Don't Call It Nothing Podcast #13 goes deep in the 1999 weeds with the Compulsive Gamblers, Mark Linkous (aka Sparklehorse), Blue Mountain, and the Damnations.Support the show
Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and today we dive into 1999 as I finish up this initial run of episodes where I’ve been giving y’all a little taste of each year of the decade.
Before we get into that, though, lemme give a shout out to Will Brucher, who became a member at the $5/month level and apparently has been on the LD train since back in the Adios Lounge days. So Will, thanks so much for joining the Don’t Call It Nothing family and I have to admit, when I saw the name Will Brucher, my first thought was [Frau Blücher sample]. Anytime I can get a Young Frankenstein scene in my head, that’s a good day. If you’d like to support the only music podcast that matters you can do so at the $5 and $20/month levels. All you gotta do is hit that “Buy Me a Coffee” button at the top of the page or the “Support” button at the bottom and magic will follow. Or hell, just hang out and listen, that’s cool, too.
OK, so I was starting prep for this week’s show and thought about the If Then game. If you like Green Day, then you should like The Muffs. If you like The Stooges, then you should like Mudhoney. If you like jumping headfirst into a woodchipper, then you should like Smashing Pumpkins. That sorta thing. For shits and giggles – and I assure you, it was way more of the former than the latter – I Googled “alternative rock 1999” and the first or second link was a BuzzFeed article entitled, “25 Alternative Songs That Were Huge In 1999.” Perfect. I don’t want the Village Voice, Rolling Stone, or Pitchfork try-hard opinion. BuzzFeed is pop culture at its most basic and in a weird way, honest. There’s no pretense of art. This is music as product and brand management accessory, no more or less important than your bucket hat, Adidas warmup, and used copy of Fush Yu Mang (callback!).
I was gonna do, “If you were listening to this in 1999, then you’ll probably like that,” but when I saw the list of options I knew that gimmick was dead as Dillinger. Here’s the list. I’m not even gonna read it out in numerical order, I’m just gonna go artist-song. So, we have:
1. Filter, Take A Picture
2. No Doubt, New
3. Foo Fighters, Learn to Fly
4. Lit, My Own Worst Enemy
5. Sugar Ray, Every Morning
6. Smash Mouth, All Star
7. Blink-182, What's My Age Again?
8. Offspring, The Kids Aren't Alright
9. Limp Bizkit, Nookie
10. Korn, Freak On a Leash
11. Cake, Never There
12. Bush, The Chemical Between Us
13. Lo Fidelity Allstars, Battleflag
14. Fatboy Slim, Praise You
15. Moby, Bodyrock
16. Orgy, Blue Monday
17. Garbage, Special
18. Len, Steal My Sunshine
19. Lenny Kravitz, American Woman
20. Hole, Malibu
21. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Scar Tissue
22. Everlast, What It's Like
23. Creed, Higher
24. Pearl Jam, Last Kiss
25. Goo Goo Dolls, Slide
[deep sigh of disappointment]
If you were forced to listen to any of these songs in 1999 and ESPECIALLY if you like any of them, that’s called Stockholm Syndrome and it’s not your fault. I repeat, it’s not your fault. I don’t even know where to begin, but if the Chili Peppers have maybe the best song on a list of “25 Alternative Songs That Were Huge In 1999,” then you need another fucking list. I didn’t know most of these songs, so I listened on Spotify and it was like being in the back seat of your friend’s car as he weaves toward Taco Bell in a 2 am post-strip club cocaine fugue state that I would know nothing about [laughs]. Future generations need to know there was a far more meaningful 1999 happening all around the tribal tats and backward hats who dominated the public consciousness. Maybe Taco Bell actually is the best metaphor. Eat that shit long enough and you start craving the taste of shit. So much so that actual food doesn’t taste right anymore. If this describes you, if you’ve been fed a steady diet of Bizkits and Korn with a spoon, don’t fret. As it happens I specialize in palate detox.
That’s the Compulsive Gamblers with “Mystery Girl” from the band's 1999 LP, Bluff City. If that voice sounds familiar it’s Greg Cartwright, who’d very soon after this – with maybe slight overlap – give life to the Reigning Sound. If you’re not down with the Sound, get on that. However, in ‘99 Cartwright was still partnered up with Jack Yarber and they resurrected the Gamblers after breaking up The Oblivians the year prior. As far as I’m concerned, Bluff City is the best record in either band's discography to this point. Oh, and just because I’m a nerd for these kinds of factoids, the Gamblers were from Memphis, which is known as Bluff City because it sits on the Mississippi River where a number of small, rounded cliffs (aka bluffs) overlook the city. #hashbrown #themoreyouknow🌈
Conveniently, the band divided the songs fairly equally between garage rockers (Side 1) and soul weepers (Side 2). Cartwright sings most of the songs because he wrote most of the songs (eight to Yarber's two), but the two men trade guitar, bass, and organ duties as usual, with Bushrod Thomas on drums. Longtime Gambler Dale Beavers plays guitar on half the songs and Scott Bomar plays bass or piano on three.
I chose “Mystery Girl” because it’s a fantastic rocker that plays with dynamics in an interesting way. Everything we’d come to love about Reigning Sound, was foretold in this track from 1999. Another song, though, shows a more subdued side of the Gamblers, far beyond the trash rock vibe of their earlier work. And let me state for the record, I’m cool with trash rock. I am not above metaphorically dumpster diving. But, “New Romance” is Willie Nelson-esque torch pop and a clear sign not only that Greg Cartwright had found his songwriting voice, but that he’d outgrown both the Gamblers and Oblivians.
That’s the Compulsive Gamblers with the lovely “New Romance” from 1999’s Bluff City. Now we’re gonna jump onto Interstate 40 heading east-northeast. We’re going through Nashville and Knoxville, switching over to Interstate 81 and hitting Bristol and Roanoke, Virginia, switching over to Interstate 64 and heading east-southeast through Charlottesville, and ultimately settling on a farm outside of Richmond, Virginia. Before we meet the occupant of this ranch, a brief story.
On January 19, 1996, Sparklehorse opened for the band Tindersticks at the London Astoria. Later that night, bandleader Mark Linkous passed out in his hotel room after combining valium with antidepressants, possibly including alcohol and heroin. He was revived 14 hours later, his legs having been pinned under his body the whole time without circulation. So, when the medics straightened his legs out, the toxins that had pooled in his legs raced to his heart and sent him into immediate cardiac arrest. He was technically dead for three minutes. He was revived, but then his kidneys shut down, which necessitated dialysis, itself triggering a chain reaction of health and mental issues. He spent twelve weeks in a London hospital — “St. Mary's,” immortalized on track 3 of Good Morning Spider, which we’ll get to here shortly — underwent seven surgeries, graduated to a wheelchair, then leg braces, and ultimately regained full power in his legs. He moved to a 1200-acre ranch in Richmond, Virginia and built a home studio. And it was in that studio that most of Spider was created.
That is Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse with "Painbirds" from the album Good Morning Spider, which was released in Europe and Australia in 1998, but in the US in early February 1999. So, that’s why I have it here. "Painbirds" sounds like what Joe Henry was trying to do in the mid-to-late '90s, but Linkous' soul folk is so organic it makes Henry sound almost blackfacey by comparison. It's like Elliott Smith by way of Al Green. The song is held aloft by reverby guitars in each channel, a Wurlitzer, strange keyboard effects, and Linkous' unobtrusive, but insistent drum programming. At the second chorus (1:19), we quietly hear Sophie Michalitsianos (aka Sol Seppy) enter on harmony vocal, followed by a middle 16th (1:34-2:23) featuring Paul Watson (cornet, panned center-left) and electric guitar (panned right). The third verse begins (2:25) with a swell of mellotron strings, followed by Linkous and Michalitsianos singing co-lead, but the voices are run through a delay and split off into each channel, so it's like 3-4 voices floating above the bed of guitar and keyboard funk. The song doesn't build to a riotous conclusion. Instead, at 3:25 a Mellotron bursts open with fluttering organ lines, faux strings, and tinkling bells.
In interviews at the time, Linkous made it known that he experimented with a lot of different keyboards. In an interview with TapeOp that ran in February 1999, he says:
"I wanted this record to be more keyboard based than the last one, just soundwise. There's a lot of Optigan on there. I have a couple of Wurlitzer organs that are kind of messed up and that's why they sound good. I have a Magnus Cathedral organ, it's a fancy Magnus in a wood cabinet with a tube amp in it. I also have little Casios."
–Mark Linkous to Adam Selzer, Tape Op, February 1999
Good Morning Spider is a masterpiece of rural snowglobe folk. By the end of the decade, a number of underground American rock bands/artists – Sparklehorse, My Morning Jacket, Will Oldham in his various forms, Vic Chesnutt, Drive-By Truckers, Centro-Matic, Mercury Rev, The Glands, the entirety of the Elephant 6 community, and though the Flaming Lips weren't underground necessarily, I'd include them in this list – which flipped the folk paradigm by embracing the acoustic guitar-based folk song, but surrounding said guitar with heavy drums, distorted guitars, pedal steel and banjo, a bunch of different vintage keyboards and synths, lo-fi recording techniques, close mic vocals, lots of space, reverb, and claustrophobia. Being out of key or using non-traditional harmonies wasn't necessarily a dealbreaker.
This generation of bands were predominantly rural or rural-adjacent, many of them in the south, midwest, and Texas. It's not that authentic folk artistry can't be made in New York or Los Angeles (see: The Bicycle Thief), it's that the sanding down effect of the industry rarely allows for flaws, mistakes, and eccentricities. Songs always need to be louder or prettier or cleaner, not because that will make them better songs, but because the industry always needs to let you know it's in charge. This is the luxury of living outside of Richmond, Virginia, or Athens, Georgia, or Denton, Texas, or Buffalo, New York, or Norman, Oklahoma. You're not constantly bombarded by industry influence and expectations. What you're "supposed to do and sound like." Those things are abstractions. That these bands mostly recorded in home studios makes perfect sense. Ruralness, and its attendant outsiderness, creates a kind of punk rock siege mentality in its denizens. Instead of chasing the pop star dragon, musicians like Mark Linkous were hunkering down in bunkers of their own making (i.e. snowglobes).
For all of the folk touches and soft keys, Good Morning Spider leads off with "Pig," an epic punk rocker that Linkous wrote to his new, broken body. He was understandably angry that after the overdose and death his body didn't work the same. That's why he calls himself "a butchered cow." That isn't what makes this song special, though. If a band's significance is tied at least somewhat to their influence on later music, "Pig" basically invents A Giant Dog, the best rock 'n' roll band of the 2010s. The song is all slash-and-burn guitar riffs, Scott Minor on drums, and Mitchalitsianos' overdriven, snarling lead vocals doubled in the chorus that evoke Sabrina Ellis from A Giant Dog.
Coincidentally, A Giant Dog hails from Austin, which is where our final band called home in 1999. However, before we settle in the 512, I wanna head back to Oxford, Mississippi. We first visited this college town in the 1997 episode when I highlighted the mighty Neckbones. This time I want to highlight the band who blazed a trail for them and Tyler Keith, lead Neckbone, had a great quote to this effect. In 2007, he told Newt Rayburn of The Local Voice, an entertainment weekly based in Oxford:
"We looked up to Blue Mountain as a model because they did a lot of stuff themselves. They worked extremely hard, you know? I’d go over to their house and they were playing music all the time, they always had a gig, Laurie (Stirratt) always worked the phone. Blue Mountain, they were really a model as far as working music. (And ) they didn’t drink which helped them immensely, I’m sure."
–Tyler Keith to Newt Rayburn, The Local Voice #31, June 28, 2007
That’s Oxford, Mississippi’s Blue Mountain with the leadoff track from 1999’s Tales Of A Traveler CD. Written by Stirratt, “When You’re Not Mine” is lovely country pop featuring clever three-part harmony. Cary Hudson's voice is surrounded by not one, but two Lauries, giving the song extra punch. Lots of acoustic guitars, I think I hear a 12-string, and a slide guitar is prominent. I never go far without being reminded of Big Star.
Let’s be clear, though. Blue Mountain couldn't catch a fucking break. Wrong label (a metal label for the love of God), bad contract, no place on the radio, and even here in 2021 this album isn't on Spotify. Which is too bad because it’s their best record. Just kidding. That’s Dog Days. But, the first eight tracks on Tales are close to flawless. "When You're Not Mine" to "My Wicked Wicked Ways" is a helluva run and "Just Passing Through” is an elite closer. Worth mentioning, too, that this was their first album as a quartet. Not that Cary Hudson needed any help on guitar, but George Sheldon joining on bass and piano allowed Laurie to play rhythm guitar and start writing songs, which were both positive developments in Camp Black Dog. The extra guitar filled out the band's sound, which was made formidable mostly by Cary on spitfire Les Paul, as well as organ, harmonica, fiddle, and piano. But, having the versatile and reliable Frank Coutch on drums was a nice security blanket for both songwriters. For example …
That’s the great Blue Mountain with “Poppa,” a big dog '70s rock jam with all the riffs, wah wah, and cowbell your heart can stand. Reminds me a bit of Neil Young and Danny Whitten’s "Come On Baby Let's Go Downtown." As I said earlier, this album isn’t on Spotify, so a bunch of people who might dig Tales Of A Traveler probably have no idea it even exists. The same is true of our final band in Austin, Texas, where it seemed inconceivable at the time that The Damnations (aka the Damnations TX) didn't break bigger. It didn't help that their record label (Sire) was going through a reorg just as the band’s debut, Half Mad Moon, came out in 1999. Deck chair reshuffling aside, when you have two talented, beautiful sisters – Deborah Kelly (acoustic guitar, lead & harmony vocals) and Amy Boone (bass, piano, lead & harmony vocals) – with honey voices, natural harmonies, and comfortable with several different permutations of roots soul you wouldn't think that'd be difficult to market. In fact, they were impossible to market. They were too country for rock stations, too I don't know what for AAA. In 1999, Adult (Album) Alternative wanted women to sound like Sheryl Crow, Melissa Etheridge, Sarah McLachlan, and Natalie Merchant. The Damnations weren't crust punks, but they certainly weren't auditioning for Lilith Fair.
That’s the Damnations with the lead single from their 1999 debut, Half Mad Moon. "Unholy Train" sounds like Motown by way of The Monkees’ “Mary Mary.” Amy's bass is way out in front of the beat like James Jamerson as drummer Conrad Choucroun sits in the pocket. Rob Bernard weaves in and out with Keef riff while the Jon Blondell Horns get brassy in the chorus. It's a wonderful single that went nowhere because people hate nice things.
But, you come to the Damnations for those lovely vocals. "Black Widow" is a slow blues about their amp getting stolen with Amy on lead and Deb on harmony. "Catch You Alive" is a Mike Nicolai song on which Deb sings lead and I love how she climbs higher and higher, Amy joining her at "catch you alive." For pure harmony magic, it's hard to top "No Sign Of Water," a Boone track that in retrospect reads like a metaphor for the music industry itself. Pitch perfect heartbreak with the sisters dropping pearls of wisdom, my favorite being, "They don’t ask for much, but it ends up being everything." Truth.
That’s the Damnations with “No Sign Of Water” from their 1999 debut, Half Mad Moon. Sadly, the album is not on Spotify, but it is well worth tracking down. So, I’m gonna leave you today with some bonus Damnations. At the very end of last week’s show I made a Y2K joke and as it happens, on the night of Y2K (December 31, 1999), I was at Stubb’s BBQ in Austin. The Gourds and Damnations were gonna serenade us as the world imploded due to a clerical error. SPOILER ALERT: The world did not end. However, we did not know that at the time, so everybody at Stubb’s that night was shiiiiitfaced [laughs]. You can track down The Gourds' set on archive.org and I kid you not, Kevin Russell is so drunk at one point that he starts singing in a British accent [laughs]. I was so drunk I fell asleep walking home. But, even on a night of unadulterated hedonism there’s gonna be a sweet spot, a point where the anxiety, excitement, and mind-altering components synergize before they break down, derail, and fully antagonize. And that sweet spot was the end of the Damnations set.
That’s the Damnations from Stubb’s BBQ on the night of December 31, 1999, aka Y2K. Rob Bernard led us through a glorious rendition of Van Halen’s “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” and then they romped through Ted Hawkins’ “Watch Your Step.” These are the kind of gold nuggets you get on Don’t Call It Nothing. Again, you can become a member at the $5 or $20/month level by hitting that Buy Me a Coffee button at the top of the page or Support at the bottom. Please visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website, dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. Like, comment, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.
Talk to ya next time!