Spirit of '96

Last year showed pop still has more than a ghost of a chance

How do you solve a problem like this introduction? How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? 1996 was many things--a flibbertigibbet, a will o' the wisp, a clown--but more than anything for music, it was a time of transition. With "alternative" rock still spinning off hundreds of bands but essentially dead in the water, hip-hop and rap were the year's big catalysts. Flagship acts like Beck and the Fugees sold millions of albums and garnered big-time attention by warping and stretching boundaries, but urban beats in one form or another were always involved.

Even as rap--pushed and pulled by acts like the Fugees and A Tribe Called Quest--moved toward the formats and song structures that the mainstream responded to and rewarded, the genre's stars showed that their rate-limiting factor might still well be the hard environment from which the music sprung. Eazy-E went out quietly; Tupac Shakur, less so.

Christian music broke big in '96, with acts like DC Talk, Jars of Clay, and the Newsboys making commercial inroads into the industry that even Stryper never imagined; unfortunately--with a few notable exceptions--new Christian bands seemed infatuated with the moribund (and quickly becoming pejorative) "alternative" label. Being a religious act doesn't necessarily mean you're behind the curve, but statistics still say: probably.

Crossover was everywhere, even back from the land of the dead: punk came back, as did Kiss, and this time they didn't seem so different. Music from other parts of the world--impelled by but not limited to dance and techno--came streaming into our music, and other artists broke free from earthly limits (song structure, the standard tonal system) and sailed into outer space. The past wasn't so much a reference point as a vein to be mined; stimulated by Alanis' jagged little thrill, artists who were still in diapers when Marianne Faithfull recorded the corrosive "Why'd Ya Do It?" presented the pissed-off female as a brand-new thing. When time has no meaning, age soon loses its relevance; For better or worse, our very own LeAnn Rimes hustled her way into media ubiquity by virtue of an album that only had two good songs on it, and Greenville's Radish signed a gazillion-dollar deal with Mercury on the basis of what were basically competent demos.

Apologies to William Butler Yeats, but it's not the center that's giving way here--it's the edges. The promise for 1997 is that out of these blurred divisions, cross-hatched bloodlines, and mixed signals something new--and perhaps wonderful--will grow.

1996's best from all around the town
Looking back on 1996, one is chastened by the example of articles the Dallas Observer ran on the closing of local indie stores 14 Records and VVV and the heartfelt 'fuck you, we don't care' replies that followed, all from those on the outside of an elite who quite naturally did not appreciate being mocked for completely innocent queries regarding Hootie or Dave Matthews. Another striking quality of 1996 was how, at times, the local scene resembled a musical version of Re-Animator as various bands from the past reconvened, usually to good effect.

Without further brouhaha, the envelopes, please:

Local albums:
Return of the Funky Worm
Johnny Moeller and Paul Size
Dallas Blues Society Records.

I've said it before, but repetition is nothing new to the blues, so I'll say it again: the challenge these days is to grow new blues, germinated in the thick black soil of tradition yet yielding new fruit, and no one has built as fecund a greenhouse as these two youngbloods, raised in the cutthroat nursery of the Dallas blues scene. Moeller and Size remind us that style is not a destination, but a starting place.

ifihadahifi
Meredith Louise Miller
Steve Records

'Long about the '60s--ayuh--people began thinking of folk music as some sort of perfect thing, a better distillation of life than life itself, which is why many folks' reaction to folk music is similar to that of John Belushi in Animal House. Meredith Louise Miller isn't some Joni-esque princess, nor is she on the barricades holding your conscience hostage like Joan Baez. Rather like you and me, she's a bundle of flaws and contradictions, potential and pride, goofy as hell one moment and shockingly insightful the next: beauty with zits that needs to brush its teeth. ifihadahifi finds Miller growing up, experimenting, and still remaining true to herself; the line about her dad coming to pick her up in his exterminating truck--and the way her voice manages to convey both comfort and embarrassment at the same time--is destined to become a classic, if only for the way it sums up her gift.

Kiss of Fire
Brave Combo
Watermelon Records.

Brave Combo is one of those acts that will probably bring about a golf-like handicap system for judging bands. In school they were called "curvebusters." Longevity, creativity, and production all come together, and the band's ability to pair off with other talents like Tiny Tim has always been one of the most stirring (if implicit) testimonies to its good energy. In this case Lauren Agnelli (formerly of the nuevo-beat folkies the Washington Squares) lends her formidable talents to a collection of originals developed with BC's Carl Finch and classic covers. Finesse and--even better--real feeling, but subtly done and sophisticated.

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