Friday, March 20, 2009

Seven Bands That Will Make Your Life Sound Better

Anyone that's killed enough time on this blog to "check out my complete profile" knows that I have a pretty broad spectrum of musical interests. When I made my list of favorite musicians and bands, I had to edit for about four hours to get to the acceptable number of characters. Some call that obsession. I call that a broad spectrum.

I have some odd tastes. Depending on the day of the week, my favorite band is probably Queen, The Who, or The Kinks. I have a random selection on my iPod which includes Bob Marley, Bob Mould, Mannheim Steamroller, Iron Maiden, Genesis, Polyphonic Spree, Ted Nugent, The Waterboys, and Peter Gabriel + Deep Forest.

I also have a love of finding, discovering, or being introduced to musicians I'd never known before. Some are on my profile list, and a couple of people have asked about some of them. I thought I'd address just a few of the best.

Big Star

This is the great forgotten American band. Undoubtedly the most influential band on this list, they're one of the most influential bands of all times. Don't believe me? Ask any rock critic over the age of 30, or any fan of power pop. Bridging the gap between bands of the British Invasion (the Beatles, Kinks, and Byrds) and the gods of the 'alternative' firmament (R.E.M., the Replacements, Teenage Fanclub), they were a critical powerhouse whose quality was lauded at the time, yet who sold little records - even as they toured.

Of the power pop Holy Trinity - along with Badfinger and the Raspberries - they sounded truly like no other band on the planet. They were formed in Memphis in 1971 by singer/guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Former Box Top Alex Chilton, a singer, guitarist, and songwriter joined them soon after. Sharing duties with Bell, the two wrote one of the greatest albums of the rock era, #1 Record.

#1 Record featured "Thirteen," "Don't Lie to Me," "In the Street," and other shoulda-been-classics. "Thirteen" is just one of the best songs ever written about adolescence, and has been covered by Garbage, Elliot Smith, Evan Dando, and Wilco. Two different version of "In the Street" were used as the opening theme of That 70's Show - including one by Cheap Trick, one of Big Star's mid-70's descendents.

After #1 Record failed to meet the band and label's expectations, Bell left - but only after contributing to the second album. The remaining members, plus guests, released Radio City in 1974. "Back of a Car" is clearly a Bell/Chilton piece, but the album's sweet spot is "September Gurls," a Chilton nugget that I would argue is one of the top 20 American songs ever written. Though it was received even better critically, Radio City also failed to make a sales splash. Hummel left the band and Chilton and Stephens continued on with a new lineup. Entirely directed by Chilton, the band laid down studio tracks for a third album, but drifted apart. The album was shelved, the band broke up completely, and in 1978, the album was released. Known as both Third and Sister Lovers, it was described as Rolling Stone as "beautiful and disturbing; pristine and unkempt - and vehemently original." It was the sound of a band, a man, a relationship falling apart - and Big Star made it beautiful. Not long after Third/Sister Lovers was released, Bell died in a car crash - and one of the most promising songwriting careers ever was cut short.

The remnants of the band mostly stayed apart until 1993, when students from the University of Missouri contacted them about playing a special one-time concert. To everyone's surprise, Chilton and Stephens accepted. Joined by Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow from the Posies (another disciple of Big Star's style and sound), they performed, recorded, and reformed. Over time, they have taken part in short tours, shows, and recorded on and off. This lineup appears to be the new, permanent lineup. As heretical as it may be to say, based on talent alone, this might be the greatest lineup of power pop talent ever assembled.

I was lucky to see them a few years ago in Memphis during Memphis in May. It was a short set; one got the idea that they would play only as long as the eccentric Chilton felt like playing. But it was one of the happiest musical moments of my life. I recommend buying their entire catalogue. It is small enough to not break your bank. If you need the bare minimum, get both #1 Record and Radio City.

Live "September Gurls" video:

Black 47

Named, with typical irony, of the year of the Great Irish Famine, this NYC-based legend was formed 20 years ago by Larry Kirwan and Chris Byrne, two Emerald Isle expats. Kirwan's provided the voice and guitar and Byrne the Uilleann pipes, whistles, and other noisemakers. Joined soon after by drummer Thomas Hamlin, sax player Geoffrey Blythe, trombone player Fred Parcells, and bassist David Conrad, they began to dabble with their mix of teary Celtic, rousing dance-hall, brassy reggae, and smoky, blues-band stylings. In 1991, they released an indie CD, Black 47, which earned them a surprising amount of attention from label higher-ups.

When A&R people called Kirwan and asked (or demanded) CD’s, he preferred to send them the names of the bars or joints where the band was playing and letting them know they’d be on the list. The ploy worked; the major labels showed up, and EMI signed them. In 1993, Ric Ocasek produced their big-league debut, Fire of Freedom, which put them on the map with “Maria’s Wedding” and “Funky Ceili.”

Not wanting to be pigeonholed as a “funny Irish” band, Kirwan and the boys went a little more serious for their outstanding follow-up, Home of the Brave. During the time, though, EMI went through a tumult and the band was cut free and began to drift into major-label obscurity. However as a unit, I believe (as I'm sure they themselves would agree) they became even better, with a series of terrific records, including: Green Suede Shoes, Trouble in the Land, New York Town, and Iraq.

The band has seen a little turnover. Joe Mulvanerty and Joe Burcaw joined, Andrew Goodsight joined and left, and in 2000, they suffered their biggest loss when Chris Byrne left the group. They've remained a fixture at Paddy Reilly's bar, their shows are frequent and loved, they've toured everywhere, but there are still people who have yet to discover their New York based multi-cultural mix of music.

Do yourself a favor: if you haven't acquired some of their material, do so now. I recommend starting with Fire of Freedom and Home of the Brave, and then moving on to the politically-charged Iraq.

"Funky Ceili" video:

Enter the Haggis

Toronto-based Enter the Haggis has put in a bid to be the biggest crossover multi-styled Celtic band on the planet. It could happen. They're that good. Since their formation in 1996, the band has earned their reputation as a monster live act - by combining (literally) all aspects of Celtic music with prog-rock, punk, folk, jazz, ska, and anything else they feel like playing, they have created an unusual, yet accessible sound that appeals to fans across the musical spectrum. And these guys are good.

Fiddle player Brian Buchanan and guitarist Trevor Lewington frequently work together, mingling their instruments into a sort of Scottish power harmony. Piper Craig Downie is that rarity: he's astoundingly good, but he works hard to blend in with the rest. Bassist Mark Abraham and drummer James "Seamus" Campbell form as tight and powerful a rhythm section as you'll find playing today. They play with the verve and energy of an arena band, but with the soul and spirit of a proper Celtic rock-n-reel group.

But before you think it's all about loud guitars and showmanship (which they do well), they also know when to turn it down from 11 and hit the traditional music. When they do, they're magnificent. If you get the idea that I think they're brilliant, you're right. They're absolutely one of my favorite bands working today - and I'm not the only one who thinks so. Touring extensively in Canada, the US, and Europe (and followed by battalions of Haggis Heads), they should have it all, but there are still many, many people out there who have yet to discover how good these guys are. I'm just doing my part to correct that travesty.

I'm going to recommend any and all of it. Their newest, Gutter Anthems, is out this month. My first album was Aerials - and I love it so. Their live shows are tremendous, so Live! or Northampton would also be excellent choices.

Live "Congress" video:

The Mountain Goats

Since its debut in 1991 as one of the minor stars in the lo-fi firmament, the Mountain Goats have regularly toured, recorded, created unique multi-record song series, and have created a sound in and of itself. Transcending the lo-fi genre in 2002 by jumping from the complex, immediate, and boombox-recorded All Hail West Texas to the harrowing, brilliant major-label debut, Tallahassee - and in doing so, they recorded a great one-two punch of emotional, lyric-driven music.

Chief Goat John Darnielle is the band's constant and its creative core (bassist Peter Hughes is the only other official member). In his early days, he was known for writing lyrics and music, and recording it in a week or less in an effort to not lose it. Darnielle is a rare bird. He is outrageously prolific (hundreds of bands would've sacrificed a perfectly good drummer to the devil for either Texas or Tallahassee - he did both in one year), and his quality has remained remarkably consistent.

Singing in an enunciative style, he makes it clear he's not mumbling the message; he's the Anti-Stipe. He wants you to hear his lyrics, and therein lies his strength. He is a tremendous lyricist, turning and twisting words and lines that others would consider impossible, using Latin, and skewing the tempo to fit the mood. He makes language dance for him. Whereas most lyricists might best be described as high school poets seeking that first publication, he works the language like a seasoned novelist. And like a novelist, he understands story. His most famous song series, the "Alpha" series, concerns a married couple whose relationship deteriorates over the course of numerous lo-fi cassettes and albums (in songs that all reference the word "Alpha.") It is their final story that forms Tallahassee, as they move into a crumbling house - which reflects their relationship - and attempt to force the other to drink themselves to death. Genius.

With 2005's The Sunset Tree, he went autobiographical and detailed home life in Claremont, California with an abusive stepfather - pushing beyond a self-imposed taboo that he had only encroached upon once before. With songs like "You Or Your Memory," "Love Love Love," and most especially the brilliant "This Year," he carries you away into his own mind, yet you feel that he is an unreliable narrator. We wonder how much of this is true, and how much is rewritten history. We feel for Darnielle; it's impossible not to. Yet we wonder. It begs for repeated listening.

The Mountain Goats are one of those bands that have their devotees or have people that have never heard of them. It's obvious which I am. I recommend starting with The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. To go further, add All Hail West Texas, We Shall All Be Healed, and Heretic Pride. Then hunt down everything else you can find.

"This Year" video:

The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers might have been the most contrarian band to come out of the 80's. Hailing from Kansas City, Missouri, they specialized in a sort of barroom swamp rock more familiar to those in Memphis, New Orleans, or the like. They played to largely blue-collar crowds, yet frequently adopted dandyish outfits and sang from a distinctly conservative point of view. Given their big chance to hit on MTV, they did what many musicians wished they would have done and refused to sell out - they stayed true to their roots and their fans. Around the midwest - and particularly in Kansas City (and on the Kansas side of the border), they wrote themselves into legend. Oddly, they also became - and remained popular in Scandinavia, which led to one of the greatest live album names of all time: Oslo-Wichita Live.

Formed in 1983, they released their self-titled debut in 1986. Bob Walkenhorst provided the assured, occasionally-clipped, occasionally-shrill vocals; Steve Phillips provided snaky, swampy guitar; Rich Ruth delivered a bassline thick enough to walk on; and Pat Tomek's drumming stapled every piece together in tidy little rock-n-roll packages. In the US, "Let My People Go-Go" and "Downstream" saw airplay and videoplay. In the UK, "Let My People Go-Go" hit Top 20. In my part of the Lower Midwest, they were hailed as gods. Literally everyone I knew owned a copy and we knew every one of Walkenhorst's deceptively simple and controversial lyrics.

A couple of years later, Tornado was released, and I had a very difficult time finding a copy. When The Good News and the Bad News was released, I had to score a radio station's giveaway copy. Was this the label's fault? I know the band toured incessantly during that time, putting on flawless show after flawless show. When, around 1990, they announced (for the first time) that they were breaking up, they performed a farewell show in Wichita. Several thousand people showed up to say goodbye to what was, essentially, a bar band.

Thankfully they regrouped, put out a few more albums (which seem only to have been released in Scandinavia and Canada), and eventually called it quits in 1996. But even today, if I'm blasting "Downstream" in the car, I'll occasionally have someone ask: "Man, is that the Rainmakers? God, I love them!" Maybe a lot of people never knew their name, but those of us that did will never forget them.

Recommendations: Good luck; these are all hard to find. Start with Rainmakers, move on to The Good News and the Bad News, and then to Tornado and Skin. (Skin is Walkenhorst's anti-pornography album; it sounds less fun than it is. Still hard to find, though.)

"Downstream" video:

Sunny Day Real Estate

Of these seven bands, this is probably the best known. However, it amazes me to this day, how many fans of "grunge" or "emo" music, or simply fans of the Seattle scene - the ones who don't live there, of course - have never heard of Sunny Day Real Estate. My mind boggles, since it's quite clear that had one or two things not gone different, these guys could have been one of the biggest bands in the world.

Formed in 1992 as Empty Set, they tripped their way, Seattle-style, through a series of names before settling on SDRE. Vocalist/guitarist Dan Hoerner, bassist Nate Mendel, and drummer William Goldsmith added new vocalist/guitarist Jeremy Enigk, who drifted into the frontman position. With the members in place, the band released its debut, Diary, on Sub Pop Records in 1994. The grunge zeitgeist was in full-swing and SDRE was as good, if not better, than most. Sub Pop released "Seven" as a single, the band made the rounds on MTV, and...pretty much nothing good happened.

Throughout '94, they toured and exuded a sort of dark, quiet aura. "Seven," "Song About an Angel," and the magnificent "In Circles" all found fans, and - for better or worse - the band was instrumental in putting emo on the map. This was the band that defined the genre going in the '90s. Enigk's frequently-whispered vocals broke into melodies more often than the overdone screeching that came later, but the Hoerner/Enigk twining, flowing guitar attack has been copied a hundred times since. What has been simply impossible to copy was the tremendous 'bottom' of Mendel and Goldsmith, two unbelievably talented players.

Yet with all this, events went awry. Hoerner refused to play a KROQ show, causing the rest to play as a trio. Enigk turned to Christianity, causing tension in the group, and in early '95, Mendel and Goldsmith left the band to join Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters. Grohl's eye for talent served him well. Mendel remains in the band, though Goldsmith returned to SDRE after recording sessions for the Foos' The Colour and the Shape, after Grohl wanted to rerecord his drum parts. (This I don't understand; though it seems unpopular to say, at the time I believe Goldsmith to have been the superior drummer.)

During all this, the band laid down tracks for a second album. Even before the work was entirely finished, the band split up. The self-titled album (also known as LP2 and "The Pink Album") was released late in 1995, but it wasn't supported by label or band. Between 95-2000, the band recorded a third album, How it Feels to be Something On, with Jeff Palmer replacing Mendel, released a live record and video through Sub Pop it wasn't pleased with, left the label, signed with Time Bomb, recorded a phenomenal fourth album, The Rising Tide, as a trio, prepared a tour of Europe, and at the last moment, had their funding pulled by the label. Only a few weeks later, the label folded. The band parted ways in 2000.

They remain one of those Bands That Should Have Been. Misfortune dogged them; some of it of their own creation. Regardless, they are talented musicians who released some outstanding material as one great band. Recommendation: Diary and The Rising Tide are must-haves. How it Feels to Be Something On follows. "The Pink Album" and Live are for completists.

"Seven" video:


The newest band on the list is the Copenhagen-based Valravn. They began in 2003 when Søren Hammerlund sought new members of his medieval folk band, Virelai. He was joined by Martin Seeberg, a longtime member of Denmark's folk community, and then by Anna-Katrin Egilstrøð, a Faroe Islander, and Juan Pino, of Swiss-Ecuadoran heritage. Soon it became clear to them that wished to tweak their sound a bit, while still remaining true to their folk roots. They spun themselves into Valravn, brought aboard electronic musician Christopher Juul, and basically restarted the movement known as 'electro-folk' or (my favorite) 'folktronica.'

Valravn uses traditional instruments and vocal stylings, but manipulates the music like other electronic musicians do. The difference is that these people can actually perform. Anna-Katrin provides the lion's share of the vocals and sense of onstage drama. Hammerlund plays hurdy-gurdy, mandolin, and bouzouki. Seeberg brings both stringed instruments and flutes to the stage. Pino is the group's multi-percussionist. Juul is their producer, arranger, and performs all electronics onstage.

Since their first show in 2005, they have toured extensively only in Europe, but they have developed a following that can best be described as "rabid." This is a group I'd love to see, but I'm going to have to wait until one of us crosses the pond, I fear. With little personal information on the band (I discovered them on NPR's "The Thistle and Shamrock"), I spent some time web-searching them, only to find how widespread their following is.

In 2005, they released an EP, Krunk. In 2007, their first record, Valravn, was released. I have it, and though I can't understand a word Anna-Katrin says, it's brilliant. It sounds like nothing else out there. I suspect that they've got another few albums in them, and if the day comes when they come here, you can bet your traditional folk instrument that I'll be there to see them. My recommendation: Valravn.

Live "Vallevan" video:

With luck, I’ve got another seven lined up for next month.


  1. Bunny and I are in full agreement re: Big Star.

  2. How do you do it? I've found that ever since I hit 30 it's becoming harder and harder to find new music that I actually enjoy. Thank you for this, The Mountain Goats were brilliant.

  3. Thank you, gentlemen. Tom, I bet you've found the same thing I have: if you know Big Star, you love Big Star. There's no introduction without love.

    Bryan, the Goats still put out music. My guess is Darnielle will keep doing so for a long, long time. Glad you liked it.

  4. i want a big star fat blonde ;)