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The ones that nearly got away: Shudder to Think, Pony Express Record

[Shudder to Think - Pony Express Record]

On paper, Pony Express Record by Shudder to Think ought to be an album I adore. It has complex rhythms, angular melodies, dissonant riffs and lots of distortion. It even arrived at time in my life when modern classical music started occupying my wheelhouse.

But for many years, I could muster at most an intellectual appreciation for the album. Something about it prevented me from internalizing it the same I would music by, say, Wayne Horvitz or Meredith Monk.

Part of the problem was the fact I never paid for it — Pony Express Record was an assignment for the student newspaper. I listened to the promo and found the album had potential. Because I didn’t discover it the way I did with Jayne Cortez or Bang on a Can, I didn’t feel invested in my opinion.

And because I was a snob where avant-garde music was concerned, I couldn’t take Shudder to Think too seriously. Just what were their bona fides anyway?

That ambivalence meant Pony Express Record would not survive a purge for cash. I don’t even know at what point it left my collection.

But it has always nagged at me. I felt I was missing something about that album, something that made it difficult to dismiss.

I’ve tried at different times after subscribing to Google Play Music to give Pony Express Record another shake, but my attention would drift, and it would end without my realizing I had it been playing.

When I spotted a copy at Lifelong Thrift Store for $1, I welcomed it back into my collection, and I gave it the attention I couldn’t afford it in the past.

As it turns out, my inability to embrace Pony Express Record comes down to my tolerance for odd, angular music — which is pretty high. For all its weirdness, Pony Express Record sounds quite normal to me.

I call this my Beck affect. When Beck released Odelay, critics couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to praise his whiplash cuts. I thought it was just poorly-executed John Zorn card pieces.

Pony Express Record is strange, but it’s not the strangest thing I’ve heard. It doesn’t stop it from being a good album, even an important one.

Shudder to Think made a loud, noisy album that relies on precise musicianship to pull off. Rather than dial up the metal influences of grunge the way nü metal bands would eventually do, the band made the punk influences veer into something a whole lot brainier. And they do it while throwing in an occasional hook over mountains of crunchy distortion.

I’m a lot more familiar with Pony Express Record now, and I’m OK with not being able to hum more than a few measures of “Hit Liquor.”

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The Ones That Nearly Got Away: Various Artists, Common Ground

[Various Artists - Common Ground: Voices in Modern Irish Music]

In an attempt to ride the successful coattails of Clannad and Enya during the 1990s, labels attempted to package Celtic music as the next new thing in world music.

While folk labels such as Green Linnet and Shanachie played up their indigenous creds, major labels opted for the safety of crossovers. So in 1996, EMI released a compilation titled Common Ground: Voices of Modern Irish Music.

The intent was simple enough — survey the various forms in which Irish music takes, ranging from such traditionalists as Davey Spillane and Dónal Lunny to superstars in the form of Bono and Adam Clayton of U2.

Of course, Máire Brennan opens the compilation with a traditional song sung in Irish and arranged for a pop band. After that, the concept splinters. The big names — Elvis Costello, Sinéad O’Connor, Tim and Neil Finn, Bono and Adam Clayton — stay in their pop music realms, while the traditionalists remain in theirs.

When the twain meet, it doesn’t come across as organic as it ought to. Brian Kennedy and O’Connor turn in nice performances of their respective traditional choices, but that’s all they are … nice. They aren’t illuminating nor particularly daring.

Kate Bush, on the other hand, takes the biggest leap, singing in Irish, and Liam Ó Manolaí of Hothouse Flowers tackles mouth music in a searing performance.

Otherwise, the parts don’t really add up to a very compelling sum.

When I spotted a copy of this compilation at the Lifelong Thrift Store selling for $1, I had forgotten why I let it go, considering the inclusion of Bush, Brennan and a number of Irish musicians I followed at the time.

After listening to it again, I’m reminded of the Chieftains attempt to do something similar with their album The Long, Black Veil. They couldn’t make it work either.

Crossover is fraught with all sorts of issues about appropriation and performance practice, and in the title alone, Common Ground takes too diplomatic a stance. I would rather see these musicians mix it up further, blurring distinctions entirely or embracing roles furthest outside of their comfort zones.

 

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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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