Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Pop Secret

Here's an interesting paradox: some of the best pop music isn't very popular at all. Robert Christgau has written about this phenomenon. He coined the term "semi-popular" to describe music that is 'pop' in a formal, aesthetic sense more than it is in a commercial or sociological sense.

For this post, I gave myself an assignment. I would scour my music collection and pick the best example I could find of a pop music album that is (1) stunning; but (2) little known. I offer: What Up, Dog?, released by the Detroit band Was (Not Was) in 1988.

Was (Not Was) is an unusual group. The two founder-members are Jewish musicians Don Fagenson and David Weiss, both multi-instrumentalists. They command an encyclopaedic knowledge of pop song forms and styles, and they have a rare, Steely Dan-esque gift for composing acerbic songs that are rich in social observation. In a brilliant stroke, because they are confessed non-singers, the Brothers Was use two black soul/funk vocalists to sing their deeply weird songs. The resulting clash of sensibilities, played out against often sunny pop arrangements, results in a strangeness and tension that no number of repeat listenings can dispel.

Over the years the group has assembled a large and unusual roster of guest lead singers including Mel Torme, Ozzy Osbourne, Leonard Cohen, Kim Basinger, Marshall Crenshaw, Frank Sinatra, Jr., Mitch Ryder, and Doug ("My Sharona") Fieger. The singers in each case are slyly pitted against lyric material that is often completely at odds with the expectations we bring to these performers.

Here for you to sample are three tracks from the album: "Anytime Lisa" [mp3], "Wedding Vows in Vegas" [mp3] with Frank Sinatra Jr. on lead vocal, and "Somewhere in America There's A Street Named After My Dad" [mp3].

And now can I ask you to suggest: one or more albums, from your collections, of great pop music that isn't very well known?

* * *

Some links:

-- A highlight of the new issue of Artforum is a Nagisa Oshima overview essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Also in the issue: P. Adams Sitney on Temenos 2008; Bruce Jenkins on Bruce Conner; and Amy Taubin on Wendy and Lucy and Ballast.

-- At his site, Rosenbaum has a piece called "Bushwhacked Cinema".

-- David Hudson has a post and podcast from the NYFF panel on film criticism last weekend.

-- Zach on Jon Jost and Irving Lerner (among other things).

-- Rob at Daily Plastic revisits the Coens' Burn After Reading upon encountering other critics' praise of the film.

-- Catherine Morris at Bookforum on three new books on Yvonne Rainer, one of them by the artist herself.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on older British cinema.

-- New pieces galore at Moving Image Source including David Schwartz interviewing Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell; and three Oshima essays (so far) by Chris Fujiwara, Mike Atkinson and Joshua Land.

-- The new issue of Offscreen magazine is devoted to French cinema.


Anonymous davis said...

Maybe this is better known than I think it is, but I love Finley Quaye's first album, Maverick A Strike. There must be half a dozen cuts that I have listened to over and over and, you know, imagined various nonexistent movie scenes lining up with. ("My bassman is a ghost, and my ghost is a news carrier. News carrier, back me up man.") It's a studio construction -- although a sparse one -- so like most pop music a lot of the credit must go to the producers: Quaye, Jonathan Quarmby, and Kevin Bacon. (Not that Kevin Bacon.)

Quaye has made a few albums since then that are decent but don't quite have the same effect. The last one included a big hit single with William Orbit and Beth Orton. I think it was on the O.C. or something, which means it was in the ether, which means I heard it without even realizing it was FQ until quite recently when I was wondering whatever happened to...

Speaking of TV, didn't Don Was write the theme song for Mad About You?

October 01, 2008 9:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rob, I've never heard Finley Quaye. A nice tip.

Indeed, Was wrote the theme song to Mad About You, along with Paul Reiser. I meant to mention in the post that Was (Not Was) has been mostly dormant since the early 90s, Don Was making a name for himself as a hot, in-demand producer (Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt). He also directed a documentary on Brian Wilson (I Just Wasn't Made For These Times). I'm not sure what David Was has been up to, other than producing a Rickie Lee Jones record years ago.

October 01, 2008 10:24 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

There might be a lot of specific items to note to illustrate the fairly common production of "unpopular" pop music -- such as most of the items on Lenny Kaye's famous "Nuggets" collection, or the original Big Star (or even Velvet Underground) albums, which only achieved something like popularity over time. But I'd like to emphasize the larger question: I begin many class discussions of the concept of "the popular" in exactly this way, emphasizing that popularity determined by mass consumption or sale figures doesn't always correspond to work we define as popular by genre, conventions, or production (but maybe not critical or financial success) in a commercial context: in some sense almost all fiction marketed as westerns, romances, thrillers, mysteries, or science fiction is popular literature -- but like music and movies, many of these won't in fact be popular -- that is, enjoyed and highly valued by a large populace. I usually cite Raymond Williams' section on the term in his always essential KEYWORDS. Back to music: it makes a certain sense to identify a huge number of American songs -- about 3 minutes, AABA structure, etc. -- as popular, but that doesn't mean all those songs will be popular with audiences ...

October 01, 2008 10:27 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great points, Corey. I'm reaching for Raymond Williams' Keywords...

October 01, 2008 10:33 PM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

These guys are probably not unheard of whatsoever but it seems like a band not many think of any more, if ever, since their July 2003 I-5 car crash killed 3/4 of the members. Also, by chance, I rediscovered them yesterday or the day before: The Exploding Hearts. In a rather pathetic way, and because it was the first youtube clip I found (before importing that CD onto this computer, which is the second owned since 2003), I'm pretty into this song, "Razorblades and Sleeping Aides". They're kinda what The Strokes wish they were, or something snarky like that. I was supposed to go see that final show at Bottom of the Hill but I think I was flaked on so that news the day after (or so?) about their crash was extra sad.

...other than that, I dunno, I'm not that musically adventurous anymore and I mainly poach mp3s from my friends since I trust their taste. I do visit a lot of dance music blogs but most of that is crap. Sometimes there are gems, like the synth wizards "p e a c e fire", whose newest blog-available single hits me in a special way. ----Are Alan Braxe and Fred Falke known? I feel so out of the loop these daze that I don't know who's a hit and who's not... ----I'm super into _Paris 1919_, that John Cale album. ----And I keep singing Cut Copy's praises all over the interwebs.

October 02, 2008 12:19 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I remember "Walk the Dinosaur", girish, and I've meant to track down the album ever since the long-past days of my subscription to Rolling Stone magazine, which named it one of the best 100 albums of the 1980s at the end of that decade. Your post (your music posts are always favorites!) has spurred me to make sure my library orders a copy.

And for my own answer: perhaps this is too much from the nostalgia files for me to be objective about, and I guess it was a lot bigger hit in the UK than in the states, but I think Howard Jones' third album One To One is pretty great, and I never hear anyone talk about it or play any songs from it. (Not counting the megahit No One is to Blame, which had appeared on his previous, more uneven album Dream Into Action, and was placed on the CD release of the album as a last ditch attempt to increase sales- I always have listened to the original version).

The nice thing about pop albums that aren't big hits is you don't suddenly find yourself getting sick of a song because you've heard it one too many times in a shopping mall. In a way they may have more longevity in today's age of ubiquitous background music.

October 02, 2008 2:01 AM  
Anonymous Walter Biggins said...

Girish, this is a great question. For my money, the best unsung pop-music band of recent years is Bedhead, a 1990s group from Dallas. It emerged from the "slow-core" and "shoegazer" indie-rock scene defined by Galaxie 500 and My Bloody Valentine, but quickly paved its own way, influencing bands such as Low, Macha, Codeine, and others. I've written about the band here (with mp3's) and here. Bedhead and its successor The New Year tend to get GREAT reviews from the Pitchfork and alternative-rock journal crowds, but my sense is that both bands are more or less nonexistent to the world at-large, and that's a shame.

October 02, 2008 12:25 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Simon Reynolds somewhat disparagingly wrote about this phenomenon, which he called “pure pop” or “perfect pop,” here and here (the relevant post on that second link starts about halfway down the page, with “In the great Sasha Frere-Jones versus …”).

He sees the idea of “perfect pop” as kind of an indie malady that started with Velvet Underground moved through Big Star and into a good chunk of British bands in the 1980s. He often posits that this mindset comes from an unwillingness to engage with currents in hip-hop, R&B, techno, and other more modern musics.

Of course, that might not apply to Was (Not Was), whose work I’m don’t know. My pick for unpopular pop is Jim O'Rourke. His records from the late 90s and early 00s (Eureka, Halfway to a Threeway, and Insignificance, in particular) have some beautifully constructed, super-catchy songs that make him sound like he’s Nick Drake’s son.

October 02, 2008 1:20 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I'm surprised that so few westerners are familiar with the Japanese Shibuya-kei scene and the great bands that are still producing terrific pop music there. A lot of the bands were heavily influenced by French pop music as well as American/British pop music from the sixties and funk. They often do great modern covers of Serge Gainsburg songs. Since French pop music from the '60s has grown so popular with westerners in recent years I suspect that many people would enjoy a lot of the Shibuya-kei bands if they heard them.

Some of the bands such as Fantastic Plastic Machine and Pizzicato Five became pretty popular in the US during the '90s but there are still great unknown bands like Capsule and Les Cappuccino making music today.

Some youtube evidence:
Les Cappuccino performing live in 2007

Video for Capsule's "Retro Memory"

October 02, 2008 1:32 PM  
Anonymous kimberly said...

I seemed to have screwed up the URL for the Les Cappuccino video so here it is again

October 02, 2008 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

From deepest Chile, I`m voting for Anita Lane`s SEX O CLOCK album.

October 02, 2008 10:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Danke--Ry, Brian, Walter, Mark, Kimberly, Adrian!

Ry, I've enjoyed all the Cut Copy I've discovered through you, and I also like Cale's Paris 1919. They're not written about much, but I'm a big fan of two duo albums Cale made in 1990 with Brian Eno (Wrong Way Up) and Lou Reed (Songs for Drella), the latter a tribute to Andy Warhol. The Eno album is especially a great, little-known 'pop' record.

Brian, I have several releases by Howard Jones, mostly on vinyl (including Action Replay EP which also contains "No One Is To Blame") but not One To One. I noticed that used copies are going for a dollar at Amazon--that's hard to resist. Glad you like the music posts, Brian, I resolve to be less lazy and put them up more often.

Walter, thanks for turning me on to Bedhead, whom I'd never heard of!

Kimberly, I'm almost totally ignorant of the Shibuya-kei scene except Pizzicato Five. Your tips and links are very helpful. Thank you!

Mark, thanks for those Simon Reynolds posts--very interesting reading.

Christgau proposes a related idea in the way he defines "alternative music" in a 1997 Perfect Sound Forever interview: as music that has not only half-forgotten its pop music roots but is also consciously trying to distance itself from them, esp. from black music influences like R&B, black pop (like 'New Jack Swing') and hip-hop.

Was (Not Was) wouldn't really fall into the Reynolds "perfect pop" category; they're neither indie nor guitar-centered. They are also very open to black pop, hip-hop, and electronic pop influences. (Their next record features straight-head raps including one, interestingly, by Leonard Cohen.) They were on a major label making music that openly albeit unsuccessfully aspired to be chart-popular. (As Brian noted, they succeeded modestly only with "Walk The Dinsosaur").

Mark, it's good to discover your blog--I've subscribed to it.

Adrian, Sex O' Clock has got to be the best album title I've heard in ages! Hope you're having fun at the film festival in Chile--we look forward to hearing about it upon your return.

October 03, 2008 11:14 PM  
Blogger steevee said...

The ZE label, which evolved out of the No Wave scene and put out the first 2 albums by Was (Not Was), is a great source of should've-been-popular pop. (Kid Creole was their only artist to come close to the mainstream - Was (Not Was)'s hit came much later.) I'm particularly fond of their Brechtian disco diva Cristina, who was a brilliant lyricist. I have nothing against Madonna, but why couldn't Cristina have tasted some of her fame (or at least Cyndi Lauper's)? The 2-CD MUTANT DISCO compilation is well worth picking up: a collection of hits that never were.

October 04, 2008 12:18 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, good point, Steve! In addition to the first 2 Was (Not Was) records, I know the Ze label only through their single-disc comp Zetrospective: Dancing in the Face of Adversity, with Cristina, Kid Creole, and Breakfast Club.

October 04, 2008 12:29 AM  
Blogger David said...

They weren't my time, so I have no idea whether some somewhat-forgotten favorite bands--Rockets from the Tomb, Wall of Voodoo, even Pere Ubu or The Urinals--were ever big. Is The Fall? Maybe they're all too late for pop music. Were Paul Revere and the Raiders as big as they should have been? Link Wray? The Association (mentioned, derisively, in L'amour fou)? Can? The Au Pairs? I assume The Cramps were huge because they have that awesome scene in Near Dark! And then there's the opposite case: guys like Ricky Nelson, or The Platters, or Dion and the Belmonts who deserve the reputation today they used to have.

October 04, 2008 1:51 AM  
Blogger Ryland Walker Knight said...

G, those 90s albums with Eno and Reed are also great. I'm pretty into _most_ Cale, honestly. I don't think he gets enuf respect. Or, it's easy to always think about Lou Reed when you think about the Velvets. Have you read Cale's autobiography, G? He wrote it with Victor Bockris and Dave McKean designed and illustrated the thing; it's called _What's Welsh For Zen?_ and it's totally humugous and I totally dig it.

Worth noting: I've been feeling this slab of cheese recently...

October 04, 2008 3:37 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Ryland is right about Mr Cale, and Steve is also right about ZE records. The Contortions with James Chance (aka James Black) !! "Contort Yourself" is the great pop anthem that never was. That interesting contorted funk or "mutant disco" moment in post-punk. Mother`s milk for me.

Recently watching an episode of THE L WORD (stuff THE WIRE, this is the real thing) also brought back fond early-80s memories of the band Material. And I am intrigued to know how many of the erudite music buffs beyond Australia know the legend of Tsk Tsk Tsk, which was film critic Philip Brophy`s band of the 80s. I guest-performed in it a couple of times! - as also in another Melbourne band of that era, Essendon Airport. Eveyrthing old is new again (... as another non-punk Aussie sang ... )

October 04, 2008 8:13 AM  
Blogger ZC said...

I don't have the audiophile chops to compete here, but I am absolutely in love with Desmond Child & Rouge's "Night Was Not," in my opinion one of the greatest pop songs ever, used in one of the best scenes of a fantastic teen movie, Allan Moyle's Times Square--see the clip here.

Some Googling will bring the whole soundtrack to your fingertips (or headphones).

October 04, 2008 12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Was (Not Was) have a new album out, it´s called "Boo". Sweet Pea Atkinson & Sir Harry Bowens are still the singers but sadly the record is only so-so.


October 04, 2008 4:27 PM  
Anonymous cinetrix said...


I second Bedhead--so good. A vote also for Noonday Underground, especially the Surface Noise album. But for sheer giddy twee adolescent-angst pop [and isn't that ultimately what pop is, a teenage symphony to God?]: Tiger Trap.

October 05, 2008 8:20 AM  
Anonymous Craig Hubert said...

Two choices popped into my head when I read your post:

"Wonderful You" by The Coastliners, a Texas band from the 1960's on International Artists Records.

"Starry Eyes" by The Records, a great single from this late 1970's band, clearly influenced by Big Star.

I discovered both on compilations, and both have not left my head since, one of the true hallmarks of a great pop song.

October 05, 2008 11:51 AM  
Anonymous Mikey D. said...

Hey Girish!

I love these songs - I was not familiar with this group. Thanks for sharing them!

I think The Buggles' second album "Adventures In Modern Recording" is a great pop album that no one knows about. It is beautifully produced by the lead Buggle, Trevor Horn.

October 05, 2008 12:20 PM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

After going meta with my earlier comment, now I'll play along too: the greatest soul singer of all time that few people know is Laura Lee: her pop masterpiece is "Rip Off," which should have been on the soundtrack of every 70s Pam Grier film, but now-forgotten gems like "Wedlock is a Padlock" and "Women's Love Rights" are great too. At least her production and song-writing team, the legendary Holland Dozier Holland clearly recognized her talents.

And a controversial, willfully perverse claim, at least in the US: Liza Minnelli's collaboration with the Pet Shop Boys, "Results," is brilliant pop -- especially her version of their song "Rent," and of Sondheim's "Losing My Mind." The album was a minor hit in the UK, but not in the US, where sales were tepid and reviews dismissive. Set aside all assumptions about Judy and Vincente's kid and listen again!

October 05, 2008 9:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for all the great ideas--David, Ry, Adrian, Zach, Thomas, 'Trix, Craig, Mikey, Corey!

Times Square is indeed one of the all-time great teen films, no question.

October 06, 2008 1:14 AM  
Blogger Jim Lukowitsch said...

Blink and you missed it genius? The one shot Champale with their 2001 Simple Days album. How songs like See You Around, Motel California, and '68 Comeback didn't splash all over the airwaves will always be a mystery.

August 29, 2014 6:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, never heard of it, Jim. Thanks for the rec!

August 29, 2014 6:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Jim: just ordered a copy off Amazon!

August 29, 2014 6:32 PM  
Blogger Jim Lukowitsch said...

awesome, let us know what you think girish!

August 29, 2014 7:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home