The Radio Dept.: A Tribute (Singles 2002-2010)

It wasn’t through record shops that I discovered great, unheard of, or on-the-cusp bands. I hear older adults talk about them with a lot of nostalgia. Listening to new records in the record booth around the corner, right? That was all a bit before my time. Just when I was becoming aware of music, I can remember the album stores were starting to close down. In my early teens Sam Goody went, and some other places of which I can no longer recall the names. Even other electronic stores with record departments like Circuit City started to drop off. I know that there are a handful of stubborn, small independent shops hanging on, if you dig around. There was even one by my old university, and I did frequent. Not as much as I should have, though, because I started to face the facts early by virtue of my youth. Shopping for physical CDs usually meant the limited selections Wal-Mart or Best Buy (the major electronic store holdout) or even Target had to offer. That was was I was used to, not record shops. I quickly began to think I was better off online, and with the MP3 format. MP3s by exciting, smaller-name, new artists were there to sample all across the blogosphere. I had just moved on from both a major teenybopper pop phase and a prolonged “classic rock only!” phase, I was sixteen, and I wanted new and different and challenging things. I could hear some great songs on the radio sometimes, but I wanted more.

A lot of other people were realizing the potential of the Internet, too. Let’s be honest, there was an idea that you could score some of the music for free, and that helped attract people my age. I was never a member of Napster, but when iPods rolled out, I had an early version: the iPod mini, and I used iTunes to fill it up. I also started frequenting an increasing number of music blogs. I got my first taste of independent artists. I started to realize the kinds of sounds and voices that moved me, I began to think about lyrics more than ever before and relate them to my life, my relationships. There was Air, Metric, Tegan and Sara, Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service, Azure Ray, Belle & Sebastian, Beck, Stars, Cat Power, The Decemberists, Eisley, Rilo Kiley, Elliott Smith, Iron & Wine, Kings of Convenience, The Lucksmiths, Mirah, The Shins, Radiohead, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Spoon, The Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and then Andrew Bird and Damien Rice and Interpol and José González and Sufjan Stevens. They became a huge deal. I carried them on my iPod wherever I went.

And you know, there was The Radio Dept. I am pretty sure they were my first, or at least one of the first I downloaded on a whim. After that, there was no going back.

Tomorrow marks the release of Passive aggressive: Singles 2002-2010, a two-CD  retrospective of The Radio Dept.’s long and slightly unusual career. Because this band was such a seminal force with regards to my musical education, in its very early independent stage, I wanted to talk about them and why they matter. Of course that’s a bit personal.

The band had a brief start in 1995 when schoolmates Elin Almered and Johan Duncanson started playing music together, and snagged a band name from a gas station/radio repair building in Lund, Sweden. The band went on hiatus but reformed in 1998 with Duncanson finding a new partner Martin Larsson. In 2001 Lisa Carlberg, a bass player, and Per Blomgren, a drummer, joined. Though both would leave before the band’s second LP was released, at the time the band became taken seriously as a foursome and were signed.

Lesser Matters was the band’s first release in 2003, best known for “Keen on Boys” which Sofia Coppola used in her film Marie Antoinette. Other notable releases from the film are “Pulling Our Weight” and “I Don’t Like It Like This”, both from EPs. Constantly producing EPs in favor of longer works would prove to become a trend for the band, who have only released three LPs in a decade.

Prior to the band’s second album Pet Grief in 2006, they were seen as being firmly in the drone, fuzz and occasionally aggressive feedback camp of the shoegazers. Pet Grief was a softening, introducing more synthesizer into the band’s sound. Pet Grief’s “It’s Personal” was how I discovered them, and from that moment on I would always eagerly anticipate their next release. The EPs Freddie And The Trojan Horse in 2008 and David in 2009 whet my appetite for what was finally to come in 2010.

I marked Clinging to a Scheme as one of my top albums of the year. I listen to it all the time, still, months after I first heard it. It’s something special. According to the band’s site at Labrador, the music of this album is supposed to be “influenced by minimalistic post-punk, krautrock, repetitive ‘motorik’ beat and ambient noise.” I say it’s alchemy, goddamnit. Like no one else, this band is capable of converting modern life into something like a dream. This band summarizes the haze and drone of the technological age, finally reduced to a brighter clarity. Modern music, modern ennui, light falling off of the roofs of skyscrapers and coming down into your eyes, and you wander about squinting as if in a half-daze. To me they’re so modern I don’t conceive of listening to them on record. It doesn’t matter that they stem from a 90s movement that would have embraced those album singles. They belong to the MP3, that easily sent and easily shared format of the Internet. As Thurston Moore attests at the beginning of “Heaven’s on Fire”, a recent single featured on the compilation and a song I believe to be the band’s crowning achievement:

“Some people see rock & roll as youth culture, and when youth culture becomes monopolized by big business, what are the youth to do? I think we should destroy the bogus capitalist process that is destroying youth culture by mass marketing, and commercial paranoia behavior control. And the first step is to destroy the record companies.”

Is that what we’re doing when we take to the blogosphere like this, to talk about music amongst ourselves, promote the best and most melodic, moving smaller and stranger bands we like instead of the bands we are just supposed to hear on the radio? When I heard that quote at the beginning of my soon-to-be-favorite song, I got an eerie sense of coming full-circle. While I don’t fully commit to the politics of the statement because I find an inherent power that is sometimes moving in certain popular music designed to “win over” as many people as possible, I like to think about how independent music and the blogosphere bring a balance and a richness to my music library. I am grateful, Radio Dept.


The Radio Dept. – Pulling Our Weight


The Radio Dept. – It’s Personal


The Radio Dept. – Never Follow Suit


The Radio Dept. – Heaven’s on Fire

You’ll be able to purchase Passive aggressive: Singles 2002-2010 at the band’s label Labrador. Take a look at the tracklisting here.

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