Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yo La Tengo

Sound Familiar?
“Sugarcube,” “Autumn Sweater”

Who Are They?
The quintessential critics’ band and masters of the cover song.

Yo La Tengo, named after the Spanish phrase “I have it,” formed in 1984 by husband and wife duo, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. Funny story: the name Yo La Tengo wasn’t really a random Spanish phrase the two thought would be catchy. It comes from a baseball anecdote involving the 1962 New York Mets.

Once they got the name out of the way, Ira and Georgia recruited Dave Schramm and Dave Rick for the band’s first single, 1985’s “The River of Water.” After recording a song for a compilation album, Dave Rick left the band and Mike Lewis took his place. In 1986, our heroes released their first album, Ride the Tiger.

As with most critical darlings of the underground, most of Yo La Tengo’s early releases didn’t do very well commercially and by 1989, they had three great albums that no one had ever heard of.

The band switched record companies and released Fakebook, an album of mostly acoustic tunes (and some rad covers), in 1990. After the release of the 1991 EP That Is Yo La Tengo, James McNew joined the band and Yo La Tengo became the all-powerful trio they are today.

But things didn’t really heat up until the band signed with Matador Records in 1993. (Side note: I don’t really talk about the influence of certain record companies, but Matador was a big one for indie bands in the ‘90s. Along with Yo La Tengo, Matador was home to bands like Pavement and Sonic Youth.)

Their first release on Matador was 1993’s Painful, which YLT cites as one of their most important records.

“I think this group really started when we made the record Painful,” Ira explained in a 2009 interview with The A.V. Club. “Since Painful, I think we’ve gotten more confident and more willing to trust ourselves and trust each other, and probably better at dealing with things that go wrong.”

The album received high praise from just about every music publication, as did its follow-up, 1995’s Electr-O-Pura.

The band’s last ‘90s release is arguably their best album. I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, released in 1997, is a musical buffet of just about every genre imaginable, including folk, rock, shoegaze, noise pop, ambient and bossa nova. The album is ranked by both Rolling Stone and Pitchfork as one of the best albums of the ‘90s (and they’re right).

Where Are They Now?
Still dropping hot records and wowing the music world with their fantastic cover songs.

After releasing And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out in 2000 and Summer Sun in 2003, Yo La Tengo took a break from studio albums and decided to contribute songs to various soundtracks. They also composed scores for 2005’s Junebug and Game 6, and 2006’s Shortbus and Old Joy. (You can listen to all four scores on aptly-titled compilation album, They Shoot, We Score. Bum-dum-tiss.)

The band’s 11th studio album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (seriously the best album title EVER), was released in 2006 to mass critical acclaim. A compilation of YLT’s impromptu live cover songs (Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics) followed.

As of 2012, the trio is still going strong, contributing tracks to various benefit albums and catering to their fans’ random cover song requests.

But Why Yo La Tengo?
Prepare yourselves for a brand spankin’ new YLT studio album in January 2013! For now, we have a new EP called Stupid Things

What Does Sam Think?
I’ll be honest here and say that I didn’t start listening to Yo La Tengo until earlier this year. But I’m really glad I found them when I did.

Indie bands of the ‘90s had a certain je ne sais quoi. I guess that goes for any indie band of any decade, but it goes double for bands like Yo La Tengo.

Without the pressure of producing mainstream hit after mainstream hit, indie bands are basically able to do whatever the hell they want and still have a loyal fanbase.

I’ve said similar things about Pavement, but Yo La Tengo is a little different. While Stephen Malkmus and company had a signature sound, Yo La Tengo had more a free-for-all genre orgy from album to album.

Take I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, for example. Each track stands on its own, but the album as a whole still sounds consistent. How do they do it? My guess is with some kind of indie voodoo. Also talent.

But can we talk about this band’s collection of cover songs for a second? They cover everything. The Ramones, Devo, Bob Dylan, Daniel Johnston -- the list goes on. The curse of the cover song with most bands is usually a lack of originality, but Yo La Tengo avoids that every single time. The point of covering a song by another artist is to pay homage to that artist while making the song your own. If it sounds like a carbon copy of the original, ya dun goofed.

Listen to YLT’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” for the I’m Not There soundtrack. It’s tough to cover a legend, but this band nails it. This is an ethereal take on Dylan and it’s completely gorgeous.

Their cover of The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop” is also a highlight. It’s completely instrumental and a little reminiscent of ‘50s style rock ‘n roll.

As much as we all love the heavy-hitters of the ‘90s (the grunge bands, the one-hit-wonders), we can’t ignore everything else. Broaden your horizons with bands like Yo La Tengo, Stereolab, Built to Spill and Superchunk. Indie bands of today wouldn’t be here without them.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Vanilla Ice

Sound Familiar?
“Ice Ice Baby"

Who Is He?
The butt of every white rapper joke known to man and the poster boy of early ‘90s cheese.

Yo, VIP, let’s kick it! Robert Van Winkle thrived on hip-hop as a young boy in Dallas. At the tender age of 13, he began breakdancing and earned the nickname “Vanilla” among his core group of chums, because (you guessed it) he was the only white boy in the bunch. Rob hated the nickname, but it stuck.

When he started rapping at parties, he became MC Vanilla. But as a member of a breakdance troupe, Rob adopted the stage name we all know today, Vanilla Ice (the “Ice” part of it came from the name of one of his signature dance moves).

At 16, Rob penned what would later become one of the biggest songs of the ‘90s: the one, the only “Ice Ice Baby” (but we’ll get to that later).

Rob got really into motocross in 1985, but an ankle injury prevented him from racing professionally. Instead, Rob concentrated on perfecting his beatboxing and breakdancing skills as a street performer at local malls. One fine evening at City Lights (a South Dallas night club), Rob went onstage for Open Mic and won over the crowd. As a result, he was able to open for such acts as N.W.A., Pubic Enemy, and 2 Live Crew. He and his buddies played until the name The Vanilla Ice Posse (or The VIP for short).

In January 1987, after being stabbed five times outside City Lights during a scuffle, Rob signed a contract with the owner of City Lights during his recovery in the hospital.

Vanilla Ice’s debut album Hooked was released in 1989…and nobody really cared. Tommy Quon (owner of City Lights and at this point, Rob’s soul) personally sent out copies of the first single, “Play That Funky Music,” to radio stations around the US, but they seldom played it. It wasn’t until a DJ in Georgia accidentally played the single’s B-side, “Ice Ice Baby,” that Vanilla Ice hit it big.

Unfortunately, not everyone liked a white boy from Dallas with a rap career. Record producer and generally intimidating dude Suge Knight harassed Rob on numerous occasions, eventually showing up at Rob’s hotel suite threatening to throw him off the balcony if he didn’t sign the publishing rights to “Ice Ice Baby” over to him. (Suge later used Ice’s money to help fund Death Row Records.)

Rob signed with SBK Records in 1990 and rerecorded Hooked under the title To the Extreme. The album became the fastest-selling hip-hop record of all time, reaching #1 on the Billboard 200. To the Extreme went 11x platinum, but the reviews were mixed.

Ice reached the height of his popularity in 1991, appearing in such cinematic masterpieces as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze and the iconic Cool as Ice. (Fun fact: Cool as Ice is so incredibly awful, it holds both a Golden Raspberry Award and an 8% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. All this without the aid of Pauly Shore.)

By 1994, the Vanilla Ice craze had run out of steam. Rob got into the Rastafari movement, became a vegetarian, grew dreadlocks and released an album (mostly) about smoking weed. Not so surprisingly, Mind Blowin’ failed to impress anyone and the record label that had built up Vanilla Ice’s career went bankrupt.

At this time, Rob began using ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. After a suicide attempt in July 1994, Ice decided it was time to clean up his act and start fresh. He joined a grunge band (the aptly-named Pickin’ Scabz), got married and opened up a Miami-based Extreme sports store.

Ice developed a friendship with producer Ross Robinson, and in 1997, Ross helped him release his third studio album Hard to Swallow. The record’s darker sound attracted a whole new fan base (mostly Juggalos) and Rob finally got the fresh start he’d been searching for.

Where Is He Now?
Still releasing music independently and starring in various reality TV train wrecks.

In 2002, after reuniting with his former manager Tommy Quon, Rob appeared in several reality and game shows, including Celebrity Boxing and Hollywood Squares. His most famous TV appearance was in VH1’s The Surreal Life in 2004, which he cited as being a “therapeutic experience” (though much of it was staged).

After releasing a few more albums, Ice started his own reality show called The Vanilla Ice Project in 2010, which focused on Ice renovating a house in Palm Beach.

Rob has performed at The Gathering of the Juggalos on a few occasions and recently signed to Psychopathic Records. He’s happily married with two daughters and knows how to take the occasional “Ice Ice Baby” joke.

But Why Vanilla Ice?
Because you can’t have a ‘90s blog without mentioning this guy. He’s relevant because he’s still alive making music. What more could you want?

What Does Sam Think?
Okay, I’m not going to try to say Vanilla Ice is a master wordsmith or anything. He was a novelty act. “Ice Ice Baby” isn’t a particularly influential song, but it’s damn catchy. And contrary to popular belief, he didn’t sully the name of all of the white rappers of the world. If anything, he paved the way for them to accomplish bigger and better things. After Ice, we got Eminem. Cool, right?

But Vanilla Ice wasn’t the first white rapper in history (Beastie Boys, anyone?). He was just the first one to achieve ridiculous mainstream success based on an image. They made Vanilla Ice dolls, for God’s sake. That’s when you know you’ve gotten too big.

Like I’ve said before, I’m not a hip-hop expert; I’m just a humble nostalgia expert. Through the nostalgic lens, we usually perceive the ‘90s as a flawless wonderland of unique and inspiring trends. Someone plays “Ice Ice Baby” at a party nowadays and all of sudden, everyone claims that music in the ‘90s was so much better than music today. While there was some fantastic music that came out of the decade, the ‘90s still had awful pop music.

Now, “Ice Ice Baby” isn’t the worst song on the planet. But being an iconic ‘90s song doesn’t make it great in a critical sense. Take off the rose-colored glasses and listen to it now. Does it still make you want to dance? Probably. Does it still make it on to your list of the greatest songs of all time? Doubtful.

But who am I to tell you what’s good or not? If you genuinely like “Ice Ice Baby” (or any of Vanilla Ice’s recent endeavors), then you go, Glen Coco! Bask in the nostalgia.

But back to Mr. Van Winkle. He hasn’t let his cartoonish image of a past decade control his life. He’s accepted his past and gone in a totally different direction. From ‘90s novelty to reality show regular to mild-mannered Juggalo, Vanilla Ice has officially gone through every phase of the one-hit-wonder (almost) entirely unscathed. Now that’s impressive. Word to your mother.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Sound Familiar?
“Possum Kingdom”

Who Are They?
Post-grungers from Texas responsible for that one song you like to play on Guitar Hero II.

In a world after the death of Kurt Cobain, we were introduced to a new phenomenon called post-grunge. Okay, so it was less of a phenomenon and more of a blatant rip-off of Nirvana. But it was huge.

Band who get lumped into this category tend to be modern rock radio favorites like Candlebox, Collective Soul and Stone Temple Pilots (and don’t give me the whole “STP was totally a grunge band” argument. You’re wrong).

And then there were the Toadies.

Formed in 1989 in Fort Worth, Texas, these guys established themselves as, well, pretty odd. According to singer/guitarist Vaden Todd Lewis, “There’s a certain uneasiness to the Toadies.” In other words, this band is twisted in the most delicious of ways.

After recording and self-releasing an EP called Pleather in 1992, the Toadies signed to Interscope Records and dropped a strange little album called Rubberneck in 1994. The record’s most successful single, “Possum Kingdom,” helped Rubberneck achieve platinum status. Other singles that you may remember hearing on the radio for a hot second included “Tyler” and “Away.”

(Side note: I do not consider the Toadies a one-hit-wonder because “Away” actually made in on to the Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks list. Plus they’re just too good to be a one-hit-wonder.)

But when the band sent what they thought would be their sophomore album to the label bigwigs in 1997, it was immediately dismissed and the Toadies were forced to start from scratch. As a result, Hell Below/Stars Above wasn’t released until 2001. The album was a flop and the Toadies broke up five months after its release. (Fun fact: Elliott Smith played backup piano on the album’s title track.)

Where Are They Now?
Reunited and just as strange as ever.

“Possum Kingdom” remained a rock radio staple well after the band’s break-up. Because of this, the Toadies maintained a devoted fan base that begged for a reunion.

Eventually, Todd Lewis and crew regrouped for a St. Patrick’s Day show in 2006 and a mini tour in 2007. After a short hiatus, Todd began writing again and the Toadies released No Deliverance in 2008.

Like most reunited ‘90s bands, the Toadies became festival circuit regulars, playing Lollapalooza in 2008 and the Austin City Limits Festival in 2009.

In 2010, the band’s shelved sophomore album, Feeler, finally saw a release (even though it had been floating around the Internet for years).

But Why the Toadies?
They just released their latest album Play.Rock.Music, which means a new tour and a very happy Sam.

What Does Sam Think?
If you couldn’t already tell, I love the Toadies. I do have a strange fascination with post-grunge bands, probably due to the fact that I lived and breathed mainstream rock radio back in the day. I still have a soft spot for what is known as “butt rock.” DON’T JUDGE ME.

Anyway, remember that quote from Vaden Todd Lewis about how strange the Toadies are? He wasn’t kidding. This band is peculiar in all the right ways.

First, let’s analyze the appeal of “Possum Kingdom.” The guitars have a murky, grungy quality that kind of makes you want to take a nice, long shower. And that riff at the end of the first verse? I said goddamn. It’s delicious.

The lyrics are honestly the icing on the cake.

I’m not gonna lie
I’ll not be a gentleman
Behind the boathouse
I’ll show you my dark secret

Rumor has it that this tune is an ode to your friendly neighborhood bloodsucker. So this is a rock song about vampires. What’s not to like?

Though the Toadies are a post-grunge/mainstream rock band, they don’t fall into the trap of the Creeds and Nickelbacks of the world. That is, their sound doesn’t cater to the needs of balding, middle-aged men and their cougar wives. The Toadies are the outsiders of modern rock. They mix that “bigger-in-Texas” sound with the dirtiest of grunge influences.

In other words, it’s dive bar music. Grab a flannel shirt, some cowboy boots and a shot of whiskey because things are gonna get rough.

I had the pleasure of seeing these guys live back in 2008 and they sounded great. They don’t ride the nostalgia train like most bands their age. For example, when I saw Marcy Playground over the summer, they played up the whole ‘90s novelty thing by continuously reminding the audience, “Hey! We’re that obscure band from the ‘90s who had that one hit you all like so much!” (That hit was “Sex and Candy,” by the way.)

Toadies don’t do that. They have a pretty dedicated fan base (myself included) and don’t rely on the appeal of that one really huge hit to appease on audience.

Their newest album sounds like classic Toadies and that’s just perfect. If you’re only familiar with “Possum Kingdom” (and you really dig it), check out the rest of their catalogue, especially Rubberneck.

Or you can just rock out to “Possum Kingdom” until you die.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.