Like Rush, the Velvet Underground were painted as a cult band so frequently that it became clear by the early 1980s, a decade after the band was done, that they were anything but. In the rock-and-roll retrospectives and histories that began appearing at that time, the band became a pivotal force despite their commercial failure — Brian Eno famously half-joked that even though the band’s first record (that Andy Warhol one with the banana on it) only sold 10,000 copies on its release, every one who bought it started their own group — and through sheer collective will the rock community at large cemented VU’s role as the progenitor of punk by the time of Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s landmark Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk (1996). It’s a conclusion that’s hard to argue with, if at the same time you cast a wider net including bands like Love and the Stooges and countless garage-rock monsters like the Sonics and the Seeds. The legacy of the Velvet Underground comes down to attitude, songwriting, and, importantly, their connection with Warhol and New York.
By the mid-1980s American college rock (for so it was called at the time) was jonesing for all things VU, but often threw that influence in with the other nostalgia trips taking place at the time, to the lands of Byrds, Beatles, and Barrett. California’s neo-psychedelic “paisley underground” existed in this space, and reached its pinnacle in the early 1990s with Mazzy Star, a group that grew out of another band, Opal, and, before that, Rain Parade. Mazzy Star matched David Roback’s sculpted fuzz country blues with Hope Sandoval’s beautiful vocal phrasing, which paired a remarkable emotional investment with the kind of matter-of-fact distance that characterized Lou Reed’s and the Velvet Underground’s best work. While their hit, “Fade Into You,” would come from their second album, it’s their first record, She Hangs Brightly, that defines their sound best, slow- and mid-tempo country/blues/americana rock that is its own reverb-ed thing but also strongly evokes VU and the Doors (to the point where they lift the riff for “Ghost Highway” straight from the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You”). As a whole the album is near-perfect, has aged as gracefully as any of its contemporaries. “Blue Flower” reminds me of standing in front of a stage in Carrboro, North Carolina, in 1994, watching one of the best live bands I’ve seen make a case for the past and future of American rock and roll.
soundstreamsunday presents one song or live set by an artist each week, and in theory wants to be an infinite linear mix tape where the songs relate and progress as a whole. For the complete playlist, go here: soundstreamsunday archive and playlist, or check related articles by clicking on”soundstreamsunday” in the tags section above.
An appropriately bizarre episode of progarchy radio–featuring only SPOOKY songs! Featuring Oingo Boingo, Glass Hammer, Matt Stevens, Japan, Gazpacho, Black Vines, The Cure, Steve Rothery, Steve Hackett, U2, Rush, Steven Wilson, Spock’s Beard, Advent, Mazzy Star, Cosmograf, and Simple Minds.
A few days ago, I felt absolutely snarky and thought, “why not write down exactly what I think of music from the 1980s.” In some ways, I feel I have the right to do this in a manner I could never do for any other decade.
After all, I was in seventh grade when a very disturbed fanboy tried to kill the fortieth president, and I was a first-semester senior in college when the Berlin Wall came down.
Yes, I’m very much a man of the 1980s. Reagan, Rush, Blade Runner. . . how I remember the 1980s. I came of age in that rather incredible decade.
Life continued after 1989, however, though I wasn’t so sure at the time that it would.
1990 proved to be one of the most interesting years in my personal life when it came to career choices as well as to music.
The chances are quite good that you’re not reading this post because you want to know my career choices or why I made them. So, I’ll confine myself to the music that I loved that year.
I owe almost all of my good fortune to three very great guys, Ron Strayer (now, a high up with Microsoft), Kevin McCormick (now, justly, a progarchy editor), and Craig Breaden (now, happily, one of progarchy’s editors). Ron introduced me to what would very soon be called “alternative” but was then being called “college rock” or “modern rock.” Kevin sent me recommendations, including the rather insistent demand to purchase cds by World Party and The Sundays. And, finally, Craig introduced me not only to neo-psychedelia but also to psychedelia from its original age. It was Craig who introduced me to Van Morrison, Spooky Tooth, Procol Harum, and Traffic.
I’d loved prog and New Wave all of my 22 years at that point, but my vision was pretty limited to only these genres by the end of 1989. Well, this isn’t quite accurate. I also knew classical and jazz fairly well.
With the help of three friends, 1990 opened up huge musical vistas for me in the non-jazz, non-classic genres.
Richard Thompson, as a part of French Frith Kaiser Thompson, wrote two of the best songs I’ve ever: “Peppermint Rock” and “The Killing Jar.” Folk acid psychedelia by guys who had been there before there was a need for a revival.
Suzanne Vega’s third album, DAYS OF OPEN HAND, came out that year, and it’s still one of my favorite albums. Vega has always produced gorgeous pop and folk in the vein of XTC and others. If this is pop, it’s very high pop. Importantly, she never became political like so many of her counterparts. Rather, she gracefully let the music and lyrics remain art. Her breathy vocals–weird and yet captivating–only add to her appeal.
Echo and the Bunnymen’s almost totally forgotten and (when remembered) maligned album, REVERBERATION, is a slice of pop-rock perfection. Yes, it’s missing Ian McCulloch, but this only lets Will Sergeant soar. Frankly, their sound hit its height with OCEAN RAIN and fell flat on the follow-up album. This one, REVERBERATION, reveals an effective rebirth of the band. The new vocalist, while not possessing the cancerous gravel of McCulloch’s voice, captures the spirit of the lyrics perfectly. Word play and cliché become clever and, indeed, addictive. There’s not a dud song on the album, but the employment of psychedelic Indian musicians really works rather perfectly on “Enlighten Me” and on the Doorish “Flaming Red.” The former is one of the finest songs the band ever wrote.
Mazzy Star. Hardly anyone remembers this California psychedelic folk and navel-gazing band that emerged from the underground band, Opal. Too bad–as 1990’s SHE HANGS BRIGHTLY is a thing of disturbing beauty. Walls of sound, clever lyrics, and earnest production make this album a masterpiece of the neo-psych revival.
“Is it too late, baby?” World Party. What to say about this about that hasn’t been said by a million others? While Karl Wallinger continues to make interesting music (despite severe health problems), he really threw every thing his soul possessed into GOODBYE JUMBO. From the crazy Beatle-sque cover to the basement production, this is a gem. All of the songs work very well, though they rarely reach beyond simple Beatle’s pop. Taken as a whole, however, this is a prog-pop album. Not that the individual songs are prog. They’re not even close. But, imagine a really, really, really clever Paul McCartney reworking side 2 of Abbey Road. Then, you’d have GOODBYE JUMBO. Thank you, world, indeed.
The Sundays. Ok, so the lead singer is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. This doesn’t hurt my opinion of the band. But, really, it’s her voice. That voice. How to describe it? There are no words, really, that could capture it. She’s playful. She’s earnest. She’s flirtatious. She’s so utterly sincere. Oh, Harriet. At one time, you were my Beatrice. Her husband, David Gavurin, knows exactly how to write music to match his wife’s voice. What a team. And, they did the album merely for the fun of it, which makes it even more enjoyable. If you don’t own this or if you’ve never heard of The Sundays, treat yourself. You’ll never regret this purchase. Promise.
Charlatans UK. SOME FRIENDLY. I know next to nothing about this band, but I absolutely dug their sound when Ron introduced them to me. I’d never quite heard drumming like this (though, The Cure would use the exact same style on their 1991 album, WISH). The drums, the keyboards, and the bass make this one of the most interesting albums I’ve ever heard it. While I wouldn’t place it up there with the previous albums I’ve mentioned in terms of outright excellence and staying power, it’s still really good.
House of Love. Album title? I’m not sure, as there’s none listed. Just the band’s name with a butterfly. Some of the album fails, but when it works, it works in a stellar fashion. The album is worth owning for the first two tracks alone—”Hannah” and “Shine On”—which really blend into one continuous 10-minute track. Great build up and perfect execution on these two songs. From what little I know of the band, they were a bunch of really raucous and idiotic druggies. Still, some amazing talent there.
Cocteau Twins, HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. The best for last? I’m not sure, but, sheesh, do I love this album. Aside from LOVELESS by My Bloody Valentine, no album reaches as close to shoe-gaze perfection as does HEAVEN OR LAS VEGAS. This album simply never ages. It’s so weird and yet so continuously captivating. I assume the artsts behind Cocteau Twins wield some special instrument to speed up or delay time, but I can’t verify this. Listening to this album is NEVER a casual experience. It demands full immersion, but you re-emerge not as one drowned but as one baptized.
Review of Vertica, The Haunted South (Radiant Records, 2014). Songs: Holding Smoke; Temperance; Ghost of Summer; Always; Obsidian; You’ve Been Warned; The Wind Has Teeth; Believing and Pretending; The Furthest Place; Open Water; Pearl; One Last Chance to Resurrect; Go North.
The band: Emily Brunson (Lead Vocals); Tyler Downey (Guitar, Vocals); Joshua Ruppert (Bass); James McCurley (Drums, Vocals, Piano). Producer and Engineer: Jerry Guidroz
For quite a while in the 1990s, I thought pop couldn’t get much better than Sixpence None the Richer. The first album grabbed me, the second captivated me, and the third floored me. Absolutely floored me. I still think that third one (their 1997 self titled album) one of the best albums I’ve ever heard or probably ever will hear. It’s not at the level of Skylarking or Songs from the Big Chair, but it’s very, very close. Then, of course, came the fourth album, Divine Discontent. What a disappointment. Granted, it wasn’t the kind of disappointment I felt with Pure Reason Revolution’s Amor Vincit Omnia—which I discarded rather unceremoniously after only a few listens. What a piece of barnyard excrement that was. I’m honestly not sure how a band could fall so quickly and steeply.
Stop, Birzer! This isn’t an article about your personal rants or about the decline of PRR (though, The Dark Third is just so, so could—how could they fall apart so quickly. . . ).
Anyway, the purpose of this post is to praise a great (brilliant) new band. I’ve had a review copy of Vertica’s The Haunted South for a little over a month now. And, I’ve thought about writing this review ten to twenty times, at least. Today, I finally made myself write it. By made myself—I don’t want to suggest writing this is a burden. It’s not a burden in the least, though it is hard work. Why? The album is just so good, I owe it the very best review I can give it. The album is so good, writing a review of it somewhat intimidates me. On the good side. . . in the time I’ve had a copy of this album, I’ve listened to it at least thirty times. Probably once a day.
It’s not prog, but it is very fine pop-rock with lots of art and prog elements. If you could combine the best of Mazzy Star, Sixpence None the Richer, The Cranberries, and IZZ, you’d come very close to the excellence of this band. Some of it is folkish, some of it is simply poetic, some of it is gothic, some of it is pop, and some of it is very hard.
Yet, with nothing but excellence, The Haunted South all flows together.
There’s something distinctive about the voice of the lead vocalist, Emily Brunson. She does sound a bit like the lead singer of Sixpence, but without the coyishly girlish voice often employed on the poppier tunes of Sixpence. Brunson’s voice can be sweet, but it’s always utterly earnest and never saccharine. The lead songwriter, James McCurley, knows exactly how to write music to fit Brunson’s near perfect vocals as well. Anyway, no matter what style of music or genre Vertica is employing, Brunson’s vocals are so good and so distinctive, they essentially become the sound of the band.
This brings me to McCurley. This is a guy to watch over the next several years and even decades. He’s already proven his talent, now he will show us what a force he is. He can write music very well. I assume he’ll only get better. But, his greatest strength is his lyric writing. I’m always a sucker for great lyrics, and these are great lyrics. Poetic in a mysterious, haunting, fog-filled woods kind of way. Listening to this lyrics, I feel as though I’ve found a connection to the voice and soul of Flannery O’Conner, fifty years later.
If you order this CD, and you should, avoid the download. Not because the music isn’t wonderful—because it is—but because you owe it to yourself to own the booklet, complete with lyrics.
Oh, boy. Love finding new things. I’ll be following Vertica for years to come. And, the adventure has just begun.
To order (and you should; early and often), click either of these links.