A name is destiny, or so it’s been said. A person, a place or even something as fluid and impersonal as an online media service’s path in life might be molded and shaped – or rise and fall – based on its given moniker. Names can be powerful. They can be bold, like “Brutus,” or weak, like “Walter.” Names can be self-fulfilling, and they are often our first impression of something or someone. Back in the 1970’s, Chevrolet learned a hard lesson when it tried to market the Nova in Latin America, where “no va” means “it doesn’t go.” With that said, while there’s a degree of truth in this statement about names and destiny, there are also no certainties in life and there are always, ALWAYS exceptions. In the case of Hoopla, the Chesapeake Public Library’s new digital music and movie platform, let’s cross our fingers and hope for the latter. Its name implies that this service is much ado about nothing. That’s unfortunate. Having spent some time poring over its considerable musical offerings, I can assure you it simply isn’t true.
I was skeptical at first. When we, as employees, were first offered the chance to look at Hoopla, the demo account we had access to was seriously lacking in content. I could barely find name artists, let alone any worthwhile obscurities. What was there seemed to be tossed-off, latter-day albums by a bunch of old socks, or collections of schmaltzy tunes you could tap dance to in elevators. And when you factored in the cap on the number of albums a person could check out per month, the whole thing just didn’t make sense. “Dead on arrival,” I thought. “Like a lead-lined aeroplane, this thing will never fly.”
Ah, but now that Hoopla is here, I can tell you what the ado is all about.
First of all, Hoopla is easy to use. Music and movies can be downloaded to your device or streamed via the web browser on your computer. To borrow a line from Hoopla’s own self-description, “all you need is your library card, a web browser, smart phone or tablet to get started.” It’s as easy as a few clicks of a button and you’re on your way. But I’m not here to talk about the nuts and bolts; I’m here to talk about content.
For the sake of argument, let’s say I wake up one sunny morning with a hankering for some jangle pop. Hey, it happens. The jangle band that broke through in the biggest possible way and brought the genre to its fullest realization, both musically and commercially, was obviously R.E.M. With that in mind, I type “R.E.M.” into Hoopla’s search box, hit the enter key, and away I go. At first glance the album choices that come up seem somewhat limited. Murmur and Reckoning, the band’s first two and, in my humble opinion, most important albums, are AWOL. Okay, so the two Mitch Easter-produced touchstones are not there. But hold on. There are a couple “Best of” options that cover some of the territory on those albums. Not only that, several of their later “breakthrough” albums are very much present and accounted for. What surprised me the most, though, was the inclusion of Chronic Town, R.E.M.’s first ever release. Most casual fans don’t even know about Chronic Town, but this little E.P. set out the blueprint for what would come later. Peter Buck’s arpeggio-laden guitar playing, Michael Stipe’s mumbled singing with cryptic, impressionistic lyrics, Southern gothic artwork on the cover of the jacket … all the ingredients were there. And the songs are flat-out classics, as great as anything they ever did. This was my first eye opener on Hoopla, but it wouldn’t be my last.
To take our journey into jangle further down the rabbit hole, what if I wanted to listen to some R.E.M. contemporaries who were operating in the same vein at the same time, but never broke so big? Mitch Easter is best known for his production work at his famous Drive-In Studio, but after producing R.E.M. he set out on his own for a time with his band Let’s Active. Entering “Let’s Active” into a Hoopla search brings up two albums, Every Dog Has His Day and Big Plans for Everybody. Okay, so these aren’t the releases made with the classic lineup that included Faye Hunter and Sara Romweber, but it’s still Let’s Active. It’s still Mitch, and Mitch doesn’t put out any half-baked product.
If that’s not impressive enough for you, and it should be, try entering “The Connells.” The Connells were one of North Carolina’s most memorable entrants into the annals of jangle, and were a strong regional favorite. Their name may mean nothing to you today, but circa 1990 I can remember standing in line to see them at Norfolk’s now-defunct Boathouse, and the insane mass of humanity waiting to get inside was worthy of a much bigger act, maybe even R.E.M. True, my Hoopla search brings up some of their later, more forgettable albums, such as Weird Food & Devastation, but there, in all its glory, is the Connells’ second album, the Mitch Easter-produced Boylan Heights. (Yes with Mitch again; you have to understand that these local scenes were very incestuous.) This moody album stands atop a peak as lofty as any perched by the boys from Athens. You just can’t top an album like this, and the Connells would never again reach these – pardon the pun – heights.
At this point I take a detour farther south, to Athens, Georgia, the birthplace of R.E.M. and the center of the musical universe circa 1980. I search for Pylon, one of R.E.M.’s cohorts, and Hoopla comes up with the soundtrack to Athens, Ga – Inside/Out. This satisfying meal alone includes not just Pylon, but other seasoned Southern contenders like Flat Duo Jets and Dreams So Real. And what would any trip down Athens’ memory lane be without a peek at the B-52’s? Hoopla can boast of having darn near every release put out by that beehive hairdo-sportin’, thrift store-lovin’, out-of-bounds-party-startin’ pack. I also recall that Matthew Sweet, despite being from Nebraska, got his career rolling in Athens, and I’m pleased to see that Hoopla offers several of his later projects, even if they don’t have his more well-known early albums, like Girlfriend. Then, turning slightly to the southwest, in Atlanta, we find that Hoopla has ALL the releases by another jangly Georgia group of the time, Guadalcanal Diary. The list goes on and on.
To you surface dwellers, this may seem like the end of the line, but no, there’s another connection just around the bend. Spanish moss and kudzu dangling from its arms, this giant jangle monster roaming the South did not just form out of some inky darkness in the swamps or backwoods. Everything comes from something, and this durned rabbit hole goes even deeper. Mitch Easter cut his musical teeth back in the ‘70s, along with fellow now-legendary producer Chris Stamey. They were both in a band called Sneakers, a freaking phenomenal band, one of the South’s first real entries in the emerging Anglo Revival/New Wave/Power Pop scene that was bubbling up from the underneath all that red clay dirt … and Hoopla has a release by Sneakers! Oh. My. God.
Sticking around this Winston-Salem neighborhood for a little longer, a search for “Chris Stamey” brings up Here and Now and Mavericks, two collaborations between Chris and his former bandmate in the dB’s, Peter Holsapple. Taking the bait, I enter “dB’s” into the search box, and lo and behold, the entire discography of this legendary jangly power pop band is there, ripe and dangling low, just begging to be picked. I don’t want to go all infomercial on you, but many of these titles are long out of print and would cost you top dollar to get your hands on, assuming you could even find them.
But wait, there’s more!
The final leg of this pilgrimage (R.E.M. reference intended) finds us hopping west, to Memphis, and chronologically back to the early-to-mid ‘70s. This is hallowed ground, where Alex Chilton and Chris Bell and their band, Big Star, provided the spark to this raging fire of a scene. There are direct, concrete links between Big Star in Memphis, who struck the match that fired Sneakers in Winston-Salem, the members of whom, in turn, poured their gasoline all over Athens … before the whole thing exploded and consumed the world. Big Star is the godhead, the supreme being, the Brahman from whose head all of this sprang. They inspired hundreds of bands and are the reason that, over ten years after their demise, Paul Westerberg so gleefully sang, “I never travel far/Without a little Big Star.” And yes, you can find that on Hoopla, too. Hoopla, incredibly, has all three of Big Star’s official albums, along with solo releases by both Alex and Chris, may they rest in peace.
As I walk away from this trek, I find myself in awe. This was much more than just a little time spent dabbling with a search engine, it was a discovery. It was a trip through time and space and an incredible array of sounds. Quite simply, Hoopla has it, man. Of course my journey cannot be your own. Whatever you listen to, if you’re even half as passionate about music as I am, I can’t encourage you enough to get onto the library’s site and check out this service for yourself. Hoopla will make you a believer.
Ready to get started? Your journey awaits…