The Big Job of TINY IDOLS

Various
Tiny Idols: Transmissions from the Indie Underground 1991-1995
2005, Snowglobe Records

In my defense, I never wore horn-rim glasses nor did I own the “sunny-side up” Pavement T-shirt or the Sebadoh shirt with the heart on it, but 90s indie rock did its job on me all right. I was right in there, reading Puncture magazine in my dorm, folding my arms and nodding at club shows, taking Steve Albini’s opinions seriously, looking for an identity and finding something that resembled such in lo-fi rock on stacks of 7″ records. It feels like so long ago. In the time since, I’m pretty sure that I’ve said that I hate 90s indie rock. I’ve also said that I love 90s indie rock. Call that a contradiction if you like. Me, I call it merely teasing an old friend.

A fond memory: Here in Dallas, the local “alternative” radio station let their Alice in Chains singles cool off for a few hours on Sunday nights for a show called The Adventure Club that offered a more “left of the dial” playlist composed of the newest independents, imports and local stuff, along with a few college rock classics here and there. To a kid like me, it was a whole other world (and in the mid-1990s, it was the only way to hear this stuff for free). For some reason, I never stayed indoors to listen to it. Instead, I would always go out and drive aimlessly all over the city and into the suburbs, my head full of the latest melodies, feedback blasts, tape hiss and Britpop. I had maybe twenty bucks to spend on gas and a whirl through the Wendy’s drive-thru, but felt as free as I ever have.

This CD sounds just like those old drives.

Compiler Mark Griffey has made his way through an elephant trailer of CDs, LPs, 10″s and 7″s and done as good a job as anyone could of assembling a kind of Nuggets of early 90s American indie rock. It’s not a nostalgia trip (well, it isn’t for most of us, at least). No, the point of this collection is to share the overlooked highlights from bands you’ve never heard of or never got around to hearing. With the notable exception of DIY godfather R. Stevie Moore (whose queasy country-rock “Lifelike” is a major highlight here) these bands are the feisty and forgotten children of K Records, Homestead and Shimmy Disc. Their old songs might be new to you. Me, I’d heard a grand total of TWO of these twenty tracks previously and had never even heard of about a third of the bands.

It’s a diverse collection, embracing the pure pop of Allen Clapp and Nothing Painted Blue, the face-pummeler rock of Medusa Cyclone, the fetching whispers of Sea Saw, the shouts of Lonely Trailer and whatever you call Chotcke’s gypsy-lounge trip. Some bands embrace the noise that happens when microphones, guitars, analog tape and electricity meet. Others smooth it out as neatly as they can without losing their identity in the process. It’s heavy on melody, low-budget recording and rock and pop chord progressions mangled, and sometimes even caressed, into something new. Every band sounds like its own idea. Every song has its own unique disease.

Griffey’s terrific liner notes give brief background information on each band and tell where all of the songs came from if you want to get a shopping list together. This disc after all is not so much a summary as it is a starting point for finding that even more obscure track from The Mommyheads or Bunnygrunt that you think is even better than Griffey’s choice. It’s an invitation to dig deeper and follow a few strange new trails. The lasting lesson of indie rock is that it taught many of us the value of that.

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