BHYH: THE “RETRO/FUTURE, BUT NOT RETROFUTURE” MIX

This week’s BHYH runs circles all around the space-time continuum by featuring a broad range of tracks including a possibly forgotten 1980s nightclubbing favorite, a science fiction-inspired look into the future from a South Texas ChicanX community, a vintage tune from one of America’s most tragic sweethearts, a punk re-issue sure to keep your pulse racing, a nod to one of the songwriting stars of the early ’90s alt era, and a tribute to a grimey Iowa-based post-metal band.

THE BLOW MONKEYS, “dIGGING YOUR SCENE”

I turned 20 in February of 1986 and was fortunate enough to be attending college in a state where you could legally drink beer at 18. So, naturally, the way to celebrate that milestone of leaving the teenage years behind, would be to check out one of the local dance clubs.

Being a theater major was a plus because most of the people I hung out with were an eclectic mix, so it was guaranteed the night was going to be crazy in the best possible way. We rolled up to the bar at 11:15 because, hey, NO ONE went anywhere before 10pm back in the day. Plus, it gave you time to put on your best threads and crimp your hair to perfection.

There was a bit of a line, but that is what happened even in a sleepy academia burg because what else are you going to do for excitement? The vibrant sea of neon and bright colors, some thrift shop finds, guys rocking pegged pants like The Stray Cats, and gals doing their best Madonna impressions was par for the course. In retrospect, it may have been a little like a John Hughes movie.

Once inside, the music was loud, the booze was flowing, and good times were waiting to be had. Believe it or not, people didn’t go to these places to hook up. Sure, it happened, but it wasn’t the main reason to be there. Most of the time, it was about blowing off steam, dancing your ass off to loud music, and knocking back drinks.

The great thing about that MTV-soaked era was the abundance of music. My style was New Wave. I was all about Modern English, The Cars, Blondie, Duran Duran, and the list goes on and on. Their songs were perfect for the club scene. Around that time, a smoother sound was being introduced to the music charts. The best way to describe it was very R & B influenced. If you think ABC’s “The Look of Love” and Spandau Ballet’s “True,” you would be on the right track. More performers were wearing suits and kind of looking like throwbacks to Carnaby Street in the ’60s with the skinny ties and suits.

It just so happened that the DJ who was spinning tunes threw a 45 on the turntable, and I heard sexy saxophones and a voice that could melt butter. The Blow Monkeys were a group that I had never heard of prior to that night, but “Digging Your Scene” was one of those songs that even if you weren’t much of a dancer, you would find yourself running out to the middle of the dance floor anyway.  

Dr. Robert’s vocals were reminiscent of Bowie, and it was such an upbeat number that went down well with the copious amounts of tequila martinis (friends that were 21 were always good for buying alcohol) that this birthday girl was drinking. Give this number a listen. It’s a proper throwback to an era that was all about experimentation and fun. — Susan Leighton

FUTURO CONJUNTO

South Texas’ Rio Grande Valley is a vibrant area with a rich cultural landscape that remains relatively unknown under the shadow of bigger Texas cities like Austin, Houston, and Dallas — and to some extent, the up-and-coming-yet-still-very-chill San Antonio. Geographically, the RGV is the floodplain separating the U.S. from Mexico, about 5,000 square miles in the southernmost tip of Texas that run down the great Rio Bravo until it meets the coast at the Gulf of Mexico. Culturally, the RGV is very much unlike any other region of Texas; for starters, its citizens largely vote blue, largely can speak fluent Spanish, and largely identify as one form of Mexican-American or another. It also happens that the RGV is where I live.

The influence of Mexican culture is what makes the area so unique, from its food offerings (throw a stone in any direction and you’ll likely hit a raspa stand) to its long history of artists and entertainers steeped in the traditions of chicano and tejano music. In 2017, director-producer team Charlie Vela and Ronnie Garza brought us As I Walk Through The Valley, a documentary lifting up over 40 years of those Valley musical traditions, showcasing them as they form, morph, and influence the area’s abundance of diverse musical offerings. And in 2020, Vela has headed up an exciting new interactive musical “transmedia” art piece: a sort of compilation record titled Futuro Conjunto.

The story told by Futuro Conjunto begins as a young man arrives at “El Centro Conmatizque,” a library of sorts, where he hopes to access a bootleg recording of a live concert held in 2021 in an abandoned rocket facility in Boca Chica, Texas. The concert holds special meaning to the young man because one of his great-grandmothers from far back down the family line performed in it. Here’s where the concept of the album strides a bit into nerdy sci-fi territory, with an entire framework fabricated around significant historical events that mainly took place between 2020 and 2120 (referred to as “The Flickering Century”). For instance, the concert itself was presented by a non-profit that formed during the Second Mexican-American War (2021) — the conflict of which began in the wake of a colossal hurricane that not only reshaped the Rio Grande, but the U.S.-Mexico border. Other notable events mentioned by the computerized female voice at the Centro are “the Deep Fake Candidacy of 2027,” “the Tachyon Confirmation of 2035,” “the Rocket Hijacking of 2045,” and “the End of Night of 2099.”

Equal parts compilation album, podcast, “historical” archive, existential journey, and live performance, Futuro Conjunto is an honest look at the soul of the RGV: tracks range from activist punk to experimental hip-hop to modern updates of traditional tejano. The bands are fictional, but they are made up of a slew of faces from the RGV music scene, giving the project a pleasant authenticity. The record interestingly combines an acute sense of nostalgia with an eagerness for experiences yet to come — but don’t be mistaken, this is not some meager attempt at retrowave. Futuro Conjunto is much more innovative. And ambitious. The best part is, with all the catastrophic-sounding descriptions of the not-so distant future, Futuro Conjunto never treads into dystopia. There’s a general feeling of hope and community threaded throughout the tracks that tells us perhaps we’re all going to make it after all. — elbee

Judy Garland, “The Trolley Song”

Judy Garland is one of the greatest entertainers we’ll ever know. She’s also one of the first entertainers adopted by the LGBT community. Whenever you hear John Waters bringing up the origin of Divine, he always mentions how the character rebelled against the drag queen norm consisting of two personas, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland.

Songs like “Over The Rainbow” and “The Man Who Got Away” come to mind when Judy’s mentioned, but no song represents the duality of her life more than “The Trolley Song,” first heard in 1944’s Meet Me In St. Louis.

Meet Me In St. Louis was a high point in Judy’s career. While The Wizard of Oz is one of the most iconic golden age Hollywood films, this and A Star Is Born capture Judy Garland at the peak of her power. 

It’s said Judy Garland pointed to Meet Me In St. Louis as the most beautiful she ever looked. The film was the introduction to a change in her career where she was becoming a romantic lead. Director Vincente Minnelli requested make-up artist Dorothy Ponedel be assigned to Garland. Judy was so happy with how Ponedel made her look that she was always assigned to her for the rest of Judy’s time at MGM.

“The Trolley Song” scene captures Judy at her best. She’s only 21 and easily accepts the challenge of being one of the most desirable faces for a studio considered the pinnacle of old Hollywood. From the colorful costumes to Judy successfully translating what it feels like to fall in love at first sight, it’s everything old Technicolor musicals wished to do, to create a magical utopia where the only things people felt was excitement and love. 

I first heard this upbeat number in 2019’s Judy. The film follows Renee Zellweger playing Judy Garland just months before her fatal overdose. It’s a period in Judy’s life following four divorces, nervous breakdowns, attempted suicides, and lost jobs. While other upbeat songs score this grim period like Summer Stock’s “Get Happy,” nothing mocks the harsh fall like “The Trolley Song.” It’s a song Judy Garland still sings far removed from that optimistic moment in her career where she was comfortable in her own skin and falling in love with Vincente Minnelli.

“The Trolley Song” makes me think of the epic highs and the demoralizing lows of Hollywood. Judy Garland was this Siren who lured viewers into multiple box office successes. It wasn’t long afterwards when she became trapped in a revolving door of comebacks where she continuously proved she had it before losing trust all over again. The multiple uses of this song in film gives viewers an idea of the stomach-churning rollercoaster fame can become. — Emilio Amaro

THE EXPLOSION, FLASH FLASH FLASH

Looking back, I was trying to remember just how the hell I heard of Boston punk rockers the Explosion. I know I was a fan of the band really early on, and when I listened to the band’s debut full-length, Flash Flash Flash, it was pretty close to when it was released on Jade Tree Records, which was 20 years ago this week. However I came to it, it’s become the sort of album to which I return again and again.

The songs on that record rank up there with some of my favorite short, sharp shocks. It feels like every song on Flash Flash Flash feels like the band is trying to live up to the motto on the Damned Personals’ shirt singer Matt Hock wears on the album’s back cover: “Our Rock Will Fuck You.” There’s not a song that goes past the three-minute mark, with most barely surpassing two.

Opening track “No Revolution” is such a jam that the band would re-record it for their sole major-label excursion, 2004’s Black Tape on Virgin — much as Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise” made the step up from Kerplunk to Dookie. The track which follows, “God Bless The S.O.S.,” would stick in the band’s setlist every time I’d see them, and for good reason, as its perfectly-crafted, shout-along chorus demands audience participation. However, it’s the songs which appear on the album’s second side which really stand out in my mind.

Epitaph Records bought Jade Tree in 2017, and has been slowly reissuing the label’s catalog on vinyl. It took a few years, but the Explosion finally came up in the queue, and so I snagged a copy on wax for the first time last month. Every time I play it, I play that second side first, because it’s the lyrics to songs like “If You Don’t Know” (“Fortunate we are but fortunes come and go/ Buy yourself some time the years still take their toll”) and “Points West” (“Did they show you how the west was won when you were young?/ Did they show you hold a gun, how to walk into the setting sun?”) still stick with me as much at 40 as they did 20 years prior. — Nick Spacek

Freedy Johnston, This Perfect World

I first became aware of the musical stylings of Freedy Johnston like most others did, during the Farrelly Brothers’ terrific, gross-out bowling comedy, Kingpin. This in turn led me to buy his third album, 1994’s This Perfect World, and listen to its 12 tracks over and over again. Johnston’s talent as a musician is to make you feel like you’re in a smoke-filled, neon-lit bar, wherever you are: whether it be in your car, your bed, or out of your head. The Butch Vig-produced record has a number of solid tunes, all driven by Johnston’s electric guitar licks, but underneath the poppy façade, there’s a darkness that permeates many of the tracks (“Evie’s Garden,” “Two Lovers Stop,” and “Across the Avenue”). But the track that really hits right straight to my heart is the titular song, “This Perfect World,” a song about reconciliation between a man and his daughter. Through the mournful words and soft musical accompaniment,  you’ll find a musician who encapsulates “Southern Gothic” all too well. — Nathan Smith

SKIN OF EARTH, BURN BARREL

On July 3rd, Rob Ogg, drummer for the Iowa post-metal band Skin of Earth, died unexpectedly at age 44.  I won’t say we were friends, but we were acquainted. Skin of Earth plays all the time and over the years I’ve shared a couple bills with them and caught them live on a number of other occasions.  It may shock you to learn this, but I can be a bit awkward in person, and the longest talk I ever actually had with the SoE guys was when I drunkenly came up to them trying to tear down after a show, fanboyed for a couple of minutes, and suggested I try out (I had noticed they had a fill-in bassist that night).  The dudes were patient but understandably standoffish on that occasion, and I never heard back from them re: trying out.  

Learning more about Rob from the tributes that have poured in makes me wish I’d gotten to know him better.  You could tell Rob didn’t mess around just from the way he played drums – he whacked those skins with practiced movements and metronomic precision, sweating intensely, barely flinching when his drumsticks started shedding chips and then smoothly grabbing a new stick on the fly when it finally snapped.  Badass.  Rob had the unenviable job of shepherding Skin of Earth through their often elaborate compositions through sheer force of personality.  It was always enthralling to watch Rob tell the band when to come back in after a fermata with the barest flick of his eyes. 

According to those who knew him best, Rob’s stage presence was just a natural extension of his work ethic.  He was known to play in up to 8 bands at one time.  He was a prolific collaborator, easy to work with, truly believed in his scene and did everything in his power to uplift it, and at the time of his death he had been raising his bandmates’ spirits by telling them about all the shows they still had yet to play and the records they had still to make.  

Being peripherally connected to Rob at best, I think the best tribute to him I could possibly make would be to bring his last recordings to a wider audience. Burn Barrel came out at the tail end of 2018 and at 26 minutes and change, is technically an EP but doesn’t feel like it.  In a genre prone to get navel-gazey and starry-eyed, Skin of Earth always brings immediacy, primality and groundedness to everything they do.  Where a band like Pelican or Jesu tries to swallow you up with heavy and expansive guitar sound, Skin of Earth’s endearingly lo-fi production values means their riffs hit your ears with a harsh mid-heavy bark a la Neurosis. This isn’t music for soaring over vast psychic vistas of mythical grandeur; this is music born of the soil, dusted with hard-packed grime.  

The album’s opener “Oldsmobile” shows the band taking full advantage of this quality, generating tension not just by getting louder but by using close and dissonant intervals to cause staticky rumbles like the cacophony of heavy machinery. This static will build and build and then finally cut out, leaving nothing but a twiddling lead and a subdued bass somewhere far below.  “Olympus Mons” is more straightforward, spending several hard-driving minutes pounding a ripped-off Elder riff into the ground before hitting you with a lopsidedly phrased lead, an atonal sting and a punk breakdown.  Rob’s ability to change rhythm and tempo on a dime has always impressed me and he does some showing off in this song.  “Lou Rawls” is moodier and more atmospheric, which in Skin of Earth’s case means a bunch of pounding doom beats over a cloud of noise created by stacked diminished fifths, followed by a catchy melody over a loud wall of droning distortion that recalls Sebadoh in their angrier moods.  Finally, Jenny, anchored by a repeating guitar riff that allows Rob room to get crazy with some fills, features the only vocals on the album, a snippet from a Leonard Cohen poem.  “All that we disclose of ourselves forever is this warning,” Leonard says: “Nothing that you built has stood.  Any system that you contrive without us will be brought down.” 

For what little I really know of Rob, I know that he held that sentiment close to his heart. The work that he did was a testament to his strong communitarian spirit and a strong argument for keeping local music alive at a time when its future looks more uncertain than ever.  Burn Barrel is a loose, grubby, ferocious and uncompromising statement and it’s as fitting an epitaph as I can think of. — Tyler Peterson