When Indie Goes Top 40, #1

This week will introduce a new feature, "When Indie Goes Top 40." This feature will talk about some indie bands who, piggybacking on the success of indie darlings turned biggest band in the world, Nirvana, somehow managed to squeeze out one hit that made it to pop radio.

After the release (and subsequent in explicable success) of Nevermind in 1991, the big record labels (Geffen, Atlantic, Capitol, A&M, London, etc) cheery picked bands from labels like Sub Pop, Twin/Tone, SST, and the like, and so-called indie bands already signed to these labels got a major push. This happened especially to those bands who'd been name checked by Kurt Cobain in one of his various interviews. When a band called the Butthole Surfers get signed to Frank Sinatra's label, Capitol Records, you know a serious change in music has happened.

To the majority of folks, these bands might be remembered as a mere blip on the pop culture radar (some might even use that horrible "one-hit wonder" moniker), but to many others, these bands are indie favorites; long-running, classic bands who just happened to hit the pop culture zeitgeist at the right time. It's all perspective.

NOTE: Not all of these went Top 40, but they at least hit the top 100 and were hits on the Mainstream Rock charts. So if I fudge a little, don't sue me. Please.

The Breeders - Cannonball
The Breeders - Divine Hammer

A surprise hit from the band's 1993 album Last Splash, "Cannonball"--led by an infectious bass line and hypnotic chorus--took the MTV nation by storm, giving even the kids who didn't know Frank Black from Karen Black a taste at the ethereal, one-of-a-kind style of Kim Deal (and her sister Kelley). Didn't hurt that it had a cool Spike Jonze-directed video promoting it. In these days of High School Musical and Beyonce, it must seem odd to the young folks out there that such an idiosyncratic tune could do so well in the mainstream despite its strong pop sense, but such was the case in the post-Nirvana music world. Almost anything went. Not surprisingly, the rest of the Breeders' Last Splash album, despite its high quality, didn't catch on with DJs or radio listeners.

The follow-up, "Divine Hammer," didn't offer the same novelty--it made the mistake of being just plain good. The album (which can now be found in tons of cut-out bins and used CD stores worldwide) was still a massive success, hitting #33 on the Billboard Album Charts. The Breeders went on hiatus--for about a decade--while Deal spent her time at home in Dayton, Ohio making music with The Amps, her Guided by Voices-esque garage band and getting drunk. The Breeders' proper follow up, Title TK, didn't come until 2001, and though it was considered a success in the indie world, it unsurprisingly failed to live up to any its predecessor commercially. And Deal--who's been touring with her old band the Pixies for the past few years and recently released an album of new Breeders' material--is probably just as happy to have it that way.

Chart Positions:
1st single: "Cannonball," Modern Rock #2, Top 40 #39, Billboard Hot 100 #44, Mainstream Rock #32
2nd Single: "Divine Hammer," Modern Rock #28

The Lemonheads - Into Your Arms
The Lemonheads - Great Big No
Bonus! Love Positions - Into Your Arms (original)
The Lemonheads had been around for five years before they saw an album of theirs hit the Billboard charts in 1992, and six years before they had a single hit the Billboard Hot 100. Hailing out of Boston, the group formed in 1986. Originally led by songwriter Ben Deily's punk rock songs, Deily eventually dropped out, leading pretty boy guitarist Evan Dando to take the reins with a more pop, power-pop influenced sound. Dando got the band signed to Atlantic in 1990, a year before the Big Indie Boom Nirvana caused. They released one album, Lovey, followed by It's a Shame About Ray, which gave them a bit of radio play with the title track, as well as a Simon & Garfunkel cover recorded for The Graduate's anniversary and later tacked on to the album's subsequent pressings, much to the band's chagrin. But they wouldn't reach the Hot 100 until their sixth album, Come on Feel the Lemonheads.

"Into Your Arms," one of a series of cover songs by Australian bands and songwriters that Dando would include on this and subsequent albums, in this case remaking an acoustic love song by Sydney guy/girl lo-fi duo Love Positions. The song--like so many of Dando's recordings--is shimmering, simple and incredibly memorable. The tune brings to mind similar jangly pop songs by '60s groups like The Archies. The song is rare for its time and for Dando's catalog in that it's a genuine love song, free of irony or snark.

After two unsuccessful follow up singles from the album ("It's About Time" and "Big Gay Heart"--both filled with racy lyrics, which couldn't have helped their chances at Billboard dominance), the fourth single, "The Great Big No," managed to chart on the Modern Rock charts. The song revealed the best of Dando's songwriting--a hooky, jangly pop song that still managed to thrill like a rocker. Dando's voice has the enviable quality of being at once honeyed enough for crooning a ballad, but ragged enough to keep up with the rock songs. Still, the mainstream had had their fill of Dando, who, after releasing almost an album a year for six years, went on a three year hiatus (read: crack cocaine binge) before recording his follow up, Car Button Cloth. Unfortunately, "Great Big No" would be the last charting song for Dando and co.

After another six years of nothing from Dando followed, save for the occasional stories of hard drug use and odd public performances that usually ended in the singer exiting the stage prematurely. But around 2001, the Lemonheads and Dando in particular regained a small cult following in the music community, particularly from singer-songwriters Ben Kweller and Ben Lee and in 2003, Dando teamed up with Lee and various producers to release a critically acclaimed solo album, Baby I'm Bored. While the album failed commercially, it proved Dando, despite his personal problems, still had the chops to keep him in the game. In 2006, using members of the pop-punk band the Descendents and Dinosaur Jr as a backing band, Dando released a new, critically acclaimed eponymous Lemonheads album and toured the US. With two more releases in the pipeline, including an album of covers, one hopes Dando's checkered past is behind him and his talent hasn't been impaired in the least.

Chart Positions:
1st single: "Into Your Arms" US Billboard Hot 100 #67, US Modern Rock #1
2nd single: "Great Big No" US Modern Rock #15

Hippie dippy homoerotic "Into Your Arms" MTV 120 Minutes video below

Incredibly '90s video for "Great Big No"

Visit the Breeders' site and buy stuff!
Visit the Lemonheads' site and buy stuff!


Shawn Mullins "Shimmer"

"Shawn Mullins."

In a completely unscientific survey I conducted, I found that for some reason people remember this guy's name and his one-hit, "Lullaby" (they usually follow this with a long yawn). This is a bit unusual as most one-hit wonder artists are faceless, unmemorable folks and sometimes they're even confused with other artists (see the Tom Cochrane entry). And even though Shawn Mullins looks pretty much like any hippie in a Phish t-shirt working at the seafood counter at your local grocery co-op, he gets remembered. Was his song, "Lullaby" that great? Was it that memorable? Or was it just that a lot of people impulse-bought this guy's album and still remember wishing they'd spent that $12.99 on a case of Schaefer Light?

Mullins was your average, run-of-the-mill songwriter. Well, we'll say slightly above average. He's better than a lot of the dudes you'll see at coffee shop open mike. His songs are enjoyable, and a bit more memorable than this kind of thing usually is. It's nothing that wasn't covered at some point in the '70s--that's not necessarily a bad thing, and one can't be too pissed off when a legitimate songwriter comes out of nowhere to find a place on the Top 40. Mullins was clearly indebted to the likes of James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson, even including a cover of Kristofferson's classic "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on one of his albums.

Mullins' first release was a cassette he self-issued in 1989, when he was in the US Army Airborne Infantry Division. In 1991, after having reached the rank of 1st lieutenant, Mullins left the military to pursue music on a full-time basis. Having spent three years searching for a record deal without any luck, he established his own label which released the albums Better Days and Big Blue Sky in 1992 and 1994, respectively. He returned in 1996 with Eggshells, the album which secured him a deal with Columbia Records.

Released in 1998, Soul's Core was layered with a contemporary, trendy (some might say over) production that belied the rootsy, throwback qualities of his work. The album hit #54, and went platinum buoyed by the monster hit that "Lullaby" became.

"Lullaby" is a typical Mullins track, telling the story of a girl who has become depressed about her existence, wishing for a life away from her movie-star filled Hollywood upbringing and harsh LA nights. The narrator--whose concern seems more paternal than romantic--wishes to save her, singing to her "everything's gonna be alright." (A quick aside: as a native Nashvillian, I wish to respond to Mr. Mullins' assumption contained in the song that Nashvillians don't have tans--Kenny Chesney is living proof that this statement is false. Please don't take this to mean that Nashvillians are also bald, short and of ambiguous sexuality.)

The song was unusual in that the verses weren't sung as much as they were spoken. While many hit songs have included spoken sections, few have included this much "talk-singing" (as a friend of mine calls it) outside of maybe Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" (incidentally Reed's one mainstream hit). Mullins voice is soothing enough to pull-it-off, sounding like a guy at a bar telling you a story after he's six drinks and a couple of joints into a night of excess. It's also nearly six-minutes, breaking the cardinal rule that a hit song has to be under four minutes. As alluded to earlier, the production is a bit over-the-top...the acoustic guitar base is layered with a hip-hop-style beat, brightly rambling pianos, rock drums and by-the-numbers guitar solos.

Like the biggest and best one-hit wonders (e.g. "Walking in Memphis"), "Lullaby" transcended charts and genres, becoming a crossover hit: peaking at on the #9 Modern Rock Tracks, #7 on the Hot 100, #1 on the Adult Top 40 and #1 on Top 40. It didn't hurt that the song had a video starring Girl of the Hour (and what a short hour it was), late-'90s hottie Dominique Swain.

The follow up single, "Shimmer," was a big-budget remake of a song that had been included on Eggshells. The production is similar, the guitar riff and drum beat are similar, the song structure is similar, the story is similar...Jesus, it's practically the same damn song.

That's not to say it's bad, in fact, it might be better than "Lullaby," but the radio-ready, kitchen sink production makes the two songs almost indistinguishable. It's even a minute and a half shorter than the hit single. All of this could lead one to the conclusion that it was engineered in a lab to be the perfect follow up to "Lullaby," even getting a boost by appearing on Dawson's Creek (desperately trying not to make any Katie Holmes references.) Except it peaked at #27 on the Top 40 chart--not a bad showing for a second single, but not enough to keep the public interested for the long-term either. So why didn't it hit bigger? My theory is that people were simply sick of "Lullaby." If the charts don't prove it to you, then ask anyone who was around in '98 and '99--that song was ubiquitous. And "Shimmer," regardless of quality, is really just more of the same. Add to that, anyone who still liked "Lullaby" could just listen to "Lullaby." And after that, people probably thought "Lullaby" and "Lullaby Pt. II, III & IV" were all Mullins was capable was. Take note, budding musical artists, this is an easy way to become a one-hit wonder.

So what ever happened to Shawn Mullins? Soul's Core paved the way for a compilation of his earlier work, The First Ten Years, and in 2000 he released his follow-up, Beneath the Velvet Sun, which failed to have the impact of his major label debut. He's still around, actually. He might even be playing a club at a town near you.

In 2002, Mullins joined power-popper Matthew Sweet and roots-rocker Pete Droge to create the self-described "supergroup," The Thorns--sort of like Crosby, Stills & Nash if those guys had all been one-hit wonders. While the album was a sweet throwback to '70s soft-rock, and included a nice cover of The Jayhawks' "Blue," it too was brought down by the slick production courtesy of Mr. Slick Production himself, the always generic Brendan O'Brien (Train, Incubus, Papa Roach).

After being dropped by Columbia following Velvet Sun's relative failure, Mullins kept on trucking, moving onto Vanguard Records where he released 2006's tribute to pre-Katrina New Orleans, 9th Ward Pickin' Parlor and 2008's tribute to his home state of Georgia, honeydew. While reviews have been favorable, suggesting Mullins has gotten better with age, sales have not come close to what they were a decade ago.

Having spent ten years without any success before "Lullaby," I have no doubt Mullins is fine with being back to playing smaller venues and releasing albums independently. It's hard to be snarky when someone shows a true passion and dedication to their craft. I may not love the guy's music, but I respect the hell out of him. Sony/Columbia Records must have some respect for the man too; in 2003 they included him as part of their "Essential" series, putting him in the company of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen (cept, you know, not as good).

Wait a tick, look at that picture. I take it back, Sony didn't respect the guy at all to include such a douchey picture of him for the cover art. Seriously, he just went from looking like the hippie guy weighing tilapia for me at the co-op to looking like the date-rapist guy asking me for coke at the sketchy house party thrown by friend I don't know that well--soul patch and all. Granted, the picture was probably taken at the turn of the century when that look was cool. Oh wait, that look was never cool. Way to break the douche-o-meter, Shawn. And just when I was starting to like you too. Nice glasses though.

Download: Shawn Mullins - Lullaby
Download: Shawn Mullins - Shimmer

Official Website
Buy Shawn's records at Amazon