Monday, January 13, 2014

Top 5 "Mainsteam" Ways I Found Out About Terrific Musical Performers

There are some things that are better kept secret. When I was living in Maine, it took a few years for some friends to let me know about a beautiful waterfall out in an isolated stretch of woods, one where you could take a thrilling leap into a deep pool. The peacefulness of the location was what gave it its charm; if every tourist was packing into the place, it wouldn't be the same.

For some reason, this attitude sometimes seems to permeate music. With all the rage over how successful some terrible crooners are, there's a sense that being a part of a close-knit fanbase is the best way to go, and that your favorite band loses some of its luster if they become popular. Much as I love WEQX, I've noticed that they have a bad habit of dumping songs from their playlists as soon as they make it far enough up the charts to attract Top 40 radio attention. And then there are those who whine about floods of new fans who come in after a song appears on a TV show or movie, bitterly lamenting how they knew about this music before everyone else and now it's just ruined.

That's hipster bullshit. Learning about a band or musician in this way is perfectly acceptable; for me, these are some of the more noteworthy examples:

5. Abandoned Pools - Clone High

OK, so this is something of a special case since Clone High probably has a bigger cult following than the Abandoned Pools. I only came across the show after paying a visit to a roommate while he was watching the show, and as a history buff and complete goofball I was sold once I learned it was about reanimated historical figures going to high school together with an evil principal accompanied by a robot butler. The show ended after a year, joining the collection of quality MTV animated offerings that ended too soon (see also: Undergrads).

The band apparently had a pretty close relationship with the show's creators or producers or whatever. In addition to show's main theme, they provided background music for some episodes and made a cameo in the finale. The song that sold me was "Start Over," appearing in both the pilot and the devastating finale; it was enough for me to buy the 2001 album "Humanistic."

It's a bit of a misnomer to describe Abandoned Pools as a band, given that it's the solo project of Tommy Walter. He's been active on the music scene since 1995, when he was a founding member of the Eels. "Humanistic" was his first go as Abandoned Pools, released about a year before the premiere of Clone High and gaining some popularity before then with the single "The Remedy." Walter has been active in this role since then, releasing three more albums including "Somnambulist" in 2013.

4. Gary Jules - Donnie Darko

And this one, well, this is one where I might be one of those high and mighty people who can claim early privilege to this artist since I saw Donnie Darko before it got too popular. A montage near the end of the movie is accompanied by Gary Jules' cover of Tears For Fears' "Mad World," a hauntingly beautiful song which unarguably improves upon the original. I was surprised to hear the tune making its way to the top of the charts about a year later, presumably to correspond with  the slow but steady spread of Richard Kelly's debut film.

But if you really wanted to be all snide and snooty, you could say you were a fan of Gary Jules three years before Donnie Darko. His first album, "Greetings From The Side," came out in 1998. "Trading Snakeoil for Wolftickets," the album with "Mad World" on it, came out shortly after Donnie Darko but took its sweet time getting popular, nearing the top of the UK charts in 2004 and cracking the lower half of the Billboard 200 the same year. The song probably had a domino effect of popularity by appearing in dozens of TV shows as well, with Jules' other tracks starting to show up as well. He released two more albums and an EP afterwards, but hasn't had a new release since 2009.

3. Steve Earle - The Wire

Ah yes, The Wire. If you didn't hear about it while it was still on, you probably heard about it a few months ago when everyone was comparing it to Breaking Bad as that show came to a close.

In terms of musical offerings, The Wire generally limited its songs to the opening credits (getting a new performer for "Way Down in the Hole" every season) and a montage song at the end of each season. Someone on the show was a big fan of Steve Earle. In addition to using "I Feel Alright" as their second season closing song, the show had Earle sing the fifth season theme. Oh, and he appears as the minor character Walon throughout the show's run.

Hopefully you can forgive me for not being all up on Steve Earle's music when he first hit the scene, given that I was a toddler when his first album came out in 1986. That record, Guitar Town, was enough to top the country charts and several of his albums went gold or platinum in ensuing years. Even if Earle is lumped in with country artists, his music is a cut above as it incorporates a number of rock and alternative themes; it's a bit like the later Johnny Cash stuff. He's more likely to sing about coal trains than porch swings, but frankly that always makes for better music anyway.

2. The Mountain Goats - Moral Orel

I missed one notable appearance of the folk band The Mountain Goats in 2005, when the song "Cotton" appeared in an early episode of Weeds. So they didn't catch my ear until 2008, when the song "No Children" replaced the regular opening theme for Moral Orel. It was a fitting opening for what would be a dark and depressing final season, albeit one with a faint undercurrent of hope that triumphs in the end.

The Mountain Goats have actually been around long enough that their first album was released on cassette, way back in 1994. They've put out 14 albums altogether, and Moral Orel featured another two songs of theirs before the series concluded. If you're a fan of The Colbert Report, you may have also spotted them as a musical guest back in 2009.

1. Elbow - Southland Tales

Another credit to Richard Kelly for this one. The first Elbow song that caught my attention was "Forget Myself," on the trailer for the 2006 movie Southland Tales. The band is based in England, where they're popular enough to have made it nearly to the top of the UK charts. Their first album came out in 2001.

Despite their popularity across the pond, Elbow hasn't caught on here. And it's not like the preview for an obscure and not too well-received movie is the only place they've shown up in something available over here in the United States. The song "Grounds For Divorce" showed up on the soundtrack of the video game Left 4 Dead, and in the trailer for Burn After Reading, and a JCPenney commercial, and an episode of Rescue Me. And "One Day Like This" was played during the closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Games.

But good luck finding Elbow on the radio over here. What the hell, America? Give them a chance!