Should It Stay or Should It Go?

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Coulda Been a Contender

Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artists: Basehead; Gunbunnies; The Hummingbirds
Albums: Play With Toys (BH); Paw Paw Patch (GB); loveBUZZ (THB)
Source: Promos

Podcasts are my new crush. I recently discovered them, and they are taking over a significant part of my daily subway listening, somewhat to the detriment of the time I normally set aside for music.

One of the (many) reasons I am having this new affair with podcasts is that they are bringing me back to an old flame: radio. I can listen to radio shows anytime I want, even in the underground, radio-wave-free privacy of the MTA. At this point, I am pretty much listening to WNYC's Soundcheck every day. Music Uber-Nerd John Schaefer talk to music people about music things, and even when it's something I'm not technically all that interested in, it's still pretty interesting to sit in on the semi-private chat.

This week, Schaefer talked with Mike McCready, who I thought was in Pearl Jam...but it turned out he was an executive at Platinum Blue. PB is a company that claims to have high-tech computer models that can analyze the sonics of a song and determine pretty damn accurately if it will be a hit. The program doesn't take into account things like lyrics, the artist's personality or any of that jazz - it's all about the technicalities of the sonics and how they line up with the DNA of proven hits.

Regardless of how creepy or useful or excellent Platinum Blue might be, it only addresses big-league hit songs. But what about the infinite layers of likes/dislikes below that stratum? These three parts of The Beast are, to my mind, proof that all the technological advances in the universe won't help make some music at least semi-popular: I have listened to these albums by Basehead, Gunbunnies and The Hummingbirds, but I know not too many other people have. To the best of my knowledge, none of the three groups still exist a decade-plus later (all 3 discs date from around 1990 or so) and I bet I won't run into the president of the Gunbunnies Society anytime soon.

But when I first heard them, I remember feeling, deep down inside some heat-seeking part of myself, that all of these bands were destined for at least semi-fame. Not Madison Square Garden/Giants Stadium popularity, but at least a Trocadero/Bowery Ballroom fan-base.

Boy was I wrong.

They never found the ears (or hearts, which might be more important). Maybe if they'd popped their little heads above ground in the era of MySpace and such they coulda been contenders, but as it is they slinked off with nary a ripple in the big ol' pond of rock. Why? It beats the bejeesus out of me. Basehead dropped in 1992, a peak period of hip-hip/indie rock crossover and came off like the Galaxie 500 of rap: slow, swirly, hazy beatscapes with cool samples and a laconic rapper with a twisted sense of humor. The songs had stories, layers of things for a pair of ears to latch onto and a unique point of view within a recognizable milieu. Or something like that. I knew one other guy in college who liked the disc, and I think the band did 1 or 2 more, but nothing ever took off.

Gunbunnies are even more mysterious. To the best of my knowledge Paw Paw Patch is both the band's debut and swan song. This disc has a reliably R.E.M.-ish aesthetic, complete with a Southern drawl in its melodic, jangly rock tunes. I'd argue that any of 10 songs here are potential anthems of a sort, and it even has the production stamp of Southern-rock maverick Jim Dickinson. I love the twists of phrase and rhythm in "Put a Tail on Your Kite," "Big Talk" pops into my head anytime there's talk of small talk, and the closer, "Drinking Days," could play near the end of any party you've ever been to. And yet, it never will.

Finally, The Hummingbirds. At the time (1989), this one had Breakout written all over it. Melodic pop-rock with alternately jangly/noisy guitars, sweet but aggressive male/female vocals, and even an antipodean heritage. loveBUZZ kinda had it all. But now, with a little distance, I guess I can see the point of the general indifference. Leadoff track "Blush" sets to disc off like a rocket, and the droney "House Taken Over" would fit comfortably on any of your better shoegazer records. But the whole thing goes on too long and meanders too much along the way. I guess sometime the general rock public knows what it's doing when it's not listening...

SISOSIG? None of these bands will be touring into town, there are no archival box sets or luxe & deluxe reissues forthcoming. These bands just didn't make it and that's all there is to it. But Basehead and Gunbunnies are, all these years later, still in semi-regular rotation and I actually think of them quite often, and fondly at that. They may not be popular with the other kids, but we're still good friends. The Hummingbirds, on the other hand, are good for 2 tunes that will pop up on MP3-shuffled playlists every now and then, and that's fine. loveBUZZ can go, but not before "Blush" and "House Taken Over" spend a few minutes in my CD-ripping program.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Patience Makes Perfect

Bardo Pond
Originally uploaded by bsglaser.
Artist: Bardo Pond
Album: Dilate
Source: Bought used

Here's a perfect example of the dilemma posed in my previous entry: I was patient with Bardo Pond, a band I initially didn't really care for, and it paid off.

Living in Philadelphia in the 90s, it was pretty hard for a music person to miss Bardo Pond. Arguably the flagship band of the so-called "Psychedelphia" scene, the Pond was everywhere: opening for touring bands, appearing on compilations, showing up at events. I must have seen them half a dozen separate times without even trying - they opened for Sonic Youth and Mo Tucker, played inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art during some event sponsored by my erstwhile employer, and were generally just present in the scene. In short, the Pound was unavoidable.

And, to my ears, unenjoyable. I just didn't dig them. Chris lent me some CDs, and I paid attention at the shows. In theory, they were a group I should have loved, with all the little things (stoned & dethroned distorto guitars, a kinda sexy-dirty singer who busted out a flute from time to time, a willingness to improvise way out beyond the edge of good sense) that make for a Good Band For Brian present and totally accounted for.

Still, no dice. But I didn't give up...these guys were blatantly standing in front of a door with a big ol' neon sign in front of it, beckoning me. Come to the Pond...Come to the Pond...

Then it happened. Bardo Pond was one of about 30 or so bands on the bill at Terrastock in Seattle, an occasional modern-psychedelic festival held by the good elves who run the Ptolemaic Terrascope mag. Chris and I jetted across the country to soak in all the guitar-damaged goodness. About halfway through the 2nd day, I steeled myself for even yet another underwhelming Bardo set...which, of course, completely blew my mind.

Maybe it was the festival. Maybe it was all the pot smoke in the air. Maybe it was new drummer Ed Farnsworth, who poured some serious rhythmic glue into the Pond. Whatever it was, it worked. After 45 minutes, the set was over WAY too soon, and I felt like some central lobes of my brain had just gone 10 rounds with a lysergic heavyweight. The key was turned, the door opened.

I picked up Dilate, and have a few other stray Bardo Pond pieces here & there. I don't necessarily need more (or at least not much more...sorry, Eileen), but Bardo Pond stands as an object lesson on why I hold onto discs that have more potential than kinetic energy stored up in the grooves.

SISOSIG? Dilate's a keeper, and to be honest I'm a little bummed I didn't manage to come around while I was still living in Psychedelphia proper. If I had been seeing the Pond once a month or so after the revelation...well, there's no telling how much stuff would be in this entry.