(15) eMF, "Unbelievable" defeats (15) folk implosion, "natural one" 59-34 and will play (2) tag team, "whoomp! (there it is)" in the first round
Read the essays, watch the videos, listen to the songs, feel free to argue below in the comments or tweet at us, and consider. Winner is the aggregate of the poll below and the @marchfadness twitter poll. Polls closed @ 9am Arizona time on Feb 16.
dan chaon on "natural one"
I’m driving down Carnegie Road in Cleveland past all these orange construction barrels and big open pits in the asphalt and this worker guy flags me down. He’s wearing a day-glo vest and a hard-hat, jeans, heavy work boots, and when I roll down my window he leans in and gives me a big smile.
“Hey, man,” he says. “I hate to bother you. But, listen. Can you give me a ride to my car? It’s just down the street a couple of blocks? I’d walk, but it’s fuckin cold as a bitch!”
It is, in fact, cold as a bitch. Not snowing exactly, but silvery bits of sleet glint in the air and melt on the windshield. The guy is shivering, doesn’t have a coat on. He has a thin jacket with an IBEW patch on the chest. IBEW: International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. That was the union that my dad belonged to.
I’m a college professor, but I haven’t forgotten my roots!
“Sure,” I say, “Get in.”
“Natural One” by Folk Implosion doesn’t really belong on a list of one-hit wonders of the 1990’s. It cracked the top 40, but only peaked at #29 on the Billboard Chart in March of 1996.
That was the same month that my dad died. It was the time of “1979” by the Smashing Pumpkins, also “Wonderwall,” by Oasis, and “One of Us” by Joan Osborne. I listened to the radio a lot as I travelled to my dad’s funeral. I didn’t really hear Folk Implosion that often.
But I was in favor of the song!!! I dug it! I bought the soundtrack from the movie Kids, which contained the hit “Natural One,” and I grooved on the songs that Lou Barlow curated for the film, which also included some Daniel Johnston and Slint!
It felt vaguely literary. Kids, of course, was an important art film produced by Gus Van Sant and directed by the famous photographer Larry Clark, and written by the 22-year-old wunderkind Harmony Korine, who is nine years younger than me, and who seemed like he might be the Voice of His Generation.
I thought that I would enjoy being the Voice of My Generation, so I kept a careful eye on Korine. I was closing in on 31.
The construction guy gets in my car and thanks me profusely. He’s very charming, and makes me feel good about myself for doing a good deed. He asks my name, and introduces himself as “Robert.”
The traffic is slow because of the construction. I say, “Shit, it probably would have been quicker for you to walk!”
“Yeah,” he says. “Ha ha!”
The defroster blows dry hot air in our faces, and we pass the place where the workers' cars are parked.
I go, “Is it in that lot?”
“No, it’s further down,” he says.
1996 is the year that grunge wins! I was reading Denis Johnson’s book Jesus’ Son. I was reading Fight Club and Mary Gaitskill. I was not doing drugs or punching people or having sex on begrimed mattresses because I was a married dude with two toddler children, an adjunct instructor of composition and rhetoric whose father had just died, but I felt solidarity with the druggies and revolutionaries and all the sad of the world and one of the ways I expressed my kinship with other sufferers was by listening to “Natural One,” by The Folk Implosion.
It’s such a filthy song. It pushes your face into the mud. That’s exactly what I wanted.
The construction worker says, “Dan? Do you think I could borrow some money? Just a couple of bucks. For gas.”
Which is disappointing. I was hoping he wasn’t a scammer.
“I don’t have any cash,” I say.
“There’s an ATM at the corner,” he says. “You could withdraw some.”
“I don’t think so,” I say, and he shrugs agreeably.
My dad was 56 when he died. He was killed by a botched hernia operation. Peritonitis.
I drove to the airport, and I got on a plane and then I got off the plane and rented a car and drove three hours from Denver to Sidney, Nebraska and I don’t think “Natural One” ever played on the radio. There were still local DJs then. In Cleveland, in Denver. The DJs had various personalities. There was patter as I drove.
The construction guy—at least he’s wearing a construction guy outfit, IBEW and everything!—he says, “turn here at this next right,” and so I turn even though it’s been a lot further than a couple of blocks. I’m wondering if I should ask him to get out, but don’t want to be a jerk. An uneasy thought passes by.
Oh. Maybe he’s not a construction guy?
“Natural One” doesn’t actually appear in the movie Kids. It’s only a part of the soundtrack.
The opening of the movie is ambient: two kids making out, and it’s the most uncomfortable kissing to have to watch. It’s really tactile. There are a lot of ugly smacking and slurping sounds. It’s beautifully photographed but not beautiful. Isn’t that what real life is like?
Most of the actors in the film were not, at the time, professionals. They were “discovered” by Clark and Korine, skateboarding in Washington Square Park, or hanging out on their front step, or modelling for Sassy. Some of them, like Chloe Sevigny, Leo Fitzpatrick, and Rosario Dawson, went on to significant acting careers.
There is something mesmerizing about these performances, a strange mix of the wooden and the feral, a kind of menacing, driven blankness. The song has the same tone. Even though “Natural One” never plays in the film, it’s always playing, unheard, in the background.
“I guess I parked farther away than I thought,” says the guy dressed as a construction worker, and I’m thinking of a way to politely but firmly drop him off at, like, a mini-mart or something.
“Listen,” I say. “I really need to…”
He looks shocked and apologetic. “No, no, it’s just up here a little ways more. Honest to God!”
There are certain songs—particularly in the world of alternative rock and rap—that place you in the perspective of the bad guy. They exude menace, and give you a slinky, wolfish feeling when you listen. “Natural One” is a song like that. You can picture yourself moving stealthily but confidently through the darkness, predatory and malevolent, and it feels really nice.
When I was little, I was so terrified of the dark that I couldn’t go to sleep. Then my dad came up with a trick that helped me. “You don’t have to be afraid of monsters,” he said. “They’re your friends.”
I have no idea where I am. We’ve been driving for about fifteen minutes, and we’re in a part of the city that I don’t recognize. Over my shoulder, I can see the tip of the Cleveland downtown skyline. The guy who is dressed as a construction worker fiddles with my radio. Then, abruptly, he lifts his head and points. “Pull in here,” he says.
He gestures toward an abandoned gas station. The windows of the building have been papered over, and the pumps under the awning have been removed, but there is still a large sign that advertises the price per gallon. The numbers have fallen off it.
I slow to a stop and he sits there in the passenger seat, considering. The air feels full of whatever he’s thinking about.
“Okay, then,” I say at last. “Well. Good luck. You take care.”
But he doesn’t move to open the side door and get out. He cocks his head and squints an eye at me and then at last chuckles.
“You’re a nice guy, Dan,” he says. “But someday you’re going to end up on the back of a milk carton.”
Then he gets out. Pulls his hood up. Starts walking away.
Dan Chaon is a writer who lives in Cleveland. He is the author of the novels You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, and the story collections Fitting Ends, Among the Missing, and Stay Awake. A new novel, Ill Will, is due out in March 2017. Hint: His last name is pronounced "Shawn."
dan gibson on "unbelievable"
The CD single for EMF’s “Unbelievable,” a song that topped the American pop charts for one week in July of 1991 (riding its time out on Billboard’s radar for 23 weeks in total), is available—as of this writing—for one cent. There are 61 copies available. The vinyl holds out for $4.25, probably because people are weird about vinyl these days. The audio cassette? 99 cents.
All the purchasers seem to believe the band is from Australia (they’re not), but they do offer solid praise:
“If you love the song Unbelievable you'll love it being sung 6 different ways on this CD”
“This is an incredible single. Five very different versions of the same song and they're all good.”
There’s no time here to get into the four (or five) versions of “Unbelievable” here, but in its most famous form, it’s the best one-hit wonder of the 90’s, essentially opening the decade on a high-note unmatched by the Primitive Radio Gods and Mark Morrisons of the world. At very least, we need to appreciate “Unbelievable” for knocking Paula Abdul’s “Rush Rush” from five weeks of pop dominance, then holding off Bryan Adams’ seeming inexorable “(Everything I Do) I Do It for You” from the top of the charts for a week.
1991 was not a particularly good year for pop music. Sure, there was a lot happening on the “college rock” front, but the radio was jammed up with Extreme’s “More Than Words,” Wilson Phillips songs, and the painful reality that Ted Nugent once had a top five hit (“High Enough,” which I regret even mentioning). EMF’s brief dance with crossover fame was—at very least—fun, something you couldn’t say about, say, Gloria Estefan’s “Coming Out of the Light.”
And fun should be the primary standard by which we judge one hit wonders. While there’s something deeply comical about the weird set of circumstances that allowed a song by a fictional band from a TV show to hit number one, “How Do You Talk to an Angel,” there’s no reason to ever listen to that particular track again. Tal Bachman might have had one hit for a reason, if listening to even the first few moments of “She’s So High” is evidence. “She's blood, flesh and bones/No tucks or silicone…” Please God, make it stop.
EMF figured it all out for one moment. The guy with the Vision Street Wear shirt on keyboards, dudes in shorts on guitar and bass, the shirtless drummer, the sideways Oakland Athletics painter cap guy on vocals, even DJ Milf (I know, that doesn’t help, but it seems to predate the “modern” use of that term). The opening is huge, immediately recognizable and not wasting time with an unnecessary build-up. The Andrew Dice Clay samples have probably outpaced his grade-school-filthiness nursery rhymes as the most memorable moment of his career.
Sure, it would have been nice if EMF would have had the good sense to permanently slink into the darkness after they had their moment. Let’s just pretend their 1995 cover of “I’m a Believer,” which might somehow be worse than Smash Mouth’s take on the Monkees song, didn’t happen. You’re right, there was precisely no reason for EMF to return in 2012 to perform Schubert Dip in its entirely. We’ve all made mistakes.
Sure, EMF were—at best—a less interesting version of the Happy Mondays or some other big UK indie act of the era (I see you, Inspiral Carpets), but it works. This isn’t a track that you’ll be unfortunately reminded by the canned soundtrack while perusing the paper towel choices at your local supermarket. There’s too much joy; it’s made for bad imitations of James Atkins’ Gloucester accent while taking the kids to school or as a jam on your Apple Music jogging playlist, remembering the wild flailing you did to this song once during a high school dance. Plus, it made a great soundtrack for the Richard Spencer getting punched video:
What more could you ask for?
Vote for those days when the British music you listened to in an effort to seem cool crossed over to the American mass consciousness. Vote for joy in musical form. Vote “Unbelievable.
Dan Gibson is the communications director for a tourism agency, but in previous lives, he was the editor of an alt-weekly, a playlist compiler for iTunes, a freelance music writer for Idolator and elsewhere, the manager of a bakery, call center employee, fake classified ad writer, a music label employee and a record store manager. He is also the co-founder of Beat on the Street, a multi-generational dance troupe.