Sunday, September 25, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: The Korgis

The KorgisJames Warren and Andy Davis first worked together as members of the Beatle-esque U.K. cult outfit Stackridge -- one of those bands that seem to promise incredible things but only winds up in miserable debt from being too clever by half. Remarkably, while Stackridge never managed to chart in their homeland, a 1974 compilation album Pinafore Days managed to briefly surface at the bottom end of the Billboard albums chart in early 1975, "peaking" at #191.

Bassist Warren and drummer Davis had drifted apart even before the inglorious demise of Stackridge, and it took the ascension of the new wave movement four years later to get the Warren's creative energies sufficiently fired up to the point where he decided to contact his old band mate Davis by mail to discuss if a new collaboration was possible. Davis was interested in the idea, and the reunited duo began writing and recording in early 1979 under the name The Korgis (the lineup of which would eventually expand to include guitar player Stuart Gordon and keyboardist Phil Harrison).

The terms "new wave" and "quirky" have always gone hand-in-hand, but right from the release of their charmingly offbeat first single "Young 'N Russian," The Korgis initially seemed hell-bent on raising the bar in the oddball songwriting department. Furthering this tendency, the whole of their self-titled debut album played like a strange tug-of-war between two bands: one captivated by breezy, 60's pop-indebted harmonies straight out of The Hollies with a modern, synth-lined production sheen not unlike that of Supertramp (see "Dirty Postcards") and another interested in the fractured influences and slightly-screwy lyrical stylings of new wave.

What eventually gave The Korgis a commercial leg up on their competition at the time (hello, New Musik!) was Warren's multi-tracked, pop-friendly vocals (as heard on songs like "I Just Can't Help It") and retro-flavored songwriting style, which could be as unashamedly pop-leaning as any “mainstream” act of the time period when the occasion called. With that in mind, it didn't take long for success to start coming the way of The Korgis as the band's first hit single, the summery, sugar-sweet "If I Had You," made the Top 20 of the UK singles chart in the summer of 1979 (this track, incidentally, featured the accompaniment of future Depeche Mode / Recoil member Alan Wilder). Encouraged, The Korgis immediately set about work on their follow-up release, which appeared in shops the following year.

Dumb WaitersDumb Waiters saw The Korgis in a far-more explicitly pop vein than their first album; with the band's more riskier tendencies pushed aside for the time being (though tracks like "Intimate" and "Silent Running" kept that tendency on a low simmer). The emphasis on accessible songwriting worked wonders on the band's career, as the album managed to break the UK Top 40 in the late summer. Ratcheting upwards the sweet quotient with such confections as "It's No Good Unless You Love Me," "If It's Alright With You Baby" and "Love Ain't Too Far Away" (not to mention the dancefloor-aimed "Drawn And Quartered"), The Korgis made a play for the public’s heartstrings and finally cooked up a worthy smash with the ballad "Everybody's Gotta Learn Sometime."

The centerpiece of Dumb Waiters' success, and the song that The Korgis will always be remembered for, "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" is one of those songs that exists outside of the standard pop plane: it sounds more like a four-minute contemplative swoon than anyone’s idea of a hit single. Floating almost lighter than air on delicate beds of shimmering synths like a highly-polished revision of 10cc's "I'm Not In Love," "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" propelled The Korgis into the Top 5 on their homeland's hit parade, while also giving them their one-and-only charted record in the U.S., as it reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100 right at Christmas, 1980 (Dumb Waiters performed much more modestly on these shores, reaching #113 right around the same time).

Having finally tasted real success at last, The Korgis then found out just how quickly fortunes can turn around in the music business. "If It's Alright With You Baby" was chosen as the follow-up single to "Everybody's Got To Learn Sometime" and quickly crashed and burned at #56 later that summer, stopping their momentum on a dime. A third album, 1981’s Sticky George, which leaned more towards the 60's influences and away from the synth textures (without completely forsaking them), disappeared virtually on release, and ended The Korgis’ tenure with their label, Rialto Records. The band broke up soon afterwards with little fanfare.

Following the utter apathy that greeted the release of his 1986 solo album Burning Question (I guess he might as well have reformed Stackridge), James Warren elected to give The Korgis one more shot. With Davis back on board, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime” was re-recorded and released again in 1990 to hardly any notice at all outside of the nostalgia circuit, which is also the same response awarded to their reunion album, 1992’s This World’s For Everyone. Following that debacle, The Korgis disbanded again, this time apparently for good.

Buy The Best Of The Korgis from

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Furnace St.

Furnace St.On the occasions when I profiled local music during my short-lived stint as a professional writer, I always sought to be as encouraging to whatever bands I was covering as possible, whether I actually enjoyed their music or not (invariably, it was almost always "not"). It was towards the end of this writing career that I was presented with the debut CD by a local duo called Furnace St. and had a kind of instantaneous "YES!!" reaction to hearing it for the first time that was all-too rare to my jaded sensibilities back then.

It's difficult now to convey just how much of a joyous rush listening to Furnace St.'s music gave me back in October of 1998, since synthpop was stone-cold dead and much of the electronica movement that I had been fully swept up in over the last couple of years had begun to stagnate under the weight of bandwagon-jumping and jazz-leaning, epic pretentions. Thus, it was with great excitement that I heard in this band's work the sound of two people whose musical tastes practically mirrored my own and were just as keenly interested in the sounds of old analog synthesizers and despairing, yet undeniably pretty melodies.

Interviewing the duo for a short feature a couple of weeks later was a pleasure, as was seeing them perform live at a sparsely-attended weeknight show at Peabody's Down Under in February of 1999. Sadly, the eventual intrusion of (and massive changes brought forth by) life after my Scene / Spot period caused me to lose touch with the band (not to mention track of their career), though that irreplaceable debut CD has made many trips into my CD player in the years since.

It was while researching this post to see what Furnace St. has been up to over the last few years that I became aware that life had intruded on their plans as well: an announcement of the duo now being in a state of "indefinite hiatus" was a sad surprise, indeed. With that in mind, this post has become a tribute to these two people who have created some of the most interesting synth-pop/rock I've had the pleasure of hearing in the last decade.

Lisa brings the synthsThe musical partnershhip that ultimately became Furnace St. started in earnest around 1994, shortly after Adam Boose and Lisa Jorgensen met while attending high school. The two young musicians shared a common musical interest in the dark, atmospheric sounds of such U.K. proto-Darkwave titans as New Order, The Cure, Depeche Mode, and Ultravox. These influences were quite apparent in Furnace St.'s musical palette, which combined forbidding, goth-like bass-guitar lines, evocative old-school synthesizers, pre-programmed rhythms, whispered vocals seemingly phoned in from another plane, and fiery, distorted guitar textures.

The first release to the public of any Furnace St. material was 1998's Neuromantic -- the same album I was talking about back in the opening paragraph. By turns hypnotic, beautiful, and abrasive, this was a "work in progress" collection of lean, feral demos bristling with future promise that had me ensnared right from the first play. Beautifully fusing the anguished self-loathing of then-modern industrial rock with the striking, eerie beauty of darkwave and the doomy ambience of early 80’s U.K. synthpop, Neuromantic was initially available on an extremely limited basis before being given a full-on release (in remastered and slightly-expanded form) in the spring of 2001.

Early in 2000, Furnace St. released their first "finished" album, Ladykiller. While not as immediately seductive to me as Neuromantic, Ladykiller sported a rougher, more muscular sound from the duo as Boose's guitars ate up more of the sonic picture and moved Jorgenson's synths more to the background. Ladykiller was also sonically fleshed out by a more detailed and professional studio gloss, giving the album far more impact on a visceral level than its comparatively-understated predecessor. The slam dunk track here for me was the simmering "Oceanview": a delicious slice of pure, simmering menace.

A third Furnace St. album, Headmusic, appeared in the summer of 2002, further ratcheting-up the power chords while still retaining the songwriting sensibilities of their two releases. Headmusic was then followed by People -- a collection of album tracks remixed by friends and colleagues of the duo just before Christmas of 2003.

Since the stopgap release of People, Furnace St. continued playing live shows through at least last summer, including a gig in Belfort, France (which is pretty amazing for a completely-unsigned Midwestern U.S. act when you think about it). When not playing various venues in Ohio and surrounding states, the duo spent their downtime working on their fourth album, Extroversion.

The plan initially had been for Furnace St. to release their surprisingly more pop-accessible (though no less challenging) new album on CD, as had been the case with their previous works. However, when the decision was made to take the band off the road and effectively out of existence for the time being, the duo elected to make Extroversion available in its entirety as a free download from their recently redesigned website, which also features some additional mp3s and a couple of performance videos (including a rather surprising cover of an old 80's Top 40 chestnut) from the band's 2002 incarnation which featured bassist/guitarist/vocalist and occasional co-writer Brian D. Taylor.

For those headed over to check out the band's site or their new album, please take a couple of minutes to drop Adam or Lisa a message and let 'em know what you think of their music. Here's hoping this indefinite hiatus doesn't necessarily spell the end of a talented partnership.

Sunday, September 11, 2005


Headlines from September 11, 2001
As perhaps the most widely-covered news event in four decades, September 11, 2001 was looked at endlessly and from nearly every conceivable angle as round-the-clock news coverage at all major networks literally stretched onwards for days. Once that 4-5 day period of nonstop coverage ended, I remember watching the news wrap-ups on CNN every night and listening to NPR in the car and in the computer room at home for a month or so afterwards as the political and cultural fallout of that day continued to drop from the skies (I should note here that this was also the last time to the present day that I have listened to the radio on anything approaching a regular basis).

With so many books, DVDs, and TV programming aimed at re-living or re-experiencing the event through one thematic lens or another, everyone remembers or observes September 11 differently. For me, this reflection has already changed considerably over the last four years. Initially, as I'm sure was (and still is) the case with many others, I remembered the surreal horror of the day, watching videos that re-created that disorienting sense of freefall and exponentially-rising anger that I felt watching the World Trade Center disintegrate and the Pentagon burn, then the intense sorrow at the stories of senseless loss and despair from the multitudes affected by it all.

Over time, though, my thoughts of September 11 began to focus instead on the weeks after instead of that day itself. It feels extremely weird to say it now, but I look back on that fearful, paranoid, shaken, uncertain span of months with a sense of bitter nostalgia for the way things were. No, I'm not talking about everyone being utterly freaked out and seeing Al Qaeda operatives everywhere they looked, but rather I find myself pining for the short time after September 11 when this country was not divided into two screaming halves, each one trying to force a sock in the mouth of the other once and for all. This was the last time, for better or worse, that we really were a nation united behind anything or anyone.

Ground ZeroI realize that I tend to speak in sweeping numbers when talking about this subject, but there was a palpable change in individual people as well. Yes, there was outrage and sorrow in nearly every face, and the crackpots had (and continue to have) a field day with all of the grandiose conspiratorial opportunities offered up by the scale of these attacks, but there was also a new tendency at the store of people suddenly looking each other in the eyes when they spoke, with a note of warmth or concern that felt weirdly alien and yet unmistakably comforting. Without us ever having discussed doing so, Greg and I replaced the ubiquitous "have a good day" farewell with a more personalized "take care" and it seemed like everyone was more polite and considerate and kind to each other all at once. Hell, even MTV found itself a voice of compassion and care for one day, setting aside the mindless anomie and bling-bling in lieu of music of compassion and hope. Yes, all of this happened for all the wrong reasons, but it was a beautiful thing while it lasted.

So, what happened to this wonderful time when we actually all got along? In effect, we blew it. Or someone blew it, depending on your outlook ...

There is no denying whatsoever that the events of September 11 were anything less than an act of war: this was a conclusion that no one disagreed with. Despite being pandered to with one of the lamest, most stilted, most uncomforting speeches from our leadership later that evening, the nation rallied around the President to an extent unseen since at least the Gulf War in 1991, and probably even as far back as World War II. It helped immensely that after this faltering start, dear old W. set about earning his leadership stripes. Finally drawing up the kind of gravitas and stone-faced resolve the country sorely needed, W. pulled off the impossible and started to talk and act like "my President." It didn't hurt that he had a Cabinet full of veterans of previous administrations (read: the Gulf War), which certainly made me feel at the time like we were headed down the correct course.

The murk after the collapse of the towersNot knowing what was going to happen next, but grateful that someone had stepped in to take the steering wheel, America gave the President a political blank check: in effect, allowing him to do whatever he had to do, and we waited to be asked for whatever sacrifice was needed to accomplish the new goals of our new War On Terror ... and what's heartbreaking to remember is that at the time, we would have gladly made it. There was a lot of bloodlust and a shared thirst for revenge, to be certain, but on the other hand there was also a real desire to help out, as evidenced by the enormous amount of volunteers and monies collected for whatever relief fund asked for them. This time, to me, was the golden opportunity for the United States to really move forward together and take on this problem by the horns (neverminding that it was just about as useful a war as that against drugs or crime or whatever intangible Enemy Of Goodness you wish to insert here), look into alternate ways of obtaining energy, and show the world how strong and resolute we could be when the time came ... but that time never arrived.

Instead of being asked to do anything that involved any kind of shared sacrifice or effort whatsoever, we were told to shop and spend. I realize that no politician anywhere wants to be the one to say "hey, you need to cut back on your gasoline consumption, America. How about it?" but this was the one unprecedented chance W. would have had to do exactly that and not face a firestorm of scorn or cries for his head on a platter. But, I suppose, this was never going to happen in a country utterly beholden to gargantuan "special interests" and lobbies.

Don't worry about this problem, W. said with a pat on our collective noggins, we're taking care of it. It is not of your concern. Go back to your lives. Take an airplane flight. Go shopping. Go to sleep. Let me sign this Patriot Act to protect you from this ever happening again. Oh, and God bless America.

Right from the instant the above became the default war plan as far as the American Public was concerned, little alarm bells started to ring in my head. I knew that, in a sense, W. was absolutely right to beseech everyone to not to stop the American economy on a dime (domestic consumer spending powers a surprisingly large portion of this country's growth), but this compounded with the idea that life as we know it was going to keep on chugging along as if nothing at all had happened somehow felt all wrong. This new war was going to be background noise while we pressed on with our existence, and it was going to go on for months, years, decades, depending on you talked to about it. I won't even mention what book this instantly reminded me of, but I know I wasn't the only one wondering months later if the new creepily-monikered
"Homeland Security Department" shouldn't have instead been called the "Ministry Of Peace."

I had forgiven W. for that godawful speech on the evening of the 11th, (since Rudolph Giuliani was doing a far better job of playing Head Cheese that day), but being told in effect that it was my patriotic duty to whip out my credit card and get a plasma TV or an SUV and who knows what else felt perverse and insultingly condescending (I won't even get into the additional tax cuts offered shortly afterward as well). It also, I believe, began to dissipate that aura of "we're all in this together," though the true political/ideological battle lines wouldn't begin to show up until a year later when the saber rattling and preparations for the invasion of Iraq (under the disguise of waiting for diplomacy) began in earnest. By that point, we had come full circle again, not only with each other in this country, but with the rest of the world as well. That sense of loss, almost moreso than the loss of life on that awful day, has become for me the most haunting aspect of September 11.

As hopelessly simplistic, childish, and dramatic as it sounds, I want my old country back.

That Morning

The lower Manhattan Skyline pre-9/11 as seen from the Empire State Building
Being the habitual late riser that I am, I was utterly dead to the world until I heard the news. I would have slept right on into the early afternoon and awakened to one hell of a surprise since I'd never have heard the phone ringing down the hall in the old apartment. However, Sarah had just come back from classes sometime around 10 A.M. and tried to rouse me from my slumber by telling me with great understatement: " might want to wake up. Some really weird things are happening."

That didn't exactly get me going. I barely moved, and mumbled a toneless "uhhh like what" out of the corner of my mouth.

"Well...someone crashed a plane into the World Trade Center."

Groggily, all I could muster was a noncommittal reply. "Huh. That sucks."

"Well...a few minutes later, another plane crashed into the other tower."

I didn't see that one coming. I opened my eyes and squinted at her in the bright light of morning. "What?"

Sarah then told me of the (erroneous, as it turned out) rumor of a car bombing at the State Department, then hit me with the haymaker punch: "And then, someone crashed another plane into the Pentagon."

That news did the trick, affecting me like someone had just dumped a bucket of ice cold water onto the bed. We'd just gone from "terrorism" to out-and-out war. I sat up fast and aimed an unbelieving, incredulous stare at her. "WHAT?"

A bleary-eyed hustle down the hall from the bedroom to the living room followed, and I flipped around from CBS to NBC to ABC to Fox and to CNN ... all of them showing the twin towers steaming blackly away like giant steel chimneys, alternating with views of the stoved-in side of the Pentagon. It struck me at that instant that the Pentagon looked to be in far worse shape than the Trade Center, which I think was due to my having been in close proximity to the place during a weekend trip to Washington D.C. in 1994. In contrast, I haven't been in New York City since I was a kid, and I have very few memories of the place, and thus I had no real sense of scale to apply to what I was looking at in those pictures. My initial thought was that the Trade Center towers had been broadsided by a Cessna packed with C-4.

A few minutes later, whatever network I was watching at the time flipped to a rerun of the second plane going into the tower. I don't think my eyes bugged that wide or my jaw went that slack since the morning of the Challenger explosion. It wasn't the spectacular fireball that made my stomach feel like it had just dropped into my lap, but instead it was seeing the object that caused the explosion -- certainly not a Cessna or a Lear Jet.

"Holy shit..."

A couple of minutes later, the first tower went down right in front of my eyes. Like so many others, it was at first impossible to grasp that what I was seeing something happening in the Real World and not some summer action movie -- the scale of this just completely poleaxed me.

I think it was at some point in the utter fucking pandemonium after the first tower had come down that my brain suddenly kicked on again and began to process what I had just seen, and I heard myself splutter out: "Jesus Christ! Were there passengers on those planes?!"

As it turns out ... yes, there were.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Crisis Mismanagement

All of the music-related posts I once had archived here in I Am A Bug, were mirrored columns: all of them are actually intended for 45RPM, the mp3 blog run by my old friend and ex-Den co-worker Mike Beaumont. I mirrored these Sunday Synthpop Brunch posts in this forum merely to keep I Am A Bug active in the frequent times when I’m not in the mood to write outside of the 45RPM framework.

Crescent City Blues briefly explained why I was not submitting a regular column for this weekend (or the next, for that matter), but I deliberately shied away from going any further into the subject with my personal thoughts since 45RPM isn’t the place for them. This blog, however, is.

I try very hard not to let myself rant on politics, but it gets harder to avoid outrage lately, either due to the slow onset of fogeydom or perhaps the current cast of jokers inhabiting the White House. I am not a professional pundit and no one’s idea of an expert in this field, and so I try to avoid inflicting pure, annoyed venting on people. Making it even more frustrating to vent on this subject is that while I may not like The Way Things Are, I also have no constructive answers to these problems. Thus, I tend to look upon these rants as empty, self-indulgent wanks that do nothing but add to the already-deafening background noise of the internet.

This is, somehow, America.

Then along came the events of the last week, and … well, it’s pretty hard to find the words, isn’t it? I’m going to give it a try, regardless.

I haven't been this worked-up over the state of the U.S. gub'mint since that dreary, awful, soul-killing morning after Election Day last year. That was a pretty fucking terrible day, but even that had no comparison to the epic, needless suffering experienced by the victims of Hurricane Katrina. I'm not just talking about the shame of New Orleans, either ... plenty of equally enraging stories of neglect and half-assed bureaucratic effort have come from Mississippi and Alabama as well, and I am pretty goddamned angry right now thinking about it (I think "downright furious" covers it better, actually). I am also embarrassed, ashamed, stunned, and (best of all for the intents of this post) increasingly vitriolic at the absolute clusterfuck that marked the official world premiere demonstration of the power of our wonderfully-integrated Department Of Homeland Security and FEMA. I gotta save some shout-outs for the Senate, and the White House too, since they worked with DHS and FEMA to create a "perfect storm" of haplessness in the face of a natural disaster that was the most gobsmacking display of organizational pratfalls, shameless, childlike deflection-of-blame and sheer clueless bungling that I have seen from this government in my lifetime.

What happened in New Orleans last week was "the anti-9/11," as coined by New York Times columnist David Brooks, in every possible fashion:

On Sept. 11, Rudy Giuliani took control. The government response was quick and decisive. The rich and poor suffered alike. Americans had been hit, but felt united and strong. Public confidence in institutions surged.

Last week in New Orleans, by contrast, nobody took control. Authority was diffuse and action was ineffective. The rich escaped while the poor were abandoned. Leaders spun while looters rampaged. Partisans squabbled while the nation was ashamed.

The first rule of the social fabric - that in times of crisis you protect the vulnerable - was trampled. Leaving the poor in New Orleans was the moral equivalent of leaving the injured on the battlefield. No wonder confidence in civic institutions is plummeting.

Jesus, what if this had happened instead to Manhattan? Norfolk? Washington D.C.? Kennebunkport? I can't be the only person who feels that if any of these places been hit instead of New Orleans, the level and speed of response would have been a very different story indeed. We already know what would have been the case had the damage been as terrible in Florida: FEMA (and even Our Fearless Leader) were on the scene the instant the storm(s) had finished passing through, walking the streets, cutting checks, helping Americans out, showing how much their government cared about their well-being. Of course, that was during an election year, in a state run by Our Leader's brother, and a territory that he absolutely, positively had to win in order to get re-elected, but I digress ...

I have long since grown calloused and immune to hearing out man's inhumanity to his fellow man, but when this extends to the government of the United States, I can't help but be staggered by it all. As if there was any doubt whatsoever with whom the priorities of this administration lay (re-election at all costs followed by the fortunes of the upper class, all other priorities rescinded), last week cleared them up beyond all doubt.

Much as it pains me to admit, you cannot lay the all of the blame for last week at the feet of the President. There, I said it. No, this was a failure on nearly every level of government from the Oval Office all the way down to the city of New Orleans itself. For a disaster that had been talked about for years (and over which Michael Brown, the absolutely-useless head of FEMA tells us that they had just practiced for last year), the various bureaucracies were behaving like freshly-guillotined chickens. Exactly what is the point of declaring an statewide emergency in multiple states a day and change before the hurricane makes landfall if nothing happens for days afterwards?

Listening to the likes of Trent Lott and Mary Landrieu prattle on during interviews like they had just won a fucking Oscar was absolutely fucking unreal (and thank God for anchors like Anderson Cooper who have cut these sanctimonious fucks off at the knees with a cold splash of reality when the occasion arose). Exactly where in the hell does this Government fly to when the city of Washington D.C. shuts down every August? New Zealand? Tahiti? Ganymede? Nowhere in this reality, apparently. For chrissakes, when even the likes of Shephard Smith at Fox News is left nearly speechless on-air wondering what in the samhell is going on (not to mention deliciously handing a slice of de-politicized reality to such putrid, insulated minor Antichrists as O'Reilly and Hannity), you know that things have gone terribly, terribly wrong.

To her credit, Landrieu recently issued a press release indicating that Bush's arrival at a levee repair site in New Orleans was a sham. A fucking photo-op. Nothing more. What a surprise. Also, how very convenient that his arrival was on the very same day that the REAL help finally began to arrive in New Orleans at last. Coincidence, I'm sure.

So, the city of New Orleans and a giant swath of the Gulf Coast is effectively no more as I type this, and one wonders if this region will ever be what it once was. The question also remains of what will happen to the displaced and nearly-entirely destitute population which seemingly now inhabits every domed facility in the Deep South at this hour. Is there another patented Magic Bush Tax Cut in the offing to somehow make all of the reconstruction and the strain on the social services of states hosting the refugees come together?

If there is to be any silver lining in this whatsoever, it's that the opportunity exists at amazing cost to correct the mistakes of the past in rebuilding New Orleans, but an unbelievably, incalculaby huge cleanup will come first. The scale of this is just beyond me: The Big O, The Crescent City, The Big Easy, whatever you may call it is nothing more than a dessicated, filth-ridden, waterlogged city of the dead.

From the inactions and miscues we have seen all last week, it has become glaringly apparent that we have achieved absolutely nothing since September 11 in the areas of security and disaster relief. We can have aircraft carriers off of Banda Aceh in a day or so after a tsunami erases half of the city, but we can't shoehorn any National Guard troops in a major urban area in this country for 4-5 days after a hurricane that everyone saw coming two days before it hit. And how about this for a cherry on the sundae: we are more vulnerable to societal/administrative decay (and resultant anarchy) than we ever knew.

Happy Labor Day.