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Free Radish

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.

"I mean, we did try to write Top 40 songs, but I don't think we're capable of it. Geffen told us they wanted a hit single, and 'By My Side' was gonna be our hit, but it comes off as so weird and bizarre, it doesn't really work. And Geffen said, 'No, this is not it.' That was our attempt to sell out, and it didn't even work. How pathetic is that?"

But at least some of The Tomorrowpeople's record has escaped. The same can't be said for Radish's Sha Sha, a record so wonderfully catchy and all-of-a-sudden grown-up, it's hard to believe it even belongs to the same band that made Restraining Bolt. By now, Ben Kweller expected to be touring behind Radish's second album, which was originally to be titled Discount Fireworks. As recently as February, the album was slated to be in stores on March 23, but it has since dropped off Mercury Records' release schedule, with no new date penciled in.

Kweller now isn't even sure the album will get a release date. A few weeks ago, he told the Dallas Observer that he was shopping the record around to other labels, in case Mercury had lost interest. "It's so fucked right now," he said last month, shortly before moving to Connecticut with his girlfriend. Never has the teenage wonder's voice sounded so disgusted, so full of bitterness and lassitude. It's like telling a kid he's grounded for being too good.

A few days ago, the 17-year-old Kweller made one of his bi-weekly phone calls to the Observer and said things were beginning to look up, if only slightly. He said he's scheduled to meet with Mercury execs on May 28 and discuss the future of Sha Sha--meaning, he's supposed to find out whether the record has a future at the label that once touted him as The Boy Genius. Kweller insisted he was optimistic, if cautiously so. He is convinced the label will release his album...but when, well, he couldn't quite say.

It should be noted at this point that it was not Kweller who sent a copy of Sha Sha to the Observer. To his ears, the record's not quite done; it needs to be pared down a bit, its 17 songs reduced to 14 or 12 before it hits stores--a sentiment shared by Joe Butcher, the former UFOFU guitarist who played on Sha Sha and co-wrote two songs. Originally, Kweller did indeed want the album to be shipped as a double-disc set or as two separate albums with different names (TV is the Gateway Drug and The Blobolent So So). Now, he insists, "I want to weed it out and have it be amazing all the way through. I don't care how many songs are on it. I just want it out."

The disc--which was produced by Bryce Goggin, who has also worked with Pavement and the Breeders--ended up here because a vaguely related third party wanted someone else to hear how wonderful Sha Sha is, how it's a quantum leap beyond Restraining Bolt, the 1997 debut that was so clinical and cynical, it seemed as fake as a stripper's breasts. Two years ago, Kweller was just another overhyped teen wonder lumped in with Daniel Johns of silverchair and labelmates Hanson. God knows there was no way a 15-year-old kid could live up to such hype--the New Yorker profiles, the savior-of-rock bullshit that came spewing from the mouth of Mercury president Danny Goldberg. He was just a kid acting out his (and his dad's) rock fantasies, a Weezer and Nirvana fetishist waiting to find his own voice beneath the pile of records kept in his East Texas home.

To that end, Sha Sha--which also features drummer John Kent and bassist Debbie Williams, the latter of whom has since left the band--should have been the debut, the record upon which Mercury bet the house. It's that good, that eclectic, that compelling of an album. It begins with "Launch Ramp," the most unexpected bang, gentle strumming that gives way to a shout, a drum-kit crash, distorted harmonica honks, sing-along verse after sing-along verse, and all the doo-doo-doos you can carry in two hands. Each successive song builds from there, taking only the rare wrong turn ("Silent Scene" is, unfortunately, not a metal parody). The title song ("How It Should Be--Sha Sha," with lyrics penned by Joe Butcher) almost sounds like a Roches song or something out of a 1960s Italian film, with pretty ba-ba-ba-la-la-la background harmonies bouncing off sunlit ivory keys; "Commerce" plays like some oddball techno-grunge hybrid; and the lilting "Here Is Not Dissonant" references (gads) Eno and Sinatra.  

Unlike Restraining Bolt, a grunge record five years past the expiration date, Sha Sha looks beyond a teenager's record collection. In some ways, it even resembles a UFOFU record, sugar-coated pop songs dipped in vinegar; melodies hung upon hooks made of barbed wire; psychedelia gone to the punk show. But Butcher insists he actually had little to do with the record.

"When they hired me on to do it, I thought Ben kind of wanted my input on things," he says. "I know he listened to UFOFU a lot, but on the record I felt left out a lot. I don't know why." He does play on the album--guitar, pedal steel, and vocals--only Butcher can't quite hear himself on some tracks. If anything, he says, he helped with arrangements and told Kweller "where to crescendo," among other things. "He has been listening to UFOFU's record--as many kids have," Butcher says, chuckling. "He knows what he wants. But that kid's a great songwriter. He's so prolific. He writes songs every day. I'm jealous."

Butcher has since left Radish for myriad reasons, none of which he feels the need to discuss publicly. But he holds no grudge against Ben. Indeed, he speaks of him with fondness, referring to him repeatedly as a wonderful songwriter whose "tastes grew up," allowing him to move past his poster-boy heroes.

"But I don't know how he got from one place to another," Butcher says of Kweller's evolution. "I think it had to do with him going back to the piano. I tried to get him to play more piano, which he used to do when he was a little kid. I told him the songs he was writing on piano were more harmonically interesting, not limited by the power chords of a guitar."

Sha Sha should already be on its way to stores, the title song or "Launch Ramp" already on radio as the perfect here-comes-the-summer singles they were meant to be. There's no doubt the disc needs trimming ("Silent Scene" and "Cali" wouldn't be bad places to start), but that takes about, what, five seconds? Instead, Mercury's release schedule is mucked up with the half-assed likes of Jimmy Buffett, Insane Clown Posse, Slick Rick, Def Leppard, and the Jerky Boys; and come fall, there will be a new Hanson record. Hold your breath.

Should Sha Sha be released, in any form, there will be no New Yorker profiles this time, no high-toned stories in glossy magazines celebrating the wunderkind. That's the way it ought to be. Sha Sha doesn't need to be ruined by hype. It's good enough to stand on its own. The label needs to put the thing out, ship it to radio, then back the hell away from it. If only.

"The thing is," Kweller says, "I still want the label's support, and I want their drive, but they don't have to announce it to the world as The Next Big Thing. I want them to love the record to death and work the hell out of it, but you don't have to put a rock band in the damned New Yorker magazine. Nobody who buys records buys The New Yorker. I'm not gonna talk about the mistakes we made, but I definitely like these circumstances better."

Radish performs May 12 at Deep Ellum Live. The Tomorrowpeople perform May 22 at the West Fest in the West End.

Scene, heard
One Ton Records, coming off its third consecutive Dallas Observer Music Award for Best Local Record Label, celebrates the release of Big & Bothered Vol. 2 on May 14 and 15 at the Bronco Bowl. The disc features new and unreleased tracks by Slow Roosevelt, Buck Jones, and Fixture, as well as a live Caulk song ("Birthday #5") and contributions by Doosu and Jump Rope Girls. Doosu, Buck Jones, and Jetpack (featuring One Ton boss Aden Holt on drums) play on Friday night, and Slow Roosevelt, Fixture, and Jump Rope Girls take the stage on Saturday. Twenty bucks gets you into both shows, as well as a copy of the CD. Sounds like a deal.

Send your unreleased major-label albums to Street Beat at rwilonsky@dallasobserver.com.


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