In the liner notes for a new compilation called Nowcore! The Punk Rock Evolution, some guy named Josh Hooten dredges up memories of air-guitar afternoons at his childhood home in Fayetteville, North Carolina, circa 1984. His prepunk soundtrack of choice was Rock 80, a collection of new wave hits by the likes of Cheap Trick, the Cars, Billy Idol, and A Flock of Seagulls, put together by the Ronco of record labels-K-tel. Nothing surprising there: songs like “Surrender,” “Just What I Needed,” and “Dancing With Myself” formed a crucial bridge from Casey Kasem to Clash City Rock for a generation of young and restless air-guitarists. And if anybody was still selling 8-tracks when the ‘gulls hit the charts in 1982 it would have been K-tel, the low-brow, high-volume Kompilation King of the ’70s-a Minneapolis-based company founded on the principle of giving the people what they wanted in the form of cheap megahits collections sold primarily through TV ads, and a label that embodied the antithesis of everything punk purported to stand for.
Nowcore!, on the other hand, is a shining example of the indie values American punk has nurtured. It collects 15 relatively obscure tracks by 15 bands you’re not likely to ever hear on commercial radio (plus one one-hit wonder, “Stars” by Champaign pumpkin smashers Hum), culled mostly from releases on small labels. And it implies the existence of an underground scene of like-minded bands, each with its own identity, yet united by some vague ideology. The result is more or less an update of the classic early-’80s hardcore compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans!,or the 1987 Homestead label sampler The Wailing Ultimate, except for one amusing detail: Nowcore! is on K-tel.
This isn’t the K-tel of the ’70s. In fact, another of the label’s recent releases is the two-disc Exposed Roots: The Best of Alt.Country, featuring 24 tracks by cult and underground roots artists young and old. Both compilations share a common purpose, one that’s become something of a cottage industry among media and advertising types in this decade of demographic fragmentation-namely, to identify, define, and, if possible, attach a catchy label to a particular trend. In
other words, K-tel has found a new niche to fill on the margins of pop music, rather than in a center that’s gotten harder and harder to locate.
Amid an alarming proliferation of ‘cores, Nowcore! gets around the prickly name game with a suitably ambiguous title. But most of its bands fit the “Emocore” profile: young, earnest, overwhelmingly male-dominated, with sensitive singers, limber rhythm sections, and guitarists who are more likely to attack with feints and jabs than powerchords. These are the descendants of Mission of Burma, Hüsker Dü, and Fugazi, not the Circle Jerks. But there’s pop in this punk. The Promise Ring, for example, pepper their chorus with catchy doot-doot-doos, hinting that the distance between Nowcore! and Rock 80‘s”Surrender” isn’t all that monumental. And the staccato guitars of Burning Airlines owe as much to Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” as to the Clash and Gang of Four. There’s humor too, particularly in the Dismemberment Plan’s “The Ice of Boston,” a tragicomic tale of a New Year’s Eve spent alone in a cold city with cheap champagne, Gladys Knight records, and a broken heart.
Rounded out with strong material from Seattle’s hard and melodic Seaweed, Olympia’s angular Unwound, and San Diego’s dissonant Drive Like Jehu, Nowcore! proves contemporary punk can hold up surprisingly well to an underground variation on K-tel’s hot hits formula. The same isn’t quite true of Exposed Roots. By including tracks from country legend Johnny Cash, rockabilly pranksters Southern Culture on the Skids, veteran roots-punks the Meat Puppets, Nashville neo-traditionalists BR5-49, and faux Appalachian folkie Gillian Welch, the collection casts too wide a net. Plus, is it really fair to include Gram Parsons? I mean, he may rightfully be the genre’s grandaddy, but he’s not exactly around to defend himself for it.
There may be a solid single CD’s worth of material to be had here-one that might lend some definition to the notion of alt.country by bringing together the Sweetheart of the Rodeo sounds of the Jayhawks’ “Waiting for the Sun,” Whiskeytown’s twangy take on Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown,” Steve Earle’s beefy “Guitar Town,” and Lucinda Williams’s gutsy “Passionate Kisses.” Or maybe we should just accept the fact that, unlike emocore, some subgenres just aren’t ready for K-tel yet.