This album practically seems like it was genetically designed to earn spins at my radio alma mater. Packed full of Wisconsin bands (label Don’t Records was, I believe, based in Milwaukee), the conceit of the release finds the group delivering reinventions of some of the most familiar songs of the nineteen-eighties. There’s also a nice hat tip to local heroes Violent Femmes with a cover of “I Held Her in My Arms,” hardly a smash hit but still a damn fine song. The compilation is spotted with bands not all that well known outside of America’s Dairyland that were able to make mighty headway on the 90FM charts, such as Citizen King or Marques Bovre and the Evil Twins. Given the typical susceptibility of college programmers to cover songs — especially those that exploit an affection for the music that rattled around the ether in their youth — I’m only surprised that this isn’t significantly higher on the list.
Any mystery as to why Cravin’ Melon was popular at 90FM was cleared up for me by this detail from the “History” section of their Wikipedia entry: “The band’s style and geographical roots prompted frequent comparisons to contemporaries and tourmates Hootie & the Blowfish….” Station personnel were early and ludicrously enthusiastic adopters of the South Carolina band fronted by Darius Rucker. Their devotion to the band even predated Hootie & the Blowfish’s multi-platinum debut, Cracked Rear View. 90FM played the band’s self-released 1993 EP, Kootchypop, to the point of anyone’s exhaustion. Best as I can tell, Cravin’ Melon had the same blandly inoffensive bar band sound, the kind of thing that probably sounds really sweet while dancing arrhythmically with a fourth Corona, but hardly generates much enthusiasm detached from that experience. Where I Wanna Be was the band’s debut full-length. They continued on until just past the turn of the millennium. Adhering to the Foghat Principle, their fourth (and final) album was double-live. As is probably understood, reunion gigs eventually happened.
74. Soul Coughing, Ruby Vroom
This is one of the albums I held as evidence that I wasn’t going to let my departure from college radio prevent me from finding music that was new, different, and exciting. Now, my supposition was a little faulty, given that Soul Coughing’s debut was released during the fall of 1994, when I was still hanging around the radio station, plugging away at a weekly shift as a community volunteer. So I didn’t find my way to it through some intrepid sleuthing or vast openness to the unknown qualities in the record store “New Releases” section. Instead, I feel for it after plucking it out of Heavy Rotation, just like any number of other albums during my half-decade as an undergrad. Still, it has a copyright date later than the year stamped on my diploma, and it was a concentric circle or two outside of my usual orbit, so I counted it as a win.
Named from then newborn Ruby Froom, the daughter of Suzanne Vega and Mitchell Froom, the first album from the group assembled by Mike Doughty from the musicians he encountered while working as a doorman at New York City’s ultra-cool club The Knitting Factory is a thrilling swirl of avant-garde pop, well-chilled jazz, and exploratory spoken word poetry. Any one of the songs on Ruby Vroom provides a hearty sample of the loose-limbed experimentation Soul Coughing was getting at, but I typically drifted to “Casiotone Nation” as the exemplar. It traffics in almost robotic repetitiveness in reciting a list of seemingly randomly conjured items that speak to the increasingly fragmentation of cultural touchstones while riffing on an old Schoolhouse Rock song. As a little bit of chicken gravy, it includes a rapidly-dated reference to Lake Edna. It’s distantly removed from the crash-and-blast guitar rock bands I clung to at the time, and yet I loved it.
Doughty had a particular skill for rich, evocative storytelling, as on the almost Lynchian “Screenwriter’s Blues,” and the band could knead a bunch of ethereal, strange sounds into intoxicating musical energies, heard clearly on “Is Chicago, Is Not Chicago” or “Blue Eyed Devil.” In an era when college radio was increasingly misplacing its sense of rebellion in favor of elevating the acts that had the most promise of breaking through, Soul Coughing provided a welcome reminder of the value of bending expectations until they threatened to snap. The lead single, “Down to This,” sounded like it was emanating from a Philco radio tuned to a station transmitting from inside a fever dream. That was hardly the formula to capture the attention of excitable teens who couldn’t get enough of Pearl Jam. I was happy to raise my own Velvet Crush cocktail (I got the recipe from the opening lines of “Mr Bitterness”) to their inspired willingness to drop their needle in a different groove.
— An Introduction
— 90-88: The Falling Wallendas, Parasite, and A.M.
— 87-85: North Avenue Wake Up Call, Live!, and Life Begins at 40 Million
— 84 and 83: Wholesale Meats and Fishes and Orange
— 82-80: (What’s the Story) Morning Glory, Fossil, and Electric Rock Music
— 79-77: Coast to Coast Motel, My Wild Life, and Life Model