This is where I belonged

Or how to say goodbye, along with a few ruminations on a terrific local music scene

Sooner or later, everyone reaches a point where they say goodbye. Here’s mine. Next week, I’ll be leaving the Sacramento News & Review, after four-and-a-half years as the paper’s arts editor.

Yeah, it’s been fun, for the most part. And I’ll miss it. Delving into this city’s vibrant community of visual artists and galleries, for example, has been an enlightening experience. The chow is good, too, even if it seems like a lot of trendy restaurants have opened, post-Gray Davis, that sell way more sizzle than steak; I’ll take a Nationwide Freezer Meats steak Frenchburger with cheese over artfully arranged hors d’oeuvres any day, thank you. And there’s good theater and some interesting local filmmakers, not to mention dance and other performing arts. Yes, even comedy.

But, seriously, what I’ll miss most is writing about this town’s music scene.

When I arrived at SN&R in the late spring of 2000, the joke around town was that the only time the paper bothered to cover local music was before and after the Sacramento Area Music Awards, also known as the Sammies. That wasn’t altogether true, but a large part of SN&R’s editorial coverage throughout the rest of the year did seem to be devoted to national acts on tour.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with that; a sound case can be made for focusing on the many worthwhile independent-label acts that play local clubs while passing through town. And plenty of coverage-worthy major-label acts play the area’s larger venues, too.

But having spent 15 years editing and writing for Pulse!, a monthly magazine that Tower Records used to publish, where I’d been clobbered repeatedly over the head by major-label publicists with way too many of what the music industry likes to call “baby bands”—recently signed acts that are storming through the Sacramentos of the world, trying to drum up a little excitement for their debut albums—I figured that might not be the correct route to pursue. Of course, a few of those baby bands do evolve into headliners or critical deities, and jumping on the right bandwagon way ahead of those other pimply scribes can provide a cheap ego boost.

But the harsh reality of the music business is that many of those acts are signed to major labels because their music, sound and image fit safely within the narrow parameters established by corporate-leviathan-owned radio stations; those acts are focused and branded to be an easy sell to radio. And, in this writer’s opinion, a newspaper that spends most of its time reinforcing the dubious judgments of radio programmers, who are working hand in hand with the major-label foisting machine, isn’t providing its readers with a good service.

So, I figured that we’d give a few local acts a shot. And, although conventional wisdom might opine that in a town of this size, one could blast his way through the available talent pool in six months, tops, the reality turned out to be quite different. We were never at a loss for interesting local acts to write about.

Why? First, the boilerplate story line— where a local band builds a regional audience; gets courted by and signed to a major label; and then makes a CD, gets on a tour and gets discovered nationally—became obsolete. When horror stories of bands left with nothing, after getting signed to and later dropped by majors, started bouncing around at the local level, some younger bands realized that might not be the avenue to take. That the big labels themselves were busy devouring each other—recently, Sony (Columbia, Epic) merged with BMG (RCA, Arista, Jive), a few years after Universal (Geffen, Interscope, MCA) swallowed PolyGram (Island, A&M, Motown, Mercury), each time dropping scores of bands in the process—made some local bands skittish, too.

Second, it became a lot easier for anyone to create and sell a CD. The entire process—from homegrown hard-disk recording to studio recording, mixing, mastering and manufacturing—became demystified. A band could sell its wares over the Internet or through specialist indie retailers, or it could find a smaller-scale independent label to release its music.

The result was a revitalized music scene. It may not be Seattle circa 1992, but it has its own peculiar charms.

Aside from Frank Jordan’s brilliant Milk the Thrills, which I’ve blathered on about in these pages quite a bit, and Jackie Greene’s meteoric rise from Fox & Goose open-mic-night singer to Sacramento’s next big thing, which we’ve covered enough to rile up a reader or two, here are a few favorites:

In the post-Beatles pop-music genre, Deathray’s first album demonstrates what classic pop-rock songwriting sounds like with modern production tweaks. The band’s self-titled CD was produced by the very smart Eric Valentine (Third Eye Blind, Smash Mouth and Good Charlotte). Unfortunately, it was released when Universal and PolyGram were merging, and it disappeared into oblivion. Deathray later started its own label, Doppler, and got the rights to the album, which Doppler re-released. (And Deathray just finished a new record, tentatively titled Believe Me, which it recorded with Valentine; that record likely will surface early next year on a new label Valentine is launching with veteran A&R man Tony Berg through Sony BMG’s indie-distribution arm, RED.)

In a less-poppy milieu, Idiom Creak released a textural electronic piece of brain candy called Jet Powered, Monkey Navigated a few years back. In fact, the entire Command Collective group of artists—Chachi Jones, Tycho, Dusty Brown, Tha Fruitbat and Faster Faster—along with a few other acts, like the duo Park Avenue Music, all helped to animate the presence of electronic music in Sacramento, giving it a warmer human dimension.

A couple of Americana-tinged bands, Jackpot and Forever Goldrush, made music that echoed on a local level what acts like Wilco were doing on the national stage: combining rock and country influences with other sounds, the result being something altogether new but familiar sounding.

And along the same Americana lines but slightly more traditional in scope, Jackie Greene became the best-known performer in a deep pool of good ones, which also includes Richard March, Holly Holt, Sherman Baker and the husband-and-wife-fronted band the Arlenes.

In another example of genre reinvention, Low Flying Owls, Call Me Ishmael, Mister Metaphor and the rest of the area’s progressive-rock revivalists worked to breathe new life into a moribund musical style perfected by Pink Floyd and the Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis, making it sound cool again.

On a related track, Eddie Jorgensen’s indie outfit, The Americans Are Coming Recordings, seems to be evolving into Sacramento’s version of Seattle’s Sub Pop label. Jorgensen, a sales rep for BMG Distribution (now Sony BMG) who also writes occasionally for SN&R and drums for a couple of bands, launched the label with Low Flying Owls, which later moved on to the nationally distributed, New York-based Stinky label. Jorgensen has released CDs by Call Me Ishmael, the Proles (easily one of this town’s best rock bands), Amber Padgett’s group Spider Silk Dress, his own band Dungeons & Drag Queens and the East Bay band TheNewStrange. The label’s newest signing is Las Pesadillas, a band that compares favorably to such similarly caffeinated eclectic combos as Frank Zappa’s Mothers, Primus and Camper Van Beethoven.

In the local-hero department is David Houston, who still can be found performing at places like Luna’s and the currently shuttered True Love Coffeehouse (which is producing “in exile” shows at such makeshift venues as Bodytribe Fitness until it can find a new location). Hearing Houston’s gently swaying folkish-pop songs, typically augmented with viola and cello, one would never imagine that he fronted such great local 1960s bands as the Jaguars, Moss & the Rocks and Public Nuisance. But at a “reunion” gig this summer at Old Ironsides (with original drummer Ron McMaster and some young musicians), Houston proved he’s still got the stuff that’s evident on the reissued double-CD set Gotta Survive. But Houston prefers to live in the now, and that “now” seems to involve producing records and mentoring young acts.

The guitarist who played with the reunited Public Nuisance that night was Chris Woodhouse, who also has turned into an in-demand producer, working with a number of underground bands here and elsewhere, including Seattle’s A-Frames. Woodhouse is the king of garage-rock audio vérité recording, but he’s also an excellent songwriter and musician. Mark Kaiser and Jay Howell’s new local label, Mt. St. Mtn., will release a new compilation of Woodhouse’s recordings, or re-recordings, of songs he recorded with one of his old bands, Karate Party. And if that label is savvy, it will do a compilation of music by Caboose, an early-1990s band Woodhouse formed with Cake bassist Gabe Nelson; the band’s vinyl-only album sounded like garage-rock XTC.

One record Woodhouse produced was Sounds of Violence, the album debut of Th’ Losin Streaks, a band formed by Trouble Makers veterans Tim Foster and Stan Tindall, Shruggs drummer and graphic artist Matt K. Shrugg, and longtime Sacramento rock guitar icon Mike Farrell. Th’ Losin Streaks rock, totally …

Uh-oh, out of space and time. Anyway, if I neglected to mention your band, it isn’t because I don’t like you; it’s just that there is an embarrassment of musical riches in the area and only so much space here. Chances are, I loved what you do, too.

Indeed, the real joy of the job was when some weird little homemade CD would show up. One—I can’t recall the name of it now, because it disappeared from the top of my stereo—came packaged in a blue and green plaid piece of cloth. The music was excellent, fractured pop. Then there was a series of great homemade albums by a guy named Art Lessing. On a more outsider, less art-conscious tip were the various musical dispatches from the duo Life Is Bonkers, along with a series of four homemade albums by local singer-songwriter James Cundiff. The latter is a contemporary version of a young local singer-songwriter who used to send me homemade cassette albums in the 1980s. His name? Anton Barbeau, who has found an audience for his psychedelic revivalism in England.

See you in the next episode.