Bands that should have been bigger
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What’s the one band that, for the life of you, you just can’t figure out why they weren’t bigger, whether it’s a marginal band that should’ve been a mainstream success, or a middling success that should’ve been huge? But no easy explanations, like a guitarist overdosing or profanity in the band name—just a band/artist that you would’ve bet the rent on them taking it to the next level, and inexplicably they never did.
For me, it’s Cracker—catchy-as-hell grungy melodies in easily digestible doses with interesting, understandable lyrics, right at a time when that flavor of rock was at peak popularity. Yet they muddled along with good-not-great sales and 800-seat gigs. Who is it for you? —dg (ThisGuyRightHere)
I feel like I’ve talked about this band in AVQAs past, but I always try to spread the gospel of The Vulgar Boatmen whenever the topic of overlooked, underrated, and otherwise underappreciated music comes up. Based in Gainesville, Florida and Indianapolis, with only the Indianapolis branch still semi-active (it’s complicated), the Boatmen released three great albums between 1989 and 1995, full of reflective jangle and songs about driving. The first two came out on tiny labels. The final one, despite the involvement of a major label, never officially came out in the U.S. at all. I don’t know that the group could ever have been huge. But it definitely should have been at least a little huger.
I’ve actually got several answers for this question, as I was and remain a fan of a number of great bands that hit the scene in the late 1980s or early 1990s, but were mostly ignored in the wake of grunge’s arrival. But if I’m going to pick one, it’s got to be Jellyfish. I fell in love with its 1990 debut, Bellybutton, thanks to the video for “The King Is Half-Undressed,” and although I guess you could argue that the members’ hippie-dippy Day-Glo attire soured people on taking them seriously, just about everyone who ever saw the band in concert left with their jaws on the floor, so immaculate were the band’s harmonies in a live setting. When Jellyfish emerged with its sophomore effort, Spilt Milk, in 1993, I was in awe of the sonic palette it had put together, but by then, it was a Nirvana/Pearl Jam world, and the masses weren’t interested in buying what the boys were selling, the fools. I kept listening, though: When my daughter was born in 2005, I promptly printed out the lyrics to “Hush“ and posted them on her wall. No, my generation couldn’t appreciate Jellyfish properly, but hey, maybe hers will.
Through no fault of their own, bands sometime slip between the cracks of what’s fleetingly cool and what’s timelessly awesome. Floor is one of them. Formed in 1992, the outfit wound up hitting its stride in the late ’90s and early ’00s, just before heavy music became relatively acceptable again. But Floor’s slew of indie-label releases during that period are just as good, if not better, than the parallel output of Queens Of The Stone Age—only Floor’s music is tighter, sludgier, catchier, crazier, and more concise. Since then, frontman Steve Brooks has found greater notoriety in the excellent Torche, a group that sounds like an organic, fleshed-out mutation of its predecessor. But nothing tops Floor’s two-minute bursts of bulldozing ferociousness.
It’s always baffled me that Cake hasn’t become bigger than it is. Sure, its albums are a bit on the quirky side, with John McCrea’s “singing” incorporating more talking than actual singing, and Vince DiFiore’s trumpet being the instrument that’s most in the forefront on their songs. But in Cake’s 15 or so years of putting out recordings, its songs have sneakily made their way onto film soundtracks, commercials, and—in the case of “Short Skirt/Long Jacket”—TV. The reason? Catchy hooks and pop craftsmanship that rival most bands out there today. It’s fully ironic that, after that decade and a half, Cake finally reached the top of the Billboard Top 200 album chart with the debut of their self-distributed CD Showroom Of Compassion… selling the smallest number of units ever recorded by SoundScan for an album in the No. 1 slot. The same “pop craftsmanship” argument can be made for The Smithereens, by the way, except that their brand of said poppiness is more of the straight-ahead rock variety that Stone Temple Pilots rode to the top of the charts only a few years after the Jersey quartet’s biggest hit, “A Girl Like You,” was released.
Typically, when a music fan claims that a favorite band “should have been bigger,” they’re making an argument for quality being rewarded with financial success in the marketplace. But everybody knows that quality goes unrewarded all the time, so there’s really no room for “should’ves” there. To me, saying a band deserved to be more popular should mean that it had all the attributes of acts that were popular at the time, and yet was never able to cash in. For me, the obvious answer here is Teenage Fanclub, whose 1991 album Bandwagonesque is a perfect grunge-era pop-rock record created by cute guys with adorable accents and a cynical sense of humor. Like Nirvana with Nevermind, Teenage Fanclub made a record that openly courted popularity in a self-mocking way, a tricky bit of jujitsu PR that worked for scores of other bands who didn’t make records that were as good. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that Teenage Fanclub is still around, and lots of those other ’90s bands aren’t.
It was hard to grow up in Chicago in the early-to-mid-1990s without falling at least a little in love with Material Issue. Frontman Jim Ellison wore his heart and his influences proudly, affecting a cartoonish British accent to sing songs about girls, rock ’n’ roll, and heartbreak. In an era where the worst thing anyone could be called was a “careerist,” Ellison unabashedly wanted to be a famous rock star. Scratch that: He should have been a rock star. The trio’s 1991 masterpiece International Pop Overthrow is a front-to-back masterpiece of masterful power-pop with massive hooks and decidedly sad undertones. 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack was even better, but by then, the group’s hooky power-pop couldn’t be more out of step with the commercial hits of the time and a dejected Ellison took his own life before the release of 1997’s posthumous Telecommando Americano, which is worth picking up for the awesomely titled “What If I Killed Your Boyfriend.” The group picked up a cult following, but it always deserved to be much bigger than it ever actually was.
My knee-jerk response was Jawbreaker, the beloved punk band that was poised for big things in the mid-’90s. But so many of us still carry a torch for it, it’s better to go with someone who was more indifferently received, and for that, I’m picking Hey Mercedes. After the 1999 break-up of Braid, three-quarters of the band regrouped with a new guitarist, refining Braid’s twisty emo into something poppier and more polished. That isn’t a slight; it suited Hey Mercedes’ catchy, smartly written songs. Just as emo’s third wave became ever more on-the-nose in its sentiment and songwriting, Hey Mercedes showed welcome subtlety. Its fantastic 2001 debut, Everynight Fire Works, was heavily delayed due to an unrelated lawsuit against the group’s label, and when it finally arrived, there was no fanfare. Fire Works blew me away with a slew of awesome songs—“The Frowning Of A Lifetime,” “A-List Actress,” “Eleven To Your Seven,” “Our Weekend Starts On Wednesday”—that were so catchy and well-recorded (thanks to J. Robbins), I thought for sure Hey Mercedes would catch on. It didn’t, not even in the indie world. The band released a lesser, though still strong, follow-up in 2003 that was similarly ignored, and broke up not long after. It shouldn’t have been that way.
Far as sub-dwelling rock bands go, my heart still breaks that more fans didn’t gravitate toward Milwaukee’s Goodnight Loving, who perhaps would have been better appreciated in circa-1982 Athens, Georgia, or if its fantastic mid-’00s debut had arrived just a couple years later. But when it comes to recent mainstream curiosities, Detroit MC Trick-Trick still baffles me with his failure to cross over. His 2005 debut, The People Vs…, wasn’t bulletproof, and his 2008 follow-up, The Villain, fell flat more often than it peaked. But on both albums, the Goon Sqwad leader (né Christian Mathis) was endorsed, produced, and accompanied on several tracks by not just hometown hero Eminem, but Dr. Dre and Ice Cube as well. Trick even had the heat of a near-miss murder charge, public beef with Trick Daddy, and injuries sustained in a 2009 shooting. High-level peer referrals and tabloid drama like that is what most rappers desperately strive to calculate. And in spite of its virginal flaws, People Vs… was an all-around solid, charismatic LP. Lets face it: D12 eked out two platinum records, so there’s no reason why Trick-Trick should be toiling in relative obscurity.
Even in an era when seemingly every scruffy-looking rock band with a ready hook was getting airplay—and even with the muscle of Geffen’s hip DGC label behind them—Sloan couldn’t crack the U.S. market. And since the mid-’90s, Sloan has consistently put out some of the catchiest, most energetic rock music on the market, and honing one of the most entertaining live shows around. Still, cult success Stateside, no more. I understand why most power-pop bands don’t break wide. The music can sound a little too sugary and corny for the average rock fan, and too noisy for most pop fans. But Sloan has an eclectic, aggressive, joy-bringing sound that just about anyone can enjoy. Seriously, folks, buy the new one: The Double Cross. See if you don’t agree.
This will probably be seen as a totally biased answer, since a childhood friend used to be in the group (but has since left), but I’m kind of amazed that every lighthearted dramedy on television isn’t scoring at least one scene per season to a song by Michigan’s Those Transatlantics, whose 2006 album Knocked Out was a whole bunch of power-pop perfection. Lead singer Kathleen Bracken has also recorded some interesting solo stuff (though so far as I know, none of it’s been officially released), and she’s got the kind of voice that meshes perfectly with the group’s sunnier instrumentation and rhythms. Again, I’m a big fan of the genre, and I’m a big fan of groups that lean heavily on keyboards and sunny guitar, and what I’m really saying here is “I’m sorry this obscure local band hasn’t hit the low levels of the big time.” But I remain legitimately surprised the band didn’t at least become a music blogger cause célèbre along the way.
I don’t have the most eclectic musical tastes. No one would really accuse me of having tastes that stray too far from the mainstream. But if there’s one artist in my collection that I can’t believe didn’t go on to become as huge as nearly everyone else in my iTunes playlist, it’s Matthew Sweet. His 1991 album “Girlfriend” received attention, to be sure, and even a Top 10 single with its title track. But his follow-up album, Altered Beast divided listeners and essentially stunted his popularity. Subsequent albums such as 100% Fun and In Reverse weren’t as revelatory as the must-own Girlfriend. But they nevertheless continued to pair Sweet’s pop sensibilities to recordings ranging from those as lush as those made by Phil Spector to those as fuzzed-out and detuned as the best of Sonic Youth. His records remain timeless because they seem to be recorded out of time: They encapsulate so much of what’s raw and beautiful about rock music without belonging to any particular era. It’s just too bad he’s been all but forgotten by mainstream listeners. At least this one still remembers.
Baton Rogue’s The Eames Era would’ve fit nicely on a double bill with Those Transatlantics—hell, being a hook-heavy indie-pop act fronted by a charismatic redhead, The Eames Era could’ve been Those Transatlantics. The band reached the height of its notoriety when the chunky “Could Be Anything” landed on the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack, but it released at least two other songs that should take the place of “Could Be Anything” on your “Lost bands of the ’00s” playlist: the hip-twisting kiss-off “The Year Of The Waitress” and the soaring “Go To Sleep.” Unfortunately, The Eames Era was never going to be a hit in an overcrowded, overexposed scene that already had Rilo Kiley (which, given the unfulfilled promise of its jump from Saddle Creek to Warner Bros., would also make a suitable nominee for this AVQ&A), and the group split in 2008.
I’m usually more shocked when a band I like manages to sell a record than when one I love fails to take over the world, but I do remember being awfully slow to catch onto the fact that Dramarama-mania was never going to break out in MTV Nation. The band did become famous enough to appear on VH1’s Bands Reunited, 10 years after dropping its best album since the debut, Hi-Fi Sci-Fi, after which its record label dropped it. Dramarama went back to playing live and cut a good comeback album after the TV show, an inspiring development made slightly depressing by the unspoken implication that, unlike members of Klymaxxx and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the group had no other, more pressing business to attend to. In retrospect, I may have connected to singer-songwriter John Easdale on too deep and personal a level—he always struck me as someone it would be good to hang out with—to be non-delusional about their broader appeal. Which figures; I was never in any great demand in the late ’80s and early ’90s myself.
Michael Penn actually started off fairly hot, thanks to his wonderful single “No Myth,” which won him the Best New Artist VMA Award in 1990. But subsequent albums after March just didn’t have the same commercial success, which always stymied me, because I was in love with his voice, his lyrics, and his sad-ironic songs. (I’ve owned three versions of his album Resigned because I listened to it so many times.) Penn didn’t get a lot of support from his record companies as his career continued, and he apparently didn’t seem too interested in catering to their ideas of how to be more commercial, so while I wouldn’t say he possibly didn’t care about not recapturing his original attention, he certainly seems to be doing okay in his current situation, which is writing music for movies and being Mr. Aimee Mann. But I’ve gotten so much aching pleasure out of his music (and I know I’m not the only one) that it seems like a shame that we don’t get to hear bigger fanfare about his work.
When I moved to San Francisco in 1998, I was under the impression that Creeper Lagoon was already well on its way to fame and fortune. I think it was a mix of exceptional work by the group’s publicity team and the fact that some of the first people I met when I got to town talked in exceedingly reverent tones about the local band, which had signed a major-label deal, but was still enjoying the fruits of indiedom by releasing its first full-length on the Dust Brothers’ Nickel Bag imprint. I thought I Become Small And Go was good and all, but I wasn’t exactly sold on the idea that these guys were primed to become pop stars, and it wasn’t like their headlining show at the Great American Music Hall during Noise Pop ‘99 (above Grandaddy and Death Cab For Cutie) made much of a case for pending platinum success. But then along came the DreamWorks debut, 2001’s Take Back The Universe And Give Me Yesterday, and I was instantly hooked by all of the massive hooks on the super-shiny, thoroughly produced (by four different guys, including Dave Fridmann and Jerry Harrison) disc. Songs that sounded like shoe-ins to be radio-friendly singles were all over the album, and it dawned on me that the world had a cool-kid version of another San Francisco band whose major-label debut was stuffed with hits: Third Eye Blind. I braced myself to be called an idiot when I mentioned this to frontman Ian Sefchick and guitarist Sharky Laguana during an interview, but they didn’t balk at the assessment, which seemed to suggest that these guys hadn’t just made a huge-sounding record, they really were positioning themselves to become the next big thing. But somehow the stars just didn’t align: Rumors of internal tension were confirmed when the group broke up soon after the album’s release, well before the rest of the country could be wooed as hard as we were out here. As the original frontman of the band, Laguana has kept the Creeper name alive, but he’s never attempted mainstream acceptance the way he did a decade ago with Sefchick at the helm.
While Ryan Adams has ascended to certain levels of fame (and infamy) since going solo with Heartbreaker in 2000, his previous musical outing, Whiskeytown, never reached the popularity it deserved. The band’s discography consisted of only three albums: Strangers Almanac, Faithless Street, and the “posthumously” released Pneumonia, put out a year after the band broke up, with some post-production massaging from Adams. But Whiskeytown’s country/roots-rock hybrid helped spur on the rise of modern “Americana” in the mid-to-late ’90s, alongside Uncle Tupelo (which itself spun off Son Volt and Wilco), The Jayhawks, and Old 97s. Timing was against the band; its brand of honky-tonk (“Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”) and ramshackle roots-rock (“Drank Like A River”) got lost among the surge in popularity of modern rock that closed the last century. Like those other bands, the style of music didn’t fit in comfortably with any popular genre. It was too rocking for country fans, and too much twang for rock fans. There are moments of pop brilliance throughout the band’s catalog: “Yesterday’s News” hits a rootsy alt-rock sweet spot better than any Counting Crows song ever did, and “Avenues” displays the nuanced, delicate songwriting Adams found more success with as a solo artist. But the band’s reputation for being volatile (only Adams and Cary were players in every incarnation of the band) as well as an unpredictable live act—characteristics that have followed Adams into his solo career—also played a role in the group’s limited popularity, and it was left under the shadow of Adams’ solo work (and antics) and the growing reputation of other bands from the period, like evolving art-rock behemoth Wilco.
This is a tough one, because I have plenty of personal favorites—Low, The Wedding Present—that are big, but that aren’t huge, likely because the kind of music they play just doesn’t necessarily have mass appeal. Clem Snide, on the other hand, should’ve been massive. It had a song (“Moment In The Sun,” fittingly titled) that was the theme to a major-network dramedy, for Chrissake! But I’m not counting chief songwriter Eef Barzelay out yet. He’s got decades of slow-burning beauty ahead of him.