10 Buried Treasures From the ’90s You Need to Hear
The ’90s were an explosion of sounds in all shapes, sizes and styles. Though often pegged as simply grunge, hip-hop’ and Britpop, there was a lot more to the story bubbling underneath the surface. From the baroque sounds of Cardinal, to the insane full-volume guitar assault of High Rise, the decade wasn’t an easy one to put a stamp ont. Love them or hate them, the ’90s were the era when everything blew up and then blew apart. It really hasn’t been quite the same since. We’ve dug up a handful of forgotten music that had little or nothing to do with the biggest trends of the day. And all are ripe for another spin.
The Upper Crust
What was missing from an overpopulated music world in the mid-’90s? A band dressed in powdered wigs, assuming the roles of 18th-century aristocrats and dishing out ultra-catchy, often ridiculous and always rocking tunes, that’s what! Hailing from Boston, and rising from the ashes of the Titatnics, the Upper Crust flew head-on against the grain of ironically angst-ridden yahoos, and added some much-needed humor, class, absurdity and, well, ‘Roque’ to the ’90s mix. The members adopted monikers like Lord Bendover, the Duc D’istortion and Jackie Kickassis, and played a fierce brand of hard rock, clearly inspired by vintage Slade and AC/DC, but with a twist. What could have come off like a one-shot ‘SNL’ skit, lived and breathed because they had some great songs to back it all up. Their droll, dry sense of humor was a perfect match to their heavy riffs. Their debut album, ‘Let Them Eat Rock,’ is a nonstop blast of hard-rocking fun. Songs like ‘Rock & Roll Butler,’ ‘Friend of a Friend of the Working Class’ and the decidedly non-PC ‘Little Rickshaw Boy’ highlight this happy marriage of heavy riffs and hearty laughs. They released two more excellent albums before the gag started to wear a bit thin.
The Bevis Frond
Nick Saloman is an international treasure. He’s been releasing albums under the Bevis Frond name since the 1986 debut, ‘Miasma.’ Often self-performed and self-released on Saloman’s Woronzow label, the Frond have released around 25 albums over the past 27 years — many doubles, even a couple triples. The man is prolific and never dull. His knack for a great melody and turn of phrase has few peers, and his guitar playing is pretty damn incredible. For those unfamiliar, imagine the Byrds, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Wipers and Caravan stuffed into a blender, and whipped to a frenzy. The 1991 album ‘New River Head’ is the Bevis Frond’s masterpiece, with Saloman’s writing and playing in full majestic bloom.
Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments
Ron House’s sarcastic sense of humor is something to cherish, but add a first-rate rock ‘n’ roll band to the mix, and you’ve got the full-blown Molotov known as Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments. House was the leader of Great Plains, contemporaries of Dinosaur Jr., Big Black and Sonic Youth, among others. In the ’80s, they recorded a couple albums and had a college-radio hit of sorts with the song ‘Letter to a Fanzine’ that poked sticks at the underground rock scene. By decade’s end, House formed Thomas Jefferson Slave Apartments, who took elements of Great Plains and amped them into full-on rock mode. Guitarist Bob Petric is a stunner, and his playing ups the ante here while House goes off. ‘Bait and Switch’ grabbed the gold ring in a post-Nirvana major-label signing frenzy. House and the band are on fire here, especially on ‘Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,’ which includes immortal lines about “Eric Clapton’s stuffed baby” and “the shotgun of Kurt Cobain.”
Liverpool has been home to lots of great bands: the Teardrop Explodes, the La’s, the Searchers and … oh yeah, the Beatles. Add the Stairs to that list, one of the era’s great lost bands. Taking cues from ’60s American garage rockers like the Chocolate Watchband and the Standells (as well as the usual Beatles, Stones, Kinks circle), the Stairs dive head first into retro rock ‘n’ roll, but miraculously avoid coming off as mere throwbacks. The band’s debut album, ‘Mexican R&B’ (a play on the old Who slogan, “Maximum R&B”), was recorded in glorious mono, and captures the spirit of their influences, but with one eye on the present. Songs like ‘Mary Joanna,’ ‘Flying Machine’ and ‘Weed Bus’ are among the highlights that celebrate the past, present and future of rock ‘n’ roll. Sadly, the band made only one album before calling it a day. Leader Edgar Summertyme has gone on to work with such notables as Paul Weller, Ian McCulloch, St. Etienne and Johnny Marr.
The term “power pop” gets tossed around a lot, but the music in its truest form goes back to the ’70s sounds of the Raspberries, Badfinger and Big Star. Myrcale Brah, basically Andy Bop’s one-man band, takes all those influences, smashes them together and, on ‘Life on Planet Eartsnop,’ delivers pop perfection. The album is filled with one hook after another, with catchy melodies flying everywhere, powered by both sharp and shimmering guitars. Sweetness flows, but with enough bite to curb any potential sugar-induced OD.
Between 1993 and 1999, the Auteurs released four fantastic albums of melodic, glam-tinged pop-rock. Under the vision of singer, songwriter and guitarist Luke Haines, the band predated the whole Britpop movement and, in the course of things, were never swallowed up by it. Songs like ‘American Guitars,’ ‘Show Girl’ and ‘Bailed Out’ are as good as it gets within the context. Haines eventually gained new life as Black Box Recorder, and has also released a stack of albums under his own name, but it’s the albums he made with the Auteurs that refuse to dim with time, especially 1993’s debut, ‘New Wave.’
Long before all those neo-soul groups showed up, the road wasn’t a very well-traveled one. In 1996, Detroit singer Thornetta Davis teamed up with some rockers from the neighborhood, Big Chief, to record ‘Sunday Morning Music,’ a record that captures the drive and energy of Detroit rock ‘n’ roll, and marries it to a classic funky soul. Funkadelic Stooges perhaps? Songs like ‘Try to Remember,’ ‘Cry’ and ‘The Deal’ all ooze vibrant gritty soul set to a rock ‘n’ roll beat. Davis became an in-demand backup singer, gracing a variety of projects, including several Kid Rock albums. But don’t hold that against her, just bask in the soulful glow found here.
Formed mid-decade in Cincinnati, the Greenhornes were the true essence of a garage band. They sounded like vintage mid-’60s teens playing their hearts out to sound like the Animals, Rolling Stones, and Yardbirds. And like teenage rockers from a couple decades earlier, the Greenhornes accomplished their goal, but marked their music as all their own. On their self-released debut album ‘Gun for Your,’ those influences and more are in full force. The soulful style of singer-guitarist Craig Fox helped set the band apart from many of the other paint-by-numbers garage bands from the era. The fact that they’re all ace players certainly helped. The Greehonrnes often crossed paths with another new band on the scene at the time, the White Stripes, and that friendship eventually led bassist Jack Lawrence and drummer Patrick Keeler to team up with Jack White in the Raconteurs.
The Prisoners were one of the most righteous and blistering bands to emerge from the vital Medway scene of England in the early ’80s. Their Mod-inspired sound drove home the feel of vintage Small Faces fused with punk energy to create an inspiring brew. After their demise, band leader Graham Day moved on to form the Prime Movers in the late ’80s, releasing a few albums in a similar style, but lacking some of the fire. By decade’s end, the Solarflares were born. Over the course of four albums, they reignited that fire, pumping out first-rate Mod-based rock ‘n’ roll. Their 1999 debut, ‘Psychedelic Tantrum,’ has little to do with hallucinations and a lot to do with rock vibrations. Hammond organ, pounding drums and crashing guitars back up some powerful vocals for one great record.
They were from Seattle and had long hair, but besides that, there was no confusing the Posies to any dime-a-dozen sludge merchants oozing out of that city in the ’90s. There’s far more Big Star and the Hollies and far less Black Flag and Black Sabbath to their music. Producer John Leckie (the man behind the boards for the likes of the Stone Roses, the Fall and XTC, to name a few) gave ‘Dear 23′ a shimmering glow of pop perfection, allowing harmonies to shine brightly atop a lush, powerful bedding. Those harmonies, coupled with haunting melodies, put the Posies in the ranks of their influences to the point that members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow actually joined Big Star for several tours. Songs like ‘Apology,’ ‘Suddenly Mary’ and ‘Golden Blunders’ have few if any equals during the era. Though the Posies would alter their sound to include more aggressive and loud guitars, ‘Dear 23′ remains the band’s most brilliant offering.