Ohio Records, 1988
It's a sad story and there are probably a million of them. The songwriter guy from some small town gets told by all his friends that he's really great and should go to L.A. or Nashville or NYC and make it big... and so maybe he saves up or gets a settlement or a rich Uncle leaves him some money and he actually takes a splurge and goes and rents some tiny little apartment on the Lower East Side, puts together a band of other folks looking to make it big. Of course, the ending of the story is for the most part pretty mundane. The band doesn't take off; the money runs out; the accountant runs off with the remaining money and the kid packs up a U-haul with his guitar, amp and unsold records and heads back to small town, USA, another willing victim of the American music machine.
Take Mass Tango, for instance. They were doing everything right according to the typical way to be successful in the late '80s - getting on the CMJ compilation (along with The Feelies and Bootsy Collins and American Music Club), playing CBGBs, getting on the New Music Seminar Official '87 N.M.S. tape. They were sending out their promos to the fanzines and radio stations (that's how I got it).
But sometime after the release of this record and before the World Wide Web, they disappeared and there's virtually no trace of them anymore. What happened to Ken Cushman, our earnest songwriter? Where's his cute-as-a-button keyboardist? (see below) Were they an item at one point? What's with the bass player - he sure doesn't seem interested in taking this picture. Did they like, love or hate Ken? Is Ken selling insurance now? Does he run the local music open mike night at the local club?
It's not that Mass Tango is awful. We've seen plenty of those. The songs are well constructed even if the sound terribly dated (it is 16 years later, after all). But that said, these songs are so predictable - you know when they are going to change chords, its verse-chorus-verse, repeat, wash, rinse. They lack any sort of brillance, even a promise of brillance. You listen to the lyrics and you find yourself completing the next line because the rhymes are just so obvious. Just, well... medicore - which isn't bad but it ain't good and it ain't nothing in a competitive town like NYC. Someone like 'em for a while if their press release is to be believed (playing "to packed houses at CBGBs... Limelight...") or at least booked 'em as their opening band.
Here's about the only song I could salvage from this record and I'm pretty sure it will be on the list when the day comes to start culling the iPod to make room for new stuff. It's one of those "long distance love songs" to some girl named Jane - and that pretty much explains Ken to me. So, here's to the singer-songwriter, maybe he's back with Jane, selling insurance and raising kids. Maybe he stops for a short time when no one is looking and sighs at his guitar amp gathering dust out in the garage - he long ago took all those unsold records to the dump to make way for his kids toys. Maybe he sighs at how much the world has changed - college radio is no longer a selector, small labels are thriving thanks to the Internet and young people don't have to go to the big cities to get listened to.
"Dreaming of Jane" - Mass Tango, 1988
Note: I know nothing about Ken Cushman, I'm making nearly everything up... for all I know he may be an NYC native but I'm pretty sure this story repeated itself many times over the years since that Victrola was invented. There is another band called Mass Tango. They play latin dance music (and are probably more aptly named).
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Bright Eye Pictures
I may be wrong but the only musician from Mass Tango that I could find still active was the keyboardist, Ms. Sara(h) Bell, whom I believe is playing with Chapel Hill's Shark Quest, an eclectic instrumental group that recently scored the acclaimed 2003 documentary Monster Road (winner of the Slamdance 2004 documentary prize) which is about the claymation artist Bruce Bickford and his father.
The music from Shark Quest is nice wallpaper music and shows a number of influences - eastern, classical, jamband, guitar-pop..- they released an album on Merge Records with music "inspired" by the film as well. You can check out cuts from the actual score here.
The movie, though, looks pretty damn incredible. Check out the trailer here - it will totally draw you in. It's playing in Annapolis later this month and I might just make the trip to go see it.