A look at acts breaking at radio and retail and entering Billboard charts. This week: Drive-By Truckers, Mogwai, Yonder Mountain String Band
A look at the latest acts that are breaking at radio and retail and entering the Billboard charts.
KEEP ON TRUCKIN': A little-known cult act two years ago, the Drive-By Truckers jumped to a major label to widen its fan base. Then the band decided it had made a mistake.
In 2001, the Athens, Ga.-based group had recorded and self-released the two-disc "Southern Rock Opera," a concept album about a man reconnecting with his Southern roots through the music of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Universal Music's Lost Highway picked up the album, and reissued it last year.
The music reveled in Skynyrd's three-guitar, arena-rock assault, and the lyrics glorified rock'n'roll heroes while offering dissertations on Southern stereotypes. The Drive-By Truckers were eager to rock as hard as Crazy Horse, and even more anxious to shatter the racist archetype that had saddled their home region.
Yet despite numerous critical accolades, "Southern Rock Opera" failed to sell for Lost Highway, and the album never cracked any of Billboard's charts. For the follow-up, "Decoration Day," the band decided to drop the narrative. Yet from the tragic tale of incest in opening ballad "The Deeper In," to the whisky-stained tears of "Outfit," in which a father pleads with his son to remember his Southern heritage ("Don't act like your family's a joke"), "Decoration Day" still offers 15 sympathetic looks at the forgotten and the ridiculed.
Said band leader Patterson Hood on a post on the band's Web site, "I wasn't sure if we were really cut out for the whole Universal ... way of doing things. We were able to record 'Decoration Day' exactly the way we wanted. With the current state of the record industry, I'm not sure if they knew exactly what to do with the dark, uncompromising album we turned in. It became evident that we weren't going to be a top priority for them, and we asked to leave."
The group bought back the rights to the album, and inked a deal with indie New West. During all the label drama, however, the band never stopped touring, and while the Drive-By Truckers may have been lost in the major label machine, they were fast becoming indie rock stars. "Decoration Day" debuted last week at No. 27 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums tally, and entered at No. 29 on the magazine's Heatseekers chart.
Those who purchase the new album will later have access to live cuts, demos and exclusive videos via the band's Web site. The group launches an U.S. tour July 19 in Chicago, and will celebrate the release of the new album with a July 26 performance in Athens.
HAPPILY DEPRESSED: Mogwai is a band that knows how to get attention. The Scottish group shattered eardrums with the deafeningly loud, Slint-inspired noise of its 1997's debut, "Young Team" (Jetset). Yet that's not what got the band press. Instead, the U.K. media latched onto the group's T-shirts, which explicitly slammed the critically adored Blur.
Earlier this year, the band garnered headlines when it put for sale the pacemaker of drummer Martin Bulloch on eBay. The winning bidder not only received the pacemaker, but Bulloch's hospital wristband and his European pacemaker ID card.
So while the press has focused on aspects other than the band's music, it may have something to do with Mogwai's hard-to-define sound. The group's mostly instrumental albums are dense, brooding works that favor experimentation over melody. Over the course of four albums, Mogwai has started to tone down its noise outbursts, but the band still stretches its instruments to the point of maximum tension, and continues to pile on layers of cheerless, manipulated sounds.
"Happy Songs for Happy People," the band's third set for Matador, is 40-minutes of slow-building, creepy rock, and could have easily have been a soundtrack to an art-house horror flick. The band's arrangements are getting sparser -- a piano key here, a guitar chord there, a barely audible rhythm here -- yet no less menacing. Like a darker Sonic Youth, Mogwai melds the drone of My Bloody Valentine, the musicianship of Godspeed You Black Emperor! and the apprehension of a Hitchcock thriller.
The band has steadily risen in popularity over the years, thanks in part to previous pairings with producers such as Steve Albini (Nirvana, the Jesus Lizard) and Dave Fridmann (the Flaming Lips, Mercury Rev). The band's 2001 "Rock Action" album hit No. 16 on Billboard's Top Independent Albums chart and No. 20 on the Heatseekers tally. "Happy Songs for Happy People" fared even better. It debuted last week at No. 9 on the Heatseekers chart, and gave Mogwai its first appearance ever on The Billboard 200 with a No. 182 arrival.
YONDER NO MORE: Fresh off an appearance at Tennessee's second Bonnaroo festival earlier this month, the Yonder Mountain String Band appear primed to break out of the jam band circuit. It's a feat the group will have accomplished entirely on its own terms.
Formed in the late '90s by a pair of friends at the University of Illinois, the Yonder Mountain String Band was solidified after a move to Nederland, Colo., where the group quickly developed a following for its bluegrass-flavored country. For the release of its first album, 1999's "Elevation," the band formed its own label, Frog Pad Records. Non-stop touring and five independently released albums later, and the Yonder Mountain String Band was headlining major venues in the Western U.S.
This summer sees the group following its well-received Bonnaroo appearance with performances at the High Sierra Music Festival (July 3-6, Quincy, Calif.), Floydfest (Aug. 15-17, Floyd, Va.) and the moe.down (Aug. 29-31, Turin, N.Y.). The band will be peddling its third studio effort, "Old Hands," which finds it collaborating with Colorado singer/songwriter Benny Galloway. Most of new album's lyrics were written by Galloway, and document his experience working in Colorado's meatpacking industry.
While the Yonder Mountain String Band reached Billboard's Top Bluegrass Albums tally last year, "Old Hands" marks the first time the band has breached the magazine's Top Country Albums chart, where it arrived last week at No. 54. The band's bluegrass following also continues to grow. "Old Hands" arrived on the Top Bluegrass Albums roundup at No. 5, besting the No. 11 entry last year of the live "Mountain Tracks Vol. 2."