Monday, July 16, 2018

Bicycle-Self-Titled (1999)

(Art Direction/ Design by Frank Gargiulo; Photography by Dietmar Busse)

Bicycle's sole release, also called "Bicycle"- is a band/ album name combo fit to ensure that nobody in the internet age will ever be able track down anything about them EVER again. Luckily you have me to do the digging for you though, because this is good, fun stuff.

Lead singer Kurt Liebert knows his way around a catchy, summery/ sun-shiney tune. It's one of those albums that, once May or June hits, I am drawn inexorably back to. Imagine a more straightforward/ poppy Beck (including electronic flourishes and quasi-hip hop beats/ loops in places) and you'll be on the right track. I'm reminded instantly of "Cake" too (you know, the "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" guys).

Chris Ballew (yes, the Chris Ballew who sang and played bass in "The Presidents of the United States of America") has producer and backing vocal credits-so you know it's gonna be good, cheeky fun.

(Label= Capricorn Records)
 I think I will let the music do most of the talking here:

Pop Song:

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Green And Yellow TV-Record X (2002)

(Photography by Shaune McDowell; Design by Jill Simonsen)
I remember discovering this album around the time iTunes became a thing (I guess I would've been a pre-teen), and I would spend a huge amount of time wandering the iTunesphere looking for good stuff. On a whim, I popped "El Cid" (ya know-the medieval Spanish warrior) into the search bar to see what would come up...and I got this nugget.

I don't know if it's true, but I read somewhere that Jimi Hendrix once sculpted his hair into a pair of antennae so that he could "tune into the sounds floating around him". Or, there's The La's (a band I cannot recommend highly enough) "Timeless Melody", which muses on songs/ melodies finding their writers. I think Record X is one of those situations: where the songs existed in a timeless ether until they fortuitously collided with The Green And Yellow TV (or perhaps entered their antennae). That's why "Record X" is such a good title. It happens in "X" time and "X" location-not quite here, not quite there. It's like the audio equivalent of a Tarantino film; it can transport you-maybe even make you feel a bit nostalgic...but for what? It's the diner scene in Pulp Fiction (or all of Pulp Fiction for that matter)-when is it happening? Is it within a self-contained alternate universe?

I wouldn't make any direct comparisons to Hendrix or the La's though-there's more of a "mod" or "British Invasion"(or maybe British Invasion through an American lens, like Paul Revere and the Raiders) feel here. But don't worry, this isn't one of those novelty "retro" bands...have I not written enough about the timeless ether? The songs work on their own merits, as well as the undeniable talent of the musicians involved (check out those vocal harmonies). The production also achieves 21st century clarity; the guitars are allowed to bark and foam at the mouth a little without getting lost in the mix. All of this is epitomized by (you guessed it) "El Cid". Listen below:

(Credits same as above)
(Photography and Design by Jill Simonsen)

Monday, July 9, 2018

Uncle Green/ 3 Lb. Thrill-Rycopa (1997/ 2011) INTERVIEW

So, first off, Uncle Green and 3 Lb. Thrill are the same group (the latter being a reincarnation of the former, but the former being the moniker that graces the front cover of Rycopa).

But what's in a name? That which we call 3 Lb. Thrill by any other word would sound as sweet;
So 3 Lb. Thrill, were they not 3 Lb. Thrill call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which they owe
Without that title. (My words)

Following 1995's "Vulture" the group got to work on the ambitious, kaleidoscopic double-album "Rycopa". Completed in 1997, Rycopa looked poised to ascend into the stratosphere...and it would have, had it materialized. Instead, the group's label waffled, and the album went unreleased for 14 years. Finally, in 2011, a successful Kickstarter campaign sprung the lost masterpiece from it's  bardo, purgatory, limbo, etc etc... (whatever liminal state best resonates with the reader). 
This album is extra special to me, so I thought I would take a slightly different approach to this post. To make this possible, founding Uncle Green/ 3 Lb. Thrill member, and consummate musician, Pete McDade, has very generously agreed to answer some of my questions. Here are a few tracks to play for an optimal reading experience:
St. Lazaro:
Wassamatta With You?:
Karen Dine:

Q: Thanks so much! I really appreciate it! Firstly, I wanted to ask you about the scope of the album--it plays almost like a "variety show" (conceptually how Sgt. Pepper's worked...or maybe The Turtles' Battle of the Bands); it's very eclectic- theatrical at times, even. And on top of that it's a double album! Was approaching the writing/ recording of this (colorful, theatrical, double) album not absolutely terrifying??! I mean, when it gets that big, it becomes a sort of grand artistic statement--you've gotta fully embrace it/ get behind it.

A: It took us 14 years to actually get it released, after finishing recording, so it's nice to have a chance to talk about it. What I remember most about the recording experience was a sense of excitement. I mean, we always loved the record-making process, but working on Rycopa was like getting to live a childhood dream. We'd been a band since we were teens, and had always dreamt of renting a house and making a record, and this was our chance to do it.

So we basically tackled a song a day. Matt, or Jeff, or Matt & Jeff (if they had written a song together), would start by playing the basic structure on piano or guitar, and then the four of us and Caram, our engineer, would start batting around ideas for arrangement and production.

Since it was just us, in this house, we really had an "anything goes" approach. We set the drums and amps up in various rooms to see what sounds we could get, rented a grand piano for the living room, and just started trying as many different approaches as we could.

By dinner we usually had the basic parts of the track in place. At night, we had any friends or guests come over to sing or play, to see what they could add.
So maybe the short answer is: we were too excited to understand we should have been a little more nervous about it all.

Q: I was reading a bit of history on the whole 3 Lb. Thrill/ Uncle Green saga, and noticed a credit on a Jesus Christ Superstar project-was going to ask if maybe Rycopa was born out of a musical theater interest- but really from what you're saying, it sounds like it wasn't a concept album in the least; you guys never sat down and said "this is what the next album is all about/ these are the types of songs we need to start writing"? Maybe that's why it feels so organic! You can point to little musical motifs and points of influence here and there...but the songs all feel really timeless. They're the types of songs that could've been written in 1968 or 2018. What advice would you give to songwriters who want to pay homage to certain musical eras or figures without ending up with a novelty record? I know "timelessness" isn't exactly a teachable concept-but is there anything from the writing/ jamming/ recording that you remember that helped keep you all in the zone?

A: Yes, you put that very well--we didn't go from the concept and then move to the songs. We started with the songs, and then the themes that tie them together emerged later.

For me, thinking about this time again has me noticing how similar the process of shaping a record and writing a novel are: I start with characters, and how they interact is what reveals the themes. In this case, the songs are the characters, and their interaction creates a mood/feeling/etc.

In short, I'm glad that Rycopa feels like a concept album.

And I agree that "timelessness" isn't something you can teach, in part because it's something I don't think you can set out trying to create. But I do think there are key elements in music that make certain songs/albums feel timeless, just as there are key elements in novels/movies/etc that can create the same effect. For music, I think melody sits at the center of it all, or at least it always did for Uncle Green. Around that center you construct the rest of the song, using dynamics and structure and arrangement. Then you finish by getting rid of all the unnecessary bits.

Does that make sense? It's almost like the first step is not trying to create the sense of timelessness. Write what you need to write, focus on making the best parts of that particular song as good as they can be, and then hope you did it right.

And then try again.

Q: I think that's hugely important. I guess I'm more from the "Myspace/ Soundcloud generation" where it's like-if you want to start a band, the first thing you do is go set up a band page and enter your genre, your key influences, and what sorts of movements/ eras you identify most with. A lot of the time that's before any songs have even been written. It's almost like step 1 is getting the marketing department up and running-identifying your key demographics...and then absolutely everything else comes afterwards. It's too easy to get carried away. So, lastly I wanted to ask--Sony was the label you were dealing with circa Rycopa? You guys had a hit as 3lb Thrill with "Diana", and then you give them two discs of fantastic material (with even more in the bank...I haven't even mentioned the outtakes album:"Scrapple"-you obviously had a lot of material to choose from; lifting a few radio singles would've been really easy)-and there's no release for 14 years? Did they ever give you any reasons as to why they weren't prepared to get behind it? 

A: I think that's an interesting ripple effect of the web I had not thought of before--young bands needing to explain and identify themselves at a very early stage, for websites/etc. Back in our day (cue old-timey music) we'd get asked about influences and sound in interviews and such, but otherwise never had to think about it that much, beyond our own private discussions.

As far as the non-release of Rycopa: yes, we were signed to 57 Records, an imprint of Sony. Calling "Diana" a hit may, alas, be a bit of a stretch--did well at radio, but not super huge, and we were told by MTV they wouldn't play the video, out of lyric(!) concerns. So our next record for Sony was actually a big make-or-break moment for us, and we went for broke.

This was either brilliant or foolish.

Sony said they didn't hear a single in the first 32 songs, which was when we went back and recorded MORE demos--the last 5 songs on Scrapple come from these sessions. Still no single, and we were dropped.

Sony did say we could have the tapes, but we were moving on, we thought, and got close to signing to MCA, before our A & R fan lost his job. Ah, the music industry. Then it took several years of searching and cajoling, before someone at Sony finally entered the right search terms and found the tapes in the ominously named "Iron Mountain" storage facility.
Rycopa is available for purchase on the iTunes store, but if you're like me and want a physical copy, you'll want to follow the CD Baby link below and order the disc:  


Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Oleander-Shrinking the Blob (1996/1997)

(Art direction/ design by Doug Eldridge, Paul Niklewicz; Photos by Scott Mcchane)

Oleander are perhaps a bit more well known than most of the bands I share on here. The follow up to this album (1999's February Son) was certified gold, they played Woodstock '99, and they have had some pretty high profile soundtrack credits (Dawson's Creek and American Pie to name a couple). Still, Shrinking the Blob (Oleander's sole independent release as far as I know; on Fine Records) is often unfairly overlooked.

Yes, these guys fit into the "post grunge" mold...but on Shrinking the Blob they tug a little toward the "grunge" side as opposed to the "post" side...a little. Just looking at the B-Movie inspired title may give one the impression that these guys aren't as grand and earnest as Live-nor do they have the pseudo-spiritual undertones of Creed (I genuinely enjoy both groups by the way...not taking pot-shots here)...and that impression would be correct. Check out the grit and propulsiveness of tracks like "Half an Ass", which boasts a ferocious circular riff recalling Nirvana's "Dive":

Unfortunately, lyrically, it sheds little to no light on the evocative title. How is the ass in question bi-sected? Vertically or horizontally? I would suggest that vertically (i.e. into two equal cheeks) makes the most sense + maintains the most tissue/ cheek integrity...but I must digress.

Here it is live, followed by another track from the album, "Jimmy Shaker Day":

And another rocker, "Silver Lined":

So, as you can hear, this album will be an interesting case for historians and future anthropologists charting the passage of the grunge era into the post grunge era. As they pore over the shards of broken pottery, the hieroglyphics, the fossilized boom boxes, what conclusions will they reach? I am not suggesting that this album is the missing link-the change was already well underway by 1996...but this could be one of many albums released in the chasm between the two eras that really encapsulates the evolution.

Exhibit A-"Why I'm Here". The track would be cleaned up a bit and re-recorded for February Son (where it was a reasonably big hit), but the rough and ready version on Shrinking the Blob is even better. I can't find that version on Youtube, so here's a live version to give you an idea:

(Art/ Design credits same as those listed under cover)

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Bisbee-Snacks (1996)

(Art/ Photography by Jonathon Hexner; Associate art direction/ Layout by Amy Macintyre)
Here's a real treat-Bisbee's (named for singer/ songwriter Sam Bisbee) "Snacks". The stars aligned for this one; the rock gods poured a little bit of their sweet ambrosia cider mix into Sam Bisbee's gilded chalice, and he slurped it up like Cherry-Cola...and then committed this ethereal "snack" [insert pause for laughter] to disc.

I'll start you with this link to the Allmusic page as a sort of aperitif (you can listen to the audio clips):

Sound-wise what are we looking at?  Well, it so happens that Bisbee is/are excellent at synthesizing influences in a decidedly non-derivitive way. The songs feel/ sound eerily familiar...but good luck putting your finger on why that might be. That's likely why Sam Bisbee has been able to continue writing, recording, and growing musically to the present day. Is there a bit of Dave Matthews Band in "Disposable love"? A little bit of Third Eye Blind in the beautiful, surging "Turn Me On"? Look at the "similar albums" tab on Allmusic for a few apt comparisons (The Verve, Live, The Goo Goo Dolls, Lifehouse, Alanis Morissette, Third Eye Blind, etc...) and some absolutely laughable ones (Korn, The Offspring, P.O.D......AM I LISTENING TO THE SAME ALBUM?!). Have to scratch my head a bit there...

Thematically, I see a real disposibility/ transitory pleasure motif (making the title extremely apt and telling). The narrators are often struggling to find meaning and stimulation in otherwise hollow and temporary experiences. We start in a world dominated by, and connected via plastic commodities in "Middle of Everywhere" ("In the middle of everywhere, she's speaking into a hand-held plastic object, connected by a wire to a hole in the wall, which leads to an infinite number of other handheld plastic objects... "), move to "Disposable Love", and then eavesdrop on a sad "rent-a-lover" experience- "970-GIRL". Sounding pretty contemporary and relevant, eh?

P.C. Dominatrix is another great cut about stimulation, excess, etc...- a tongue-in-cheek narrative about a politically conscious dominatrix. Lyrics include:
"She likes to tie me up, and talk to me about the issues
She hurts me when I disagree-when I use an un-progressive attitude
She grills me on the plight of the homeless population
She beats me with both sides of her hairbrush,
It's such a strange sensation."

And: "It takes a world of pain to turn me on..."

My personal picks for best tracks: the back-to-back, one-two punch of "Disposable Love" and "Turn Me On".

Sadly, while Sam Bisbee's later albums are available on iTunes, "Snacks" is not. I will post images from the CD booklet/ packaging below. Note that the art credits are the same as those listed under the cover image. I'm really diggin' those charming pen and ink sketches of the band-members.