The Best of the Basket Cases: Round 1

[25 February 2008]

By Ben Rubenstein

The first time I received a CD in the mail for free, I couldn’t believe my luck. All I had to do was listen to it and give my opinion. As music writers like to joke, it’s a rough gig.

Like any privilege, though, you get used to it. You even begin to take the seemingly endless stream of jewel cases for granted. This is the case at my day job, an online city guide, where we regularly receive CDs from artists hoping to get their upcoming concerts recommended in our events calendar. When I first started at this job, I paid attention to each new arrival, curious to see if maybe I could lend a hand in promoting the “next big thing"m but reality soon set in: there are a lot of bands out there, and not all of them deserve more attention.

So, as the months went on, the pile of CDs in the basket next to my desk grew and grew. I’ll typically toss out the accompanying press releases, but I can’t bring myself to throw out a CD. Every once in a while, I’d grab one from the pile and pop it in. More often than not, I’d pop it back out after a few songs.

Admittedly, I didn’t always give the albums much of a chance. When you get something for free, you’re less invested in putting in the time to allow it to reveal its worth (unless it’s your job to do just that). If I spend $10 on a CD, I’ll do my best to convince myself that I didn’t make a mistake. If I just pound it into my head a few more times, I think, the melody will stick. With an unsolicited free CD, there’s not as much incentive to go beyond first impressions, especially when there’s a pile of others just inches away.

Another reason for my general dismissal of these “basket cases”, as I’ve come to think of them: I didn’t find them myself. It’s far more satisfying to find new music on your own than it is to have it spoon-fed to you by an enterprising publicist.  Of course, the odds of coming across the stuff completely independent of some agent, whether it’s the radio, your friends, or a music blog, are pretty slim. I learned this lesson a few years back, when I took a dip into the $2 bargain bin at my local record shop, hoping to unearth a gem. What I came up with was a disc from a group called Random Road Mother. Now there’s a CD I could probably throw out.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a renewed interest in tackling this mountain of CDs that threatens to take over my work space. I could say it’s because I’ve realized the error of my ways, but mostly it’s because we’re moving offices soon, and I know the bulk of the CDs won’t survive the trek. If I was ever going to find the proverbial needle in the haystack, I’d have to make my way through the pile while I still could. What I found was, well, interesting. Without further ado, I give you:

The Basket Case Awards

The Nevermind Award (Best Album Art)
Go! Go! 7188 – Best of Go! Go!

All other things being equal, I’m more likely to pick up CD with attractive cover art than one without. This same logic applied as I attacked the pile, and several covers stood out from the others. Thomas Pace’s New American Way is packaged to resemble a food item, with brightly colored peppermint candies strewn all over the front and back. No detail is ignored; the credits are listed as “Nutritional Facts”, the songs as “Ingredients”, and there’s even an allergy warning (“may contain opinions other than your own”). Hey, if that doesn’t get you to listen to the folksy pop within, what will?

I also don’t want to leave out the Fun Hit Wonders, sort of a Gorillaz for the toddler set; I gave the CD, titled Back to Cool, to my niece, but the accompanying colorful poster remains one of the few decorations in our soon-to-be-vacated office. Featured are the band’s four animated members:  Punky Parrot, Disco Dog, Hippie Hippo and Grungy Gorilla.

But there can only be one winner, and Japanese punk-pop trio Go! Go! 7188 Best of Go! Go! won me over with their greatest hits compilation. It wasn’t just the album cover, though the crisp silver-and-white mélange of Japanese characters and illustrations is pretty darn cool. The whole package was slick, from the photos to the snazzy plastic bag it all came in. OK, full disclosure; when the package first arrived, I thought we might’ve mistakenly received a shipment from a Tokyo sex shop. Any disappointment I felt was soon replaced by enjoyment – this is some great, energetic music. I’m just saying, some Hello Kitty nipple clips couldn’t hurt.

The they threw us all in a trench and stuck a monument on top Award (Best Album Title)
TV Set – Regret Is For Humans

I always enjoy the artists that, three albums into their career, decide to release a self-titled CD. It’s as if they’ve run out of title ideas. As I found out while going through this pile, that lack of creativity can sometimes be a good thing.

For this award, I was going to go with Forty Piece Choir’s The Profound Nature of Life, until I realized the band might actually be serious. I almost chose the so-bad-it’s-good Apocalypse Cow, by roots/electronica band SeepeopleS, but that just seemed too easy.

Regret Is For Humans stood out for its dark-edged absurdity; with the title and the angry thylacine (a marsupial predator found on Tasmania, the last existing specimen of which died in captivity in 1936, according to the back cover of the album) on the cover, you’d think this was the work of some brooding metal band. In fact, TV Set is just one Chicago man with a love for new wave and industrial music and for the environment. He’s been around the Chicago music scene since 1987, which looks to be when his last press shot was taken. 

The Cervix Couch / Pelvic Meatloaf
(Best Band Name)—Yes, those are real band names.
The Its!

Band names with punctuation always kill me. Do you think they get mad if a promoter leaves the exclamation point off a flyer? I think a ‘z’ at the end of the name would’ve been just as edgy, but maybe I just don’t know the music biz. Extra points for keeping up the theme with their new album, M!stakes (the E is backwards, by the way).

The Yid Vicious Award (Best Band Name, Jewish Division)

Maybe because of my last name, I tend to get a lot of albums from Jewish groups, or at least they make up a larger percentage of the albums I get based on Jewish groups’ actual market share. From the looks of things, Jews appear to love comedy tunes, so I chose this award based on which name made me laugh louder upon first seeing it. Jewmongous (aka Sean Altman) has a nice ring to it, which is more than I can say for most of the tracks on Taller than Jesus, which include such gems as “Just Too Jew for You” and “They Tried fo Kill Us (We Survived, Let’s Eat).” All in all, it did less damage to my people’s reputation than Good for the Jews, the New York duo of Rob Tannenbaum (VH1’s go-to Jew) and David Fagin. Honestly, these guys just annoy me. Strangely, they also have a song called “They Tried to Kill Us.” We do love to sing about our troubles.

The “Just Go With Stars” Award (Most Amusing Review Quote)
She’s Your Sister – OneTwoThreeFour

Look, I understand why you would include complimentary quotes from a number of media sources when you’re trying to get other media sources to give you complimentary quotes. It makes sense. But I think you have to be a little selective. Plastered on She’s Your Sister’s album is a sticker bearing the following “rave” review: “The band’s music is edgy yet thoroughly commercial” (Music Connection). Is that even a compliment? I’m not sure, but after listening to the album (or at least the recommended tracks, 5, 7 and 12), I couldn’t come up with anything else.

Oh, and I can’t leave out this gem from Roctober #38, discussing TV Set’s Regret Is For Humans: “New Wave so classic it’s Old Wave but so perfect it’s True Wave.”

The RIYL Award (Best Artist Bio)
White Hot Knife - Liars Make Good Lovers

I kind of hate the press releases that come along with CDs; I get why they’re necessary, but they really make it hard to ignore the business side of the music. I don’t want a band pitched to me in the same way you’d pitch a new drink or seasonal menu item. I have no doubt that some publicists do what they do out of passion for the music (“music is passion; thanks for listening,” is the signoff for The Its!’ publicist), but sometimes it seems like they just write too much nonsense about too many different bands that they lose sight of how ridiculous they sound:

Somewhere in the cold and windy Chicago night, a new musical movement is gaining momentum. Smooth as silk yet tough as nails, White Hot Knife’s romantic sound is defined by thundering beats that are designed to capture and hypnotize. Chic bass driven melodies and angled patterns of fluttering guitar are bringing this sound to the forefront of the indie rock scene. White Hot Knife has emerged from the ashes of former hardcore and electronic projects to create a sound that blends eroticism with dark pop elements in a way never seen before. Get ready to march to the beat of your own funeral drum, White Hot Knife is here.

Honestly, that wasn’t even the best bio I read this year. This is cheating a bit, since I actually received it at my home instead of the office, but I have to share Julien Aklei’s unique personality with as many people as I can. Accompanying her Fun for Fairies disc was a page covered with whimsical designs. Sadly, I lost the paper, but I was able to locate some of the text on her website:

Julien Aklei is a singer-songwriter whose music covers such universal themes as wanting to make love, to be or not to be, and the possibility of life on other planets.  She performs around Kentucky and records music daily from the sparkling, all-white beauty of her living room. She believes that colors are the “Original Friends” created by the Goddess on the first day of creations, and that Music, whose scales contain every one of these shimmering rainbow notes, is therefore capable of healing and harmonizing all things. Not to mention that it is uplifting and encourages people to make love, to themselves or other beings (including plants). If her music were to be placed in a musical tradition, it would be the tradition of the Lonely Orphic Fool, playing into the microphone of a reflective pool. She is signed to Kentucky Records, and believes that each being should make love to every other being and that one special song will result from each union.

The A&R Awards (Best Discoveries)
Through it all, of course, I did unearth some great new music from the pile, which I pull out whenever my office mate’s not digging the Fiona Apple Pandora station. Because this column is already well over 2,000 words, I’m not going to spend more than 10 words on any of them. But if you come across ‘em in the bargain bin, don’t hesitate.

Arms & Sleepers – Black Paris 86
These moody electronic workouts will please Boards of Canada fans.

The Comas – Spells
Just check out the PopMatters review.

Cave – Hunt Like Devil/JAMZ EP
Drugs may help you enjoy these experimental psychedelic rockers.

Do these discoveries make all the effort worth it? Once you find them, sure. You just have to believe that you are going to stumble onto something good. Deep down, I’m still that 17-year-old kid that can’t believe he’s getting sent free CDs. It’s hard to imagine that I’m not just being sent the crap that doesn’t have a hope of selling. But if I hope to continue getting these gifts (if all the bands that send me them haven’t already decided to cut me off for being an ungrateful bastard), I’ll have to get over that. I need to rediscover my passion for discovering new music, even if it means digging through another huge batch of free tunes. I know, I know; it’s a rough gig.

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