"…smart, scruffy and scintillating music, refreshingly unconcerned with trends or the latest sounds."
"The band zips effortlessly through different sounds and styles…Levy’s clever lyrics and unusual imagery make clear how much he loves the malleability of the English language."
Five Amazing Albums in My iTunes You've Never Heard Of
By Josh Jackson on May 5, 2009
Since Wired editor Chris Anderson wrote his book a few years ago, there's been a lot of talk about "The Long Tail" from a business perspective. But the truth of the music business is that the cream doesn't always rise to the top. Hidden among those thousands of albums available at iTunes and Amazon that sell in the low thousands—or even hundreds—of records are little treasures that just escaped our collective notice. Ranging from the completely obscure to the fairly obscure, these are albums I've fallen in love with over the years that, for whatever reason, didn't get the widespread acclaim and Gold Record sales they deserved. Let me know your obscure favorites in the comments section.
5. The Honeydogs - 10,000 Years (2003)
If you've heard of one of the albums on this list, odds are it's 10,000 Years. After all, Minneapolis' Honeydogs have been putting out records for a decade and a half. The fact that this one didn't appear on more Best Of lists could have been chalked up to the fact that it's a sci-fi concept record, but Janelle Monae just proved that little obstacle can be overcome, and The Decemberists played Stephen Colbert after putting out a fantasy concept record. Maybe Adam Levy's epic, post-apocolyptic saga was just a few years before its time. Best listened all-the-way through, the album dips its toes in power pop, psychedelia, rockabilly, lounge-y nightclub ballads and even a Tropicalia-ish outro with the story providing the cohesion. Catch them this summer at the 10,000 Lakes Festival.
Listen to samples of 10,000 Years at Amazon.com or newer songs at MySpace.
You know a good song when you hear it. What you probably don't know is what went into creating that song. Songs from Scratch chronicles the songwriting process to find out what transforms a vague idea into a full-fledged tune.
Minnesota Public Radio gave three local musicians—Best Friends Forever, P.O.S. (of Doomtree)
, and Jeremy Messersmith
—two weeks to write a song. We assigned them a theme ("The Wizard of Oz") and a set of lyrics (penned by Honeydogs' front man Adam Levy
) to up the difficulty level.
Songs from Scratch is documenting their techniques and inspirations, as well as their challenges, to get a first-hand look at how a song comes to life.
More info (and the final versions of the songs themselves) can be found here
1. Amygdala, The Honeydogs – It was incredibly difficult to pare this list down to a mere ten titles. So much good music came out last year that I feel nearly disloyal to several artists for leaving them off my list (apologies to Wilco, Prince, The National, Kanye, and Black Francis, all of whom did brilliant work). But I had no trouble picking my favorite record from last year, this little-heard gem (which was technically released in late 2006, but late enough that in a perfect world it would still be eligible for all the upcoming Grammies it would win. Let me dream). It’s not just because the songs on Amygdala are all perfectly crafted pop masterpieces, with intelligent lyrics, gorgeous arrangements and majestic harmonies (some courtesy of Aimee Mann). It’s not just because Honeydog Adam Levy has grown from “merely” being a great alt.country songwriter into one of the best writers of pop music (in the very best sense of that much-maligned word) since Michael Penn. And it’s not just because I found myself reaching for Amygdala more than any other album this year or because when it reaches the end I immediately start it again (and again, and again). All that is true. But this was my favorite record for one abiding reason. When I listen to this record, it makes me want to write music. Plenty of records make me want to sing along. But Amygdala actually makes me want to create. It inspires, which I think only the greatest art can do. -Russell Bartholomee (Staff Contributor)
GUILT FREE PLEASURESMinnesota Monday - The Honeydogs
Yesterday it seemed to be a good day to be from Minnesota in the film industry - the Coen brothers walked away with three Oscars for "No Country for Old Men" (best adapted screenplay, best director and best film) and Diablo Cody won the best original screenplay award for her quirky hit, "Juno." Woohoo! Go Minnesotans! See a list of the rest of the winners here.
Speaking of Minnesotans, it's Minnesota Monday here at Guilt Free Pleasures and our band this week is The Honeydogs. These guys have been a staple of the Minneapolis music scene since I was but a wee child (since the mid-1990s to be more specific). I saw them perform and met them once briefly years ago, back when I still lived in Minnesota. They seemed like nice, down-to-earth guys. Their music is a little bit country, a little bit rock 'n' roll, a little bit pop, a little bit folk, a little bit psychedelic, a little bit jazz, a little salsa, a little funk, etc. They masterfully utilize a number of different styles, sometimes all at once, which is what I love most about The Honeydogs.
Their most recent album, "Amygdala" (pronounced uh-mig’-dull-uh), which came out in 2006, is even more stylistically diverse than the album that introduced me to The Honeydogs back in 2003, "10,000 Years." For those of you wondering what an "Amygdala" is, it's an "almond-shaped group of neurons in the brain which regulate emotions, specifically fear." As with all their music, "Amygdala" is smart and political. In case you couldn't ascertain this by listening, just look at the telling track titles such as Tar Baby Napalm, The Firing Squad Reloads and Blues For Castro. While less consipuously political, the title track - Amygdala - is the essence of The Honeydogs to me. This track is just so unmistakably them. Overall, "Amygdala" is the perfect follow-up album to "10,000 Years," expanding on the strengths they already had and drawing on new influences and strengths. Although, I have to say, I hadn't listened to "10,000 Years" in a while until I decided to write this post and it's one of those albums that when you go back to it, it's even better than you remember it being and you wonder why it's been so long since you last listened to it. Both albums are also those rare finds in which I seem to like almost every single track. -Emma
NUDE AS THE NEWS
United Musicians, 2003
RiYL: Wilco, The Who, Radiohead
My boys are back. Back with a vengeance. Back with a gaggle of tunes that’ll rock your world. Back with an album loaded with so many good songs I had to stop listening to it because I liked it so much, and I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.
At the same time, it’s also an album that could give a graduate student a brilliant idea for a thesis, as 10,000 Years is one of the most lyrically sophisticated, complicated, and creative records I’ve heard in my life.
The Honeydogs, my friends, are back.
To those unfamiliar with the ‘Dogs, take a gander at a few articles written for these hallowed halls a few years back, early 2001. You see, the 'Dogs of 2001 were quite a hard-luck story, with a solid album Here’s Luck released a mere three years after it was recorded in 1998. That’s right, their Wilco-esque story of being dropped by a label with a completed record took place BEFORE it was cool.
Before Whiskeytown’s Pneumonia, before Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, there was Here’s Luck, as solid an album as any released in 2001. And those astute readers will remember that I selected it as my album of the year in my 98th annual Golden Bull Awards.
On Here’s Luck, the Honeydogs and singer/songwriter Adam Levy broke the chains of their alt.country past and put together a record full of inspiration. Influences ranged from Mott The Hoople (“Pins In Dolls”) to Phil Spector (“For The Tears”) and Lennon (“The Crown”).
The album wasn’t a total success (not that you can tell from my glowing review), but it marked such a stark departure from Levy’s alt.country past that is still probably the most surprising album I’ve heard since Joe Henry’s coming-out-party Trampoline. As much as I enjoyed the band’s first few records, I just did not anticipate Levy to produce an album as diverse and methodical as Here’s Luck.
Well shame on me, because Levy has just done it again. In fact, the band’s new record 10,000 Years is such an upgrade that it makes their entire catalog sound like it was written, well, 10,000 years ago.
I know I tend to be pretty favorable in many of my reviews; Hell, I generally only pick albums from bands I like anyway. Sometimes I’m a little too generous (see Cary, Caitin; Hudson, Cary and Willis, Kelly), sometimes not enough (see Case, Neko), and sometimes I hit it right on the head (see Jayhawks, the). Anyway, the point of this little aside is that I don’t want to sound like I’m pandering when I say 10,000 Years is already one of my favorite albums. Ever. Right up there with Wilco’s Being There, the Clash’s London Calling, Ian Hunter’s All-American Alien Boy. That’s not to say it’s as good as those, but it’s approaching that territory.
I wouldn’t expect my friends to have the same affection for it, and I certainly do not think it will be remembered in the annals of time along next to the aforementioned classics. But damn, 10,000 Years is just one terrific listen.
At first, Levy -- a social worker in his spare time -- set out to write a collection of songs based on his work experience. But clearly, 10,000 Years is more influenced by events that crept into everyday life as the songwriting process took place –at the album’s heart, it’s a concept album reflecting on the war on terrorism. Weaving a complicated tale about a dire future that includes test-tube babies, welfare service, the spread of Islam, and a “Final Solution,” Levy has put together a musical statement leaps beyond anything in his past, and more compelling than about anything else released in 2003.
Musically, 10,000 Years is a tour-de-force, as the alt.country of Levy’s past is left in the closet, and the influences that drenched Here’s Luck are largely kept out of sight. Instead, Levy comes up with a moody record that, while not quite an original masterpiece, certainly stands on its own. A handful of songs are piano-driven (“Dead Stars,” “Ms Anne Thrope”), while others are arena-sized rock n’ roll (“10,000 Years”). Then there are those somewhere in between. “The Rake’s Progress,” for one, would fit nicely on Ben Folds’ newest, while “Test-Tube Kid” is about as smart a rocker this side of They Might Be Giants.
But it is the lyrics that control 10,000 Years, and boy, are they some of the most imaginative, clever and downright tiring lyrics I’ve ever heard. Try to follow along: It is the future, don’t know what year, but the test-tube babies are coming to life. Not unlike the Clones of “Star Wars” fame, the test-tube kids are perfect, and they’re here to strip evil from the world. But there is a ghetto, and the Ministry just arrested a few bad apples for plotting genocide. Meanwhile, a plague has hit Africa and some guy named Brother 33 is injecting microchips with mustard gas.
If you think that would make for a confusing listen, just check out the eight-plus minutes of “Last War Lullaby,” the centerpiece of the album, which details the Ministry dissecting evil for further inspection. The song itself is about as close to a rock opera as the ‘Dogs get, explaining in graphic detail the plague, the test-tube soldiers and the nuclear holocaust that follows Brother 33’s detonation of a 10-megaton bomb.
To wit: “One leg in the grave, the other kicking down the door / They poisoned all the water, the man behind the man / The rolling blackout followed / the roving bands leave piles of hands / Barbed wire and rubber truncheons, some won’t cooperate / the jungle prison brothels / the hand-maimed know Leopold’s ghost.”
Phew. Catch your breath, but not for long, as the plague is coming and the Ministry’s test-tubies are about to catch evil! “We can’t bury Tyhoid Mary / Lovely nadir, we can’t stay here / White-hooded hydra, Teutonic knight stick, brownshirt gas chambermaid / We finally got evil / At the end of our blade.”
Of course, this is simply a Cliff’s Notes version. I’m not kidding when I say I was flat-out beat when I listened to “Last War Lullaby;” the song grabbed me by the throat and never let go.
This review is a little off-beat, not quite the norm for yours truly. But there’s just so much to 10,000 Years that I really can’t do it justice in print. So you’ll just have to take my word for it and buy it. And you might as well grab a coffee because you’ll be listening to it for a while.
And, if you’re in grad school, you could probably base your dissertation on the relationship between Vadikyn -- the good test-tube baby -- and Ms Anne Thrope. Papers are due Tuesday. - Rodeo Rob
The Honeydogs’ story doesn’t start too differently from that of any other band. In the late 1970s, lead vocalist and guitar player Adam Levy was cutting out cardboard guitars, a 12-year-old boy pretending he was a member of KISS or The Who.
He learned to play all his favorites songs, by Elvis Costello, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. While studying at the University of Minnesota he decided that he wanted to play music for a living.
“I realized that I could play country, blues, soul,” Levy says. “But at that time I was a side guy. I had no song writing aspirations.”
Levy joined the Picadors and played with them for three years in the early 1990s. Just as that band was breaking up he started to develop a desire to write his own music. At the urging of his brother Noah, he formed the Honeydogs.
They went to work, like many others before them, making posters and touring locally, trying to build a following. Budding producer John Fields and his uncle Steve Greenberg (who wrote the disco classic “Funkytown” in Minneapolis) were the first to show interest in the band, and released their first two albums on October Records.
At this time the band was playing about 200 shows a year, and was starting to garner some national attention. Like many bands they made the trip down to Austin for the South By Southwest festival, where hundreds of bands are showcased each spring.
“Sure enough everything fell into place for us,” Levy says.
The Honeydogs landed what every band at the time was hoping for- a publishing deal. By turning over the rights to their music to Polygram Publishing, the band was given an advance payment to start recording an album. “We could quit jobs and concentrate on our music,” Levy explains.
Suddenly the band was in New York and Los Angeles, meeting press members and doing radio promotions. Their first major label album, “Seen a Ghost,” was released by Mercury Records in 1997, followed by a national tour playing with INXS and later Bon Jovi.
But, while recording their next album, “Here’s Luck,” they were bitten by the buyouts and consolidations of the late ‘90s music industry. Both Polygram and Mercury were experiencing major overhauls, and the Honeydogs got lost in the mix.
“The people who had signed us were gone,” Levy says.
The band was soon dropped, and had to search for a new label. It took almost two years before Palm Records finally released “Here’s Luck” in 2000.
“My biggest regret is that we didn’t get “Here’s Luck” out in 1998,” Levy says. “Sonically we were ahead of a lot of bands, but we couldn’t get it out.”
The band was moving away from its earlier alt-country sounds. Critics had thrown them in with the likes of Son Volt, Wilco and the Jayhawks, but Levy says this classification never fully represented the Honeydogs.
“The association didn’t hurt anything,” Levy says. “But when we broke away from the alt-country sound, the label didn’t know what to do with us.”
In 2001 the group’s sound continued to move towards orchestral arrangements and Levy’s piano compositions. While planes were crashing into the World Trade Center, the Honeydogs just happened to be making a dark album, what Levy calls “a war story.”
“At this time people wanted to be entertained, but we recorded the album anyway,” Levy says.
Although the album stood in contrast to what the American public was looking for in the post-9/11 world, Michael Penn and Aimee Mann heard 10,000 Years and became instant fans. Penn put the album out on his United Musicians label, and Mann brought the band out on tour.
While the album was another critical favorite, the band continued to be overlooked in the mainstream. Another album, Amygdala, followed, and was put out on the band’s seventh label, Copycats Entertainment.
The Honeydogs have been changing labels and sounds for over 10 years. During that time Levy has been a social worker, managing youth programs. He also is starting a new job, as a teacher and advisor at the Institute of Production and Recording in Minneapolis.
“The goal is always that you want to reach as many people as you can,” Levy says. “I just want to stay in music anyway I can.”
One way Levy does this is with an alter-ego band, Hookers and Blow. The band does covers at Gluecks on Thursday nights.
“We were worn out, our egos bruised. This was reinvigorating. Not every show has to be the end of the world,” Levy says. “Cynicism sets in over time. If you stick with it the fame and money don’t mean as much anymore. Odds are really slim that you will see that anyway,”
The music industry has changed a lot since the mid-‘90s, Levy says. Label buyouts, competition and the Internet have made the landscape very different.
“More people went to see live shows before the Internet,” he says. “It is a much less engaged process now with iTunes and MySpace. It is so damn competitive now.”
Levy is currently working on a new batch of songs for the band’s eighth album. He is excited to continue exploring new topics and sounds, and hopes that people will continue to listen.
“Each record gets more multiple-meaninged,” he says. “Hopefully people are paying attention to what we are singing about.”
NUDE AS THE NEWS
Honeydogs frontman Adam Levy finds the good ending to a stretch of bad luck.
Here's a tough luck story: After releasing a critically acclaimed album in 1997, the Minneapolis-based Honeydogs saw their label get swallowed up during one of the many mega-mergers sweeping the country, nearly lost bassist Trent Norton after he entered a coma due to an extreme asthma attack, and finally, parted ways with long-time guitarist Tommy Borscheid.
All the while, the Honeydogs soldiered on, recorded a new full-length album in 1998, and sat and waited for some word -- ANY word -- on their fate with label Mercury. And, of course, none came. For singer/songwriter/guitarist Adam Levy, the past couple of years have been a lesson in diligence, patience, and most of all, frustration.
"I think it's just sort of the broad state of the music industry where you have these huge buyouts and large corporations coming in, and a changing of the guard every few months," Levy said during a telephone interview. "People [were] really scared for their jobs, and they're always looking for the next big thing and they don't really have any long-term perspective on any artists' careers. Nobody cared how much greater this album was from our first record, they just weren't really paying attention."
Despite the lack of direction, or anything else, from Mercury, the 'Dogs picked up guitarist Brian Halverson, and in 1999 added some new material to the album that would later be called, appropriately enough, Here's Luck. And, as luck would have it, Mercury dropped the band, leaving the group in limbo until a tiny branch of Rykodisc called Palm Pictures gave the record a whirl. The rest, as they say, is history.
"From the get-go, from meeting with them, I think we were all struck by the musicality of the label," says Levy. "They've kind of migrated to this label from other parts of the music industry with the desire to get with a label that's interested in music. So when we first met with these people, we talked about our favorite records. They talked to us about what they liked about our music. The courtship was very nice. I felt like, wow, this is a lot of people at a music label that seem to be in touch with what we're doing."
So just what are the 'Dogs doing? Well, Here's Luck, eventually released in January 2001 (a mere three years after it was recorded), received rave reviews all over the country. For Levy, whose songwriting trademarks have always been catchy guitar licks, straightforward, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and loud, stop-start drumming, Here's Luck marked a major departure. Gone is almost any semblance of the rootsy rave-ups that were splattered all over the band's earlier records. Gone are the pointed, sometimes hilarious, but sometimes crude lyrics like on "That's Me" from the band's self-titled 1994 debut: "You don't need a genius / just a human with a penis / That's me / Yeah, that's me," or "Tell Me" (from 1995's Everything, I Bet You): "How much can you see / with your pornographic memory / can you see my face / or can you cum without a trace."
Levy's writing -- both lyrically and musically -- have grown tenfold since those days, as his songs have become much less straightforward, much less hilarious, but almost all the time brilliant. "There's sort of a moodiness and obliqueness in the lyrics and I think that shifted from the autobiographical to the more collage-y lyrics where I'm telling multiple stories, doing stories where…you could read them in several different ways," he says.
The most telling example of Levy's musical and lyrical growth is "Losing Transmissions," a song recorded in June 2000, which details not only the band's frustration with its former label, but with Levy's personal family life. The song is a musical tour-de-force, and at this point remains perhaps the strongest Honeydogs song on tape.
"'Losing Transmissions,' I wrote that song as kind of a nod for my wife, who's always saying I'm not completely paying attention to what she's saying, [that] I'm always drifting off" Levy says. "And yet the song is also about a loss of connection in general, and the music business."
"Winter of '99 / Borrowing all the time / we robbed Peter / and we sucker-punched Paul," Levy blurts out in the song as a testament to his band's survival.
"Late again / I always blow it / the check's in the mail / but the cogs don't know it / I'm sorry but I'm tuning you out of my addled brain," Levy sings, obviously an apology to his wife and three kids.
But Levy considers "Wilson Boulevard," a tune named after the street this writer used to live off of in Arlington, VA, as his crowning achievement. Levy says he was inspired to write the song after spending a late night in a local hotel, flipping through the channels when he came across a station that was simply recording activity on Wilson Blvd., and believe me, as one who used to live there, there's not a whole lot going on in the suburb of D.C. after midnight.
"[I]t just felt like one of those Big Brother moments, where you have this camera panning back and forth and recording," Levy says. "Who's watching this, I don't know. I'm in a hotel room, this is being transmitted over the city and people are watching this street scene of basically nothing going on all over."
Ah, but Levy makes it sound so, well, peaceful. What with the cascading strings, distant, soothing vocals, and, honestly, such abstract lyrics that you'd never tell he's predicting the end of the world in the song: "The kettle boils and overflows / Paint the prison walls pink / The flood gates are opening / An ivory tower sinks."
I always figured Arlington was near the Seventh Circle of Hell, and now I know.
Luckily for Levy, the 'Dogs, and for any fans of music, the world hasn't ended, allowing everyone to tune in and check out the band on tour over the next few months with the Texas quartet the Old '97s. After that, it's back to the studio, where Levy already has a good chunk of material for the band's next album.
"Its pretty much done," Levy says of the yet-unnamed project. "I keep tweaking it. We've done some recording and demoing…We've got enough material for a new record, plus I keep writing. We're all very eager to get on" with it. And so are we to hear it, Adam. -Rodeo Rob
Click on photo for high-res image