Category Archives: Alternative Music

Great Album Retro Review: Suzanne Vega By Suzanne Vega

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Returning to the ’80s, which is where a very sizeable chunk of my favorite music originates, so get used to it, I will once again review what I think is a great album. In this installment, I will tout Suzanne Vega’s first album.

Released in 1985, the album is self-titled and is beautiful and melancholy. Vega’s singing and songwriting are as graceful as they are thoughtful and poignant. The songs are mainly acoustic and have a folksy feel. They are quiet, simple, and straight forward in their production.

I must have discovered this album at a point in my life at which I most needed it, because it really dug its way into my psyche. I love this album. It is in my Top Ten All Time Favorites.

The tracks:

Cracking –  This song opens with my favorite acoustic guitar riff on the album and uses a  lilting synthesizer to fill in the sound as Vega talk sings much of the lyrics. It’s a moody piece that sets up the album very well.

Freeze Tag – There’s a lilt to this song as well, as Vega appears to reminisce on playful times with a flame from her past. And a song that drops a reference to Bogie and Bacall can’t be bad.

Marlene On The Wall – My favorite track on the album, this is a more up tempo song about getting romantic advice from an ever-observing poster of Marlene Dietrich. At least, I think Vega means Dietrich.

Small Blue Thing – This song returns to the moody atmosphere of the first track. To me it seems to be about obsession and being controlled by the object of that obsession. She becomes a small thing being held in her obsession’s hand.

Straight Lines – A little up tempo again, Vega sings of a woman changing herself. Cutting her hair, casting away lovers, simplifying her life until she is finally alone. With that accomplished, I can’t help but to feel some sadness for her.

Undertow – Still on the slightly up tempo side, I’m not entirely certain what this song means. But, like much of the album, there is a feel of melancholy filling every corner.

Some Journey – This song has some nice jangly guitar accents along with a flowing electric violin. Vega sings of what might have been had she met a certain person. Would they have been lovers?

The Queen And The Soldier – This song is a fable of a young queen, isolated, impetuous, and powerful, and a loyal soldier who had finally decided he couldn’t continue to do battle for her. Instead, he offers her a chance to end the constant violence and to find love. To break her out of the trap of her royalty. Does she accept his offer?

Knight Moves – I’m not certain if Vega intended this song to be about the same queen in the previous track, but I always thought it was. The melancholy continues as the queen is questioned as whether she loves one, many, any, or me.

Neighborhood Girls – This closing track is the most bouncy of any of the tracks on the album. It almost feels out of place, it’s practically jaunty, but it still works. There are plenty of excellent popping guitar lines throughout this song about neighborhood sex workers.

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Great Album Retro Review: This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship By Love Tractor

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I’m going a little hipster here by looking at an album by one of the lesser known bands to come out of Athens, GA in the ’80s. Also, as this series continues, you will probably notice quite a few of my picks are from the ’80s. What can I say? I guess I’m stuck.

It was 1987 and my friend John, who was my cohort in the discovery of music that matters, not that crappy pop and hair metal getting all the radio airtime, found out about this band. They’re called Love Tractor. I hadn’t hear of them before John discovered this their fifth album: This Ain’t No Outerspace Ship.

I have to admit, I don’t know much of anything about their other musical output. I will try to remedy that, but I just love this album.

If you need an example of lilting guitars, this is it! Along with the lilting guitars is plenty of excellent melodies and hooks. This album just feels so good.

The tracks:

Cartoon Kiddies – This is my second favorite track on the album which is an ode to TV cartoons, most particularly Top Cat. Now, Top Cat wasn’t one of my favorites, but this song is a great kick off

Small Town – There’s just something about Mark Richmond’s vocals. There’s an ease to them as well as just the merest hint of snarl. Nothing threatening though. And his frequent forays into falsetto really work for me.

Chili Part Two – This song is more of an instrumental, which touches on the band’s roots as they started out an instrumental band, with a few bits of lyrics thrown in. And I find it so effective when the lyrics come rolling in – “Heeeeeere cooomes that feeeeliiing agaaaaiiin!”

Night Club Scene – The lilting guitars glide over the big ’80s drumbeat as this song opens. It’s a slower song that contains the line that gives the album its title. What does the song mean? I dunno.

Outside With Ma – For me, this is the weakest track on the album. That’s not to say it’s a bad song. It has a darker feel than the rest of the album. It also has a funky feel, which doesn’t quite work.

Rudolf Nureyev – Returning to their roots, this is the album’s first of two fully instrumental tracks. Plenty of lilt and I can almost see the dancer after whom it is named dancing gracefully along.

Beatle BootsHands down, my favorite song on the album! It just feels so good. It’s got a great ’80s dance vibe. The lyrics speak of an emotionally complicated woman who is both a hero and a mess. I love this song!

Amusement Park – This song sounds like Summer. It’s about hanging out and seeking thrills. “Meet me here. Meet me there.” Let’s go downtown, to the record store, and, of course, to that amusement park.

Party Train – A fun, rockin’ yet still funky cover of The Gap Band hit. Love Tractor makes it their own. And it’s pretty good.

We All Loved Each Other So Much – On the original vinyl release, this was the last track of the album. It was also the second fully instrumental track. It’s a quiet contemplative tune and, at just over seven minutes, the longest track on the album. Lilting to the very end.

Got To Give It Up – This bonus track is another funky cover song. This time the band covers the great dance party track by Marvin Gaye. Lots of falsetto and lots of fun. It’s a nice bonus.

Wanna give it a listen? Of course, you do! It’s available on iTunes and Spotify. Check it out!

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This Is XTC! This Is Pop!

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Andy Partridge simply hates rock documentaries. That’s what he tells us in the opening moments of a new rock documentary called XTC: This Is Pop, which began airing on Showtime in January 2018.

Andy Partridge is the leader of a rock/pop band called XTC and he finds himself taking part, a large part, in that very thing he hates: A rock documentary. And XTC fans are so glad he did.

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Andy Partridge

Placed in the One-Hit Wonder bin in the American music market, I’ve often stated that it is criminal that XTC never got as big as their contemporaries The Police. It’s about time the greater public learn about how good this band really is and this documentary will help. Musician Stewart Copeland of The Police and actor Harry Shearer, along with other musical artists and fans, are there to heap praise on this excellent band from Swindon, England. XTC may not have found a big audience, but they had a far reaching influence on many of the pop bands that followed them.

The documentary is as much about Partridge himself as it is about the band. And that’s a drawback, because we’re not given much of a backstory about the other members of the band: Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Terry Chambers, and Barry Andrews. Moulding, Gregory, and Chambers do contribute to the film (and the three of them all have an odd whispered, raspy tone to their voices).

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L to R: Partridge, Colin Moulding, Dave Gregory, Terry Chambers

Andrews is missing from the film. That may be due to the friction between him and Partridge while they were in the band together. Partridge’s attitude was – “This is my band!” Andrews wanted it to be his band. The friction led to Andrews leaving and then co-founding Shriekback. In later years, the two headstrong artists did work together on Partridge’s 2007 album of improvised instrumentals – Monstrance.

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Barry Andrews

As we learn about the band’s formation in the ’70s and growth through the ’80s, ’90s, and into the ’00s; going from glam to punk to rock to lush and beautiful pop, we also learn about Andy growing up an only child having a mother with OCD, his drug-addiction that began to develop when he was 13, and we get a deeper explanation of his crippling stage fright that turned XTC from a touring band into studio artists in 1982. The stage fright was a double-edged sword. It prevented XTC from breaking through just as they were on the verge of a major American tour. But, it gave the musicians a much, much larger “box of paints” to use to create such wonderful music.

It’s a fascinating look at such an intriguing artist and his awesome band. However, clocking in at a mere hour and fifteen minutes, to quote XTC’s song All Of A Sudden, “there’s plenty missing in the middle.” There is barely any mention of XTC’s last two albums: Apple Venus Vol. 1 and Wasp Star: Apple Venus Vol. 2. And I would have liked to learn about the seven year strike the band went on, from 1992 until 1999, against their record label Virgin. But, as it is said in show business, always leave them wanting more.

Give it a watch. Your new favorite band is just waiting for you to find them.

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Pods Looking Back 2: Another List Of My Favorite Nostalgic Podcasts

A year ago I recommended a few podcasts that have a nostalgic theme to them. (Click here to get that list.) Since new podcasts are always popping up, I thought I should list a few more as suggestions for your listening pleasure.

These are podcasts and the rules of terrestrial radio do not apply. These shows may have adult language and themes, so you should check them out first before sharing them with your kids or more sensitive folks.

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The Dollop with Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds The hosts are comedians who dive deep into an historical topic and mine whatever comedy gold can be found. Dave is the “historian” who finds the topics and gives the information to Gareth, who doesn’t know what each show’s topic is until they start recording. The two will then riff to their hearts’ content. Some of the show are absolutely hilarious.

They get very bawdy as they work their way through each show’s topic. The Dollop has over 300 hundred episodes and I’ve just started listening to it, so I have a long way to go to catch up, but I find it very entertaining and informative.

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My Favorite Murder Odds are pretty good that, if you’re familiar with podcasts at all, you’ve heard about this one. Hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark are two comedians who discovered that they both really like murder stories. They decided to do a podcast discussing various real life murders. Their first show dropped in January, 2016 and the podcast has taken the world by storm. Combining their regular shows with their “minisodes” Karen and Georgia are closing in on 180 episodes.

It is a comedic show about murder, but the hosts are careful to respect the victims and the families and friends. They also try to give sound advice on preventing oneself from being a victim. It’s a very funny podcast with a big heart that reminds us to “stay sexy and don’t get murdered!”

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Friendly Fire In my first podcast suggestions blog I recommended The Greatest Generation podcast. It’s a podcast about the television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, they have gone through all that classic sci-fi program’s episodes and they have since moved on to discussing Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. (I still recommend it!) Well, the hosts of The Greatest Generation, Adam Pranica and Benjamin Harrison, have teamed up with John Roderick to examine war movies.

Each week they examine a different war movie (and who doesn’t like war movies?) for its accuracy and cinematic value, and they manage to get some laughs along the way. Although, so far, most of their reviewed films have been WWII-based, they will cover other wars. They’ve talked about Saving Private Ryan, of course, but they’ve also reviewed Master & Commander: From The Far Side Of The World, First Blood (yes, they considered that a war movie), and they will be watching Braveheart for an upcoming installment.

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Du You Remember? A Podcast About Husker Du And, finally, I’m recommending this podcast to anyone who is a fan of alternative music. It’s just five installments (with two extras, one a short introduction to the series, the other a tribute to drummer/singer/songwriter Grant Hart) and it is a fascinating look at one of alternative rock’s founding bands.

Husker Du came from St. Paul, MN in the late 70s and created their own tremendous presence in the 80s hardcore/punk/underground music scene. The podcast has interviews with all three members (Hart, Bob Mould, and Greg Norton) done just prior to Hart’s untimely death in September, 2017. The band members and others who worked with them or were fans and friends tell the story of the music scene in the 80s, how Husker Du was formed, how they embraced the “do it yourself” ethic, their rise and abrupt fall, and how very important they were to the music world. Without Husker Du, there would have been no Pixies, no Nirvana, no Green Day.

It’s all good stuff!

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Pat DiNizio 1955-2017

Guest blogger Michael Noble returns with a memory of The Smithereens and patient persistence as a tribute to lead singer Pat DiNizio, who the world lost to cancer earlier this week.

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It was naturally sad to hear of the passing Pat Dinizio this week, lead singer for the moderately successful power pop band The Smithereens. I was a fan of their brand of music: Crunching, driving guitars, catchy, hook-laden singles with the occasional melancholy tear-jerker thrown in for good measure. And, oh…what a voice DiNizio possessed. Instantly identifiable every time…at least to my ears.

He will be missed.

Shortly after hearing the news, my mind went a couple places. First, I knew what my work night music menu consisted of – a healthy helping of The Smithereens’ catalog. And then my nostalgia kicked in and I remembered one of the times I went to see them live.

It was 30-some odd years ago. It was a friend’s birthday and it was just the two of us for a night on the town. I knew The Smithereens were playing the world famous Roxy in Hollywood and that, I’d decided, was our destination. I heard the show was sold out, but that never stopped me for going anywhere. Somehow, I would get us into the show.

We arrived and were promptly told by the box office the place was filled to capacity with no tickets left. We hung out anyway, my friend firing questions at me. Yes, we were going to wait it out; someone was bound to come by with extra tickets or some such so we could go inside. He was doubtful, commenting it was not the manner in which he thought his birthday evening would go. Me? I was my usual cheery happy-go-lucky and confident self.

20 minutes into the opening act, a staffer came out for a smoke. He saw us saunter our way over. “Waiting for someone he asked?” he asked. I told him yes, someone with a couple tickets to spare. He chuckled and walked off, puffing away.

Half an hour more passed. I could hear the opening act firing up their final tune of the night and, afterward, out came that same staffer for another smoke. “Still no one with tickets, huh?”

I shrugged.

“The place is packed. Matter of fact, the fire marshal came by earlier to check us out, make sure we weren’t violating any fire codes by having too many people in the place. And we were right on cue, not a person more in the joint than we’re allowed. I hate that damned fire marshal, always coming around and checking on us…”

He took a drag of his cigarette.

“You know what? Screw him and his fire codes. You want in? Follow me…”

And that is how we got into the show, on a lark.

At some point into The Smithereens’ set, I turned and noted to my friend, “Not a bad birthday after all, huh?”

Thanks for the memory, Pat and comrades. Rest in peace.

Thank you, Michael. You can read more of his writing at hotchka.com.

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Grant Hart (1961-2017)

The mid80s were my time. I’m stuck there. I was in art school. I was young. And I found the music that became so very important to me. There was The Who, of course. They pretty much opened my eyes to what I considered more important music than what Top 40 radio had to offer.

The mid80s were also the Twin Cities’ (sure, mostly Minneapolis) time when it came to that important music. There were so many great local bands then. And there was the greatest concert venue First Avenue & the 7th Street Entry. First Avenue was the stage for those great local acts as well as national and international artists producing that important music.

3574812918_996a569d07_bHusker Du (from St. Paul) was one head of the three-headed Minneapolis Sound monster. The other two were The Replacements and Prince. I was a mild fan of Prince, a big fan of The Replacements, but Husker Du was my favorite. I used to say I liked The ‘Mats’ albums (slightly) better than Husker Du’s, but I liked Husker Du more when seeing them play live. Their shows were consistently more intense and fun. Husker Du still feels more like my band than The Replacements. I like them both, but somehow I always felt more connected to the Huskers.

Sometime in 1985, they played an in-store show at the record store just a couple blocks away from where I lived. I went to that store every week. One weekend, I walked in just as they were finishing putting away their equipment. Marty, one of the fellows working at the store, said, “Oh, Jim! You just missed it! You should have gotten here earlier.”

Up to that point, I had only heard of Husker Du. I didn’t know any of their music, but I didn’t want to look uncool, so I feigned disappointment.

It was about a week later when a friend bought Zen Arcade. We listened to it and loved it. That’s when I felt the disappointment.

Grant Hart, co-lead singer, co-songwriter, and drummer of Husker Du, died earlier today at age 56.

Hart was the one local musician I would see regularly hanging out at First Avenue. I remember the first time I spotted him there.  He was wearing a gold lame shirt and was in the area back by the pool tables, playing pinball. I nudged my friend and pointed out that a local musical giant was in our presence. I think my friend told me to settle down and be cool.

I spoke to Grant Hart only once. It was just before their final LP, Warehouse: Songs And Stories, was to be released. Word was that the album was going to be two disks. I was drying my hands in the restroom, when Hart walked by. I stopped him and said, “I hear the new record is going to be a double album.”

“That’s what they tell me,” was his answer and he walked on.

I’m sorry I don’t have anything more exciting to say of my experience with Grant Hart. I wasn’t an insider of the scene.

I was just a fan.

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And finally, 1984’s 10 great alternative albums

It had to happen eventually. I mean, it was inevitable that I would run out of years from which to compile a list of ten great alternative albums. Most people tend to be like me, I think. We have a window of time when we pay close attention to the new and exciting music, but then we get older and our attention gets pulled in other directions. Oh, sure, there are a few people out there who are able to keep their fingers on the pulse. I’m not one of them. My window began to close in the late 80s.

Looking back over the lists I have done in this series (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, and the combined years of 1986-1989), I can see that I have my favorite artists. XTC, Husker Du, The Church, Buzzcocks, and The Replacements all have multiple entries. What can I say? I like what I like. I also like jangly guitars as this list will attest.

I might do a list of 10 albums from the 90s, but I’m certain I won’t be able to muster this sort of list for any more individual years. So, here are my choices for the ten greatest alternative albums from 1984.

It’s my list, your results may vary.

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10) Stop Making Sense – Talking Heads I haven’t listed a live album before on any of these lists, but this one, along with the film, is so good. I never did get to see Talked Heads live, so having this album and the video made for a decent substitute. Once In A Lifetime, Psycho Killer, and Burning Down The House are standout versions of those classic songs. However, my favorite track is a from a David Byrne solo project, The Catherine Wheel, with a new arrangement for Talking Heads.

Favorite track: What A Day That Was

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9) The Smiths – The Smiths There’s loads of melancholy and moaning Morrissey on this debut album by the quintessential 80s UK alternative band, The Smiths. There’s also plenty of excellent guitar work (some of it jangly) by the fantastic Johnny Marr. The darkness of Morrissey’s lyrics is nicely balanced by Marr’s light touch on the guitar. OK, Miserable Lie does tend to get on my nerves as the second half of the song has Morrissey wailing all falsetto to the point of making me say, “Next song!”

Favorite track: What Difference Does It Make?

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8) The Big Express – XTC This album is a little bit of a miss from my number two most favoritest band. I think that’s mostly due to the production. The album is filled with that big, big, BIG 80s drum sound and it’s a little distracting. However, there is plenty of good stuff on here, including You’re The Wish You Are I Had, I Remember The Sun, and the Police-like (and relevant again given today’s political climate) This World Over.

Favorite track: Wake Up

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7) Like This – The dBs A little power pop, a little country. The dB’s had that jangly guitar sound I like so much. There’s some good lyrics, too. Especially on my favorite track, a macabre but catchy tune about suicide. Love Is For Lovers is an excellent opening track for an album filled with excellent songs.

Favorite track: Amplifier

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6) Mirror Moves – The Psychedelic Furs This album demonstrates just how open a friend and I were to new music in 1984. I don’t recall if my friend had heard anything about the band before we bought tickets to see them in concert. I do remember we’d never heard any of their music. We really liked the band name, so we took a chance. Just after buying the tickets, my friend picked up this album. When we listened to it we knew we made the right concert-going decision. It is a terrific album.

Favorite track: The Ghost In You

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5) Zen Arcade – Husker Du This is the magnum opus for these originators of alternative rock from Minnesota. It’s hardcore, but it’s more than that. This is a big record (released as a double album) with the loose concept of following a kid heading out on his own into the big, bad world. It’s brilliant. Half of the songs come in at two minutes or less, but still pack a wallop. The final track, however, is an instrumental that lasts more than 15 minutes.

Favorite track: Newest Industry

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4) Learning To Crawl – The Pretenders This is the album that saw The Pretenders truly break into the mainstream, but their strong sense of independence kept their alternative cred alive. They continued their tough (I Hurt You, My City Was Gone) and tender (Thin Line Between Love And Hate, Show Me) song pattern and scored a couple radio hits (Middle Of The Road and my jangly guitar-laden favorite track). It’s a solid album by a band learning to crawl after the deaths of two of its original members.

Favorite track: Back On The Chain Gang

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3) Remote Luxury – The Church Shortly after signing with Warner Bros. in the US, their new label compiled the songs from two EPs released in their home country Australia, retaining the title of one of them, for this album release in the States. There’s more of a synth pop sound combined with the jangly guitars (I really like those) than on their previous efforts. And it works for the most part. Maybe These Boys is a little much and wasn’t a favorite of the band. Oh, and it took more than 30 years for me to realize the pun title of my favorite track. How embarrassing.

Favorite track: Constant In Opal

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2) Reckoning – REM Depending on when you ask me, this is usually the one I name when I’m asked which is my favorite REM album. And I’m asked constantly. It’s getting a little weird, actually. Anyway, this sophomore effort is crammed with jangly guitars. Have I mentioned I like jangly guitars? Because I really like jangly guitars. Standout tracks include: Pretty Persuasion, Harborcoat, So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry), and Second Guessing.

Favorite track: (Don’t Go Back To) Rockville

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1) Let It Be – The Replacements This is the critic’s darlings from Minneapolis’ last release on the independent label Twin/Tone before going to the major leagues and it just might be their best. The songwriting of Paul Westerberg had become even stronger, clearer, and more heartfelt. He was cooking with gas! Great songs such as Sixteen Blue, Answering Machine, and Unsatisfied showed that Westerberg was a major songwriting talent. Still the band retained its sense of humor and irreverence with a cover of Kiss’ Black Diamond, Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out and Gary’s Got A Boner. Peter Buck of REM appears to lend a little jangly guitar (how I love it so) to my favorite track. And what a great photo on the album cover!

Favorite track: I Will Dare

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