Tuesday, February 10, 2009

My Fav Less-Than-Successful 1990s Band

On alternate Wednesdays, I feature female vocalists I want to share with you. It’s time for such a post, and I am going to talk about a woman who sings, but I am going to cheat a bit, because this woman is a solo artist now, but in 1993, she was part of a band, and that music is what I most want to explore today.

In 1993-94, I had the good fortune to work at Tracks Records in Bloomington, Indiana. There, I was exposed to a number of artists I would not have met otherwise: Love Jones, Urge Overkill, Cowboy Junkies, and the like. I also got a far quicker introduction to Leonard Cohen’s classic The Future, though I would have come across it eventually.

Another act I would never have explored without Tracks was a melodic alternative band that was signed to Epic, which augured well in the early 1990s. I was introduced to the band via its second album, but I quickly looked up the first one and found it compelling as well.

The singer’s name was Joan Jones, a search-engine nightmare of the first order, but it’s not impossible to find information about her. What is essential to know is that she forged a songwriting partnership with the other vocalist of her band, and they made some spectacular music.

What struck me first about the songs recorded by this band, Sun 60, was their maturity. There was nothing raw about Sun 60, which put them in the same alternative category as Blondie. Inventive, proficient without being overly slick, and mature, the band rocked without losing its focus, and every note existed to further the goal of the song that contained it.

Joan Jones had a voice that reminded me of several other female vocalists of the time, including Lisa Germano, and stylistically I found her to be a cousin to Liz Phair. Joan’s voice could be tender, and she could wail. I didn’t count her among my top five favorite female singers, but her singing suited the songs she wrote.

She co-wrote all of the Sun 60 songs with David Russo (there’s the cheat—I mentioned a guy). They wrote three albums’ worth of music: Sun-60 (Epic 47849, 1991), Only (Epic 53447, 1993) and Headjoy (Epic 66794, 1995). While there are uneven spots on the albums, they are gems overall, and their legion of fans catapulted the band to the pinnacle of success.

Oh, wait. That last bit should have happened but didn’t. And I don’t get it at all.

I kept my ear to the ground in Bloomington. I played the Only CD often at the store, and people would come in, listen to it, and either buy it or tell me that they had bought it after seeing Sun 60 at a free show the band had put on. It seems that Epic believed in Sun 60 to a certain extent, and I gathered that the free shows were label-sponsored attempts to jump start a really promising act. Unlike the positive qualities of many decent acts, qualities that are difficult to pinpoint and articulate, those of Sun 60 are easy to list.

1. The presence of two distinctive lead vocalists provided listeners with great sonic balance. A dozen songs sung by Jones might have worn a bit, but Russo’s turns at the mic were crisp and compelling contrasts to Jones. On the songs they sang together, they clearly belonged together.

2. The guitar work was always tasteful, whether it was quiet acoustic arpeggios or loud, fast electric work. While bands obviously don’t keep guitar parts that stink, I mean that the layers of guitar parts were constructed carefully, not played happenstance and then accepted as suitable.

3. Though Russo was the band’s guitarist and piano player, and Jones sang and played trumpet, their recordings show off superb percussion. Despite having a revolving-door drummer situation, this aspect of the band’s sound carried through their three albums.

David Russo produced Only, which I consider to be the high point of the band’s output, and Headjoy. The debut album was produced by Greg Penny, but the production evolved rather than shifting dramatically when Russo took over.

A lot of evolution occurred as the band sought its niche. Beginning with the name, which began as Sun-60, moved to Sun 60 and finally to Sun60, the band tweaked itself in an ultimately futile quest for the success it deserved. The debut tended to be more acoustic-oriented, with the clever drumming coming from David Raven.

Only featured louder, but not usually rough, guitar, including a couple of raunchy leads by Dave Navarro. While David Raven played drums on a couple of songs, the ones I am featuring today, “Hold On” and “Tell Me Like You Know,” display the percussive handiwork of Jack Irons.

Headjoy was a reaction to the disappointment of having a really excellent album produce less-than-expected results. Russo opted for a heavier guitar sound, going grungy and leaving behind the crisp notes of the predecessors. On this album, Jones sang all of the vocals; I don’t know if they decided that the band should be fronted by a woman, or if the songs, all with lyrics by Jones, simply happened to require a female perspective in the singing.

The fact is that the third album showed tiny signs of a musical fraying, one that led to a creative split between Jones and Russo in 1996. Since then, Jones has performed solo, and she is on tour now with Big Head Todd and the Monsters. Russo has gone on to score films, including the Robin Williams movie Man of the Year, Pineapple Express, and the Dune TV miniseries.

And me, I just sit around listening to my Sun 60 CDs and wishing like crazy that these two, Jones and Russo, had found a larger audience in time to make it worth their while to put out another ten albums or so.

The first track listed below comes from the debut album, and the other two are from Only. David Russo sings the third track, one of my favorite recordings from the entire decade of the 1990s. Be sure to check out all three.

Joan Jones has a website, and you can find her tour dates there.

Sun 60, Middle of My Life

Sun 60, Hold On

Sun 60, Tell Me Like You Know

Apart from those songs, here’s a change of pace on YouTube, another song from Only, “Never Seen God.” Embedding is disabled by Sony, so here’s the link:


For Saturday, Week Seven of the 1950s chart breakdown. Next Wednesday, look for the biggest early bandleader to make his Great Vinyl Meltdown debut. See you Saturday!


Anonymous said...

"Tell Me Like You Know" is AWESOME. I had never heard that song, but I am so, so glad I got to hear it. Thanks!

whiteray said...

Oh yeah! These folks shoulda been household names. Puts me in mind of another group about the same time called Over The Rhine. Sweet stuff, as you promised!

Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

LOVE Sun 60/Sun-60/Sun60. "Tell Me Like You Know" is right near the top of my "I Need An Energy Burst!" playlist. I didn't know that much about Joan and the band, though, so thanks. :)

Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas said...

Good to know there were/are a few other Sun-60 fans out there.

I lost track of Joan Jones after her solo debut, Starlight Criminal, which is well worth tracking down (if you don't already own it).

oldkdawg said...

They were awesome. I agree with you 100%. I would love to see another 13 years of great CD output. I think I discovered them at our local CD establishment of choice the "Fetus". I think I also found a promo cd single with a live song but I haven't found that disk in quite awhile so I can't remember what song it was. Now I will have to go searching thru the piles of disks.