Local Traffic: Slow & Go

It pains me to say it, but many of my notes on Minnesota music in 1996 look like a report on an economic recession, not a rock & roll scene. People complained a lot last year (myself included); morale was lower; bands broke up for no reason other than burnout; and in a reversal of recent trends, a handful of musicians and bands simply up and moved away. Truckloads of 1993-95 critics' faves took big chunks of time off in '96, or wrote the year off all-together, inadvertently contributing to the weakest year in a while for concertgoers. It didn't help that bands polarized like never before into cliques narrower than the average fan's musical taste: The 7th Street Entry bill that crosses subgenre and buddy lines became a rarity. Even women were relatively less prominent in music than in recent years. For many, 1996 was a malaise symbolized by the April shutdown of live music at the Uptown Bar, which fostered a quality venue shortage (no matter what anyone says)--but it hopefully ended with the December reincarnation of the Uptown spirit in the vastly improved 400 Bar.

Nevertheless, local music, as always, had a bright side worth basking in. The "new" band crop was pretty good, topped by master teen-angst surrealists 12 Rods (despite their own five-month hiatus) and the bombastic William & The Conquerors, who made good on the rift between clashing mod kingpins Keith Patterson and Willie Wisely. The average local CD was better than ever, and there were certainly more of them than ever before. There may not have been as many genuine classics as in the venerable '80s--even that's debatable. Mostly, it was just disorienting to watch a scene in an identity crisis, with no truly consensual heroes; a town full of qualified bands and undersized audiences, everything and nothing going on at once.

But the Minneapolis atmosphere of creativity still exists, fragmented or not, and in a rough year the scene survived mainly by improvising. The most exciting events took the music back to its genre-mixing roots in the underground community, via small concept gigs at off-the-path venues where indie rockers, noisemakers, performance artists, DJs, rappers, and jazz musicians came together. The Famine Chorus public bash in a Lake Street basement on Aug. 3, with Better Off Airport, Deformo, Sukpatch and more, felt like the desperate ghost of the Uptown happily transplanted. Other likeminded joints included Leasebreaker '97, Moon Mountain, the Future Perfect trancefest, and this month's Artcore at the Southern Theater. New bands were formed--if only for six hours--side projects grew unchecked, unlikely friendships were struck, and the scene quietly became something fun again. Perhaps the most effective example was set by the young funk act The Joint Chiefs. At Freeloaded, the Wednesday night acid-jazz/hip-hop/funk improvisation night at the Front, the Chiefs created a unique venue to flex their acid alterego while helping crystallize an entire scene of insurgent jazz and funk players, rappers and DJs.

On a larger scale, the artist formerly known as Prince delivered a halfways interesting guitar-rock record with Chaos and Disorder before the confounding mixed bag of varying greatness that is Emancipation, as Mint Condition and Ann Nesby scaled the R&B charts. But down on the street level, a youthful funk scene was bustling, with bands like Detroit, the Chiefs, the defunct Who Are Those Guys, and especially Greazy Meal. Like the '70s funk and pop culture they so id-fully (if derivatively) referenced, the Greazies put forth party-driven decadence, racial unity via pop, and an apolitical escapism from depressing times. They grabbed hold of some kind of local zeitgeist, that's for sure, as anyone crammed into their Sunday night gigs at the Cabooze can tell you. As a phenomenally popular cover band, they didn't have to bother releasing a sophisticated recording of solid originals, but with Visualize World Greaze, they did.

But if anyone deserves the title of Band of the Year, it is Semisonic. Leader Dan Wilson, well out of the shadow cast by his brother Matt back in Trip Shakespeare, reinvented his muse and nearly made the record of the year (Great Divide). The group worked hard, and spent so much time on the road that their hometown dates were merely tour stops. Still their gigs were the closest thing to local scene love-ins since the hometown prime of Soul Asylum.

Still, Semisonic seem to be another one of our misunderstood exports: Almost every review I read fixated on "those wonderful AM pop radio harmonies," ignoring how Great Divide also used sampling and post-rock experimentation to yield an extended view of the future and enhance Wilson's emotional expression. At home, scene polarization works for and against them: Most of their fans are the old Trip faithful, while some hipsters haven't given them a chance for the same reason. They may never know that this band has a bit more in common with, say, Polara, than, say, Tina and the B-Side Movement.  

Likewise, in the year's healthiest trend, artists on the major-label, indie, and basement levels made more and better use of digital technology, sampling, electronic effects, tape loops and the like to enhance their recordings and performances. It was an interesting contrast within bands that essentially play retro music--for example, producer John Strawberry Fields sculpted a boundless digital pop universe for Willie Wisely's She, as with his coproduction work for Greazy Meal (for whom he also plays guitar). But the trend was most powerfully purveyed by modern rockers and, as they say, post-rockers. The critical darlings of the year, 12 Rods, made the best basement EP I've ever heard with gay?; Saucer wrote a bible of 4-track composition; newcomers Gusto Busto played electro-noise pop with guitars; the rising Sukpatch ditched guitars entirely and made great indie-rock with pure hip-hop methodology.

Watching all this happen on the indie level, one gets the sense that the future of pop is being cowritten right here at home. As all these observations (and my Top 10 list) indicate, the talent, inspiration, and raw materials are all here. But with a year of scene hardship hopefully behind us, a word to the wise: It's all in how we use it.

My personal, local best with honorable

1. Balloon Guy The West Coast Shakes (Warner Bros./Generator) Also, the Most Criminally Overlooked Record of the Year, though I'm not sure who's to blame. BG's 1994-95 gigs, which spawned 11 of the 14 songs here, were some of the Twin Cities' most explosive shows, so the album's greatness was no real surprise. A complex, dense and intense debut, marked by a robust experimentalism, a lack of macho posturing, and Matt Olson's brave free-associative lyricism. But is this Balloon Guy's swan song? Olson slipped into seclusion for several months in '96, while the band has been absent for half a year.

2. SemisonicGreat Divide (MCA) A smart, sexy masterpiece that balances mainstream party pop with sonic futurism. Somehow, the studio trickery manages to give this record about lust for life and other things an even more emotionally naked vibe. (Listen to the neo-ambient heartbreakers "No One Else" and "I Feel For You" and you'll know what I mean.) Minneapolis-friendly L.A. producer Paul Fox also worked magic with Rex Daisy's Guys and Dolls and Tina and the B-Side Movement's Salvation.

3. 12 Rodsgay? EP (12RODS) The packaging is the only thing generic about this debut: 12 Rods confounded the trappings of alternarock by delivering amazingly well-conceived and hefty art-rock, performances way too proficient for such young'uns, and a decidedly shocking glam persona. Ryan Olcott's nightmarish memories of high school were more vivid than my own.

4. Low The Curtain Hits the Cast (Vernon Yard) Their inclusion here is debatable since the Duluthians aren't quite local, but then again, are they even of this world? With every record they get more minimal, yet remain controlled. Music so transcendent it literally veers on the spiritual.

5. Sukpatch Haulin' Grass and Smokin' Ass (Slabco) Schooled in hip-hop, reared on college rock, this Minneapolis crew proves you can play indie-rock with nothing but samples and electronics. Lysergically funky.

6. Punchdrunk A Message From the Cockpit (Veto) The sleeper of the year, to be sure: ex-classic rock stripped to its naked, two-minute core. Too bad they've moved to New York (sigh). Companion piece: Rank Strangers, Mystery Spot (both produced by the Strangers's Mike Wisti).

7. Steeplejack Kitchen Radio (Dejadisc) The best local country-rock record of the year (though The Honeydogs's fine Everything, I Bet You won the popular vote). Upon deeper inspection I've realized it's a concept album about surviving (with some humor) heartache and the bottle during a long, specifically Minnesotan winter.

8. Saucer Saucer (Spanish Fly) In which one of the most inventive bands around disintegrates, reinvents itself, and resurfaces with a fragmented odyssey (30 tracks, 53 min.) that becomes a sourcebook for low-budget, cinematic pop-crafting.

9. Dylan Hicks Won (No Alternative/TRG) Also award for Best Personality. If you didn't know that Hicks is one of the TCs' funniest and craftiest conceptualists, as well as an avid record collector, it becomes evident after one listen.

10. (18-way tie:) Arcwelder, Entropy (Touch and Go); The Beatifics, How I Learned to Stop Worrying (No Alternative); Cows, Whorn (Amphetamine Reptile); The Dust Bunnies, Shishkabam (Spectra Fidelity); Stuart Davis, Nomen Est Numen (Triad); February, Even the Night Can't Tell You From a Star EP (February); Greazy Meal, Visualize World Greaze (Greazy Meal/TRG); Guzzard, Alienation Index Survey (Am Rep); Koerner, Ray & Glover, One Foot in the Groove (Tim/Kerr); Mike Merz & the Can o' Worms, Buzzkill Nation (Archangel Media Empire); Milk, So Many Dynamos (Spanish Fly); Own, Agenda Item 1 (Severed); The Strawdogs, John Perkins John Perkins (SMA); The Vibro Champs, Stranger That You Think (Ultramodern); Willie Wisely, She (October); The Wonsers, You Never Knew Me When I Was Young (Get a Wick)

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