The Sound of One Fan Clapping

If a local CD falls into the retail bins, does it make a sound? Peter S. Scholtes reviews this month's batch of releases.

It's an old debate: Does giving local music its own review page effectively ghettoize it? After all, we don't have "local" music sections at home. My CD collection has Babes in Toyland sitting right next to Killdozer where they belong, not stuck between Sheila E and the Hang Ups. And for that matter, don't we base our music purchases on merit, not locale?

Well, my editors and colleagues here at Bringing It All Back Home have a point when they say that some artists can't compete with redoubtable national acts such as Third Eye Blind, Natalie Imbruglia, and Cake, and should therefore be kept within the protective subdistinction "local music." Take Dylan Hicks. This roots-rock paragon has entertained audiences for years, and I admit I'm predisposed to liking his new album. But while, say, an arguably weak live act like Yo La Tengo is highly regarded on vinyl, Hicks's local reputation as a comical "Governor of Fun" on stage seems to overshadow his status as a serious album artist.

But I'd as soon spend an hour looking at Hicks's record collection than that of Yo La Tengo singer, guitarist, and rock critic Ira Kaplan. Hicks is one smart cookie and a savvy PR satirist: His recent "Dylansquire" newsletter announced his "Teener's Theatricals and Surge Soda Rock Out! Jamboree Summer Fun Party." At press time, the fest was "already awash in trouble. Spokespeople for both Surge Soda and Teener's Theatricals say they weren't contacted about the festival until a week ago, when each received a bill from Hicks to the tune of 500 thousand dollars."

A national cult following for Hicks's odd vibe seems more than possible. But until the "Surge Soda Rock Out!" becomes a reality, it's into the local bin you go Dylan, along with these other recent arrivals.

various artists
No Alternative

Actually, the term "local" barely even applies to this wonderful compilation, featuring live cuts from the likes of Ani DiFranco and Soul Coughing, along with a dozen or so unreleased tracks by a range of alternative rock luminaries. It's Teleconned's political intent that's local in origin, springing from the Twin Cities-based activist group Americans for Radio Diversity (check them out at Promoting ARD's democratic, anti-corporate message, the title is a pun on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps the greatest corporate handout of the last 25 years. The Act effectively made it legal for one corporate entity to own an unlimited number of radio stations in a single market.

Like some, I followed the passage of Telecom with disgust, then forgot all about it until the following year, when Disney bought up a chunk of the local airwaves and pulled the plug on the beloved REV 105. It's understandable that ARD thus originated with REV boosters, but the tight association may well have stunted rather than focused the group's initial intent and profile. After all, REV had the smartest local morning show in the Cities, but it was never as "diverse" as proponents now claim. (If, for example, both MTV and First Avenue can integrate rap and alt rock, why not a cutting-edge radio station?) ARD's CD is flawed by adopting this same limited musical scope--sorry hip hoppers, no Beyond track here.

Still, ARD has managed to tap an issue that hits home with local music fans the way most corporate crimes don't, and they aptly combine two politically dissimilar ideas: 1) that citizens do in fact own the airwaves, and 2) that consumers should have a choice in what they listen to. And the CD that ARD has compiled in support of these two notions is one of those faith-restoring trips through rock's hinterlands that fans so desperately need these days. Live recordings by DiFranco and Soul Coughing are especially fitting, since both received airplay on REV 105 and, in turn, giant followings in the Twin Cities. But it's the lesser-known quantities that make Teleconned essential: Duluth's Low play a previously unreleased cover of Soul Coughing's "Blue Eyed Devil," and the lulling melody and atmosphere provide conclusive proof that trip hop minus the beats simply becomes trip.

But the best moment of all belongs to Thrush Hermit, a band from Nova Scotia you've probably never heard of or seen live. Thrush are one of those great acts that was snatched up by a major, given zero support (and subsequently zero airplay), and, before you could say "Steve Albini," dropped from the label and into bargain bins everywhere. Their "Songs for the Gang" is the national indie-bar anthem that never was--a scruffy, propulsive guitar rocker with a quavering melody about getting down to the corporate sound. Their lyrics best capture the CD's dissatisfaction with the current state of radio: "Sing songs for the guys, songs for the girls, growing on you, but wearing on me."

Selby Tigers
Year of the Tigers
Bread Machine

Deeply Thoughtful

On the other hand, maybe hearing everything on your radio isn't all it's cracked up to be. There's something bracing and precious about watching a newly minted band that seems to have dropped out of nowhere with a fully formed sound and barely the chops to play it. Such are the pleasures of Selby Tigers and Chromaphase, two very different reasons to believe the adage that the best band is the one you haven't yet heard.

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