September 27, 2013

Mighty Joe Moon

Mighty Joe Moon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Paul Simon: “That’s Me” (Surprise)
  2. The Avett Brothers: “Head full of doubt/Road full of Promise” (I and Love and You)
  3. Uncle Tupelo: “Moonshiner” (March 19-20, 1992)
  4. Blitzen Trapper: “Heaven and Earth” (Destroyer of the Void)
  5. Sarah Harmer: “New Enemy” (All of Our Names)
  6. Grant Lee Buffalo: “Mockingbirds” (Mighty Joe Moon)
  7. Gillian Welch: Tennessee” (The Harrow and the Harvest)
  8. Beastie Boys: “Jimmy James” (Check your Head)
  9. Ornette Coleman: “Congeniality” (Smithsonian Collection of Classic Jazz, Vol 5)
  10. Pixies: “Rock Music” (Bossanova)

A fairly weak list this time around.  The majority of these songs are not standouts on their particular albums – “Congeniality” and “Mockingbirds” being the exceptions.  The latter certainly was the song that introduced me to Grant Lee Buffalo.  Sophomore year of college I suckered myself into joining Columbia’s CD club for whatever the bargain basement price was.  Although I can’t remember all 12 initial CDs I got (for a penny, right?), I do remember: Seal, Sarah McLaughlin’s Fumbling Toward Ecstasy, Message in a Box (the Police’s complete recordings – that cost 4 of my allotment of 12 CDs), and Mighty Joe Moon.  What was it about that album?  Grant Lee Phillips’ stark lyrics – a sort of pre-Decemberists medieval evocation – seemed purposefully obtuse, and the budding Creative Writing major that I was loved their ambiguity.  But also melodically, I heard in Grant Lee Buffalo’s music a type of folk music that I was unaccustomed to in the mid 90s: pared-down, sparse, loose.  The band combined acoustic guitar, banjo, accordian and a simple drum kit, and yet their hooks were catchy.  They took risks within their songs, notably to my young-ish ears in “Lady Godiva and Me” and the one minor chord thrown into the line “I do fall upon my knees/and ask you how you can just sit there and be a rock” in the album’s closing song “Rock of Ages“.

My guess is that the Decemberists would say they owe something of their sound to Grant Lee Buffalo, and the new folk rock movement of this decade – read: the Avett Brothers, the Lumineers, Mumford & Sons – certainly follows in Grant Lee’s footsteps.  So does that mean as a band they were well ahead of their time?  At the very least, listening to them today, I feel like they should have been a bigger act than they were, and wonder if they didn’t become huge because they didn’t fit into the grunge and alt-rock culture of 1994.  But they did have an underground following; I had chosen among my CD-club choice Mighty Joe Moon – unheard – because the previous year, as an intern at Northwestern’s radio station WNUR, I had come across their debut Fuzzy; WNUR’s staff had gushed over that album – and the staff at that time was notoriously anti-establishment vis a vis the corporate music industry and leaned farther alternative that I even knew was possible.  (Freshman year, at WNUR’s orientation, I overheard a fellow freshman – who would eventually become my best friend at college – ask the DJs if they “had ever heard of this band called Live“.  I watched them all roll their eyes; Live was played on commercial radio, so they were verboten. (It strikes me now that those DJs were annoying hipsters before annoying hipsters were hip.))  Later that semester I was dressed down for playing R.E.M. in one of my sets.  Rolling Stone had called R.E.M. America’s best rock and roll band just a few years prior, so obviously they were too big for WNUR’s college radio.  But I’m sorry: didn’t R.E.M. essentially create college radio?

Unfortunately for Grant Lee Buffalo, “Mockingbirds” had some small success on commercial radio, so that CD was dumped to the curb by WNUR.  But why?  Just because a song gets airplay on a high-powered station it shouldn’t be played elsewhere?  I understand that to find a niche, a public radio station like WNUR needs to find an ethos, and the overriding philosophy of the music directors during my time there was that we, as a small station, had played these musicians and bands before they became big, and once they became big, WNUR had done its job and it was time to find the next unknown gem.  Of course stations like that need an ethos to define themselves; WNCW based here in Western North Carolina is a great example of that.  A few years back WNCW released a t-shirt with these names in a single column on the shirt-back (there were more, but I can’t remember them all): “Dylan, Garcia, Watson, Young.”  These were the rocks on which WNCW’s foundation was built.  Last time I checked, Neil Young was a superstar, yet I still hear him played on WNCW, even though I can tune up the dial to the classical rock station and hear him there as well.  I guess what it comes down to is this: having an ethos is fine, but play what you like and love what you play and your listeners will tune in.  If one song doesn’t necessarily fit that ethos, it will be okay.  That’s what I appreciate about WNCW’s DJs: each has his/her own style, and when I tune in, depending on who is DJ-ing, I know I might hear a band that doesn’t fit on the “Dylan/Garcia/Watson/Young” ladder.  And that’s why I tune in – to hear what I do know right next to what I don’t.

I think I’ll call them right now and request “Mockingbirds.”  It fits somebody’s ethos.

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