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In Praising of “Listening Through” (Every Album By Your Favorite Artist)

Lately I’ve assigned myself the project of listening to every album recorded by a band I like. This came about when, kicking the hull of my own ignorance, shook out that Depeche Mode has released 7 studio albums AFTER  Violator, home of their last chart hits, and I hadn’t the slightest idea what Devo had been up to since their 1982 video for “Peak a Boo” freaked me out as a second grader. 

This isn’t middle-aged memory loss. A more recent example might be that the album that brought Lizzo into our lives was her third, not her first. We can’t control when we learn of an artist’s work and it’s probably just some quirk of the human brain to believe, at least a little, that someone didn’t exist before we know of them. Nonetheless, it’s incorrect and I ain’t about to say “oh well” when I found out there’s more on offer from a band I already love. Give me all of it. 

The idea then that I only knew fractions of the output of artist who’d given so much to me felt selfish, like not knowing the date of someone I cared about’s birthday.  Over time, we’ll miss almost everything and all we have is what we chose to to do with our time and attention. So for something as important to me as music, I’d rather spend that time on long-term commitments and not unresolved affairs, on friends who have been with me through it all instead those I once knew or haven’t even met. 

I’m in the middle of my third “Listen Through” project (Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings). These efforts happen alongside listening to perennial favorite records and in tandem with the faucets I turn on regularly for drips of new music. Otherwise, deepening your romances comes at the expense of seeing and making friends. And nobody should be that guy.

How it Works

 Before I start in on an album, I will usually read its wikipedia entry as well as the review in AllMusic. I am curious about different performers, producers, engineers on different records and a little why the band might be trying something different this time around. I’m not musically smart enough to know what chromatic scales are or which studio results in this or that sound. But I like to have a sense of who had a hand in the choices that went into a record and who showed up on the day it became real. The answers are always more interesting than believing it all happened by magic.

 I will usually listen to one album every two or three days in the afternoons during the scutt-and-boring-tasks portion of the workday. I’ll jot initial notes after the first listen then 2-3 days later revisit those notes and be rigorously honest if I was being unfair, impatient, etc. If I was doing any of those things, I listen again. If not, I scrawl a quick review to a group of friends with two goals in mind:  1. To have it be fun to read even if whomever is reading it doesn’t like the band/hasn’t heard of them. 2. To be clear in such a way that whomever is reading can hear the music even if they haven’t heard it before. My opinion is a distant third priority.

Writing for a living, I feel a responsibility to do this. You can write down your thoughts just to have them. Or not. 

I focus on studio albums (meaning no live records, reissues or greatest hits compilations) usually with an artist who has more than 5 records in their catalog. The courage hasn’t yet arrived to take on the discography of a Nina Simone (40 studio albums) or a Dolly Parton (51 and still going). It also helps to at least start with musicians who have died or retired or bands that have broken up. Then you know exactly how many records you are dealing with and they won’t release a new one while you are mid-swim. 

Listening in chronological order renders the clearest picture of where an artists sound began and where it ended up. The second option, equally valuable, is to enter an artists catalog during their peak “accessible phase” (i.e when they hit the pop charts or became a star) which gives you great appreciation for when they zig and zag. Like wading in off the beach but appreciating the depth and mystery of the ocean.

Format really doesn’t matter. I happen to love vinyl records but the project is the same no matter how the music gets to you.  

Also try to avoid running a segregated lunch counter (musically speaking) and only listening through to bands you remember fondly from 9th grade or who are all of one genre/race/gender/moment in time. It’s fine to start out that way, led by the same question I was: “What’s doing with that old friend I haven’t spoke to in a while?” But it’s just as valuable to visit undiscovered countries than to stay close to home.  

What I Learned

Even the great treasure of music can seem dull at times. I’ve found that giving over real considered time to an artist’s work has taught me so much–about art, about creative decisions and really just about how we all get up in the morning and have to make that day happen in a way that it mattered. 

I’ve quit making thoughtless judgements about how successful a band actually was. I’ve learned through enjoyment. If we need to change into our relationship with music to keep it from dulling, Listen Though has provided the shine. 

Try it. I bet you end up in the seat next to me, alongside your favorite artist, both receiving their music and piloting the sonic skies with them. 



A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 2-25: “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe (1978)

"Jesus of Cool" by Nick Lowe

Didn’t know much of anything about Nick Lowe going in. I knew he was a mentor to Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson and Graham Parsons, a leading figure of Power Pop and New Wave and he who gave us the song “Cruel to Be Kind.” Beyond that, I get him confused with Nick Cave about 7 times out of 8.

“Jesus of Cool” is Mr. Lowe (not Mr. Cave’s) debut album, 21 tracks strong. Every song is a complete idea, almost horologically well built. Mr. Cave was coming up on 30 when this album came out so we cannot extol him as a prodigy but rather someone who worked at and worked at it again, until he had something he thought was not only right but different.

The “different” is that most of this record is attitude–sly, winking, conspiratorial, joking. All of this was in pretty short supply at this time where you if you fashioned yourself a singer/songwriter AND wanted to be funny, you either had to come from a folk tradition (see Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Lehrer) or be the ringmaster and main attraction of a traveling circus (see David Bowie and Alice Cooper), a guy with a guitar or a guy at the center of a spectacle (women are rarely allowed to be funny in music. Which is gross, plain and simple). Perhaps Nick Lowe’s greatest achievement was the middle ground, a wit, even one as dry as pavement at high noon, without a bunch of theatrics or politics for ballast. Just funny for funny’s sake. 

The problem is that Nick Lowe, at least at this very early stage of being NICK LOWE was funny all the time and emotionally tuned in for about half that. Too much of the opening of this record is clever instead of present as if Mr. Lowe thought we wouldn’t get the joke if he let his band actually play instead of hold back. And despite the mission statement here, this is exactly the wrong place to put the airless hip stuff. It makes you want to quit on the record before it’s even really begun. 

Don’t though. By “Shake and Pop” (Track #4), Lowe finds it. Songs rock out almost like metal numbers and at least one is a blues durge as guttural as a Leadbelly cut. All are completely self-assured without being cocky and unwilling to commit, emotionally speaking. By Track #4 Nick Lowe is acting like an adult musician with a bratty sense of humor instead of a clever brat with fake detachment from his own creation.

At 21 songs, the back half of the record is erratic. He doesn’t make the cute-rather-than-true mistake again but not every song can be “Cruel to Be Kind” or the dopey glee  of “Rollers Show”  (about yes, going to a Bay City Rollers concert) and the slow boil feminist anger of “Born a Woman.” 

I am sure Nick Lowe grew and matured. He’s in his early 7os now and 15 albums into a career. But really it strikes me that his greatest influence will be his descendants, Costello and Jackson and the list of musicians they influence we could reel off until we passed out from lack of oxygen.

Would I try more Nick Lowe? Sure. Despite what I just said, I already like him more than Elvis Costello and as much as Joe Jackson. In the case of Joe Jackson, that’s quite a bit.


“Cruel to Be Kind”
“Nutted by Reality”
“Halfway to Paradise”
“Roller Show


“Music for Money”
“I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”
“Little Hitler”

Up Next: “The Specials” by “The Specials” 


A History of Alternative Music One Album at a Time: 1977-2001: Album 1-25: “Fear of Music” by Talking Heads

Fear of Music by The Talking Heads

Some Context:

I’ve chosen/solicited from friends the records for this project because I have no personal expertise with any of them and see this as an empty shelf of my own musical knowledge I’d like to fill. I don’t have a good explanation why this is. It just means for every record we look at here, there will be some long glance of inscrutability over what I didn’t know coming in. Born in 1973 with Nevermind dropping the first week of my freshman year of college, I am exactly of the right age to be proud member of the “Our Band Could Be Your Life” generation and for these records to be the formative sonic moments of my youth. And for some reason they just weren’t.

Some would become that later. Like much later, like owning property, years-in-the-workforce later. I’ve left those artists (The Cure, Depeche Mode) pretty much out of this project as I know their work pretty well.

In we go then with only what I hear and learn in the present. I’ve no memories or nostalgia. My only context is now. And with that….

I really liked “Fear of Music” (1977) the third studio album by Talking Heads and the only one I had never heard before. I was a “Remain-in-Light” and forward Talking Heads admirer up until this point. Of course I knew what “Psycho Killer” and any other jam of theirs that appears in the Stop Making Sense movie were. But my time with the band’s eight studio albums was back-heavy. Talking Heads as already-famous critical darlings knocking on the gates of the mainstream I knew. Talking Heads as a CBGBs mainstay achieving escape velocity? No.

Imagine my delight then when FOM kicks off the with Afrofunk/beat poetry mashup of “I Zimbra” (the lyrics are apparently nonsense on purpose) and basically holds this grove the whole record. Some songs are more feeling than substance (Side 2 can feel like enough material for 2 songs that producer Brian Eno and band stretched into 5). But consistent with a feeling I often get from learning about music from the African-diaspora, there’s a commitment to a groove, to pleasure even when the song aims to be deadly serious.

The best example is, of course, the immortal “Life During Wartime” a futuristic jab of cynicism of an America drunk on its own SOMA of consumerism and violence which still manages to be great fun to dance to. The jerky-yet-unfailing enthusiasm of David Byrne’s voice and the willingness to place Chris Franz’s percussion higher and louder in the mix keeps much of this album between the hips as well as the ears.

I’d gladly purchase this on vinyl (I am only in for two of the bands eight records on wax at present) while passing on the 33 1/3 book about it (Jonathan Letham was an asshole to me at a book festival many years ago and I’ve never forgiven him for it) but might need an argument from wiser minds  on if I need the later records like “Naked.”



“I Zimbra”


“Life During Wartime”







 Up next ” “Jesus of Cool” by Nick Lowe.


How to: Not Get Stuck (Musically Speaking)

I’ve been getting a ton out of a recent article about why people in their 30s (and above) give up on discovering new music.

Has this happened to you? If so, 1) I am sorry and 2) I’d like to help.

I may not be smarter than you. But I do know discovering new music is not as hard as you think.

Step 1: “Define New”

“New to everyone” does not mean “New to you.” If you really wanna know what are the world’s 100 most popular songs at the moment and that’s what you mean by “discovering new music” or “keeping up” or whatever, that’s easy to find.

Listen to a playlist of this nature every Monday, take note of songs you like and the artists responsible for them. Repeat next Monday. You don’t need me for that

If that’s not what you seek then…

Step 2: Chose your Fork (in the road)

Are you…?

(This Way): Looking for new versions of what you already like (i.e I am still listening to DC punk from 10th grade and now my niece is in the 10th grade. What’s happened in that area of music since?)


(That Way): Looking for something completely new (I.e. I am tired of most of what I listened to before and am seeking a fresh start).

You can chose both. For now, it’s easier to pick one because the next step is the hardest.

Step 3: Say What You Like. (In nouns. Not editorials)

This part is hard.

Nobody teaches us how to describe music literally so when we try we usually fall back on the way it makes us feel (“I like music for when I am happy or depressed or contemplating the life cycle of a sunflower”) or on silly genre categories radio programmers made up decades ago. Genres are helpful in a very basic way (there is certainly a musical difference between “New Orleans Jazz” and “Israeli Heavy Metal”) but if you try to describe your music preferences with them, you will inevitably end up in pointless this-not-that hair splitting or on how a genre make you look cool in the 8th grade (“I’m a rock guy, not a raver”) and the point here is whom you are (musically speaking) in the present


Listen to 10 of your favorite songs of all in a row and write down what you hear.

Not what you think or feel or the memory associated with them. Just what you hear. Meaning…

Is it loud or soft, melodic or dissonant? What is the song’s most prominent element? Do you like that the song is over quickly or seems to go on forever?

Now look at what you’ve written down.

How do these adjectives and nouns make you feel? Under what circumstances can you imagine wanting to feel this way?

Now write out one sentence.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Keep this sentence right next to you as we proceed to…

Step 4: Learn


Every recording artist ever has a profile on All Music. Every one of those profiles has a “Related” tab which indicates who inspired that artist and who they inspired. Because any musician worth anything had their own favorite music and later generations of musicians they shaped.

Here’s the “Related” tab for a little-known underground artist named Beyonce’.

Wherein it says Ms. Beyonce was influenced by artists like Tina Turner, Janet Jackson, Madonna and Donna Summer. And influenced such artists as Adele, Zandaya, Chloe and Sam Smith.

Now let’s say Beyonce was one of the artists on your list of 10 favorite songs, the list from which you developed that all important sentence we spoke of a moment ago.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Armed with your sentence…

Step 5: Dig.

Ms. Beyonce has seven studio albums so I will assume if her work is a favorite of yours, you’ve listened to all of them backwards and forwards, right? You don’t have to love them all but you are being dishonest if on the one hand, you speak openly about how much you love an artist’s music and on the other, only know their hits. That’s like only visit your best friend on their birthday.

Start there. Any artist you love deserves your complete attention. Do your homework and go through the complete works.

Make a list of your favorite songs by that artist and compare them to your sentence.

“My favorite songs make me feel X by doing Y.”

Chances are there is a pretty good match between your list of songs and that sentence.

If the two do not match…

Step 6: Fail, Succeed, say why

Why don’t they? Do you only like Beyonce’ on a sunny day? Do you only like the music she wrote in her 20s? There’s no good or bad reason. But you ned to be able to articulate the reason because that’s what we’re getting at here. You can always discover new music if you can say in clear plain English what you hear and what you like or don’t like about it.

What are you hearing you don’t like? Not feeling, not associating, what are you ACTUALLY HEARING that you don’t like just like step 3. Is it…

“I don’t like songs with drum solos” (Correct)

“I don’t like songs like remind me of my ex-girlfriend” (Incorrect. That’s an association not what you are actually hearing)

Compare this to your sentence then ask for more of what you seek…

For example…

“I’d like some Beyonce’ but with horns”

Then tell everyone in sight you’d like some Beyonce’ with horns.

Step 7: Try again. Ask for help.

No grades, no failing. It’s called “discovery” for a reason


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 7 of 7: “Still Stuck in the Throat” (2007)

Produced by: John Norwood Fisher (the band’s bassist)

Released: April 24, 2007


This is Fishbone’s party record. It whirls, dip-dives, then bum rushes the garage door and spills out on the street under a pulsing moon. We could argue that all Fishbone records are party records (despite also being genre experiments, satire and social commentary) just as all John Waters movies are black comedies despite doing a lot of other things too. But Still Stuck is their purest example of a record you throw on not to get the night going but to keep it at its peak.

Why does it feel so perfectly Fishbone to throw out your best party record in your 40s rather than late teens? Maybe because a band made up equally of manic energy, pinpoint musicianship and innovative spirit plagued by terrible career choices could only do it this way: The sweatiest, danciest record of their career comes at the moment in life when limbs start to hurt and we consider going to bed before the joint gets jumping.

12 songs. The opener “Jackass Brigade” donkey-kicks you out of your chair (horse noises on the backing track and all) then scrambles to a summit almost immediately. Tracks 3-7— “Skank’n Go Nutz” to “The Devil made him do It” are a high wind of furious funk and mighty horns. Stop moving and the songs might exhale you right over a twisted ankle. The album then catches its breath for just a sec, whirls about and kicks out the garage door with “Premadawnutt” in position number 10. By the moment of the final track, a damn funny song called “Date Rape” about a sexual felon getting his just desserts, you’re already on the sidewalk gasping for air. You’d chuckle if you had any lung left for it.

Still Stuck in the Throat is both a play on Fishbone’s name and the fact that, although they only recorded about once a decade now and only Angelo Moore (lead singer) and John Norwood Fisher (bass) remained from the original lineup, Fishbone never stopped touring the world, playing together and in support their friends. More than that, I like how the title of this album describes both the pain and joy of being a Fishbone fan: These artists sabotaged their own career more than once and had a bad habit of valuing funny over good. These are forgivable errors when compared to the sheer chops, verve and boundless drive to challenge themselves they showed as players and the far more successful bands (No Doubt, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Primus) that looked up to them. And these errors would have cost less, I have to believe, had Fishbone been a band full of handsome white people.

Still Stuck in our Throat is where they should be. As a reminder that great bands don’t always make great choices or have great luck. In a perfect world, that shouldn’t matter. The genius of their music should be our reminder, persistent, even annoying, they count too. The phrase “brought the funk to the punk” is overused when describing Fishbone’s influence. But can you really apply it, with anything like a full heart, to anyone else?

Is it time for the Fishbone biopic to get them back into the conversation? How about a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination? Cuz I’d be down for both.





Fishbone Listen Through: Album 6 of 7: “The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx”

Album 6 of 7: The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx

Review: Fishbone’s greatest Side 1 at a point in their career when the world told them to give up. 

Recorded at The Village (Los Angeles)

Produced by Steve Lindsey

Released: March 21, 2000


Here’s the sad part: For their 6th studio album and their first in nearly 5 years, Fishbone had a brand new deal with Disney’s Hollywood Records in place, the album fucking went nowhere and their new label dropped them immediately. Happy part: The album got great reviews and deserved them. Nearly 20 years into their tenure as a band and at least double that in bad luck and self-destructive tendencies, Fishbone’s best qualities are all up front here: humor, versatility, staying power and bottomless good will: How many bands whose previous two albums tanked, get their heroes (George Clinton), peers (Bad Brains) and admirers (No Doubt, The Red Hot Chili Peppers) to show up and guest star? How many bands take that good will and opportunity then make one of their best records after the universe has told them repeatedly to give up?

The Psychotic Friends Nuttwerx (Fishbone’s album titles get progressively worse. If you own more than one, I suggest color coding or nicknames so you don’t have to remember them) feels grounded in this world and not a phantasm of their own making. Not only will you recognize their bench of guest talent (forgot to mention Ric James and Pink Floyd’s backing vocalists are here too) but Nuttwerx opens with a cover of the Temptations’s “Shakey Ground” and peaks on track 4 with Sly Stone’s “Everybody is a Star,” the first time Fishbone has cited their own inspirations so directly. Reviews praised the bands return to form as ska and reggae-inspired performers but what I hear as much of is the dark bluesy humor of Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito and New Orleans’s Hurray for the Riff Raff: Songs as mordant as they are funny and feel as though the hour is late rather than the party is peaking. As much of this record sits a chair with an eyebrow raised as it spins off its axle into space.

Since you’d basically have to press it yourself to find this record on vinyl, I’m gonna suggest downloading the first side then the last song, “Karma Tsunami.” The second side feels a bit slack and forgettable so perhaps a good time to zone out before the album comes back and smacks you one last time. And if you like records by Chaka Khan and The Pointer Sisters, futuristic yet grounded in at least three African-American musical traditions, “Nuttwerx” is produced by Steve Lindsey who trained at the right-shoulder of Richard Perry, the man behind the boards of Sisters Pointer and Mother Khan and their sonic influence echoes all up and down the channels of this Nuttwerz. So it’s got that going for it as well.


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 5 of 7: “Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge”

Album 5 of 7: Chim Chim’s Badass Revenge

Review: Download tacks 2, 6, 7 and 11. 

Recorded at: Indigo Ranch Studios, Malibu, CA.

Produced by Dallas Austin and Fishbone

Released: 1996


We have arrived at Fishbone’s “Angry at The Music Industry” record, a decades-old blueprint for albums but a serviceable one. This is the cliche that, at its best, produces Pink Floyd’s Wish you Were Here, Joni Mitchell’s For The Roses and Prince’s Emancipation. On the other end, bargain versions of what a band actually does well : Nirvana’s “Rape Me” feels like the leftovers from “Francis Farmer Will Have its Revenge on Seattle” and “EMI” by the Sex Pistols resembles the seventh single you release from a hit album when you’ve already bleed the rest of it dry.

How then to give to the music industry right between the eyes while sounding like yourself not a spoiled child version of yourself? How to not let your fury be the only thing that matters and the only thing we hear? The answer might be, but probably isn’t, an album about bodily fluids and flaccid dangly parts.

The story so far:  Fishbone’s 4th album Give a Monkey a Brain tanked while the band was also going through a ton of personnel turnover and resulted on Sony Music dropping the band entirely. Would this have happened if Fishbone had been say, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, whom they mentored and inspired? No. But anyway…

Chim Chim happened in partnership with producer Dallas Austin (who wrote the majority of the songs on Boyz II Men’s debut album) whose label Rowdy Records had a distribution deal with Arista. Apparently this is a “concept album” (I don’t hear this at all) about the monkey spoken of on the previous record coming for galactic vengeance. All racial overtones of a black bands seeing themselves as avenging monkeys present and accounted for and Austin is on record as saying he wanted to make Fishbone’s heaviest record yet.

He didn’t do that. Instead, I’d say he created Fishbone’s funniest and whiplashiest record yet.

Of course it’s hilarious (Fishbone could do hilarious with an album of room tone). It’s also part of a great LA black humor tradition that blends genre fiction, afro-futurism and doing-the-dozens smackdowns (Fishbone’s records are the siblings of the novels of Walter Mosley and Paul Beatty and the full enterprise of Tyler the Creator). But c’mon now: We’re 5 albums and nearly 20 years in. And Fishbone decided that their power slam of the music industry that treated them like field hands is…a record about beer guts and taking a shit?

Unsurprisingly, “Chim Chim’s” best songs are not “Beer Gut” or “In the Cube” (slang for the restroom) but tracks that avoid this dumb idea entirely. The slap-backslap of “Psychologically Overcast” (Track 6, featuring Busta Rhymes) and “Alcoholic” (Track 7 about lead singer Angelo Moore) is as fierce as a hungry lioness. The title track sets us listeners is a heavy metal jam with a funk bass and marching band percussion that is actually more fun then that sounds on its face. The interlude monologues remind us, repeatedly, what can be great about hip-hop album interstitial sketches and I’ve even got love for “Monkey Dick” at track 11, which is essentially a ska-jam about a sexually frustrated zoo animal.

But c’mon now. 4 more songs about dicks and butts after that? Most of them over 7 minutes long?  Bearing your teeth at an industry that did you dirty with an album of pit humor? This is high school band shit and not on Fishbone’s level. Not at this point. Maybe not ever. And really not funny, the greatest crime of all.

You don’t need to own this one. You need to download tracks 2,6,7 and 11 and remind yourself that Fishbone’s real revenge was being great before anyone noticed, releasing three flawless albums in their 20s and still being influential now. Despite often having ideas that resemble taking a crap on their own career and future.


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 4 of 7: “Give a Monkey a Brain and he’ll Swear he’s the Center of the Universe”

Album 4 of 7: Give a Monkey a Brain and he’ll Swear he’s the Center of the Universe

Review: It’s a great Side B. Skip right to it.

Recorded at One on One Recording. North Hollywood, CA

Produced by Terry Date

Released: May 1993


So this record, Fishbone’s 4th, is a heavy metal record. It’s a super groovy, dancy, low-on-theatrics-high-on-life kinda metal album, but the Fishbone that likes high stepping and horns is sitting this one out. Present instead: A lot of wicked guitar work but feeling smooth like rolling waves rather than jagged and jabbing like thrown glass.

When it works, it works really well. But you pretty much have to play the record in reverse order to get that. Because Side B is prize Fishbone, a seamless grove perfected on Reality of my Surroundings paired with the hilariously cruel social commentary the band’s had from the beginning.

Side A is a shit pile. And 4 of the 5 singles the band released from this record came right out of that mess. Side A sounds like someone kicked Fishbone up out of a deep sleep, yelled “play something different” then recorded while they woke up and remembered how.

Fans, critics and members of the band itself hated Monkey. The success of its predecessor had garnered a spot on the 1993 Lollapaloza Tour but they started that endeavor down their founding guitarist Kendall Jones, who quit immediately following the album’s completion. Right after the tour, keyboardist Chris Dowd split too. Meanwhile the critics beat Monkey until the poor creature lay dead, essentially charging Fishbone with the high crime of trying to be Jane’s Addiction and forgetting how to be Fishbone. Which feels kinda racist to me. Their label, Columbia, dropped them soon afterward, which also feels kinda racist to me.

Monkey (the entire phrase comes from a 1960s schlock religious tract PRINCIPIA DISCORDIA) is a much better album than that. The second side stands up to anything Fishbone had done so far particular the killer double pairings of “Lemon Meringue” and “They All Have Abandoned Their Hopes” (songs 7 and 8) and “No Fear” and “Nut Meglomaniac” which finish up the record at positions 11 and 12. On Side A, you’ve got “Black Flowers” and not much else. But get this record, if you like Fishbone at all, play Side B and think about how many bands of white musicians have tried something new, half-succeeded and been wholly forgiven for it.


Fishbone Listen Through: Album 3 of 7: “The Reality of My Surroundings”

The Reality of My Surroundings

Fishbone Listen Through: Album 3/7 The Reality of my Surroundings

Review: Why couldn’t it have been as great as everyone said? 

Released: April 23, 1991

Recorded: Ocean Way Recording, Hollywood

Produced by: Fishbone & David Kahne

In the usual telling of the Fishbone story , we’ve reached the band’s creative and commercial summit with their third album The Reality of my Surroundings. The second part of that is fact. As for the first, well, a) we are only half-way through their catalog so I couldn’t tell you yet, and b) Reality doesn’t feel like a peak to me but a swerve. It’s a beautiful, fascinating swerve, like everything the band has done thus far. But after listening to this record four times, its still feels not quite what it could have been: What their fans at the time had been waiting for may not be the album I was waiting for.

Surfacing in the spring of 1991, Reality of my Surroundings is when Fishbone arrived, at least as far as a band without chart hits and instant platinum albums can arrive: Larger concert venues, critical hosannahs, a placement on the Billboard album charts (No. 49), TV appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Arsenio Hall Show. Two tracks from the record’s aft side hit the modern rock Top 20. In what feels like a very Fishbone turn of events, the less successful of those, “Everyday Sunshine” became the band’s signature and closes their live shows to this day.

The Reality of My Surroundings is giant: 13 tracks and 5 interstitials cut from a live recording. Interstitials belonged mostly to hip-hop records back then (Track #10 “A Junkie’s Prayer” resembles a beat poem left off the Superfly Soundtrack and probably owed a creative debt to De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising released two years before) but that’s only one genre the ever-sampling Fishbone pulls from: Reality is a pioneer of both 80s Black Rock (how fast would you rush the gates for a co-headline Fishbone/Living Color tour?) and, less admirably, a forerunner to the metal/rap hybrid of the late 90s. Side #1 bangs like a thunderstorm without pauses for lightning, the band’s usual arsenal of reggae, funk and grove secondary to a downpour of guitar shredding. Side #2 is the one you know better and sounds like the Fishbone of their first two records as accomplished professionals rather than talented kids with short attention spans.

Too many ideas, too many experiments, most of them better than any band alive then or since and, all crammed in one place, doesn’t help The Reality of My Surroundings be an album rather than a brilliant schematic of one. The machine-gun stomp of the opener “Fight the Youth” belongs in a juiced-up 80s update of The Warriors which I mean as the highest praise. It sets a groove that carries you so smoothly through most of the side, you don’t realize until it’s too late that you’ve landed at Track #5 the harpiscord/reggae party jam (you heard that right) “Housework” and have no memory of any songs in between. The momentum built by “Everyday Sunshine” (Track #12) and the screamingly-funny send up of toxic masculinity “Naz-Tee May’en” leaks out the tire puncture left by “Babyhead” a dumb, porny Sexual Chocolate B-side. It’s very much the Fishbone you’ve come to love by the previous two records but you also hope they’ve matured out of this sort of nonsense by now.

I wish the two sides fit better together or were released seperately: Side 1 as an experimental EP, Side 2 as Reality itself. We’ll never know how that could have been. A breakthrough album (i.e. when public perception is that a band has “arrived” no matter how much they’ve already done) is usually mistaken as an artist’s best record up that point. A short list of disagreements: Wild, Innocent & The E. Street Shuffle is as good a Bruce Springsteen album as  Born to Run, his “arrival” that came right after. De La Soul’s #1 and #2 records are equally strong, equally so for fellow New York trio Digable Planets. And do we really have to lay out all the genius Kate Bush was dropping before Hounds of Love, which came 4 albums and 8 years into her recording career?

I’d say oh, well, but I ain’t sad about it. There’s plenty on Reality of My Surroundings that merits listening to it on a digital platform where you can skip around instead of on vinyl. I already own both its elder siblings on vinyl. Given how willing Fishbone is to try everything and do most everything with skill and zany commitment, I know as I listen on, reality will shift again.

I’m ready now. They always were.


Fishbone Listen Through Album 2 of 7: “Truth and Soul”

"Truth and Soul" -- Fishbone

Released: September 13, 1988.

Produced by: David Kahne.

Recorded at: Sunset Sound, Hollywood

Songs you might recognize:

The cover of Curtis Mayfield’s “Freddy’s Dead” that opens the record, the single “Ma and Pa” and the ballad “Change” that closes things out


Second albums are problematic. Either they fail and tumble into the cliche of a “sophomore slump” (i.e. what we liked about the artist the first go-around came down to newness and hype) or they succeed and blot out the first album they built on (see brilliant follow-ups to now overlooked debut albums by the likes of Madonna or Carol King or Nine Inch Nails or Public Enemy) and are only duly appreciated in retrospect. I say “duly” because it’s our own mistake to believe that great second albums are breaks from the past i.e the artist finally growing up and living childish things behind. Second records always build on first records, whether as evolution, contrast, or here’s-a-few-things-we’re-still-working-out. In the case of TRUTH AND SOUL it’s all three and a fourth thing too, the studio album that feels like one long jam session.

Get past “Freddy’s Dead” as the opener (which is a great cover but doesn’t sound enough like Fishbone has made the great Mayfield track their own) and the album l feels like an extended groove all the way until the ballad “Change” that closes things out (a courageous choice that works for a record that, on the whole, resembles a 40 minute party. Why send your guest homes in a stroll instead of sweat ecstasy unless you can really nail it?). Critics at the time made way too much of Fishbone borrowing from heavy metal on this record, which to me only sounds like news if you willfully ignore what kissing cousins metal and punk often are and if you think 6 black musicians doing furious guitar solos is novel (if so, meet a shy kid from Seattle named Jimi Hendrix). But I suppose given that metal at this time typically meant the cloud of toxic masculinity and toxic hair spray hovering over the Sunset Strip, Fishbone’s raucous neighborhood vibe, more garage party spilling out on the lawn than cocaine and motorcycle leather, got critics over- focused on that. Which also meant ignoring the band’s first album IN YOUR FACE that TRUTH AND SOUL built on.

If IN YOUR FACE feels like a series of experiments from a band that has always been about hyphenates, TRUTH AND SOUL is the organization of those experiments (politics and punchlines, ska and soul,) into a coherent argument. It’s just that in Fishbone’s case, a coherent argument feels like a great concert, a live album that isn’t a live album, instead of a perfectly laid out sequence of songs. TRUTH AND SOUL then has the seeming liability of also feeling like an album where it’s easy to lose your place, to be taken enough by the groove that you forget what song you’re on and how to revisit it and can, quite humanly, feel like a record where all the tracks sound the same.

Which means this record probably makes the most sense if listened to immediately after IN YOUR FACE. On its own, you’ve got to stop dancing in place long enough for its greatness to sink in. Its politics are honed like a knife in a way its predecceser was only just getting around to. See the penultimate track “Ghetto Soundwave” a circular shuffler you can dance to that feels like it was written about the murder of George Floyd rather than 35 years before it or the psycho-circus wail of “Subliminal Fascism”, 90 seconds of an convincing argument for punching nazis from Killer Klowns. The record’s humor lays seamlessly (notice how the sincerity of the beach-jammy ode-to-friendship “A Mighty Long Way” at position 6 sets us up for similar in grove if not in message “Bonin’ in the Boneyard” next ) rather than coming to a stop for it. Perhaps ironically, it’s a party record that may be best listened to alone with headphones, to get the component parts that make up the magic whole.

But the magic is everywhere. A record with that surpasses its overstated title by having a lot of truth a lot of soul and then also, a lot of fun and experiments and jags that somehow all end up in the same loud garage. As a second record, it doesn’t surpass the first or let us down from its high. Incredibly, the two feel like younger and older siblings, both of whom you’d want as friends