Thursday, November 11, 2010

1990: "Staring at the Sun", Ultra Vivid Scene

Sounding for all the world like a British band too dedicated to the melodic hook to fully embrace shoegaze, Ultra Vivid Scene were actually an American band whose singer sported a slight, faux-English accent peeking gently through the gauzy vocals. Their rise coincided with the genesis and early gestation of shoegaze, but aside from a tangential affinity for the breezier aspects of dream pop, Ultra Vivid Scene pretty much made their own way.

None too coincidentally given their sound, UVS broke through in the UK first with their self titled debut in 1989, notching several chart hits there and focusing their touring almost exclusively overseas. When Joy 1967-1990 - an obvious allusion to their penchant for classic Britpop melodies - emerged in 1990, the trend reversed, with no further hits forthcoming in the UK, but literally every single from that point on placing (at least modestly) in the US Modern Rock chart.

Apparently that wasn't enough. After a final album two years later, Ultra Vivid Scene disbanded, singer / guitarist Kurt Ralske going on to do production work for several years before eventually becoming a well respected visual artist. The rest of the band... who knows?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

1990: "Let Love Speak Up Itself", The Beautiful South

When the Housemartins broke up in 1988, Paul Heaton and Dave Hemingway quickly regrouped as the soulful alternative quintet the Beautiful South. Picking up more or less where the Housemartins left off, but ratcheting up the R&B / 60s pop influences, both Heaton and Hemingway would share vocal duties with a revolving door procession of female vocalists. As is typical of most bands that are distinctly English, the Beautiful South didn't make much noise in the US, but back home they were a reasonably successful top 40 group.

1990's Choke LP gave the group their first - and so far only - #1 hit in the UK with "A Little Time". My own American ears prefers "Let Love Speak Up Itself", which was the final single released off the album and fared a less significant #51 even in Great Britain, but that just goes to show how much tastes can change from one side of the pond to the other.

Monday, November 8, 2010

1990: "Don Henley Must Die", Mojo Nixon

Surprisingly this live rendition is the only version of "Don Henley Must Die" that Youtube currently boasts, and the recording quality is juuuuuuuuuuuust good enough that I'm willing to settle for it rather than slapping together my own out of static images and beer-fueled motivation.

Mojo Nixon, along with partner Skid Roper, managed to milk his brand of college humor and redneck roots rock for a number of entertaining albums starting in the mid-80s, but by 1990's Roper-less Otis things had largely taken a turn for the stale and obligatory. "Don Henley Must Die" is one of the few cuts from that album worth hearing, frankly, but it's also one of Mojo Nixon's most beloved so it's worth salvaging.

Legend has it that Mojo was playing the Hole in the Wall across from the University of Texas one night when Don Henley unexpectedly emerged from the crowd and joined Nixon on stage for a rousing version of Henley's namesake ditty. No word, however, on whether Debbie Gibson ever actually spawned Nixon's illegitimate mutant seed. That one I'm treating as a rumor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1990: "Obscurity Knocks", The Trash Can Sinatras

The Trash Can Sinatras hailed from Scotland and, having been together for a solid three years by the time 1990 rolled around, were understandably a bit more mired in jangly new wave while most of their British peers were off exploring folksier idioms, or indulging in the trendy Madchester / acid house crossover that was all the rage at the time. Their penchant for sing-song pop melodies ties them closely to their hometown Postcard Records sound - a label that only turned out around a dozen singles at the turn of the 80s but were very influential - but the Sinatras have a much more accessible, mainstream sound than their Postcard brethren. Their hooks are not necessarily over-the-top infectious, but the articulate, poetic lyrics need repeat listens to sink in anyway. Except for breaking up during most of the late 90s the Trash Can Sinatras have been an ongoing concern since Cake, their debut album, came out shortly on the heels of the "Obscurity Knocks" single in 1990.

[NOTE: you'll see it spelled both Trash Can Sinatras and Trashcan Sinatras; on the Cake sleeve it bears the grammar that I've given here, but albums released in the 2000s have the truncated version. Because the band themselves currently prefer two words over three, many fans refer to even the older material as Trashcan Sinatras]

Monday, November 1, 2010

1990: "Celebrate", An Emotional Fish

Contemporaries of A House, An Emotional Fish also hailed from Dublin but followed neither in the path of U2 - throughout the 80s a prevailing influence on Irish alternative rock - nor the burgeoning neo-folk strains of indie rock other of their countrymen were dabbling in. Listening to "Celebrate", in fact, one hears an almost stubborn adherence to the tropes of 80s English new wave. The critics raved, nonetheless, as the songwriting was compelling in spite of all lack of trendiness, but the public had heard enough by this point, and An Emotional Fish would take another three years to pump out a follow up album (to much less acclaim this time) before packing it in after their third effort in 1994 (that third album being such an afterthought it wasn't released in the US until 1996).

1990: "The Patron Saint of Mediocrity", A House

With a number of modern folk-based indie rock bands from the UK making waves - ie. Frightened Rabbit, The Frames - it's worth revisiting A House, a Dublin band that, starting in the late 80s, willfully eschewed the ringing chords of countrymen U2 in favor of a trad "return to zero"... not trad in the sense of the Pogues, necessarily, but rather a defiantly nationalist mix of rock and folk music a la the type that provided the springboard for the singer-songwriter movement in 60s America, except in the vein of traditional British folk idioms rather than the protest songs of Woody Guthrie or the bluesier roots music of Leadbelly. Never charting during their lifespan (even in the UK), A House have nonetheless become somewhat of a cult classic over the years - particularly in their homeland - though no reunions have been forthcoming since their 1997 breakup, and frontman Dave Couse has released only three solo albums over the years, almost universally to indifference from all but the most hardcore A House fans.