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Monday, March 28, 2005
Jangle Pop was an American post-punk movement of the mid-'80s that marked a return to the chiming guitars and pop melodies of the '60s.
Jangle Pop was a short-lived but very welcome genre of mid-80's rock; a roots-rock subgenre, it was a reinvention of the 60's folk rock sound crossed with 80's pop sensibilities, often with a punky, brisk tempo. R.E.M., early in their career, could be considered the standard-bearer of jangle-pop, which emphasized ringing guitars and vocal harmonies.
It was not the most popular music of its day; R.E.M.'s albums of the time never charted better than the lower reaches of the top-30, and many of the other groups of the time are already largely forgotten, among them the Bangles, the dB's, Pylon, Let's Active, The Plimsouls, and Guadalcanal Diary.
These bands often sounded very do-it-yourself in their approach, and their records had an appealing rawness to them that recalled some 60's garage bands. In the southeast, bands like R.E.M. and Let's Active had a southern, slightly country flavor to them, while the West Coast bands were more psychedelic. Heartland bands tended to lean towards cowpunk. The earliest ones had some wisps of punky residue; by the mid-80's a gentler, less angular sound was in favor.
Most of the jangle pop bands' lyrics were enigmatic and impressionistic; some were specialists in a kind of double-irony.
A common touchstone from the 70's is the music of Big Star and its leader, Alex Chilton. Game Theory resembled a punchier Big Star, and the Replacements even named a song for Chilton.
Jangle Pop's heyday was from the emergence of R.E.M. in 1983 through the late 80's. It's virtually extinct now, except for a handful of niche artists. R.E.M.'s greatest successes came after they moved to Warner Brothers, and moved away from the genre they had a huge hand in creating. Most of the other bands didn't survive into the 90's.
Jangle Pop's demise was due to limitations in its very structure; a lot of the bands, particularly the lesser known ones, suffered from material that often sounded too similar. It passed for alternative rock in the middle of the decade, but by the turn of the 90's, tastes had turned towards heavier music again.
Tonight, Freeway Jam looks back fondly at those bands. Any R.E.M. fan would enjoy this music, as would fans of the early Bangles, or even the Replacements. If you're not a fan of any of those bands, it's unlikely this is for you.
But for the rest of us, I've set my Media Center to randomize all titles in my library tagged as "jangle pop", a pool of 321 songs. First ten titles randomly selected by Media Center are profiled, Jam tags, 1-5 stars, follow:
1. Game Theory: Last Day That We're Young *****
Game Theory, from Sacramento, existed on the fringes of the psychedelic paisley underground movement, playing the same venues as Dream Syndicate and Thin White Rope. Lead singer Scott Miller is almost a dead ringer vocally for Alex Chilton, and there's something of Big Star in their instrumental approach. Lolita Nation was an ambitious double album, dark and moody, but full of aggressive, melodic playing, and cryptic pop-culture references. Most of titles on the album are short fragments, but this one is 5 minutes and keeps an edgy intensity thoughout.
2. The Long Ryders: Ivory Tower *****
This sounds a lot like the Byrds at the outset with its ringing guitar intro, and singer Sid Griffin sounding like a cross between Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons. Which is particularly nifty, because real-life Byrd Gene Clark guests on harmony vocal. Excellent, literate lyrics, written by by bassist Barry Shank, who left the band prior to its debut. From Native Sons, the best folk-rock album of the 80's and one of the best of any era.
3. Rain Parade: No Easy Way Down (live) ****
Hypnotic, updated raga-rock recorded live in 1985, at the peak of the post-David Roback period. This is convincing stuff, well sung and well played (if a little too faithful to the studio version). While Rain Parade's early work can be considered jangle pop like the work of the other paisley underground bands, this particular track is too reverb-laden and consciously psychedelic to really qualify. But it's a great tune, David Roback gets a partial songwriting credit on it.
4. R.E.M.: Perfect Circle *****
Delicate gem from R.E.M.'s debut album, centered around two overdubbed pianos played by Mike Mills (one a deliberately out-of-tune upright, one an in-tune grand) and a shimmering, swirling guitar from Peter Buck. The lyrics are among the most indecipherable of the band's career (cynics at the time called Murmer "Mumble"), but they're beautifully sung by a wistful Stipe. All of Murmer is indispensible; this is one of the key cuts.
5. The Feelies: Fa Cé La *****
The Feelies' debut precedes the emergence of jangle pop by a good 4 years or so, but it cast a long shadow over the jangle pop scene. Crazy Rhythms, released in 1980, has often been cited by R.E.M. as a major influence on their sound, as have other bands of the era. Certainly, "Fa Cé La", the Feelies' first single, sounds a lot like jangle pop, with its close harmonies and fuzzy guitar and jumpy, edgy rhythm. The Feelies lasted right through to 1991, but never quite managed to gain sales to match their reputation. R.E.M.'s Peter Buck co-produced their 1986 disk The Good Earth, a belated follow-up to their debut.
6. Camper Van Beethoven: The History Of Utah ****
In their own words, Camper Van Beethoven, from Santa Cruz, created 'surrealist absurdist folk'. They definately specialized in alienation anthems; this one quotes Neil Young's "The Loner" on violin. This is from their 1986 third album, and it can be argued that this is a little too progressive to fit the jangle pop bill, but their stoner folk leanings, slacker outlook, and overall roots rock melodicism puts them at the fringe. Camper Van Beethoven's last album proper was released in 1989, but they reunited in 2004 and released a new album, New Roman Times.
7. The Replacements: Alex Chilton ****
From Pleased To Meet Me, the first Replacements album after the firing of guitarist Bob Stinson, this is an ode to Paul Westerberg's hero Alex Chilton, founder of the doomed proto-jangle pop 70's band Big Star: I never travel far/Without a little Big Star The Replacements are another band that don't wear the jangle pop label well, although they did share much in common (including influences) with the other bands. Their music was harder, more muscular, better played than many of the more twee bands of the era; while the previous two albums (with Stinson) were more satisfying, Pleased To Meet Me was pretty good too, benefiting from ambitious arrangements.
8. Let's Active: Every Word Means No *****
Led by Mitch Easter, better known as R.E.M.'s producer, Let's Active specialized in a punky jangle pop with southern overtones. From their 1981 debut EP, Afoot, "Every Word Means No" has a strong garage rock vibe, ringing, chiming guitars, and breezy harmonies between Easter and bandmate Faye Hunter. This has an almost British Invasion feel to it, and a jittery rhythm. The band's lineup would change frequently, and essentially became a vehicle for Easter, but the material released under their name is worth investigating.
9. The Plimsouls: Oldest Story In The World ****
Leader Peter Case had been around for a while when he formed the Plimsouls, having released records as part of The Nerves, an L.A. power-pop band of the late 70's. The Plimsouls aren't really jangle-pop, but "Oldest Story In The World" almost qualifies as a folk song about Hollywood, if such a thing is possible. It features a minor-key melody and harmonica, as well as the requisite jangly guitar. Included for the same reason the Feelies are; their influence was felt wide among the jangle pop bands.
10. Guadalcanal Diary: Watusi Rodeo ****
Marietta, GA was home to Guadalcanal Diary, not too far from Athens, when R.E.M. and other bands were just beginning to gain notice beyond the region. The band, while bearing many of the same hallmarks of the Athens bands, pursued a dark, moody, aggressive sound with clanging guitars and forceful drumming. "Watusi Rodeo" falls somewhere between jangle-pop and cowpunk. Originally released as the keystone of a 1983 EP for Athens-based DB Records, it was also included on their 1984 major-label debut for Elektra, Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man.