A Power of Ten
"Wow, none of these are as good as Let It Be," a co-worker said, examining our list of the best local albums of the decade.
Ah yes, 1984: that lethal point of comparison. I personally couldn't place Minneapolis on a map before Reagan's second term, though I had a Mondale placard on one wall and a poster of Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade on another. This then-14-year-old punk was living in Madison, Wisconsin, spending long hours with the Replacements and, yes, Zen--the first record I reviewed for the school paper--before my vision of sex and the distant glamorous life was forever molded by a certain purple, pouty pop juggernaut. Heady times, those. Genital times, too.
With that digression out of our system, let's address the notion that the Nineties didn't come close to the previous decade's local sound explosion. Sure, no single recorded work had the combined impact and reverberation of Prince. But then, neither did Prince, back in that let-down/build-up period of cover bands and undergrounds that Nineties music most resembles: the mid-Seventies. Babes in Toyland's tantric tantrums might have been influential; Low's avant-garde lullabies might have been beautiful. But in the great alt-rock swindle, these entries missed out on the boom while exerting a broad, under-the-counter influence. Not careful of what they wished for, Soul Asylum won the booby prize of MTV fame just as its constituency at home was splintering.
Now Bush has faded to Clinton (and is perhaps fading back to Bush), and a new map of local music is emerging, one with few superhighways but dozens of country roads--all looping the globe. Woody McBride's techno 12-inches, the Rhyme Sayers' hip-hop cassettes, and the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's jazz-pop ditties found enthusiastic acceptance in diffuse international audiences. Sounds of Blackness and Mint Condition won Grammy props and chart success, respectively, without bothering to check in with the local rock scene. The Hang Ups, longtime consensus picks in the local press, remain shy (in every sense) of the national audience that gathered behind the Jayhawks. Yet they endure with rare creative integrity. These may not be heady times, but we still have heady timekeepers.
Of course, the masses played some part in shaping this critical best-local-records package. Music is always the art of pop, in that all vital music moves the populace in some way. Yet after weeks of carefully consulting sales figures, chart positions, critical indexes, and definitive authorities, we ultimately just made up a list of ten albums we really liked. To balance some of our blind spots, we've included a few Top 5 lists written by folks who've long maintained a passion for local music. We've also added some further-listening recommendations for each of our Top 10 choices--call it a whetting of nostalgia, or the hedging of a bet.
Many important live acts we loved--Micranots, Bean Girl, Run Westy Run, Slim Dunlap, Lifter Puller, Dillinger Four, Greazy Meal--missed our list altogether. Without unduly putting down their recorded work, let's say it just didn't compare to the live experience.
This fact may breed its own brand of Nineties nostalgia, perhaps culminating with the day a Hard Rock Café sits on First Avenue's demolished lot. But if memory, emotion, and linear time curse us as we move into the aught years, our list's late-Nineties skew suggests auspicious times may be ahead. In fact, things look better than they have since, well, 1984.
--Peter S. Scholtes
Rhyme Sayers Entertainment, 1999
Whatever unoriginal sins it committed, Nineties hip hop was the best mental clearinghouse for masculine self-defense mechanisms around, from Q-Tip's step-by-step breakdown of the thought processes behind saying "nigga" to Biggie's careful consideration of suicide. Stream-of-consciousness journalism became what rap did best (besides reorganizing every form of recorded music around James Brown's tapping shoe). You could almost say this became its job. Certainly that's how Slug saw his daily grind this year, though the MC was sometimes too creatively "impotent," as he put it in one lyric, to "fuck reality."
"Excuse me, my friend/But is that your pen/Is it cool if I use it to duel with my skeletons?" raps the 27-year-old from South Minneapolis near the end of his unwieldy, 70-minute Se7en. A harrowing, hilarious mess of an album (22 tracks recorded between 1996 and 1998), the cassette-only collection was, until recently, available only out of the canvas backpack of its maker. As such, the tape might seem an absurdly elitist choice for our album of the decade (though you can pick it up today at the Fifth Element record shop at 2411 Hennepin Avenue). Still it is filled with the sort of daring highs and lows missing from the best rock 'n' roll on this list, and it's presented in a way that feels uncommonly personal--even for hip hop. Like another former graffiti writer, William Upski Wimsatt, Slug holds back nothing: psychosexual venting, voice-mail poems, spacey instrumentals, and a snippet of himself goofing in a Muppet voice with his five-year-old son.
I may not be ready to deem Slug "the greatest MC in the world," as at least one critically overextended Web scribe has described him. But his mature combination of confidence and self-loathing has emerged as one of the most potent forces in unheard hip hop this year. He has a reverence of the doomed for his sexual adversaries/companions, musing about one "Molly Cool," "She's the kind of girl that doesn't want a relationship/But damn I think she's kind of cool/But damn just be patient kid."
The album's riveting cornerstone, "The Abusing of the Rib," finds our protagonist "acknowledging that I'm just a piece of the sequence" in his lover's story, "but seeing all these footprints got me needing to show my weakness." Over a plaintive, classical piano riff created by producer Ant (a.k.a. Anthony Davis), a freight train blows through the background as the spoken chorus pleads: "If I could show you/You would never leave it."
Elsewhere, an over-the-top electro-pimp number finds its macho chocolate within layers of Eminem's thin candy shell of irony. "Distributing cum across the rotten fruited plain," Slug smirks, "I know it's hard being young, girl, let me soothe the pain." In case you take his bragging about "Richfield bitches" seriously, a second Slug walks into the studio on another vocal track to repudiate the song.
"That is the worst song in the world," Slug says of "Lyle Lovette," with an embarrassed laugh. "I was like, hey, I wrote this and it's kind of fucked up, but I kind of liked it, and it's balanced. I made it basically for Ant--he laughed so hard."
Se7en has the added weight of being a cultural culmination, of sorts: The "Headshots" moniker Slug claims dates back to the mid-Nineties coalition of MCs and DJs that gave rise to St. Paul's Abstract Pack and many of the crews on the tape's imprint, Rhyme Sayers Entertainment. Yet the album is the most convincing proof to date that this crowd is capable of the same depth of feeling as our arty, equally inward-looking punk scene of the Eighties.
Written mostly on the porch of Slug's house and at the Muddy Waters coffee shop, and primarily recorded on a four-track in Ant's basement, the tape collates material from some 15 albums' worth of tracks, according to its creators. At the height of their productivity, Slug and Ant were recording four songs every Sunday, and rejecting another eight from Slug's voluminous notebooks.
"I'll think most of it's garbage, but I'll always find four or five songs that I really like," Slug says. "I haven't recorded nothing in the last couple months. I need to get over there and have my therapy." (Peter S. Scholtes)
See also: the lushly layered hip hop of Abstract Pack's Bousta Set It (For the Record).
The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group
Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
Minty Fresh, 1995
Oh Brother Where Art Thou? didn't sound like a classic. The charms of its opening number, "Mij Amsterdam," were both plain and subtle, like cool wallpaper. Over a simple bossa nova guitar strum, two not-ready-for-prime-time voices, male and female, sang gently out of tune. Jim Ruiz's soft croon was less "Girl From Ipanema" than "Bein' Green," a song the facetiously titled Legendary Jim Ruiz Group might have covered. Stephanie Winter's backup was suitably icy--vermouth to Jim's gin--but even with a Northern English accent she came off more like Moe Tucker than Nico. Yet the couple's amateurishness was oddly disarming. And when Ruiz sang, "If you play the drums, then you'll go far, because everyone here plays guitar," his Amsterdam began to sound less like the opening conversation piece of Pulp Fiction than bohemian Minneapolis, an inviting panorama of squats, home brew, and living-room rock.
Intrigued by the lyrics, some locals gave the music a chance. The ska of "My Bloody Yugo," with its minor key and mournful sax line, captured the spookiness and mystery of old Desmond Dekker sides like "Fu Manchu" without evoking No Doubt's Cali-core. The disco-samba of "Stormtrooper" was a genre unto itself, a whirlpool of swirling guitar arpeggios by John Crozier--a reclusive virtuoso whom few non-scenesters had heard of, though his wash of noise colored dozens of great local 45s in the first few years of the decade.
The lyrics, too, were more than first met the ear. "Yugo" found Ruiz bargaining with death: "I haven't learned my French yet/And I have not learned to ballroom dance," he pleaded. On "She's Gone Away," he added, "In this life you take what you get/But what if life has not started yet?" before warbling the refrain, "And fear and guilt and pain are my companions every day." The narrator's wariness of professional drudgery and slacker depression wasn't the half of it. As some listeners knew, the mod bassist-turned-jazz guitarist had survived a motor-scooter accident in 1990 that killed his fiancée and bandmate, Rena Erickson. Now, collating songs from before and after her death, Brother charted a geography of loss.
"It's a very dark record," Ruiz admits now. "I wanted to write for jazz guitar, which is what I learned to play. But I wanted to write songs that had the emotional quality of punk, that intensity."
The result was a mood piece as evocative of its time as the Replacements' Let It Be, though its cultural confluence was mostly coincidental. Coming years after scenesters began trading flannels for cocktail dresses and three-button blazers, Brother was closer in tone to the Style Council (whom Ruiz adored) than, say, Combustible Edison. But its 1995 release on Minty Fresh (the label that launched the Cardigans) struck a diminished but distinct chord with college radio, presaging a resurgent interest in Brazilian pop and singer-songwriters. Radio K listeners voted it the second best album of the year, and the disk eventually sold around 5,000 copies.
Recorded over two weeks in 1994 at the Terrarium, with novice producer Bryan Hanna on drums, Jim's brother Chris on keys, and a revolving cast of guest musicians, the debut marked the artistic peak of the emergent group. But the sessions left a bitter taste for its participants. Hanna butted heads over production choices with Ruiz. "It was kind of an emotional thing," says Winter. "It seemed to be a really fun time right before we recorded it."
Winter, who has since divorced Ruiz, says her fondest memories of the band are of when it took itself less seriously, when "The Legendary Jim Ruiz, the Hang Ups, and the Honorable Stephanie" would practice for fun in the basement of the Uptown hair salon where she worked. Perhaps, as with Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, Brother's most fateful drama emerged in its protagonist reconciling an idealized, lost love with a nascent new one. On "Oh Porridge," one of the last tunes written before the band recorded Oh Brother, Ruiz sang, "I know that you dream of her, that she walks right through our lives."
Like Ruiz, Winter rarely listens to the album now. "I don't even have that CD," she says, laughing. "That was one of the things I didn't get in the divorce." (Scholtes)
See also: Grant Hart's solo comeback, Good News for Modern Man, and the whimsical songcraft of Dylan Hicks's Poughkeepsie.
Hollywood Town Hall
"The Minneapolis Sound" once referred to either the purple funk of Prince, the Time, and Flyte Tyme, or the tuneful postpunk of the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Soul Asylum. But in the Nineties, a pop aesthetic emerged that so captured the character of our state's populace--its mixture of rural and urban, its cerebral acuity, its refinement of passive-aggressiveness into an emotional martial art--that it might have been dubbed "The Minnesota Sound." Modest, sweetly melodic guitar bands such as the Hang Ups and Semisonic have honed this sensibility in recent seasons. But the template was created by the Jayhawks, most memorably on Hollywood Town Hall.
Given the album's tapestry of gentle guitars and yearning harmonies, it seems more than a mere coincidence that the record was done in the same Hollywood, California, studio (once known as Wally Heider's) that was the site of some of the finest work by the Byrds and Gram Parsons. "We did it there because it was cheap," laughs guitarist and vocalist Gary Louris. "We needed a lot of studio time. It was our first big record on a big label and we were pretty green."
Indeed, during the four-month recording process, an engineer was fired for incompetence, and differences of opinion arose between the band's producer-manager George Drakoulias and drummer Ken Callahan. As a result Callahan needed to be replaced on many of the tracks.
What emerged, however, was a distinctively Midwestern spin on the L.A. country rock of the Byrds, Parsons, and Neil Young, with a musical ambiance that epitomizes the classic Minnesota mindset. The delicate yet tensile braid of the guitars adorn stoic, elliptical love songs that use the weather ("Waiting for the Sun," "Clouds," "Settled Down Like Rain") as a primary metaphor. An ersatz sense of comfort and well-being is undercut by an ominous, mostly closeted sense of dread.
"Yeah, I can see how the lyrics are inscrutable in a Minnesota way--masking with imagery and afraid to come out and wear its heart on its sleeve," Louris says. "I think as people we are a little understated.
"A lot of people have told me it's a great driving record, that there is this constant tempo and a feeling of open space. I'm not a country guy, I'm a city person, but I'm sure the Minnesota environment--the people as well as the land--contributed to that."
Town Hall's sleeve further unified its themes. There's the poetic parable by Joe Henry that passes for liner notes, and the cover shot of the band freezing on a borrowed couch in 20-below weather outside a town hall in Hollywood, Minnesota (an hour west of the Twin Cities). All speak to the Midwest's inimitable sense of place and community, which has always been embodied by the 'Hawks.
"Near the two-bedroom apartment we stayed at in California, there were sounds of gunshots and helicopters always going on overhead," Louris says. "I fell asleep on the drive back home and woke up in Iowa, full of cows and green pastures. It felt like heaven." (Britt Robson)
See also: the countrified gloom of the Gear Daddies' Billy's Live Bait and the harmonies of Lily Liver's I've Got You Right Where You Want Me.
The Hang Ups
So We Go
The idea that pop and hard punk might share a common audience seems natural now, but in the early Nineties, the Hang Ups were considered--get this--a "crossover" band. The quartet's mesmerizing guitar curlicues and Crosby-Stills harmonies marked a turning point in the Uptown Bar scene that built Amphetamine Reptile feedback monsters into national heroes. The Minneapolis group's soaring cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," which Hüsker Dü had definitively disemboweled a decade earlier, announced the changing mantle. Here was "pop," in the sickliest Matthew Sweet sense, made palatable to punks through the strength of its hook writing, and guitarist John Crozier's artful elaboration of Bob Mould's gonzo playing style. For Butthole Surfers fans unaware that Big Star's "September Girls" could raise the hair on your back, it was a revelation.
Save for their guitarist, the individual Hang Ups spent much of the early Nineties living, partying, and playing together (often with offshoot bands) in what they called, appropriately enough, "the Pleasant house" on Pleasant Avenue South. It was in the sun-drenched, octagon-shaped front room that singer Brian Tighe wrote most of the haunting yet cryptic tunes filling the band's 1997 sophomore work, So We Go, which spanned six years of material and emerged as a sort of greatest-hits collection.
"The melodies would come first," says Tighe remembering his long, solitary meditations on acoustic guitar. "The lyrics would be more just late-night kinds of flashes."
So We Go bore no resemblance to Paisley funk, but it created a full-album portrait of the sort of life Prince imagined on "Raspberry Beret," a realm of part-timers, five-and-dimers, and secondhand-beret wearers. The lilting "Greyhound Bus" (which eventually made it onto that company's Muzak track) found poignancy in the familiar scenario of commuting home to visit out-of-town family. "Corner Store" captured the subliminal, giddy flash of imminent sex, tempered with sudden pangs of fear that "something has died." The album's lyrics were opaque enough, its sound open enough, that fans, without much effort, could quickly project their lives onto its timeless nonhits.
So We Go became a beloved project for producer Bryan Hanna, fresh off finishing Oh Brother Where Art Thou? Every weekend over a period of about a year in 1995, beginning the night of O.J.'s Bronco chase and ending on the last day of Simpson's trial, the band would hole up in Hanna's Terrarium studio with a week's worth of ideas.
"We often wouldn't go home until six in the morning," says Tighe. "I was there the whole time, Hanna was there the whole time, and then Crozier would come in late nights, 'cause he's such a night owl. So a lot of times at night was when it would get kind of cool. It was a lot of perfectionists working on the same thing. It's a wonder it got done." Crozier, who had more or less decided to leave the band (he had refused to tour), would work on his dauntingly complex guitar arrangements alone, then bring them into the studio, working off the nuanced harmonies of Tighe and second vocalist Stephen Ittner.
Tighe compares the results to a photo album of the band's youth. "I really do associate it with that house," he says, "with Minneapolis around that time. I think it's the feeling of being in a relationship and sort of being a musician and just working a part-time job, which is something that not many cities made easy at that time. Something I just love about Minneapolis is that you can be a musician here and good things can come from it." (Scholtes)
See also: the hummable theatricality of Trip Shakespeare's Lulu and the emotionally scorched pop of Matt Wilson's Burnt, White and Blue.
Grave Dancers Union
Listening to the venomous spittle of Dave Pirner on "Somebody to Shove," no one would have guessed that Grave Dancers Union was originally intended to be an all-acoustic record. By 1990 the band formerly known as Loud Fast Rules had slipped into despondence and disillusionment. The whip-snap snarl of 1986's indie classic Made to Be Broken had petered into the drudgery of their second major-label effort, ...And the Horse They Rode in On, with no accompanying popular breakthrough. Soul Asylum had parted ways with A&M and was even considering breaking up when Pirner and guitarist Dan Murphy decided to let their loose ends ravel at a different pace.
Diddling their creative id on quieter ditties, the rechristened "Murphy and Pirfinkle" toured the Midwest with acoustic guitars, shopping a demo of folkish new Pirner tunes that included "Black Gold" and "Runaway Train." When Columbia bit, though, the pressure was back on. The band flew to New York City to record at the Power Station with a then-unheralded producer named Michael Beinhorn (who would later work with Soundgarden and Hole).
"He was passive--our only criteria," Murphy says, chuckling. "Dave was playing acoustic, but I was doing some electric [guitar] even in preproduction. We sort of chickened out and started to make it rock."
Replenished by the hiatus from amplification, Soul Asylum's instinct for finding a song's sonic jugular was set loose on tunes whose acoustic crafting yielded sturdier melodies. Pirner's harrowed vocals, meanwhile, evoked the exhausted frustration he felt with the band's stalled career.
Staying at the posh Grammercy on the East Side, he and Murphy would retire from all-night sessions in the studio to watch Matt Dillon and the Pogues' Shane McGowan, among others, pound down drinks at the hotel bar. (This wasn't just a matter of night-owling: Laura Nyro had the studio booked during the day.)
The sessions themselves did not go without problems: The band replaced drummer Grant Young with Sterling Campbell partway through the four-month recording process, eventually hiring Campbell as a full-time replacement. When the album was finished, the musicians hardly knew what they had.
"People said it was going to be huge, but we'd heard that after every record we did for A&M," Murphy says. Then the third single, "Runaway Train," broke through on MTV, and Grave Dancers Union became the multi-platinum flavor of the summer in 1993. "It was one week when the whole thing blew up," remembers Murphy.
"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."
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
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
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."
One night in 1987, not long after moving to Minneapolis, Kat Bjelland walked right up to Dave Pirner at First Avenue and kicked him in the shins.
"My band's going to kick your band's ass!" she yelled at the hapless singer, who had no idea who she was, but kept his Minnesota composure. "Oh, what's your band?"
"I don't have one yet," she spat back. "But when I do..."
Bjelland now laughs when I bring up the incident. "I don't know what I was trying to prove," she says. "Probably that I existed."
The group she formed soon after heralded not just a new presence in local music but a new voice in rock 'n' roll. There were punk precedents for Babes in Toyland, from the Slits to Frightwig. But even as the Nineties flew the "Women in Rock" banner, no all-female band howled with such wrath, pounded with such primitive exuberance, or rocked punk's exclusionary boy's club with such glee.
Bjelland had moved here from San Francisco with her friend Courtney Love, who later played in the group briefly, but neither of them knew anyone here. They had the good fortune, then, to hook up with the most plugged-in punk on the scene. Bjelland and Love spotted dreadlocked Lori Barbero dancing one night at First Avenue and were impressed by her sense of rhythm. Kat approached Lori at a barbecue one day about starting a band, and the two quickly formed a psychic bond.
"I just think that Kat and I had our own thing going on," says Barbero. "She had her guitar style, and I was just backwards and awkward and tribal and weird. Our chemistry was really amazing."
Barbero had never played drums before--at the band's first 7th Street Entry gig, opening for Dinosaur, she had to ask the sound man which one was the snare drum. But the longtime show promoter had the drive, generosity, and the connections to get her band in front of audiences before it was ready. With Michelle Leon on bass, the trio practiced five or six days a week in Barbero's legendary house at 19th and Colfax--the Big Trouble House--where Nirvana and countless others crashed. For the brief period she was in Babes in Toyland, Love described rehearsals as "an exorcism," though Bjelland's demons were perfectly human.
"When I first moved here, I went out with someone and there was a really terrible break-up," Bjelland says, "so I had a lot of material."
The band had barely learned to play its set, from the vengeful "Dust Cake Boy" to the reverse-objectification number "He's My Thing," when they recorded Spanking Machine over a couple of weeks in early 1989 with Jack Endino (of the influential Seattle band Skin Yard). The trio recorded at Reciprocal Studio in Seattle, within walking distance of the legendary rock club the Crocodile. "We all loved Seattle," says Barbero. "We always talked about moving out there. That was before it was the big, huge thing."
It wasn't until the record came out that the band began to realize the invigorating effect they were having on the growing numbers of young women in their audience. Spanking Machine included Barbero's home address and phone number on its sleeve, and the group soon became inundated with letters from 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old girls.
"I had seen more than my share of supposedly life-changing hardcore, indie-rock, punk shows," says Jessica Hopper, a fan who was 14 when Spanking Machine came out. "Nothing affected me like watching Babes play for the first time. It ignited in me this...crusade. I wanted people who needed this music to find out about it." Hopper says she called Cake magazine and asked if she could interview the band or write about them.
"They said no. I said, okay, fine, I'll do it myself." Hopper's Hit It or Quit It zine became a flagship of the emergent riot grrrl movement, which she also credits to the influence of Babes in Toyland.
By the time the band signed to Reprise to record their 1992 sophomore album, Leon had left the group--so had the endearing scruffiness of its debut. "Spanking Machine is one of my favorite ones," says Bjelland. "Because we just wrote all those songs and recorded them right away. We didn't even really wait to get that good." (Scholtes)
See also: the unhinged punk of the Cows' Cunning Stunts and the frayed female vocals of Selby Tigers' Year of the Tigers.
Unwinding simple melodic threads from a spool of deliberate tempos, Low always offered their richest rewards to the patient listener. It seemed only natural that the Duluth trio's 1999 masterpiece would be so long in the making. "We had lived with about half the songs on Secret Name for a couple years," says guitarist Alan Sparhawk. "It gave us time to pare down, to focus on the things that made the song what it was."
Low took their time both honing the material and broadening their sonic palette before returning to the studio last year with producer Steve Albini. Virgin's Vernon Yard label had dropped the band in 1997 after three albums of sweet, slight, and disorienting classic-pop revisionism had failed to create a ripple beyond a dedicated cult. Yet the downtime may have been just what the group needed. When they finally entered Albini's Electrical Audio Recordings in Chicago, the group began creating their most diverse, yet cogent, collection to date.
Over the steady throb of bassist Zak Sally, Sparhawk and drummer Mimi Parker still sang their wistful harmonies with the patience of parents rocking sick children to sleep (something they'll be doing soon; the pair expects their first baby this winter). But their instrumental approach had taken a turn with the willfully experimental 1997 EP, Songs for a Dead Pilot, which built up quiet compositions with Optigan organ and strings before stripping them down to ambient noise or empty space. Such additions and subtractions weren't made lightly on Secret Name. "It's easy to bring in strings," Sparhawk says, "but it's another thing to find a place where they really fit. We didn't want it to be extraneous."
In contrast to the chilly pall of Dead Pilot, the new songs radiated an almost familial warmth, emanating mostly from the Fifties pop progressions at the core of each tune. But the mood might also be a reflection of the unusually close atmosphere inside the studio, where Albini's friends were building a new room. "I remember actually having Thanksgiving at the studio with everyone working there," says Sparhawk, laughing at the memory of his first exposure to vegan stuffing.
Even Sparhawk's typically nondescript lyrics flowered, becoming both vivid and direct while retaining the concision the band prizes in all aspects of its music. Fans who once snickered as he mumbled sardonically about "too many words" now leaned in close to catch every one. They were rewarded with such evocative couplets as the opening lyrics of "Soon": "Soon it will be over/I laughed under my breath, over your shoulder."
For Low, the album represented both the realization of previous ambitions and a sonic path for the future. "We've got this distant, vague picture in our mind of how we want things to sound and the feel of what we want to deliver," says Sparhawk. "And I think Secret Name is the closest we've ever come to the ideal that I've had in my head." (Anders Smith-Lindall)
See also: the convention-smashing noise-pop of Better Off Airport's Vivre.
The independence of musical acts from their mentors is a risky business. As often as not, when a band forgoes the guidance of creative buoys, its ambition exceeds its ability, and the musicians stray from their strengths into new and treacherous musical waters. But when the demise of Perspective Records (owned by Flyte Tyme's Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) deprived Mint Condition of not only their record label but also regular access to Flyte Tyme's studio and production acumen, the sextet responded with Life's Aquarium, its sharpest, most varied and free-flowing album yet.
It didn't hurt that the group has always written and performed nearly all of its own material with a full, self-contained band, or that the musicians had gradually taken a greater role in the production of their previous three discs. But what's remarkable about this year's debut on Elektra is how playful and confident the ensemble sounds.
"What we did is tested a lot of songs, went to clubs and let the people pick their favorites," says singer Stokely Williams. "We all have separate studios, and we wanted to really capture the moment this time. We've usually done our demos [at home], then gone into Flyte Tyme to really get the quality right. It turned out great, but the demos have always been better."
The approach netted a loose-limbed immediacy that had been constricted on their previous albums. Life's Aquarium sounds closer in spirit to Mint's live sets, where feel-good, old-school funk numbers ("Touch That Body") and edgier hip-hop inflected tunes ("Who Can You Trust") are as memorable and sweet as the lush ballads that crowd the group's hit parade.
Beyond that, the preference for fun over quality control let these old friends from St. Paul explore a wider range of styles and instrumental wrinkles during Aquarium's nine-month gestation. "Spanish Eyes" is a squirrelly, tango-funk romp complete with handclaps and accordion. The unlisted "hidden tracks" include a campy blend of West Indian and Latin rhythms called "Decuervo's Revenge" and a Princely funk-blues number, "If We Play Cards."
Top it all off with lyrics that roam easily from bugged-out skits to "keepin' it real" romantic narratives that avoid bitch/gat rhetoric, and you've got a record that lives up to Stokely's current definition of the band. "The R&B style is our base, but [we also have] hip hop from the South, a soft acoustic thing, and we've got a little rock 'n' roll thing. It's a fusion of everything." (Robson)
See also: the dubby funk of the Sensational Joint Chiefs' Lost Stepchild and Vanguard's soulfully comic Play.
Woody McBride/various artists
Strangely Arranged, Volume One
Woody McBride is a pioneer in local rave culture, one of the first DJs to take techno into the warehouses of our aging mill cities. What's more, he put Minnesota on the genre's world map, cutting 12-inch singles that are as familiar to European and Japanese clubgoers as any Top 40 hit. Under the handle ESP, McBride spun, composed, and produced a blisteringly hard, relentlessly funky acid-techno throb. Bombast became his calling card.
"Woody was louder and harder and faster than anything else out there," says Rev 105 founder Kevin Cole, who took the DJ on as a partner at First Avenue in 1989. "He also had a vision, and was very driven."
McBride created and distributed hundreds of 12-inches on his myriad imprints (Communique, Head in the Clouds, Sounds, Sensuist), a legacy best captured on 1997's Communique compilation Strangely Arranged, Volume One. While few outside the dance world might have heard it, the double album has as much right to the mantle of the "Minneapolis sound" as anything else. Just as techno founders Derrick May and Juan Atkins were inspired by the desolation of run-down Detroit, ESP and his collaborators soaked up their surroundings.
"Minneapolis has always had a really dirty feel to it," says McBride. "I think it's why our music turned out the way it did. We were inspired by the rock scene. We'd go see Run Westy Run at the Cabooze, then come home afterward and write techno. That gritty, grungy sound was an important part of what we were doing."
When McBride moved to the Twin Cities from North Dakota to attend the University of Minnesota in 1988, Cole and Tom Spiegel were already spinning stark, mysterious Euro-dance at First Avenue. Fascinated by the new music, Woody quickly joined the turntable ranks at Cole's Depth Probe, then established himself as a competitor--and the party thrower to beat. Yet even as his warehouse blowouts generated dance music's next generation, the DJ began to grow restless in his role. "I put two and two together and figured out that DJs who produced went places," he says.
To begin making his own music, McBride started collecting equipment, including, crucially, a Roland TB-303 bassline synthesizer, the out-of-production source of the squelching, pitch-shifting "acid" sound. Soon he was trading ideas with local DJs and musicians, recording homemade compositions in a "shitty little apartment by the Dome."
"I had incredibly tolerant neighbors," he says. "Either that or they were too scared to say anything. I mean, we were loud."
Before Compass Entertainment booker Rich Best got to know McBride, he lived in the building next door to the young DJ and saw him taking his pet pot-bellied pig for walks. "Every night at three in the morning you'd hear this gut-wrenching, loud acid-techno from next door," Best says. One night he was passing by Woody's vibrating window and caught a frightening glimpse of the DJ's naked body jumping around inside.
McBride wasn't the only one excited. His early tracks saw release on labels across Europe, bringing the filthy, funked-up Twin Cities sound to the attention of DJs worldwide. ESP began headlining parties in France, Germany, and Switzerland. By 1993, with more than 100 releases under his belt, he decided to start his own label. Named after a Dire Straits album, Communique quickly expanded from personal outlet to multi-stylistic clearinghouse, which is why Strangely Arranged encompasses house, down-tempo techno, and electro-funk.
Though the anthology includes a few noted out-of-towners that the label popularized--New York's Frankie Bones, Germany's Roland Casper--it's mostly a hometown affair, with tracks by Timeblind and DJ Apollo. The comp's highlight is McBride's celebratory acid burner, "Basketball Heroes," a slow-building floor-filler that sold 13,000 copies in 1997 alone, and has been licensed for more than 50 compilation and mix CDs. The single is also one of only three records McBride keeps in his catalog--otherwise, he holds to the underground tradition of limited, collectible pressings.
Unfortunately, Strangely Arranged is among the titles currently missing in action. "I just found a bunch of them in my garage the other day," McBride offers helpfully. A new pressing will accompany a second, DJ-mixed volume in the new year. (Michaelangelo Matos)
See also: the veteran technophilia of Freddie Fresh's Last Real Family Man and Jake Mandell's rookie laptop bleep shower, Parallel Processes.
Local music experts pick their favorite albums of the Nineties
Jim Walsh, music columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press
1. The Leatherwoods, Topeka Oratorio
2. The Artist, The Gold Experience
3. The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall
4. Slim Dunlap, Times Like This
5. Cows, Cunning Stunts
Kevin Cole, former Rev 105 program director
1. The Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall
2. Grant Hart, Good News for Modern Man
3. Slim Dunlap, Times Like This
4. Semisonic, Great Divide
5. The Hang Ups, Second Story
Mei Young, host of KQ Homegrown on KQRS-FM (92.3)
2. Spymob, Townhouse Stereo
3. Kevin Bowe and the Okemah Prophets, Restoration
4. American Paint, Eggshells for Paperbacks
5. Mason Jennings, Mason Jennings
Jim Niland, Minneapolis City Council member, and booker for Lee's Liquor Lounge
1. The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group,Oh Brother Where Art Thou?
2. Low, Secret Name
3. Low, The Curtain Hits the Cast
4. Low, Long Division
5. Low, I Could Live in Hope
Alan Freed, Beat Radio founder
1. Mint Condition, Meant to Be Mint
2. Think Tank, Skullbuggery
3. Greazy Meal, Visualize World Greaze
4. Ann Nesby, I'm Here for You
5. L.E.D., Shortwave
Jim Meyer, Request associate editor
1. MCC Gospel Choir under the Direction of Robert "Eddie" Robinson, Make Me an Instrument
2. The Picadors, Praise and Blame
3. Judd Herrmann, Homeless in the Heart
4. Willie Wisely, She
5. (tie) Semisonic, Pleasure EP/ Hang Ups, Comin' Through EP
Amy Carlson, local music writer
1. Run Westy Run, Green Cat Island
2. Babes In Toyland, Fontanelle
3. Jayhawks, Hollywood Town Hall
4. The Hang Ups, So We Go
5. Dylan Hicks, Poughkeepsie
Simon Peter Groebner, former host of Radio K's Off the Record (KUOM-AM, 770)
1. The Legendary Jim Ruiz Group, Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (Japanese version)
2. 12 Rods, Split Personalities
3. The Hang Ups, So We Go
4. The Blue Up?, Cake and Eat It
5. Balloon Guy, The West Coast Shakes
Two Great Local Records You'll Never Hear
Smoke's Ten Best Local Hip-Hop Singles
1. Lil' Buddy, "Woo Woo"
2. Abstract Pack, "Yes"
3. Raw Villa, "Negotiators"
4. Lil' Buddy, "What's the Haps?"
5. Highlight Entertainment, "Chocolate Tye"
6. Slug, "Nothing But Sunshine" (from the Anticon Presents: Music For the Advancement of Hip Hop compilation)
7. Dead End, "My Deed Are Done"
8. Jon Doe, "Kamikaze"
9. Steppa Ranks, "Young Girls"
10. Yock-Man, All Night
Smoke is host of Friday Night with Smoke 'n' Delite on KMOJ-FM (89.9)
Two Great Local Records Youll Never Hear
7 Days a Week
Tommy Stinson's four-piece Perfect was axed by the Restless label just as the band was about to release a full-length followup to 1996's When Squirrels Play Chicken EP. The completed album will probably never see the light of day, and that's a shame. Produced at Ardent Studios in Memphis by Jim Dickinson, who calls it "the hardest thing I ever did in my career," 7 Days a Week is just dirty power-soul.
It's also the best album any of the Replacements have made since 1987's Pleased to Meet Me. "Making of an Asshole" alone would be worth retail price. In what might as well be a parable about his treatment at the hands of every record label he ever knew, Tommy sneers, "The day that you were born, they dropped you on your head/They waited till you cried and then they dropped you once again."
Stinson also played bass on the album--the first time he'd done that since the 'Mats. "The more we could get Tommy to do, the better it got," Dickinson says. "He's the walking embodiment of rock 'n' roll." (Anders Smith-Lindall)
The Last EP
Guitarist Steve Salett once admitted that his influences were "pretty boring," citing Liz Phair and Pavement as the new middle of a new road. Yet his band Deformo recorded one of the most tuneful and original slacker-pop records of the decade--and just as the group was breaking up.
Forgoing the big-budget studios they tried out while making their previous album and EP, Deformo burrowed into Mike Wisti's legendary basement studio, Albatross, over the summer of 1998. They brought in plenty of vintage harmoniums, guitar effects mechanisms, and guest musicians (including Lily Liver's Missy Greer). The results--handed out to fans as an eight-song CD at the band's farewell show in January--sounded like Half Japanese doing John Mellencamp's "Cherry Bomb," a narcotic set of relaxed, lo-fi tunes to go with Salett's Johnny Cash/Ethel Merman vocals.
"Some bands do better in basements," says Wisti. "I definitely think that they were the kind of group that makes their best recordings just hanging around." (Scholtes)
Ten Local Singles to Wear Out
1. Cows, "Slap Back" (Amphetamine Reptile, 1990)
2. Ninian Hawick, "Scottish Rite Temple Stomp" (Grimsey, 1995)
3. Prince, "Cream" (Paisley Park, 1991)
4. Gear Daddies, "Little Red Corvette" (Crackpot, 1992)
5. Babes in Toyland, "Handsome and Gretel" (Insipid Vinyl, 1991)
6. Woody McBride, "Basketball Heroes" (Communique, 1997)
7. Hammerhead, "Peep" (Amphetamine Reptile, 1991)
8. Big Red Ball, "She Ran Away From the World" (Prospective, 1991)
9. Next, "Too Close" (Arista, 1997)
10. The Spectors, Oh How to Do Now (Oxo, 1993)
Two Made-in-Minnesota Gems
Warner Bros., 1995
Even on first listen, Trace's familiar melodies and analog glow feel like going home, a sense only reinforced by the album's many local ties. Arguably the high watermark of the No Depression movement, Trace was written by Jay Farrar as he drove the Mississippi between New Orleans and Minneapolis in fall 1994. His band--three of them Twin Citians--rehearsed here, recorded in Northfield, and, in June 1995, played their first gigs together at the Uptown and the Entry. (Smith-Lindall)
The Velvet Rope
With the ninth Jackson child's sixth concept album, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis did more than lend Janet's newly soft-core murmur the requisite lower-body thrust. They internalized damn near every rhythmic trend of the decade: Timbaland's drum 'n' stutter, quick-stepping house, and walloping slabs of techno. The Edina duo personalized the results so thoroughly, you'd almost think they'd invented the gamut themselves. Which, when you consider that Flyte Tyme had fairly mechanized the whole of R&B, isn't so far off the mark. (Keith Harris)
Three Great Reissues
1. Halo of Flies, Music for Insect Minds
(Amphetamine Reptile, 1991).
As hostile and seamy as Big Black or Pussy Galore, this mod-garage band of the Eighties (fronted by Amphetamine Reptile label maven Tom Hazelmyer) summoned a widely imitated yet essentially inimitable punk roar.
2. various artists, The Big Hits of
Mid-America: The Soma Records Story, 1963-1967 (Simitar, 1998)
Two discs of the raw, stupid teen-rock sound that scared Dylan out of Minnesota, from "Surfin' Bird" to "Run, Run, Run."
3. Suburbs, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Suburbs Have Left the Building (Twin/Tone, 1992)
They gave new wave a good name before A Flock of Seagulls came along. (Scholtes)
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