Saturday, February 15, 2014

Dramarama - 1982-1994, 2003-?

Dramarama were an odd band, and are even more odd now that they're sort of back. They were New Jersey rock in the early eighties, they were semi-alternative before that term was even a thing, they were constructing songs with elaborate stories spun in them and they wrote rocking good tunes. They're a swaggery, bluesy kinda rock band, as influenced by the Rolling Stones and the Faces as they were their native superstar Bruce Springsteen.

I can't even remember how I got exposed to Dramarama. I think I may have randomly stumbled across "Anything Anything" when I was listening to the college radio station in town late one night and the song stuck with me. I know I was already listening to them by the time their album "Vinyl" came out in 1991, still their best album in my opinion.

"Anything Anything" is often a lot of people's first exposure to the band, and not even the actual studio recording, but their live version from the China Club. That version became the default version that was played pretty much everywhere. The band wasn't a huge success in their native Jersey, but they were getting a ton of radio play in LA (with people actually calling up asking for "the song that goes 'Anything anything') so they relocated out there.

By 1991, they had signed to Elektra and recorded "Vinyl" with a bunch of people. The album gained some radio play and it seemed like the band was starting to get some notice. (Hell, I even found this video of them playing on David Letterman!)

Check out that early 90's ponytail! I always wanted to grow my hair like that when I was younger, but my hair (back when I had hair...) was naturally curly, so that wasn't going to happen. The album gained some traction and the band did pretty well for a time. It didn't hurt that "Vinyl" was a great album loaded with a bunch of wonderful songs. Come 1993, the band was still going strong and released "hi-fi sci-fi," which featured the song "Work For Food," which was everywhere for a while. It was another great song, and I remember hearing it actually get more mainstream radio play.

Alas, it was not to be. After their tour wrapped up, the band closed up shop and called it a day. And that could've been the end of the story, except that it wasn't.

So John Easdale, Dramarama's lead singer, started playing solo gigs in LA several years later, except a member of his backing band, Mark Englert, was actually a member of Dramarama. Then in 2004, VH1 got Dramarama back together for an episode of their show "Bands Reunited." And the whole thing just stuck. There was a new interest in the band, so they stuck together and eventually put out a new album, "everybody dies," which had some good songs on it, but wasn't a home run by any stretch of the imagination. It's good, don't get me wrong, but it's not the lofty heights of "Vinyl."

That said, the title track ranks up there with the band's best stuff, as even this hard-to-hear live version can attest to. The band still plays here and there live, but there hasn't been a new album since "everybody dies" almost a decade ago. You could do worse than to get some of the highlights from the band, though, and let me leave you with "Last Cigarette," which has a wonderful bar-room vibe.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Kingmaker - 1991-1995

There are a lot of bands, and I do mean a lot of bands, that never really get their foot in the door. Lots of bands never get out of the garage. Lots never get past that first demo tape they're handing out to their friends or people who see them playing some dive bar for beer money. Less still even get a first album. But Kingmaker actually made it to three albums before imploding.

It's not like they ever really hit it big. Oh, they did okay in their native UK, but the band never cracked into consciousness here. I probably would have never known of them except for good old stalwart 120 Minutes. At some point, the song "Really Scrape The Sky" was shown on the show, and I was fascinated. They were jangly without being overly poppy. Their lead singer, Loz Hardy, had a rather high and nasally voice that I was surprised didn't put me off, but... he just sounded so damn earnest.

They were weird, but it in a playful way. The drum beat was catchy and lead into a guitar that shimmered like it was somewhere just a little too close to the sun. I think the song only aired the once on 120 Minutes, but I kept the tape of that show so I could listen to that song repeatedly. Eventually I tracked down their first album, "Eat Yourself Whole" on tape. (I was still sort of in that transition between tapes and CDs - hell, this was 1992.) "Really Scrape The Sky" was truly the standout of the album, but there were other catchy songs on there too - the title track, "Lady Shakespeare's Bomb" and "Where You Stand."

A few years later, their second album, "Sleepwalking," hit and I picked it up. I'd enjoyed their first album enough to figure I could see what new stuff they were cooking. This was where they really started to hit me hard. The first four songs were an amazing, and the opener, "Playground Brutality," found its way onto a lot of mix tapes I made at that time.
It was just such a wonderful, yearning, intense song, I couldn't help but connect with it. "Sad To See You Go," the fourth song on the album also had a fantastic world-weary vibe to it, taking that jangle-pop guitar and making it sorrowful and broken.  The album didn't make a splash here - I didn't hear any of the songs from it on the only alternative radio station we had in Omaha, despite my calling in to ask for them, and even 120 Minutes never seemed to play any video from it. I did convince one of the guys who worked the used book/CD store I frequented a lot (downtown Omaha's late great Antiquarium, which probably influenced my musical tastes as much as 120 Minutes did, simply because they encouraged you to listen to music before you bought it, and they were happy to try and expand your interests into things like other things they knew you liked) to play songs from "Sleepwalking" ever now and then.

The band's third and fourth albums didn't come over here during their time - and it wasn't until much later that I heard them. "To Hell With Humdrum" isn't really even an album - it's mostly radio sessions of them playing older songs. But "In The Best Possible Taste," the band's fourth album, had some great songs on it. Alas, it wasn't to be. By the time the album hit stores in the UK in 1995, Britpop was all the rage, Oasis was king and Kingmaker's brand of proto-rockabilly jangle-pop wasn't in fashion in England. At that point, the band called it quits.

Loz Hardy kicked around for a bit, cowriting two songs on Elastica's last album in 2000, but vanished into the aether after that. The rest of the band tried reforming Kingmaker in 2010 without him, re-recording "Armchair Anarchist" from "Sleepwalking" but nothing ever followed that, and probably for the better. It was good to hear that Howell and Andrew (the other two members of the band) still had their chops, but changing vocalists is usually a bad idea.

Some other band is using the name Kingmaker now, much to my annoyance. They're a screamo-metal band that doesn't do absolutely anything for me (although that's not to say I'm against metal, as I'm sure you'll see in later posts). That said, "Eat Yourself Whole," "Sleepwalking" and "In The Best Possible Taste" are all available on iTunes, and the first two albums have a glut of bonus stuff that wasn't on the original releases, so you'll definitely get value for it, if you listen and they tickle your fancy. They're also the UK sequencing, so if you happen to have the old US CDs lingering around, you'll notice that the order's different on "Eat Yourself Whole." I don't know why anyone other than me would notice that, but hey, you might, you never know. I think the first two albums, at the very least, have got more than enough great songs to merit the purchase.

Sadly, at this point, they're probably best remembered for this bit of musical trivia. When they were touring England in 1992, their opening band was this little unknown group called... Radiohead.

Funny ol' world.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Welcome Back Commander

So I'm relaunching this blog, after several years of hiatus, with a new focus. I'm going to try and make it my mission to write something every day, seven days a week, although I make no guarantees as to what it will be, how long it will be, whether you will like it or even if it will happen. I'll probably queue a bunch of them up in the hopper and they'll just post every day. If you have an interest in these things, great. If not, well, there are plenty of places on the internet for you to go and get your kicks off Route 66.

Sometimes I'm going to write reviews of concerts. Sometimes I'm going to write odd diatribes about music that speaks to me. Sometimes I'll talk about film. Sometimes I'll talk about comic books. Sometimes I'll talk about TV. Sometimes I'll talk about games. Sometimes I'll write scrap fiction, so that I'm still pouring creatively out into the world. Sometimes I may write the odd bit of socio-political commentary or cultural rambling. Sometimes I may go down an endless rabbit hole of tangents. I may occasionally dabble with posting some of my photography. I may from time to time write autobiographical glimpses into memories I have, which are unreliable at best. I may even write travelogues or relate places I remember.

Who am I? My name's Cliff "Devinoch" Hicks. Over the last fifteen years, I've worked at game companies like Westwood Studios and Maxis Studios (both EA studios), I've worked at Gamespot and Gamecenter (both CNet, now CBS Interactive, companies), I've worked for startups like IMVU and Fierce Wombat Games. I'm originally from Nebraska and now make my home in Northern California. I've self-published my first novel, Escaping Heaven, and am probably going to be self-publishing another novel or two in the near future.

Why should you care? Well, I'm something of a cultural sponge. I tend to go off on tangents a lot, and get interested in a lot of things for brief periods of time, so it's probably best for me to write about that when it's happening. A lot of that sticks with me, a lot of it doesn't. I listen to a lot of music. A LOT of music. I read a lot (although not as much as I used to, I suppose because I'm writing a lot). I watch a good amount of TV. I love film, although what I love about film isn't always the same things that most people love about film. (Keep in mind, what's good and what's enjoyable are not always the same thing...) The world needs curators, people to filter through all of this stuff and let people know whether or not it's worth a bit of their time. I do that anyway, so why not write that all down and let people have a go at it.

I expect this blog to do a lot of evolution as I get back into the swing of things. I'm going to try and incorporate as much as I can in terms of video and audio, and the internet certainly helps with that, but it's been a while since I got my fingers dirty with any of this kind of stuff, so I can't be sure how well I'm going to do at it. I may eventually spawn a podcast out of this, assuming I wrangle up the tech, the interest and an audience. Writers can be egocentric little shits, so we need people to occasionally tell us when they're entertained.

To be honest, two people inspired me to start this project. The first is my friend Christy, who told me that I needed to put more of myself into the world. I think the fact that the novel I'm working on is taking longer than anticipated is getting people antsy that I'm not actually doing shit with it, which is a fair cop - writing long fiction tends to happen in odd spurts and sometimes hits roadblocks. I've learned to ride through that turbulence, but it's not for everyone.

The second is someone I haven't talked to probably 20 years, a guy I went to high school with named Dylan. Dylan and I often didn't get along well, but Dylan was a guy who had interesting music tastes, who was always hunting for new sounds and new bands, so I remember one day I walked up to him in a class we shared and handed him a blank cassette tape (I know, the days of cassette tapes - it truly was the dark ages) and asked him to just make a mix tape of things I'd never heard that he liked and/or thought I would. Sure enough, a few days later, he gave me the tape back, full of people I'd never heard of. To fair, about a third of it was stuff I didn't care for at all, and about a third of it was stuff that was okay, but didn't spark anything in me. But that last third opened my eyes to a ton of music I'd never heard, or sounded entirely different than what I was familiar with. I remember there was an Alice In Chains song on it called "Nutshell" and I remember asking Dylan, "Aren't these guys mostly a metal band?" He told me every band does all sorts of stuff, and I should never write a band off entirely because I didn't like one particular song. (Hilariously, I also remember Dylan ranting like a young Lester Bangs about how other bands, who shall remain nameless, were "shit and will never do anything good, ever!")

It was also around this time that I started watching an MTV show called "120 Minutes," or, rather, taping it and watching it later. It aired at 11 p.m. on Sunday night, and so I would set the VCR to record it, and watch it the next day. "120 Minutes" was an alternative show to the popular alternative music that was everywhere. A lot of bands graduated from 120M, but a lot of bands also didn't, and a lot of the bands that didn't were often better than the things that did. 120M exposed me to so much music I wouldn't have heard otherwise, and I want to try and do a bit of what 120M did for me for other people, a bit of what Dylan did for me for other people. I want to offer bits and pieces of things that caught my attention, tell you why, expose you to them and let you make up your own mind as to whether or not it's for you. I certainly don't expect everything I talk about to inspire people to go out and buy stuff, but I want to give a window into the culture that's imbued me over the years, that's helped define who I am and what I enjoy.

There's nothing wrong with coming to the party late - I didn't develop an appreciation for some things I hold dearly now until almost a decade after I'd been exposed to them. At some point over the next few weeks, I'll talk a bit about things like that, like how I didn't form an attachment to Led Zeppelin until I heard the song "Ramble On," or how the first time someone exposed me to Soul Coughing I thought they were kind of odd only to hear "Screenwriter's Blues" a few months later and loving it. (And how pissed my friend was that I didn't like them when she played them for me, but now I seemed to really like them...) I'll talk a bit about how fandom can be a great thing and it can be a curse. I'll talk about meeting your idols and why you should definitely do it, but be prepared to have accidentally made an ass of yourself the first time. I'll talk about bands that faded into obscurity, and movies that grabbed my attention and wouldn't let go. I'll talk about what videogames have burrowed into my very soul and why. I'll talk about revisiting things you may have written off long ago. I'll talk... well, I'll talk a lot. 

We'll see what happens. Sometimes stuff like this drops out of me after a few weeks. Sometimes it turns into me losing 70 pounds and going to the gym 4-5 days a week. Who knows. I'll write. You read. We can figure it out together as we go along...