Symphony of a City
Let's say you and a date are dancing your Sunday night away at Arnellia's supper club in St. Paul as Billy Holloman's Sho' Nuff Band plays an easy-bopping version of "Sex Machine." In the sweat of the moment, does the phrase "local music" cross your mind?
Didn't think so. These words never seem to pass the lips of anyone outside of the music industry, and for good reason. The modifier "local" unnecessarily weighs down "music," cramming a universal experience into a geographical context. Would you say you're in "local love?" Didn't think so. I bring this up because your perception of "local music" in 1998 will vary depending on how you read those words. It's a local rock-writer's curse that "local" can't help but read as a pejorative, and my accompanying list of recommended releases will seem automatically suspect as a result. But in my usage, "local" is less an easy synonym for "Minnesota" than a shorthand phrase for the music we experience with other people out in the world.
For nine months on the local music beat, I've watched bands get better from gig to gig, observed some scenes grow, others wane. I've felt too old at raves, too white at R&B clubs. But as a former outsider gone "local," I'm convinced that the home-entertainment system I often leave behind can only dimly recall the real thing I experience in the clubs.
The irony is that local music seemed less "local" than ever in 1998, with Twin Cities musicians providing home entertainment like never before. Who could have guessed a few years ago that a 7th Street Entry psyche-rocker like the Blue Up?'s Rachael Olson would one day sing an unbleeped line like "Please God/Touch me or/Send down an angel to fuck me," on national television (as she did on Vibe TV)? Building a fan base of Web-heads who have never even seen her in person, the self-dubbed Ana Voog capitalized on her notoriety as an uninhibited Web-cam artist by naming her album anavoog.com.
True, commercial radio ignored "Please God," but it jumped all over two equally weird "local" singles. Another Entry star, Trip Shakespeare's older Wilson brother, Dan, wrote an insidiously catchy hit that practically begged for a Weird Al parody. Meanwhile, three young R&B crooners (who got their first break at none other than Arnellia's) sang Minnesota's biggest hit song ever, beating out even "Kiss" and "Funkytown." That NEXT's "Too Close" and Semisonic's "Closing Time" were inescapable on the airwaves made perfect sense to me. Both tunes were deceptively clever--the former a tribute to dance-floor erections ("you're making it hard for me"), the latter a metaphor for dance-floor rebirth (the bar as womb, bouncer as pediatrician sending newborn patrons out to the places they will be from).
Both were car-radio kicks, but neither were signs of an imminent Twin Cities pop explosion. Like the many movie-soundtrack spots by local bands, or the TV-commercial techno composed by local trip-hopper Jason Heinrichs (a.k.a. Anomaly), these chomps at the commercial pie hardly meant the music industry was ready to help underground underdogs and other would-be champions of the Local. Indeed, on a national (and international) scale, 1998 was capped by Seagram's buyout of Polygram, a music business merger of Exxon-Mobil proportions that will result in hundreds of dropped bands and thousands of layoffs, perhaps spelling the end of big business's decade-long flirtation with indie rock. True, indie labels may bounce back, but they're now so irrelevant that no amount of rose-colored predictions about Net-run pop democracies will help revive the hallowed '80s underground.
Twin/Tone owner Paul Stark is probably wrong about CDs going the way of those old Friends hairdos. (And besides, who does he think will dominate whatever medium takes their place?) But we do appear to be witnessing the demise of labels like Twin/Tone as we know them, especially in the concert-driven local scene. It's a sad, strange spectacle to watch bands that would have been touring behind well-distributed records a decade ago selling their own "home-burned" CDs at local bar shows.
You could say it's the ultimate DIY apotheosis that artists as far-flung as poppers Smattering, hip-hoppers Abstract Pack, and keyboard weirdo Mark Mallman made fine home-burned CDs this year. And self-released works such as Vanguard's Play, Greazy Meal's Gravy, and Steeplejack's tender triptych of country-rock EPs (ending with one called Post-Action Blues) all nearly made my "should own" list. But if home-brew CDs are the wave of the future, that just shows how closed and segmented the music market has become. It's a dubious sign that Steeplejack and now Greazy Meal have broken up; Vanguard has reshuffled and moved to New York.
In a year of bad radio and high ticket prices, many fans of all things "local" simply headed to the nearby "salsa night" or went swing-dancing. And every marginalized scene you can name seemed to thrive. Basement punk and twee pop found a new home in the all-ages Foxfire Coffee Lounge. The huge underground rave scene went legit--so much so that the "I Like to Get Down" New Year's Eve rave was held at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Even the once-struggling Rhyme Sayers collective established a recurring hip-hop dance night at First Avenue, and finished '98 slated to play the governor's inaugural ball. The Twin Cities produced one of the best new Christian pop bands in Clear, and a great blasphemous singer-songwriter, Judd Herrmann, who poignantly sings lines like "I'm a tool for the Lord, it's clear...I got yer Lord right here."
As entertainment-starved hipsters embraced everything from art rockers 12 Rods to pomo folk rock like Mason Jennings to an ever more pomo glam band (the Odd), I took it as a hopeful sign that audiences chose to ignore the old adage that genres once deemed uncool will be uncool again. Who knows, in 1999 they might even become your home entertainment.
1. 12 Rods Split Personalities (V2): That police siren of a voice and the band's smart-rock overachieving begin to sound like great pop with repeated exposure.
2. Dylan Hicks Poughkeepsie (No Alternative): The quirky soul-pop version of laughing through your tears.
3. The Abstract Pack Bousta Set It (For the Record) (self-released): Catchy underground hip hop with energy to spare, crafty song structures, and samples you can wrap your head around.
4. Semisonic Feeling Strangely Fine (MCA): Deeper and funnier than you think.
5. Matt Wilson Burnt, White and Blue (Planetmaker): Shimmering, lyrically opaque, and well worth deciphering.
6. The Sensational Joint Chiefs Lost Stepchild (Groove Garden): Basement funk for indie kids, and more relaxing than an aloe bath.
7. Golden Smog Weird Tales (Rykodisc) The word is in...they deserve to exist!
8. Dillinger Four Midwestern Songs of the Americas (Hopeless): Pop punk made tasty with clever lyrics, jagged throats, and a production job you can sink your teeth into.
9. Esthero Breath from Another (Work): Auspicious newbie trip-pop with plenty of filler; but the songs and the singer sell it.
10. The Dynospectrum The Dynospectrum (Rhyme Sayers Entertainment): A dense, tense, ultimately rewarding journey into hip hop's dark heart.
1. Bob Dylan, The Bootleg Series vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966 (The "Royal Albert Hall" Concert) (Columbia)
2. Big Hits of Mid-America: The Soma Records Story, 1963-1967 (Plum)
3. The Trashmen, Bird Call! The Twin City Stomp of the Trashmen (Sundazed)
4. Music from the Motion Picture How Stella Got Her Groove Back (Flyte Tyme)
5. Root-O-Evil Records Presents Roots II (Root-O-Evil)
6. Low, owL remix Low (Vernon Yard)
7. Barefoot & Pregnant (Garage D'Or)
8. Twin Town High: Music Yearbook Vol. 2, 1998-1999 (self-released) (Scholtes)
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