Another unexpected musical detour which has taken my fancy the past 6 months. I recall when Souled American were fairly active in the late '80s/early '90s, and their existence didn't register beyond a blip on the radar. There was enough hope from someone somewhere that they would amount to more than a hill o' beans, since a couple of their LPs were even licensed here in Australia (to Festival Records - though I'm assuming that was possibly due more to a deal between the US Rough Trade office and Festival: if you're going to distribute our label, then all priorities get a local release).
So anyway, Souled American existed from roughly the mid '80s until the mid '90s and are often considered pioneers in the alt-country genre. But you're allowed to like them regardless. My ears were originally piqued to the idea of there being something curious about the band when the Tumult label reissued their first four albums as a 4CD set back in 1999. Tumult was/is owned and operated by Andee Connors, who also happens to be a co-owner of Aquarius Records in San Francisco. Its roster usually hovers around the musical realms of black metal/stoner/doom/punk/noise and other ear-bleeding music forms. But Souled American, a largely forgotten countrified indie band from Chicago, were so highly regarded by Andee (one of his favourite bands of all time!) that he felt compelled to piss money into the wind and release a goddamn 4CD box set by a band few people gave a shit about in the first place. Well, that box set sold out years ago and actually goes for a bit of money now, so I guess some must have caught on. I was inspired to investigate their wares by that situation, and also because their 5th and 6th albums - which were released in 1994 and 1997, respectively, and only in Germany - happened to be included in this list of Jim O'Rourke's favourite music (it's an approximate list, one collated via some diligent research, and a fascinating buyers' guide, if you care).
I have managed to tumble across vinyl copies of their first two LPs: 1988's Fe and '89's Flubber, both in such mint condition at a suburban secondhand barn that I figure the original owners never even gave 'em a chance (fair enough - few did), and both of which are Australian editions. I don't recall the band ever getting airplay down here on community radio at the time; in fact, I don't recall a goddamn ripple, so I'll make the wild assumption that most copies were trashed upon marketplace failure. Certainly the US branch of Rough Trade wasn't a particularly exciting place to be, musically, during this era, and in fact it was a terrible place to be by 1992, when it went bust and burnt a number of its artists. It managed to released some fine recordings from Galaxie 500, but other than that, the only release which springs to mind is one of the Butthole Surfers' worst (1990's Pioughd). And in amongst this was the Great White Hope of college radio at the time. The obi strip on my copy has a quote from some such putz which compares 'em to the Violent Femmes, Meat Puppets and Camper Van Beethoven (whom they toured with). OK... But really, if you dig deeper, and if you give them time, Souled American had layers of sound beyond the obvious to offer.
Their music was loose, disjointed and only became more so over their career. Both Fe and Flubber as do all their recordings - feature the bass playing of Joe Adduci, and it's this instrument and the way it's played which really adds to their sound. Their music is often sparse with drawled, stoned-sounding vocals, and amidst this is Adduci's clunking, almost funky six-string bass work (on a Fender VI). Now, I don't mean to say that his bass playing is 'funky' like the guy is slapping and popping to within an inch of your sanity, but there are big, abrupt and quite intrusive bass notes throughout which add a new and rather peculiar dimension to their music. Like two of my other favourite bands of the era - Slovenly and The Scene Is Now - repeated listens to Souled American show them to be a deceptive band at first listen, enveloping their material with all kinds of non-standard extras which add extra layers to their songs. There is a definite non genericus element to their music which has had me coming back for more.
Now, the other interesting aspect to Souled American is this: they released two more albums on Rough Trade - 1990's Around The Horn and 1992's Sonny (neither of which I've procured yet) - both of which sold less than the previous two (the band's history was one of declining sales), before regrouping mostly sans-drummer for 1994's Frozen and 1997's Notes Campfire. Of the latter two, I have the former and not the latter. Got me? These last two, as noted, were only released in Germany on the Moll Tontrager label, which I guess hints at their fortunes falling even further. But they are equally excellent, if not more so. By the time of Frozen, their music had become a gooey sprawl, almost formless. Drawled vocals, guitar notes flying slowly at whim, those meaty bass notes giving an anchor when there's little to no percussion to be heard. It is truly a beautiful thing to behold. A decade prior, the band was pipped and primed to be the latest College Rock Sensation, and somehow it came to this. And that's not a bad thing, because unlike most Great White Hopes of 1980s college radio, you'd actually still want to listen to Souled American, whereas most you'd never want to hear at all. I need to fill in the gaps, of course, but having now ensconced myself in various areas of their discography, I'm convinced they were a band well worth giving a shit about.