Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Obscure Music (to answer your question)

On Tuesday or Wednesday of last week, I stopped in to the local supermarket. Beth had asked me to pick up some deli meat and as it was being sliced, I found myself in conversation with a couple of the guys who worked there. The younger-looking one (who I'm guessing is somewhere between 14 and 18 years my junior) asked what kind of music I listen to and all I came up with was "a wide variety of stuff".

Then he asked whether I listened to any really obscure bands. I was still kind of in a daze from Monday and I don't think all of my synapses were really firing at full strength, so I just kind of fell into letting him know that my favorite band is Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and that I also really dig Morphine and Pixies.

I think all three are fairly obscure. He was unfamiliar with Nick Cave, but something in his appearance led me to believe that I shouldn't steer him away from investigating. (I did get the impression that he was actually seeking recommendations for what to seek out rather than just making idle conversation.) As much as I love Nick Cave, I simply can't recommend him to everyone. Beth hates him. I'm sure my sister would last about 2 seconds with a Bad Seeds album. Frankly, when I first started listening (to an album called Henry's Dream), I just didn't know what to make of it. There are two things I can say with a fair degree of certainty about this band:
  1. The average music listener simply does not have an appropriate frame of reference in which to put this stuff. Given this, it's certainly disorienting (and frankly, offputting). This was certainly the case with me, initially. But for some reason, I decided to keep listening until I "got it". (I'll freely admit that my first instinct was to simply give up and chalk it up to being "not my taste".)
  2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are just not for everyone. For some reason, for me, Henry's Dream did click after a day of repeated listening, and I've never looked back. I think that most people could listen and listen and listen some more and still never "get it". That's fine. If you can't "get" Stevie Ray Vaughan, then I think you're missing something fundamental. If you can't "get" The Beatles or Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or Robert Johnson, then I think you're missing something fundamental. But if you can't "get" Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, so be it.
As for Morphine, if you haven't heard them, please make a point of it. Get your hands on a copy of their second album (Cure for Pain) and give it a listen. Will it change your life? Probably not. But it will show you a possibility you probably hadn't ever thought of. If you don't dig it, that's OK. But it's worth a shot. I mean that. It's REALLY worth a shot.

And as for Pixies, here's what I can say: If you're in the 16-24 age range, Pixies should be for you what The Velvet Underground should be for people in the 32-40 age range. What do I mean by that? (a) It's under the radar of lots of folks. (b) It's edgier than its contemporaries. (In the case of the Velvets, edgier, for example, than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Beach Boys. In the case of Pixies, edgier than whatever else was happening in the late 80s and very early 90s. (Frankly, I was very out of touch with that pabulum at the time, and I haven't gotten the sense that I was missing much. I was heavy into the classic rock then, and Pixies are what broke through.)) (c) To some degree it's what gave birth to what you probably grew up considering the most meaningful music out there. (Without Pixies, there is no Nirvana. Without Nirvana, some might argue, rock is dead by 1995.)

But I need to get back to what I really started this blog entry for. The question was intriguing. Especially if we rephrase it as follows:

"What music do you know of that's really worth tracking down, for a 20-ish person who's interested in expanding his/her musical horizons?"

I've been pondering this for the better part of a week now. And I have some ideas. I'm hoping others will add to this list with comments of their own, because I think it's a valuable exercise:

So, here's what I've come up with. The degree of obscurity is, I'm sure very variable. But I think overall, this is probably a bunch of stuff that most "kids" these days are pretty much unaware of:

  • Get your hands on anything by Blast Off Country Style. (No, it's not country music!) It's sort of really good bubble-gum pop, believe it or not. Teenage music. (Themes include being a high school nerd looking forward to getting into a top college.) Not angsty, really. Fun. Catchy. Just a good time!
  • Get your hands on Professor Longhair's Rock 'n' Roll Gumbo. It's a spectacularly clean, crisp recording of an old dude playing rock and roll like you've never heard before. There's nothing abrasive about it. It's not making a statement. It's not anti-establishment. It's not cutting-edge. It's just plain perfect. Listen and learn.
  • Find a copy of Candy Machine's A Modest Proposal. Here's where you'll find an edge. It's hard and it's fast, and it might just make you wonder why Soundgarden and Alice in Chains ever got press. Okay, so maybe it was a little late to the party, but it has more of a punk attitude and an altogether better sound than any of that stuff.
  • Listen to Clifton Chenier, especially Bayou Blues. Think the accordion is for polkas? Think again! This record rocks, and you'll be hard pressed to find a more perfectly plaintive vocal than what Clifton laid down on "The Things I Did For You".
  • When I was a kid, I was always aware of Chuck Berry. He was just sort of a part of the landscape. His time had come and gone, but I always knew he was the true King of Rock and Roll (Elvis wasn't even court jester. Elvis wasn't even in the castle. Elvis was just a drunk clown, wishing his money and fame could make him worthy of kissing Chuck Berry's ring.) My fear is that Chuck Berry has dropped out of the collective consciousness of people younger than myself. I really hope not. Whether you think you know Chuck Berry or not, find some really old Chuck Berry and listen to it. My favorite tracks are "Jaguar and Thunderbird", "Anthony Boy" and "Jo Jo Gunne". But it's all good.
  • I happen to like a band called Daisy Chainsaw who had a bit of a hit with "Love Your Money" about 14 years ago. The last I heard, the lead singer, Katie Jane Garside, had decided to pursue a career in opera. I don't know how that worked out (or even whether it's true), but I know it was her girly-girl vocals that really kicked this band into a different orbit. Sonically, I think of them as being really sort of Brit-Grunge. But I don't know whether the Grunge community wanted anything to do with them.
  • Less obscure than lots on my list is Lyle Lovett. The country community seems to have disowned him long before it disowned Dixie Chicks. (Too odd, too quirky, too versatile, too clever?) You may know him more as the former Mr. Julia Roberts than as a musician. (You may also know him from several movie appearances. He has a face that, shall we say(?), isn't easily forgotten.) But the bottom line is: This guy can write a song like nobody's business. He's the only musician who I consider to be a country artist who I thoroughly enjoy listening to.
  • And the best new song I've heard in the last year is a little ditty entitled "slung-lo" by Erin McKeown. I guess the song is actually about three years old, but I just discovered it a few months ago. It goes down really smooth. (This is one I can easily imagine my sister really enjoying.)


  1. Hi Louis (& Beth!). I found your blog and just had to pop in and send u greetings from the OBX! Miss ya!

    P.S. My condolences on the passing of your uncle.

  2. Thanks Lily. We miss you too. We're probably not going any farther south than MD on the East coast this year, but if you get up this way, you're VERY welcome to come for a visit.

    ...And thanks for the condolences. :- )

  3. I find myself really wondering about what is and is not "obscure" nowadays. I forgot to mention Violent Femmes. But I wonder whether they might not be as well known (and considered more relevant) to the kids today as are The Rolling Stones.

    Oh, and in case it wasn't clear from my comments on Elvis, you might want to know that I have some strong opinions and I don't feel it's appropriate to suppress them for politics. I'd rather speak plainly than pander to folks who would disagree. (Of course, I'd rather have those folks speak plainly than suppress their own opinions.)