're just as much a product of the burgeoning Cities studio-rat subculture--thanks to keyboardist/guitarist/tech whiz Ev Olcott, who lured the band here after finding studio work. They're long on electronic experimentation, yet pretty short on pretension. And at the median age of only 21, singer/guitarist Ryan Olcott, Ev, and amazing drummer Christopher McGuire are textbook-definition freaks. In short, pure critics' darlings.

           Since the definition of "new" is in the ear of the beholder, the reinvention of some established artists makes for some upsets in the poll. Voters probably second-guessed the Kelley Deal 6000 hype, resulting in a lower score than expected (a.k.a. "Flipp Syndrome"). Electronic roots-rockers Semisonic, on the other hand, qualify as new as long as you agree the Artists Formerly Known as Pleasure have gone through a transformation more profound than just a name change. Objection overruled--I would have to agree with that. Yet this logic did not benefit William and the Conquerors, even though that group joins two major arms of 'Sota Pop tradition with members Keith Patterson (ex-Spectors) and Willie Wisely. They probably haven't gigged enough yet.

           One final observation: Maybe it's the lingering impact of Hüsker Dü, but every single year our chart-topper has been some facsimile of a power trio. Walt Mink in '91; Hammerhead in '92; Guzzard, Lily Liver and Tribe of Millions after that. The funny thing is, 12 Rods used to be a quartet. (Their departed bassist, Matthew Foust of Ether Bunny, is being replaced by electronics.) If your quartet aspires to top the '97 poll, you'd take it as advice: Consider that one-way plane ticket for your most expendable member.

--Simon Peter Groebner

           Laura Brandenburg, The Squealer: 1. Likehell
2. Push On Junior 3. Kelley Deal 6000
4. Firebrat 5. Wonsers--Likehell: Hard, heavy, grind-me rock with a soft spot for twisted lyrics. Push On Junior: A surging three-prong jolt that echoes in your brain recesses. Kelly Deal's not a whiner--she likes winter, and she can express intricate musical weirdness without irony. (Please mom, can we keep her?) Firebrat: Urban perverts with a greasy guitar and hillbilly aspirations. Wonsers: Bold vulnerability and sharp little hooks. Honorable mention: Semisonic, who sound nothing like Trip Shakespeare.

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