Keep It Like a Secret – Built to Spill (1999)

Keep it Like a Secret album cover

Keep it Like a Secret album cover

Idaho is not the first place one might think of for music, but the state best known for potatoes spawned one of indie rock’s biggest low-fi stars. Built To Spill helped define the “indie sound” for many people during the ’90s, even as they recorded on a major label.

Built To Spill took elements of power pop and grunge angst to make a low-fi math rock alternative. The band is basically centered around Doug Martsch, who started it from the remnants of Treepeople, a defunct act from Boise where Martsch was based. The band had released a string of quirky albums that combined the scruffy playfulness of Dinosaur Jr. with the broken melodies of Pavement. While not cold and as deliberate as most math rock, Built to Spill retained a playful organic quality to their music, thanks in part to another influence; Neil Young.  The band’s charm and their funny name may have helped the college rock favorite ‘Big Dipper’ from 1994’s There’s Nothing Wrong with Love become a minor hit.

Built To Spill would catch the attention of Warner Bros. and be signed with some control over the direction of future albums. It was a big step for indie rock, as more big labels were trying to acquire the next big post Nirvana sound. Ironically, it would be during their time with Warner Bro. that theywould become the poster boys of ’90s indie-rock.

Perfect from Now On, the band’s big label debut was a critical success, but not the breakthrough Warner Bros. was looking for. They must have known because a few months after the release, they began working on their fourth album Keep It Like a Secret. It was Built To Spill’s most accessible album and arguably it’s best. By many measures it was pure pop, as the band polished up some rough edges while laying on the humor and charm. The meandering  jam session tendencies of the past were also kept in check. With tighter arrangements, hooks and short songs, Keep It Like a Secret would become the big breakthrough Warner Bros. was looking for.

One classic element of Built To Spill that was retained was Doug Martsch’s clever writing. The song ‘You Were Right’ wraps up about 30 years worth of pop cliches for one of the year’s most humorously sarcastic songs. Other tracks like ‘The Plan’ and ‘Carry the Zero’ show just how close Martsch’s voice could come to sounding like the Mitch Easter school of Southern rock circa 1986.

Built to Spill continues to define indie-rock today with a evolution of their original formula with a bit more grown up song writing approach. They are one of the rare examples of an indie rock band making it big (relatively so) and not selling out their sound to a big label. Nowadays its difficult to tell what the “indie-rock” sound is anymore. I have no doubt that Built to Spill may have inspired its share of bands who try to sound independent be they on a big label or garage.

Sound like:
Death Cab for Cutie
The Ataris

Shag Tobacco – Gavin Friday (1995)

Shag Tobacco album cover

Shag Tobacco album cover

One of my favorite things about Bono is his ability to draw on his soulful influences by whipping out his occasional falsetto. So when I first heard the song ‘Angel’ in 1995, I naturally thought I was hearing a new U2 song. After all, it was released during a year of expermintation for U2, so dipping into soul music did not seem like a big artistic leap for the band.

To my surprise the single I had fallen in love with was from Gavin Friday, an Irish singer-songwriter. There was a U2 connection however, as both Friday and Bono were childhood friends back in Dublin Ireland. It took me a while to realize it, but the musical direction Friday along with his longtime collaborator Maurice Seezer took with their third album Shag Tobacco, would be one that U2 itself briefly experimented with during the Achtung Baby/Zooropa era (1990-93).

Friday’s take was a mix of rock and dance with drama and eclitic lyrical content. The rhythemic dance friendly sound would depend very much on the direction of Tim Simeron, who crafted would forge a similar sound with Depeche Mode later on. In many ways it was territory U2 had traversed, but Friday’s was much more decadent approach. At least one “F” bomb is dropped in what might be the first time I heard the word used outside of rap or punk music.

The sauceyness continued as everything from world class opera singers to world class transvisties were celebrated on Shag Tobacco. The track ‘Caruso’, a tribute in the sprit of a Lucio Dalla song from 1986, featured the voice of Enrico Caruso’s sampled in the background like a ghostly chorus. If titles like ‘Mr. Pussy’ and its real life transvistie’s monolouge did not attract attention, the backing vocals of Bono and the Edge on ‘Little Black Dress’ might have.

In all honesty, Friday sounds a lot like Bono with less screaming. If U2 had further evolved the sound from Zooropa might they have arrived at Shag Tobacco’s worldview? I’s hard to say, but the real treat is hearing Friday’s falsetto in the context of rock with dance sensibilities.

While Gavin Friday may have lived in the shadows of his famous friend, Shag Tobacco deserves its place on your playlist even if you were not a fan of U2. That might be all the more reason to listen.

Gonna Make You Sweat – C+C Music Factory (1990)

C+C Music Factory album cover

C+C Music Factory album cover

As I got older I learned to appreciate more varied musical types. Still in love with melancholy, I had become more attuned to trends in dance music and why not, it was influencing pop music more than it had in the past. Often hip hop, dance and pop would converge to make something new on the charts.

This synergy meant that my usual favorite, alternative rock had taken a temporary back seat to dance music in my quest for innovation. Although I enjoyed the rapidly evolving electronic dance music scene, it was good olde club dance music that seemed to motivate pop music if not always me.

There were few with the initial impact of C+C Music Factory. After seeing one of their videos early on it was impossible to believe that such a big sound could have come from so skinny a diva, but that would be just part of their act as one of a handful of studio bands to arrive during the first half of the ’90s.  Through studio wizardry, they created an infectious energy that appealed to people like me who never went to clubs. C+C Music Factory along with more talented popular Black Box (they sounded very much alike), spearheaded house musics arrival on the pop charts.

C+C Music factory’s debut album Gonna Make You Sweat rode in on the house music craze of the early 90s to become one of it’s biggest hits if only for a moment. The single ‘Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) became a huge hit and would be the template sound for many dance songs during the first half of the 1990s. Another track inspired by Arsonio Hall ‘Things That Make You Go Humm’ became a top 5 hit and helped maintain “Factory mania” through the summer of 1991.

Like most dance bands, C+C Music factory was more a studio concoction made up primarily of DJs/producers Robert Clivilles and Freedom Williams. While Freedom offered the kind of color by numbers rap common in pop songs of the era, it would be the beats and the voice of Martha Wash that gave the band its positive energy. Coensidently Wash was also the voice behind Black Box, another act with a skinny model as the face of the band.

C+C Music factory used a rotating roster of lead vocalists, each with some degree of diviaesque sound. However the best of these voices, Martha Wash would be hidden for most public appearances while the thinner Zalma Davis lip synced to Wash’s voice. Unfortunately, the controversy and ensuing lawsuit from Wash took the wind out of the C+C Music factory’s sails. At around the same time the notorious Milli Vanilli lip-sync drama was unfolding putting another damper on mainstream high energy dance music.

C+C Music factory carried on with Zelma Davis, but she never had the range of Martha Wash who herself went on to become a dance music diva in her own right. The bubble gum dance music era was quickly maturing and suddenly bands like Techntronic, Black Box and C+C Music factory no longer had a place on the mainstream charts.

Sounds like:
Martha Wash
Black Box
Ce Ce Peniston
Christine W


What’s the 411? – Mary J. Blige (1992)

What's the 411? album cover

What’s the 411? album cover

One of the greatest performers to emerge out of the initial fusion of hip hop tinged R&B was Mary J. Blige. From seemingly out of nowhere she came with What’s the 411? . Easily one of the most important R&B albums of the ’90s. It was filled with the hurt, rage and pain of a rough past life in the ghetto. For many Blige was the new voice of the black inner city woman, a composed and dignified voice with street smarts that connected where others like Toni Braxton or TLC may have failed.

It was so powerful and new that a new category was created around her called hip hop soul. A category that she would be crowned queen of. Blige had a strong voice, although limited in range compared to Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, it conveyed passion and emotion with no equal. Many a comedy skit would be made based on Blige’s over singing, but she commanded a respect that made her no laughing matter. Besides, she looked very much the part of a downtown diva who did not take any crap (except from past lovers).

A team of hip hop luminaries including Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs, Tony Dofat and Grand Puba helped craft a hard edged, yet melodic street sound. What’s the 411? was a good cross sample of what was going on in the world of early ’90s R&B and rap. Woven around the then new message machine dialogue concept, What’s the 411? was heavy with hits like the straight up R&B of ‘Real Love” and ‘Sweet Thing’ to the rap of the title song. It even had moments of new jack swing with ‘I Don’t Want to Do Anything’ featuring Joel “JoJo” Hailey from Jodice.

While musically, Blige had created something new, visually she helped define a new over the top ghetto style. The term “ghetto fabulous” may have been inspired by Blige’s stage wear and awards show appearances that featured outfits with enough bling to build a car. In al,l the album produced 6 hit singles with all of them breaking the top 40 pop charts while two of them making it to #1 on the R&B charts. Turn on any pop radio station in the summer of 1993, and chances were that you would hear something from What’s the 411? in its album or remixed form. There was a remix version of the album released a year after the original and a reissue in 2012.

Blige continues to wear the “Queen of Hip Hop Soul” crown as the field of female singers who aspire to the street hardness of rap and smoothness of R&B remains limited. Blige’s passion for the material she writes and sings has attracted other artist like Sting, Whitney Houston and Elton John to work with her.
Sometimes I wonder if the music industry respects Blige because she represents a true American success story. One of hard work, dedication and having the right connections to break through.

Then another part of me suspects that many are afraid of the authentic ghetto fabulous image she projects (in varying degrees). Maybe its the fear of a beat down but whatever it is Blige is a highly respected artist and performer who could make a Christmas album sound dramatic (she really did that). She has at least 12 albums under her fashionable belt and has made the jump to acting, although she shows no signs of slowing down her music career.

Johnny Gill – Johnny Gill (1990)

Johnny Gill album cover

Johnny Gill album cover

For much of the 1980s little was expected of R&B stars beyond singing and dancing. Others wrote their songs, even played their music while they sang and danced for stage or music videos. While that may not be a fair assessment of R&B music, it was a popular conception by many record companies who treated the genre as disposable.

New Edition may have fallen into that category. Despite many hits during the ’80s, no one in the group was seen as a serious musician or songwriter. The possible exception was Johnny Gill. Arguably the most talented of New Edition, Gill could play guitar, bass and drums, but was often seen dancing and singing with New Edition.

He had already released his two solo albums to small acclaim in 1983 and 1985. By the time his third self titled album was released he was knee-deep in the new jack swing movement of which he had become one of its foremost stars. It was also his first album for Motown, who had high expectations. Fortunately, Johnny Gill would launch Gills career as a R&B superstar.

A lot of the music from this era now sounds hopelessly dated, but Johnny Gill still sounds relevant today thanks to Gills explosive voice.

Johnny Gill was typical of early ’90s productions. Sounding like bits and pieces of the production team that oversaw the project, the album included a list of producers that included L.A. Reid, Babyface, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis and Jheryl Busby. While Johnny Gill may have been a snapshot of early ’90s R&B, it was his powerful baritone that brought all the elements together to produce the best R&B album of 1990.

It seemed for a while that Johnny Gill would be the next Luther Vandross as he was able to make the transition to dance provocateur to smooth new jack crooner effortlessly. It became clear who the leader of new Edition should have been, but during this time Bobby Brown had become a solo superstar in his own right.

A handful of singles came off the album, all of them hits to some degree or another on the R&B charts. Songs like Babyface produced ‘Fairweather Friend’ that showcased Gills voice to best effect crossed over to the pop charts. Other more romantic songs like the midnight storm-like ‘My My My’ became symbolic of Gills new jack swing charm, rivaling Luther Vandross.

With the exception of ‘Giving My All To You’, the Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis produced songs lacked the distinctive stamp of their usual productions. The restraint in songs like ‘Lady Dujour’ contributed to the more polished and grown up sound of the rest of the album.

Gills star would continue to rise with his next release in 1993 and on through the ’90s. He along with former New Edition bandmates Ralph Tresvant and Bobby Brown would reunite in a new group called Heads of State.

Bleuphoria – Rashaan Patterson (2011)


Bleuphoria album cover

Bleuphoria album cover

R&B used to be so simple. For the longest time it seemed that you’d be influenced by either Prince, Michael Jackson or a few peripheral players. As the music landscape changed and those pillars could no longer dominant music as they once did, a vast creative vacuum opened.

Styles came and went, but the void left many longing for the simple nostalgia of the recent past. This is about the time neo-soul stepped in. It’s early stars fed into the yearning for the old, while introducing new musical paradigms in much the same way Prince did during his most experimental and chart busting years.

All of the sudden the field of possible saviors of R&B exploded with the first wave being D’Angelo, Blia and Raphael Saadiq. As the genre matured other artists like Van Hunt and Raheem DeVaughn were offering an alternative to the simplistic rap that was dominating the charts. And that’s not mentioning the genre’s biggest stars who both happen to be female.

Of these initial stars to have come into prominence in the late ’90s, Rashaan Patterson arguably had the most potential critically. He had a string of interesting soul albums in the mode of  Raphael Saadiq that made some if not little impact on R&B charts. On his 5th album Bleuphoria, he would team up with his longtime collaborators Jamey Jaz and Keith Crouch for his most daring album yet by stepping outside of his normal parameters of echoing the style of Saadiq.

Bleuphoria featured an all-star cast including Jody Watley, Faith Evans, Shanice Wilson and Lalah Hathaway. Songs ranged from the funky and playful ‘Crazy’ with Faith Evans to the sprawling gospel of ‘The Mountaintop’ with Andre Crouch and the Andre’ Crouch Singers.

Patterson’s falsetto held all the diverse styles together in a playful Prince-like manner. The album had two singles ‘Easier Said Than Done’ and ‘6 AM’ (featuring Lalah Hathaway) that basically went nowhere, which is not surprising considering how contemporary R&B audiences have become accustomed to the low the bar that has been set thanks to rap noise that passes for music on the charts.

Bleuphoria starts incredibly strong with a Frank Sinatra cover of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ and does not let up until the 13th track has wrapped up. Any one of the songs could have been a #1 single if all the world looked like progressive Buckhead or Harlem. In all actuality most of the music that made up the neo-soul movement was (is) sadly underrepresented on the charts.

It’s not for the lack of quality either. The genre’s primary stars (Eryka Badu, Jill Scott or Raphael Saadiq) deserve all the critical acclaim bestowed on them, but they are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg where the deep well of talent is concerned.

Neo-soul or whatever its called now would seem to appeal to a more sophisticated audience made up of college educated urban professionals. In the black community it’s assumed that these people are few and far between outside of Negro hotspots like D.C. Atlanta or New York.

That may explain how talented artist like Patterson may have gone unnoticed to the greater music downloading public. Not that Bleuphoria was unsuccessful, but I’m sure Patterson would gladly swap chart places with crap makers like Lil Wayne. Sounds like: Raphael Saadiq Prince  

Tidal – Fiona Apple (1996)


Tidal album cover

Tidal album cover

Few artist wear the sad events of their past as well as Fiona Apple. Her beautiful music was made more authentic when it was revealed that she suffered from various afflictions that were directly related to a traumatic childhood event.  Not only did those unfortunate events color and add passion to Apple’s music, it also dictated her public image. She essentially previewed America’s rural crystal meth problem. A future where skinny desolate women made and sold crack in a hopeless life of dependency. A lot of disturbing messages came from the video for ‘Criminal’, but the album it came off of became a musical addition for many like myself that year.

For a first effort, Tidal was an accomplished sound, thanks to producer Andrew Slater who tried to channel Apple’s love of hip hop and classical composers. Critics debated how focused Apple’s songwriting was, but for a 19-year-old with such varied musical interests, the songs were cohesive.

There was no disagreements however that her blend of jazz, and alt-rock peppered with a bit of soul held a great deal of potential. Despite the gloomy, tense nature of the songs, Tidal struck a nerve with the general public, becoming a multi-platinum seller.

Although she sounded like she was in the process of finding her voice, Tidal was an original enough formula that Apple won a Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance in 1996 for the hit song ‘Criminal’.

With six singles (two of which were top 40 material), Tidal produced enough alt-rock radio fodder to carry her over the nearly three years until her next album. Many of the songs were confessional, detailed aspects of a troubled life that had seen more than its share of sorrow.

Apple was raped as a child and later developed an eating disorder, so the alternating moments of angst and melancholy were just part of the emotional baggage she carried into the albums production. Some of the standouts include ‘Sullen Girl’ and ‘Slow Like Honey’, but nearly every song seemed to have come from the experience of sadness and disappointment.

For me the most striking aspect of Fiona Apple wasn’t her music, but her image. The bad girl angle was not new, but she brought with it an element of troublesome realism. I don’t know if it was the eating disorder or the trauma of having been raped, but Apple came across as a kind of trashy trailer park junkie.

This was the image I had firmly in my head before I saw the controversial video for ‘Criminal’ where she was portrayed as such. As troubling as her run-ins with the law and rude declarations to fans onstage were, she had the style and grace that kept them coming back for more.

With a few exceptions, very few female artists were blazing the same trail as Apple. Oddly enough it would be Mark Eitzel who’s music would come closest to Apple’s mix of jazz and alternative rock fused with a seedy lyrical subtext.

Apple would realize her potential more on When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King… released a few years later while she was at the ripe old age of 22.




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