Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Anxiety of Influence

I played in an “alternative” rock band for most of the 90s. Through the years we traveled pretty much all over the country, playing with hundreds, maybe thousands of other bands, big and small (mostly small) from every corner of America. And while during the early part of the decade people were still largely working their way through the pervasive post-hair-band/funk-metal muddle, it became pretty clear that many of the bands out there were playing music that was inspired in one way or another by Nine Inch Nails or Nirvana. Maybe it wasn’t quite that simple, I mean there were dozens of other knock-offs that you could peg in a heartbeat – Pavement bands, Ramones bands, Pearl Jam bands. Sometimes you’d get paired with some righteous death metal in Florida, or some pure melodic power pop in Oregon. But most of it was histrionic and loud, and if it wasn’t histrionic, it was affectedly aloof. I mean, I still think Polvo, Jesus Lizard, Urge Overkill, Guided By Voices and countless others made some great records, but in many ways it’s easy to look back on the 90s with suspicions and regrets.

But the feelings pass when I think about Wayfaring Strangers: Ladies of the Canyon, the Numero Group’s wonderful (if not exactly pleasant to listen to) compilation. The premise is this: when Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon came out in 1970, it reverberated so profoundly with young female singers and songwriters in America that it spawned a generation of imitators. A phony Joni army. Earnestness, introspection, religious fervor, it was the rage. The records that the 14 songs from the compilation were pulled from were mostly independent pressings of 500 or a few thousand. Vanity projects. Most of them went unsold, remaining in boxes in attics, garages and musty basements. And while many of these songs actually make you cringe, the curatorial effort is impressive, and the music conjures a time of self-exploratory candor. There’s something creepy and sad about all of this. Emily Dickinson, Dr. Scholls and wheat germ.

Listening to the collection makes me envision a time, maybe 10 or 20 years from now, when collectors will hoard obscure 7 inches and poorly recorded independently released CDs of some of the wonderfully mediocre and now forgotten bands that flourished briefly in places like Hattiesburg, Mississippi, or Newport News, Virginia, or Albany, New York.

Jennie Pearl only recorded two songs. This one appeared on another compilation called The Peoria Folk Anthology Volume III. Pearl was 15 when she recorded it. See, creepy.

“Maybe in Another Year” - Jennie Pearl

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