Thursday, May 23, 2013

Best Local Rock Songs Ever, Part 19 [Astronaut Pushers, Bad Cop, The Zut Alors, Magic Wands, Oblio]

Posted By on Thu, May 23, 2013 at 12:35 PM

From 2007 to 2008, I hosted the local music show Indie Ghetto on WRVU. Inspired by my pal Janet Timmons and her Out the Other blog/radio show, I kept a fast and loose blog of the same name. In 2009, after getting involved with Michael Eades via our collaboration on the Lake Fever Sessions, I moved out of the Ghetto and merged my blogging efforts with his over at We Own This Town, rechristening the show, obviously, We Own This Town.

At the very beginning of 2010, I discovered that my radio show was one of the first of many to be cancelled. As we all now know, The Man soon pulled the plug on WRVU, killing one of the purest and most diverse media outlets of any major city. Once my anger and frustration with the situation subsided, I realized just how grateful I was to have been given the chance to DJ at the station. I was exposed to some truly amazing music that otherwise would have never tickled my earholes. Much of these tunes either flew under the radar of our city’s music scene or have been collecting dust in our collective memory. Combing through the old WRVU playlist archives (here and here) brought back so many great bands and songs that I had completely forgotten about. It wasn’t easy to pick just five, but nonetheless, here's my contribution to the Cream's Best Local Rock Songs Ever series — some of the Best Local Rock Songs Ever that you’ve possibly never heard.

Astronaut Pushers, “Cut Me Off”

Astronaut Pushers were a collaborative effort between Sam Ashworth (My Tyger, Sneaky Eaters), John Davis (Superdrag), Lindsay Jamieson (Departure Lounge, Ben Folds) and Matt Slocum (Sixpence None the Richer). Heavier and darker than anything we’d previously heard from Sam, Lindsay or Matt and trippier and more damaged than John’s output with Superdrag, the Pusher sound was a monster right out of the gate. Unfortunately for us, they were gone within a year, before we all had a chance to fall in love with them.

“Cut Me Off” is the first of four tracks from Astronaut Pushers' 2006 eponymous EP, and it remains my favorite to this day. Lindsay’s half-time disco beat and Matt’s pulsing dub bass line create a solid foundation for John’s math-y, repetitive, four-note guitar hook and Sam’s soaring falsetto. It all comes crashing down into a wash of Wurlitzer, congas, cello and stacked vocal harmonies for the chorus before launching back into that crazy dance beat. These dudes are total pros, and “Cut Me Off” is all the proof you need.

Bad Cop, "Daylight" (demo)
Listen: MySpace | YouTube (Lake Fever Session from Next Big Nashville 2009)

As soon as I heard Bad Cop’s first demos, I was hooked. Recorded live in a single day with Jeremy Ferguson over at Battle Tapes, these tracks are a snapshot of a band of young miscreants with loads of talent and promise. Oh, and tunes. Good tunes. Really, really good tunes. I think the original disc I had included “Daylight,” “Control,” “Big City Small Town,” “I’m in Lust With You” and “One in the Same,” and I could have picked any one of them for the purposes of this post. Bad Cop went on to re-record most if not all of these songs for their ROIR debut, Harvest the Beast. While the retakes were better produced and performed for the album, there is something about these original demos that is just so raw and real.

Bad Cop is probably on its umpteenth lineup by now, but Adam Moult & Co. are making the best music of their career. Their newest jam, “Light On,” is calmer and more composed than their previous work. A little older and wiser, Moult’s nervous energy has given way to bigger hooks and more calculated moves. It suits him well.

The Zut Alors, "Set the Sun on Fire"

My days as a WRVU DJ were long past by the time The Zut Alors debuted their first proper LP, Boy Girl Party, in late 2010. Fortunately, main Zut Nic Bennet passed me a CD-R of this track a year or so before the album was finished, and I proceeded to spin the hell out of it for a season. It always reminded me of some lost Brit-pop-era gem, somewhere between early Stone Roses and latter-day Longpigs.

I’ve always been drawn to the production on this one, so I recently reached out to Nic to shed a little light on it. “Let's see, I have such a fragmented recollection of recording that one," he told me. "Weirdly enough, we did the drums first — which is like such a wrong approach — so yeah, that really sticks out. Will Reiss played drums on it while Bill Mitchell and I ran the VCR tape we used to record. Poor Will didn't even have a proper track to play along to so I'd cue tape and run out and just like maniacally conduct him, stomping and flailing my arms to these imaginary builds and changes that were coming up. What a shit show. It was great. Then I just recorded the rest on top of that drum take. It's Wurlitzer 200A, synth, two guitars and some sleigh bells. One of the guitars, a Barker arch top, belonged to Wrecking Crew hero Al Casey. It's got quite a history. It's the guitar on Nancy Sinatra's 'These Boots Are Made for Walkin'' and Nilsson's 'Everybody's Talkin'.' God knows what else. So yeah, my crude GarageBand session for 'STSOF' was easily the Barker's lowest moment. John Baldwin pulled it all together — doing what he does so well — and somehow made it make sonic sense.”

“Set the Sun on Fire” is a sexy, sexy song that demands to be played loudly. Go ahead and turn it up. It’s OK.

Magic Wands, "Black Magic" (original demo)

Though it was never the norm, I always tried to welcome acts onto the show from time to time. I was used to a band coming in, sitting around and nervously chatting with each other before we went on the air. I’d ask them about what they were up to and they’d pick out some local tracks to spin. Maybe they’d sing a song or two. It was always casual and a bit of an afterthought in everyone’s day. But when I welcomed Magic Wands onto the show right before Valentine’s Day, things got a bit ... well, magical and potentially dangerous.

Chris and Dexy sauntered into the tiny studio that day and immediately asked to have the lights lowered as much as possible, Wayfarers never leaving their faces. I obliged, and they proceeded to break out strings of pink and red Christmas lights, fuzzy glowing little orbs and sparkly hearts cut from construction paper. There may have been candy, too. It was all a little off-putting at first, but being a fan of their lo-fi bedroom alt-pop, I was quickly caught up in the whole affair. So much so that when Dexy asked if I had a lighter to get the sparklers going, I found myself fishing around for one, before wisely coming back down to earth, remembering the smoke detector and sprinkler system just over our heads. Just think: Chris, Dexy and I could have taken WRVU down a couple of years before they decided to systematically dismantle the entire operation. You can’t run a radio station when all the equipment is waterlogged and covered in pink glitter.

There’s some whole back story to the Magic Wands that involves MySpace, GarageBand, long-distance love and probably a helluva lotta drama. It’s out there on the Internet somewhere, so feel free to find it. What’s important, though, is this song. “Black Magic” is a perfect slice of electro twee pop. Sure, it’s precious and cute, but once you get through the candy-coated shell, there’s a really great song there that stands the test of time. And how can you not be charmed by Timbaland-aping “Heys” Chris throws in there? So cute.

Oblio, “Ladies’ Night”

Guess what? I like good songs. Pop songs, if you will. For me, melody is king. If you’ve got a great hook, I’m listening. Gussy it up with a proper rock 'n’ roll band, and I’m not only listening, but I’m probably liking your little song. Lyrics fall in last for me. I love plenty of songs with terrible lyrics. But if you know your way around words and actually understand the frailty of the human condition, you just might say something beautiful or profound. If this happens, I’m probably starting to gush and fall in love with your little song and your little band.

Terry Price writes really good pop songs. I love his little songs, and I loved his little band. You know that song you’ve been working on? The one with the really pretty minor-key melody and the raw, honest lyrics that you keep trying to finish, but can’t? Well, don’t bother son, because Terry Price already wrote something way better in 2008. And he did so in his sleep. Unfortunately, I got to Oblio’s party way too late. They’d been a fixture on the local scene throughout the mid-Aughts, but I never bothered to give them a listen until the last few months of my radio days. I regret this.

Their final album, Tonight, You’re Gonna Be a Revelation, is a gem. There is a cohesion and maturity to the wide-eyed production that was unlike anything else going on in this city, then or now. The guitars ring out and crash against the swirling organs and keyboards. It’s familiar enough to initially welcome you in, but just weird enough to keep you coming back for more. Think a Southern-bred Nada Surf or a way more esoteric Connells and you’re on your way. I really could have picked almost any song off this record, but “Ladies’ Night” seemed like the best place to start for the uninitiated.

Terry’s still churning out the songs with his new thing, Photo Ops. I haven’t heard the whole thing or seem them play live yet, but from what I have heard, he’s still got it.

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