A Power of Ten

Slug's love bug, Kat Bjelland's exorcism, Dave Pirner's throbbing shins: Ten years of local music served on ten great platters.

"Suddenly we're in Providence, Rhode Island, and it's hard to order food because the waiter can't believe Soul Asylum is there. During that week I wore this jacket and now every picture you see of us is that same jacket.

"In all honesty, I wish we would have enjoyed it more," he adds. "We had to deal with a lot of business people, guys who make a living figuring out what Celine Dion's next single should be."

Swarmed by suits on one side, Soul Asylum found themselves dumped upon by sell-out-conscious hipsters on the other. "We were supposed to be the alt-rock poster boys for 'thou art cool,'" says Murphy. "And when you have a hit single and get younger crowds, and your singer goes out with someone famous, you're screwed. But shows weren't different. Everything changed, but we didn't change that much. When [the followup album] Dim Light came out, the press said, 'Can they survive the backlash?' And I guess the answer was ultimately no. But if you let that shit eat you up, it will."

Tony Nelson

Murphy lets out a sad laugh. "It's a silly, silly business." (Robson)


See also: the sensitive rock grandeur of Semisonic's Great Divide and rhythmically agile punk-pop of Walt Mink's Miss Happiness.


The Sounds of Blackness
The Evolution of Gospel
Perspective, 1991

Gary Hines, like any bandleader, was looking for a hit. Primed to prove themselves as more than just purveyors of religious music, the 40 members of Sounds of Blackness had cut loose on a resonant cover of Sly Stone's "Stand" for what would become their major-label debut in 1991, The Evolution of Gospel. But to round out the album, Hines and producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis still felt they needed a dance number. They decided to go with a more uptempo rendition of a doleful piano blues ballad polished off earlier in the sessions, "The Pressure." That's when Ann Bennett-Nesby uncorked the most powerful female vocal performance ever recorded in Minnesota.

"Our producer, Brad Yost, used to give out 'OTW' T-shirts for 'One Take Wonder' whenever anybody nailed the song on the first take," Hines remembers. "I believe Ann got a T-shirt for that one."

In a voice closer to Aretha Franklin's than any other in gospel-pop, Bennett-Nesby hollered, "I need relief!" then soared into a gale-force wordless wail as the keyboards yielded to a breakneck dance jam. Everyone in the studio suddenly knew, less than a minute into "The Pressure Pt. 1," that Sounds of Blackness weren't just a local band anymore.

Founded out of the Macalester College Black Choir in 1971 by Hines--the warmest, most gentle bodybuilder you'd ever want to meet--Sounds had been performing Christmas shows and tributes to Martin Luther King for nearly two decades before teaming with Flyte Tyme's Jam and Lewis in 1989. Impressed with the group's backup vocals on an Alexander O'Neal project in the late Eighties, the producers told Hines they'd like to work with the ensemble someday. But it was only after Janet Jackson raved about one of Sounds' "Music for Martin" gigs that the producers scheduled studio time for Hines's 30 vocalists and 10 musicians.

Mixing a cappella spirituals with the soulful funk of more contemporary Flyte Tyme/Hines collaborations, The Evolution of Gospel built on the vocal unity and tight arrangements of the ensemble's previous three indie albums, emerging as a lush, sprawling compendium of black musical history. The ambitious project ranged from harmonious field hollers, reverent testimony, and traditional African drum rhythms to slick, spunky dance workouts and contemporary pop songs illuminated by black pride and a belief in interracial unity. Released in May 1991, it would earn Sounds of Blackness the first of two Grammy awards. But the album lacked a lead single until the last song was recorded.

"Jam called Terry and I into his office and said, 'Let's have a "We Are the World" kind of thing that's positive and hip,'" Hines says. The result, "Optimistic," has become the group's unofficial theme song, a potent musical elixir of hope and faith, with rich harmonies set to beats that have a beguiling sway and gentle syncopation. In a recent BET interview, Jam and Lewis revealed that of all the indelible hits they have produced for acts like S.O.S. Band, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey, "Optimistic" remains their favorite song. (Robson)


See also: The God-not-forsaken funk of The Artists The Gold Experience and the rousing gospel of the Steeles' Heaven Help Us All.


Babes in Toyland
Spanking Machine
Twin/Tone, 1990

Babes in Toyland brought something back to American punk that had been missing for years: the sense that a line had been drawn, that audiences needed to choose sides. The division wasn't quite gender, and it wasn't quite a tolerance for noise--call it a furious combination of the two. You sensed it when the Twin Cities Reader ran a "Get Out of Town" item in 1992 so mythmakingly hostile ("You chicks just spit out hairballs of noise") that the band put it on a T-shirt. You also sensed it in the surprisingly common grumble that the act got attention "just for being girls."

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