I had never heard of Fly Ashtray before I picked up Andrew Earles’ record guide Gimme Indie Rock, the subtitle of which spells out the scope of Earles’ project: 500 Essential American Underground Rock Albums 1981-1996. Though you’ll no doubt want to see how (or if) he covered your favorite band, the author hopes his book will be useful to everyone from seasoned indie rock fans to newbies trying to build a collection. I’m somewhere in the middle. Earles covers subgenres I don’t care for and champions bands I never liked, but if you follow his suggestions enough you’ll make a new discovery somewhere, like I did with New York band Fly Ashtray, who’ve been around since the ’80s and still makes music today. I found only a 2012 album on Spotify, but it makes me want to seek out the albums that Earles recommends from the Shimmy Disc label. Remember Shimmy Disc? Gimme Indie Rock mentions ’80s and ’90s record labels like Shimmy Disc and Amphetamine Reptile that I haven’t thought about in years, and readers who haunted record shops in that era will have their memory jogged by names that used to be all over the record bins twenty years ago.
Earles previously wrote a history of Husker Du and contributed to Illustrated History volumes on Nirvana, Rush and Metallica. In his intro, Earles writes that, like me, he grew up on record guides. But these guides only get you so far in the indie era. Even if you have Robert Christgau’s decade guides and the various editions of record guides put out by Rolling Stone and Trouser Press, each of these valuable references has its share of omissions.
This is where Earles comes in. I’ve spotted his book in Urban Outfitters [SHUT THE FRONT DOOR!! This was one of the project’s more realistic goals…getting picked up by U.O. I might elaborate on the elation later, as it’s motivated by a combination of numbers stuff that will alienate all but the other writers reading this when ultimately no one is reading this, and more idealistic cultural froo-froo I’m too tired to tackle anyway] stacked next to a pile of copies of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, Bob Stanley’s thorough history of pop music. Stanley’s book is a better read, but Earles has made a valuable contribution to indie rock literature. While the nature of a record guide’s alphabetical listing means that indie rock narratives (the rise and fall of hardcore; major labels’ post-Nirvana feeding frenzy) come up intermittently throughout the book, how else would you discover a band like Fly Ashtray [ON A TOTALLY DIFFERENT LEVEL, THAT WILL ALSO HAVE TO WAIT FOR ELABORATION, THE THREE MENTIONS OF FLY ASHTRAY KNOCK THIS REVIEW OUT OF THE PARK AND SOFTENED MY ASS UP BIG-TIME!!], whose career doesn’t exactly fit a narrative?
Earles’ writing is inconsistent, and the guide could have been edited to tighten sentence structure and nix hyperbole. The vast majority of the entries cover an album in a single paragraph, and in such a format, verbal fat stands out [Fair enough. Some of this will be fixed in the second printing. And I am an inconsistent writer, but it’s a specific balance I can live with.] But the author knows his indie rock family trees inside out, and when it’s time to assess major figures like Nirvana, he can sum up his book-worthy subject in a few concise paragraphs.
The guide’s omissions are made to be argued over: why cover Beck’s Odelay, which I personally find overrated, and not Mellow Gold? Earles is also aware that his cutoff point seems arbitrary, and includes among his appendices a list of 30 essential indie rock albums from 1997. Gimme Indie Rock is a useful reference more than a consistently enjoyable read, but that usefulness may well lead you to great music you’ve never heard before.