I don’t know why this should be, but there seems to be a strain of masochism located solely in the psyche of committed music fans. We can’t merely love and enjoy music and, dangerous as it tends to be, want to share it with others. No, we construct torturous obstacle courses to prove our devotion and, sometimes, push us over the edge completely, turning something that brings us joy into something that might provoke misery. I’ve done this on more than one occasion. It can be more painful than bringing a Gary Cherone to a “David Lee Roth/Sammy Hagar” Van Halen fight.
Writer Gary Wien probably assumed the parameters of his project, taking the albums from the years 2001-through-2010 recorded by New Jersey artists and ranking the best one-hundred examples from them, was narrow enough to not cause too many sleepless nights and acid reflux. More than two thousand records later, he had to revise that idea and nearly lost the taste for listening to music at all, but he claims he has come out the other side of the project relatively unscathed.
The result, a thick paperback book titled Are You Listening?, puts the decade in perspective and, at the same time, hints at the end of the record label culture in deference to the independent movement. There are some names you’ll recognize such as Bruce Springsteen, Pete Yorn, Fountains of Wayne, My Chemical Romance and Popdose columnist Ken Shane, as well as some you might not such as deSol, Lisa Bouchelle, Val Emmich, Rick Barry and recording artist Ken Shane. Each album gets a descriptive overview and a large photograph of the artist involved, making the book every bit a coffee table item as any.
Wien, who has been working behind the scenes (or, more specifically, the Asbury Park music scene) for many years as a writer, publisher and entrepreneur, has been afforded one of the proverbial best seats in the house, watching several of these artists starting in the small clubs, growing their personal brands, sometimes packing up and moving out to Brooklyn and, at other times, packing it in to do something else. He recounts the story of Temporary Grace and their record, Priorities, and how they currently continue on as a cover band along the Jersey Shore. Wien makes it clear that the band is on the winning side of the match; they get to do what they love to do, which is to play music, and get paid for it. They have bucked the obvious conclusion of so many others who lost their shirts and their careers to harsh financial realities. Even so, the piece has a hint of sadness for, while they’re succeeding and making it work, they have been unable to do it with their own material.
Shane’s South Ridgeway Avenue is described in terms of the Laurel Canyon singer/songwriter milieu he has written about many times within this very website, and Wien describes the music as resting comfortably within the stylistic borders of Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon. His second to last statement on the subject is, “If Bruce Springsteen is the bard of Asbury Park then this album should warrant Ken Shane a nomination for Atlantic City’s title.”
Springsteen gets the nod for The Rising, just as other better-known recordings like The Black Parade, Welcome Interstate Managers and The ’59 Sound also receive fair due, but the majority of the book is owned by the independents, the artists who juggle day-jobs, night gigs and car trunks that double as merch tables. While not explicitly stated, one can tell that is where Wien’s heart resides, and that is the core of what he feels the Jersey Scene truly is.
If there is a downside to the book, it is the inevitable angst of readers who feel a chosen album is undeserving, or a passed-on recording was worthy, but these are age-old complaints leveled at any project that seeks to make order of a large group of things. For those that are more interested in a well thought-out series of reviews, coming together as a witness to what might well be the last decade of the album as artistic pursuit, Are You Listening? is more than mash notes and hate mail. It tells a bigger story if you’re into looking for it. If you are a rabid, somewhat masochistic music fan, you probably will.
Are You Listening? is available from Amazon.com.