Sunday, May 25, 2014

Jaimie Vernon (and friends)--- The End of Terrestrial Radio in Three Acts

I must listen to hundreds of albums a year--- at least sample that many--- and there are few which really floor me.  I try to write about the ones which do, though even then the words sometimes escape me and those reviews remain unwritten.  It isn't easy, writing reviews on a constant basis, so when an album comes along which I not only love but wish I could have been part of--- or at least been privy to some of the creative process--- it is rare.

When friend and colleague Jaimie Vernon unleashed his latest project on us a few weeks ago, it caught me completely by surprise.  It is a concept album, he explained, about the downfall of Pop radio, and then sweetened the deal with the hint that "The Iceman", Bob Segarini, was somehow involved as were a handful of friends with whose work I was familiar:  Brian Gagnon, Lawrence Ingles, Todd Miller, and Jade Dunlop to name a few.  It revolves around the last Pop radio station in existence and soon to go out of existence, he said, and.....  Well, here it is in Vernon's own words, borrowed from the liner notes:

"Nightmare @ 20,000 Watts is a modern morality audio play in three acts that postulates a 'what if' scenario concerning the slow demise of terrestrial radio. What if the corporatization of our airwaves becomes so ubiquitous that every last radio station on the planet is absorbed and reformatted out of existence?

"What would the final terrestrial radio station sound like on that fateful day when the playlist is transformed and the on-air talent broadcasts across the ether one last time? C.R.C.K. could be that station. A 20,000 Watt FM transmitter located in the remote outpost of Sachs Harbour in the Northwest Territories' Beaufort Sea at the tip of Banks Island.

"And it is here that the world of past radio glories and current radio collapse collides in a farewell to a format that not only informed my own musical growth but was the audio thread that connected nearly four generations of pop music fans in the Western Hemisphere."

Is that a great idea or does Vernon just make it sound great?  I would have to say a little of both.  I mean, the idea is not necessarily original--- I'm sure there are albums out there which have toyed with the basic idea and, of course, the Cruisin' series of albums recreated a string of albums featuring the hits of a specific year in the radio format of many of the top disc jockeys of the 50s and 60s.  But no one to my knowledge has done it exactly like this.

In the first place, Vernon not only wrote and recorded most of what made it to disc (or into digital format) but created a scenario far beyond that "actual" day of broadcast.  His liner notes, in fact, lay out the complete history of radio station CRCK, bringing us up-to-date just in time for that final broadcast.  The lead-in for the album is the dial-twisting we have heard many times--- well, us oldtimers anyway.  I grew up on it, the various stations crowding their ways through speakers as the listener searches for station of choice.  The fact that it stops on CRCK and Brian "The Iceguy" Campbell is the kickoff, Segarini then hosting a similar program for Sirius under the name Bob "The Iceman" Segarini.  Art reflecting life?  Possibly.

It is the first in a long line of coincidences and parallels to the real world.  The placing of the radio station in Sachs Harbor takes it far out of the reach of the rest of the world, that town being well north of the Arctic Circle, and while the station broadcasts, it is with a sense of isolation.  Not only the last Pop radio station in existence, but the last Mom and Pop radio station.  Think about it for a minute.  For those of a certain age, it is the darkest of science fiction.

Vernon, though serious, cloaks it all with a stunning sense of humor.  Bringing in Segarini, a good friend and someone with whom Vernon has worked with more than a bit, was stroke of genius, his off-the-cuff delivery just off enough to fit the whole concept but not drive it into serious ground.  Indeed, "The Iceguy" sounds as much Red Green as he does disc jockey, plugging everything from Sterno to beaver shooting to a store called Bill's Bait & Beer because there ain't two things in the whole world that go together better than that.  Vernon even includes a funeral home ad--- fake, of course, but oh so appropriate given the theme.

Of course, none of this would work minus music and in the end it is the music that holds it all together.  Vernon went out of his way to include songs by Lowe & Brow, San Diego's Atomic Enchiladas, The Terra Cottas, The Hudson's Bay Brothers (think about that one for a bit), and Sydney Australia's The Modern Punk Quartet, et. al.  That would be one hell of a lineup, folks, if the bands existed.  They don't, of course.  The thing is, the album is put so well together that it is hard to believe they don't.  The songs, all Vernon-centric except two (Frank Marzano's Drink Her Goodbye and Jim Lowe's I Feel the Beat), are first rate and the production the same.  You can hear influences of The Beatles, ELO, Klaatu and others, but the songs stand on their own.  In fact, I hadn't even realized that the musicians on each of the songs are pretty much the same in odd combinations until maybe my tenth listen.  I had somehow fallen into the fantasy and for me The Middle Americans and Atomic Enchiladas had taken on a form as real as any I could imagine.  In fact, I began to worry about myself.  I began having this urge to search the band names on the Net just to scope out their discographies. 

Any real drama must come to an end, and this is true drama in odd form, and Vernon wraps it all up with the sign-on of new kids in radio town, CWSH, and the smoother jazz format.  Pop radio is no more.

The PDF file Vernon sent me shows the insert, marked Disc 1.  Turns out that there will be a second disc.  Basically, it will be the music from the "radio broadcast" minus the radio patter and with all of the proper lead-ins and lead-outs--- just the music.  It will also include bonus tracks, from tracks relating to the "broadcast" to others written during the time period the album was actually being recorded.  Soon, he promised.  When time and energy permit.

 Am I impressed?  I am totally knocked out.  Each day I find time to listen, and always all the way through.  It isn't getting old--- any of it.  The music, the vocal palaver, the humor cheers me up.  It is radio as it should be.  The fact that the music and characters are weaving an audio tale of creative consequence fascinates me.  You want to hear it?  It's streaming here.  Do yourself a favor and pop a cold one, lay back and hear it for what it really is.  This will be in my Top Ten of the year, easy, and it isn't because I know that guy.  But, just for the record, I know that guy.

Frank O. Gutch Jr.

(Frank Gutch Jr. writes and has written for numerous magazines and websites, presently including this blog, his own website and the prestigious Don't Believe A Word I Say site put together by musician and music pundit Bob Segarini, out of Toronto. He specializes in the Indies, having fought hand-to-hand combat with major record labels for decades (talk about zombies). He believes music should be the core of the music business, though business it mostly be, and denies the accepted reality in the stead of the artistic one. Seldom does he receive pay for articles and/or reviews and believes that there is no place for negatives in a world in which one cannot keep up with the positives. He is, in a sense, a lost soul in a sea of music, drowning, but drowning gratefully.)

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