Canadian Wonder #5: LEN - "Steal My Sunshine" (Summer Mix-Tape Edition)

The Basics:

Remember these guys? No? Well you surely remember their song, "Steal My Sunshine," which answered the age-old question, "can a white, Canadian rap group who resembles extras from 'Degrassi: The Next Generation' make a hit song by borrowing liberally from an old '80s hit and looping a beat from one of the most ubiquitous songs of the disco era?" The answer was "why yes," and not only that, but this song is somehow still going to sound good eleven years later and make you want to shake your hindquarters like it is New Year's Eve 1999 (and we all remember how crazy that was. Me and Carson Daly had a big night that night. Shit was CORRECT, son. MTV NYE '99! w00t!).

Formed in 1991, made up of a brother and sister team straight outta Toronto, Len started out as a pop-punk act all the while gradually shifting towards a more hip-hop influenced sound, culminating with their major label debut, You Can't Stop the Bum Rush. But it was the appearance of the single "Steal My Sunshine" on the soundtrack to the way excellent and completely underrated Doug Liman crime-comedy Go that propelled the song and album into the nation's zeitgeist.

But Len's time in the strobe light would be--wait for it--short lived and the Canadians would go back to the Great White North where singing about this mythical "sunshine" is at best an exercise in futility and at worst considered a form of black magic--a serious crime in Canadia, meaning a man in a powdered wig and robe might sentence you to beheading by the Queen of Hearts. I know, right? Canadians are crazy.


Thank you, I will.

Now you may say, hey! Maestro! What a Len? And I am here to tell you, dear reader, that I have no earthly idea what a Len be, but I suspect it has something to do with Newfoundlandian (a word) women's rugby players. Or maybe it's the name of some rugby dude. Yep, that is as far as I cared to Google, folks. Love it or leave it, babies.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about the brother-sister duo, Mark "The Burger Pimp" Costanzo and Sharon "Why is my brother nicknamed the goddamn Burger Pimp?" Costanzo. (His nickname should be "Can't Stands Yo." Get it? Cause like on Seinf--oh, like you could do better. Jerk. You wanna go? Huh? Yeah, you better run cause I'm gonna lay you the f down.)

Anywho, in the early-to-mid '90s, the Can't Stands Yos were spending most of their days making 8-track recordings of their pop-punk ventures, and in fact, their early work was more within this genre. Before making Bumrush, the duo recorded two full-length independent albums, 1994's Superstar and 1996's Get Your Legs Broke.
Len soon picked up some new members with equally bad ass nicknames like D Rock, DJ Moves, Planet Pea, and a gentleman with the moniker Drunkness Monster--names that no doubt struck fear into the very hearts of even the most cold blooded suburban Toronto gangs. The new group produced the album that would become You Can't Stop the Bum Rush, an ode to old-school hip-hop with a sugary pop edge (bzzz! I spot a couple buzz words!) and a heavy helping of Hello Nasty-era Beastie Boys. Signing to Sony subsidiary Work Records, the obvious first single and first track on the album, "Steal My Sunshine" was placed on the electronica-centric soundtrack to the Scott Wolf/Jay Mohr action vehicle Go, in order to whet the public's appetite for more Len. The song was so successful that the album release date was moved up a month.

I think my friends from freshman year of high school would love for me to note how much I'm downplaying just how obsessed I was with this film/soundtrack/Katie Holmes in 1999. Oh well, they should get their own blog. SNAP! LMAO! BAHAHA!

The album did some dees (cool slang for "decent") business buoyed by "Sunshine," reaching #46 on the album charts and was certified Gold in the US, and no doubt record sales in Toronto alone kept the Canadian economy afloat well into 2003.

¡El Single-o Primero!

So, no doubt "Steal My Sunshine" reminds one of another massive hit from a bygone era. C'mon, you know the one!

"Ordinary World" by Duran Duran? Well, no.

"Tobacco Road" by The Nashville Teens? No, not at all.

"Kiss the Rain" by Billie Myers? Uh-uh. I don't think you're getting this.

How about, "Don't You Want Me" by Human League? AH-HA! YOU AH CORRECT, SIR! [/Perfect Ed McMahon]

Both Burger Pimp and Sharon related to various sources that "Sunshine" was indeed directly inspired by Human League's 1981 hit single.

The story went something like this: Burger Pee-yump and My Sharona got in a tiff, in which they did not speak for months. Burger, in hot pursuit of something to make his spinal fluid run backwards, attended a rave at which he downed some E and heard the classic disco song "More, More, More" by Andrea...actually, you know what? Let me allow B.P. himself to tell you the epic story of how "Sunshine" came together:
''I'll tell you how I found that sample. I had come home from a rave and everyone was on E and we were listening to disco at six in the morning when the sun was coming up and we were cooking eggs and s -- -. You can't deny that disco really works at that time. I wasn't like, 'Whoa, that's it!' We were just like, 'Let's just loop that and sing over it.' I mean, 'Sunshine' didn't look like much of a song. It was recorded on eight-track. We weren't going to put it on the record. The master was sitting under my bed, covered in dust. We were like, 'Where the f -- - is it?'''
As for the connection to Human League, the Pimp was uncharacteristically humble.

''We were down with this song when we were young. I used to think, I'm gonna make a song just like that f -- -ing Human League song, 'cause it's dope. I tried to do that with 'Sunshine.' Ours didn't go down as good, but I like it. What a f -- -ing joke. What a bad thing to try to do.''

No, dude! You did a good thing! It's the rest of your songs that were a bad thing to try to do. But this song kicks ass!

All the split screens make it look like an episode of Squawk Box! Hi-yo! CNBC humor always gets the kids.

Look. Is the rapping here stilted? Is the video (which won a slew of MuchMusic awards in Canada) one of the douchiest thing to come out of the '90s? Other than that monkey guy in Limp Bizkit, of course? Or all of Limp Bizkit? Is that Sharon girl actually kind of adorable and kind of blastin' her nips? Yes, yes, yes, yes, and you tell me.

Borrowing the "he said, she said" structure from Human League and the excellent piano-based bridge from "More, More, More," the track isn't quite as good as either of its direct influences, but it nonetheless does a bang-up job of evoking that time in your life when all you wanna do is get stupid and lie out on sweltering sandy beaches in the late-afternoon California sunshine, and it achieves this feeling without resorting to ripping off the Beach Boys or laying on any steel drums. But besides evoking a feeling, the song, like the best pop hits, lodges in your brain and not only does it refuse to dislodge itself, you actually don't want it to. This song rocks.

"Sunshine" became a top ten hit on the Billboard Hot 100, reaching #9. It also reached the top ten on the Modern Rock charts and the Top 40 and Top 40 Mainstream (no, I don't really know the difference between those two charts).

The song was nominated for "Song of the Year" at the Canadian music awards, the Junos, but tragically lost to The Tragically Hip (irony alert!).

Le Deuxième Disque

"Feeling Alright" was the follow up to "Sunshine" and one of several tracks on the album to feature guest appearances, in this case, Poison's C.C. DeVille on guitar. DeVille's apparance on the track is a natrual fit, as the song is based around a riff that sounds straight out of '80s hair metal. In fact, the song is way less hip-hop and far more "Beverly Hills"-era Weezer (before Weezer actually made "Beverly Hills): amusing and catchy rap/singing over big, dumb arena rock riffing (though, unfortunately, less of a preoccupation with half-Asian women).

Wait, Burgerpimp is one word?

The song is another excellent pop track that holds on to nostalgia and adolecense (in this case, for the '80s--imagine that) and is, above all, about cutting loose and having fun. Clearly the Burgerpimp is all about the good times, and pimping burgers.

Well, apparently we Americans don't like having fun, because "Feelin' Alright" didn't exactly repeat the success of "Sunshine." In fact, it didn't even chart. That episode of 120 Minutes was no doubt the one and only time the "Feelin' Alright" video was run MTV (and surely the last time C.C. DeVille showed up on MTV, aside from the occasional Behind the Music or reality show). Maybe it didn't have the hook-in-your-consciousness quality that "Sunshine" did, but it's still a damn fine slice of bubblegum.

It's a shame that the song didn't hit, as You Can't Stop the Bum Rush was actually a pretty stacked album when it came to potential bubblegum pop singles. Check out this glowing review from NY Times. Unfortunately, it was not to be, and Len faded, proving that even if you're a Burgerpimp and have all the chops, it can't stop you from being labeled a one-hit wonder right out of the gate.

Where Be LEN Now?

After the success of "Sunshine," Len took their success a little too well, reportedly partying it up for a couple of years, with the Pimp no doubt downing buckets of E and listening to disco songs before finally buckling down in the studio to record a follow up. Although they began the sessions for what would become Diary of the Madmen (no relation to Don Draper). The album took 3 years to complete, and the final album was more of a compilation of studio tracks compiled from 2001-2004 than a complete album. Madmen wasn't released until April 2005, a full six years after "Steal My Sunshine" hit; more than enough time for Len to be completely forgotten.

While not as strong as Bum Rush, by all accounts, Madmen is another album made to be played at parties, cookouts and beach parties. One of the few reviews available online at allmusic.com describes the album as "much more dynamic set than You Can't Stop the Bum Rush," and concluding that "LEN's sequel to "Sunshine" deserves a listen." If you can fine it, that is. Try the cut-out bins first.

Unsurprisingly, the album, despite some good reviews, did not come close to cracking any charts, leaving the band back at square one, in a wadded up grease-stained paper bag of despair.

As for where they are now, Len kept a MySpace page until September 2008, when Burgerpimp himself announced that the band would not be reuniting for a new album, but instead he and Sharon would be working on a new record, which he claimed would be done in a few "months, not years." But for those keeping count, that was two years ago! One can only assume that his side gig as an agent for ground beef burgers of the night has taken up all his time. We can only hope he didn't drag Sharon into his web of culinary deviance.

Whether or not the band ever comes back with another offering of laid-back, old-school party music and makes it back on the charts (which is increasingly unlikely at this point) "Steal My Sunshine" will always have a place on my "Summer Mixxx Jamz!" playlist alongside Thin Lizzy and The Beach Boys. Kudos, you crazy Canucks!

The First Single: Len - "Steal My Sunshine"
The Second Single: Len - "Feelin' Alright"


5 Two Hit Wonders (Often Mistaken for One-Hit Wonders)

There are artists out there that manage to extend their 15 minutes of fame to a ripe half-hour--that is, they somehow double their pleasure and fun by following up one mega hit with one more lil' hit, maybe a few weeks later, maybe a few years later.

A band like Savage Garden may be the best example of the "two-hit wonder" phenomenon. Yes, they may have remained huge a while longer in Australia and Christmas Island
and maybe Slovenia, but let's face it--here in the US, we heard "Truly Madly Deeply" (#1) and "I Want You" (#4) and promptly tuned out (so did the band, btw, they only made two albums). See also: Paula Cole, The Presidents of the United States of America, Eve 6, Spin Doctors, etc.

But some of these bands aren't always recognized by our collective memories as being the two-hit wonders that they truly are, and by jove, they deserve to be recognized for their overachieving efforts, if for no other reason than I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired, and of being asked "when are you going to do The Rembrandts?" (Could you *be* anymore tiresome?)

So without further adieu, here's a list of 5 two-hit wonders that are incorrectly regarded as one-hit wonders.

5. Fastball - "The Way"
(#-, #31 on Top 40, #1 on Modern Rock) and "Out of My Head" (#20, #10 on Top 40, #- on MR)
Formed in Austin, Texas in 1994, Fastball's major label debut, 1996's Make Your Mama Proud, went mostly unnoticed, (though the album's single "Are You Ready for the Fall Out?" later featured on some soundtrack--probably Varsity Blues--and is playing incessantly in my head as I write this) sending the band back into the studio with a fistful of new songs that would become All the Pain Money Can Buy.

The first single, "The Way"--a "based on a true story" tale of an elderly couple running away from it all--had a slightly western feel mixed with Fastball's power-pop inspired hooks that made it irresistible, if something of a novelty.

The track did gangbusters on Billboard's Modern Rock charts, hitting #1 for seven weeks and became a Top 40 radio staple for a stint, but for some reason doesn't seem to have charted on the Billboard Hot 100. Hmm.

Their second single, "Fire Escape," didn't make much of an impact and ran the standard second single route, but the third single, "Out of My Mind" was a huge hit in its own right--acheiving a success almost the opposite of the success of "The Way" by charting relatively high on the Billboard Hot 100 (#20) and failing to chart at all on the Modern Rock chart.

Still, most folks seem to remember "The Way" as Fastball's "one song." My belief is that the "Out of My Head" sounds so distinctly different from their first hit single that many people didn't make the connection that it was even the same band. Even listening to it now, with its retro '70s feel and washes of B3 organ, "Out of My Head" could easily pass for a Wallflowers song (assuming someone gave Jakob Dylan a lozenge or a glass of honey and tea to help clear his throat).

While sounding totally different from song to song should be an advantage for a band destined to be a one-hit wonder, it only seemed to take these guys to two hit wonder status. In fact, the band members later said as much, complaining that their lack of success on their follow up album (which sold 85k, compared to the million-plus
ATPMCB sold) was due to their inability to be easily defined. Shame. These guys had more talent in their bohemian chin beards than all of the pop-punk bands that followed in their wake combined.

In case you're wondering, yes, Fastball are still at it, kicking out the jams for the Adult Alternative set as recently as 2009 on their album Little White Lies.

4. Sophie B. Hawkins - "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover" (#5) and "As I Lay Me Down" (#6)
Somewhere between Sheryl Crow and Madonna is Sophie B. Hawkins, a vaguely sexy, grungy, granola eating-type (the superfluous "B" stands for "Birkenstock," har har) who gets off on seeing if she can give guys boners while dressed like a lumberjack. With 1992's "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," an innuendo heavy track (that would make Lady Gaga blush under her orbit helmet) where Hawkins implores the "your" in question to "come inside [her] jungle book," she no doubt managed to cause more than a few guys to pitch tents in their knickers, while also getting her single to #5 on the Hot 100. No doubt this video (which looks more like a Guess Jeans ad than a music video) didn't hurt matters. I only ask you this one question, dear reader: is she seriously dogging the floor near the end of the video? Whatever lights your candle, I suppose.

After the success of "Damn," Hawkins released two other singles from her Tongues and Tails debut, both of which stalled stateside but garnered the singer a following in the UK. Hawkins wouldn't hit again until three years later, in 1995, when the third single from Hawkins' second album, Whaler, was released. "As I Lay Me Down," a song dedicated to the memory of Hawkins' departed father, was far removed both musically and lyrically from the in-your-face-sexiness, dance-influenced sound of her first hit. "Down" is a ballad, buoyed by an organ and acoustic guitar.

As a result, the video is tempered, with Hawkins looking more like a secretly sexy poetry grad student than the erotic post-grunge star she'd played in her previous video.

Sophie B. Hawkins - Lose Your Way (Official Music Video) - Watch more top selected videos about: Sophie_B._Hawkins

The track hit only one slot below its predecessor, making it to #6 on the Hot 100. Other than the follow-up single, "Only Love (The Ballad of Sleeping Beauty)," which hit #49, Hawkins would never again chart on the Hot 100. However, Hawkins continued to do big business in the UK, scoring three Top 40 hits on their pop charts from the Whaler album alone.

After disagreements with Sony on the direction of her third album, Timbre, (the label asked her to remove a banjo from her single, "Lose Your Way"), the album limped into stores with no promotion, causing Hawkins to peace out of Sony and start her own label, where she would re-release Timbre in 2001. Since then, Hawkins has delivered one more album, Wilderness, and four minor hits on the Adult Contemporary charts--the same radio format that has not once removed her two top ten hits from their playlists.

Her fifth effort, Dream Street and Chance, is due out later in 2010.

Oh, and, er, there was also this.

3. Edwin McCain - "I'll Be" (#5) and "I Could Not Ask For More" (#37)
Remember this guy? In the aftermath of Hootie, there was a very brief interest in other college-town based, soft southern rock acts, some of whom made it (McCain, Sister Hazel) and some who didn't (Cravin' Melon).

The Edwin McCain Band was a roots rock act with a slight jazz tinge, in the same way that Dave Matthews Band has a slight jazz tinge--only less radical (just try to picture that). Signed to buddy Hootie's label Atlantic Records in 1994, it wasn't until 1998 with the release of his second album, Misguided Roses, that McCain took a vice grip-like hold of America's eardrums. The song entered the chart at #7 and eventually rose to #5 on the Hot 100, an impressive showing for an artist who had previously had only one other charting single ("Solitude," #72).

Of course, the song didn't die a quick death like so many top ten hits. In fact, some of you will probably hear it sometime this summer. Not on a radio, not on someone's iPod, but at a wedding. Yes, it's true--"I'll Be" has quickly become one of the most (over)played (and now unoriginal) wedding songs in recent history. Of course, McCain probably sees very little of this money, save for the occasional iTunes royalty check, but he should just be happy he made something next to a DJ's playlist with, um, "From This Moment On."

But somewhat improbably, lightning struck twice for McCain...sort of.

In a conscious attempt to recreate not only the success, but the actual sound and sentiment of "I'll Be," McCain recorded "I Could Not Ask For More" for his 1999 album, Messenger. While the song's showing on pop radio wasn't quite as impressive as that of "I'll Be," the follow-up actually did better on the Adult Contemporary charts, reaching #3 (over #6 for "I'll Be'). The track isn't bad, but it's so similar that it could be at best considered a sequel to "I'll Be," and at worst completely redundant.

The song also gained new life when super-duper hot country star Sara Evans covered the song for her 2000 album, Born to Fly. Evans' version became a top 5 country hit and reached #35 on the pop charts. Both versions are currently lighting up on DJ Danny's playlist at the Simmons-Weiner wedding in the Myrtle Beach area as we speak.

2. Jesus Jones - "Right Here, Right Now" (#2) and "Real, Real, Real" (#4)
In an empirical display of just how short the collective memory of Americans is, turns out Brit techno-rockers Jesus Jones weren't a one-hit wonder at all. Now, in my own anecdotal, unscientific survey of me asking various friends to name all the Jesus Jones songs they could, not a one could name anything other than their 1991 #2 Hot 100 hit "Right Here, Right Now."

Most of these conversations were followed up with, "I didn't think they ever did anything else." But people, I am here to tell you that we have all been had by our own pop culture memories. Not only did these guys have another hit song, but it was another top 5 hit, and it was their second single. These guys are the complete opposite of everything this blog stands for. They actually beat the curse (though it eventually took hold on the third single, and Americans never heard from them again).

The track, "Real Real Real" actually hit #4 on the Hot 100, though it admittedly did not fare as well on the dance and rock charts as "Right Here." Take a gander, gander takers.

Now, it's easy to see why the song was a hit. It offered more of the same as "Right Here, Right Now," a song that in itself was something of a breakthrough in the confluence of electronic and rock music, a style that became a huge influence on 75% of rock music in the '90s (remember when every artist from Oasis to Axl Rose talked about their "next album having a huge electronic influence"? Terrible time for music). No doubt folks wanted more of those sweet, sweet dance beats propelling the rocking guitar and "Real Real Real" gave them that. Unfortunately, the song becomes the red headed stepchild of our memory banks because, if I may state the obvious, it's just not quite as memorable as "Right Here," while doing the exact same thing.

So while Jesus Jones briefly beat "the second single curse," in our minds, in the long run, they just didn't. Chart positions and artistic merit aside, for all intents and purposes, time has turned them into one-hit wonders.

1. The Rembrandts - "Just the Way It Is, Baby" (#14) and "I'll Be There For You" (#17)
Oh, The Rembrandts.

If you're a follower of mine on Twitter, you'll know that my little bio says, rather snarkily, that we have not yet covered The Rembrandts. And with good reason: they're not a one-hit wonder. They're the very definition of a two hit wonder, and moreover, their two hits were spaced five years apart.

Rising like a double-headed phoenix from the ashes of the power-pop act Great Buildings, Danny Wilde and Phil Solem banded as The Rembrandts in 1989. After recording an album in Wilde's home studio, the two signed to Atlantic to release their eponymous debut. Their first single "Just the Way It Is, Baby" became a success, reaching #14 on the Hot 100 chart in 1991. The song was also a top ten hit in parts of Europe. The album itself did well, selling enough copies to reach #88 on the Billboard Album Charts.

Between 1990 and 1995, the band kept at it, releasing Untitled in 1992, and seven singles, two of which charted low on the Hot 100. It seemed that The Rembrandts were destined to follow the path of most power-pop acts--some initial exposure (especially in the late '80s/early '90s) and critical acclaim followed by complete disinterest from the fickle (and, as we've learned, forgetful) American listening public.

But then a funny thing happened. A post-Seinfeld sitcom about six young friends living in New York City (then known as Friends Like Us) went into production. The creators, David Crane, Marta Kauffman, along with songwriter Allee Willis wrote a theme song that they shopped around to various artists like R.E.M. and They Might Be Giants. Not sure why they thought Michael Stipe would ever agree to do a song so upbeat and sunny and, oh wait, "Shiny Happy People" had just been released. Now I get it.

Eventually the Kauffman and Crane landed on The Rembrandts, who, truth be told, possess a similar jangle pop sound to R.E.M. Wilde and Solem recorded the minute or so long theme song and went about recording their new LP, creatively titled, LP.

But the Rembrandts never counted on...BILLY SHEARS (not to be confused with Bernie Shears). That's right, the WLAC Nashville DJ looped the theme song into a full-length track. This version began getting requests from listeners and was picked up by various other stations. Soon, The Rembrandts' record label was knocking ont their door again, demanding they finish the track and make it a full-length tune--a sticky proposition, considering it was never really their song in the first place.

Nonetheless, the band did it, adding extra verses and a bridge. The record label tacked it onto LP. The band then recorded a video for the song, featuring the Friends cast in their prime, being characteristically obnoxious (okay, Courtney Cox and JAniston are still in their prime, but you know what I mean). "I'll Be There For You" reached #17 on the Hot 100 but hit #1 on several charts, including Top 40 and Adult Contemporary.

The interesting twist to the story is in the epilogue. Wilde and Solem themselves have never been too pleased about the path the song took. The Rembrandts were critics darlings and had a devoted fanbase, and the success of the song (and the subsequent video) made the band seem like they were cashing in, enjoying the success of a song they didn't have much hand in. Said Solem in a 2005 interview, "We lost a lot of hard-core, original fans because they thought we'd decided to take the easy way, but we felt forced to be press monkeys."

While the upshot was that the track's flipside "This House Is Not A Home" also got some record play, also reaching #17 on the Hot 100, it was too little, too late for the band, and they broke up in 1997. Though the Wilde and Solem reunited in 2005, the damage was mostly done, and The Rembrandts are still known for that one, vaguely annoying track (named one of the worst songs of all time by the pillar of publishing, Blender Magazine).


British Evasion #2, James - "Laid"

The Basics: A lot of the bands covered on this blog are artists who just barely missed the big time. They were in the right place at the right time but...unfortunately, someone else got there first. This goes doubly for British artists, of whom we only seem to let a small portion on the charts each year--I'm talking true British artists, not British people who move to LA to make it big.

The '80s and '90s Brit-pop scene seemed littered with artists who snared a sizable following in the UK, but failed to make much a splash over here the way Oasis did, save maybe for a song or two. It's a shame, because many of these bands were as good, if not better than their more successful counterparts. In the US, we take a legendary band like Blur and say, "yes, we'd like that 'Woo Hoo' song but keep anything you may have that is of merit." This is why the terrorists hate us.

The funny thing about Manchester's James was that this phenomenon seemed to happen to them twice. Formed in the early '80s, James was best known as being part of the so-called "Madchester" scene, a loosely defined late-80s music scene that combined elements of rock and dance music and arose from the international success of local bands like The Smiths, The Fall and New Order. "Madchester," a term coined by Factory Records director Philip Shotton ran from the late '80s to the early '90s and latched onto by NME and buoyed by the Factory Records label and bands like the Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, and The Charlatans.

James stood somewhere outside of the media fascination with "Madchester," (which was mostly concentrated on the Mondays and the Roses), but still benefitted from it, with their self-financed singles "Sit Down" and "Come Home" becoming local hits and eventually getting them noticed by the Fontana record label, who gave them their first major record deal. Their big break came when a certain hometown rock star publicly gave them props--a move that became a cross for the band to bear.

However, the band persevered, and because they had never been as tightly tied to the Madchester label as the other bands, they didn't suffer when the
enevitable backlash arose, thus giving them ample opportunity to hit again when the cycle came back around--which it did...sort of. The band stuck around for much longer than their peers, building up an increasingly interesting and strong body of work. By the time people's interest in Britpop came around again in mid-90s, James were primed to score big. 1993's explicit-as-it-is-catchy single "Laid" from the album of the same name became a huge hit on US college radio, increasing their stateside exposure. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to strike while the Britpop iron was hot meant that by the time they released a follow-up, their US audience had dried up and the UK audience had shrunk considerably, affecting sales, but failing to have much of an affect on the band's consistently excellent material.

Tell Me More: Begun in 1982 when guitarist Paul Gilbertson and bassist friend Jim Glennie began jamming together, playing loosely improvised shows--even opening for The Fall--and eventually bringing on drummer Gavan Whelan. After running through a roster of vocalists (and names, including Venerial and The Diseases, Volume Distortion, and Model Team) the group settled on Manchester University student Tim Booth who they met at a disco. Within a year they were signed to former TV host Tony Wilson's Factory Records. If you're unaware of the history of Factory Records, I can only suggest that you immediately Netflix the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People. A simple paragraph explaining Wilson and his relationship with the early-Manchester scene would not do the story justice.

After releasing two EPs, the group got a bit of an awkward endorsement from one Stephen Patrick Morrissey, then the lead singer of hometown heroes The Smiths for whom James served as opening act. I say awkward because, at the time, The Smiths were massive stars in their native country at the time, and being anointed "the next Smiths" by one of the Smiths is almost as much of a double edged sword as being named "the next Beatles" by Lennon and McCartney--just ask the guys from Badfinger.

Still, with their "next big thing" status cemented, the band attempted to push forward, but soon became hamstrung by internal problems. First was guitarist Paul Gilbertson's worsening drug habit, which became so bad the band kicked him out, replacing him with Larry Gott. Furthermore, it was now 1985 and the band had three EPs under their belt, but no album. Sensing Factory was more about image and partying than taking care of business (which, if you watch the aforementioned 24 Hour Party People, definitely seemed to be the case)
, the band jumped ship to Sire Records and teamed up with Patti Smith collaborator/rock writer/producer Lenny Kaye to record 1986's Stutter. The record stalled at 68 on the UK charts.

The band, sensing a ripple in the job security waters, went back into the studio and recorded Strip-mine; a conscious attempt at delivering a more conventional rock album. Instead of being grateful for the band's effort, Sire shelved the album for almost a year until a radio-friendly remixed proved worthy of official release. Strip-mine only reached 90 on the charts.

The band found a loop-hole in their Sire contract and were back on the street, unemployed and without a label. The band hit a low point, frequenting university medical studies in order to supplement their income, footage which was reportedly used to illustrate the desperation of has-been rockstars for a TV documentary.

But James weren't has-beens. In fact, their live following was still quite sizable, it simply hadn't translated into record sales. Signing with the indie label Rough Trade, the band decided to trade in on their live following and self-financed the recording of the live album, One Man Clapping, which hit #1 on the indie charts.

Back in business, the band made a couple of changes in the lineup, adding keys, violin and
trumpet to become a septet, and took to recording their third album, 1990's Gold Mother (later released as just James in the US). When frustrations arose with Rough Trade surrounding the band's perceived limited potential, the band jumped ship once again to the Fontana record label.

Just as the album was being released, the Madchester scene began to get media attention, and James were considered not only part of that scene, but also part of what was being called the "Baggy" movement coming out of their hometown. Baggy was essentially rock bands playing variations on psychedelic music with funkier, more dance-oriented beats. The association with the movement helped the band's momentum, and their next single, the infectious "Sit Down," a remake of an earlier single, sort of fit with the Baggy sound.

A re-released version of Gold Mother in 1991 including "Sit Down," which became a huge hit in the UK, hitting number 2 on the charts, but the band was (no shit) quickly labeled a one-hit wonder, despite having had three other singles from the album previously chart. "Sit Down" became one of the biggest selling songs of the year, found its was onto some US college playlists, and the album pushed around 250,000 units.
I think I had a nightmare that looked a lot like this video after watching 4 straight hours of Gap ads

Because they're a British band and Brit bands kinda like to be ungrateful a-holes when they think they're not getting their due, James began spurning audiences who only wanted to hear "Sit Down" by playing previously unreleased material at their live shows, as an F.U. to their perceived one-hit wonder status. The new material ended up on 1992's Seven, which, while not well-received by critics, became a hit based on the hit "Sound." The album and a subsequent acoustic tour with folk-rock god Neil Young brought James to a larger audience and giving them some stateside heat.

But the band had big plans for their next album and drafted U2/Talking Heads producer and ambient-rock god Brian Eno to shepherd their next album to greatness. Eno got all Svengali on James' collective white ass and took them to the next level of record production. Two albums came out of the recording sessions: the song oriented Laid and the decidedly more freaky-deaky Wah-Wah.

Laid was released first, gaining rave reviews from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. While the album reportedly did only okay in the UK, it blew up in the US, thanks to the success of "Laid" among bearded college radio DJ-types. Yeah, college radio DJs actually served as tastemakers back in the '90s. Go figure.

The First Single: Laid isn't the only album I've ever bought based on hearing only a single song by a band that turned out to be a one-hit wonder, but it's probably the best. The hit title song in question is indeed a stupendously rousing track, but, as is often the case with these unexpected hits, it is neither the best song on the LP nor representative of the album as a whole, which is really quite mellow and tends to wash over the listener.

Nonetheless, it is a track that instantly gains one's attention; in fact, having not been in college or much of a college radio listener in the early '90s (far too busy playing with my Technodrome) I didn't even hear the song until the late '90s, and in the most peculiar of places--the original trailer for the crude teen sex comedy American Pie. (Apparently I wasn't the only one. The song became the unofficial theme song for the film series, showing up in the trailer for each installment, and while James' version was never included on the films' soundtrack, an unnecessary cover of "Laid" played over the wedding scene in American Wedding.) The song's striking, explicit lyrics (which were censored for TV, instead of "she only comes when she's on top" Booth replaced "comes" with "hums"--check out the Letterman video below for proof) and folk-rock instrumentation made me instantly think it was a semi-obscure classic rock song I'd somehow missed, which, at the time seemed unlikely. If it wasn't Zeppelin, Floyd, or Stones, who else could it be? (As you can see, my musical taste was far from fully formed in 9th grade).

Only when I heard the song on a friend's mixtape (that's right, kids, cassette tape!) was I finallyt able to discern the artist. Heading out to Nashville's Great Escape (where all the good one-hit wonder albums go to be traded or sold in for about a buck) I found the album with the unusual cover of a bunch of Limeys dressed in women's clothing. I bought it for about six bucks and it's easily one of the top 50 albums I own. It's also widely considered by critics and fans alike as James best album.

"Laid" gained a huge following and eventually made its way to the charts, first the Modern Rock Tracks where it hit #3, and gaining enough momentum to crack the Hot 100, coming in at #61. Quite amazing for a song with lyrics that trace a man's unhealthy obsession with his psychotic girlfriend who has a predilection towards S&M.

Youtube commenter: "this is how I dance at home when no one's looking :D" Freak.

The Second Single: If you've learned anything on this blog, I hope that it's that there's really instance), the hard and fast rule seems to be that if your single hit with a large part of the audience for any reason other than it was simply a great song, your follow-up doesn't have a chance. Now, am I saying a song like "Laid" isn't a great song? Not at all. But I am saying that I think a large part of the audience enjoyed the song for its lyrics alone; the overtly kinky lyrics no doubt thrilled the college radio audiences, and the fact that it's a well-constructed song with fantastic singing, instrumentation and a memorable melody doesn't hurt either. It's simply a funny song, and not many people were demanding to hear more from the band. Maybe if the band had followed "Laid" up with a song called "Shagged," the same audience would have pounced, but instead, the band went a different direction.

"Say Something" is James doing what they do best. It's a mid-tempo track that builds to a stirring chorus. It's a fantastic song that makes one question why these guys never made it as big as their big brothers The Smiths or even fellow Brian Eno students U2, the latter of whom could learn a little something about subtly from James, and in particular Tim Booth, whose voice is controlled but lively, and strong while retaining a vulnerability. The lyrics are also depressing as watching a puppy freeze to death, and the song seems to slip over the listener rather than hit them--never a good sign for a song that's supposed to be a hit.

The track managed to hit #19 on the Modern Rock chart, but failed to chart on the Top 100. It would be the band's last charting single in the US.
And while hindsight is 20/20 and all that crap, one has to wonder why the men in charge didn't pick "Sometimes (Lester Piggott)," a song that had been an even bigger hit than "Laid" in the UK? The song is in the running for the band's best song ever; it's a gorgeous almost gospel ballad propelled by a ringing acoustic guitar and washed of organ. It's the kind of song that, even if it hadn't been a major hit, no doubt could have benefited from being a widely released single, maybe earning much-deserved spots on "Best Tracks of the '90s" lists that Rolling Stone and Pitchfork are intent on revising every two years. Try not to feel at least a little affected while listening to "Sometimes" and then ask yourself why A&R men are even allowed to keep their jobs?

Where Are They Now? In a bold but decidedly unwise move, the band released their follow-up to Laid in 1994, Wah-Wah--an experimental album culled from the Laid sessions recorded by Brian Eno. The album didn't sell and a proper follow-up didn't come until 1997, after a long hiatus in which lead singer Booth recorded and released a collaborative album with David Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti, Booth and the Bad Angel, which spawned the single "I Believe." The band recorded the follow-up album in England with Booth traveling periodically from the US to add his vocal parts. This long break and unwillingness to make hay while the sun shines is arguably the reason James never became an international sensation like they could have and should have.

For an album that took four years to make, Whiplash was a slightly disappointing follow-up to Laid, but one that managed to spawn a Top 10 hit in the UK, "She's A Star." In 1998, the band released a massively successful Best of collection which paved the way for an equally massive and successful tour.

Signs that the band's popularity was waning came in 1999 with the release of Millionaires, an album that, while entering the charts at #2, failed to sell the expected number of copies. The album received good reviews from outlets such as Q, who stated that the album was a bonafide classic that should be cited alongside the likes of OK Computer and Urban Hymns. The album spawned three singles, none of which cracked the top ten.

2001 was a bittersweet year for the band. With the release of Pleased to Meet You, the band hoped to regain their foothold in British rock, but instead were met with cold indifference by the mainstream, and the album was the band's first since Strip-mine to not make the top ten. Still, with the single "Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)," James retained their critical reputation as one of the best singles bands in British rock.

After the release of the album, lead singer Booth announced he was leaving the band to pursue other interests which included recording a true solo album, Bone, and briefly appearing in Batman Begins as the villain Mr. Zsasz, directed by noted James fan Christopher Nolan.

Booth as Mr. Zsasz in Batman Begins

In 2007, Booth announced he would be rejoining James for a series of concert dates. Despite previous lineup changes, the Laid lineup rejoined for the tour and subsequent 2008 album Hey Ma. The album featured the band working without Brian Eno for the first time in nearly fifteen years, instead tapping Booth's collaborator Lee Muddy Baker to man the knobs (does that sound sexual?).

Hey Ma
didn't have any charting singles, but nonetheless, the band continues to be an impressive live act with a large devoted following. The band is also in the process of releasing various EPs, DVDs, live albums, etc. including The Night Before, a mini-album released in April 2010. The album is part of a two-part series; its sequel, The Morning After, will be released in August 2010.

And as if to prove the timeless/classic nature the song has retained over the years, two-hit wonders Better Than Ezra covered "Laid" for their 2005 greatest hits album.

The First Single: "Laid"
The Second Single: "Say Something"
Bonus: "Sometimes (Lester Piggot)"


Merril Bainbridge - "Mouth"

Some songs simply don't seem to fit into their decade. They seem like they were kind of always there, and even hearing them on Jack FM every so often offers little indication of their date of origin. As an adolescent, I could have sworn that Violent Femmes' "Blister in the Sun" was released around 1994 (about the same time I first heard it on the pilot episode of "My So-Called Life") instead of 1981. I also recall my sister playing me "The Joker" sometime in 1996 and thinking that this Miller fella had a bright future ahead of him.

Along those same lines, these lyrics have haunted me for years: "When I kiss your mouth, don't wanna waste it/Turn you upside down, I wanna taste it." But they never haunted me in any sort of conscious state when I could have easily Lycos'd the lyrics (yeah, I still use Lycos, what of it?). Instead, they crept up on me in the dead of night, eating away at my consciousness, daring me to figure out where the hell they came from. One thing I knew for certain, it was not Sheryl Crow, and it was not Jill Sobule.

It wasn't until about a month ago when my bass playing roommate began trying to learn the bass part to "Mouth" that I heard Merril Bainbridge come over his shitty HP speakers. That plinking piano, the upright bassline, the vocal percussion, the timeless production--it all came together at that moment, causing me to jump out of my well-worn computer chair and shout, "Eureeka!" (or rather, just poke my head out my door and say, "hey, who sings that?"--I didn't actually jump out of my chair, I was/am tired/lazy.)

The Basics: Merril Bainbridge, a native of Melbourne, Australia became a superstar in her native country with the release of the hit single "Mouth." The song became a number one hit and the album, The Garden, went double-platinum (that means it sold about 140,000 units in the land of Yahoo Serious). Bainbridge began her career as a session vocalist, trading her talents for studio time with a producer known only as "Siew," who would go on to produce The Garden. Siew helped Bainbridge sign a deal with the Australian label Gotham, and the pair spent over a year recording her 1994 debut. Due to the enormous success of "Mouth," Bainbridge was signed to Universal, and The Garden was released stateside in the fall of 1996.

First Single: "Mouth" was the key to The Garden's initial success in the country that brought us Veggemite. Released around Christmas 1994, the album was lost in the flurry of holiday releases. Later in 1995, the single was repackaged and reissued with more promotional support. The song was soon picked up by radio stations across Oz and after six-weeks, jumped from number 42 to number one, where it stayed for another six straight weeks. After spending 21 weeks on the charts, Bainbridge broke the record for having the longest running number one hit of any female in the '90s. The 4th bestselling single of 1995, the Australian Recording Industry Association accredited the song platinum.

Nearly two years after the initial release of "Mouth," the song hit the U.S. and took a similar path. Debuting at number sixty-seven on the Billboard Hot 100 and soon peaked at number four, spending a total of thirty weeks on the charts. The song sold 600k copies and was certified gold. The rare stateside success of an artist from the country that Ray Winstone once insisted he would civilize made Bainbridge an even bigger star in her homeland. Surprisingly, the song tanked in the UK and was a top five hit in Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

Though the song featured lyrics that many, many dirty twelve-year-olds (cough, me) construed as graphically sexual, Bainbridge always insisted in interviews that the song was, "definitely not a sexual song. It's just honest - about a relationship, how you feel in a relationship. Sometimes you feel you're in control and the next thing, you're insecure - it's the role playing thing."

So it's not sexual, but it's about role playing? We may want to take that back to the drawing board, Ms. Bainbridge.

Second Single: "Under the Water" followed "Mouth"--an almost impossible task for any song. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, "Mouth" is a one in a million hit--an infectious track that you want to hear over and over again and somehow don't tire of. Think how you felt listening to "Hey Ya!" or "Since You've Been Gone" in the '00s. Maybe you eventually got tired of those songs, but only after putting your iPod on repeat approximately 387 times in a row. Songs like that come around once every couple of years in the pop music world, and since Bainbridge was far from an established talent stateside (unlike, say, Outkast) anything she did after "Mouth" was going to be a let down. Though more a product of its time than the timeless "Mouth," "Under the Water" is still a good song, though not terribly different than the hundred or so Lilith Fair-esque singles around at the same time.

A video featuring Bainbridge with her super haircut (bangs, bangs and more bangs!) alternating between dry and slicked with water was released.

Though the song was big enough to give her another platinum certification in Eric Bana's Home Country--where it peaked at number four--in the U.S., the song stalled at number 91 after six-weeks on the charts. "Mouth" remains Bainbridge's highest charting single.

Whatever happened to...?: Bainbridge is one of the few one-hit wonders who, after a 1998 sophomore album, has come very close to dropping off the face of the earth. In light of how other one-hit wonders have ended up, one has to respect her for not showing up on reality TV and making an ass of herself.

The follow-up album, Between the Days was in the same vein as Garden--well-produced (again by the mysterious Siew, who I picture looking like "Cloak" from the Cloak and Dagger comic book series--come to think of it, Bainbridge looks kinda like Dagger!), light pop with Bainbridge's effortless vocals leading the way. Essentially, more clever songs and tight melodies. But it wasn't enough--even for those in the Terra Australis. The first single, "Lonely" peaked at number 40 on the Australian charts and number 18 on Billboard's "Bubbling Under Hot 100" charts (a list consisting of 25 songs threatening to make it onto the Hot 100).

Cloak & Dagger = Siew & Merril?

The same year, Bainbridge released a cover of Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe" with an appearance by Shaggy. The track, recorded for the Australian film Welcome to Woop-Woop starring international superstar Jonathan Schaech, must be heard to be believed (to her credit, Bainbridge never looked cuter).

The cover peaked at number sixty-two in Australia.

Since then, Bainbridge has released several one-off singles, and recorded an as-yet-unreleased untitled album in 2003. Her last single, "Girl Next Door" faired so poorly on the Austrlian charts that the album was shelved.

As to what she's up to now, an unsourced Wikipedia update suggests she is "working backstage as a composer for other Australian pop artists." I have no idea how one works "backstage" as a composer, though if I had to translate, I'd assume this means she's doing songwriting for other artists, though there's little evidence available on the net to support this assertion.

If you're out there, Ms. Bainbridge, let us know what you're up to. We were truly sorry to see you disappear like the girls from Appleyard College in Picnic at Hanging Rock. You deserved better.

Download: Merril Bainbridge - Mouth
Download: Merril Bainbridge - Under the Water