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Notes From Underground

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On my last Notes dispatch, I was chided by someone who felt that I lived in a parallel universe for thinking that Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello were “Underground.” His criticism was fair, so I tried picking artists that were a bit less recognizable. Also though, the term “underground” is subjective—and I know neither of the aforementioned artists should be considered “underground”—but all the artists I pick are not going to be what everyone would consider underground. These songs are more or less likely not to have been played on the radio lately, or be on the Billboard hot 100, or be among the various topics in popular discourse.

1. “Let Me Get Close To You”-Skeeter Davis, Let Me Get Close To You, (1964)-Born Mary Penick, Skeeter Davis started out as half of a country vocal duo with Betty Jack Davis called The Davis Sisters. Davis had a career that would mostly be considered country, but for a while in the Sixties she released some pop albums with a fair amount of help from Brill Building heavyweights Gerry Goffin and Carole King, who penned Davis hits “Let Me Get Close to You” and “I Can’t Stay Mad at You,” the latter of which sounds suspiciously like Neil Sedaka’s 1962 hit “Breaking up is Hard to Do.” Alex Chilton did a faithful rendition of “Let Me Get Close to You” on his 1987 High Priest album.

2. “She May Call You up Tonight”-The Left Banke, Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina, (1967)-This song fits a weird musical archetype that I use to group some different artists, I call it Linus and Lucy Pop after the great Vince Guaraldi song. Belle and Sebastian are the strongest latter day proponents of this style, which is typified by “Seeing Other People.” The songs are usually of the smart, crisp, mid-tempo piano pop variety.

3. “When You Find Out”-The Nerves, The Nerves EP, (1976)-One of the best bands to have never “made it,” and by that I mean, at the very least, to have recorded a proper album. Though, as I mentioned in an earlier post, when they broke up, Paul Collins formed The Beat, Peter Case formed The Plimsouls, and Jack Lee recorded a solo album called Jack Lee’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1, so, in a sense, they made it, just not together. The Nerves EP has 4 great songs, the best of which were “Hangin’ on the Telephone” covered famously by Blondie and “When You Find Out” which is lean, angular power pop that is both jittery and truculent. Neither here nor there, but this song always seemed to remind me of early solo Van Morrison.

4. “The High Road”-The Feelies, The Good Earth, (1986)- The Feelies are a bit of a mystery to me. I like Crazy Rhythms, but not as much as most. I think their real crowning achievement is The Good Earth—a mature pop album with a unity of purpose that embraces both the jangle of power pop and the discipline of minimalism. And if you are predisposed to do so, it is infectious enough that dancing to it would not be out of the realm of possibility. I read somewhere that The Feelies sounded “as if the Velvets had begotten a Grateful Dead,” which is way off the mark. The Velvets part: true. The Dead: no way. I see what the author was getting at; The Feelies had a propensity for guitar solos, but the soloing the Feelies did is not even in the same universe as The Dead, and lest there be confusion, that is a good thing. The Feelies solos were very smart and discreet, and the interplay was wonderfully simple, that is to say: no wanking.

5. “Call the Doctor”-Spacemen 3, The Perfect Prescription, (1987)-Yet another band whose existence was dependant on Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground. Like the Feelies, Spacemen 3 used a Velvets-inspired minimal framework to display their revivalist tendencies. Where The Feelies embraced the jangle of power pop, Spacemen 3 instead mined the rich territory of sixties-style psychedelia. It works because a lot of sixties psychedelia was inclined to be loose and unfurled, tending to lose the listener in a haze of noodling guitars and swirling organs. Some may argue that the repetition they utilized made their brand of psychedelia more boring, I would disagree, but the crowds did not flock to the store or the concert halls for Spacemen 3; they did though, to a higher degree, for J. Spaceman’s more exciting project, Spiritualized. Lyrically “Call the Doctor” is a kind of “Street Hassle” inspired bit of novelistic drug nonsense, but the music is the reason to listen to Spacemen 3. Use headphones.

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