Mostly, sophisticated music listeners aren't really that sophisticated. Our journalistic thrones are actually high chairs. We reel superior for liking artists who are so much more substantial than the mainstream fare, but what we don't realize (or at least acknowledge) is that we're being force-fed, just as much as we were in the days we wanted to chop Styx. Instead of Spam, now it's caviar -- but it's still coming from a spoon that reflects music as commodity first and art as a by-product (or a buy product). It's the most subtle sort of commercial coercion. Is it a coincidence that you can read about Elliot Smith, Liz Phair and Hole in just about any magazine you pick up now? These "hot" artists are revered as special, hip and "important". They may well be, but their exposure comes from writers playing into the simultaneously tied and hungry hands of publicists, becoming voluntary, unwitting cogs in a machine that churns out Next Big Things as if they were bottled bouillabaisse. Now I like Smith, Phair and Hole -- that's not the point.
The idea is that critics have a responsibility to explore the outer reaches of musical obviousness, to escape from the hype machine -- or at least add parts to it. Discovering new musicmakers is of mutual benefit to both the unknown artists and the unknowing listener. Music journalism is written for the converted, but converts need new hymns. The same old epiphanies can make one lose his or her religion. The alternative press sermonizes with a conformity disguised as gentle elitism. Elitism is attractive to those who live for music, but it's particularly repulsive when it's the most submissive brand of commercial propaganda. Sadly, there are few publications you can look to these days to discover truly new music. The chicken-and-the-egg dynamic of journalism as follower -- or is it leader? -- of the publicity machine, which entails regurgitating the same stories and names, telling the same rock & roll fairytales, is killing the American music farm. Crafty marketing and publicity disguised as the evolution of art is bad for new talent (such as Smith) because it ultimately goes down with the ship of inevitable indifference. And how often do you read reviews of musicians you've really never ever heard of?
Take Randell Kirsch. You won't read about this artist anywhere else but here (though I wish that were not the case). He's an excellent California songwriter, more lanky than swanky, who does everything short of annoying people to further his career. That means handing out tapes of his songs at music conventions and to established singers he happens to run into. He did write one semihit -- ex-Go Go Jane Wiedlin's "Blue Kiss" -- and has won fans ranging from Peter Holsapple to Stephen Bishop. He even had a group in the late '80s on IRS called Show of Hands. He writes about anything, including small talk and accidentally striking up a (platonic) phone relationship with Isabella Rossellini.
Still, although Kirsch's songs are as special as any of his contemporaries', it's unlikely this family man makes a living from his songs. As an unsigned artist, the legwork is all his. Kirsch's Near Life Experience (Dental Records) is a goes-by-too-fast collection that's pop in the most delicious, built-to-last way. It's not a new, ephemeral Baskin-Robbins flavor but classic strawberry. The nearest comparison to reach for on the shelf of canned mix-and-match analogies is a nonbitter Joe Jackson joining the Byrds. Great songs are both this craftsman's blessing and a Kirsch. He's almost too good to be true. The perennial pop fodder of breaking free from a tease is put bluntly, boyishly and far from misogynistically on "Kiss Me or Don't Hang Around". "Clueless" adds a spark of late XTC to a guitar-soaked hook. "True Love Again" is as cool and sweet as a Marshall Crenshaw breeze. Kirsch gets harmonic support from, of all people but fittingly, Jan and Dean, John and Susan Cowsill and Stephen Bishop. Every song has a differently shaped hook, which is the intrinsic, varied bait of an exceptional pop album. You won't find it in stores, but you'll love Near Life Experience to death. To get it, you'll have to write to P.O. Box 954, Newbury Park, CA 91319.
A couple of Cowsills played on Kirsch's album. You remember the Cowsills, right? If you were listening to AM radio in the late '60s and early '70s, you experienced "The Rain, the Park and Other Things", "We Can Fly", "Indian Lake" and "Hair", hits by a real-life singing clan who were the missing link between the von Trapps and the Partridge Family. (In fact, they were the inspiration for the latter and would have starred in a similar show if they were able to act.) I still hear "The Rain, the Park and Other Things" on oldies radio -- a Beach Boys-influenced shard of rosy bubble gum, it captured flower power without the weeds. The new incarnation of the band (sans their late mother), as featured on the brand-new Global (Robin Records), is vocally even richer. Susan, once the family chipmunk, now weaves a seamless tapestry of Bangle paisley and Carole King gingham. Chiming in are players ranging from Peter Holsapple (who's married to Susan and, with her, is part of the Continental Drifters), to the Knack's Berton Averre, to actor (and underrated musician) John Stamos.
The songs present the Cowsills' impeccable harmonies in a new light -- street-smart '60s pop beating with a country-rock heart. The guitars fly like Byrds, the songs are hook-filled without winking cleverness, and any band that gives a credit for background "ooo's" simply oozes a love of pop as natural as kinship. You won't read about the Cowsills in Spin. In fact, it took them years to find an outlet to get these songs heard. Hanson would be in graduate school before emerging from a similar shunning. Write to Robin Records at 22647 Ventura Blvd., #516, Woodland Hills, CA 91364 or email .
© 1998 Jordan Oakes and Riverfront Times
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