In 1998, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, there were over 7,000 CDs released. This year it looks like consumers will be just as inundated with product; these numbers don't even represent all the CDs from basement-recording-studio pop-stars and indie labels. Sounds like the national census to me. Factor in those CDs, and you're looking at more than one album released every hour. It's not surprising that many new titles go unnoticed by the majority of shoppers, who may bypass those less-hyped CDs in favor of more comfortable musical territory. So allow me to hype a few 1999 CDs that might have been overlooked.
Philip Glass, Dracula (Nonesuch): In 1931, Tod Browning, working under the aegis of Universal studios, directed one of the best-ever renditions of the bloodsucker myth that was as undying as its main character. There was only one problem with the film: It was made with very little musical accompaniment. This year, American neo-classical composer Philip Glass fixed that with this newly written score for the film; the video was re-released this year, as was the new soundtrack. Glass' repetitive thematic style is perfectly suited to the subject matter, and an accompanying performance by the Kronos Quartet is top-notch. Purists may howl, but the CD is excellent, both as a companion for a late-night rainy drive and an undercurrent to Dracula's menacing eyes.
Lunar Drive, All Together Here (Beggar's Banquet): Three Native Americans and a disco diva enter a recording studio — no, it's not the first line of a bad joke, but the beginnings of a beautiful relationship. The fact that some of the band members live thousands of miles from each other doesn't interrupt the cool vibe that flows through this fine album. Vocalist Sandy Hoover lives in London, while Rey Cantil, who provides poetry for the band, lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and two other singers, Ed Walksnice and Reuben Fast Horse, live in Michigan and North Dakota respectively. The group combines drum 'n' bass, house beats, disco vocals, and Indian chants in a way that confirms some of the most adventurous music being released emanates from a mix of microchips and humans.
Terence Blanchard, Jazz in Film: (Sony Classical): Jazz music has quite a noble lineage in American film. In the '40s and '50s, movie directors realized the emotional potential of linking up the two art forms, commissioning studio composers to provide jazz-inflected orchestrations. This was at the height of the age of film noir, a movement that explored without apology the dark underbelly to post-war boom, and the ability of jazz to reflect it. In his newest release, trumpet player Blanchard, who has worked with maverick director Spike Lee, takes us back to an era of importance in music and film with new arrangements of these classic jazz pieces. Arranged and produced by Blanchard, the album travels from the bop-flavored score of A Streetcar Named Desire to a driving excerpt from Anatomy of a Murder. Since movie studios now often eschew original soundtracks in favor of wall-to-wall pop hits, we may never see and hear film and jazz resume their love affair. Thankfully, people like Blanchard are around to remind us of love lost.
Noah House of Dread, Heart: (On-U Sound): In the early '80s, a young Briton named Adrian Sherwood happened upon an idea that would move reggae music forward leaps and bounds. Sherwood invited reggae touring acts to flop in his recording studio while in town to lay down a few tracks. And so On-U Sound was born, a label that housed a collective of musicians from various backgrounds and produced some of the best dub, standard reggae, and all-around weird albums this side of Kingston. Among the stable mates was percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah, who also worked in the On-U Sound aggregate, African Head Charge, one of the more experimental offshoots. In 1982, Bonjo was offered a singing position, and he delivered a classic and heartfelt album that was steeped in the Rastafarian traditions of love, spirituality, and maintaining strength in a progressively hostile world. With majestic horn arrangements, bass-heavy rhythms, and Noah's reedy and plaintive vocals, Heart is an endearing album. Long unavailable, this album was re-issued this year.
Years ago, the bumper sticker that read "Support Local Music" was an ubiquitous fixture on vehicles traipsing through San Antonio streets. Lately, whether from failing eyesight or inattention, I seem to be seeing this exhortation less. I hope this isn't an indication that locals are taking their hometown musicians for granted, especially since there were more than a few quality works released this year.
Los #3 Dinners, ¡Quiero un Camaro!: An argument could be made that the Dinners are S.A.'s own Rolling Stones: graying hipsters still kicking out roots-rock barroom blues. Captured on CD in a live studio recording, Los #3 Dinners prove with this CD that they are still one of S.A.'s best reasons to hit the live clubs.
Two Tons of Steel, Oh No! (Big Bellied Records): Led by Kevin Geil, Two Tons have been whooping up Texas stages with their rockabilly and Texas-swing grooves for years. With the band now on a short sabbatical, fans will have to do with this fine and well produced effort.
The Swindles, Drunk for Your Amusement: Venerable local musician Mitch Webb leads the Swindles, a band that plays Texas (pronounced Tejas) music as well as anybody on the scene. Produced, engineered, and mixed by Joe Reyes, a.k.a. one-half of local guitar duo Lara and Reyes, Drunk is simply great hip-shaking, beer-drinking rock 'n' roll. It also features the best use of a mandolin since Peter Buck picked one on the Replacements' song "I Will Dare."
The Drips, The Drips: Ya' gotta love the Drips. Their D.I.Y. CD kicks off with a Devo cover and sustains an energetic level of power-pop punk rock for the next 30minutes. The Pixies-ish "euronymous" and potentially anthemic "born to lose" are two highlights.
The RIAA, in association with the National Recording Merchandisers, commissioned a couple of focus groups last year to determine why consumers were buying or not buying music. Even with all the CDs released, polls told them that 57 percent of folks who strolled into music stores left empty-handed. With all the great stuff out, only a tiny fragment of which I mentioned here, this is pretty depressing. There are musicians whose lifelong goal is to bend someone's ear, but they're being consigned to the close-out bin. Whether it's the fault of the suits who sign these bands only to drop the ball in promotion, lazy consumers seeking the easy route, or just plain bad luck, there are real artists stuck in the middle, waiting to be heard. There's nothing like taking a chance on something — people should try it sometime. At least once.
Metro Times music editor Chris Handyside offers his own list of overlooked musical gems for 1999...
First of all, let's get the cobras out of the way:
Cleveland's Johnny Petkovic steps out of the Guided By Voices shadow he's been lingering in for the past year and makes rock'n'roll both glamorous and sinister.
A lot more fun than the name would have you believe, this 12-track exploration of modern musical cut-and-paste takes too long to get next to for many less-patient listeners (and, perhaps, critics). It's worth the effort to hear these two Berlin women skewer popular convention and preconceived notion.
Les Savy Fav
The Cat and the Cobra
One of the most encouraging developments in rock 'n' roll since Brainiac. Les Savy Fav proves that rock 'n' roll can be artful, guttural, gutter-al and literate simultaneously. When five bright, enlightened people with three guitars and a drum set their minds to studying the rock beast and reinterpreting it for a hyper-fucked world, great things can happen. And they do on these tracks.
OK, now the rest of the best of the missed…
Ben Folds Five
Sure, sure, this record was released by a major label with all of its clout and such. Thing is, no one noticed. Lacking an easy "hit" that'd assure this record a spot on moderate rock radio, it just languished in the bins. Thing is, it's fucking brilliant! Folds is lucid, melancholy and lyrical (and, yes, sometimes still poppy as all get out) on piano and vocals. Think "Brick," the haunting hit from the Five's Forever and Ever Amen but more focused, literate and extended over an album's length.
Out There in the Dark
Detroit's Outrageous Cherry deliver on the unmade promise between Lou Reed and Brian Wilson to collaborate on a post-modern pop record. Any retro-rock crew should be rightly ashamed of themselves when they get a load of OC's modern reinventions of the psyche and garage-punk rock wheels.
Old Time Relijun
Uterus & Fire
Sometimes the name almost says it all. This is music from the demented heart of Waits / Beefheart, but distempered by a demented indie-rock, homemade self-awareness. Sometimes the youth of America are really, really scary!
The kind of hip-hop that couldn't come from either of the coasts. This Chicago collective mixes consciousness, paranoia, concrete and a wildly expanded verbal and sonic vocabulary to make the definitive fly-over hip-hop statement. Try this at home.
I Oughtta Give You a Shot in the Head for Making Me Live in this Dump
(Odeon – Capitol)
Across the tracks is a girl who looks really cool, but you don't have the guts to break through the barrier into her world. Well, she's invited you in. She'll tell you her story, which ain't always pretty, but she's crafty and she'll charm you into listening to the whole yarn. Arecord as sincere as sunshine peering into a cave.
R.I.P. Wildbunch. We knew 'em when.
You Must First
Learn to Draw the Real
The scariest (is that a word?) record you'll ever rock out to. Detroit's masters of darkside of the rock ambiance and attack return with an EP worth of songs as fascinating as watching a factory burn.
And Lee Gardner of Baltimore's City Paper has added a few nuggets of his own to this list ...
Nels Cline / Gregg Bendian
Interstellar Space Revisited: The Music of John Coltrane
Avant-guitar shred meets free-jazz spazz—but with soul (how's that for some rock-crit verbal algebra?). The virtue of approaching this music with an electric guitarist (especially Cline) is that you are no longer limited by the physical/sonic properties of a horn — anytime you feel the need to take it higher, you stomp on a pedal and you've got a whole new thing happening. When all is said and done, I listened to this one a lot, which is always a good sign.
The Dismemberment Plan
Emergency and I
Promise Ring sounds just a little bit too much like the Outfield for my own personal comfort. D.C.'s Dismemberment Plan sounds, well, a bit like the Dave Matthews Band, to be honest — weird, syllable-jamming, warbling vocalist; some "funky beats"; and fairly slick production values. But the songs feel very personal in a way that almost no pop music seems to in 1999, and the band's synthed-up, off-center pop sound keeps me listening and gives me an excuse when caught really feeling the slightly corny "emo" parts.
I would say that he's the Brazilian Beck, but that would imply he's trying to be ironically wacky or something. Very spirited, upbeat Afro-Brazilian pop that blends Bahia, bossa nova, and the Beatles. Again, I listened to it a lot, and I understand about a dozen words of Portuguese.