Music is a funny thing, and the journey from A to B sometimes takes you through some pathless wastes. Witness one Bill Fox, he of the nondescript name and the unfailing melodic gift. Bill was the leader of a relatively obscure Cleveland band called The Mice in the mid-’80s, who should not be confused with the contemporary pop-punk band of the same name from San Diego, or Modest Mouse, or any other musical rodent. Ever hear of these Mice? Me either, but I’m told their shows were legendary, which typically means that the 20 people who saw them might be exaggerating. In any case, I’d never heard of Bill Fox until If I Had a Hi-Fi, the latest covers album from power popsters Nada Surf. The opening track is a Bill Fox tune called “Electrocution,” and the first time I heard it I pressed the back button on my iPod about five times in a row because I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It’s one of those perfect, chiming, three-minute jangly pop tunes that used to be all over the radio, and now are difficult to find. Think The Byrds, The Beatles, Big Star, and Guided By Voices; that kind of jangly pop. It’s pretty select company, but “Electrocution” belongs there.
So that led me on a search for Bill’s old band. No dice on The Mice, but I did track down a couple of Bill’s solo albums, Shelter from the Smoke and Transit Byzantium, two lo-fi gems (recorded at home in four-track splendor, no less) from the late ‘90s on SpinART Records. These are in the folk-pop vein, but the chiming guitar runs (acoustic this time) and effortless melodicism are still very much intact. There’s the semi-expected Dylan influence, too, including surrealistic choruses and the occasional harmonica solo, but at least he does it well, and these songs are far better than average in their lyrical heft. And did I mention the melodies?
I love these kinds of discoveries. Last I heard, Bill Fox works a late-night telemarketing gig at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, performs rarely and reluctantly, and has a noted antipathy toward publicity. Imagine, a guy who writes songs because he likes to write songs. What a concept. So pretend you didn’t read this. But for what it’s worth, the man has made some of the best music I’ve heard this year, twelve years too late.