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Thursday, Sep 10, 2009
Sometimes imitation breeds excellence.

For the longest time, I thought “Oh Sheila” was a Prince song. It wasn’t until sometime in the mid-‘90s that I discovered that it was actually by a group called Ready for the World, an ensemble that consisted of multiple people who emphatically weren’t Mr. Unpronounceable Symbol. Regardless of who actually made it, I always loved the song to death. Even when I forsook R&B and rap in the late ‘90s to delve into the rock genre, I would get unreasonably excited whenever this song aired on the “old school oldies” radio station my mom liked to tune to in the car.


Ready for the World was one of a slew of workmanlike yet indistinguishable mid-level R&B hitmakers that swarmed American radio in the mid-1980s. The six-piece from Flint, Michigan notched several hits on the Billboard R&B Charts, but I dare you to even name a single band member.  There of the band’s singles reached the Billboard Top 40: the aforementioned 1985 number one hit “Oh Sheila”, the oddly Mute Records-esque follow-up single “Digital Display”, and the 1986 slow jam “Love You Down”. But only “Oh Sheila” has the infectious energy and unstoppable hooks to warrant repeated listens. And you can bet like hell I’ve listened to this song constantly ever since finally I bought it on iTunes a few months back.


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Wednesday, Sep 9, 2009
Yoshie Fruchter convincingly distills the essence of jazz improvisation into his rock-meets-klezmer workouts.

Following my ardent endorsement of Rashanim (the great trio who have just released what may well be the best album of the year: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/109489-rashanim-healing-music-for-unrighteous-times/), I would be remiss to not also mention a new name we can hope to hear much more from in the years ahead. Yoshie Fruchter, also a guitarist, released his debut on (John Zorn’s label) Tzadik entitled Pitom in late 2008, and it is as indispensable as any of the Rashanim releases (”Pitom”, incidentally, means “suddenly” in Hebrew). It is similar in that it’s (mostly) rocking jazz with an explicitly Jewish sensibility, but where Madof’s traditional roots are always discernible, Fruchter sounds somewhat like a precocious younger brother who found the stash of ’70s prog rock albums and never put them down. In a (very) good way. Indeed, the kinship with the great King Crimson outfit of the early-to-mid ’70s is undeniable, not merely because both bands feature the same instrumentation (drums, bass, guitar and viola): there are songs on Pitom that recall some of the more adventurous tracks from Red and Larks’ Tongues in Aspic.


Check it out:



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Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009
Pop Heroism, One Song at a Time

“Where Does the Time Go?” - the innocence mission
Written by Karen Peris
From Birds of My Neighborhood (Kneeling Elephant/RCA, 1999, a remaster was reissued by Badman Recording Co., 2006)


Whether entranced by the intricately-balanced poetics of Leonard Cohen, the artful turns-of-phrase of Smokey Robinson, or the PhD-in-lonesome of Hank Williams, I always seem to fall in love the hardest with songwriters who carve out their own distinctive place in the tower of song (to cop a Cohen phrase). If one counts their 1986 limited-edition debut EP, the innocence mission, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania-based group, has been making singularly lovely records for over 20 years. It’s a damn shame that their primary songwriter, Karen Peris, although well-loved by a loyal fan base and countless musician/songwriter peers, is not yet heralded far and wide as one of the most gifted pop/rock lyricists ever, because she most undeniably is. A poet at heart, Karen Peris’ lyrics are achingly beautiful, and she delivers them in a sweet and wise voice that is somehow both familiar and otherworldly at the same time.


“Where Does the Time Go?” is the opening track from the group’s fourth album, Birds of My Neighborhood, which introduced the stripped-down acoustic-folk sound the group has thoroughly explored for the past 10 years. The instrumentation is a delicate calibration of shimmering guitars, acoustic bass, and quiet-in-the-mix churchy organ, which lends the song a hymn-like quality. This musical framework is set in a lilting light-waltz tempo, a perfect pocket for the first few lines of Peris’ first verse: “We will walk on a hill / Red hats and blue coats / And everything still / Snow will cover until / We can’t tell the sky from the ground.” The chorus creeps up soon after, mantra-like in its insistent simplicity and repetition: “Waiting for you to arrive / Where does the time go? / Where Does the time go? / Where does the time go? / Where does the time go?”


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Friday, Sep 4, 2009
In the summer of 1986, Timex Social Club ruled radio with "Rumors".


Looking at Billboard’s Hot R&B chart for July 19, 1986, brings back a flood of memories for me.


I remember dancing to Gwen Guthrie’s “Ain’t Nothin’ Goin’ On but the Rent”, Jermaine Jackson’s “Do You Remember Me?” and Klymaxx’s “Man Size Love” (one of my all-time favorites). It was the summer Janet first got “Nasty”, El DeBarge asked who Johnny was, and Anita Baker praised the rapture of “Sweet Love”. Some of the best broken-hearted love songs ever recorded are ranked, from Patti LaBelle and Michael McDonald’s “On My Own” and Atlantic Starr’s “If Your Heart Isn’t In It” to the epic “All Cried Out” by Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam with Full Force.


And the number one song on the chart for the first of two weeks was “Rumors” by Timex Social Club. Sung by the impossibly cute Mike Marshall, “Rumors” had an irresistible dance beat and a rawness to its funk that made it sound different from anything else out there. The song, written by Marcus Thompson, Alex Hill, and Marshall, became a mainstream hit too, spending five months on Billboard’s Hot 100 and peaking at #8.


Granted, the lyrics seem somewhat hypocritical. The singer complains about rumors while spreading them at the same time. The song specifically name checks Tina Jackson, a student that went to Berkley High School with Thompson (“some say she’s much too loose”), Michael Jackson (“some say he must be gay”), and Susan Moonsie from Vanity 6 (“some say she’s just a tease”). Then again, it makes sense to provide examples to back up your argument.


Timex Social Club would have two more hits on the R&B chart, “Thinkin’ About Ya” and “Mixed Up World”, both of which peaked at #15, but they would never again appear on the Hot 100, making them a one-hit wonder. Still, “Rumors” holds up surprisingly well more than 20 years later, and Timex Social Club still performs regularly (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)).


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Thursday, Sep 3, 2009
One of the foundations of the alternative rock genre, Hüsker Dü's best album is a vital, hook-laden work that deserves far greater recognition.

I say this with utter, unwavering conviction: Hüsker Dü is the most criminally underappreciated alt-rock band of the pre-Nirvana era.  While contemporaries like R.E.M. and Sonic Youth have joined the rock canon, Hüsker Dü (which consisted of vocalist/guitarist Bob Mould, vocalist/drummer Grant Hart, and bassist Greg Norton) remains relatively unknown, and is often forgotten in the modern narrative of the development of the American underground scene in the 1980s.  This is especially troubling since Hüsker Dü was the group responsible for pioneering the sonic hallmarks traditionally associated with alternative rock: the potent mix of distortion and pop melodies, the angst-filled lyrics, and even the rhythm of the guitars.  Music journalist Michael Azerrad gave the group its due in his 2001 history Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991, and the band does make sporadic appearances on various “Best albums of the 1980s” critics lists, but it’s nowhere near what it actually deserves.  Bluntly, Hüsker Dü‘s best albums deserve to be spoken of in the same breath as alt-rock classics like Nirvana’s Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, and the Pixies’ Surfer Rosa.


Of all its records, Hüsker Dü‘s New Day Rising is its best and most consistent, bursting with hooks and driven by a sheer urgency that overwhelms the listener.  Recorded in July 1984, New Day Rising was the first of two albums the Minneapolis band released on Southern California indie label SST in 1985.  The group’s preceding release, the justly acclaimed double album opus Zen Arcade (1984), blew apart the conventions of hardcore punk into a thousand searing pieces in methods that ranged from one-and-a-half-minute acoustic numbers to fourteen-minute punk-psych epics.  Zen Arcade‘s legend looms large in the Hüsker Dü discography; what is generally overlooked is that the group’s follow-up album naturally had to figure out what to do next.  SST’s edict that the group’s next release be restricted to a single disc actually benefited the trio. What the Hüskers did on this album was summarize the lessons learned on Zen Arcade into a concise 40-minute package, in the process closing the door once and for all on its punk incarnation and setting the template for the sound of alternative rock well into the next decade.


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