Ah Hey Oh Ma Ma Ma…*

January 8, 2012

In the last few days, I’ve rediscovered the music of The Dream Academy, a band which I had loved and forgotten (despite owning all three of their albums).

Few bands have been more aptly named. Paisley as could be, pictures of the classically-schooled trio made me think of the early ‘70s television series The Mod Squad.

(barely walking in tadpole pajamas during that show’s run, I vaguely remember being somewhat transfixed by Peggy Lipton)

And if the name The Dream Academy is unfamiliar…if you were listening to radio in the autumn of 1985, you likely know their song Life In A Northern Town (see here for a very cool performance by them on Saturday Night Live).

That song was pretty much all that most listeners ever heard from The Dream Academy which is unfortunate. I’ve always considered them to be a sadly overlooked act of the ‘80s and felt that, under different circumstances, they could have had more success.

(what those circumstances might be, I don’t know).

The group split after releasing their third album, A Different Kind Of Weather, in 1991 and for years their catalog was unavailable aside from pricey Japanese imports (of course, all Japanese imports tend to be pricey).

Curious about what lead singer Nick Laird-Clowes had been up to during the past decade and a half, I did a bit of research. He has been doing music, but another detail caused me to take notice.

Supposedly, he had fallen into serious drug addiction and, to become sober, he had sequestered himself in a monastery in the Himalayas.

Whether it is true or not, I have no idea. I do know that given their music and their style, if one band would have a member that would seek respite from drug addiction with Tibetan monks, it would certainly have been The Dream Academy.

It was just their vibe.

Here’s the song that made The Dream Academy a one-hit wonder and four more from their brief existence…

The Dream Academy – Life In A Northern Town
from The Dream Academy (1985)

I remember hearing Life In A Northern Town on 97X amidst Talking Heads, Peter Gabriel, and The Suburbs and immediately taking notice. The tribute to the late Nick Drake, produced by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, was so striking.

By the time they chanted the first ah-hey-oh, ma-ma-ma…I was hooked and, twenty-five years later, I still never tire of the song.

The Dream Academy – The Edge Of Forever
from The Dream Academy (1985)

Aside from Life In A Northern Town, The Dream Academy has achieved a measure of immortality for The Edge Of Forever as the wide-eyed song plays during the kiss between Ferris and Sloan at the end of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

The Dream Academy – This World
from The Dream Academy (1985)

This World is a song of lost innocence as dark as it is pretty (and it is very pretty).

The Dream Academy – Here
from Remembrance Days (1987)

As the members of The Dream Academy were classically trained musicians, there are a lot of flutes and such accenting much of their music. Here is simple and lush, building to a crescendo.

The Dream Academy – Love
from A Different Kind Of Weather (1991)

There are some folks who might consider covering John Lennon to be sacrilege, but his music has made for some inspired covers over the years (Marianne Faithfull’s take on Working Class Hero springs to mind).

The Dream Academy do an admirable version of Love, making it a joyous, trip-hop tinged, chant-filled romp.


Love For The Band Whose Debut Was One That “No One With Ears Would Give A Second Listen”

October 8, 2011

It was some time in early autumn of 1990 when I read that assessment of Concrete Blonde’s self-titled debut in a copy of the Trouser Press Record Guide.

I tucked the book back onto the shelf and, as I left the bookstore, reached up and felt the sides of my head.

I had ears – I needed somewhere to put my ear buds – and, in my backpack, I had cassettes that contained all three albums by the trio of Los Angelenos.

I’d missed Concrete Blonde’s Trouser Press-disapproved debut from three years earlier and the 1989 follow-up, Free, had also gone unnoticed by me.

(though I had seen – and taken note of – the video for God Is A Bullet a few times on MTV’s 120 Minutes)

I finally became hip to the apparently unhip band with Bloodletting and that discovery was also made watching 120 Minutes late one Sunday night with the video for Joey.

Joey, a plea to an alcoholic, became an unexpected hit single – reaching the Top Twenty on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 in the US – and Bloodletting, a spectral brew of gothic-tinged, punk-influenced alternative rock, was a fixture in my Walkman throughout the autumn and winter.

The two earlier albums were soon added (and enjoyed) though neither Concrete Blonde or Free got listened to as much as Bloodletting.

(few albums were listened to as much that winter as Bloodletting)

I remained a devotee of Concrete Blonde up through 1993’s Mexican Moon, on which there was a windswept, Southwestern vibe, and was bummed out when the band split shortly thereafter.

(though I did have the good fortune to see them live)

Pretty & Twisted, which saw Concrete Blonde lead singer Johnette Napolitano join with ex-Wall Of Voodoo guitarist Marc Moreland, offered an enjoyable fix with their lone self-titled album.

And then, unexpectedly, Napolitano and guitarist James Mankey united with Los Angeles-based Chicano punk band Los Illegals for 1997’s Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals before vanishing again.

Napolitano and Mankey have reunited a few times since, but I haven’t heard much aside from Group Therapy a decade ago and that album didn’t really pull me in.

I spent a lot of time in the ’90s with the music of Concrete Blonde.

There are still stretches of a few days, every so often, during which I will dial up some of the one hundred and fifty-some Concrete Blonde tracks on the iPod.

And Trouser Press be damned, I can’t help but think that Concrete Blonde was one of the more underappreciated alternative rock acts of their time and much of their music still sounds pretty cool two decades on.

Here are a pair of songs each from a quartet of Concrete Blonde albums…

Concrete Blonde – Joey
Concrete Blonde – Tomorrow, Wendy
from Bloodletting (1990)

The seedy underbelly of Los Angeles often provided a backdrop as well as the film noirish characters to populate Concrete Blonde’s songs as in Joey, their best-known song which addressed addiction. The mid-tempo track was highlighted by Napolitano’s raw vocals and Mankey’s serpentine guitar.

On Bloodletting, the band conjured an atmospheric vibe that was almost dreamy and no song was more haunting than Tomorrow, Wendy, a song about a woman dying of AIDS and written by another ex-Wall Of Voodoo member, Andy Prieboy.

Concrete Blonde – Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man
Concrete Blonde – Les Cœurs Jumeaux
from Walking In London (1992)

Following up their greatest success, Concrete Blonde returned with the eerie Ghost Of A Texas Ladies Man, a song driven by Mankey’s twangy guitar as Napolitano recounts a tale of spectral seduction that, apparently, was based on an experience she’d had at The Driskill Hotel in Austin.

Les Cœurs Jumeaux is a bit of a departure for the band, a lush, romantic ballad partially sung in French that conjures up the feel of a walk along the Seine on a moonlit night.

Concrete Blonde – Mexican Moon
Concrete Blonde – Heal It Up
from Mexican Moon (1993)

As much as the urban vibe of Los Angeles provided inspiration for the music of Concrete Blonde, the band also incorporated elements of Hispanic music and culture – subjects of particular interest to Napolitano – into the mix. Rarely did this fusion prove more effective than on the shimmering, evocative title track to their 1993 album.

Heal It Up strips things down to a straight-ahead, snarling rock song delivered with some ferocious vocals from Napolitano.

Concrete Blonde – Everybody Knows
Concrete Blonde – 100 Games Of Solitaire
from Still In Hollywood (1994)

Concrete Blonde performed a lot of cover songs during their career, mining the work of acts including Cheap Trick, Jimi Hendrix, Nick Cave, and Bob Dylan, putting their distinctive twist on the material.

Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows found the band in fine form as the trio turned the song into a brooding rumination on the darker aspects of human nature.

A previously unissued B-side, 100 Games Of Solitaire is an ode to wanderlust where “any place with a bar and a bathtub’s all right.” Twangy and grungy, you almost feel the need to shake the dust off your boots by the song’s end.


The Era Of Canadian Bacon Is Upon Me

October 2, 2011

It’s an exciting time to be alive and I’m not referring to the jetpacks, hovercrafts, teleporters and such.

No, it’s bacon.

Canadian bacon.

It’s not really Canadian Canadian bacon (which is, actually, back bacon) but American Canadian bacon (which was invented by McDonald’s).

I brought up the subject once with a Canadian friend and he dropped his head, shaking it slowly back and forth. Like the stereotypical Canadian, this fellow was polite and generally good-natured.

“That’s not bacon,” he sighed.

I’d seldom seen him so peeved as he was over this perceived sullying of the good name of Canadian cured meats.

I was moved by the fact that the rarely witnessed state of agitation had not been brought about by politics or religion, finance or romance, but bacon.

I doubt I had ever respected him more.

But, several weeks ago on the weekly trip for foodstuff, a yellow sale tag in the meat section of the store lured me like a siren’s song to Canadian bacon.

I’d never purchased Canadian bacon though I had enjoyed it on Egg McMuffins.

Now, I’m hooked.

No, it’s not bacon, but it is meat, enchanting stuff blurring the line between ham and strip bacon.

It isn’t the greasy chore to make like strip bacon is and it is the perfect size for an English muffin.

It’s pretty damned wonderous stuff.

(even Paloma, often a reluctant carnivore, is smitten)

Here four slightly random songs from Canadian acts…

Rush – The Body Electric
from Grace Under Pressure (1984)

By 1984, I’d begun to spend most of my radio time listening to album rock stations, of which I had a pick of perhaps half a dozen in our swath of the Midwest depending on the reception.

(if conditions were favorable – usually at night – I’d try to pull in the modern rock of 97X, instead)

So, I was hearing a lot of Rush, particularly their more-accessible, synthesizer-laden albums of the time like Moving Pictures, Signals and Grace Under Pressure. Sure, the stoners in band were most passionate about the band, but Rush was held in high regard by most of my high school classmates.

Though not essential Rush, the galloping The Body Electric had an android on the lam, binary code for a chorus, and a reference to a work by Ray Bradbury, making for a pretty groovy mix.

I Mother Earth – So Gently We Go (acoustic)
from So Gently We Go single (1994)

The Toronto-based foursome I Mother Earth will forever be, to me, one of the great lost bands of the ’90s and one that served as an introduction to me on the harsh realties of the music industry.

With a sound that fused elements of then-current bands like Jane’s Addiction and Sound Garden with Pink Floyd and Santana, I Mother Earth was also one of the most ferocious live acts I’ve ever seen.

(I think I tested Paloma’s patience when I obssessed over the band for a few weeks recently)

So Gently We Go appeared on the band’s 1993 debut Dig and here in a stripped-down version here that highlights a trippy stoner vibe that was often present in their music.

Kim Mitchell – Go For Soda
from Akimbo Alogo (1984)

Guitarist Kim Mitchell has apparently had a long and successful career in his native Canada, but the only thing I’ve ever heard is Go For Soda, a minor hit here in the States.

My friends and and I dug the song and it inspired a game we played often our senior year of high school. If we decided to “Go for soda,” the object was to leave school grounds, get to the Kroger supermarket (it was the closest food), and return in time to attend our next class with a bag full of snacks.

We had ten minutes

The Pursuit Of Happiness – I’m An Adult Now
from Love Junk (1990)

I was still in college when I first heard I’m An Adult Now and was greatly amused by the humorous take on growing up. It’s still a pile-driving, power-pop tour de force (produced by Todd Rundgren) that I adore, but the humour is a bit more gallows in nature now.