By DJ El Toro
The other day, one of my KEXP colleagues sent around an e-mail with the subject “Who loves to give genre labels to music? I do!” He was being facetious — what music fan is content to see their favorite artist or album pigeonholed? — but had a pressing point. There are some things in KEXP’s vast library that don’t fall neatly into one category. Where do you put an artist like Hauschka, who specializes in instrumental miniatures for prepared piano and strings? Rock? Electronic? Jazz? At an eclectic station like KEXP, labels are a necessary evil. Trust me: I’m an overnight DJ. When you’re trying to find a CD quickly, and single-handedly, at 3 in the morning, you don’t want to be playing Hide and Seek in the archives.
So to suggest that all the performers on the new Psychic Circle anthology File Under: Male Vocal are wholly interchangeable would be flat-out wrong. But when the 20 selections on this set of British beat ballads were originally issued, in the 1960s, “male vocal” was probably the best catch-all term for their wares. None of these dudes are super-polished arty song stylists like Scott Walker or Gene Pitney, but neither do they seem headed straight for the lounge of airport Holiday Inn. With better management, no doubt some of them could have been at least as big as, oh, say, Gerry and the Pacemakers or Chad & Jeremy. But they’re weren’t. That’s show business.
So why can’t I stop listening to this CD (compiled by Nick Saloman of the Bevis Frond)? I suspect its appeal lies in the quasi-anonymity of the performers. Yes, a couple of these dudes got close to the big time; Brian Keith’s selection, “When the First Tear Shows,” is an early Elton John/Bernie Taupin tune, while Dominic Grant was in a band that later begat a flash-in-the-pan ’80s boy-girl duo. But mostly? You’ve never heard of these guys. Oh, you might think you have, since they all have names like Jerry Page, Dane Hunter, Danny Street, and other monikers lifted straight from the syllabus for Teen Idols 101. But believe me, you haven’t.
That probably didn’t help these gents back in the day, but now it seems like a plus. The listener can simply scrutinize the construction of Gerry Deville’s “You Never Tell Me,” which sounds like the product of a journeyman ordered to imitate the sophisticated changes of Bacharach and David, or admire how I’ve Got My Eyes On You,” credited to one Jason Cord, swells with all the grandeur of Phil Spector at his symphonic best. There’s none of the usual pop culture trivia — favorite color, previous hits, annual income — to clutter the mind and distract from pure enjoyment.
“The Face of Empty Me,” which addresses the old notion of how eerie everyday life seems when the magic of romance has fled, proves especially melancholy. Because for all we know about him, vocalist Christian Ward could have been any ordinary Joe, save for the fact that at some point, he stepped into a recording studio. That’s it, folks. (“I could find nothing about this particular Christian Ward,” writes Saloman.)
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what you call these records. They’re all nifty slices of Beatles-era UK pop-rock, better than you might expect from a bunch of nobodies. And thanks to File Under: Male Vocal, at least they won’t vanish into obscurity completely — even if the original artists have.
DJ El Toro is the host of the overnight show In Between Sleep & Reason, Wednesday mornings from 1 AM to 6 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His column, Weird At My School, appears every Monday on the KEXP Blog.