One of the fun things about letting iTunes shuffle mode curate these entries is that sometimes it’s going to pull in a band from out of left field, just because the random number generator happens to glide to a stop in that particular slice of my collection. That’s part of the fun of going to live shows, too: There’s always more music out there that I didn’t know about, just around the corner from some of my existing favorite bands.
I’d seen the Feelies live many times before I even discovered that their bassist, Brenda Sauter, had her own band, Wild Carnation, which she helped start in the early ’90s while the Feelies were on their decade-and-a-half hiatus. And it took a couple more Feelies shows before, hanging around the merch stand and with all five of the band’s extant CDs already at home (plus those by spinoffs like Wake Ooloo and Yung Wu), I spotted a Wild Carnation disc for sale and decided I might as well give it a try.
For what I’m guessing was the ten bucks I put down, it was well worth it. The album I picked up was their second, Superbus from 2006, and it grabbed me immediately with its first track, “The Road to Bielefeld,” which has a Feelies-ish vibe as you’d expect, but even brighter and warmer, thanks in part to some lovely organ (Farfisa? I’m terrible at identifying organs, and the liner notes don’t say) and mid-era-R.E.M.-ish production. Sauter’s voice, usually consigned to harmonies in the Feelies, is both sweet and full of character, reminding me a bit of another singer/bassist, Fontaine Toups from Versus. (Who had her own solo band for a while, which I’ve yet to hear but which I already love for its name: the Fontaine Toups.) It’s all enough to land Wild Carnation in that zone of band that I don’t immediately think of as one of my favorites, but which I’m happily surprised to listen to whenever I remember to do so.
It’s music like this that reminds me why I go early to shows to stand through opening acts, which are usually unmemorable but occasionally produce revelations (latest in this category: Girls on Grass, who I only caught the final four songs of and who were playing only their second show, but whose mailing list I immediately asked to be added to), why I enjoy digging through Misc bins at record stores, why I listen to freeform stations like WFMU and XRAY.fm and shows like Radio Free Song Club and Vin Scelsa’s Idiot’s Delight, which will sadly be coming to its conclusion after almost half a century in another few weeks. I don’t know if this is true for everybody, but I find there’s no significant correlation between overall popularity and how much I’m going to like a band; while I certainly listen to my share of popular music (just see the list at right), I’m just as likely, or unlikely I suppose, to like a musician laboring in relative obscurity. As much as I’ve tried, I can’t identify what it is that makes me decide a band is a keeper — all I can say is I know it when I hear it.
And I can’t say what other people are going to think, either. Look, here’s a video of Wild Carnation playing live that’s only been viewed 84 times. Is that because they’re a hidden gem, or because I’m one of only a handful of people they’re ever going to appeal to? I guess it’s really all the same thing, depending on your perspective. If you like them, you’ll know it when you hear it.