I don’t know where I came up with the idea that The Trouser Press or Noise from the Underground were to be important in my life, but they’ve certainly proven as much in terms of influence over a lifetime. As best I can remember I came across both books in the late-’90s, but I don’t have a clear recollection of either. A few years ago I purchased another copy of Noise from the Underground, though to be honest I can’t say I’ve ever read it. That’s on the to do list, for sure, but primarily it’s a showcase of the photography of the genius Michael Lavine. My first copy of the book was destroyed when I hacked it up and plastered its photos on my walls in my teenage years. I believe this is my third copy, and despite it being about 20 years later, I’d be lying if I haven’t been tempted to do the same with this one.
The Trouser Press is an altogether different beast, and my copy of the fifth (and final) edition just arrived in the mail, having ordered a dog-eared version of it from eBay. I can’t recall when I owned this book previously, but I do remember fumbling my way through various editions of The Trouser Press and similar record guides when visiting bookstores to help me piece together a list of albums to watch out. (Growing up in Calgary, when I came of age I distinctly recall taking damn near the entire list of the “Selected Discography” from Noise from the Underground to Recordland. That was a game-changer for me.)
Yesterday I began reading through the Trouser Press preface and author bios, before selecting a few random pages where I began digging into the write-ups and the music behind them. What a gift it is to have access to so much music at our fingertips. The gravity of what this book, the release, is and what it turned into (and even what it didn’t turn into) is fascinating to me. Reading how author and Trouser Press co-founder Ira Robbins was already heavily utilizing the internet in the mid-’90s, I’m reminded of how strange it is that publications such as these failed to find their footing in the internet age. I mean, the book logs over 800 pages of reviews which are all cataloged on the website, but that very repository is now as much a snapshot of the past as the music is that’s referenced therein. Its online presence beyond that is sparse, with a couple hundred Twitter followers and a thousand Facebook likes. The majority of its ongoing following seems to be wrapped around the website’s message board, though that appears to have dried up last year. This is a pop culture relic.
I loved reading about who contributed to the reviews along the way, including many familiar names (Michael Azerrad, Jim DeRogatis, Mark Kemp, Greg Kot, Neil Strauss) representing many past and current outlets I remember from my youth, like Alternative Press, Raygun, Urb, CMJ, Melody Maker, Magnet, The Big Takeover. While unfortunate that they haven’t stuck around (maybe they have and I’m just not familiar with them), it was almost comforting to see all the publications that I’ve never heard of in the author bylines: The Rocket, huH, Request, Goldmine, Audities, The Garden Grove Journal, Yellow Pills, HotWired, Warp, Paper, Reflex, and more. If anything, that made me feel a little bit at home as I cracked the book’s spine, knowing that anything I write, or have written, is part of a much larger history of words that will come and go with time. At the end of the day, we’re all music fans, and that’s where all of this stems from in the first place. To quote an interview with rock critic Jessica Hooper I recently read, “To me, a negative and a positive review are fundamentally born out of the same place of truly giving a shit.” Here’s to giving a shit.
I’d never heard Moonshake before today and when I first turned them on the nasally wails of vocalist David Callahan instantly grated on me. When comparing them to Margaret Fiedler—who traded off vocal duties with Callahan on the group’s first few releases, before leaving to form Laika—they truly seemed unbearable. “City Poison” was the first song I tried, before continuing on to tracks like “Wanderlust” which sounded prototypically ’90s, blending in bongos as if the band had just come in from a Greenpeace rally on their college campus’s quad. Elsewhere I heard sax flurries, electronic harmonica, and eventually it dawned on me that Callahan’s voice had started to sit with me differently. I had to do a double-take when writer Douglas Wolk commented on a contribution to 1994’s The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow from “Polly Harvey” (certainly it would have been odd, even then, to not have written Polly Jean, if not PJ?).
Artist/Band: Rebecca Moore
Rebecca Moore had released a lone album at the time of The Trouser Press‘ publication, 1996’s Admiral Charcoal’s Song. While it’s missing from Spotify’s catalog, I did listen to “If You Please Me” on YouTube, if only because the track finds Jeff Buckley making an appearance on the album, playing a six-string bass (of all things).
Artist/Band: Sebadoh (see also: Folk Implosion, Sentridoh & Lou Barlow and Friends)
“After being booted from Dinosaur Jr for what J Mascis dubbed ‘excessive social ineptitude’ (mull that one over), Lou Barlow focused his energies on Sebadoh, a ‘band’ that had existed since the mid-’80s.” This sentence, which opens the page-long recap of Sebadoh’s history, embodies my initial takeaway of the content of The Trouser Press, its critics each informed but still taking cheeky swings at its subject. I know the name Lou Barlow, but I can’t tell you much of his music besides that he was in Dinosaur Jr, then was gone, then rejoined the band sometime later. I consider it a bit of a blind spot in my education. Sebadoh’s III is one of those albums listed on Noise from the Underground‘s selected discography I’ve long since told myself I need to listen to, but I can’t recall ever sitting through. I’m glad it’s back on my radar.
Artist/Band: Spin Doctors
“The dark-horse success story of 1992, the Spin Doctors were an amiable jam-happy combo who became the poster boys for the clan of bands—including Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Phish—inspired by the hippie bonhomie and extended improvisations of the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers.” This line from David Fricke‘s review makes me cringe, if for no other reason than it’s another reminder of just how much of my early youth I dedicated listening to a jam band. In 2011 I contributed a few articles on nostalgia to a friend’s blog, including an essay on the band’s 1991 release, Pocket Full of Kryptonite. Here’s a slightly cleaned up and trimmed down version of those thoughts:
I was in grade school when Pocket Full of Kryptonite was first released in 1991, but likely didn’t own it until around 1993 when the band struck commercial gold with “Two Princes” (which for years I thought was called “Two Princesses”) and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.” Though I hadn’t quite reached the point in my life where my Walkman (and later, my Discman) traveled with me everywhere I went, this was the period of my young adolescence when I was first introduced to Columbia House Records. I remember scanning the massive mail-outs they would send, each page more colorful than the last, tearing off the little stamp-sized album identifiers, licking them, and slapping them on the order form. For those who aren’t familiar, Columbia House was kinda like a drug dealer that music fans hated but still buttered up to when they needed a cheap fix. The old adage “the first one’s free, but the next one will cost ya” was never as true as it was with them: get a dozen tapes (later CDs) for just one cent! (small print: “you better enjoy ‘em, because you’re going to need a bank loan to cover the next seven”).
Looking back on it, I never fully understood how much of a jam band they were. Even when I bought their second album (which I purchased from a pawn shop, re-sold, then re-purchased on at least two occasions), it didn’t sink in. Now knowing more of the genre (know thy enemy) it’s not hard to realize that Kryptonite meets the most basic of qualifications to be certified a jam-band record—the album has a 13 minute song on it, for crying out loud. Despite my contempt for the Phishes of the world (moreover, their fundamentalist fans), to this day I still think that monster “Shinbone Alley/Hard To Exist” is a solid listen (though perhaps only for nostalgia’s sake). The nine tracks that come before it, though, are where the bulk of my fondness remains.
Artist/Band: The Spinanes
The Spinanes were a twee-sounding duo that sprung out of the Portland scene before signing to Sub Pop. “Emerging from the Beat Happening/K Records orbit, Rebecca Gates (of Portland, Oregon) and Scott Plouf (of Olympia, Washington) eschew the bassist option and never miss it on the glorious Manos.” There wasn’t much of a connection for me with the music, but I did find it interesting to learn that the Elliot Smith was featured on a pair of tracks from the 1996 album, Strand.