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
Teleconned
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 http://www.radiodiversity.com). 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

Chromaphase
Deeply Thoughtful
Sensorydisks

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.

Both groups trade in voguish styles. St. Paul's Tigers enlist ex-members of Lefty Lucy and Arm to play buzzing, boiling temper-rock with hooks of steel on their six-song Year of the Tigers CD, much in the general tradition of Olympia's baddest bands, Sleater-Kinney and Unwound. But their songs' specific gripes often take six or seven listens to decipher ("Job Corps Riot" is either about losing your nerve in love or at work, or both), and in the moment, you find yourself enjoying the sandpapery guitar textures and unique boy-girl-boy-girl vocal interplay. Not only do all four sing, but you get the feeling that in their little movie they're each eager to play the leading role.

On the four-song Deeply Thoughtful CD, Chromaphase pump out a thick lather of pop and electronics worthy of the Rentals or Stereolab, and they capture the giddy fun that comes with hearing a good sound find even better songs. Here, texture is the thing, with the fuzzy vintage synths smartly played off gentle, boyish vocal harmonies. But as Stereolab might say, it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that axis-tilting chord change. A friend offered Ultravox as a reference point, but I hear the kinetic futurism of Sweden's chronically nerdy but nonetheless fascinating Komeda. Little surprise, then, that the Minneapolis quartet has found its way on the air via the support of select Swede pop boosters at Radio K.

Dylan Hicks
Poughkeepsie
No Alternative

If the singer-songwriter mode is becoming dominant in this once band-crazy town, then it's the "& the"s, as in "Tina & the B-Sides," who'll save us from a local infection of late-'90s Gram Parsons wannabes. Dylan Hicks has had plenty of his own "& the"s: "Dylan Hicks & the Three Pesos," "Dylan Hicks & Golf Ball-Sized Boogie," and now "Dylan Hicks & the Rockin' Tigers." Martin Zellar has his "& the Hardways" to keep him in check, Mark Mallman his "& the Heat." But Hicks's various "& the"s usually provide more than just a vehicle for Herr Hicks's songs, and on his new album, the collaborative effort lets the "& the"s have quite a bit of input.

In fact, the big news on Hicks's new Poughkeepsie CD isn't that he can write a classic heartfelt song, as he does with "That Look Wasn't Meant for You." (Though even here, the famous wit can't resist tossing in a line like, "I can hear them bullies calling me a fairy/Now they call me adult contemporary.") The news isn't that Hicks's singing can suggest the image of a scrappier Mick Jagger, which we knew, or that he's perfected a twentysomething bachelor tune like "100 Dollar Bill." Sure, the latter gift is evidenced on a new "Governor of Fun"-style anthem called "Bad Boyfriend," where he sings, "When I come, I fall asleep"--but that's no big deal.

Nope, the real scoop on this CD is how sonically absorbing it is. That's a bigger accomplishment than it sounds. After all, interpreting old soul music through a filter of roots rock, indie-twang guitar, and winsome folk is a dicey business for any singer: Plenty of people can't stand Billy Bragg, who's tried the same clever lyrics/earnest chord changes formula with some success.

Poughkeepsie's serious sound-tinkering manages to cook up the kind of album Hicks probably wouldn't mind owning in his expansive collection. The weird, funk-guitar noises on "I'm Not from Around Here," the juicy synthesizer figures on the opening "Waterbed," and the subtle sampler-fueled atmospherics of "The Forest Through the Trees" and "Claude Debussy" (courtesy of Jason Heinrichs)--all these give listeners room to wander around the album's soundscape. You can admire the scenery while laughing at the tour guide's self-deprecating jokes and stories, swallowing those stray pangs of empathy along the way.

The Minnesota Klezmer Band
Bulka's Song
Frozen Chozen Productions, Inc.

The fact that any single group of musicians could have the chutzpah to call itself "The Minnesota Klezmer Band" probably says more about this giant, gentile White Castle of a state we live in than anything else. Still, I don't know a better set of folks to fit the Klezmer job description--at least if MKB's lovely new disc, Bulka's Song, is anything to go on. Brimming with humor and a touching sense of reverence, the album is a pleasure from beginning to end. And it works as an introduction to Jewish folk music that also whimsically reworks the form.

Clueing you in right away to the Band's prominent funny bone is the CD's label, named as a playful reference to the Public Enemy lyric, "So-called chosen/Frozen," from "Welcome to the Terrordome." The joke appears again in their song "Land of the Frozen Chosen," where "the Jews are few but bold/Even women rabbis grow beards/For protection from the cold." Note also the band's wry slogan: "Jewish music's much better than Jewish wine!"

Still, before you write them off as a mere novelty, listen closely to Joseph Vass's frank and moving lyrics, especially in the title track: "My father's father died too long ago/He went up in smoke so I was told... I will play for two grandfathers I never met/And imagine them playing with me."

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