1987-1990: Bitch Magnet
If one was coming up in the 1990s and listened to underground music (and was, most likely, a “dude”), the landscape of indie rock was pretty well shaped by a few preceding soldiers. One of the least talked-about was Bitch Magnet, a trio (sometime quartet) from Chapel Hill, North Carolina via Oberlin, Ohio who would give rise to a good chunk of the post-hardcore landscape of the time. Active from 1986-1987 through the turn of the 1990s, Bitch Magnet waxed three proper LPs (one for their own Roman Candle imprint and two for Communion), a live EP, and a couple of singles before disbanding. Vocalist/bassist and principal songwriter Sooyoung Park went on to form the delicately-paced but profoundly compelling Seam; guitarist Jon Fine later joined Vineland and eventually formed Coptic Light; and drummer Orestes Morfin went on to helm the trap set in Walt Mink. Their records – Star Booty, Umber, and Ben Hur – have been out of print for nearly two decades and are seeing a renaissance as part of a new three-disc set on Temporary Residence, remastered with a smattering of alternate takes and a few studio extras.
The late 1980s were a fertile time in underground rock, post-punk, college rock or whatever one wants to call it, and for a band that now seem ahead of their time, it’s pretty easy to put the pieces together – Hüsker Dü, Moss Icon, and Big Black were, to varying degrees, part of their early approach and those poles never really left. Half-sung and half-spoken/shouted vocals, often somewhat buried in the mix, were mated to a big, uncoiled swirl of guitar and motorik, stop-on-a-dime percussion (sometimes aided by a bit of Roland-style drum machine a la Big Black/early Bastro). All that being said, what Bitch Magnet had – and, with the exception of Codeine, in greater stead than their peers – was a real knack for writing wistful pop melodies that make a clean scramble out of the mud and thrash. A friend of this writer said of the group, in comparison with Seam, that the former was always too “tough” which, in retrospect, is curious. Sure, Fine’s massive chords and Morfin’s incredible technique could front a hard shell, but Park conveys an equally great degree of honest, even reined-in lyricism. It’s not entirely saccharine, but there is sweetness in his delivery of “Americruiser” that keeps the murmurs and strums from edging into Slinty territory. As a set, the Temporary Residence reissues move in reverse chronology, which is somewhat surprising since Ben Hur, while touted as the beginning of math rock’s stark precision, seems more like a cap on the preceding sessions’ wry Jekyll-Hyde approach to emotive brightness and raging post-punk.
2000: Jay-Z - “Big Pimpin’”
The other day, a Philadelphia-based emcee/producer and I were discussing the extensive malleability of hip hop. Unlike most pop genres, hip hop has an uncanny tolerance that allows its producers to imbibe other styles and genres with ease, while still retaining an authentic footprint. Generally, extensive genre-hopping is often criticized as unfocused or pretentious – in hip hop it is not only encouraged, but also wildly successful both commercially and artistically.
“Big Pimpin’” beautifully demonstrates this phenomenon. Jay-Z’s lyrics dance and skirt around a melody originally composed by Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi, while Timbaland’s production adds little additional instrumentation. A slithering synth-line and a few extra rhythmic flourishes, maybe, but the strings and flutes leading the track remain unaltered.
Somehow it remains hip hop. And it’s not an isolated incident. Producers frequently snap up elements of soul, latin, jazz, classical, rock, reggae, and myriad other genres, yet the end result is always indisputably within the genre. Very few boundaries separate the clash of styles – there are no borders to define the rules of influence. Somehow, the hip hop community has bred some of the most innovative and eclectic production of the late 20th century while barely setting a template beyond the ubiquitous backbeat. It’s wild. It’s free. It’s… well, what is it?
1994-2000: Honey is Cool
I may as well just come straight out and say it: someone needs to re-release all those Honey is Cool records that were made before Karin Dreijer Andersson’s Knife/Fever Ray years. I can’t tell you how many clicks I’ve discarded in the search to get my hands on the bands final album, Early Morning Are You Working, and EP without success. I don’t want to join the Discogs community, nor order straight from the jaws of Rabid, the strangely calm and inactive label that was set up by the band to release Early Morning… and the Baby Jane EP (though it has to be acknowledged that Rabid have been spewing out Knife and Fever Ray records ever since, so that title is justified).
The reason for this (as fans always know) is more a question of justice than necessity. I can see how Dreijer Andersson’s early efforts might be of minimal value to her now, considering how far she’s ventured into lonely frontier territory of her own. For a listener, however, the value of the two albums – Crazy Love, Early Morning Are You Working, and the singles and EPs – lie in the way they tie up the strands of left-of-mainstream 90s guitar pop in a way that manages to be accessible but actually quite independent. The oddly compromised sound of so many powerful 90s studio bands – including the gems as well as the dud fillers that were cranked out from the pressurized cans of studios with their overly realized guitars – could rarely materialize into something worthwhile. On the rare occasions that it did, it was powerful stuff.
Honey is Cool made 90s albums that were recorded properly AND sounded like sincere pop statements, which, if you grew up buying disappointing sophomore records by bands that received too much attention the first time round, is something to be celebrated. Instead of converting their ‘next big thing’ status in Sweden into money, Honey is Cool pressed on with their creative agenda, making a deliberate decision in the late 90s to regain control over their creative output by starting their own label. Again, Rabid was the label that released all the good stuff from The Knife and Fever Ray, so there is a happy ending to this story – but no epilogue. Those Honey is Cool albums may be unsophisticated compared to Dreijer’s later work, but they’re pretty damn good considering they were made in that old cartoon-capitalist climate of the mid 90s music industry. Granted, the albums may be available floating around the net, but it’s the context that matters. Here’s hoping that there are no actual legal reasons why they can’t be re-instated where they belong: in Dreijer & Co’s catalogue.
1998: Less Than Jake - “All My Best Friends are Metalheads”
Nothing seems special about Less Than Jake. Just another Warped Tour band with ska horns having a jolly ol’ time. Of course, appearances and sounds can be deceiving.
Musically speaking, the song “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” is a party; lyrically, it’s a little bit sad. “Yet all this really mean is/ you’re one in a crowd and you’re paranoid of every sound/ another friend you won’t miss anyhow.” Few songs in the 90s talked about dressing the part but not being what you pretended to be in such a personal, relatable way – most were content to simply point an accusing finger at posers. By the same token, “All My Best Friends…” also addresses group mentality, which can feel like loneliness in disguise, especially when you can’t really know people as individuals. That isolation is echoed in the lyrics “Did we take the time/ to really discover/ how little do we know about each other?” It’s a heavy sentiment for a band whose contemporaries were, for the most part, goofballs doing funny covers of pop songs. Yet Less Than Jake also represent the “whitening” of ska by abandoning the issues presented by their ancestors, the Two-Tone bands and their racial concerns; not that its their obligation to preach integration.
Ska punk is contradictory, a genre that, in the 90s, mixed raging guitars, dumb lyrics and feel good dance music from the Bahamas. In general, it’s a sound that doesn’t appear complicated or deep on the surface, but one that can communicate good feelings and positive social politics.
1997: Hovercraft - Akathisia
I bought Akathisia on a holiday whim a few years ago. There was a really haggard, beat-up copy of the double LP in the “used new arrivals” section of a Vancouver record store — I picked it up, saw that Blast First put it out, and decided to give it a spin. When I went to purchase it the store’s clerk sneered, “uhh, we’ve got other Pearl Jam stuff if you’re looking for it.”
For obvious reasons I was confused and, being a record store clerk of discerning taste myself, offended. The clerk informed me that one Eddie Vedder was in Hovercraft, and all of a sudden I felt a tinge of nausea. I cautiously previewed another side of the record, but was not swayed to the negative — perhaps the tom-heavy drum production was a bit too mid-90s, but otherwise, I was impressed with Hovercraft’s long-form space/noise-rock explorations. I purchased the album, the clerk tried to sell me a copy of The Devils Jukebox boxset that was missing the Sonic Youth and Lee Ranaldo singles, and we both went on our merry ways.
Mr. Vedder does not appear on Akathisia, or on Hovercraft’s equally venerable follow-up, Experiment Below. He does drum on the band’s earliest material, though under a pseudonym. This is all beside the point, however: speaking strictly musically, Hovercraft, a Seattle three-piece that are way more fun to think of as a group of space rock scientists, have nothing to do with grunge or 90s radio rock — at least nothing beyond that they use guitars and drums. It’s unfortunate that Vedder’s early involvement in the band has colored their entire discography — eBay listings always mention his name, even on records he doesn’t appear on. If anything, the Pearl Jam connection likely turns off the audience that would really appreciate Hovercraft.
Akathisia rides a tension between alternately sharp n’ woozy noise-rock guitar squall and the sort of extended, spaced-out post-rock/drone that Kranky put out in the 90s (e.g., Magnog, some Labradford, early Jessamine, etc.), at prime moments merging exploratory, ozone-scorched feedback with dense, bass-driven undercurrents. Ryan Campbell’s guitar work is too sinewy to be entrenched in Kranky ambient/drone territory, but is also too dynamic to be lumped in with 90s alternative/grunge. Basically, Akathisia often drifts in echo, but with a sharp noise rock core to keep things from getting overbearingly “spacey” or aimlessly post-rock. The end result is appealingly off-kilter and difficult to pin down — “Bad Moon Rising-era Sonic Youth on Kranky” comes close, but even that doesn’t fit entirely.
Hovercraft also worked at establishing a shadowy, obscure aesthetic. The members were credited under tongue-in-cheek science names (on Akathisia, Hovercraft was Sadie 7, Campbell 2000, and Karl 3-30), promo photographs were often shot in silhouette, and the LP version of Akathisia contains an elaborate 14-page booklet loaded with photographs of assorted space/science documentation from the 1950s. In lieu of recording information, the liner notes merely state when Akathisia was “preserved and magnetically encoded.” This all sounds really cheesy and pseudo-mythopoeic, and today the band’s aura dissipates with a simple Google search (oh hey, Sadie 7 is Beth Liebling, Eddie Vedder’s ex-wife!), but thinking about this in the context of the mid-90s makes Hovercraft stick out as heavily indebted to their craft; a genuinely mysterious entity making dense and alien noise rock.
1958: Ray Rhodes - “Fred Adams”
One of the joys of listening to field recording compilations is the moment when, after sifted through countless atrophied and difficult recordings, you suddenly find an absolute gem. “Fred Adams,” a traditional murder-ballad sung by the 7-year-old Ray Rhodes, is such a gem. It can be found on Art Rosenbaum’s The Art of Field Recording, which won the 2006 Grammy for Best Historical Album. The only accompaniment the boy has is tape hiss, but the clarity of the recording gives Rhode’s voice a commanding presence. There is an immediate intimacy to the song as Rhode’s invites listeners to “come and listen to a story… about a boy we all know well.” From the moment this song (barely over a minute) begins, Rhodes has brought you into his world.
What makes the ballad of Fred Adams so stunning is not necessarily the story. As implied from the opening verse, it is a well known tale. Adams gets drunk, robs and murders, and eventually is caught and sentenced. He says his goodbyes and accepts his execution seemingly unrepentant. The real power of the song comes from Rhodes’ tone. His calm recitation of the song perfectly captures the darkness of the main character. The final two lines: “The trigger sprung at 8 pm/ He took it just like a man.” For a 7-seven year old to repeat those words without a shred of pity or sadness perfectly evokes the unaffected cool of the song’s doomed hero. This field recording is a window into the past and evidence of the pure power of these auditory relics.