By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
We have received a handful of letters from readers insisting they do not want to see another word about Seagrams Company Ltd.'s takeover of the music business. They claim it's insignificant, it's all so much meaningless bitching and moaning better left to the business pages. They assert that nobody cares about corporate takeovers and that such affairs affect no one, save a few millionaires and the minimum-wage suckers far below them on the food chain. To which we say: Fine, bury your head in the sand and pretend all is well in the world of rock. You're probably 'N Sync or Korn fans anyway.
But as has been well documented in these pages in recent months, Seagrams-owned Universal Music Group's takeover of PolyGram Music, which has essentially resulted in the birth of one megalabel from the scraps of several smaller ones (among them Interscope, Geffen, Mercury, A&M, Motown, Island, and so forth), has had an impact not only on thousands of employees who now find themselves jobless, but on local bands as well. The Tomorrowpeople and Slowpoke have since packed up their belongings and moved out of Geffen Records' cozy confines on the Sunset Strip, and Radish has been forced to wait while Mercury Records decides whether it wants to keep its foster child, Ben Kweller.
But, hey, no big deal, right? It's a victimless crime. That's what they keep telling you, anyway.
Yet for those who think that the UMG-PolyGram merger is No Big Deal, that it means nothing to you, here are two tangible reasons to think otherwise: Radish's 17-song sophomore record, Sha Sha, and the 16 songs (give or take) recorded for The Tomorrowpeople's debut for Geffen. Both collections are amazing, aberrant creations, bigger-sounding than most anything released on a major label in years, each the result of potential realized and, sometimes, brilliance revealed.
Radish's Sha Sha is a thousand miles away from its 1997 debut Restraining Bolt; it's the difference between the band's hometown of Greenville and Manhattan. It's the sound of Ben Kweller's voice breaking everything in the room, even his old Nirvana records. And The Tomorrowpeople's collection, once to be titled Strangepowers, sounds every bit as enormous as you'd expect a record that cost nearly $300,000 to make. This thing plays as though it were recorded in a bank vault, with all those string arrangements, acoustic guitars, teen-idol vocals, and wheezing keyboards piled atop one another as if it were some rock-and-roll orgy.
Too bad, then, that for the time being, you're not going to get to hear either one of them, at least not as they were meant to be heard. Here, finally, is your concrete proof that the UMG-PolyGram merger is A Bad Thing. Here is confirmation that record companies not only release piles of garbage, but actually keep some of the good stuff from coming out, that labels keep quality rock from reaching audiences bigger than a boardroom full of empty suits.
Because some faceless bean counter at Seagrams decided The Tomorrowpeople's record would not be cost-efficient enough to release (i.e., distribute and promote), the label told the boys to take a hike and take yer crummy record with you. As a result, you will now be able to hear less than half of it come May 22, when The Tomorrowpeople release Marijuana Beach, a seven-song EP featuring seven of the 16 songs recorded for Geffen. The EP, due out on the band's own Olivia Records label, offers only a hint at what the full-lengther could have sounded like: a pastiche of new-wave rave-ups and eyes-wide-shut ballads. Marijuana Beach grooves and groans from start (the melodramatic pop of "By My Side") to too-soon finish (the synthed-out, blissed-out drone of "Squeaky Fromme"). And it contains one of the prettiest, funniest odes ever to Karla Faye Tucker, "America's Deathrow Sweetheart."
Still, the glass is only half full. Some of the best tracks from the original full-length--among them a newly recorded, larger-than-life version of "Mercitron" and the new-wave throwdowns "Vacation Destination Earth" and "Razorblades"--do not appear on the EP. Also excised is the heavily orchestrated redo of "Youth in Orbit" (which originally appeared on the band's 1997 Last Beat debut Golden Energy) and the piano-drenched ballad "Windows Wide," which features Mike Gibson's best teen-idol vocals. Imagine discovering after all these years that Shaun Cassidy had done a little time in Brutal Juice.
UMG execs very likely miscalculated when they told the band Strangepowers wouldn't recoup the label's investment. God knows if there are any hit singles among these 16 castaways, but it sure would have been the most interesting and schizophrenic record anyone released all year--OK Computer for the preteen set. But nobody ever said record-label execs were smart. At best, they get lucky. At worst, well, they get lucky.
"Marijuana Beach is just a taster, a souvenir, a stopgap kind of deal," says Tomorrowpeople guitarist-singer Trey Shults, better known as Jody Powerchurch. "We put on there what we thought were pretty strong songs. I feel it's up there with anything coming out of town these days. One of the things that struck me, was we kinda got slammed early on for being sell-outs or poppy, but ultimately we're too quirky and weird for the mainstream and too poppy and mainstream for the indie crowd, so we're in the musical Twilight Zone, which is an interesting place to be.