5 Musicians I Enjoy (And I Think You Might Too)
In my last article I wrote at length about how much pop music sucks and included proof because it's very important to me that my opinions are correct and that everyone knows it. I ended that article on a high note -- with the observation that since the advent of the Internet, it's easier than ever to find new music. It's practically the only use of the Internet that doesn't chip away at your soul and slowly turn you into a bitter, malicious troll.
So, this being the Internet, I thought I'd do my part and talk about some of my favorite bands that never quite hit the mainstream. If your taste is as refined and impeccable as mine, you'll probably like them, too!
The Budos Band
I am a lifelong adherent to the Church of Funk, always trying to live my life in a way that truly encapsulates the spirit of funkiness. Unfortunately, I often fall short in this. I don't always go out in public wearing a metallic purple collared shirt completely unbuttoned and zebra-striped pants (that's only for special occasions, such as funerals). Since I'm sober I can't painstakingly make a sandcastle replica of the Taj Mahal out of cocaine, blast it, and then claim that I'm actually a funky alien pharaoh from Saturn like Sun-Ra. On those days when I'm feeling like I'm not living up to my full funk-potential, I turn on the Budos Band.
The Budos Band are a fully instrumental ensemble on the late great Sharon Jones' Daptone record label. If you like soul music, pretty much everything on Daptone is a safe bet. The Budos Band in particular capture a very, very specific vibe: the soundtrack of 1970s B-movies. The genre of movies that film students think Quentin Tarnatino invented, not realizing he's more revisiting, paying homage to, and reinventing what came before. The Budos Band serves up funky, brassy tunes with fat basslines that could work perfectly as the soundtrack for movies called Fightmaster & Ace or Bikini Murders at Pumptown Beach or Blacula vs. Blackenstein: Streetrace Deathmatch! Basically, it rules.
Why I Like It:
I've always found music without lyrics to be especially good for putting on while I'm doing something else. I'm the kind of obsessive weirdo who will put on headphones, sit on the couch, and listen to an album the way most people watch a movie. Learning that this is not a thing normal people do was the most confusing day I'd had since I learned that no, drinking the juice from hummingbird feeders will not increase your speed. The point I'm trying to make here is that when music doesn't have lyrics, I find that it makes less demands on my attention and is therefore easier to have on while I'm doing something that takes my full focus, such as writing a humorous list-based article or building a cardboard IKEA toilet.
But more importantly, putting on the Budos Band makes the most banal aspects of your existence the exploits of a hard-boiled detective who breaks the rules like he breaks perps' bones. Driving down the 101 to file some paperwork that for some reason you have to phyiscally deliver to your landlord's office? Not anymore! Now you're delivering evidence that the mayor has been accepting bribes from minor Saudi royalty in return for letting them tear down the Community Arts Performing Center and Duckling Orphanage -- and his goons are on your tail! Sitting on your couch, wondering if you're too old to start chasing your dreams, or if you can even remember what those dreams were? Nope! You're jumping your classic muscle car over a sick ramp and into the bad guys' lair!
I really like hip-hop. Maybe that's not surprising to you since I'm a writer and therefore have an abiding love of wordplay, or maybe it is surprising because much of the music on this list is whiter than an Austin Texas Casserole and Racism Festival. But I think popular hip-hop largely suffers from the same problems that rock suffered from in the 80s. By which I mean a genre that was once rebellious and subversive became profitable, and now most of what you hear of it on the radio is defanged profit-driven pabulum. In America hip-hop is largely pop music, and as such it suffers from many of the same problems I wrote about here.
My other big issue with megapopular hip-hop is that a not insignificant motif is about buying a Rolls-Royce and filling it entirely with Moet & Chandon and drinking it with straws made from the bones of saints. I didn't internalize too much of what I learned in high school, but one thing that stuck with me was when Mr. Grenier, my music teacher, told me that if someone likes music you don't it's probably because they're relating to something you aren't. So what I'm saying is songs about extreme wealth and excess don't really resonate with me, a man who wipes the inside of the SpahettiO's bowl with a piece of white bread so as not to waste any potential nourishment.
Since you've probably heard of most of my favorite rappers (MF DOOM, Open Mike Eagle, Bus Driver, Immortal Technique) I'm gonna tell you about R.A.P. Ferreira, the unibrow-sporting former philosophy major. It's possible you've heard of him in one of his other incarnations. He seems to have a nearly pathological aversion to success, so every few years he changes his stage name. He used to be known as Wise Owl Himself, then he was milo, then Scallops Hotel, and he used a few other names before finally and fittingly landing on his real name (Rory Allen Phillip Ferreira...get it?).
Why I Like It:
Look, I know lofi hip-hop has become something of a meme. And a bearded white guy liking lofi-adjacent hip-hop is probably as unsurprising as seeing sandals being worn in a Midwestern Wal-Mart in the dead of winter. But there's more going on here than lightly distorted jazz chords over sound clips from N64 games. R.A.P. crafts sonic landscapes that'd be the envy of any shoegaze band. His beats are generally chill, but they're lush and full of fun little musical surprises. With a good pair of headphones you can listen to his music and feel like you're floating in an amniotic ocean, a gorgeous mindscape, a Jungian reflection of urban life. It sounds good, is what I'm saying.
And that's just the music! R.A.P. is also a great rapper. His subject matter is broad -- some might even say erratic. His labyrinthine lyrics mixes the profane and the profound, concocting alchemy from evocative imagery, commentary on pop culture, and poop jokes. One of his many self-applied epithets is Black Orpheus, both a reference to the film and more literal in his album Purple Album Pages, which can be broadly interpreted as a concept album about an escape from boring modernity in much the same way that Ed Sheerhan's album can be interpreted as the most compelling reason why it should be illegal for redheads to make music since the invention of the bagpipe.
Here's a line from the song linked above that really sums up R.A.P.s' appeal for me: One time I was doo-dooin at a gas station and I / Read on the stall, you know, on the wall, / "What's the purpose of life?" / And someone actually wrote back, it said / "To be the eyes, the ears, and consciousness of the creator of the universe / You fool." I love this imagery -- the collision between looking for meaning in a meaningless existence and taking a big dirty dump in a Flying J. Usually the deepest question that runs through my mind when I'm busting off a grubnasty in a gas station bathroom is "I wonder how many people have died in here?" The last bit of that line I quote up there is itself a quote from Kurt Vonnegut, another guy who tried to find beauty in the mundane and always maintained a sense of humor about the absurdity of the human condition. Vonnegut wasn't spittin' bars like R.A.P. though.
I mentioned CW Stoneking in my last article as the last live performance I saw before the outbreak of COVID-19, and man, this dude puts on a show. He was playing to a sold-out Troubadour, just one dude and his guitar on stage, and he had the whole place eating out of the palm of his hand. His stage presence was so powerful and unique he could have started a cult that night if he wanted to. But that doesn't really explain what CW Stoneking is.
Mr. Stoneking is...uh...he's like a dude from the 1910s who got cursed by a New Orleans witchdoctor to travel one hundred years in the future and decided to make the best of it by becoming a musician. Maybe you've heard his voice in the pilot of Over the Garden Wall, or reading that spoken-word piece you always skip on that Jack White album, or recording a Christmas song with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme. He's a heavily-tattooed Australian who dresses like an ice cream man who sold his soul to the devil and sings like a man who inhaled a lungful of burning volcanic ash and washed it down with a rusty bucket of illegally-brewed whiskey. He talks like Woody Harrelson got cast as a Civil War general and keeps forgetting he's supposed to be doing an accent, as you can see in this video where he talks about how his instruments are about as old as my grandmother.
Once, after a show, I asked him if he'd ever done any concerts in Indiana. He kinda looked at me for a moment, then said, "I 'unno." I was sort of thrown for a loop -- seems like a musician should know where he has and hasn't performed, right? Maybe? After a moment of us staring at each other, he said, "Oh, wait. Dey got duckpin bowlin' dere?" Here I realized he was talking about Action Duckpin Bowling in Indianapolis' Fountain Square, an area I'm pretty familiar with since a lot of cool bands play around there (Sufjan Stevens' record label Asthmatic Kitty has a branch nearby). I confirmed that, yes, they did have duckpin bowling, and he was probably talking about Indianapolis. He gave me a shark-toothed smile, nodded, and said "Dat's da place where 'ey put cinnamon on e'rything," and once again I had no idea what in God's name he was talking about. It was one of the most bizarre interactions of my life, and I treasure it.
Why I Like It:
C.W. Stoneking is at once old and new, both a trailblazer and a throwback. He's making new art that reminds me of one of my earliest experiences with music. When I was a kid my grandmother had a victrola. It was a huge piece of furniture, essentially a wooden standalone closet that also played music. It was taller than I was and weighed approximately 900 pounds. I eventually figured out how to play records on it, which involved a stepstool and lots of cranking: listening to music used to involve physical labor. The records my grandmother had were all old, dusty, and damaged -- antediluvian gospel and country, mostly. Things like The American Salvation Band - In Praise of the Atomic Bomb! and Ol' Rustmouth Howlyelper's Bad Time Trapped-in-the-Coal-Mine Boogaloo. The victrola hissed like a pit of vipers and warped music that was already so low fidelity it sounded like it was recorded by a used hypodermic needle cutting into an old garbage can lid. It was eerie, almost sinister, and I found myself completely entranced by it. It made me feel fear in the pit of my stomach, but I also found it compelling. It felt like I was listening to something evil. Something forbidden. Something I wasn't supposed to know about. As if I was eavesdropping on a secret ghostparty without the ghosts' permission. Stoneking captures that same feeling for me -- and it's good music to boot. It's not just about capturing the past: it's about using the aesthetic of the past to create a new world.
Stoneking's earlier work is largely what you might call roots blues. I love American roots music old and new, and the only reason I didn't include JD McPherson on this list is because he's too popular. Stoneking's first few albums are a tour-de-force of early blues, including a strong comedic and storytelling element to the songs. His most recent album, Gon' Boogaloo, is a change in direction. Rather than sparse blues or big band accompaniment, almost every track is just an electric guitar, a bass, a backing band, and Stoneking wailing like the damned. It has a vibe that is both tropical and evil, like that one Tom Waits song that William S. Burroughs "sang". Part of what I love about Stoneking is that, while he occupies a genre from the past, there's no winking at the camera. It doesn't seem like an act or a joke. His music is something that might sound gimmicky in the hands of less committed musicians, but Stoneking plays it completely straight, like rockabilly man-out-of-time Omar Romero. No artifice whatsoever -- the man's instruments are practically antiques. The only way he could be more legit is if he contracted polio, as a bit. CW Stoneking isn't just a musician. His works create a whole weird world for us to occupy, a world where we can boogie down like our great-grandparents did and not have to worry about dying of pigeon-borne illness or roving gangs that beat you with sticks for wearing the wrong kind of hat.
I have a confession. An awful, terrible confession. I...I used to be the kind of person who says they "like all genres of music, except rap and country." I feel like I need to take a shower in boiling water after saying that. That's the opinion you get when you go to the clearance section of the Opinion Store. Look, we all make mistakes, and this article is about discovering new music, so in that spirit I hope you will think only slightly less of me rather than spitting and cursing my lineage every time you hear my name spoken, which is what I deserve.
Do you remember a few paragraphs ago when I talked about how if you only listen to what's extremely popular, it's not surprising you might not like rap as a genre? Country is broadly in the same boat. Country is the Al Pacino of musical genres: it started off great but then became so exaggerated it's now just a parody of itself but makes way more money that way.
Virtually everything I wrote in my previous article about pop music is also true of the most popular country acts. So when you think "country" and associate it with indistinguishable vocal deliveries from dozens of multimilloniares pretending to be working class singing about how they want to have sex with their trucks because otherwise The Terrorists win, I get where you're coming from. There was a time I thought the same, before John Hiatt's masterpiece album Crossing Muddy Waters opened my eyes to what "country" could be.
Which raises the question: what is country? At this point, the term seems to only refer to that specific style I mentioned. But there was a time when bluegrass was considered country music. Or rockabilly. Or jugbands. Or what we today call folk music. And I love that DIY country, because poor people make the best music. Think Devil Makes Three, Rumpke Mountain Boys, Yonder Mountain String Band, The New Old Cavalry, and so on.
But I'm talking about Joe Pug here, and much of his early music is just one dude with a guitar. Many wouldn't qualify that as country, but lots of Willie Nelson's music is also one just one dude with a guitar and nobody's gonna argue that he's not country. And besides, Pug's more recent work includes steel guitars and upright bass, both hallmarks of classic country. You might say I'm confusing a distinctive subgenre with the genre that spawned it, but I say I'm reclaiming the term "country" back from the Tobies Keith of the world. Yes, that's the proper pluralization.
Why I Like It:
If you've listened to my podcast, you know that when it comes to art the one thing I really cannot abide is insincerity. Joe Pug is sincerity personified. He is heartbreakingly, unapologetically vulnerable in his music. He bares his soul with every song, completely fearless about what anyone thinks of it. I've seen Joe Pug live more time than any other musician (except possibly for wandering musician and goodtime partyhobo Woody Pines, who once told me he's on the road an average of three hundred days a year. See Woody Pines live, he's a good time. If you just wait outside long enough, statistically he'll come by eventually.)
During one live show Joe asked the audience to sit on the floor -- kind of gross, but okay. Then he asked to have all the lights turned off. Not just the stage lights -- all the lights. We listened in complete darkness, in breathless silence, as he sang the song I linked above. I'm a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but that level of human connection, the depth of the emotion in that room, was what I imagine a religious experience is like. With that level of intimacy I'm pretty sure Joe, that crowd, and I are all now legally considered married in several states.
Before becoming a musician, Pug was going to college to become a playwright. This sensibility comes through in his songs, which have the characterization, wordplay, and indictment of the soul of America you'd see in a Tennessee Williams play. Consider lines like "They say I've come from less / than I should rightfully possess / I say the more I buy the more I'm bought / and the more I'm bought, the less I cost" or "But will you recognize my face / when God's awful grace / strips me of my jacket and my vest / and reveals all the treasure in my chest?": Most musicians are lucky to have two lines that good in their entire discography, and those are from the same song! There's a DJ Khaled song where they rhyme "nakey" with "baby" and he's worth around $75,000,000; meanwhile, Pug is busting out Leonard-Cohen-in-an-opium-fugue level lyricism for crowds of twenty people in college town bars.
Finally, I really appreciate Pug's subject matter and wry sense of humor. He's not shy about giving voice to his doubts, insecurities, and, occasionally, self-loathing. So of course, as a struggling writer raised Catholic, that's right up my alley. I've always interpreted his album The Great Despiser as a cohesive story about a musician who followed his dreams and is at the crossroads now where he's lost everything for a dream that doesn't seem to be coming true. When I first moved to LA to try and become a screenwriter, I pretty much had this album on repeat for five years. It seemed like my own thoughts were being expressed in Joe's weird, throaty, nasally, froggy, beautiful voice. I have a manager now so things might yet work out, but in a dark and tumultuous time this album was a real touchstone for me. (That, and stress-induced diarrhea.)
Company of Thieves
I like to think of myself as having a pretty broad musical palate, but if you put a gun to my head and made me choose one genre as my favorite I'd probably choose rock'n'roll. (Actually, that's not true: I'd probably soil myself and beg for my life.) What I'm saying is that I really like rock, a genre which began with the genuine belief that it would change the world and is now what dads mow the lawn to. I'm currently playing Cyberpunk 2077 and by far the most unbelievable element of this game (in which my character has electric swords that pop out his forearms and can explode machines with his mind) is that in this world rock still has any kind of serious cultural cachet. All of this means that whenever I hear a band pouring their heart and soul into a rock record, I find that there's something beautifully futile about it, like a sand mandala or a ham sculpture on a hot summer day.
I discovered Company of Thieves entirely by accident. Many years ago I was trying to google the band Thievery Corporation because I wanted to see them live (if you've never heard of them, they're a fun group that makes music to take drugs to). I say "trying to google" because I typed "thieves company chicago" in the searchbar and instead of the right thing and found Company of Thieves, who were based in Chicago at the time. (Instead of LA, where I also now live in case they want to jam sometime or just hang out and be friends or whatever, because their music makes me think we'd get along?)
Anyway, I heard their song "Oscar Wilde," a catchy little rock track named after one of my favorite writers with a music video that's riffing on Rushmore, and needless to say I was hooked immediately. They were playing in Chicago so I drove out to see them perform at some little coffee shop and I dialed into their energy immediately. I became a fan. Their first album is really, really good -- but it's their second album that crosses the boundary into the sublime.
Why I Like It:
The central conflict of rock'n'roll is this: can a musical genre based on driving rhythms and aggressive delivery truly encapsulate the entire spectrum of human experience? Plenty of great rock bands that I absolutely adore sing exclusively about how sex feels good, or in the case of Led Zeppelin, how sex feels good and also hobbits are neat. The Gordian Knot of Rock: can Joe Puggian levels of intimacy and vulnerability coexist with a huge, powerful, symphonic sound? For my money, nobody's squared that particular circle quite like Company of Thieves did on their second album Running From a Gamble.
Running From a Gamble is hands down one of my favorite albums ever made. To me, it's an album about vulnerability and the fury that comes with having those vulnerabilities used against you. At a certain point, if enough people hurt you, there's a temptation to retreat permanently into the safety of cynicism and misanthropy. Why show your soul to people if they'll just eventually hurt you? This is the question the album wrestles with. It can be deafeningly angry, but never feels clownish like Weezer (1994-1996). It can be heartbreakingly vulnerable and sentimental, but never feels cloying like Weezer (2001-present). Listen to it with some good headphones: there's a huge, lush soundscape here full of unexpected textures. It captures a gigantic stadium sound, but at the same time it always feels intimate and sincere. There's nothing wacky or experimental going on here: just extremely good, distilled rock'n'roll.
We can't talk about Company of Thieves without talking about Genevieve Schatz. What a voice she has, incredible power and range -- clear and full like the ringing of crystalline bells. She can be a screeching banshee, a sly seductress, gritty blues shouter, a tender crooner at the last call of a failing nightclub, or emote any of a million other feelings. Contrast that to my voice, which is both high-pitched but also raspy, like a 1930s cartoon vagrant weasel that steals pies from windowsills. Genevieve's stage presence and unbelievable voice are absolutely ensorcelling. I've read entire novels that can't wring as much emotion out of a thousand pages than she can out of a single held note. NO I don't have a crush on her! Shut up!
Let me finish by telling you about the best concert I've ever been to. It wasn't the Flaming Lips show at the Aragon Ballroom where a dude died and they passed out laserpointers to everyone in the audience and ended it by getting into a UFO and flying away. It wasn't the Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings show where Sharon pulled me up on stage and I awkwardly twerked on stage in a full suit. It wasn't the Neutral Milk Hotel show where people began openly weeping in something approaching religious ecstasy and singing Holland, 1945 in unison like a hymn -- though that's a close second.
No, it was a little show in the backroom of a bar in Indiana. Company of Thieves was on tour, but it wasn't certain if the band would be able to stay together much longer. To save money they did an acoustic tour -- it was just the guitarist Marc Walloch with an old acoustic and Genevieve on vocals. They came on stage, Genevieve this skinny little thing in a sweater and horn-rimmed glasses, clutching a mug of tea. She took a deep breath and when she sang -- the first song was a heartbreaking cover of Tom Petty's Won't Back Down -- her voice was like a thunderclap rolling endlessly across Montana plains. There was a tacit understanding in that concert that it might be one of their last. In fact, despite reuniting a few years ago, Company of Thieves has yet to release another full-length album. It's my personal little messianic myth -- someday they'll put out another album, a crowning achievement, and save rock'n'roll. At that concert all those years ago there was a feeling that they were doing this tour not to stave off the end, but in spite of the end. The most life-affirming and human act of defiance, which is present in all works of art: spitting in the eye of death.
That kind of hope might be irrational, but it's one of the most beautiful things in the world. I kept that tour t-shirt in my closet as a kind of totem until my cat pooped on it. To this day I keep a ticket from that show in my wallet, where I hope to keep it forever, unless my cat somehow finds a way to poop on that, too.
William Kuechenberg is a repped screenwriter looking to get staffed or sell a feature. He is also 33.3% of the podcast Bad Movies for Bad People, the world's first comedy podcast about movies (available on all major podcast platforms!). He is on Twitter.