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The ones that nearly got away: Spice Girls, Spice

[Spice Girls - Spice]

It was the start of the century, and I volunteered to work behind the scenes at the Austin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Crowd control during screenings meant a lot of standing around, waiting for something to happen. Another volunteer with incredibly fashionable shoes started singing a vaguely familiar pop song.

“Who is that?” I asked.

“Spice Girls!” he answered, aghast someone who would identify as gay would not know something so basic.

Unbeknownst to him, I had been familiar with Spice Girls at one point.

You couldn’t go to a gay bar without hearing the quintet’s latest single. I had enough gumption to buy the album that didn’t have Geri Halliwell. And yeah, I owned Spice and Spiceworld.

They were casualties of a collection purge after the dot-com bust, and my tenure at Waterloo Records inflamed my rock snobbery. Spice Girls had been washed from my memory.

But like Sugababes’ “Overload”, “Say You’ll Be There” is one of those ear confections that don’t wear out. I could happily never encounter “Wannabe” for the rest of my life but not so with “Say You’ll Be There.”

At the same time, I wasn’t about to drop any more than $1 to bring the album back into my collection. (Thank you, thrift stores!)

Spice is certainly a relic of the late ’90s, but it ages pretty well. The quintet’s girl-power mantra feels sincere on this first outing, while subsequent albums would suffer under the pressure to turn a quick buck.

The album has its share of duds — I’m looking at you, “Mama” — but they’re offset by the likes of “Who Do You Think You Are” and “If You Can’t Dance”. On the whole, Spice is actually a cohesive effort, a pop album shooting for something beyond the top of the charts.

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The ones that nearly got away: Shawn Colvin, A Few Small Repairs

[Shawn Colvin - A Few Small Repairs]

The success of Shawn Colvin’s A Few Small Repairs was a huge deal in Austin.

Despite its billing as “The Live Music Capital of the World”, the Austin music scene didn’t have much of a national profile beyond music industry insiders. Seattle had its moment with grunge, and Prince was synonymous with Minneapolis.

Austin had a statue to Stevie Ray Vaughan.

I had heard about Shawn Colvin before I moved to Austin in May 1997 — 20 years ago this month! — but I hadn’t heard any of her music. My parents still didn’t have cable television when I moved away, so tuning into MTV in the St. Edwards University apartments where the Austin American-Statesman housed its interns was pretty novel.

That’s where I encountered the video for “Sunny Came Home.” The chorus of the song grabbed me, and of course, it was all over local radio. Before there was Kanye vs. Taylor Swift, P. Diddy infamously grabbed the mic from Colvin as she was accepting her Grammy award.

The late ’90s were kind to the Austin music scene. Flush from the dot-com boom, transplants such as myself were eager to spend our cash, and the entertainment districts in Austin gladly took it. Beside the usual country acts, Austin supported singer-songwriters and indie rock bands. Colvin was the first to emerge nationally, followed a year later by Fastball.

I hadn’t been to many concerts before moving to Austin, and it was the live music experience that made me realize gay bars weren’t really that much fun.

A Few Small Repairs and my first summer in Austin are pretty much entwined.

Then the economy tanked four years later, and A Few Small Repairs got traded for cash. My motivation for selling the album was based on the reason I bought it: peer pressure.

I really hadn’t chosen to live in Austin — it was just the place that allowed me to leave Honolulu. By embracing the local music scene, I could embrace the city that was to become my home.

The dot-com bust landed me a job at Waterloo Records, where I was subjected to music I just didn’t like. Up until then, I tried to be a cheerleader for everything new I encountered, but that experience made me realize I didn’t have to like everything.

As money got tight, I couldn’t justify devoting shelf space to an album if I liked only one song on it, so A Few Small Repairs got purged.

I was wrong, of course. A Few Small Repairs had more than one great song on it, as evidenced by “Get Out of This House”, the track following “Sunny Came Home”. “Wichita Skyline” and “Nothin’ On Me” provide further evidence.

I did have the presence of mind to rip the album before I sold it, suspecting I was making a foolish decision, which I confirmed years later when I found that rip and listened to it.

I wouldn’t welcome the album back into my collection till I found it at a book sale for the Friends of the Seattle Public Library.

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The ones that nearly got away: Capercaillie, Sidewaulk

[Capercaillie - Sidewaulk]

The clerk at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop got a kick when I approached the counter with two copies of Capercaillie’s Sidewaulk, one on CD, the other on vinyl. Even I was astounded by the serendipity.

I had surrendered Capercaillie to a collection purge more than a decade previous. My fascination with Celtic music had long passed, and I was pressed for cash.

A playlist I created on Google Play Music based on some old mixed tapes brought Capercaillie back to my attention, and I craved to hear the band again.

Capercaillie also holds the distinction of being one of the first bands I discovered through the Internet. Numerous recommendation threads on rec.music.celtic mentioned them, and I was already enamored of Solas by Talitha Mackenzie.

Sidwaulk also introduced me to medleys of reels. While Clannad included instrumental tracks on their traditional albums, they didn’t perform them with the same dance tempo as Capercaillie or Altan.

My classically-trained, pop-raised ears at first found the simple A-B structure of reels a bit … wanting. But now, I appreciate the level of virtuosity required to perform them at such a frenetic pace.

Capercaillie, like Clannad, have a keen sense when to pull back from tradition and be a straight-forward pop group. “Fisherman’s Dream” would have found a spot on an adult contemporary radio playlist at the time of its release in 1989, and “O Mo Dhùthaich” can find admirers among Enya fans.

Listening to the album again makes me realize that some of these past collection purges may have been a bit excessive. Or else I was really desperate for cash to have part with an album as enjoyable — and instructional — as Sidewaulk.

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The ones that nearly got away: Clannad, Lore

[Clannad - Lore]

I had to choose.

It was 2002, and I was working a minimum-wage job. I was moving to a smaller apartment, and I couldn’t house my collection in the reduced space. So I had to let go of anything to which I didn’t feel a strong attachment.

In the mid-’90s, I was a Clannad completist. I had the soundtrack albums. I had the critically-panned albums. I had the folk albums. And I had the albums with Enya on them.

But it was too much, and if I were pressed, I could admit I didn’t love all of it. Some decisions were easy: MacallaMagical Ring and the folk albums stayed. AnamSirius and Landmarks would go.

Lore was on the cusp.

At the time it was released, I gave it a favorable review in the student newspaper. That was in 1996. It was 7 years later. Did I absolutely love this album this album? The answer was … no. I liked it very much, but it didn’t occupy the same space of necessity as MacallaFuaim or Banba.

So it went.

Lore made its way back into my collection after I compiled a Google Play Music playlist of an old mix tape that included “Seanchas”. The track was the highlight of the album, and it made me crave to hear the rest of it.

Luckily, I found a copy of the album for $1 at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop.

It’s nice to have this album back in the collection. Clannad can sometimes get a bit mired in adult contemporary smoothness, but when they craft a fine set of tunes, the tight choral harmonies and impeccable performances really shine.

Lore would occupy a higher rank in Clannad’s output if its predecessor, Banba, didn’t cast such a large shadow over it. A lot of Lore feels familiar — all the mysticism of “Harry’s Game” spread over an entire length of an album.

In a few instances, Lore stretches out. “Alasdair MacColla” feels more Scottish than Irish, and “From Your Heart” uses a drum loop more suitable for club music.

While it may seem I’m still ambivalent about Lore, I admit I made a mistake letting this one slip away. This one should have stayed.

 

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The ones that nearly got away: East of Eden, self-titled

[East of Eden- East of Eden]

I’m part of the last generation that knew what life was like before the Internet. For most people my age, we discovered new music by listening to the radio. If you hated radio — and I did — we found out about music through magazines. More adventurous listeners would seek out zines.

I picked up the self-titled debut of a Boston band named East of Eden because their album was on sale at Tower Records. There might have been a review somewhere. At the time, Boston was home to Throwing Muses and Pixies, so there was a chance some of that rubbed off on East of Eden.

Also, I liked the cover.

The album actually turned out to be pretty decent. It wasn’t Pixies or Throwing Muses by any stretch of the imagination, but it had all the requisite gloss of an ’80s record, and it wasn’t Richard Marx.

The album was released in 1989, a crowded year with a lot of stellar albums by XTC, the Replacements, the B-52’s and 10,000 Maniacs. East of Eden was good, but it didn’t have enough heft to elbow its way into regular rotation on my Walkman.

I bought the album on cassette, and in a crunch for cash, it was an early casualty.

East of Eden shares it name with a number of bands, and the Boston ensemble registers barely a footprint. Information is scarce on Discogs.com, which misattributes them as a Pennsylvania band. Google returns more results for a progressive rock band in the UK. The album itself is nowhere to be found on digital services.

I was surprised to find a copy of the album on CD at the Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Shop. It was evidence I wasn’t the only person to have ever owned the album, nor the only one to surrender it. For $1, I was willing to explore why I let it go in the first place.

Back in 1989, I wanted every album I bought to change my life. East of Eden didn’t, which was pretty unfair to the band. They recorded a good album that was victim to inattention by a major label in a fertile period ripe with great bands doing excellent work.

 

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The ones that nearly got away: Depeche Mode, Singles 81 > 85

[Depeche Mode - Singles 81 > 85]

Youth can be such a humorless time.

The only reason this compilation of early Depeche Mode singles slipped my grasp was because I found them too bright and airy.

For the longest time, Depeche Mode were my brother’s band, so I felt obligated to feel ambivalent toward them, if not downright hostile. My opinion didn’t turn around till Meat Beat Manifesto, Hooverphonic and Rammstein nailed covers of Depeche Mode songs on the tribute album, For the Masses.

Singles 86 > 98 followed soon afterward, and it spurred me to buy Violator and Music for the Masses.

My first stab at exploring Depeche Mode’s early singles was, of course, Catching Up with Depeche Mode. The weak mastering of the CD left me unimpressed, so I decided to wait if a remastered collection similar to Singles 86 > 98 would follow.

It did. I remained unimpressed.

Depeche Mode’s darker sound locked my perception of the band, to which the Vince Clarke-era material failed to conform. The early singles also sounded crude next to the richness of Violator. State of the art for 1980 was no match for state of the art for 1990.

Seventeen years would pass before I would give Depeche Mode’s early work another listen. The same trip to Lifelong AIDS Alliance Thrift Store that netted me True Blue by Madonna also caught me a vinyl copy of Catching Up with Depeche Mode.

I’ve mellowed out considerably since 1998.

I like the sunniness of those early singles now, and listening to them closely, they’re every bit as sophisticated as the later work. Perhaps more so, with synth lines in “Dreaming of Me” and “New Life” calling and answering each other in a post-modern form of counterpoint.

“Everything Counts” and “Shake the Disease” remain my favorite early singles, but “See You” and “Just Can’t Get Enough” join that list.

The second half of Catching Up is the point at which my brother foisted Depeche Mode on me. “Somebody” was pretty cringe-worthy when he overplayed it on the car stereo, and my opinion of the song has only dimmed with time. “Master and Servant” and “Blasphemous Rumors” thankfully wash out all that treacle.

Rather than remaster Catching Up with Depeche Mode for a CD reissue, the band’s label opted to give the UK-only Single 81 > 85 a proper US release. The result meant the loss of “Fly on the Windscreen”, which I prefer over “It’s Called a Heart”. (So too did the band.)

The remastering on Singles 81 > 85 do the songs justice, so skip Catching Up on CD and find it on vinyl instead.

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The ones that nearly got away: Blur, Parklife

[Blur - Parklife]

The first time I heard “Boys and Girls” by Blur, I was incensed.

It was 1994. Duran Duran had its first bonafide hit album since its peak in the 1980s. It would be another decade before the lifetime achievement awards would get handed out. Despite a cocaine problem, John Taylor was still going strong.

So who was this upstart band blatantly ripping off a John Taylor bass line? The synth work barely rises to the level of Human League, let alone Nick Rhodes. And this whiny singer with the heavy middle-class accent is no Simon Le Bon.

To borrow the word of Elizabeth Bennett — delivered with such aplomb by Jennifer Ehle a year later — insufferable!

“But give it a try!” my Duranie friends would remark. “Blur is really a good band, and the rest of the album sounds nothing like ‘Boys and Girls’.”

I eventually caved in some time in the late ’90s, and I gave Parklife the old college try. Everyone was correct — “Boys and Girls” was the anomaly. The rest of the album was quite English, very eclectic and remarkably tuneful.

Problem was, my tastes were shifting away from Duran Duran, and rock music at the time was in some serious doldrums. I liked Parklife, but it was too arch for my taste. So out of the collection, it went.

The title track of the album re-entered my life in 2014 when Twitter users would reply to comedian Russell Brand with the hashtag #PARKLIFE whenever he went on a rant. If I had to nominate a favorite track from the album, it would probably be “Parklife”.

That made me crave to hear the song again, an impulse on which I wouldn’t act till the Friends of the Seattle Public Library held its annual book sale in 2016. I found a copy of Parklife selling for $1.

I’m not sure how 20 years could make such a difference in perspective. All the dopamine triggers the album should have hit in 1996 struck with more accuracy in 2016.

It was similar to how I experienced Different Trains by Steve Reich. The first time I heard the work, it bored me to sleep. Four years of classical music training later, I listened to it again and was deeply moved.

Did something similar happen with Parklife?

I admit my exposure to English culture the first time I encountered the album was limited to Duran Duran and a smattering of Ivory Merchant and Kenneth Branagh films. Since then, I went through a heavy Celtic phase with Enya and Clannad. I’ve read a number of novels that would appear on an English literature class syllabus. And, of course, there’s Downton Abbey, Sherlock and a bunch of documentaries spelling out the inequities of the British class system.

The archness that eluded me? I get it.

And now that everyone is copying John Taylor, I’ve mellowed out considerably over the slinky bass line in “Boys and Girls.” Heck, I’d like to hear Nigel play it himself one day.

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The ones that nearly got away: Sleater-Kinney, One Beat

[Sleater-Kinney - One Beat]

Until recently, One Beat was my least favorite Sleater-Kinney album.

I got on board the Sleater-Kinney bandwagon in 2000 with All Hands on the Bad One. I hadn’t yet caught up with the band’s past work when One Beat followed two years later.

I played One Beat multiple times, but I just couldn’t get into it — I was hoping it would be just as tuneful as its predecessor. My opinion on the album continued to dim when The Woods turned out to be even more ambitious than All Hands on the Bad One.

I did eventually catch up with the band’s albums. Hot Rock and Dig Me Out made me appreciate Sleater-Kinney more, but neither album made me love them. After the band went on hiatus, I didn’t really think about them, save for watching Carrie Brownstein on Portlandia.

That started to change around 2013, when I began expanding my vinyl collection. I put on All Hands on the Bad One on the media player to figure out if it would be something I’d like to hear on the record player. It was, and I realized how much I missed them.

When Sub Pop announced it would reissue the band’s catalog in 2014, it seemed the right time for Sleater-Kinney to re-emerge.

Boy, did they ever. No Cities to Love pushed me over the edge from dilettante to fan.

So I filled in the remaining gaps. Call the Doctor and the self-titled debut put All Hands on the Band One into context. All Hands is still my favorite album of theirs, but the ones preceding and following it are far edgier.

And that made me think it was time to revisit One Beat. Even though I had sold the CD, I downloaded the album from eMusic a long while back. I spun it up again, and it finally made sense.

One Beat shared more in common with Call the Doctor and Dig Me Out than it did with The Woods or All Hands on the Bad One. What I mistook for tunelessness was really the band’s regular modus operandi of fierce performances and jagged writing. It’s probably the band hardest album next to The Woods.

I dismissed One Beat wrongly because I had incomplete information. I would now place One Beat nearer the top of a ranked list of Sleater-Kinney albums. That’s a pretty large leap from rock bottom.

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The ones that nearly got away: Janet Jackson, The Velvet Rope

[Janet Jackson - The Velvet Rope]

Count me as one of the folks with a ticket to a future Janet Jackson concert. She rescheduled her January 2016 date in Seattle to July before postponing the tour entirely. I intend to hold onto my ticket just to see how long I can keep it on my refrigerator door.

I was a pretty solid Janet fan till All for You, when it felt like she was spinning her wheels creatively. I stood by her during the Super Bowl incident in 2004, but I couldn’t justify sinking cash into Damita Jo. I didn’t get back on board till Discipline in 2008, at which point the major labels dropped her.

So when Unbreakable turned out to be awesome enough to crack the Favorite Edition 2015 list, I went back to her post-Rhythm Nation 1814 work to see if my opinion had changed. I still have a dim view of janet., but The Velvet Rope has turned out to be a durable and underrated album.

The hype machine went into overdrive in 1993 with janet. but I wasn’t convinced. It was sprawling mess, and the supposed influence of what was called “electronica” — now just called EDM — didn’t amount to much.

The Velvet Rope, on the other hand, gave the ideas of its predecessor some much-needed editing. The smooth ’90s sound got darker, as did the subject matter. “What About” has a fury that outstrips “Black Cat”, while “Together Again” is the bounciest tune about loss.

The Velvet Rope was released after I moved to Austin, Texas. I hung out at gay bars at the time, trying to figure out what I could get out of them. (Not much, as it turned out.) “Together Again” could be heard night after night, alongside whatever single the Spice Girls had out at that time.

When money got tight, I decided I didn’t need much from Janet except for Control and Rhythm Nation 1814, so The Velvet Rope got an eviction notice. Discipline is holding up OK, but The Velvet Rope has turned out to be better than I remember it.

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The ones that nearly got away: Máire Brennan, Misty Eyed Adventures

[Maire Brennan - Misty Eyed Adventures]

I’ll admit Máire Brennan’s second solo album, Misty Eyed Adventures, took a few weeks of constant play before I grew to like it. That meant, of course, it would go on the chopping block in one of many collection purges. I bought it when it was released in 1996, and I imagine it exited my collection some time in the early 2000s.

The opening track, “Days of the Dancing”, is one of those songs you don’t forget easily. Máire, of course, is the voice of Clannad, and it’s a voice tightly coupled with Celtic music. “Days of the Dancing”, however, was rooted entirely in Spain. The Moor-ish modes, the Latin rhythms — it’s probably the furthest she’s ventured outside of the Brennan clan’s foundational sound.

I recently had a craving to hear that song again, and I thought the streaming services would have it. And they do — in the United Kingdom, not the United States. So it was down to the music shop I went where I found a used copy.

Hearing the album again, I’m struck by how reflective the title is to the music. Máire really does make some adventurous choices on this album. “Heroes” consists entirely of Máire and her singing siblings backed only by percussion. A re-recording of “Éirigh Suas A Stóirín” replaces the folk band with a string quartet out of an Arvo Pärt piece. Even the straight-forward cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” feels new.

So it made me think — why did I let this album go but kept her self-titled album, which is also not available on any streaming service in the US?

I’ll blame the impatience of youth. Máire was an easily likable album that quickly went in regular rotation on my Walkman and Discman. I had hopes Misty Eyed Adventures would be the same, but that effort to appreciate it served as a penalty when it came time for a purge. But the work to build that appreciation wasn’t as easily forgotten, and rediscovering it ended up a lot easier.

Young people are so rash.

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