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“Fishing in the Dark for Recording Information on an Unsung ’90s Hit (Insert Cheesy Titular Pun Here)”

I suppose I shouldn’t complain as much as I do about all this ’90s jealousy I come across (most of which seems to emanate from Consequence of Sound in some fashion) since if you look you find out it started in, well, the ’90s. Specifically, the embryonic days of Pitchfork, which is generally a journal I have tons of respect for, mark a ground zero for this thorny sentiment, seeing as how one writer said he was “proud” not to have been in attendance at the Soundgarden show (excuse me if Soundgarden is the worst band you know of you have to be living in a cave, I don’t care if it is ’96) and then the giving this Primitive Radio Gods album Rocket a 1.2 out of 10 — the album that contains the hit song “Standing outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand,” a song of which almost nobody knows the artist or title but with which almost everybody can sing along.

To listen to the album today is to be transported back to when music almost didn’t NEED genre to sound inspired and forceful — artists were writing songs with a purpose and had settled on guitar and drums as the most practical, texturally sound mortars and pestles with which to render their artistic vision, the specific choice of these instruments certainly seeming like less of a conscious cultural decision to “rock out” and more a matter of pragmatics, or sonic logistics.

And do you think Primitive Radio Gods (LA’s own) Chris O’Connor knew his way around a logistic or two? Let’s see, he recorded his entire album Rocket (largely by himself, from what I’ve gathered, freed from his former ’80s band the I-Rails) on a shoestring of one grand, according to Songfacts. Let’s be clear, too: this isn’t PJ Harvey’s White Chalk or freakin’ Nebraska. These sounds he produced, though often programmed, are complex and ebullient, and are impressive in and of themselves, regardless of the frugality and formative a an autonomous production skill separate from the songwriting entirely. It was 1991 when he grafted this puppy down, which you might believe from the Soup Dragons guitar tones of “Women” (with lyrical subject matter there similar to Soup Dragons too obviously) and the Fine Young Cannibals drum sound, which, at least if replicated authentically, involves as Wikipedia puts it “was created by recording the snare drum portion separately… A speaker was then placed on top of the snare drum, and a microphone below,” the result of which of course is like two snare drums, which gives that FYC track that extra moxie and this PRG cut that needed pop to push it over the edge in the extremely competitive mid-’90s (which it should have done but apparently didn’t, as this tune and Rocket in general remain exorbitantly underrated and unsung).

Like I allude to before, “Standing outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand” [1] exists on this plane of undeniable inspiration, mood and emotion. Without question, unlike the politically correct and repugnantly postured world of musical critique we live in today, it doesn’t MATTER what it’s about [2]. I think the reason that O’Connor drew so much flak and inattention for his work contemporarily is probably that on paper, it comes across as median alt-rock, with not a lot of stylistic deviations. It’s possible that many of the authoritative minds on the matter didn’t know that he had recorded it five years beforehand, although I’m not sure that such a thing would matter completely.

It’s sort of like getting like your 10th pair of comfortable, indestructible winter socks for Christmas. By that point you’re so sick of winter socks that you’re ready to ascribe to them various atrocities like having floated onto a hamster’s mouth and suffocated it… but what happeneth when all the other socks doth wear out?

I think that’s exactly what we have here with “Phone Booth” and what I hope the reader takes from this post is that music should be purposeful and undeniable in MOOD (or “full of atmosphere” as the Fiction rep touted of “Phone Booth” upon consumption), it doesn’t have to be ABOUT something (leave that for the fly-by-night, pie-in-the-sky politicians… they’re all armchair warriors anyway… I’ll take “Sunday comes and all the paper says / Mother Theresa’s joined the mob unhappy with her part time job” any day), and that the musician should treat the studio as a sovereign instrument in and of itself. It’s there. Use it to its full potential and to make your music mean something.

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[1] The title is apparently an allusion to a similar Bruce Cockburn working phrase.

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[2] Not that the ’90s were especially politically correct anyway, with songs like The Presidents of the United States of America’s “Peaches” and The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch,” and let’s not forget that Eminem dude.

 

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