|This month’s correction comes courtesy of Shannon Morrow, who told
me a couple of weeks ago that her band, Bicentennial Quarters, is in fact
still together, and still planning on continuing to play and finish up
that damn album of theirs. Which comes as a relief to at least several
dozen people I know, myself included.
So this is the April 1998 edition of NGASAMA, an issue lovingly dedicated to all those folks in town who are trying to bridge the gaps between “The Scene” and the rest of us. Never mind the fact that such attempts usually tend to just reinforce all the various misconceptions about the existence of a “scene.” Some people are made to rock, some people are made to stand around and watch them rock (that’s me!), and some people are apparently made to perform community outreach.
In every town, there is a symbiotic relationship between the people who play music, and the people who stand around and bob their heads and listen to music. In towns with too many audience members and not enough bands, you hear nothing but griping from people about how the music scene sucks. Being audience types, they never seem to figure out that they can bridge that gap by merely picking up a guitar and learning three chords. Poor bastards.
In towns with too many bands and not enough audience members, you hear all kinds of music, but it’s really muffled sounding because you’re hearing bits of it through the walls of peoples’ garages instead of in stinky bars where it’s supposed to happen. Eventually half the bands get tired of playing in the garage, and they pack up and move to another town.
Do they go to the towns without enough bands? Fuck no, because they’ve already heard all about their sucky music scenes.
Nope, they move to towns like Chapel Hill, because “everybody knows we’ve got a great music scene.” What does that mean? We’ve got people who want to play, and people who want to hear them play. Most of us prefer to call it a community, because many of the people in group A are intimate friends and neighbors with many of the people in group B. Small towns are like that.
Like any healthy symbiotic relationship, it’s a self-perpetuating one. Let’s choose a real-world example: Dean Smith had a couple of winning seasons, way back in the 19th century sometime. Young up-and-coming ballplayers read about this in the Saturday Evening Post, and they started flocking to the university in droves, wanting to play somewhere where they would have a chance at winning, and being appreciated by the hometown crowds.
At the same time, the hometown crowds (even the not-normally-basketball-obsessed ones) began hearing about basketball everywhere they went, and by the tens and dozens they discovered a hidden love for the game which they might never have gotten around to exploring had it not been for the near-constant immersion of small-town life.
Eventually, the team begets a superstar or two (some guy named Jordan springs to mind), and people start throwing around words like dynasty. More importantly, the influx of new talent (both from within the town, and from abroad), and new spectators (again, from both places) balance nicely against the occasional deaths and graduations. Stasis is achieved. People start standing around asking “why is there so much good basketball in North Carolina?”
Admittedly, this isn’t a perfect model—nobody has ever suggested, to my knowledge, re-naming the Cat’s Cradle the Frank Dome—but the concept is the same. It’s only a matter of time until Tom Maxwell buys a car dealership.
There is a thriving local-music community here, because this is a town chock-full of people who want a thriving local-music community. Where did they all come from? Well, they either moved here to be a part of the thriving local-music community, or they grew up knowing (at an earlier age than yr average small-town kids) that they loved local music. The rest of the details—clubs, radio station support, record stores—are here because of the people.
So all this academic speculation about chickens and eggs is fun, I suppose, but hardly enlightening, particularly since none of the people doing the speculating were around, way way back in the day, to witness those first few winning seasons. God knows I wasn’t. I’m one of the ones who moved here by choice, because I liked the music.
Speaking of music, there’s been a shitload of it coming out this month.
Top of my personal-preference list is Dear Enemy, the new CD from Raleigh sisters Dana and Karen Kletter. If you’ve been paying close attention, you might recall that Dana and Karen have been playing shows around the Triangle for the past couple of years with a band called Dear Enemy, which featured many of the people on the CD: Greg Humphreys on guitar, Sara Bell on banjo and mandolin, and Aly Khalifa on cello.
Given the enormous amounts of coverage of the Kletters in both the Independent Weekly and the Raleigh News and Observer, it’s probably not necessary for me to re-hash all the details. Suffice it to say that they had a weird childhood, but rather than sit around and pout, they instead learned to sing together. Unlike too many other singer/songwriters of our generation, however, they don’t seem compelled to sit around picking at their scabs and whining.
Instead, their songs are wry, vivid, hyper-literate numbers, which are marked by a couple of constants: an extraordinary sense of grace, and an equally extraordinary pair of voices. I dunno how they feel about people saying things like this, but I can’t help it: You haven’t heard singing until you’ve heard these twins singing. It’s the creepiest damn thing you’ll ever hear. Their voices wind in and around each other, trading verses and single lines, merging almost perfectly into one, and then diverging in some audible form of mitosis. Gorgeous.
Oh yeah, and this bears repeating too: Those Kletter sisters are some damn funny women. Too much of the coverage of them in the press thus far has been angled toward the tragic: family of Holocaust survivors, sketchy father, childhood on the lam, the whole bit. Nobody seems to have the space or the inclination to mention that both Dana and Karen are in possession of a dry, pointed wit, which is nearly constantly evident, and which belies all the tragical stuff in their record-company bio.
Not nearly so tragic, but more than a little creepy in its own way, is the second Trailer Bride album, Smelling Salts. Sonically, it’s a close cousin to the band’s first album, though I’d say the departure of second guitarist Bryon Settle has kept the arrangments a little more straightforward than the last time around. Actually, what’s really impressive about the thing is that singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle has managed to record a second album which sounds almost as full and complete as her first album, without the benefit of Bryon’s strong playing to back her up.
As for the subject matter, well, there’s a long tradition of Gothic fiction in the south, and I’m not talking about all those girls with the black eyeliner spare-changing on the sidewalk in front of Ben&Jerry’s, either.
I’m not even going to attempt to distinguish between what’s truth and what’s fiction in these songs, particularly given the nature of the wild rumors that have always circulated about Melissa. (Actually, I guess she’s our biggest local-music celebrity, if rumors are the primary indicator of such things.)
So: Smelling Salts finds Melissa’s Trailer Bride character cajoling her man into giving up his jealous ways; agitating for a death to bourgeois culture & a return to wildness; and waxing frighteningly poetic about the beautiful characteristics of bruises. I neither know nor care how much of this is meant literally, and how much is play-acting.
But when Melissa yodels “So I’m going off to the edge of town, where the blacktop meets the ground; don’t want nobody around!” I’m more than willing to meet her on her own terms. She earns it with her twang, her kickass slide guitar playing, and the bigass pink wig she’s inclined to wear onstage. Hell, under that wig she can say anything she goddamn well pleases, and I’ll listen, and believe if she wants me to.
Moving somewhat more quickly through the rest of the pile on my desk, there’s a new CD by Greg Humphreys’ post-Dillon Fence band Hobex. My problem with Dillon Fence was that they were nearly always just a little too treacly-sweet for my tastes (I said nearly: there is an utterly blistering cover of Billy Ed Wheeler’s “Coal Tattoo” on the flipside of the “Any Other Way” single—totally changed my conception of the band and the song, which is high praise).
Hobex don’t cloy nearly as much as Dillon Fence did, perhaps because Greg’s been around for a few more years, or perhaps because he’s quite wisely followed his instincts and veered much more toward the bittersweet sound of early 70s soul.
Greg’s voice has always had a rough, warm burr about it, and combined with a nifty little device that makes his guitar sound at times like a vintage Hammond B-3 organ, Hobex have managed to self-release a CD (it’s called Back in the 90s) that’s a whole lot more appealing than, say, anything DAG ever did. Call it blue-eyed soul without the usual level of slick pretense.
Strangely enough, everything else on my to-review pile this time around is a 7” single. I’ve bought four of the suckers in the past three weeks, which is more than I managed to find during the six months before that. Too soon to tell whether this is some kind of ridiculous trend back towards vinyl.
Tops on the list is a remarkable debut from the Doleful Lions, who are a guy named Jonathan Scott, and whomever he gets to back him up. He’s from Chicago, and the songs on this 7” were recorded up there, but he’s from around here now, dammit. (His latest, locally-staffed version of the Doleful Lions ran into some trouble, apparently, and had to cancel their CD-release party a couple of weeks ago, but that’s all I know about them.)
The 7” has one incredibly annoying song, “Hang Around in Your Head,” and one drop-dead-gorgeous one, “Motel Swim.” I’m still trying to figure out how that works. “Hang Around in Your Head” is fairly straightforward 80s/90s jangle-pop, but Scott’s voice is so excruciatingly adenoidally shrill that it’s physically painful to listen to for more than 30 seconds.
He must’ve sucked down a lozenge before cutting the B-side, “Motel Swim.” Over a languid, swoony, echo-ridden guitar-drums-bass-organ drone, Scott and bassist Amy Palazzolo sing slowly together:
And I know that it’s got you in its throes
I think I just listened to it fourteen times.
The other three singles could all be loosely described as “punk.” Chapel Hill’s / Wilmington’s Griver make some well-crafted emo on their 2 Songs single: the staccato chunka-chunka ranting+screaming variety on the A-side; and the slow arpeggios and talk/singing, interspersed with fast angry overdriven strumming and screaming variety on the B-side. I don’t particularly need any more emo, myself.
TNTP will sound like Griver in about three years, if they continue in their current direction. Right now, however, they’re young enough and inept enough to be somewhat more interesting. Bonus: a song about a lamb standing around all day looking at its mom’s asshole. With lyric sheet.
Raleigh’s Trucker disbanded a couple of years ago, following the death of bassist, frontman and spiritual godfather Jere McIlwain. Their 12” EP on Blast-O-Platter is still one of my favorite local Rawk! releases, and their “new” 7” sounds like it came from the same sessions.
(Strangely, it’s titled For Those About to ROCK, and makes no mention of either Jere’s death or the dissolution of the band anywhere in the liner notes.)
In their heyday, Trucker came closer than anybody to combining the fucked-up decadent drug-rocker fashion of Raleigh with the all-out disciplined intensity of hardcore punk. They made a gorgeous wall of sound, which can only partially be re-created on a teeny-tiny single. Pretty good attempt, though.
Speaking of Raleigh, their latest, greatest hope for live music has just coughed up and died. Humble Pie Bakery’s Sunday-night shows had breathed new life into a live-music scene which has lately been dominated by crap blues and hippie bands, and evil wrestlers. So of course some by-the-book asshole from the city had to come along and cite them for having amplified music without the proper permit. After all, rocking out in Raleigh would appear to violate some kind of natural law.
Other news: Guitarist Steve Howell has quit Raleigh’s Backsliders, due the oft-cited “artistic differences.” Given that his “Lonesome Teardrops” is the lone Buck Owens on an album (last year’s Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon) of Rolling Stones and John Hiatt, it’s not much of a surprise.
This is, though: Howell has turned right around and joined $2 Pistols, who will be recording a live album at Local 506 on May 5th and 6th. So let’s see: we’ve got one gravelly baritone and one high-lonesome tenor, both of whom write songs which would’ve been top-10 country radio hits around about 1965 or so. I’m in heaven.
Finally, if you get a chance to see Aimee, Beth, and Robin, jump at it. These high-school-age women do the singer-songwriter thing with a minimum of self-indulgence, and a remarkable ear for arranging three guitars in all kinds of complicated, cool-sounding ways.
Plus you can gawk at Kathleen Hanna in the audience. Ever since the ex-Bikini Kill frontwoman moved to Durham, I’ve heard confessions from all kinds of unlikely people about feeling awe-struck and geeky and fan-boyish whenever she walks into a room. Gay boys, straight girls, sensitive singer-songwriter types, everybody. She’s quite possibly the universal hero of my generation. So, um, Kathleen: Welcome to town. We all seem to think you’re rad.
Finally: That madman on the cover is Clang Quartet’s Scotty Irving.
Yes, that’s a hockey mask.