1. 27 Various
When I was in college at the University of Minnesota, lead singer Ed Ackerson worked in a funky little record store across from Dreamhaven bookstore. He has a Beatlesque shag haircut, pink-colored glasses, and wore a velvet suit jacket. All of that in order to sit behind the counter at a seldom-visited shop on a Tuesday afternoon. And of course I thought he was the coolest guy in Minneapolis. Which he was.
But also, Ed was one hell of a songwriter. I love "power pop", and Ed knows just what I like. Jangling Byrds guitars, witty lyrics, and killer hooks make for intelligent catchy songs. Even now, the melody for "I Feel Damage(d)" goes through my head at least once or twice a week. I saw Ed in concert several times with 27 Various (and later with his sidegroup "Polara") and eventually found out he is kind of a dick. But I will always thank him for making such great music.
2. 3 Mustaphas 3
I'm not a big fan of rock groups who change their name all to the same thing. There's the BoDeans, who aren't named BoDean, and Jack and Meg White. It's a tired trick; everyone from X to Marlyn Manson to Frank Black seems to think creating an alias makes them hip or funny or interesting. So, I was sad to find out that this "world music" band is actually not from the Middle East, but from England - playing at restaurants as a novelty act.
All this would be annoying if their CDs weren't so much fun. Plus, they are amazing musicians, playing exotic instruments like the bouzouki and melodeon into a hip rocking swirl of complex rhythms and soaring instrumental solos. Maybe the conceit that the band was authentic let them become more accessible; usually it doesn't work when the white boys try to rip off someone else's culture (I'm pointing at *you* Paul Simon). But you can hear the love, and it works.
3. Beat The Clock
This one is a guilty pleasure. Beat the Clock was a college bar band I used to hear around the University of Minnesota in the nineties. They had the embarassing tendency to try and be funky. Which to them, meant wearing tie-dyed t-shirts and playing the bongos while wearing sunglasses indoors. What can I say... it was the *nineties*. We were all discovering pot and the Grateful Dead was still touring. Sheltered farm boys were moving to the city and hearing Bob Marley for the first time. It's not a crime.
At their best, Beat the Clock played a fun simple brand of rock. Luckily, they didn't do the noodling kind of self-indulgent solos characteristic of jam bands. Mostly because none of the band members could actually play a long solo. Have you heard that slogan, "Dance like nobody is watching?" Well, on some nights, Beat the Clock played music like nobody was listening. Mostly because the bar was empty and nobody actually *was* listening. But they didn't care. I sipped my drink, and me and the bassist's girlfriend quietly sang the lyrics along with the band.
4. The Bobs
A capella is much maligned. And rightfully so. Ever been to a Shaker church serice? Shape note singing is interesting for the first song, but not for a whole service. Yodeling and Tuvan throat singing are fun as a joke, but not like you'd want a whole CD of them. And to hear cover tunes performed by a group of singers proud of the fact none of them can play an instrument... well, it brings back bad memories of college whiffenpoofs serenading themselves through arrangements of "Under the Boardwalk".
I was a perpetrator as much as a victim. I personally did all the arrangements for an all-male doowop quartet named "The Motown Rats", as well as a co-ed medieval quartet called, "The Madrigal Gaggle". I truly apologize, but it was fun. As in all a cappella... it's more enjoyable to create than to have to listen to.
So imagine my surprise when the Bobs first cassette "My I'm Large" rocked my boombox. Sure, they did some bad cover tunes, like trying to sound like an electrical guitar in an unbearable version of "Purple Haze". But the originals were stunning: "I Hate the Beach Boys", "Helmet", "Be My Yoko", "Bus Plunge". But oh how the mighty have fallen. When Gunnar Madsen retired, the band has really fallen apart, and I'm embarassed to own the last few CDs. But for a few brief years, I sang along and added my own harmony, just like I was a member of the band.
5. Boiled In Lead
Here is another local Minneapolis rock group that I idolized and followed around like a puppy. The nineties were a great time to be a music fan in the frozen north: Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Price, Soul Asylum. It was so cold during the winter that all you could do was hole up in a studio and create stunning albums about the palce you wanted to be, rather than the place you were.
Boiled in Lead (or to their true fans "BiL") were a band from the Minnesota Rennaissance Festival. Like any "festies", they loved irish music. When playing indoors, they were able to plug in their amplifier and crank it up to ten. They created a version of thrash celtic way before the Dropkick Murphys, and they played their instruments almsot as good as the Pogues. Personally, I think the band died when impish lead singer Todd Menton left the band, and mediocre psuedo-biker Adam Stemple tried to rasp his way around a melody. But I'll always love their covers of "Step It Out Mary" or "My Son John". I would wear my kilt to their concerts and dance dance dance all night long.