Why Venus DeMars’ Art Matters More Than Her Audit

Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses

Venus DeMars on stage for the “Audit Hell” tour stop at Triple Rock in Minneapolis

Originally published August 1, 2013 on mnartists.org

LET’S SET ASIDE FOR A MOMENT THE DEBATE on whether or not Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell are professional artists. For one thing, the details and ramifications of the couple’s battle with the Minnesota Department of Revenue have been covered thoroughly in both local and national forums, and this piece is unlikely to bring any new facts to light.

It seems more important, now, to focus on their work. Whenever an artist becomes a cause célèbre, there’s a real danger of the cause eclipsing the art. For instance, thousands of casual observers know Robert Mapplethorpe only as that photographer who got that museum in Cincinnati charged with obscenity. It would be tragic if this current unpleasant business with the tax man led to Venus DeMars and Lynette Reini-Grandell likewise becoming “those artists who got audited.”

That’s a big part of why the recent “Audit Hell” fundraiser at Triple Rock was such a vital event. Its stated purpose may have been to raise funds and awareness for the couple’s tax fight, but the night was just as important as a timely reminder of the work they do that gives meaning to the whole thing. The first half of the night was structured much like one of DeMars’ lesser known recent projects, a series of artists’ salons hosted in her Warehouse District studio space. Those gatherings are endearingly intimate affairs where a rotation of poets, writers and musicians take the stage to share warts-and-all artwork with a room of sympathetic listeners. The work itself can be hit-or-miss, depending on your personal tastes, but the gatherings themselves succeed on the strength of the supportive community they draw, eager to embrace each other’s art. Here’s the thing: It’s one thing to pull off a cozy vibe in the confines of one’s private studio and quite another to swing it in a venue like Triple Rock. But our hosts pulled it off admirably, with Reini-Grandell serving as an affable emcee and DeMars working the room with a soft-spoken sweetness belied by the leather, feathers and nipple tape of her iconic stage suit.

Still, in the early going, the Triple Rock audience seemed divided between those who came out to immerse themselves in the art and those who came to support some friends and have a party. A small klatsch of engaged listeners watched intently at the front of the room, while back by the bar glasses clinked and voices roared. At times the din from the rear threatened to drown out the poets and singers on stage. It’s a real shame, too: not only were the rowdier folks missing out on some fantastic work, such a dismissive reaction to the performances effectively undercuts the substance of what’s at stake. They’re making a show of support for the cause, maybe, but not so much for the art.

And you know what? Those who did pay attention really got their money’s worth. Reini-Grandell’s personal, expertly observed poems covered subjects from sexual congress to the inconvenience of updating internet passwords with equal grace. Kris Bigalk wrung laughs and thoughtful nods from the room with poetic observations on motherhood and a clever excoriation of people who claim “my dogs are my children.” Trailer Trash frontman Nate Dugan took his usual act down a notch with an elegant acoustic set which culminated in a rousing, ’60s-style protest song.

And, good as that song was, it was another mark in the event’s favor that overt political statements didn’t dominate the evening. Yes, there were plenty of “Screw you, taxman” asides – most vociferously delivered by an admittedly soused Jim Walsh. It’s powerful that, despite the urgency of the cause, it was evident that the folks on stage and most of those in the crowd were there for the sake of the art. That made Andrea Jenkins’ presence in the lineup all the more welcome. A powerful political poet, her thundering ruminations on racial, economic, and transgender justice finally silenced even the buzz coming from the back of the room. She struck a searing chord that carried us all through the rest of the evening – it was political art done right.

Financial concerns be damned (as real and as scary as they may be),the strength of the work on stage declared the “Audit Hell” tour stop at Triple Rock, once and for all, to be a celebration of art and artists. If the crowd wasn’t galvanized already when Venus took the stage for a brief acoustic solo set, they certainly were by the time she wrapped up her chilling take on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” People flocked to the silent auction tables to bid on donated artwork as the full band portion of the evening drew near.

The rest of the show was all sound and sweat and an increasingly out-of-control dance floor. Magneto Effect cranked out an affably dark set of gloomy glam, and Pennyroyal came awfully close to stealing the whole show with their effervescent, energetic indie pop. But of course the night belonged to Venus DeMars and All the Pretty Horses. If the stress of the audit is wearing Venus down, it sure didn’t show in the performance — a muscular set that spanned the band’s nearly two-decade existence. DeMars’ deep, distinctive growl rolled around the room and pushed aside thoughts of anything but the music. From the slow burn of “Crystalline” to the ferocity of “White Horses” to a “Where Are We Now?” that arguably eclipsed David Bowie’s original, this was a valedictory statement from an extraordinary artist.

The Audit Hell fundraiser served its stated purpose, raising money, awareness and spirits at a time when all were sorely needed. Even more vitally, the show put the art of Venus DeMars, Lynette Reini-Grandell and their friends front and center. Whether professionals or hobbyists, martyrs or heroes, these are indisputably artists. Reini-Grandell will always be the poet who turned Tennessee Williams’ undignified death into a penetrating reflection on mortality and legacy. DeMars will always be the songwriter who penned the lyrics to “Crashed Again” and the guitarist who laid down a devastating solo on “White Horses.”

Those are things no taxman can take away, and in the long run that’s what matters most of all.

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Related links and information:

For more about the artists and to keep track of current gigs, visit: http://www.venusdemars.com/. Details about White Horses: A Tribute to the Music of Venus DeMars, an album whose sales will help defray the costs of the couple’s tax troubles: http://www.venusdemars.com/whitehorsestribute/

How To Shop For Records At Goodwill

Originally posted on MadeLoud, April 29, 2011

Once upon a time, thrift stores were treasure troves for retro music lovers. The onset of cassettes and CDs in the ‘80s and ‘90s convinced a lot of people that their vinyl albums were worthless relics, and the record bins of the nation’s secondhand stores teemed with desirable titles retailing for a fraction of their musical value. Sure, the hardcore collectors kept the prices high for certain primo LPs, but by and large retailers could scarcely give the damn things away. These days, the situation is a bit different. As professional crate-diggers picked the shelves clean and internet reselling gave the public the idea that they could make a few bucks on their dusty vinyl, the thrift store cupboards grew increasingly bare.

That isn’t to say that budget-minded record shoppers should give up entirely on their local Goodwill. To the contrary, there’s still plenty to be gleaned from a trip to a thrift shop music aisle. You just have to think realistically and know what to look for. Let’s parse the pickings at your average Goodwill by taking a look at some of the most commonly occurring record categories.

Regional Favorites

One of the eternally endearing facets of Goodwill is its lack of homogenization. Just as the clothing racks are filled with giveaway shirts from area merchants and high school fundraisers, so too do the record racks abound with local flavor. This is an especially nice feature for traveling disc junkies, as what’s old hat in a particular region might be new and exotic to outsiders. Visitors to Minnesota can stock up on kick-ass polkas, Texas sojourners can grab a stack of Tejano standards, Tennessee tourists can gobble up forgotten country crooners, and so on.

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Nondescript Compilations

It appears that there was a period somewhere between 1960 and 1975 when every American was legally required to own several of these scattershot proto-mixtapes. They’re often tied in to some corporate promotion and usually sport nondescript titles like Super Sounds or Golden Memories. They’re the musical equivalent of those Reader’s Digest Condensed Books collections that have clogged rummage sale dollar bins since time immemorial – unchallenging, unremarkable and thoroughly undesirable. Unless you spot one with a specific song you’ve been looking for, don’t waste your time wading through this vanilla hokum.

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Genre Standbys

The Goodwill record bins offer curiosity-seekers a fantastic chance to bust some boundaries. Due largely to sketchy record label contracts, many artists from the ‘60s through the ‘80s saw their best-known tunes endlessly repackaged on cheesy Greatest Hits discs. These collections turn up on secondhand racks all the time. If you’ve been meaning to dig a little deeper into, say, classic country, this is a fine place to start. While zeitgeist-grabbers like Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn and Waylon Jennings might be hard to come by, ten bucks can get you a priceless primer full of artists like Charley Pride, Eddy Arnold, Tom T. Hall, Skeeter Davis, Kitty Wells and more. The same principle applies to classical, Easy Listening, mainstream jazz and a host of other genres.

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Church and Christmas Music

Even in the age of resurgent vinyl, certain genres find themselves left by the wayside. There was a solid audience for undistinguished renditions of classic hymns and Christmas carols long ago, but that target market generally hasn’t purchased new music in a many a year. If for some reason you feel the urge to drop the needle on a staid performance of “How Great Thou Art” or “Away in a Manger” sung by a random men’s choir, your local Goodwill more than likely has your hookup several times over.

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Occasional Gems

Like we said before, the days of finding super-rare, out-of-print treasures on the Goodwill shelves are pretty much over, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some choice cuts every now and then if you’re willing to settle for sirloin rather than filet mignon. You probably won’t snag a spotless first edition of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, for instance, but a weathered copy of his Live at the London Palladium? Well worth the 49-cent investment. You’ll probably have to head to a real record store for The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, but the right Goodwill at the right time might yield Smiley Smile for a mere buck. Be forewarned, though: you won’t score anything quite so desirable on every visit. Patience is a virtue, here as everywhere.

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Just Plain Weirdness

Now we reach what’s possibly the number one selling point for music shopping at Goodwill: When all the records are less than a dollar, you can afford to do a little gambling. That’s an especially good thing considering the endlessly weird selection at most Goodwills. Take, for example, I Will Not Forget You, a mysterious Christian album whose cover features a terrifying, androgynous demon child nestling into the palm of a severed hand. That freaky scene might not be worth five bucks to you, but for 49 cents, how can you not welcome that into your home? The same goes for Deanna Edwards’ Peacebird, a vaguely religious, thoroughly ‘70s collection of uplifting pop ballads about death. Any album whose titles include “Teach Me to Die” and “Folks Don’t Kiss Old People Anymore” is worth a bit of pocket change.

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Barbra Streisand

There might be some Goodwill stores in America with no Streisand records on their shelves, but they’re few and far between. Barbra is to Goodwill what “Law & Order” reruns are to basic cable. Why is the Divine Miss S such a thrift store staple? Well, she was massively popular for an inexplicably long time, especially with folks who might be classified as casual music fans. Many of those people probably donated their scant record collections once their kids gave them CD players for Christmas. A significant portion of them probably also, well, died. In either case, their Streisand LPs joined their kin in the queasy limbo of resale dust-collection. At this point, their only hope for release from this purgatory is an ironic purchase by some stoned hipster or club DJ. A sad fate to be sure, but in the case of Barbra Streisand, the punishment might just fit the crime.

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Eight Of The Most Surprising Samples In Hip Hop History

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Aug 25, 2011.

 

Playing “spot the sample” has long been a favorite pastime for hip-hop fans. While it’s easy enough to pick out the endless parade of James Brown, Funkadelic and Meters samples, some producers make their audiences work a little harder. With the assistance of the invaluable whosampled.com, we’ve assembled a smattering of rap’s most surprising samples.

Del the Funkee Homosapien Samples The Monkees

Del hit it big on college radio in the early ‘90s, largely on the strength of the sardonic, infectious single “Mistadobalina.” His lyrical evisceration of the titular music industry sycophant was so thorough and personal that it’s hard to imagine “Bob Dobalina” being anything but Del’s own creation. Dedicated followers of ‘60s pop, however, already knew Bob well from the Monkees’ exceedingly strange filler track “Zilch.” “Zilch” isn’t much more than a minute-long cacophony of nonsense phrases, one of which is Peter Tork’s repeated intonation of “Mister Dobalina, Mister Bob Dobalina.” In its natural habitat it doesn’t seem much like a future hip-hop hook, but it’s hard to argue with an icon.

Xzibit Samples Barbra Streisand

One of the more surreal moments in recent Academy Awards history came when a visibly befuddled Barbra Streisand announced Eminem’s win for Best Original Song in 2003. The Academy could scarcely have selected a better embodiment of the bland old establishment to pass the torch off to Hollywood’s new age. Unhip though she may be, Streisand samples have turned up on tracks by everyone from RZA to Royce da 5’9”. Maybe the most fascinating repurposing comes from producer Thayod Ausar and the decidedly non-easy-listening Xzibit, whose 1996 “Paparazzi” samples not just any Barbra, but 1976’s Classical Barbra LP. Xzibit’s grim cautionary tale about the pitfalls of fame and fortune pairs surprisingly well with the lilting strings and ethereal vocal of “Pavane (Vocale).” Babs may not have been ready for hip-hop, but hip-hop appears to have been ready for her.

Master P Samples Tom Waits

Tom Waits’ distinctive percussion and impeccable hipster credentials would seem to make him a natural sample source for backpack rappers, but only a handful of artists have taken the bait (Atmosphere, De La Soul and 3rd Bass among them). Perhaps the unlikeliest MC to dip into the Waits well is hipster kryptonite Master P. The off-kilter swagger of Waits’ “Underground” propels “I Got the Dank,” a deep cut from P’s early LP The Ghettos Tryin to Kill Me! Channeling a macabre meditation on the lives of the dead into a prototypical weed and booze ballad may seem a little suspect, but of course Tom has a long history of lyrical debauchery himself (although his rhymes tend to run a tad deeper than “chronic sack, gonna fuck with the endo / You ain’t down with the mob you out the window”).

Devin the Dude Samples James Taylor

“Right Now” is a standout track in the Devin the Dude catalog for a number of reasons. One, it’s just a remarkably mellow groove. Two, it starts out as a goof about a stoned plane ride and morphs into a moving rumination on the fragility of life. Three, it accomplishes all this on the back of an acoustic guitar riff from one of James Taylor’s cheesiest chunks of Lite FM fodder. “Shower the People” might sound like the title of an R. Kelly B-side, but it’s really just Taylor incessantly encouraging us to shower our friends with love. Kudos to Devin for pushing the tune into some deeper territory.

Insane Clown Posse Samples Nipsey Russell

The catalog of Insane Clown Posse sample sources reads mostly as you’d expect: plenty of early gangsta rap, a bit of classic rock and a whole lot of cannibalizing their own songs. At least 1991’s uncharacteristically low-key “Life at Risk” goes a bit farther afield, calling up Nipsey Russell’s soulful performance of “What Would I Do If I Could Feel?” from 1978’s The Wiz. A legendary comedian baring his emotions as the Tin Man in a sociopolitical Wizard of Oz adaptation is a far cry from standard Insane Clown Posse fare. The sample never gets around to Nipsey’s vocal, but the song’s melancholy air is in full effect. The jazzy organ and piano riff add smoky flavor to an atypically thoughtful ICP track, albeit one that’s still littered with requisite amounts of murder and misogyny.

Bone Brothers Sample Bauhaus

At this stage of its existence, hip-hop has been mashed up with nearly every conceivable genre, from country to metal to show tunes. Goth, however, has never taken much of a foothold in the rap game, despite the cult popularity of horror-core acts like Tyler the Creator and early Gravediggaz. Given Bone Thugs-n-Harmony’s penchant for dark themes and occultism, it makes some sense that spin-off group Bone Brothers would be among the few to sample goth godfathers Bauhaus. It’s still an iffy match on paper, but in practice a dreary guitar lick from “She’s in Parties” paints a moody landscape for the grim, fast-paced flows of “The Struggle.” Plus, could there be a more perfectly mismatched pair of Petes than Peter Murphy and Petey Pablo?

Wiz Khalifa samples Yoko Ono

Once reviled as little more than a coattail-riding harridan, Yoko Ono has recently gotten her much-deserved props for being a trailblazer of art rock. Hip-hop, not so much, but Wiz Khalifa’s super-chill “The Statement” gets some good mileage out of Ono’s weepy, classical-tinged “Beautiful Boys.” Given Yoko’s sometimes puzzling history of protecting her late husband’s art, it’s hard to imagine what she’d have to say about a deeply personal ode to her family being turned into an introspective weed anthem. If her Twitter account is any indication, though, it would probably be baffling but poetic.

Shaquille O’Neal samples Phil Collins

OK, so it’s not like sampling “In the Air Tonight” is especially noteworthy. Dozens of producers have fallen under the sway of those irresistible percussion licks over the past 25 years. Nevertheless, the odd triple feature of Phil Collins, Shaquille O’Neal and special guest Bobby Brown on 1996’s “Edge of Night” is bizarre enough to merit a mention. It would easily rank as Collins’ weirdest public threeway if Mike Tyson and Zach Galifinakis hadn’t come along 13 years later.

The Top Four Musical Comebacks of 2031

Robert Frost may have been correct that nothing gold can stay, but most of those gilded goods make their way back into circulation if you wait around long enough. That’s certainly the case in the music industry, where yesterday’s obsolete technology is today’s must-have hipster accessory, and half-remembered rockers resurrect 20-year old albums for lucrative summer tours. So which of today’s passé musical movements will get a second life in the 2030s? It’s impossible to predict, but that’s never stopped us from trying.

Compact Discs

Musical media never really die. They just hibernate and wait for nostalgia and hipsterism to run their courses. On the other side of the coin, even the hottest trend is just a temporary thing by definition. Sure, right now ideas like music clouds, 100% digital libraries and on-demand song services are intoxicatingly enticing. Once the novelty of it all wears off, though, all this space-age stuff will quickly become the new normal, and everybody knows that normal is boring.

As the mainstream embraces total musical mobility, the next generation of hipsters is going to fall in love with tangible objects. While the return of CDs probably won’t be as widespread as the vinyl record resurgence of the ‘00s, it will be at least comparable to the current cassette tape revival: a largely inferior technology resurrected by the formidable duo of nostalgia and irony. The utilitarian, portable nature of CDs makes them especially ripe for a comeback. The art school undergrads of 2032 will sport ostentatious Discmans on the train and host CD-only basement dance parties. It will likely be just as obnoxious as it sounds.

Radio

Commercial radio seems more and more redundant every day. These days most folks carry extensive music libraries in their pockets. There are dozens of online services that can tailor playlists to suit your exact personal preferences and introduce you to new artists who are right in your wheelhouse. With all of that at our disposal, the idea of sitting down to an hour of preprogrammed, corporate-mandated robo-playlists broken up by eight-minute blocks of screeching advertisements seems quaint at best, masochistic at worst. The Clear Channel model of radio appears destined to collapse under its own predictability in the very near future.

That doesn’t mean radio is done for, though. It just needs to return to its roots. Tom Petty summed up a generation’s worth of radio nostalgia when he sang about “the last DJ who plays what he wants to play and says what he wants to say.” When commercial radio is on the ropes in the coming years, look for a return of the idea of disc jockeying as a skilled position. Even in an era when everyone has the power to program a playlist while waiting for the bus, there’s something to be said for letting a true professional do the work. Look for the future of mainstream radio to take a cue from the college and independent stations that have been embarrassing it for the past couple of decades. Employing hosts with strong personalities, good taste and, most importantly, a little creative freedom just might ensure that broadcast radio is still a thing in 20 years.

Albums

Music writers have been penning obituaries for the full-length album pretty much since the day iTunes first went online. The long list of supposed killers includes the rise of ring-tone culture, the ease of buying a single MP3 online and the general shortening of our collective attention span. Somehow, albums continue to soldier on, but their omnipresence does seem to be on a precipitous decline. The full LP will never disappear completely, but the next generation of music buyers will likely no longer think of it as the default format for exploring an artist’s work.

Give it a decade or two, though, and we’ll see a return to prestige for the album. Anyone who’s listened to a “one-hit wonders weekend” on the local oldies station should be able to see why. There has always been a place for performers who can craft great singles. Produce enough of them and you’ll have no problem striking it rich. But if you don’t have at least one classic album under your belt, you’ll never command the respect of the critics, the industry or the historians. Cultural shift or none, sooner or later, the pop star of tomorrow will have to demonstrate some long-form skills or risk being derisively labeled a “singles artist.” Although it’s possible that those superficial labels will lose their power in the coming era. We all know what a well-adjusted, ego-free lot professional musicians are, right?

The Black Eyed Peas

If ever you’re bedeviled by the ubiquitous presence of an artist you truly loathe, it helps to remember that few things are more fragile than a pop culture cache. Today’s inescapable chart-topper is tomorrow’s county fair headliner and the next day’s Jay Leno punch line. There are exceptions, of course – did anyone think in 1998 that Britney Spears would still be a viable presence in American music thirteen years later? – but generally speaking the best way to kill off an earworm is to just wait a few months.

That should be a comfort to the myriad music fans who currently seethe at the very mention of The Black Eyed Peas. Yes, the band has had a string of imbecilic successes. Yes, Fergie and Will.I.Am have been elevated to positions of prominence that far outstrip their modest talents. Yes, “I Gotta Feeling” has a catchiness-to-annoyance ratio that could attract the attention of Amnesty International. All of that aside, the band’s mojo can’t last forever. We’ll be rid of them soon enough.

Except for their inevitable rediscovery by future generations of schlock merchants. Some of us remember when ABBA was just that cheesy bunch of Scandinavians who did that lame-ass “Dancing Queen” song. But shellac them with 20 years’ worth of camp value and ironic appreciation, and they become “the legendary hit-makers and Rock & Roll Hall of Famers who inspired “Mama Mia”!” Be sure to relish the inevitable Black Eyed Peas break-up while it lasts, music fans, because you won’t have long to wait before you’re watching Fergie pick up her Lifetime Achievement Grammy on the way to the Broadway opening of “Tonight’s Gonna Be a Good Good Night.”

Interview with Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers

Originally posted on MadeLoud,  November 3, 2008.

In the not-so-distant past, getting signed by a label was a primary goal for most up and coming bands. Like so many aspects of the music business, that ambition has changed in this internet age.

Not only are unsigned bands finding more and more non-label routes to distribution, now even some established artists are stepping away from the traditional label system.

Crooked Fingers front man Eric Bachmann is one of these artists. Bachmann has recorded with some of the most recognizable indie labels around. Earlier Crooked Fingers albums have been released by Merge and WARM, and Bachmann’s 2006 solo album To the Races was handled by Saddle Creek. His previous group, the seminal alt-rock band Archers of Loaf, once turned down a potentially lucrative contract with Warner Brothers-owned Maverick Records to remain one of the flagship artists on the much smaller Alias label.

Two decades on the indie rock circuit have earned Bachmann a devoted cult following and strong working relationships with some of the most respected small labels in the business. Still, he opted to self-releaseCrooked Fingers’ new album Forfeit/Fortune, distributing CDs online, at shows, and in a select few record stores around the country. What inspired Bachmann to take the road less traveled? “It certainly wasn’t the behavior of the labels I’ve been on,” he explains. “They’re great.” But when his manager suggested recording the album without a contract and then shopping it to labels, Bachmann had another thought. “I just hinted at him, ‘Well, I’ve never done this before. I would kind of like to do our own label.’”

After crunching some numbers, the self-release was deemed feasible, but with a few catches. “He says, ‘If we do that, print advertising, old formats, that’s out the window. We can’t afford to do that shit.” The band’s initial decision was to release Forfeit/Fortune as a download-only album, with a short run of vinyl pressings for hardcore fans. Bachmann soon decided he didn’t like the idea of not having a physical CD available, so the plan was modified to include limited distribution at select, independent record stores, with downloads available at iTunes and the Crooked Fingers website.

This unorthodox model has worked reasonably well for Crooked Fingers thus far, especially in the online department. “At this point we’ve sold way more downloads on our website than on iTunes,” Bachmann says. “The whole point is to get all of the 10,000 or so people who buy the record to our website, versus having to find it all over the place.” To that end, they also pressed a deluxe edition CD featuring a concert DVD and a bonus track guest-starring Neko Case to be sold only at shows and via the website.

The record store situation has been a bit more delicate, largely due to the laws of supply and demand. The group hired a marketing company to assist in getting Forfeit/Fortune onto shelves, But Bachmann says there have still been some bumps in the road. “What you inevitably, unintentionally do is, you give your record to this record store, but there’s another cool one in town that you don’t give it to and they get pissed off. We’ll sell it to them, but it’s more of an effort than receiving it from ADA or Red Eye or some distributor… but we’re doing it exclusively with independents. We don’t touch the big stores like Best Buy. Best Buy and those places don’t give a shit about selling our records.”

Bachmann does worry that this new approach and its attendant lack of publicity is making it tougher for fans to find the new release. “If you’re Radiohead and you say, ‘We’re gonna do it online,’ everybody knows about it. If you’re a small little pissant like me, nobody gives a shit. Even the 10,000 fans we have, a significant number of them don’t know it’s out yet… The toughest part is not having a label to help you promote it, especially something like Merge or Saddle Creek, where they sort of have a built-in audience. I’m sure everybody that likes Merge Records doesn’t like Crooked Fingers, but they at least know there’s a new Crooked Fingersrecord out… That’s why I tour and do press. I’m going out in January; I’m going out in April with Neko Case, just touring like crazy. Sort of doing it real old-fashioned.”

Crooked Fingers’ current tour schedule keeps the band on the road for nearly seven months straight, variously opening for Okkervil River and Neko Case and headlining sets with The Ugly Jacket and Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears. Bachmann says he would like to have booked even more live sets, but the realities of the road wouldn’t allow it. “We were gonna do a bunch of in-store [performances]. It’s designed well for this type of situation, where we’re dealing with specific independent retailers. They would love to have me come in and do in-stores, but we can’t do it when the drive is six hours or more. If we want to do an in-store at three or four in the afternoon, but we have to leave from a city that’s seven hours away after going to bed at five in the morning, we won’t sleep.” He’s currently thinking of setting up yet another small tour that will focus mainly on those in-store appearances.

Bachmann is the first to admit that this tenuous attempt at self-sufficiency might not be sustainable in the long run, but he’s taking a wait-and-see approach for the time being. “It’s an experiment. It may not work, and if it doesn’t work, we still have the label we just started. We can maybe get a distribution deal.” Nonetheless, it’s a fairly risky proposition for a well-established band. But in music as in life, Bachmann has never been keen on settling into a rut.

“People’s expectations are wrong,” he says. “They want you to be something consistently. They want to go cracker barrel. Not necessarily my fans, but people in general. So when you make an album that’s weird or unfamiliar, if it’s produced differently or you sing differently, you lose people. And maybe you should, I don’t know. I’m not saying that I know how to do it. But I do know that I don’t want to repeat myself.”

What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Newsprint?

Originally published on MadeLoud, June 17, 2010

Even on Hollywood’s parched and barren post-Garfield landscape, the recent adaptation of Brad Anderson’s space-filling comic strip Marmaduke seems like a movie made on a dare. Nevertheless, it appears possible that we’re on the cusp of a new era of ripped-from-the-funny-pages filmmaking not seen since Blondie and Dick Tracy packed matinee screenings in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Whether this trend will carry over to the music industry remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t be the first time. We’ve pulled together a sampling from pop music’s long, if not especially rich, history of paying tribute to stars of the daily and Sunday papers. (Note: We’re excluding comic books and animated cartoons, or this would be a far longer list.)

Billy Rose – “Barney Google (With the Goo-Goo-Googly Eyes)”

Considering the scrubbed-and-sanitized nature of modern funny pages, it seems almost unthinkable that America’s favorite comics star of the 1920s was a diminutive, slang-spouting gambling addict with anger management issues. Nevertheless, Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google was regarded as something of a national treasure when songwriter Billy Rose penned this buoyant 1923 ode to an inveterate loser “with a wife three times his size.” It was recorded by dozens of artists in many different styles over the years, including a typically anarchic treatment by Spike Jones in 1963. Barney himself was eventually muscled out of his own strip by his hillbilly cousin Snuffy Smith, but the song lives on as a reminder of a time when the word “Google” conjured up decidedly lower-tech images than it does today.

The Hollywood Argyles – “Alley Oop”

V.T. Hamlin’s tough-talking, time-traveling caveman made for a peculiar protagonist even by comics page standards. Still, stellar artwork, a colorful cast of characters and surprisingly intricate plotting made Alley a big enough star to merit a 1960 tribute tune. The Hollywood Argyles were less a band than an assemblage of studio musicians (including legendary surf drummer Sandy Nelson) slapped together by L.A. songwriters Kim Fowley and Gary Paxton, but that didn’t stop the song from topping the charts.

Their ode to the prehistoric “toughest man there is alive” features an appropriately loose, lurching production, possibly attributable to the mass quantities of hard cider allegedly consumed at the session. Although various incarnations of Hollywood Argyles continued to record sporadically for several years thereafter (even releasing a less successful sequel called “Alley Oop ’66”), their most lasting legacy came as a David Bowie allusion. When Bowie paraphrased the song’s “Look at that caveman go” chorus on 1971’s “Life on Mars?”, he transformed “Alley Oop” from a trash-rock novelty into a pop culture archetype.

The Royal Guardsmen – “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”

It’s weird enough that Americans embraced a comic strip narrative about a fictional dog waging an imaginary war against a real-life German military legend. It’s even weirder that they sent a pop song about said showdown to number two on the charts in 1966. The Royal Guardsmen’s energetic take on Charles M. Schultz’s overachieving beagle and his feud with WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen is as strange as its subject matter, intermingling goofy voices and shout-outs to The Great Pumpkin with a running count of the Red Baron’s actual kill tally. Odder still, the Florida-based band parlayed their big hit into a long string of Snoopy-themed sequels, including a Christmas version that finds the airborne rivals making peace and a 2006 update in which Snoopy hunts down Osama bin Laden. No, seriously. That exists.

Queen – “Flash”

Flash Gordon may have started life on the comics page as a poor man’s Buck Rogers, but Alex Raymond’s action-adventure strip set the template for dozens of sci-fi potboilers to come. The strip was adapted for radio, film and television many times through the decades, the most notorious version being Mike Hodges’ 1980 would-be blockbuster Flash Gordon. Hodges and crew opted to approach the material in the campiest vein available, and where there’s camp, there’s Queen.

The glam-rockers took to the material just as enthusiastically as you’d expect, drenching the score in enough synthesizers and falsettos to make Max Von Sydow’s Ming the Merciless look subtle by comparison. The soundtrack album even yielded the minor hit single “Flash,” a melodramatic rocker intermingling film dialogue (“Flash, I love you! But we only have 14 hours to save the Earth!”) with Freddie Mercury shrieking heady lines like “Flash! Savior of the universe! / Flash! You saved every one of us!”

Fred Schneider – “The Zippy Theme Song”

Is there a more perfect pairing of artist and subject matter than oddball B-52s front man Fred Schneider and Bill Griffith’s non-sequitur-spouting Zippy the Pinhead? Schneider called in a collection of musical pals like singer Phoebe Snow and half of The Manhattan Transfer to knock out this peculiar little vocal jazz ode to a guy who’s “a totally modular fellow / The maraschino in Jell-o” with “a heart as pure as Tastee Freeze.” Although Schneider himself doesn’t sing on the track, he reportedly intended to include it on a solo album. That plan never came to fruition, and the song now resides only on the Zippy the Pinhead website, alongside a pair of Griffith-penned Zippy tribute tunes performed by new wave band No Sisters.

Billy and the Boingers – “I’m a Boinger”

From the Rolling Stones playing a public school dance to Opus the Penguin trading places with Michael Jackson to the local denizens organizing a self-serving benefit concert called The Us Festival, popular music was a constant presence throughout the run of Berkely Breathed’s Bloom County.

One of the strip’s most celebrated storylines followed the meteoric rise of Billy and the Boingers (name changed from Deathtöngue under pressure from the PMRC), a hair metal band fronted by hairball-hacking, Friskies-freebasing vocalist Bill the Cat. Fans who purchased the paperback reprint collection Billy and the Boingers Bootleg were treated to an ingenious tie-in: a flexi-disc single containing two elsewhere unavailable Boingers tracks. On their valedictory statement “I’m a Boinger,” Billy and crew (as portrayed by The Harry Pitts Band) threw potshots at everyone from Boy George to David Bowie to Debbie Harry while laughing off the transitive nature of rock stardom (“Sure we look disgusting / But whose chops are we busting / In a year, maybe two, we’ll seem tame / And three years down the track / We’ll be a Las Vegas lounge act”). There are plenty of non-fictional bands that could benefit from that level of self-awareness.

Album review: The Crayon Fields – ‘All the Pleasures of the World’

Originally published on MadeLoud,  Dec 1, 2009

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that sometimes a whisper can speak louder than a shout, but there are plenty of musical precedents to support that notion. All the Pleasures of the World is a prime example of what John Cale termed “seducing down the door.” Hailing from Melbourne, Australia, The Crayon Fields infuse their second full-length with the soft-spoken tradition of bygone acts like The Zombies and The Turtles, with good doses of newer groups like Belle and Sebastian and Iron and Wine stirred in.

That isn’t to say that The Crayon Fields are all about the quietude – this isn’t a Low album by any means. To the contrary, the quartet shows a remarkable aptitude for upbeat, smokily seductive retro arrangements. The darkness and quirkiness that American audiences have come to expect from Australian imports is replaced by a straightforward approach that brings to mind several eras of Brit-pop production. Geoff O’Connor’s songwriting also follows in that tradition, flavoring his universal themes of life and love with a smooth, sardonic wit. (“Disappear,” for instance, opens with the striking couplet of “I hear drowning is pleasant once you’ve swallowed enough / and a tiny orgasm can be felt in a cough.”)

The album kicks off with an oddly harmonic combination of tinkling chimes and surf-style guitar on “Mirror Ball,” a slyly worded riff on romantic uncertainty (“You are still my high mirror ball / I look at you and suddenly I’m a virgin in a dancehall”). The infectious title track provides an excellent showcase for the subtle virtuosity of O’Connor’s twelve-string guitar, which manages to evoke artists as disparate as Dick Dale, Johnny Marr and Tom Verlaine in the space of three mellow minutes. Low-key tracks like “Timeless” (“When I wake up next to you / I forget I have a day to be dressed for”) and “Lucky Again” sound like they could have been unearthed from Peter and Gordon’s back catalog, a legitimate compliment in this instance.

If All the Pleasures of the World doesn’t exactly blaze any new trails, it does dig into a corner of ‘60s pop that’s been largely ignored by the current revivalist bonanza. The past decade has seen a resurgence of old-school soul, psychedelia and garage rock, but precious few artists have paid much mind to the more accessible sounds of former chartbusters like The Buckinghams and The Association. The Crayon Fields know there’s no shame in taking a walk on the softer side, so long as the path never gets too mushy.

Recommended Tracks: “All the Pleasures of the World,” “Mirror Ball,” “Disappear”

Fan Depreciation: Five sure-fire tips for the concert-going dick

Originally published on MadeLoud, July 21, 2008.

For most music fans, a concert ticket represents an evening of entertainment and engagement with artists they admire. But you’re different. When you punch in your credit card number and agree to pay every ludicrous handling fee Ticketmaster can dream up, you understand that this transaction entitles, if not obligates, you to behave in ways that would make Miss Manners curse like a roadie. In short, you’re a concert-going dick, and proud of it. To that end, we’d like to offer this handy guide for achieving maximum dickishness at any music venue. Why else go out to see live music?

Tip 1: Sharing is Caring
Sure, those folks up on the stage have all the mics and amps, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who deserve to be heard. You’re an intelligent, talented person, and any crowd could benefit from your input. When the band strikes up a familiar number, feel free to loudly discuss how much better they sounded with the original drummer, even if it takes the duration of several songs to make your point. Otherwise, someone in your vicinity may be foolish enough to enjoy the song just the way it is.

Your input needn’t be all negative. When you hear a tune you really love, you should sing along to your heart’s content, even if the band hasn’t asked for audience participation. And don’t just mumble to yourself – give it your full voice. The band will appreciate your obvious devotion, and your fellow fans will be impressed by your seamless harmonization.

Tip 2: Stake Your Claim
Some music fans cling stubbornly to outmoded traditions, like the antiquated rule of “first come, first serve.” But why should showing up early automatically entitle someone to a spot near the stage? The best vantage points should naturally go to the biggest fans, so don’t feel sheepish about muscling your way to the front just before the show begins.

Heck, even if you’re just a casual fan, you have a right to be up close for the songs you want to hear. Once you hear the opening licks of the band’s biggest hit, you have free license to rush the stage. Don’t let the groans of the trampled slow you down – to the victor go the spoils.

Tip 3: Preserve for Posterity
Memories are great, but they don’t always last. That’s why it’s of vital importance that you document as much as possible of every concert you attend. Today’s digital recording technology makes that task easier than ever – just click the record button on your camera or cell phone, hoist it over your head and let the magic happen. Don’t worry about blocking the view of people standing behind you – they can enjoy the show through your three-inch display screen. As for the band, they’ll appreciate the free publicity when you upload your grainy, barely audible footage to YouTube.

Tip 4: Party Like it’s 1999
Whoever said “everything in moderation” just didn’t know how to party. Folks like Keith Richards and Courtney Love didn’t get where they are by having a couple of Heinekens and calling it a night. When you’re out at a show, it’s your rock and roll responsibility to get royally ripped. Go ahead and smuggle in a fifth of Jim Beam, a couple of blunts and whatever else (brown acid, etc.) gets your groove rolling. Ladies, whip those tops off! Fellas, rock out with your cocks out! Stage dive! Body surf! Skank like a madman, even during the slow jams! There’s no shame in getting escorted out by security after projectile vomiting on the bass player’s Docs. At least you’ll have given all the squares something to talk about for the rest of the night.

Tip 5: Express Yourself
You may have heard talk of “set lists,” those needlessly restrictive guidelines bands impose upon themselves. It is your duty to free your heroes from these creative cul-de-sacs by incessantly hollering the names of songs that you and you alone wish to hear. There are two equally acceptable approaches. First, you can repeatedly demand the band’s most popular song. Chances are that they planned to include it anyway, but you simply can’t take the risk of them forgetting to play their biggest hit. Second, you can yell out various obscure tracks from their back catalog. Your request may not get played, but the rest of the crowd will surely be awed by your encyclopedic knowledge of the group’s b-sides and soundtrack contributions. And when all else fails, you can just yell “Freebird.” That joke never gets old!


Vegas is in your mind: A profile of Ronnie Vegas, Elvis Tribute Artist

Originally published in NewCity, July 2005. Incidentally, the story of how I got this story may be a better story than this story. Ask me about it some time.

In a postage stamp tavern along Western Avenue, a spear-bald, muscle-ripped guy leaps off his barstool and begins to gyrate as the man in the sparkling jumpsuit belts out the opening strains of “Walk A Mile In My Shoes.” The pretty blonde behind the bar hollers out drink orders in vain, her voice lost under the baritone growl on the PA. A sixtysomething woman by the far wall sips her G&T, eyes the singer’s billowing black hair and asks a friend for some spare underpants to throw. It’s Friday night, the joint is jumping and Ronnie Vegas is in the house.

Ronnie Vegas is the North Side’s resident Elvis Tribute Artist (the PC term for what used to be known as an Elvis impersonator), a sparkly, sweaty dynamo who laughingly says he’s been doing his act “long enough to know I should be doing something else.” His look is late-period Presley – sequined jumpsuit, towering pompadour, doughy midriff. He doesn’t bear a lot of resemblance to the man himself, but The King’s constant physical flux made it possible for just about anybody to become Elvis with the right costume.

But when it comes to succeeding as an ETA, the look is secondary to the sound. Ronnie is pretty solid in that department, nailing the aching desperation of “Kentucky Rain,” the bouncy joy of “See See Rider,” and the near-religious schmaltz of “In the Ghetto” with equal aptitude. Maybe he can’t quite replicate the sexy quaver of Elvis’ earliest vocals – and really, can anybody? – but he’s got the Vegas era down pat, right down to the self-deprecating between-song banter. (When a slower number draws only a smattering of applause, he just chuckles and drawls, “Yeah, it just kinda tapers on down to nothin’, don’t it?”)

A few tables have been cleared out so Ronnie can set up at the back of the bar, right in front of the swinging doors leading to the kitchen. There’s barely enough space to squeeze in singer, speakers and DJ table while leaving a path for the waitstaff, but none of this deters Ronnie. He’s here to mingle, roaming the length of the bar as he croons, handing out handkerchiefs to the ladies, exchanging high fives with the guys. It’s a tight space, but he cruises it easily like the pro he is.

Obviously, live music isn’t an everyday thing in this bar, nor in most of the Chicagoland venues that keep Ronnie Vegas booked nearly every weekend. These places are by and large tucked away in the local equivalent of fly-over country – those working class North Chicago neighborhoods where retired cops and firemen settle into blissful inactivity. Where every bar stocks Zywiec and Okochim alongside Miller and Bud. Where nobody would choose to stand in line for a slim chance at a Coldplay ticket when there’s a perfectly good Elvis show down the street. They’re fantastic areas if you know where to look, but there’s a reason no one suggests livening up a dull Saturday by cruising over to Gladstone Park and digging the scene.

And that’s the way the people like it. According to Barbie (“Just Barbie, like Cher”), Ronnie’s manager/DJ/road crew, neither Ronnie nor the venues he plays have much interest in attracting the “cooler” turnout one might expect in Lakeview or Ukranian Village. “These people expect a show. But shows done in the more popular neighborhoods, they expect visual amusement. It’s not so much about quality.” In a little blue collar bar like this one, people feel free to open up, have a bit of fun, maybe even get up and dance a little. The general feeling is that having a bunch of smirking hipsters hanging around “appreciating the irony” would ruin the show for everyone involved. Patrons place such a high premium on remaining undiscovered, in fact, that management politely requested to have the name of the bar omitted from this article.

So who are these anonymous Elvis aficionados who pack the house for Ronnie Vegas every weekend? “Hell, from Homer Simpson to Rod Blagojevich,” says Ronnie. And he’s seen them all, playing big ticket gigs at venues from the Chicago Hilton to last year’s memorial to Elvis’ death anniversary at the Excalibur in Las Vegas. But when it comes right down to it, there’s really nothing like playing to a music-starved hometown crowd in the type of bar where the words “Blue Moon” bring to mind an early Elvis side rather than a high-toned Belgian-style brew.

“It doesn’t matter if there are ten faces or a thousand,” says Barbie, “but definitely the smaller groups seem to make a better show for Ronnie and the audience… Ronnie brings the crowd into it and shows them that he’s just a guy doing what he loves, and at the same time paying tribute to another guy whose music has made a huge impact on the world.”

Life as a Shorty: Hip Hop’s History of Connecting with Kids

From the “vulgar” notes of Dixieland jazz to the salacious swivel of Elvis Presley’s hips to the unwholesome oddness of Marilyn Manson, nearly every new musical movement of the modern era has been plagued by the refrain of “Won’t somebody think of the children?” In recent years, moral crusaders have frequently focused their censor’s tape on hip-hop, due to the genre’s tendency toward adult topics like sex, drugs and violence. That’s a shame, as hip-hop has made regular, concerted efforts to make itself as child-friendly as possible. Take a look at some of rap’s greatest adolescent ambassadors and then see if you still believe the hype.

Sardonic Old-School Rappers

Long before YouTube mash-ups turned every cherished childhood icon into something ironically edgy, rappers were mining the memory banks for gritty material. This list pretty much has to start with Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” in which Rick the Ruler regales his nieces with a bedtime story about a youthful stick-up kid’s misadventures with guns, cops and colorful caricatures like Dave the Dope Fiend. Nothing like sending the kids off to sleep with visions of pregnant hostages dancing in their heads.

Ice Cube at least keeps his kids’ narrative grounded in childlike terrain on “Gangsta’s Fairytale,” even if the Brothers Grimm would likely find their characters unrecognizable. In Cube’s version, the Three Little Pigs are drive-by shooters, Cinderella turns tricks in the street and Little Red Riding Hood and Little Boy Blue are warring Bloods and Crips. Oddly enough, the song spawned a mini-subgenre of thugged-out kids’ stories. Coolio’s “Ghetto Cartoon” finds a slew of Saturday morning staples caught up in a drug feud (“Now the war is on and Mickey Mouse is dead / Quick Draw McGraw took two to the head”), while Funkdoobiest’s “Superhoes” pulls superheroes, “Charlie’s Angels” and The Wizard of Oz into the mix.

Sincere Old-School Rappers

Of course, certain MCs have always adhered to the old adage about great power and great responsibility. The hip-hop archives of the ‘80s and ‘90s are rife with cautionary tales warning kids about guns, drugs and gangs. While that’s all certainly admirable, it’s not quite as interesting as the rappers who championed some less obvious causes.

Digital Underground’s “No Nose Job” is sensible enough, as silver-nosed front man Humpty warns little girls against media-inspired cosmetic surgery (“She’s only six, says, ‘Mama, I don’t like my nose!’ / Why’d you have to go and mess up the child’s head / Just so you can get another gold waterbed?”). Arrested Development’s “Children Play with Earth,” on the other hand, demonstrates a questionable understanding of both youthful psyches and then-contemporary gaming technology, encouraging kids to trade in their “Nintendo joysticks” [sic] in favor of literally playing with dirt. The era’s most arcane elucidation comes from Intelligent Hoodlum, whose “Posse” addresses perhaps the direst social problem facing urban youth in the early ‘90s: the under-representation of black cowboys in Hollywood Western movies.

Educators and Advertisers

Sometime in the early ‘90s, the American mainstream abandoned its longstanding policy of hoping hip-hop would just go away and adopted a motto of “If you can’t ignore it, exploit it!” Suddenly everyone with a product or a message was busting flows, fueled by the wrong-headed assumption that rapping was little more than talking fast over a steady beat.

On the positive tip, scores of public service announcements followed the old “Schoolhouse Rock” model, employing shaky rhymes and suspect beatboxing to disseminate their messages. More ambitious producers went to the trouble of booking actual rappers like The Fat Boys, whose burger-based math rap on PBS’ edutainment program “Square One Television” is the stuff of legend. On the more cynical side, kiddie show advertisers also followed the zeitgeist, perhaps most famously in a series of Fruity Pebbles spots that cast Barney Rubble as a Stone Age MC.

By the mid-‘90s, hip-hop was so ingrained that lazy classroom teachers began using it as a cheap catchall shortcut to engage with the kids “in their own language.” (We’ve even heard of one freelance music writer whose eighth grade English teacher forced him to write and perform a rap about mandatory retirement guidelines for commercial airline pilots.) That strategy carries through to today – witness the strange but successful “Smart Shorties” series of math teaching videos.

Kids Themselves

Once hip-hop started gaining mainstream currency, it was only a matter of time before some impresario started looking for the next Jackson Five or Little Stevie Wonder. Old school child rappers tended to fall into the “Kids Say the Darnedest Things” trap; witness Chi-Ali’s booty-hunting, forty-chugging cameos on early De La Soul and Black Sheep tracks. It didn’t take long for R&B star Jermaine Dupri – himself only 17 – to figure out how to make money off kids in rap. He plucked a pair of pre-teens from an Atlanta mall and birthed the backwards-dressing early ‘90s rap sensation that was Kriss Kross, the act that finally pulled the Tiger Beat crowd into the hip-hop era.

That success led to a predictable backlash, with various kid rap acts positioning themselves as the anti-Kriss Kross. Philadelphia’s Da Youngstas touted their self-penned lyrics and occasional self-produced tracks as evidence of their legitimacy, while L.A.’s Illegal milked their Snoop Dogg affiliation to declare themselves the hardest kids on the block. By the time Wu-Tang subsidiary Shyhiem dropped his first album in 1994, underage rappers had more or less shed the novelty label. That trend continued into the 2000s with the massive mainstream success of Lil Bow Wow (and, to a lesser extent, Master P’s inevitable nepotistic knock-off Lil Romeo), though lately it appears to be coming full circle. Try a YouTube search for “kid rapper” and be astonished at the array of allegedly cute, pre-pubescent performers being paraded in front of their parents’ cameras.

Mr. Courageous, ODB

In perhaps the most transcendent chapter of his reliably bizarre, ultimately tragic existence, Ol’ Dirty Bastard confirmed his commitment to the youth of America in front of a millions-strong audience of Grammy Awards viewers. Snatching the stage from “Song of the Year” winner Shawn Colvin, the Wu-Tang Clan wild man aired some brief complaints about losing the award and stretching his wardrobe budget before reassuring the crowd that all was well because “Wu-Tang is for the children.”

ODB practiced what he preached when it came to kids, becoming an urban folk hero after he rescued a four-year-old girl from a burning car in 1998. As further evidence of his dedication, he also personally contributed at least thirteen children to the American landscape. We are no doubt richer for it.

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