Last summer, I filed a cover story called "Trouble in Clubland," which was widely interpreted as my manifesto against the miserable state of Minnesota music. Well, it wasn't--at least not exactly. While I did point out certain economic woes afflicting some music venues, and the relation of those woes to a pervasive national trend, the worst thing I could say about local music at large was that it was shambling around in a transitional search for identity. Not to mention the fact that a lot of our best bands didn't perform enough.
Six months later, I'm confident that new scenes are forming. And for the third year straight, the volume of quality local recordings is up. Major labels scooped up a decent share of the homegrown cream (Polara, the Honeydogs, and Flipp), while the indie sector offered a bulk of diverse, equally swell bands. Here are my preferred notables, listed in (roughly) descending order.
THE HANG UPS
So We Go (Clean/Restless)
I make no bones about declaring the supremacy of this one. Four years in the making, the sophomore comeback by our subtlest pop pleasers was positively brimming with meaning, detail, and sophistication. For this listener, it was the soundtrack to the experience of being young, happy, and/or heartbroken in South Minneapolis in the '90s, and I'll always think of it that way. Only the Legendary Jim Ruiz Group's Oh Brother Where Art Thou? (1995) has told that story so well.
BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON
The Great Game (Hakatak)
Funk "purists" complained that this was too rhythmically square to deserve the trip-hop label it got saddled with. Ask me if I care. A consummately future-thinking pop group, Brother Sun Sister Moon (landslide victors in our 1997 new-band poll) were better than the best of Eurythmics, if not Everything But the Girl. More importantly, The Great Game moodily spliced worldly wise sampling and middle-school hip-hop strategies to become Information Society founder Paul Robb's most mature production--as well as singer-songwriter Barbara Cohen's coming-out party as a self-assured diva and sultry pop persona. Due for reissue on Virgin in '98 with an even meatier remix.
Tomorrow Is Today (Carrot Top)
Forged out of a delayed blast of creativity following an aborted courtship with Warner Bros., this debut finds February further burying their "dream-pop" sound in an electronica crossover. It's a sure-handed play on two classic pop tensions: regret and urgency. The record is a tad too lengthy for its own good, but it's filled with gems nonetheless. And it boasts this scene's first successful fusion of drum'n'bass and balladry ("Pulse").
THE AUTUMN LEAVES
Treats and Treasures (Grimsey)
David Beckey is a stylish romantic who sees his world through kaleidoscopic lenses, and he's not too self-conscious to report it that way. His Grand Statement is both more rocking and more reverent of '60s power-pop and -psychedelia than, say, the equally pretty Hang Ups record, to which Treats has been analogized, and resembles if only superficially. Every note and harmony is rendered so beautifully that the band itself couldn't replicate it live. The Grimsey label, by the way, can scarcely do wrong (see the excellent singles it released in '97 by Ninotchka, Ninian Hawick, and Le Mans).
Overcast! (Rhyme Sayers)
In the lugubrious Year of Puff Daddy, it became painfully clear that the only hope for hip hop was in low-budget recordings and localized undergrounds. And as Minnesota's first rap recordings finally rolled out of Minneapolis basements, local Atmosphere ambassador Slug helped pull the fledgling local scene together. Overcast! (and Comparison by Atmosphere's stablemate Beyond) suggested the evolution of a Twin Cities style rooted in straightforward beats, samples that demand repeat attention, and rapid-fire rhyming. It was marred by a bit of misogynist girlfriend-dissing ("Complications"); but if local rap has an anthem it's "Multiples," which ingeniously samples the incidental, droid-napping music from Star Wars, and declares, "True heads are the real music critics."
Half Dead and Dynamite (No Alternative)
The rock disc of the year. Craig Finn is one of local punk's last damaged poets, and this crew of artsy intellectuals threw down an increasingly rare case for riveting rockism on their sophomore effort. Best served along with either the Rank Strangers' Target (Veto) or Calvin Krime's Dress for the Future (Amphetamine Reptile).
Future Perfect: Music for Listening
Spawn of the "Future Perfect" multimedia/sound-system/trance parties that took place at First Avenue, Jitters, and the Walker Art Center, this compilation was easily the best primer on the various strains of local underground electronica. Featuring Ousia, Mindphaseone, and Time Blind, it sounds like little else you've heard in this, or any, year; and it presents a free fall from genre, in which difficult beats, didgeridoos, and elongated analog drone-outs are all fair game. The album can work on the dance floor, but the subtitle, Music for Listening, explains it just fine.
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