Monthly Archives: December 2009

Red Shadow, the Economics Rock n Roll Band

Long-haired musicians singing about their radical left-wing agendas is nothing new–everyone from Bob Dylan and Arlo Guthrie right up to Rage Against the Machine and Rise Against has been trying to Stick It to the Man through music. But it’s probably fair to say that no other band in the history of rock and roll ever got quite so pedantic about their politics as Red Shadow, a self-described “Economics Rock & Roll Band” who released two albums back in the Seventies called Live at the Panacea Hilton and Better Red before fading into obscurity.

Started by three dudes with PhDs in Economics, Red Shadow kind of sounds like what would happen to Schoolhouse Rock if the commies ever got ahold of it. There are catchy little ditties about stagflation and Karl Marx. They change the lyrics to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B Goode” into a satirecal attack on the conservative economists at the University of Chicago and MIT…and that’s one of the least pin-headed songs they ever recorded. They also wrote a song called “Commodity Fetishism.” I haven’t actually bothered to listen to it, but I’m assuming it’s about how commodities are bad.

Tragically (and if you detect a note of sarcasm here…congratulations!) Red Shadow broke up after their second album, but their legacy lives on. As of 2005, a new album compiling all of their collected works is available on CD Baby, and one of the alumns, Ev Ehrlich, has built a very succcessful carere for himself as a blogger, NPR commentater (wow, didn’t see that one coming) and an economic advisor to everyone from the Pew Center for Global Climate Change to the Major League Baseball Players Association (okay, actually, all kidding aside…I did not see that last one coming).

Fun side note: Red Shadow also used to be the name of a pre-pubescent, all girl rock band from Los Angeles. Apparently realizing at some point the vaguely Maoist associations that name conjured, they changed their name to the altogether far more appropriate Cherri Bomb. Here is a video of Cherri Bomb performing a cover of Nirvana’s “Heart Shaped Box.” They’re actually pretty good, but watching a bunch of 11-year-old girls called Cherri Bomb might, and indeed probably should, make you feel slightly icky inside.

Meanwhile, here’s a lecture…sorry, song…from the original Red Shadow, called “Understanding Marx.” Prepare to be indoctrinated!

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Matmos

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Drew Daniel and Martin “M.C.” Schmidt began working together as Matmos in the mid-’90s, when the IDM (that’s “Intelligent Dance Music,” for all you non-geeks) movement was in full swing and lots of nerdy dudes with computers and synths were pushing electronic music into some interesting and arty new directions. In that crowded field, Matmos didn’t immediately stand out; then they released an album in 2001 called A Chance to Cut Is a Chance to Cure and it became clear that this wasn’t just another couple of Autechre wannabes.

If you want to get all highbrow about it, A Chance to Cut is a musique concrete album: Its sounds were created almost entirely by sampling the audio associated with various surgical procedures, everything from the slurps and squelches of liposuction to the percussive taps and scrapes against a brain surgery patient’s skull. Somehow, though, Daniel and Schmidt convert this raw material into music that’s playful, melodic and almost jaunty. Around the same time, the duo was also invited by Björk to work on her Verspertine album and subsequent world tour, which raised their profile significantly.

After that experience, Matmos did what any newly semi-famous electronic act would do: They released a concept album called The Civil War that mainly used banjos, strings, fife and drum, and various other old-timey instruments for a series of songs based on both the American Civil War and the English Civil War of the 16th century. It was all run through the same Matmos blender of digital loops, processors and effects, but the result sounded far more like a chopped ‘n’ screwed Ken Burns soundtrack than what you’d expect from two proven masters of cutting-edge electronica.

Since then, Daniel and Schmidt have returned to more “standard” electronic fare, releasing two more albums—2006’s The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of a Beast and 2008’s Supreme Balloon—that rely almost entirely on vintage synthesizers (and no microphones, as proudly stated in Supreme Balloon‘s liner notes). But they remain, for our money, one of the weirdest electronic music acts in the business. You never really know what these guys have in store for us next.

Here’s the video for “Lipostudio…And So On,” the track from A Chance to Cut that uses sound samples from liposuction. We’re not too crazy about the video, but it gives you a chance to hear what a disturbingly queasy effect Matmos achieves with all squishing and slurping.

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Dogs Die in Hot Cars

Okay, so in this case, it’s not the band that’s weird per se; it’s the way they’re working on their latest project. Dogs Die in Hot Cars is an awesome band from Scotland that first surfaced in 2004–a somewhat unfortunate time, as they got a bit unfairly lumped in with other similar-sounding Scottish and Brit-pop bands of the day like Franz Ferdinand, Kaiser Chiefs, Futureheads, etc. After releasing just one EP (Man Bites Man) and one full-length album (Please Describe Yourself), the quintet decided to call it a day, abandoning work on a follow-up album in 2007 and going their separate ways. Or so we thought!

Last year, the band resurfaced, releasing demo tracks from their second album one at a time on their website along with the “stems” or individual elements, i.e. vocals, guitar, keys, etc., which they encouraged fans to use to create their own remixes or alternate versions of the songs. They’re calling the whole project “Dogs Die in Hot Cars is making Pop Nonsense.”

Bands releasing stems for fans to create their own remixes is nothing new; artists from Nine Inch Nails to Radiohead have launched similar projects. But here’s where it gets interesting: DDIHC is promising to release their favorite fan-submitted mixes in an album sometime in the near future and split the royalties 50-50 with the contributors. It’s band 2.0!

We did a lot of digging on the web and have been unable to get the full backstory on this project; it doesn’t seem like the band has discussed it at all with the press, or if they have, any stories about Dog Dies in Hot Cars, the band, tend to get buried under “Dogs die in hot cars!”, the public service announcement. Either the members of DDIHC couldn’t agree on the final mixes or arrangements for their songs, or they got bored, or they got hosed somehow when their label V2 Records, dropped its entire artist roster in early 2007, which would have been right around the time they were in the midst of recording the tracks that make up Pop Nonsense. Also, a few months ago, the band announced that it was no longer taking submissions for the project and pulled all the downloadable tracks and stems off their website. So most of the music is no longer readily available at this point, unless you’re lucky enough to know someone who downloaded all 17 songs.

There really isn’t anything from Pop Nonsense available on YouTube, and the band’s earlier material, while fabulous in its own XTC/Madness way, isn’t really all that weird. But here’s a link to a stream of the title track. (We were really hoping to find this one track called “Serious,” which has a sort of drunken, impending-pub-brawl chorus that goes something like “Serious! I’m fookin’ serious! Serious! I’m so illy serious!” But alas, we came up empty.) The band may be calling these “demos,” but they sound pretty polished to us…in a good way. Here’s hoping the full Pop Nonsense project, original tracks and remixes, finally gets a proper release, because these guys definitely deserve to be rediscovered.

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Sparks

Some bands, when you first encounter them, might seem a bit quirky, but they don’t strike you as especially weird. Then you find out they’ve been at this for 40 years—and during that time, they’ve gone from everything to glam-rock to disco to New Wave to chamber-pop to (no joke) Swedish radio musicals. Oh, and one of the guys favors creepy Hitler/John Waters mustaches.

Sparks was started in 1968—1968!—by a pair of brothers from L.A. named Ron and Russell Mael. Originally calling themselves Halfnelson, they signed to Todd Rundgren’s Bearsville record label, changed their name to Sparks, and put out a couple of albums of eccentric but unremarkable, Pink Floyd-influenced psychedelic rock. Their first big break came after they parted ways with Bearsville, relocated to London, and got involved in the glam-rock scene. Their two 1974 albums, Kimono My House and Propaganda, were big hits in the U.K., even landing the band on Top of the Pops. Their music from this era was sort of a weird mix of Roxy Music, T. Rex and bubblegum pop, and seemed to anticipate the rise of New Wave.

By the time the rest of the rock world had caught up to Sparks, the Mael brothers had moved on, teaming up with disco/electronica pioneer Giorgio Moroder for their synth-heavy 1979 album, No. 1 in Heaven. The band continued to explore various synth-pop and New Wave styles for the next decade, scoring their first U.S. hit in 1983 with “Cool Places,” a song they recorded with one of their biggest American fans, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.

After a late ’80s/early ’90s hiatus, the band resurfaced in 1994 with Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins. Although not a commercial success—except, for some reason, in Germany—it was one of the most well-reviewed albums of Sparks’ career and was instrumental in establishing the Mael brothers as icons of campy, outsidery pop music. Ron, the principal lyricist, was writing increasingly eccentric and sometimes flat-out goofy songs like “(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing” and “Now That I Own the BBC”—both of which kind of sound like send-ups of the Pet Shop Boys, except that the Pet Shop Boys actually stole most of their ideas from Sparks in the first place.

Since then, Sparks have released an album of alternate versions of their own songs (called, appropriately, Plagiarism, and featuring cameos from Mike Patton, Erasure and Jimmy Sommerville), an experimental symphonic album called Lil’ Beethoven, a satirical concept album about modern romance called Hello Young Lovers, and this year, a radio musical commissioned by Swedish National Radio called The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman. Clearly, these guys will try pretty much anything. In 2008, they even performed all 21 of their albums on consecutive nights in London (Ingmar Bergman was album #22).

Taken individually, any one Sparks song—or even any single album—isn’t that weird. With this band, it’s more of a cumulative effect thing. Still, much of the material on 2006’s outstanding Hello Young Lovers stands as some of the weirdest stuff they’ve ever recorded—and how many bands can claim to be out-weirding themselves 38 years into their career? To quote the song featured in the video below, “Screw the past!”

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