Here’s this week’s question, courtesy of reader Jason Larsen:
The death late last year of novelist Thomas Berger got me thinking about what might be called a “personal artist.” Berger never achieved household-name status, and as such, when I’d read his books, I sort of felt like I was the only one reading his work. It was like he was writing books just for me, and the two of us shared a special bond. Is there a novelist, filmmaker, band, or other artist you admire whose lack of fame makes you feel, at times, like they’re your own private, personal artist?
I don’t remember who lent me a copy of Kleenex Girl Wonder’s Ponyoak in the late ’90s, but I do recall feeling like I had stumbled onto the next Built To Spill. Like The Mountain Goats, the moniker can extend to a rotating lineup of backing musicians, but it’s mostly applicable to Graham Smith, who founded the band when he lived in Downers Grove, Illinois. It’s not the band’s debut album, but with 25 songs on it, Ponyoak offers the best introduction to Smith’s lo-fi sound. I count “Now, I Got A Feeling” and “Tendency Right Foot Forward” among my favorite tracks; Smith’s lyrics demonstrate a nimbleness and cleverness similar to Robert Pollard’s. Despite releasing 12 albums, the band’s never gained much traction—not in my circles, anyway.
I got to write about a “mine and mine alone” personal favorite in my column The Overlook recently: Crane Wilbur, the former silent movie star who became a prolific B-movie and noir screenwriter and directed a bunch of prison movies. These kinds of private passions are an intrinsic part of movie culture. (I’ve written about that, too.) I seem to be alone in thinking that Stephen Roberts—a Pre-Code director best known for a lurid adaptation of Faulkner’s Sanctuary called The Story Of Temple Drake—was a talent who died too young. At his best, Roberts could be a strikingly sensitive director, as in Romance In Manhattan and his two remarkable segments for the anthology film If I Had A Million. This is also as good a time as any to confess that I have a serious weak spot for Christopher Coppola, the pirate-biker-chef and director of the semi-notorious Nicolas Cage campfest Deadfall, and think that his movies are fun and goofy in a way that low-budget movies rarely are.
Not many of us carry a torch for Lance Hahn and J Church, but we’re zealots: I will gladly blather on about how Hahn’s face belongs on the Mount Rushmore of pop punk and how J Church should go down as one of the great punk bands of all time. That can be a hard argument to make, because J Church sold few albums across Hahn’s prolific career, and nine years after his death, the group hasn’t become a posthumous cause célèbre. That has the perverse effect of making my personal connection to Hahn’s music that much more intense, because I want more people to know about it. (The J Church sampler I made for some friends was, uh, 40 tracks long. In my defense, there is a lot to cover: As I noted in Hahn’s obituary, J Church released seven full-lengths, four singles’ compilations, two split albums, more than 30 singles, roughly 25 split singles, and nine “miscellaneous” full-lengths.) Because Hahn was so prolific, I have a half-baked theory that there’s a corresponding J Church song for any topic, which means I have a J Church song stuck in my head at some point every day. I have no complaints.
Om Shanti Om is one of the most successful Bollywood movies ever made, but no one in the United States outside of myself, my sister, and our friend who introduced it to us seems to know about it. I’m sure that’s not actually true—maybe I need better friends or something—but I’ve been flummoxed about its highly niche status here since its release in 2007. Maybe it’s because Om Shanti Om is both a loving homage and meta commentary on Bollywood as a whole, poking fun at its tropes and mirroring several older popular Bollywood films. It’s also very long—its tagline is “For some dreams, one lifetime is not enough,” and that’s reflected in the 162-minute running time—with essentially two different movies combined into one cycle of reincarnation. The soundtrack is killer, even if it is in a language—Hindi—I don’t understand, and hits all my musical-loving sweet spots. It feels like a musical tailor-made for my sister and me, to the point where I’d never, ever play the soundtrack if there was someone else in the car with us. It’d be too annoying for them, especially because we sing along to a half dozen songs in a language we don’t speak.
I don’t remember how I heard about them, but I’ve been in love with The Lowest Pair since I did. The singer-songwriter duo of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee weave some gorgeous Americana songs with their vocal harmonies and banjos that dance cheek to cheek. Even when the lyrics get dark, their music is warm and tuneful. In a beautiful personal moment that ensured the band’s extra-special place in my life, my girlfriend and I harmonized our way through one of their songs, a powerful tearjerker called “Rosie,” while driving home from our first “official” date. They don’t tour outside the Northwest and Midwest often, but we were lucky enough to catch them at a tiny show in a New York lounge. Heard live, those harmonies were even more otherworldly.
When browsing my CD and vinyl collections, I’ll occasionally come across something and wonder, “Am I the only person in the world who owns this at this point?” I’m sure that’s not the case with Vitreous Humor, though maybe it’s close. While the band made a ruckus in Kansas and neighboring states in the mid-’90s, it barely released any music. The defining statement is a fantastic seven-song EP that still holds up. Maybe they split up (and became The Regrets, another answer that I could’ve given here) because they were getting lumped in with the emo scene, where they didn’t belong. And while songs like the frantic “She Eats Her Esses” sound very much of their time, they’re also smart and weird enough to make perfect sense now. Maybe there’ll be a resurgence in 50 years—stranger things have happened.
I am a well-established old-radio nerd, but there’s one player from that era who particularly fascinates me: Lucille Fletcher, who is—unsurprisingly—a writer. I noticed that her name popped up on a lot of my favorite Suspense episodes; she wrote the famous “Sorry, Wrong Number,” for example, after a testy woman was rude to her at a grocery store. She also penned an Orson Welles favorite, “The Hitchhiker,” after she and her then-husband, Bernard Herrmann (composer of those Psycho violins), saw the same hitchhiker twice on one road trip. After Herrmann had an affair with Fletcher’s cousin, she married another musical type, Douglass Wallop, the composer of Damn Yankees. But I’m most concerned with Fletcher’s professional life: What must it have been like to leap from CBS secretary to become (likely) the only female writer in the office, penning hour after hour of suspenseful drama? In a perfect world, I’ll write her biography someday, but until then, I’ll keep championing this artist from an era that is quickly disappearing into the past.
Laurie Anderson isn’t exactly an unknown entity; she’s been an established presence in the art world for 40 years. Her improbable hit single “O Superman” topped out at number two in the U.K. singles charts in 1981, and she certainly gained some refracted fame from her long-term relationship with Lou Reed. Other than a few folks who confuse her for Loni Anderson, almost everyone I know has heard of her. But I’ve never met anyone else who actually listens to her. Which isn’t super surprising. As much as I adore her, I understand that her stream-of-consciousness vocoder-distorted musings spoken over a modified violin outfitted with a tape-head bow isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I’ve been enthralled by her music my entire life. My family owned copies of Big Science and Mister Heartbreak, and as a kid I was hypnotized by Anderson’s space music blend of brainy pontification and Looney Tunes humor. It’s reliably great music to draw to, because it’s rarely forceful. It glides airily in the background, delivering surreal bursts of inspiration.
It would be an exaggeration to say that I am the only fan of cult rapper, producer, columnist, and author J-Zone. He epitomizes the cult artist—loved intensely by a small, select group of devotees but a total unknown to the rest of the world. Zone’s idiosyncratic, smartass hip-hop has always been too goddamned smart and different for its own good, commercially speaking, and after cranking out a bunch of stellar underground releases through his Old Maid Entertainment label, Zone grew so frustrated with the music industry and his place in it that he straight up quit the business and even wrote a terrific book about his failed music career that, in a fortuitous turn of events, kick-started his passion to release new albums. There’s something about Zone’s music that’s particularly well suited to my sensibility, with its prickly, singular combination of obscure pop-culture references, wicked self-deprecation and self-aggrandizement, loopy samples, cranky old-man attitude, and dazzling conceptual ambition. I’ve tried to evangelize on J-Zone’s behalf here because it sucks feeling like he’s my own personal artist. I would be only too happy to share him with the rest of y’all, beginning with what I think is his best album, Pimps Don’t Pay Taxes, which is somehow even better than its name would suggest.
When people list the greatest bands of the late ’70s British post-punk scene, The Au Pairs are always an afterthought, which is crazy to me, because they’re my favorite of the whole bunch. (“Better than Gang Of Four?,” you say skeptically, to which I say, “You heard me the first time.”) Even among feminist music historians, they tend to take a back seat to their contemporaries The Slits and The Raincoats—both worthy bands, it should be noted. But neither explicitly addressed sex and gender politics with the snide wit and skilled musicianship of Au Pairs lead singer Lesley Woods, who quit music after her band failed to storm the charts and is currently working as an immigration lawyer in the U.K. (She’s cool as fuck.) Their second (and not nearly as good, honestly) record, Sense And Sensuality, and an anthology, Stepping Out Of Line, are both on Spotify. But my favorite Au Pairs song isn’t on either of their albums: It’s a favorite captured during their Peel Sessions. “Monogamy” is another extremely high-energy song, delivered with a raw edge live in the studio. An infectious propolyamory dancefloor jam? From 1979? Holy shit! How does every riot grrrl in a Le Tigre shirt not have a Lesley Woods tattoo? I understand they’re better known in Europe, but still, they should be much, much bigger.
I can probably count on one hand the number of people I’ve met who consider themselves big fans of John Fowles, author of some minor American classics. His novel-length indictment of straight-male adolescence, The Magus, is a book that loomed large in my teenage years, and I spent a good portion of that time trying to convince lots of people of its merits. It’s a story about an entitled, privileged asshole of a young man who goes to a mysterious island and proceeds to experience a series of strange events that gradually reveal a singular truth: namely, that he doesn’t know a damn thing about the world, other people, or himself. It’s a coming-of-age tale about male arrogance that also reads like a supernatural nerdfest, which explains why I still feel like it was written specifically for me, occupying a perfect Venn diagram overlap of my teenage sense of self and my genre interests. Obviously, the guy who wrote The French Lieutenant’s Woman has a fan base, but The Magus still feels like my own special work of art, a novel written for an audience of one.
There’s no shortage of quality musical comedy out there, but there’s no one making silly songs quite like Matt Farley, a.k.a. The Toilet Bowl Cleaners. Farley’s written literally tens of thousands of novelty songs over the last eight years or so, putting them up on all the various musical streaming and download services. He publishes under a variety of assumed names, like The Hungry Food Band and The Very Nice Interesting Singer Man. But The Toilet Bowl Cleaners is easily my favorite, with a smiling, unflinching approach to bodily functions and the messes they make. A friend of mine played them for me on a road trip recently, and at first I was extremely put off. But my friend insisted we keep going, and after around 20 songs about farts, diarrhea, and pee, I was dying. The songs are alternately cheerful, angsty, triumphant, and sad, but all are sung with an unflinching earnestness that slowly makes them a true joy to listen to. You can tell Farley has a lot of fun making these songs, and that’s the real pleasure in listening to them. Not every album is great, but some are, especially Never Gonna Flush Again. Here, the artist takes a long look in the bathroom mirror, Windex in hand, and decides never to write poop songs again, no matter how much fans like me clamor for them.
I first saw electro-pop rock foursome Electrelane in 2004 in the same place and situation I’d see most bands in my early 20s: a little drunk at Chicago’s Empty Bottle. I’d gone with my boyfriend at the time, who was my gateway to a lot of amazing music. (I know this is a cliché; I don’t care.) Jacob may have brought me to the show, but as soon as Verity Susman sang the opening lines of the band’s revved-up cover of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire,” Electrelane became mine. After that night, I would, without fail, see them whenever they were in town, including a summer show when the air conditioning went out (again, at the Bottle), which only riled the sweaty crowd more. Electrelane’s live shows were energetic as all get-out. They’d take songs apart then put them back together—loud and wild yet controlled. During breakdowns, Mia Clarke would turn her guitar around, strings out, and rub them along the top of an amp—a gesture that was powerful, sexy, and truly badass. Electrelane went on hiatus in 2007, and while the band is originally from England, Clarke lives in Chicago. I used to see her on the L sometimes. She was, like me, one among a throng of anonymous commuters, and I’d think, “Am I the only one who sees her? Am I the only one who knows?”
It’s always a relief when a friend does something artistically I can genuinely appreciate without navigating the awkward hedge maze of guarded half-compliments demanded by social propriety and my own cowardice. So when Spouse, the Maine and Boston-based band fronted by college pal José Ayerve, turned out to be one of my favorite bands, I found myself in the opposite quandary of expressing enthusiastic fandom without seeming to be stacking the deck. A Pixies-flavored alt-rock band (with rotating members behind Ayerve), Spouse found some regional success and released four excellent albums of energetic, thoroughly pleasing music before petering out. (José’s still working as a full-time musician.) Their stripped-down first album Nozomi remains a sentimental, ragged favorite, but the lovely and optimistic pop paean to getting engaged “Impressed By You” (off of 2010’s Confidence) is such a uniquely bright and wise take on love that I’m always amazed when I’m at a wedding and it’s not on the playlist.
Plenty of folks know Jon Brion as a music producer and a composer of film scores who’s worked with the likes of Kanye West, Fiona Apple, and Paul Thomas Anderson. Not enough people know Meaningless, Jon Brion’s long-out-of-print debut as a singer-songwriter. An unheralded classic of early ’00s sad-bastard pop, the self-released CD combines the melodic stickiness of Brion’s film scores, his deep knowledge of pop history, and the genre-bending bag of tricks he previously hauled out for When The Pawn…, Rufus Wainwright’s first self-titled LP, and the first few solo efforts from Meaningless contributor Aimee Mann. Fans of Punch-Drunk Love’s “Here We Go” will love the lush breakup lament “Ruin My Day”; the Chamberlin intro on “Her Ghost” gives me goosebumps to this day. The album closes with a lovely cover of Cheap Trick’s “Voices” that picks up the original’s Beatlesque vibe and strips it to the bare bones, à la the Fab Four’s “Because.” When the cover turned up in an eighth-season episode of How I Met Your Mother, it wasn’t just a silver lining in the cloud of the show’s decline—it was also a welcome sign from some other Meaningless cultist far away.
Considering that YouTube personalities can rack up tens of millions of subscribers, the platform is hardly niche anymore. But there’s a range of YouTube vloggers who carry a much lower profile than your Zoellas or your Tyler Oakleys. My favorite of these is Marie from BitsAndClips. She’s got only about 100,000 subscribers, which pales in comparison to Zoella’s 10.7 million, but it allows her to upload what she likes without trying to appeal to a broad audience. She’s a stay-at-home mom who mostly vlogs about her two adorable kids, grocery store hauls, and day-to-day minutiae. While I’m sure that sounds boring to some people, I find her channel ridiculously soothing. Her lovely, low-stakes videos hit a sweet spot that makes me both nostalgic for being a kid and excited to one day have my own family. While her chipper, positive persona didn’t initially seem like my jam, she has hidden levels of sarcasm and self-deprecation that I’ve come to appreciate. In a media landscape filled with things I feel like I’m supposed to be watching, Marie’s videos remain a little treat just for me.
One of the perks of growing up in Michigan was that we got the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on our cable system. That’s how I first saw John Paizs’ bizarre 1985 film Crime Wave, the surreal saga of a glum, mute indie filmmaker (played by Paizs himself) who struggles to complete his latest hyperviolent screenplay and ends up tangling with a serial killer/doctor along the way. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The film seems like a distillation of David Lynch, John Waters, and old sitcoms and educational films from the ’50s, but it’s all done with a distinctly skewed Canadian perspective. I felt sure that Crime Wave would be a cult sensation on the Rocky Horror/Pink Flamingos/Eraserhead level and that Paizs himself would be a hero to movie geeks everywhere. In many ways, it anticipates the work of Charlie Kaufman. But 31 years after it debuted and 20 years after I saw it, Crime Wave remains relatively obscure, as does its director. Rights issues have largely kept the film out of circulation, and Paizs only directed one more theatrical feature after that. But that one movie lives on in my memory, so closely attuned with my interests and sense of humor that I like to pretend it was made especially for me. Since the only official home release of the film has been on VHS, that helps make it seem like a secret or hidden work.
For years now I’ve called Appleton, Wisconsin’s Tenement “America’s greatest rock band.” Sure, it’s a claim that seems hyperbolic, but it’s the only way I can accurately describe it. Even when it was a scrappy little pop-punk band—a term that was always reductive for the trio—Tenement showed a mastery of diverse styles few bands have. Last year’s Predatory Headlights put more eyes on it, but the 78-minute amalgam of classic-rock riffs, doo-wop harmonies, weirdo jazz, punk energy, and soulful singing still didn’t connect with the larger world in the way I felt it should have. I’ve seen the band play countless times—be it in dingy basements or tiny clubs—and it’s always been a soul-shaking event. Amos Pitsch plays as if possessed by otherworldly spirits, rarely stopping to take a breath between songs, and that type of energy sucks in the crowd every single time. Perhaps the issue is that there’s not a single Tenement song that captures the band’s depth but, to me, that’s part of the fun. At the very least, it’s what will keep me hollering about Tenement until others begin worshiping at the altar of America’s greatest rock band.
As I get older, I feel less tolerant of opening bands at rock shows. But I should remain open-minded, because one of my favorite bands of the past couple of decades was an opener. I caught Palomar opening for Mates Of State and Rainer Maria in 2003 and eventually grew to love them more than either of those bands. They’re a Brooklyn band that never really crossed over into even indie levels of national success (I’m perpetually unsure of whether they’re still together), but they’ve released five really good records over the years that deserve a wider audience. As much as I’d love for them to get that audience, I admit I’ve enjoyed going to their album-release shows alone and knowing that maybe band members will be passing out cookies they made before they take the stage. It reminds me of being a teenager in upstate New York, where there was a greater divide between “local bands” and bigger acts that blew through town (or neighboring towns). That local-band status also makes their songs’ chipper neuroses and sometimes elusive but evocative lyrics feel particularly intimate and lived-in. For a few minutes at a time, I feel like I’m part of a Brooklyn scene that’s actually too vast for a semi-old person to really navigate.
The Japanese punk band Ging Nang Boyz are almost impossible to listen to in the U.S., and impossible to understand as a non-Japanese speaker. After hearing a cover of their song “I Don’t Wanna Die” on Jeff Rosenstock’s debut solo record, my friend and I combed the internet to find more of their music. That song is one of the most raucous and heartfelt pop-punk anthems I’ve ever heard, with a transcendent chorus of “YES! YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!” and a sexually explosive video that would make Enema Of The State-era Blink-182 blush. The video has sadly disappeared from YouTube, and the rest of their videos are blocked in this country. Following a deep dive into the few English-language resources and all the poorly translated Japanese Wikipedia pages we could find, we were finally able to listen to a full album. We played it for weeks, loving its bursts of noisy punk energy and explosions of melodic gang vocals—all without understanding any of the lyrics. The digging it took to hear the album convinced us that we were among Ging Nang Boyz’s only American fans. Of course, we were being naive about their fame. A Japanese friend later told me that Ging Nang Boyz were quite well known in their home country. Embracing the language barrier, my friend and I are still part of what feels like a private club of Ging Nang Boyz fans who have no idea what any of their other songs are about.
Every few years, I dust off Maxeen’s 2003 self-titled debut and lament that the band didn’t become better known. The Long Beach trio specialized in vivacious pop-punk twisted with effortlessly retro influences: skiffle reggae-pop, compact mod rock, and nervy power pop. Although Maxeen played Warped Tour and was considered part of that scene, the band had much more in common with Joe Jackson, The Jam, and (especially) The Police. (To that last point, vocalist Tom Bailey sounded like a rawer, rougher version of Sting, and the band did a great cover of “Murder By Numbers” on a Police tribute record.) Maxeen’s dissolution was slow and almost painfully clichéd: After leaving indie SideOneDummy for Warner Bros., the band recorded a follow-up, Hello Echo, that was barely released, and split up in 2008. I can’t help but think that if the band had stuck around for a few more years, trends would’ve caught up with its sound. In the end, Maxeen ended up a little too far ahead of the nostalgia curve.
I know they don’t belong solely to me, mostly because a shared love of their music has been directly responsible for the bond that exists between myself and many of my closest friends (not to mention a number of wonderful acquaintances) over the years, but I have such a connection to The Trashcan Sinatras that they feel very much like “my band.” When they started out, they were just one of any number of jangly pop bands from the U.K., but as their commercial fortunes faded, my love for their music remained strong, and way back in the dark days of message boards and listservs, I found myself part of a group of TCS fans who changed my life… and I do mean that literally: I got my first full-time gig in pop-culture journalism through one of those fans. I even named my podcast after one of their songs. I think one of the biggest reasons they feel like they’re “mine” is because I’ve never actually seen them live, but I’m not complaining, just as long as I can still listen to their songs.
It might be a stretch to refer to a company that managed to sell more than 600,000 copies of its first game—1990’s swords and simulation masterpiece ActRaiser—as obscure. But developer Quintet rarely reached those heights again, despite the steady maturation of its work as the Super Nintendo era went on. (1994’s Illusion Of Gaia sold slightly better, but that was mostly thanks to a massive promotional push from Nintendo Power.) For me, though, every game in the company’s catalog—excepting the dismal ActRaiser 2—was a must-play, because Quintet’s games evoked an emotion I’d never felt before while playing a game: melancholy. (The gorgeously sad soundtracks certainly helped.) Quintet’s games are about resurrecting dead worlds, but they never lose sight of the forces that caused those worlds to die, forces almost entirely centered in human misery and greed. And their messianic heroes—literally, in the case of ActRaiser and 1992’s Soul Blazer—never shy away from sacrificing themselves to give humanity yet another second chance. I still remember the excitement I felt when I found out about Terranigma, the company’s final SNES title, which was never released in North America. Tracking it down and playing it, I had a glimpse of what it’d be like to have a game studio that was only making stuff specifically for me.
There’s a strange, serendipitous connection between Jonathan Fire*Eater and my life’s events that gives me a sense of ownership, even though a) the band imploded shortly after I discovered it; and b) they have plenty of other fans, thanks. Still, these days, Jonathan Fire*Eater seems like just a footnote in the history of the far more successful group formed in its wake, The Walkmen—even to the members themselves. Blasted as “overhyped” when it signed to DreamWorks in 1996, Jonathan Fire*Eater is now mostly regarded as a cautionary tale for other indie bands, if it’s remembered at all. But I didn’t know or care about any of that when I first heard Wolf Songs For Lambs in 1998. Jonathan Fire*Eater’s haunted, organ-driven garage rock was a standout in a sea of Pavement clones, and I quickly became obsessed with its too-short discography, which remains in heavy rotation to this day. It’s also weirdly linked me to some of the most important people I’ve ever met: The shy guy in my film class who introduced me to them ended up becoming one of my best friends, as well as the drummer in various bands where we shamelessly aped Jonathan Fire*Eater’s shambolic cool (and its organ sounds). The girl I connected with over The Walkmen—who, very exciting to me, also happened to own records by JFE and The Rekoys—ended up becoming my wife; we had our first dance to “Bows And Arrows” at our wedding. And finally, I happened to meet possibly the only other guy in the world as into Jonathan Fire*Eater as I am, one Mr. Josh Modell, when he interviewed me for a job writing for The A.V. Club. Not only do I love their music, I’m literally uncertain what my life would have looked like had these guys never been a band.