Thursday, December 18, 2008

Massachusetts: As Many Bands as Kennedys

So I've discovered as I approach the half-way point of this project, with Massachusetts being entry 22 out of a total of 51 posts, that all the states fall pretty much into one of three categories, and we have seen all three represented in these last three posts.

First, you have states like Maine that require a little massaging of the rules in order to make the list fit. This is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with a carving knife. Once you're done the picture may not look like it was intended, but by God those pieces fit together...

Next, you have states like Maryland that by some cosmic convergence have managed to produce just the right number of players to make for a perfectly simple post that does not leave the author up at night wonder who they dissed by not including them. This is like doing a jigsaw puzzle with just the right number of pieces, all of which are numbered on the back. There is no challenge, there is just the act of lining everything up in the proper order.

Finally, we come to Massachusetts, and states like it. Typically these are states with large urban cores that produce a countless number of artists all of whom could easily find a home on the lists of Maine, Colorado, of may nave even saved Alaska from being annexed. Unfortunately, all are rooted inexorably to their home state, meaning very qualified applicants will get left out in the proverbial cold. This is like attempting to complete one jigsaw puzzle when you have the pieces for about fifteen scattered around you. Even if you know specifically what the picture is supposed to look like, there's much confusion, anger, and wringing of hands before you complete the task of assembly.

With that in mind, I shall undertake the task of ranking and writing up the top Massachusetts performers, but odds are I will not sleep tonight as I debate the merits of those left behind in my head. Much like California before it, and New York after, Massachusetts would benefit from a limitless post about it's many musical merits. Perhaps sometime in the next century when I have finally completed this task I have set myself upon, I'll have an opportunity to do just that.

In the mean time, we'll have plenty of opportunities to discuss music. For now, there's wikiness to be mangled into humorous faux factoids:

- For starters, I despise the Boston Red Sox. There is nothing in the least bit humorous about this. It started in 1986, dulled a bit in 2002, but reignited in 2004. If you are not aware as to the importance of these years, I can assume you are not an Angels fan.

- I'm glad I got a chance to get that out of the way. I now feel purged and we can get on with enjoying the state of Massachusetts and the city of Boston without further incident. I bear no ill will to any of the states other professional sports franchises, but admittedly, I do think Tom Brady is a tool.

- While the state of Massachusetts is ranked 44th out of 50 in land mass, it is ranked 14th in population, making it the 3rd most densely populated state in the nation behind just New Jersey (1st) and Rhode Island (2nd). Of course, they're all vast and empty wastelands compared to the population density of Washington DC. which is almost 10X as densely packed as New Jersey.

- So unless you live in Washington DC, stop complaining about traffic.

- Massachusetts borders 5 other US states. Rhode Island and Connecticut to the south, New York to the West, and Vermont and New Hampshire to the North.

- Throughout our nation's history, Massachusetts has been the cornerstone of democracy. Massachusetts was the locale for our founding fathers who started the American Revolution, it was the first state in the union to abolish slavery, and is the home state for the American political dynasties the Adams family, and the Kennedy family.

- Massachusetts was also the first state to legalize same sex marriage, back in 2004. Perhaps since they've been right about everything else, the rest of our country should give them the benefit of the doubt...

- In my defense, is there a better state to use as a political soapbox than Massachusetts? I mean, they're the ones who dumped tea in the harbor...

- The name Massachusetts translates in the language of it's indigenous residents to mean roughly 'Of the little big hill'.

- The 'little big hill' refers to Great Blue Hill. There is yet to be an official determination as to whether the hill is actually big or little...

- The city of Boston loosely translates to 'Home of chowder, micro brews, and myopic baseball fans'.

- Sorry, I said I'd stop... Just know, Boston, that Nomar Garciaparra never liked you... and he's Hispanic, not Italian...

- All sorts of history occurred in Massachusetts. Don't believe me? Well than read about it, smart guy...

- Crane Paper Company, the organization tasked with creating the paper used to print American money is in Massachusetts.

- Taking stock from Crane Paper and drawing $1,000,000,000,000,000 on it does NOT make it legal tender.

- Besides, where would you get change for a quadrillion dollar bill? Even if you bought 799 trillion 7-11 hot dogs at $1.25 each you'd still get $2,250,000,000 in change... besides, they usually don't take bills over a $20...

- I have not done the calculation, but I do believe there is not enough mustard or onion on this planet to properly dress 799 trillion 7-11 hot dogs. So aside from devising a plan to make a bill that cannot be broken, and that cannot be spent, you have also single handedly used up the entire world's stock of mustard and onion. I hope you are proud of yourself.

- No. You cannot have relish.

- Logan International Airport is the state's major airport, and I am told it is NOT in fact named after the X-Men's Wolverine. I do not believe it, and will continue to research until I find a source that tells me it is.

- The now politically liberal-leaning city of Boston was at the turn of the 20th century the central hub for the war on free speech led by Methodist Minister J. Frank Ward's New England Watch and Ward Society.

- If this trend repeats itself, Utah should be the next great center of liberal thought and freedom of expression.

That should be just about enough of this foolishness. It's time to unveil the best of the best that Massachusetts has to offer. I do however need to provide one caveat to these selections. Much like California, I was forced to make the selections based on my OWN personal preference, not based on notoriety, influence, or album sales. Even considering that, I am not convinced I have made the right choices. I had a plan for Massachusetts right for the beginning, and I have changed it about five times since first starting this project.

Suffice it to say, there is about 15 great bands and solo artists from the state of Massachusetts, any of whom I would be honored to write up, but the list does not allow for would haves, could haves, or should haves. It solely allows for three choices. Here they are, take them or leave them.

Solo Artist: Charles Michael Kittridge Thompson IV AKA: Black Francis, AKA: Frank Black

You may have noticed in the write up of Maryland that in all fairness, all three selections were solo artists, and I massaged Frank Zappa into the 'band' selection through use of The Mothers of Invention. Massachusetts is the polar opposite. While Frank Black has put out some good solo tunes, and continues to make music now with his new outfit, Frank Black & The Catholics, it is his work as Black Francis, lead singer of Pixies that earns Charles Black Frank Thompson IV a spot on Massachusetts very exclusive best of the best list.

If you are not familiar with Pixies, and consider yourself a fan of modern rock and alternative music, than you are by all intents and purposes, reading a book with a handful of early chapters removed. With The Velvet Underground, The Ramones, and in some circles Sonic Youth, Pixies are required listening for anyone who wants to know where their favorite rock acts of today came from. Unlike much of The Velvets and IMO all but very little Sonic Youth, Pixies managed to not only influence those bands that formed in their wake, but like The Ramones even put out enjoyable music.

From the early days of Vamos and Caribou through the critically acclaimed heyday of Gigantic, Where is My Mind, Monkey Gone to Heaven, and Here Comes Your Man to the virtually Kim Deal-less final albums featuring Dig for Fire, Planet of Sound and a great cover of The Jesus and Mary Chain's Head On the short career of Pixies begat some of alternative rock's most influential and enjoyable pieces of music, and indirectly led to a slew of mid 90's hits. Let us take a moment to examine the Pixies Family Tree:

Black Francis begat a solo career as Frank Black and formed another band called Frank black & The Catholics who featured members of Miracle Legion.

Kim Deal begat The Breeders with her sister Kelley Deal and Tanya Donnelly, and The Amps with breeders drummer Jim Macpherson who went on to join Guided by Voices. Tanya Donnelly was the lead singer of Pixies contemporaries and touring mates Throwing Muses, and went on not only to The Breeders with Deal, but then formed one of my absolute favorite 1990's alternative bands Belly, one of the many Boston area bands who was unfortunately left off this list. Donnelly however is a native of Rhode Island, so it looks like Belly will have a chance to be immortalized at a later date...

Pixies co-founder and Black's former college roommate Joey Santiago went on to collaborate with his wife and form The Martinis, releasing an EP in 2004 and still listed as active. you can visit their home on the web here.

All this sprang from just one EP and four albums. Here is some classic Pixies, Debaser.

Band: The Cars

This was an extremely difficult decision, and one I finally decided to pull the trigger on just before beginning this post. My initial plan was to give this spot to the Honorable Mention we will discuss momentarily, and give that spot to the up and coming Dresden Dolls, who's first two albums and three EP's are all well worth the investment, and if you do not already own all of the, and listen to them consistently rectify that immediately. That being said, they have not yet achieved the depth and breadth or influence of some of the other passed over artists on this list.

My next thought was to give this spot to rock and roll icons Aerosmith, and I am still not convinced that I made the right call. Alas, Steven Tyler and the boys lost out due mostly to the fact they did not disband after the Pump album. I may have even stuck with them had Cryin', Crazy, and Amazin' been reduced to just one song instead of three different versions of the same one, but it was really the de-volution into soft-rock fodder with I Don't Want to Miss a Thing from the soundtrack to Armageddon that vaulted Ocasek and company into the lead spot.

Not that The Cars should be considered default winners based on Aerosmith's recent failures, they are here based on their own merits just as much as on the miscues of others. After all, in spite of the fact they only won 83 games during the regular season, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals still won the World Series and were crowned champions...

This spot also could have gone to The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Dropkick Murphys, Dinosaur Jr., Mission of Burma, or Godsmack, but ultimately I thought the 1970's contingent of Massachusetts band greatness should be represented. If that wasn't going to be Aerosmith, my options were Boston, or The Cars. No offense to Boston, but one great album does not a 'best band in Massachusetts' make...

So now that I have taken four paragraphs to try and talk myself out of selecting The Cars, let me try and explain why I did. When The Cars first gained notoriety in 1977, it was the exact wrong time for a band with their sound. Had the same band formed in 1964, or 1983, their success would have been as instantaneous as it would have been world-stopping. Instead, they were caught smack dab in the rift formed between punk and new wave. This band did not truly fit either of those rock sub-genres, but were pigeon-holed into the latter in order to sell records.

The amazing part is that somehow it worked.

Whether it be due to Ric Ocasek's unorthodox looks, the less-than-typical vocal swapping of Ocasek and Benjamin Orr, or simply the fact they came out of Boston in 1977, straight up rock tracks like Just What I Needed and Good Times Roll were being accepted as first-wave hits along side the much more experimental work of fellow Bostonians Mission of Burma, Delaware's Television, and overseas acts like Elvis Costello and The Boomtown Rats.

Aside from setting themselves apart by choosing to NOT get 10-kinds-of-experimental, The Cars did use enough modern day tricks of the trade to keep their tunes interesting, which is likely what kept them out of the one-album-wonder category like the above mentioned Boston. Cars mod-tunes included Moving in Stereo off the debut album, and Hello Again and Magic off of their wildly successful Heartbeat City album. With those rare exceptions however, most of The Cars catalog is definitive early 60's inspired rock and roll. A brand of music that was at the same time familiar and unique when set against the landscape of late 1970's new wave and synth-pop.

In addition to somehow straddling the line of both 'bucking the trend' and being included IN that trend, The Cars of the 1980's were responsible for one of the songs and videos I recall seeing repeatedly while growing up as a member of the MTV generation. Once again, they managed to effectively be an MTV hitmaker, with pre-MTV stylized rock tunes. Truly an amazing achievement.

The song and video to which I refer is of course the 1984 classic You Might Think.

Fun fact! Contrary to popular belief, the model featured in the You Might Think video is NOT future Mrs. Ric Ocasek Paulina Porizkova, although she was the model featured in the video for Drive from the same album. Ironically, Ocasek is not the lead vocalist on this track, Benjamin Orr is.

Fun Fact PART TWO!!!- The Rentals song 'Friends of P' is in reference to Paulina Porizkova, who introduced front man Matt Sharp to her husband Ric Ocasek whilst Sharp was still the bassist for the band Weezer. Upon meeting, Ocasek purportedly told Sharp 'Well if you're friends of P, then you're friends with me...' Which went to to become the song's refrain, and The Rentals highest charting hit to date.

Honorable Mention: Morphine

I tend to be pretty understanding about the coming and going to rock bands in my life. It's something every rock fan has to take the time to come to grips with at some point in their listening history, unless of course your favorite band is The Rolling Stones, those guys are never going to go away... For the rest of us however, it's a fact of life. Even recognizing that, the end of bass-heavy power rock outfit Morphine is one I still have trouble accepting. Perhaps it is due to the tragic end of the band centered around the sudden death of front man Mark Sandman.

Upon completion of what would become their final album The Night, the band embarked on a Eurpoean tour. On July 3rd, 1999 while performing at the Nel Nome del Rock festival in Italy, Sandman collapsed on stage. He was soon pronounced dead of a heart attack. Morphine's final album was released posthumously in 2000.

Band members Dana Colley and Billy Conway have since been using the music of Morphine to further the momory of Sandman by creating Orchestra Morphine, a collection of Sandman's friends and collegues who toured to raise money for the Mark Sandman Music Education Fund. More recently, they have hooked up with former Face to Face vocalist Laurie Sargent to form Twinemen, however nothing will ever compare to the haunting vocal complexity of Mark Sandman.

The band is yet to find a wide ranging audience, yet is the type of unique sound that I expect to see a few years down the line with people questioning why they did not know more about these guys when Mark was still alive. Here is the first Morphine song I was ever exposed to, while watching a cable access college rock video show. I can vividly recall seeing both this video, and the video for Bad Religion's American Jesus. Within a week I owned copies of Morphine's Cure for Pain and Bad Religion's Recipe for Hate... The song is Buena.

As I mentioned on one of my initial posts, for those who have exhausted the Morphine catalog and need a little more Sandman-esque tunes in their life, may I suggest Earlwine, an New York based artist who was recommended to me by fellow blogger Tristan at rebeljuke. Click for a listen yonder... The album is called Low Frequency Hum.

I hope you enjoyed our trip through Massachusetts as much as I enjoyed writing about it. Next time we visit Michigan, home of the Motor City, where I can prove my distaste for Motown by not selecting The Supremes!

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