I live for music, among other things. A certain large record
store chain uses the slogan "no music, no life." For once, I have
to agree with a slogan, because it does hold truth. I have tons of
CDs, and curious listening habits. There is usually a pile of tapes
and CDs on my desk that I have selected for listening as if it was a "to
do list." But music is not a chore! Here are some of the bands
I think people out there haven't heard of but are worth checking out.
I live in Japan, so my interest in Japanese music is quite advanced.
Go take a look at my Japanese music page
if you haven't already.
What I hope to do on this page is not to rant and rave about well-known
acts that I like, but to introduce and discuss unknown or underrated bands,
specifically groups like An April March, Leonard
Cohen, Cornershop, Serge
Gainsbourg, Kyuss, the
Machines of Loving Grace, Malhavoc, the
Mekons, Mindfunk, Bob Mould,
Will Eat Itself, Public Enemy, Amalia
Rodriguez, the Rollins Band, Sade,
Sugarcubes, and I might even step out on a limb to say a little something
about Yngwie J. Malmsteen!
An April March
An April March are an edgy pop band based in Toronto, Ontario that rose
out of the ashes of a great little group called the Whittingtons that recorded
one of my favorite songs ever, "Beatrice." Fronted by married couple
Danella Hocevar (singer, songwriter, sometimes bass and guitar player)
and Chris Perry (guitarist and producer) and a procession of bass players
and drummers, the group recorded a bunch of CDs before calling it a day
in 1999. Like the best bands, their recorded music kept improving
with each successive release, although each album has its strong songs.
Latest album opens with two perfect guitar pop songs "Stardust" and "Slipped."
It is a miracle that these didn't become radio staples and catapult the
group to Canadian superstardom, and as a result they remain largely unheard
and underappreciated. An April March continues with Danella and Chris
reincarnating themselves musically in a new project called redhotred
that will be picking up with new recorded work from a new studio in 2000
- new spirit for the new millenium. Check out the An
April March and redhotred
websites, but do not confuse them with April March, a.k.a. Elinor Blake,
the one-time Ren and Stimpy animator whose goofy songs ("Chick Habit")
and French songs (Serge Gainsbourg's "Chancon de Prevert," a French version
of "Chick Habit", etc.) really have nothing to do with AAM besides the
almost-shared name. I had a theory that the name came from a Jorge
Luis Borges short story, but the band deny it. Check out the band,
read more Borges, and keep "Beatrice" alive.
Leonard Cohen is one of Canada's best and most famous poets. At age
35 he began another career, that of a singer songwriter. In 1964
he released his first solo music, the sparse, beautiful songs of his which
were very often poems of his set to music, and he makes both occupations
seem like they are something he has been doing all his life. With
only about 10 releases in over 35 years in the music industry he is not
a prolific artist, but what he lacks in quantity he makes up tenfold in
quality. These beautiful songs will definitely touch your heart with
both their lyrics and their tender melodies that range from the simple
and sparse to heavily produces. Though not without his awful blunders
("Jazz Police" the song and Death Of A Ladies Man the album had
a lot of fans scratching their heads), his first greatest hits collection
is essential to any collection... and maybe his second too. Leonard
Cohen websites abound, but this one is particularly good.
Cornershop are a group from England powered by singer-songwriter Tjinder
Singh. As the name would suggest, he is an ethnic Indian born in
England, hence also the name. They have three albums to their name
so far: Hold On It Hurts, Woman's Gotta Have It, and When
I Was Born For The Seventh Time. The first one is Indian flavored
guitar punk that sometimes hits tabla and sitar, while the latter two are
guitar pop that often meets tabla and sitar. All of their releases
are worth getting, and each of them combines sweet, hopeful songs, sarcasm,
punchy rock, trippy world music, and sad melodies, and each release has
its high points: Hold On It Hurts has the funny "Born Disco: Died
Heavy Metal", the trippy "Terma Mera Pyar", and the punky/funny jam "England's
Dreaming." Woman's Gotta Have It has two versions of the great
raga trip-out "Jullandar Shere", as well as the rock classics "Hong Kong
Book of Kung Fu", and "Call All Destroyer." Buzz. When I
Was Born For The Seventh Time is the release that contains the most
pop songs, including the infectious "Sleep On The Left Side" and "Brimful
of Asha", but it also contains a cool cover of "Norwegian Wood" sung in
an Indian language (Parsi?), a jam with Allen Ginsberg "When the Light
Appears Boy", and the great mock-Country and Western duet "Good To Be On
The Road Back Home." Destined to sit in your CD player for spin after
spin after spin. Check out a review I did for a concert of theirs
I saw in Osaka, Japan on my JapanMusic page.
But where are they now?
The king of horny (emphasize horny) Gallo-rock, great melodies,
deep voice and chain-smoking, Serge Gainsbourg reshaped music in so many
ways that he should not be ignored. A best-of CD of his music (like
"de Gainsbourg a Gainsbarre" for example) is required listening.
Songs like "Je t'aime, moi non plus" and "Bonnie and Clyde" are instant
classics, and the rest aren't too bad either. While his later songs
at times come off like an unsuccessful marriage of lounge music and reggae
(or whatever), the earlier songs are perfect in conception and execution.
Vive la Serge (too bad he died of lung cancer after chain-smoking Gitaines
cigarettes all his life). Anyone seeking English versions of his
songs should look for Mick Harvey's CD of Gainsbourg covers. Also
known as one of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, Harvey has Nick Cave and Anita Lane
sing the heavy-pantin' duet of "Je t'aime, Mon Non Plus," and I have to
admit that even I am intrigued...
When do you ever hear anyone mentioning this band as a favorite or an influence?
Kyuss are perhaps one of the most Black Sabbath-inspired band out there,
and their heavy, plodding cymbal-heavy rock is just buzzing with doom.
Called "desert rock" by some, it lumbers on into long, spacey jams that
are pretty bluesy in their attack on heavy metal. Great stuff.
Luckily, the vocals are short and light in the mix, giving more focus to
what the band does best - rock out. Their Blues For A Red Sun
is highly recommended, although any of their releases will probably give
you a good taste of what it is that makes this band unique.
the Machines of Loving Grace
Another forgotten band that seemed to get better and better with each release
is the Machines of Loving Grace. I first heard them on the Crow soundtrack
and was intrigued, since which time I have picked up their three releases
of Loving Grace, Concentration, and Gilt. Creepy
electronic-inspired guitar rock at its finest, the Machines write great
songs and fill them with spooky post-modern lyrics that deconstruct everything.
I can't believe that I was the only person who ever thought they were a
great band. Check out Gilt and listen to "The Richest Junkie
Still Alice" and the heavy sludge of "Suicide Kings" and tell me what you
This is the most insane band from Canada since Skinny Puppy, and in fact
backed by the same horror-fascination inspirations, they are a little more
high-concept and, if you listen carefully, funnier! Murder
can't be funny, but a death-metal song with a disco beat certainly is.
This sounds sad, but since these guys obviously know I can only call it
clever. So obscure that I have only ever been able to find one tape
outside Canada (Premeditated Murder) which I immediately bought,
I will try to stock up when I get back. Don't be put off by bad graphics
and silly song titles, Malhavoc understand the genre and have fun with
it. Check out this Malhavoc
Yngwie J. Malmsteen
This is where I step out on a limb again. People who have heard of
Yngwie J. are more than happy to either idolize his guitar skill or ignore
him completely as a rock star cliche. I am more than willing to agree
with both of these undeniable positions, while tending to favor the latter,
but want to add is how important it is to listen to his first album Rising
Force. It is mostly an album of moody, heavy, well-written instrumentals
- pretentious, but in good ways. Just to give you an example "Icarus
Dream Suite Opus" begins with heavy guitar chords, then becomes a somber
version of a familiar classical theme by Albinoni (you'll know it when
you hear it), then it introduces a beautiful and catchy guitar riff, then
it changes into something else, and then it changes again and again.
There are a few tracks with vocals on it, but it is no coincidence that
these are the worst tracks (or the only bad tracks on the album, depending
how you look at it). According to my sporadic listening, I've come
to the conclusion that he has done nothing better since that first one,
and has hit rock bottom several times, including his cover of the ABBA
song "Gimme Gimme Gimme" (he's Swedish, right?) on a recent release, where
the male vocalist in his band prudently changes the lyric "Gimme gimme
gimme a man after midnight" to "Gimme gimme gimme your love after midnight."
But do give the first one a chance.
The Mekons are an old band from Leeds. This puts them in the same
scene that produced better-known bands like the Gang of Four and the Sisters
of Mercy. They have been together nearly 25 years and are either
the best kept secret in music or the most underrated band ever. They
have hit all of the points on the musical spectrum, starting out as a punk
band, then becoming somewhat of a "cow punk" band as they developed a country
fascination during their relocation to Chicago. They have also dabbled
in avant-garde, pop, rock, dance, and a literary collaboration with deceased
postmodern author Kathy Acker. Superficially, the types of songs
that they write are nice and could be considered ordinary if they were
performed by other lesser groups, but somehow the synergy that the members
of the Mekons have with each other, as well as the veneer of intellectualism
that they possess, give a frantic essence to their recordings that is hypnotic
and essential - it manages to work its way into your heart and finds a
place to stay in there no matter what you want. Among their fans
they are as god-like as the Grateful Dead are among Deadheads, and put
their favorite band under the microscope in a similar way. For a
glimpse into their world, check out the lovingly maintained Mekons
news page or the mysterious Mekons
Bullshit chat page.
Whenever I read the Mekons chat group, I always get a bit jealous at
people that have been able to see them several times in different cities.
It would be nice to experience them live, but seeing as I will be in Japan
for a while (why not – there is plenty of fine fine music to be heard here)
it looks like I might never see them. Of course, I could jump on
I first got turned on to the Mekons when I was in college and a tape
copy of “Retreat From Memphis” came into the student newspaper and I decided
to review it. The information that came from Touch ‘n’ Go made it
seem like they were an influential band that had been around for a long
time. I was intrigued, so I took it home and gave it some listens.
Nothing stood out, so I kept listening. Then I noticed a catchy number
called “the Flame that Killed John Wayne.” Then more and more songs
came out as the mist of comprehension revealed the pure light of day, and
I was hooked.
Shortly after that, my fate carried me to Taiwan, where I began to build
up a Mekons collection: I mail ordered “United,” “I Heart Mekons,” and
“the Edge of the World” from Touch ‘n’ Go, I picked up “Rock ‘n’ Roll”
at HMV records in Hong Kong, and then here in Japan I got a few more.
I came across “So Good It Hurts” recently at a Tower Records, which surprised
me, since it is on an obscure label (could I call TwinTone obscure?) and
Tower rarely stocks anything before “me.” A few years ago I found
a shop called Disc Pier in the Nippon Bashi area of South Osaka (known
as a computer retail wonderland) that had almost all of the Mekons CDs!
I was shocked, this store in Osaka had more Mekons than I had ever seen
in one place. Not having that much money, I bought “the Mekons Story,”
“Honky Tonkin’,” and “the Mekons,” leaving others behind. Some time
after that, I asked a Chicago friend who was going back home to look for
“the Curse of the Mekons” for me back home. He returned without the
disc explaining that he couldn’t find it, but this didn’t surprise me too
much. I’m sure every Mekons fans has stories to tell about the roundabout
ways that they took to complete their collections. Anyway, after
a while I came across Disc Pier again, and checked out their Mekons – they
still had the whole bunch (without the ones I had bought, of course).
I think that about three years had gone by. They didn’t look too
dusty either. I bought “Curse of the Mekons” right then and there
with the last 2500 yen I had. It seemed kind of funny that nobody
had bought any of the CDs in the years in between. It was almost
like Disc Pier was keeping a little Mekons stash in their shop just for
me to buy at my convenience. Unfortunately, this is where my luck
ran out – when I went back again recently to buy “Fear and Whiskey,” it
wasn’t there anymore – they just had “Hen’s Teeth,” and “Journey To The
End Of Night,” which I had already bought at Tower when they came out!
I’ve also had frustration finding other Mekons fans (which is one of
many reason why I value this mailing list). Whenever I come across
someone who seems to be knowledgeable about music (American, English, Welsh,
Leeds, etc.), I always ask if they have heard of the Mekons, and the answer
is always no. I actually did once come across two people who had
heard of the Mekons, editors at a gaijin newspaper I sometimes write for,
but they only had scorn for the Mekes – “that’s the shite band that did
that awful ‘Never Been In A Riot,’ yeah?” Oh well.
I have made some Mekons conversions among friends – it is nice to know
that people who already know a lot about music are eager to fill the holes
in their knowledge, and that there’s something universal about good music.
Good music. Good music. The search continues.
Guns 'n' Roses made it big, but Mindfunk was totally overlooked.
They had two releases before they disappeared into obscurity and appeared
to go nowhere. Too bad, because if anybody ever heard any of their
music, they'd know that it was catchy, well written, and much edgier than
anything else the L.A. glam scene produced. Great, nasty Stones-inspired
rock that would have those G 'n' R guys running for cover. Where
are they now?
Who doesn't own any of Bob Mould's music? Sugar, Husker Du, or solo
Mould, this guy knows what he's doing and knows how to write a song.
His voice is also the classic singer/songwriter type - he may not have
a gifted voice (neither do Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, or Bob Dylan), but
his ragged emotion will cut right through you and you'll never forget him.
Wow. Bob Mould. Singer, song writer, punk rocker.
Pop Will Eat Itself
Another band that didn't really get a lot of attention and then quietly
went away was Pop Will Eat Itself, a.k.a. PWEI. They produced a string
of albums, getting better and better, each one characterized by quirky
guitar and electronic sounds, nasty vocals and biting humor. Stylistically,
they could probably be thrown in a pool with other British bands like the
Wonderstuff, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, and Eat, but PWEI would
surely float to the top (or claw their way there). Some critics think
that the band peaked early and went in the toilet, but I disagree - cool
songs like "Me No Fear The Reaper" and "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" from the
last album are as nasty and nice as their earlier classics like "DefCom
One" but more concise.
When it comes to rap, does it get any better than PE? I must admit
that I have a blind spot when it comes to rap, and I just can't see what
is interesting musically or even socially about other rap, but I think
it must be because they broke the mould when they made PE. It may
be old news by now, but give a close listen to Fear Of A Black Planet
for some great sounds and some excellent lyrics. It is relentless,
it doesn't quit, and there are more musical ideas happening on this one
release that the group doesn't know what to do with all of them.
SPIN magazine made this the #2 album of the Nineties, just after Nirvana's
Nevermind, but I think Fear should have been #1.
Amalia is the goddess of Portuguese fado style singing. In
Portugal she has the status of Billy Holliday, Edith Piaf, or Maria Callas,
and it is richly deserved. Each song is an emotional opera and she
manages to capture the raw emotion of your favorite sentimental film ("Casablanca",
"Gone With The Wind", or even "Titanic" if you will) in a single three
minute song. Listening to a single Amalia tape or CD will leave you
exhilarated and drained. Essential listening, everybody should have
at least one of her releases.
the Rollins Band
The antithesis to Amalia is the Rollins Band, one long listen to which
will also leave you exhilarated and drained... or highly annoyed.
Heavy, intense, plodding music, bass-heavy, intoxicating, intense, bellowed
lyrics, hateful and deep. People who have been exposed to the music
and personality of Henry Rollins either love or hate him - there is probably
no in-between. I first heard him in 1992 when I picked up his newly-released
End of Silence tape in Vancouver. I listened to it all the time
on my walkman, and the plodding bass and tense edge was at the perfect
pace for walking through sunny (miraculously, at that time) Vancouver,
contemplating my loneliness and alienation. This tape got me through
some tough times, and I listened to it all through my following trips to
South-east Asia before settling in Taiwan. Years later I worked my
way back from this release, and picked up new ones as they came out.
Rollins' early work in the D.C. hardcore band State of Alert and then L.A.
hardcore giants Black Flag, and his solo work with the Rollins Band, are
all pretty different. S.O.A. and Black Flag are fast and punchy,
nasty, smartass, ironic. Solo, Rollins worked his bellow up into
an intense screech (for early solo albums like Hard Volume and Life
Time), then put out the mighty bouncy the End of Silence.
This was followed by Weight and Come In And Burn, two CDs
of good sounds that showcased shorter, punchier songs that had a little
less of the might and boom. After a long absence, Rollins put out
a new CD Get
Some Go Again in spring 2000 with a completely new Rollins Band,
3 guys from another band called Mother
Superior. This might seem extreme, but then again the original
line up was the rhythm section of Greg Ginn's instrumental project Gone
plus guitarist weirdo Andrew Hackett. The new album is fine, booming
rock 'n' roll and picks it up a bit for the first time since the End
of Silence. The regular-priced CD I picked up in Japan came with
a second bonus CD that had 3 different songs, 2 live songs, plus a multimedia
video clip for "Get Some Go Again" and a promo clip. Thanks Henry.
The first disc also has an unlisted 14th track called "Hollywood Money
Train" where Rollins jams with Stooges guitarist Wayne Kramer and does
a rant and rave. Disc 2 also contains a musical rant 'n' rave piece
that also combines the best of Henry's spoken word with music, perhaps
for the first time since the goofy Hot Animal Machine/Drive By Shooting
CD that is his first official solo work and contains bizarre pieces like
"I Have Come To Kill You" and "Can You Speak This" of the type that he
hasn't tried again until now. There are several official recordings
of live Rollins Band material, perhaps even as many live albums as studio
releases. Rollins also has three other careers: spoken word, writer,
and actor. His spoken word CDs are available and show a lighter (if
consistently hateful) side of the man, and his rants 'n' raves are also
available in book form from his own publishing company, 2.13.61,
which has also released books by Nick Cave, Iggy Pop, and others.
The best of this bunch are the Black Flag tour diaries, although each book
has its own nuggets among the seeming self-indulgence. As an actor,
Rollins has been in several movies like the Chase,
and the Lost Highway, although never in a commanding role.
The good news is that with the new album out, Rollins has re-released all
of his early material and they are easy to get again. Get Hard
Volume and Life Time while ou still have the chance.
Why do I love Sade so much? Perhaps it is the silky voice that floats
through the night air, perhaps it is the groovy vibes. Sade is a
mystery woman who has all but disappeared since the early nineties, yet
putting one of her releases on is never dated or awkward. I have
listened to the tapes so many times that I know every song very well, but
new listeners will probably dig them just as much. With jazzy perfection,
I'm not really sure why people want to listen to floating faces like Mariah
Carey and Celine Dion. Sonic mood personified in one mysterious woman
What, you've never heard of Siddal? Appropriately, Siddal comes after
Sade, both velvety and pleasing to the ear, but in different ways.
Siddal is a sonic husband and wife team that produce beautiful guitar pop.
Their sound is not entirely original or diverse, but you've probably never
heard a voice like that of Siddal singer Elaine Winters, and it will pierce
your heart with its purity. Their best songs can make you soar high
into the clouds, and if you have a sentimental bone in your body you will
definitely be hooked after one listen. What will it take to make
these people superstars?
The Sugarcubes of Iceland (or, as they said live "the ice cubes from sugar
land") are no more, but most people have heard of their diva muse Bjork
Sigmundsdottir. Bjork still produces great work (she can't help it
with that fine voice of hers) but her old group should not be overlooked.
In their day, the Sugarcubes were stranger and better than any of those
other weak non-Icelandic bands. Writing some dark and catchy guitar
pop and making use of two singers (the divine Bjork countered with the
guttural Einar), the group pushed out three albums before calling it a
day - Life Is Good, Here Today Tomorrow Next Week, and Stick
Around For Joy. Most highly recommended is the first (of course),
although the second does have its merits. Bjork pretty much sings
it straight, but Einar's English lyrics are a study in absurdism "I don't
even like lobster!" Think of the Sugarcubes as the musical version
of all of your favorite cult movies - El Topo, Freaks or
the films of Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel. They have all of the familiar
elements, but done in ways you could not have imagined before. And
it works well. Some of the releases feature original songs sung in
Icelandic, as well as live tracks, all of which are great. Beware
the boring remixes, though. The Subarcubes also had an earlier incarnation
Kukl which you might still be able to find, but I miss the Sugarcubes.
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all writing copyright Peter Hoflich, 2000