Saturday, May 31, 2014

Various Artists - The Obscurity File

Back during my freshman year at the Naval Academy in the early '80s, we plebes weren't allowed to have radios or any sort of music or electronic devices in our rooms (this was a couple of years before incoming classes were issued with laptops, so I'm curious as to how that rule is currently enforced - if I was a plebe now, my computer would be jam-packed with .mp3s). Of course, this didn't stop the vast majority of plebes from smuggling in their newfangled Walkmans, and stashing them and their tape collections in various places in our rooms. I was no exception to this rule - a favorite hiding place was in the ceiling tiles above the bunks. By the time Plebe Year ended, I was surprised that the ceiling didn't collapse from all the cassettes I had stashed up there!

Anyway, starting in my second year in Annapolis, I made up for lost time, musically. WHFS, the local alternative station, was always on in my room (fortunately, my roommate was into that stuff as well). Later on, in the 1990s and beyond (before its untimely but predictable demise), 'HFS became more of a commercial 'modern rock' station, flogging stuff like tired grunge bands, Green Day and the like. But back in the day, the station was still fiercely independent and for the most part anti-commercial, and had DJs with the sack to play some pretty unheard-of, off-the-wall stuff that I ended up enjoying immensely. Jonathan "Weasel" Gilbert, with his nasal, high-pitched voice, was the signature DJ and most recognizable station personality. But there were other on-air individuals - like Aquaman, Mother Earth Meg, Neci and the like - whose shows I enjoyed and regularly tuned into. I would occasionally tape some of their programs for later listening.

One night, one of the 'HFS DJs (whose name I've long since forgotten) played a 45-minute nonstop bloc of some pretty outstanding stuff, most of which I'd never come across before. I taped pretty much the entire show (still have that cassette stashed away in the basement). These tunes included Iggy Pop's "Run Like A Villain" off of his 1982 album Zombie Birdhouse (in the early 80's, Iggy was then in the midst of a long career slump; one he wouldn't pull out of until 1986's Blah Blah Blah), Pylon's "Yo-Yo" . . . and this peppy little New Wave gem:

I had no idea what the name of this tune or the band was, and after that one broadcast that evening, I never heard it on the radio again. But I thought it was great, and I never forgot the song and its lyrics - "Good luck, Ronnie Reagan - save us from ourselves". I hoped one day that I would run across it once again. It was literally decades later, actually, before I dug up more info on this song.

One day a few years ago, I plugged my rudimentary remembered lyrics into a search engine, which provided me with an answer. The song was called, appropriately enough, "Ronnie's Song", by a California band called LAX.

I did a little research on the group, and found that it was formed in 1980 and fronted by Redondo Beach's Carl Pritzkat, with his brother Mike on bass and their friend Chris Holmes on drums. The band gigged around the LA area, and in 1981, shortly after President Reagan's inaugaration, released "Ronnie's Song" as a single on Michricar Music. The tune was fairly popular in the Los Angeles Basin - the legendary DJ Rodney Bingenheimer on the influential station KROQ played this song frequently during the early '80s. This major-station exposure did nothing for LAX; "Ronnie's Song" was their only release, and they quickly faded away.

Armed with this new knowledge, I made several attempts to track down this incredibly hard-to-find single, with no success whatsoever. I finally found the song on a compilation album of way-out, forgotten early '80s chestnuts called (appropriately enough) The Obscurity File. Here's the song lineup:
1. Ogden Edsl - Kinko The Clown
2. Killer Pussy - Teenage Enema Nurses In Bondage
3. Wild Horses - Funky Poodle
4. Unit 3 With Venus - Pajama Party
5. Little Girls - The Earthquake Song
6. Bouquet of Veal - Dwarf Tossin'
7. Angel & The Reruns - Buffy Come Back
8. Klondike Carl - Time Is A Ticky Talk
9. Brian Briggs - See You On The Other Side
10. The Bollock Brothers - Harley David (Son Of A Bitch)
11. LAX - Ronnie's Song
12. The Vandals - Urban Struggle
13. Scott Goddard - Cowpunk
14. Bird & McDonald - The Rodeo Song
15. Ogden Edsl - Kinko Returns
The album features tunes mainly by Southern California New Wave musicians, most of whom were "one-hit wonders" (the term "hit" being applied very liberally here) . . . but others who gained a little more recognition in the industry, including Angel & The Reruns (who were featured in the movie Bachelor Party; their song here is the infamous one referring to the drug overdose of Anissa Jones, who played "Buffy" on TV's Family Affair) and Scott Goddard, who used to be a member of The Surf Punks. For the most part, however, most of these songs were considered novelties, and as such were relegated to play on radio programs like Dr. Demento and late-night freakout shows . . . like the one on WHFS where I heard the LAX song so long ago. A lot of the songs here are silly, and this album post probably won't be breathlessly awaited by a majority of you. But if you find one song on here that's to your taste, you'll probably like them all. So, give it a shot, if you dare!

[And as for LAX's Carl Pritzkat, after his short career in the music industry, he went into the digital media field, founding Mediapolis in 1994. He recently joined Publishers Weekly as Vice-President of Business Development. It's good to see that music wasn't the beginning and end for him, and he's moved on and is doing well in life.]

So here for your listening pleasure is The Obscurity File, a collection of relentlessly obscure New Wave releases, put out by Oglio Records on July 19th, 1994, an album that I acquired based on the fuzzy memory of a half-recalled song heard over a quarter-century ago. Enjoy, and as always, let me know what you think.

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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Ed's Redeeming Qualities - More Bad Times

A hopelessly obscure and woefully nearly forgotten band, the alt-folk group Ed's Redeeming Qualities was formed by four New Hampshire friends in 1988.  Band members Carrie Bradley and Dan Leone met while they were students at the University of New Hampshire; they later linked up with Dan's brother Dom (who moved to the state from Ohio) and Neno Perrotta. With their quirky, funny songs (many of them written by the gifted and prolific Dom) and strange instrumentation (most of their music was driven by Carrie's violin, Dan's ukelele and Neno's bongos), Ed's Redeeming Qualities quickly became one of the darlings of Boston's late-80s indie scene, along with bands like The Pixies and Throwing Muses, playing places like the Middle East and the late lamented Rathskeller ("The Rat").

Sadly, soon after their Boston debut, Dom was diagnosed with cancer.  He died in November 1989, taking with him much of the band's spirit. After Dom's death, the band relocated to San Francisco, where they landed an album contract with a small folk label. They released two albums there in the early 1990s, More Bad Times and It's All Good News, but found little commercial success with them. Their only real mainstream radio exposure was on Dr. Demento's nationally syndicated novelty music radio show, where a couple of their songs were occasionally featured. Needless to say, that's not exactly the sort of exposure you're looking for to establish and maintain a following.

Probably the only reason I know anything about this band is that Carrie Bradley was briefly a member of The Breeders. She participated in the group's legendary demo sessions and their first album, 1990's Pod.  Ed's Redeeming Qualities received its biggest exposure in 1994, when The Breeders covered their song "Drivin' On 9" on their platinum smash Last Splash:

(The Breeders also covered the song on the Pod demos - I honestly prefer that version to the album version, but whatever . . .). Bradley joined the Deal sisters' band again as a guest during their 1994 Lollapolooza tour, and ERQ started receiving some favorable press during that time.

The positive vibes from Last Splash maintained Ed's Redeeming Qualities for a while, but with the lack of commercial success it was unsustainable. The group released one final album, At The Fish And Game Club, in 1996, before disbanding the following year. Since their demise, Carrie Bradley went on to form the band 100 Watt Smile, which released two albums in the late 1990s, and does a lot of session work. Both Dan Leone and Neno Perrotta became writers, Dan penning food and fiction columns for weekly alternative newspapers and Neno writing and publishing poetry. But ERQ is still beloved in the Boston area - they played a very well-received reunion show at TT The Bear's Place in Cambridge (just around the corner from the Middle East) in January 2011. And they still have plenty of fans across the nation, who appreciate and adore their strange and humorous songs. They might not be everyone's particular cup of tea . . . but they are well worth a listen.

Here's Ed's Redeeming Qualities' More Bad Times, released in 1990 by Flying Fish Records.  This was burned off of my vinyl copy (which, in an instance of synergynistic coolness, I bought off of a member of Washington State's Beat Happening), as the CD version is nearly impossible to track down.  Enjoy, and as always, please let me know what you think.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Ultra Vivid Scene - Mercy Seat and Special One EPs

More good stuff from that golden music era of the late '80s/early '90s . . . I used to catch the occasional Ultra Vivid Scene tune on one of the various alternative radio stations I listened to back in the day, and always enjoyed what this band had to offer.

Ultra Vivid Scene was essentially singer and guitarist Kurt Ralske, accompanied occasionally by a rotating host of musicians. Ralske was a gifted musician pretty much from the get-go; at sixteen, he had already gained entrance into Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music. But Ralske was always a free spirit and seeker of sorts on all levels, never settling on one particular thing, but absorbing what he thought was necessary before moving on to the next location and experience. He stayed at Berklee long enough to gain a thorough exposure to jazz music concepts, before moving on to college in New York City in the early 80s, and falling in with some of the major figures in that city's "No Wave" music scene (folks like James Chance and Thurston Moore). These New York sounds, which included not only the contemporary experimental scene but also the output of the Velvet Underground and hardcore punk, were a major influence in the music Ralske was attempting to piece together. He joined his first bands while in New York, serving as guitarist for Nothing But Happiness (who released a single ("Narcotics Day"/"Couldn't Make You Mine") in 1985 and an album
(Detour) in 1987), Dissipated Face (sort of a punkier version of The Contortions), King of Culture and Crash, fronted by singer-songwriter Mark Dumais. When Dumais decided to relocate Crash from NYC to London in 1987, Ralske went along.

During his time in England, Ralske was exposed to the experimental, abrasive, guitar-driven sounds of bands like The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine. To quote an interview he conducted years later: " . . . the example of the Jesus & Mary Chain was very important for me. It pointed [toward] a way of doing things that were both simple and very complex at the same time. I was keen on this idea that things could have a simple form but actually be complex and subtle in their meaning."   It was the culmination of his extensive experience playing with his bands along with the profound influence The J & M Chain had on him that led him to form Ultra Vivid Scene in early 1988.

Ultra Vivid Scene (which, as stated above, was essentially Ralske) was quickly signed by 4AD later that year. His/the band's first recording, the four-song She Screamed EP, was released that August. Of all of the group's releases, it's the one that comes closest to emulating the Jesus & Mary Chain sound, albeit filtered through Ralske's extensive exposure to more mainstream rock (probably because it's the only release completely written, produced and performed by him). For example, here's the title cut:

UVS's first full album, a self-titled release, quickly followed in October 1988. The album is somewhat less abrasive and experimental than the preceding EP; the mixture of pop and noise here is definitely skewed toward the pop end of the spectrum. For me, in some cases (like the songs "Nausea" and "A Dream Of Love") this amalgamation is compelling; in others, it comes off as bland and whiny alt-rock. The best song on Ultra Vivid Scene in my opinion is "Mercy Seat", an almost perfect grind-pop meld of My Bloody Valentine and The Velvet Underground. [In my scrambled musical memories of years past, I had all but convinced myself that I had heard "Mercy Seat" in late 1987, more than a year before it was actually released. After a little reflection, I realized that I was confusing the song with the band Mercy Seat, former Violent Femmes vocalist Gordon Gano's gospel-punk side project, which released a self-titled album in the fall of 1987.]

The group and 4AD also realized what a winner they had in this song. In the spring of 1989, “Mercy Seat” was re-recorded and released on an EP, along with an excellent cover of Buffy St. Marie’s “Codine”, a new song called “H Like In Heaven”, and the original version of the lead track. The new version of “Mercy Seat” was augmented by a long, languid intro that almost doubles the track’s length but doesn't necessarily add anything new or compelling to it - in many ways, it weakens the power of the original album cut.

Here's one of the two videos made for "Mercy Seat" (the shorter version) - I included this one because near the end of the clip (at about the 3:25 mark), you can catch a glimpse of one of Ralske's erstwhile session band mates - none other than Moby himself - with hair no less!

Both the album and the Mercy Seat EP were fairly well received by critics. But Ultra Vivid Scene's main problem at the time was that they couldn't translate their music to audiences in a live setting. The band set out on their first American tour in 1989, but the shows were not well received. Ralske hired musicians rather than doing it all himself, so there may have been an issue with getting these hired hands fully conversant in his music. In addition Ralske (admittedly) paid little attention and less interest as to how to adequately capture his studio sound in concert. The result was a series of poor shows that killed much of their momentum in America; they were reportedly so bad that after a label representative saw them play in New York, he recommended that Ultra Vivid Scene become purely a studio concern, and no longer be allowed to play live.

Despite these setbacks, UVS soldiered on. Ralske reentered the studio in November 1989 to record the follow-up to Ultra Vivid Scene. This time out, he enlisted some help - namely, an established producer (Hugh Jones, who previously produced well-received indie/alternative releases, including That Petrol Emotion's Manic Pop Thrill and The Icicle Works' debut album) and a bevy of seasoned studio musicians. He also got some assistance from some of his friends in the industry, such as The Pixies' Kim Deal. The extra support freed Ralske from shouldering the entire burden of putting an album together, and led to the creation of probably Ultra Vivid Scene's finest record.

The new album, Joy 1967-1990, was released in May 1990. Overall, it's a lot peppier and somewhat bouncier than its predecessor (perhaps reflecting the lifting of pressures off of Ralske), and it was very well received in both the UK and US. The album reached the British Top 60, and three cuts off of it charted on the US Billboard Modern Rock Tracks. The highest charting single in the US was Ralske's sole collaboration with Deal, the excellent song "Special One" (which liberally steals much of its riff from Big Star's "September Gurls"). Here's video of the song:

[This is purportedly the "official video" - there's another one I used to see years ago, a black and white version with just Ralske and Deal sitting together and singing . . . I always hated that video, because Kim Deal (as much as I love her) acts like a complete bitch in it and all but hijacks the performance - smoking, mugging for the camera, pushing Ralske off his stool and and one point giving him a vicious face slap . . . not her finest moment.]
As with the previous album, 4AD recognized this as the strongest track off the new disc, and subsequently released "Special One" on its own EP later that fall, along with three non-album cuts.

Despite the negative reaction to their first tour, in the wake of the good press they were receiving with the new album, UVS went out on the road again in 1990, starting with a small concert series in England. Again, disaster ensued. Ralske commented years later about the shows:
" . . . with great fanfare, there were four nights of performances at a smallish club in the centre of London called the Borderline. In the audience were all the press and everybody important in the music industry. And basically we went out there and completely sucked: we had a very inadequate performance. I have spoken to other people who told me that, that was the point at which the fate of Ultra Vivid Scene was sealed. The performances were so bad that 4AD apparently begged people not to write about it. [laughs] Nobody wanted to think or talk about this group at all, ever again."
Ralske's take of the reaction to their performance was pretty spot-on. From that point onward, 4AD's support of UVS was sharply curtailed. Yet the relationship between the band and the label continued for a little while longer.

Prior to the sessions for Ultra Vivid Scene's third release, Ralske put together a real band to go into the studio with (consisting of himself on guitar and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass), and this time the music was a true collaborative effort between the three of them. Rev, with a clear, polished
professional sound, was released in October 1992. Once again, despite label trepidations, Ultra Vivid Scene went out on the road to support it. But this time, the trio was in sync, and the result was some superb live performances.  But it was too little, too late for the group. The album failed to chart in either the US or England, and only one song, "Blood and Thunder" made the Modern Rock chart. Ralske and his band were released by 4AD in 1993.

For most of the rest of the 1990s, Ralske made his living engineering and producing records for the likes of Rasputina and Ivy, while working on his own experimental electronic music (he released four albums in the late 90s / early 2000s). Since then, he has moved into other artistic fields. He is now a well-respected and award-winning video and media artist, who holds professorships at two renowned East Coast art schools, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the NYC School of Visual Arts. His works have been exhibited all over the world; have you ever been to the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in downtown New York City, and noticed the video display right there in the lobby? That's his, and it's on permanent display there. His current curriculum vitae focuses mostly on his digital endeavors, barely mentioning his stint as a popular, groundbreaking alternative musician.

The online music magazine The Quietus featured an extensive interview with Ralske last October, the first he's given in many years. In it, he does much to all but dismiss his previous career in music. “I know there are some people that are still interested in those [Ultra Vivid Scene] records”, he stated, “but mostly I’m just focused on the present and the future. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.”  That sort of precious, pretentious "I'm a real artist now" attitude irked me, more than a bit. Kurt, you once made challenging, compelling, popular music - a creation that tens of thousands of people enjoyed, loved and still remember. OWN it, and respect your fans, instead of being a big arty wuss about it.

Shortly after I read the Quietus article last year, I received a letter in the mail, telling me I had been selected for jury duty that November.  I spent most of the first week of November cooped up with several dozen other similarly unfortunate members of the public in a dank room in the basement of the Rhode Island Superior Court building on Benefit Street in downtown Providence, just a little ways from the RISD campus. They gave all of us who weren't assigned a case time off every afternoon to go out to lunch, and I invariably made the walk down North Main Street to eat at Fat Belly's Pub.

It was during one of my lunchtime strolls through RISD that week that I saw someone walking towards me who I swore was Kurt Ralske - the guy had the same thinning hair and glasses that were in his interview picture. His words in the article - and my reaction to it - were fresh in my mind, and I was just about to address the man headed in my direction to see if it was, in fact, him . . . but at the last second, I just kept my mouth closed and let the person walk on by. It might not have been him at all - who knows? And even if it was, what would/could I say? I'll let him be content with his current life and career; I'll be content with the music he left behind.

And here it is for you all to be content with as well - two Ultra Vivid Scene EPs:
  • The Mercy Seat EP, released in April 1989; and
  • The Special One EP, released on November 12th, 1990.
Both discs were put out by 4AD, and distributed in the US by Columbia Records.  Enjoy these tunes, and as always let me know your thoughts.  

Please use the email link below to contact me, and I will reply with the download link(s) ASAP:  

Mercy Seat EP: Send Email  

Special One EP: Send Email