My first email address was just a string of letters and numbers: my first and last initials, a three-digit number, and then the letter “b.” I think the number was the number of students in my graduating class with my initials who had gotten email addresses ahead of me. I think the letter designated my graduating class. In other words, we were the second class at my school to get email addresses. Early days, kids. No Reddit, no Facebook, no Pandora, no Spotify. No animated GIFs of Benedict Cumberbatch. No Google. The internet was just monospaced letters on a screen.
I don’t remember how I found my way through all those ASCII characters to the communities that became, for my college years, my primary means of finding new music, but I did. I don’t know what you kids have now that corresponds to newsgroups and mailing lists. Facebook groups? Subreddits? Snapchat circles? Basically we’re talking about a bunch of geeks and nerds chatting on forums about the things they like, and often the things they hate about the things they like. I spent many years arguing on the internet. It was one of the first things I learned to do on the internet. So much time wasted — except that it wasn’t quite wasted, because it was better than any of my college writing courses for honing my skills at essays, persuasive writing, debate, and coping with it when someone disagrees with you (if you think I’m bad now, you should have seen me then). And it introduced me to some people with excellent taste and, crucially, excellent connections.
These were DJs and music writers, people with access to promo CDs and prerelease versions of albums. They were exceedingly well-informed about the musicians we loved, and some of them were unbelievably obsessive, compiling set lists from hundreds of concerts and creating lyric databases as soon as the web appeared and there was a place to put them. I’d call it information overload, but there was nothing “over-” about it. I was in clover.
One of the lists I spent a lot of time on was geared toward appreciation of female singer/songwriters. It wasn’t much more specific than that, but there was definitely a type — Bonnie Raitt wasn’t talked about, for example, but Kim Deal was. The list was named after an album by a woman who went by the stage name “Happy Rhodes.”
Rhodes wasn’t all that famous outside of this list, or maybe I should say that everyone she was famous to subscribed to this list. She was as indie as indie gets: tiny audience of devoted fans, her own label, a specific production sound that was accomplished and sophisticated but very clearly different from what was commercial at the time. I never met her or went to one of her concerts (no car in college, and she played very rarely), but in theory I could have, since she was from upstate, and I did have indirect contact with her via Sharpie.
See, though her records occasionally showed up in the local record stores, the best way to get them was to mail her a check. And if you did that, and asked her to, she would autograph the CD before she sent it to you. When I ordered Equipoise this way, her signature was friendly but fairly generic:
But as I ordered more of her back catalog, they got a bit more creative. Maybe she started to recognize my name as a regular customer, maybe I’d started writing more effusive fan compliments with the order letter, or maybe she just got tired of signing the same thing to people all the time. The best one was probably the quote from Blade Runner, one of her favorite movies, though considering it was “All these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die,” maybe she just wanted me to knock it off?
Rhodes is an interesting character. A lot of her early albums in particular seem to be about depression and agoraphobia, and many of them feature her “monster” art. If you don’t know the personal context, you might find it mystifying to try and match this up with her gentle musical persona. I didn’t give this a second thought, though, when I was home for the summer and working in the local community radio station (where I was required to wear a tie and buttondown just to sit in a hot studio and play Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond in between ads for local businesses). I showed one of my fellow DJs, a devout Christian, one of the albums I’d just gotten in the mail, and she was horrified. Not only were there heavy metal demons on the cover, but there was a track called “Suicide Song” and one whose lyrics (printed on the insert) featured the phrase “caught on Satan’s wing.” Rhodes wouldn’t hurt a fly, but she had the potential to terrorize my parochial little town without even trying.
Her music is hard to pigeonhole. Her influences include several of the usual suspects: Kate Bush, Yes, David Bowie. There’s a lot of keyboard, but you wouldn’t call it electropop. Her voice is the big stunner: from high and innocent to low and sinister…maybe four octaves? It’s definitely female singer/songwriter stuff (and though I haven’t hammered on it much, we are now in a period of my musical life where female singer/songwriters were the center of my universe) but I’m not entirely sure Lilith Fair would have known what to do with her.
I never think of Equipoise as my favorite Happy Rhodes album — I tend to favor Warpaint, which was the first one I got my hands on when I learned about her — but it’s very very good. The first four albums feel a bit formative, and Warpaint is still pretty quiet, the sort of music you make when you’re trying not to bother anyone around you, but Equipoise is expansive and in charge.
“Runners” kicks things off with a song, even more relevant today, about the paranoia about food and environmental dangers that fear of death leads us to. Then two songs about vampire romance (I’d moved on from Clive Barker to Anne Rice by this point — I feel sorry for you kids, having to make do with the excruciating family values of Twilight rather than the amoral orgiastic extravagance of The Vampire Lestat), followed by one about dying with dignity in old age, and one on how the search for alien life is really about how empty we are. She’s a barrel of laughs; that’s why she’s called Happy.
Two more songs in much the same vein, and then one of the cooler tracks, a rhythmic voice-processed piece about being possessed called “Cohabitate.” I’m sure my Christian friend would have loved that one. A feminist song called “Play the Game,” then the gorgeous “Mother Sea,” a manifesto called “I Say” and we’re out. What’s remarkable is the music, which I can’t really describe; suffice to say the main thing holding this together is her voice and the production, and otherwise the genres keep mutating so fast your head will spin. Rhodes is sui generis, but she’s more than one generis, and you never quite know what you’ll get.
If you’re a huge fan of Kate Bush, Tori Amos, and maybe Jane Siberry, look this one up. I don’t know how often she’s recording anymore — she might even have hung it up for all I know. But there’s still a web site out there dedicated to keeping track of her and the archives from all our discussions more than 20 years ago, and that kind of devotion doesn’t grow on trees.
Dead Can Dance, Into the Labyrinth
Another act that defies categorization. Are they world music? New age? Ambient? Medieval? I loved Aion and Within the Realm of a Dying Sun, but this is probably their most varied and consistently enjoyable album. Plus it’s good to have on while, er, making out.
Sarah McLachlan, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
One of my very favorite albums for years. I’d liked Vox and Solace a lot, but this was her masterpiece. I lost interest in her with Surfacing, but before that she was one of the first concerts I went to, and she was amazing. This is also a good album to have on while, er, making out.
Tori Amos, Under the Pink
I know what you’re thinking. “Come on! Under the Pink came out in 1994!” Not for me it didn’t. Along with bunches of promo CDs, interview cassettes, and one of the best mix tapes I’ve ever received, one of my DJ internet pen pals sent me a cassette of Under the Pink long before it hit the record stores. I loved it then and I love it now; if you put a gun to my head and made me choose my favorite Tori album, this would almost certainly be it. The months I spent listening to it when almost nobody else on Earth had even heard it, let alone talked about it, probably helped me fall in love with it.
- Chapterhouse, Blood Music
- Catherine Wheel, Chrome
- Curve, Cuckoo
- Björk, Debut
- The The, Dusk
- Tears for Fears, Elemental
- Cocteau Twins, Four-Calendar Cafe
- The Breeders, Last Splash
- Concrete Blonde, Mexican Moon
- Blur, Modern Life is Rubbish
- Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Respect
- Smashing Pumpkins, Siamese Dream
- Miranda Sex Garden, Suspiria
- Kirsty MacColl, Titanic Days
- Pet Shop Boys, Very
- Suede, Suede
- Belly, Star