It was a moment I vividly remember, circa 1994. Music had not gone streaming yet -- we were still virtually a decade away from those realities. Racks of compact discs lined the den walls of music aficionados – clearly before any notions that “we didn’t really own the music” had set in. Napster hadn’t happened yet.
Discovering the underground required that you actually go to the underground.
You wanted to hear good music, but you had to find it -- a particular challenge if you lived in Milwaukee. Chicago was lucky enough to have WXRT.
I stood in my friend and former bandmate’s living room when he pulled a compact disc out from his collection and said, “You’ve got to hear this.” We were fervent fans of power pop; the straight-ahead rock that featured great melodies and hooks, harmonies and bridges. It was all pretty harmless, listening to Paul Collins or The Plimsouls or early Marshall Crenshaw. The Smithereens were on heavy rotation. Two guitars, bass and drums and shut the hell up. We lived on that shit.
He slid the disc into what would now be considered the passé user interface of a CD player, and “Very Best Years” by a band called The Grays came blasting out of the speakers. It was a revelation to us. It just sounded so damn good. The production was tight. It sounded somehow more sophisticated than the other music we were listening to. The chords weren’t straightforward. The song started groovy and clearly used some kind of 9th or 7th chord, then segued into hard power chords. The singer, fantastic songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jason Falkner began to tell us a story “Okay, it started a long time ago…” Then everything effortlessly transitioned to a beautiful chorus featuring a unison melody, both sung and played on the guitar simultaneously – all leading up to the line, “These are the very best years.”
It was beautiful. It changed our lives. And it was true -- these were the very best years.
The album by The Grays was titled “Ro Sham Bo”. It is a brilliantly diverse collection of songs written by multiple songwriters including the aforementioned Falkner, along with Jon Brion, who would go on to be one of the great film composers of our time (Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love, I Heart Huckabees, and last year’s Ladybird).
Brion has had a standing gig Friday nights at Largo in Los Angeles for years, and has played with countless musicians. This musical mastermind has produced everyone from Fiona Apple to Aimee Mann to Rufus Wainwright.
The Grays were ground zero for what I would begin to call “Esoteric Pop,” a curious subgroup of songwriters and musicians who flourished through the 90s into the early 2000s playing a sophisticated brand of pop music. It was a renaissance of melody, of songwriting and talent that flew largely under the radar of monolithic mainstream pop music. (Just as a point of reference, the number one pop song of 1994 was The Sign by Ace Of Base.)
I’m not sure when I started calling it Esoteric Pop; the definition of esoteric seemed to fit the bill when describing this music:
Esoteric -- intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest.
The music was both sophisticated but also formulaic in the best possible way; if you stood on the Beatles side of the Beatles / Stones argument you were likely to have an affinity for esoteric pop.
The great songwriters from the esoteric pop “movement” (if I dare call it a movement) were heavily influenced by the Beatles –people like Brion and Falkner, Aimee Mann, Mike Viola, Elliot Smith, Neil Finn, David Mead. Chris Collingwood and Adam Schlesinger. These songwriters were informed by an encyclopedic knowledge of 60s and 70s bands like The Hollies and Big Star, Paul McCartney’s solo work, The Beach Boys, Harry Nilsson, and Queen.
It may seem like sacrilege but this music was two or three steps above typical power pop, yet it typically fell within that category at the local record store.
It seemed that the movement was also an answer to the over-produced 80s, when some great bands suffered from soon-to-be painfully outdated production techniques. Bands like The Replacements and The Pixies were obscured by the 80s reverb echo chambers and gated snares; many excellent songs were simply buried -- lost in trendy sounds and fashionable recording methods.
Now, that veil had been stripped away. The drums sounded like drums again and the vocals sounded pure. If you listen to some of the best releases from that era, it’s like the singer is in the room with you.
Aimee Mann exemplified that vocal presence. Her first solo album “Whatever” is as good a place as any to begin the journey into Esoterica. Jon Brion co-produced and played on Whatever. In fact, Mann’s first three releases, all produced or co-produced by Brion are some of the best examples of brilliant pop song craft, culminating with her 2000 release Bachelor #2, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. Two songs from that album “Deathly” and “Save Me” inspired part of the storyline and featured on the soundtrack of P.T. Anderson’s film “Magnolia.”
Falkner, aside from being in the band Jellyfish for their brilliant album “Bellybutton” – (he would leave that band for their second album Spilt Milk which Brion played on) came out with two killer solo albums after The Grays and Jellyfish – “Author Unknown” and “Can You Still Feel.” Falkner’s song “She Goes To Bed” is quintessential esoteric pop.
The esoteric pop family tree branched out to Elliott Smith, who collaborated with Brion, and Falkner played on a fantastic album by Soulwax --their consistently satisfying and powerful “Much Against Everyone’s Advice.” Falkner also collaborated with chamber pop musician Eric Matthews (The Lateness of the Hour) and co-wrote part of Brendan Benson’s brilliant debut “One Mississippi.”
Brion also collaborated with pop legend Neil Finn; the genius behind Crowded House. Finn’s 1998 album “Try Whistling This” is one of the essential releases of the esoteric pop movement and features the brilliant “She Will Have Her Way.” It remains the high point of Finn’s solo career.
Many of esoteric pop’s greatest songwriters came from the east coast, with Brion growing up in New Jersey before heading to LA. Two incredibly influential artists hailed from Boston – Mike Viola and the songwriting duo from Fountains of Wayne, Chris Collingwood and Andy Schlesinger. FOW’s album Utopia Parkway is a must, and Viola’s album Hang on Mike is a beautiful piece of introspective, harmony laden esoteric pop.
Michael Penn (then and now Aimee Mann’s husband) hailed from New York, and his album “Resigned” is a key piece of the esoteric pop puzzle.
These artists were moderately popular, (Fountains of Wayne found the most popularity with their song “Stacy’s Mom) but for the most part the Esoterics eschewed widespread appeal.
They each had a rabid niche audience, but never really broke through to the masses; none of them filled stadiums or achieved constant radio rotation (not counting Fountains of Wayne’s less esoteric “Stacy’s Mom). The Grays made just one album. Aimee Mann still thrives as a consistently great songwriter and has a loyal, if boutique following Fountains of Wayne continue to release solid albums. And Brion still plays in LA at Largo.
Undeterred by the Spotification of music, the Esoteric songwriters and musicians endure.
For reference, here is a list of essential esoteric pop releases from 1990 – 2005.
The Grays – Ro Sham Bo
Aimee Mann – Whatever
Aimee Mann – I’m with Stupid
Aimee Mann – Bachelor #2
Michael Penn - Resigned
Jon Brion – Meaningless
Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers – Falling into Place
Mike Viola and the Candy Butchers – Hang on Mike
Fountains of Wayne – Utopia Parkway
Neil Finn – Try Whistling This
David Mead – The Luxury of Time
Eric Matthews – The Lateness of the Hour
Soulwax – Much Against Everyone’s Advice
Elliott Smith – XO
Elliott Smith – Figure 8
Pernice Brothers - The World Won't End