I got hit by musical lightning three times in my life: First, when I discovered college radio in the late '80s. Second, when I had a boyfriend who owned a meticulously curated collection of 400 rock records. Third, when I went to college in the 1990s in Murfreesboro, Tenn., at the height of its "emerging music mecca" heyday. The songs for the next musical installment of Best Local Rock Songs Ever are drawn ever-so-nostalgically from that era.
Jet Black Factory, "Blood Simple"
Described as what might happen if "Bauhaus grew up in Music City and tried to make The Cult's Love," Jet Black Factory was a moody goth-rock band steeped in cinematic darkness. I probably would have never heard them had it not been for the fact that Tennessee Tech's 88.5-WTTU played the band's House Blessing like crazy in the spring of 1990. Led by punk provocateur Dave Willie, former frontman for Nashville hardcore band Committee for Public Safety, JBF trafficked in what Oxford American astutely coined as "Southern neo-goth," the sort that aped Joy Division and Echo and the Bunnymen when everyone else in town was still high on punk. To wit:
The sound was deep-hued and pretentious, and informed just as much by Willie’s preoccupation with French symbolist poetry, European art movements, and American crime-noir novels as anything else. In a way, Jet Black Factory were like some kind of Southern neo-goth group, the dreariness and narcissism of those foregoing British bands replaced with something more like a lonely, teenage-bedroom aesthetic: alienated, blue, and seductive.
Fifteen-year-old-me-swoon. (Incidentally, the band experienced its own bit of Southern noirish tragedy when a guitarist was convicted of the murder of a club owner in Mobile, Ala.) But my obsession was the broodingly baritone croon of "Blood Simple," a song I taped off the radio times one thousand. I couldn't have known at the time that the title was pulled right from the Coen brothers' debut film — a film I wouldn't see for another decade — or that something in its murderous plot was prescient for them, but the tense isolation in this song has always stayed with me.
Glossary, "Just Be a Rampart"
As Cream contributor Adam Gold said when I made him listen to this original-lineup Glossary song from 2000's This Is All We've Learned About Living, "So Glossary used to sound like Pavement meets Old 97s?" Indeed. First-run Glossary was Bingham Barnes and Joey Kneiser, but with Jason Manley on guitar and vox and his then-GF, now-wife Maggie on keys and vocals. "Just Be a Rampart" is the best of that era IMO, a song that encapsulates all the scrappy, rambunctious exuberance today's Glossary has long since polished and perfected, but with all the warbly off-kilterness of where they started. It's been lodged in my brain for over a decade; now it goes head-first into yours.
Daphne's Operation, "Curds and Whey"
Growin' up is so weird, you guys. Daphne's Operation (Jason Manley, Bingham Barnes, Thomas Hudson, Mickey Ethridge, who gets a research credit for helping me recall all the bands we used to go see back in the day) wrote songs about it with all the funneled angsty fuck-it of any good scruffy white kids from the 'burbs doing time in the Center of the Universe. They were a noise-rock band who played fast and loose with tunings, with flailing drums, and with most of the rules about how guitar parts go. But if you liked Sonic Youth, Polvo, Superchunk and any other band that ever had anything to do with art-noise scenes or Merge Records, if you liked low-ambition anthems and vocals turned down even lower, if you had an affection (and great patience) for stops and starts, loads of parts and pop hooks buried deep down in your unsigned college rock — all pitched at near-collapse, break-neck speed — well, please, hit this joint, stretch out in this dingy practice space, and melt into the floor with me.
Clockhammer, y'all. Mention that name to a musician of a certain age in this town and you will see the nostalgia recall rush about this proggy, melodic jazz-metal melding, or whatever the fuck it was. Clockhammer proves that Nashville '90s rock was not a wasteland of unoriginality. It also proved Vanderbilt could still produce cool bands. Seeing Clockhammer — whose lineup changed a bit but was ultimately known for being Byron Bailey, Matt Swanson (Lambchop, My Dad Is Dead) and Ken Coomer (Wilco) — was a religious experience for some people, and the shows, usually full of mesmerized fusion nerds (warning: vocals inaudible, but best dude ever side-stage) tripping out on the virtuosity, were always a good high thing to do. Listening to it now and the glut of bands who've trudged this path, it's easy to forget what a stunningly fresh combo it was at the time. It's hard to pick a primo best song, but I was most partial to the more polished 1992 record Klinefelter, and this song, "Nullify," is as good a sample as any of their easy-on-the-ears, art-metal thrill.
Fluid Ounces, "Record Stack"
It wouldn't be college romance without mentioning a failed relationship and a vinyl collection up for sacrifice along the way. It also wouldn't be the 'Boro in the '90s without mentioning Spongebath-and-local-club staples Fluid Ounces, who pop-smarmed it up that decade with mad hooks, a piano, and a weary eye toward the inevitable, ratcheting-up Ben Folds comparisons. "Record Stack" is as good a demonstration as any of the airy but airtight cleverness and pop pomp they did so well live and on Big Notebook for Easy Piano, a fit-for-the-time-capsule record that deserves a spot next to anything their much-lauded labelmates of the era produced.