Via Chicago: 1990's Indie Pt. 1
Looking back at past posts, I realized a few weeks back that most of the content on my blog is heavily influenced by music that from the late 70s and early 80s. This isn't surprising in the least, considering my love of post-punk and synth-based pop. However, it is weird that I don't spend more time that decade where I first fell in love with music, namely the 1990s. That was the decade where I realized just how much I was indebted to those artists I was constantly listening to on my tape decks, walkmen or discmen.
So to pay tribute to that wonderful decade, I'm going to do a series of features on 1990s guitar-based underground music by location. Why limit it so much? Because, that's predominantly what I've listened to in my life (hip-hop and electronic stuff wasn't okay in my books until about 4 or 5 years ago). I'm currently working on putting features together on places like Seattle/the Northwest (duh!), Boston (again duh!), Louisville KT, The Carolinas, maybe New York (that could prove too large), East-Coast Canada, Ontario/Montreal, the Prairies and the West Coast. Each feature will also have select tracks from some of the groups profiled, for your listening pleasure.
For my first feature, I'm going big and starting with Chicago. I chose this for my first feature, for a few reasons. First of all, Chicago was HUGE in the 90s. Whether it was through pumpkin smashing, deconstructing both country and rock music, creating amazing record labels (Drag City, Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey etc ...) or recording one of the decades most important releases (Nirvana's In Utero), the Chicago music scene was most definitely 'in' during the 90s. I even remember seeing gig posters in Edmonton, for small unknown acts with "From Chicago" put underneath the band name just to entice people to come. "From Chicago" meant something back then, and this is what I want to celebrate.
Secondly (and possibly more selfishly), this is the scene I'm most familiar with. I spent a lot of time listening to Chicago bands, and am more comfortable about writing about this scene than I am with other areas.
So anyways, here is part one of my Chicago piece, with part two (focusing completely on post-rock) coming tomorrow, along with a podcast. By the way, sorry about the formatting, the pictures stopped working halfway through the post. Enjoy!
Uncle Tupelo and the inbreaking of Alt-Country
The term "Alt-Country" carries with it some heavy names; Wilco, Neko Case, Giant Sand, Blue Rodeo, and the list could go on. However, in many ways, the genre wouldn't be where it is today if it weren't for a trio of young punks from Belleville Il (a suburb of Chicago), who, under the name Uncle Tupelo, released a trio of classic albums in No Depression (1990, Rockville), March 16-20, 1992 (1992, Rockville), and Anodyne (1993, Sire). Led by lead singer Jay Farrar, and Jeff Tweedy, the group was able to fuse their love of country twan, and the all-out fury of punk. This fusion jumpstarted a new musical genre that quickly began reverberating throughout the American underground (these albums paved the way for the emergence of groups like The Jayhawks, Calexico, Palace Music/Brothers and Old Reliable, and led to the creation of one of North America's finest music Mags titled after Uncle Tupelo's debut No Depression).
Of these three particular albums March 16-20, 1992 is the album which, in many ways captures the very essence of what made the band so great. While the album lacks more of the punk tendencies of the bands previous works (with the exception of a few of Tweedy's sudden and sporatic use of feedback pointing future experimentations with Wilco), the recording captures the band at its rawest. With standout tracks like "Moonshiner" and "Grindstone" the album further solidified the place of roots music in the American underground.
The Handsome Famlily - Through the Trees (1998, Carrot Top)
Speaking of solidifying the place of country in North American underground scene's, few groups were able to do so with such precision as the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks (a.k.a. The Handsome Family). Often considered the breakthrough album for the band Through the Trees is a wonderful collection of dark and and moody pieces that are constantly blurring the lines between the material and spiritual.
Wilco - Being There (1996, Sire) Summerteeth (1999, Warner)
I'm not going to say too much about these as there has easily been enough said about them. However, it's not fair to talk about Alt-Country and Chicago without at least mentioning them. Summerteeth is particularly enjoyable, and rivaled only by Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in the Wilco catalogue.
Noise, Grunge and Lo-Fi
The Jesus Lizard - Goat (1991, Touch and Go)
One of many great releases by the Chicago-based Touch and Go label, Goat is a great combination of the spastic grunge guitar that was coming out of Seattle at the time and the paranoid preacher stylings akin to the likes of The Birthday Party, and The Pixies.
Smashing Pumpkins - Gish (1991, Virgin)
As awful as some of the Pumkins more recent works have been, 1991's Gish (and 93's Siamese Dream, but that can wait for later), is a thing of beauty. The sound of the guitars and Billy Corgan's voice, are stunning, as the band takes the slacker-grunge aesthetic of Nirvana's Nevermind (which actually came out a few months later), and relocates in the arena. Truly an enjoyable listen.
Shellac - At Action Park (1994, Touch and Go)
Even though Steve Albini is known primarily as for production skills (recording the likes of the Pixies, The Wedding Present, Songs Ohia, and Bush. Oh yeah, he also did the original recordings of this little gem.), his work with his own group Shellac shouldn't get overlooked. At Action Park, is a great noise-based record that, musically isn't anything extremely special, but sonically most definitely is. How this record sounds is equally as important as the actually material on the record.
Royal Trux - Accelerator (1998, Drag City)
Rising out of the ashes of long-time act (and not-sexually suggestive at all) Pussy Galore, Royal Trux unleashes a tension-riddled song cycle in which the bands 70's influenced sound is forced into conversation with 80's style compression and synthesizers. The result is an absolute bloody mess, but one that you still want to be involved with.
The Mountain Goats - Nine Black Poppies (1995, Emperor Jones)
It's hard to call The Mountain Goats a "Chicago act" as John Darnielle has lived all over the United States. However, for a time he called Chicago home, and during that period put out his first full-length album Nine Black Poppies. Recorded primarily straight on to tape, the album points towards the pop beauty of recent discs We Shall All Be Healed and Sunset Tree (as well as this years Heretic Pride which is a great record by the way), while still carrying with it troubling lo-fi tendancies. It's one of my favorite records, from one of the most consistent songwriters of our time (and that's not an over-statement).
Tomorrow - Part II