Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Bruce Springsteen will be playing an acoustic set between 20th and 22nd sts. on the Ben Franklin Parkway in support of Barrack Obama at 3:30 p.m. As a side note, there is no part of the previous sentence that doesn't make sweet love to my socks. As another side note, Bruce acoustic is one of the coolest things ever. I caught him solo on his Devils & Dust tour, and it's still one of the best shows I've ever seen. I've never seen one man with a guitar command a Spectrum-size crowd into silent attention so well, and I've seen Bob Dylan. This show will probably be a clusterfuck, but it's for a good cause.
Dream setlist: Everything on Nebraska sequentially, "Thundercrack," "Devils & Dust," "The Ghost of Tom Joad," everything on Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and preharps "Thunder Road?" Some of those are givens ("Devils & Dust"), but with Bruce, every set is a surprise, so who says I can't hear Nebraska?
Monday, September 29, 2008
-I recently scored a copy of Ben Kweller's self-released EP Freak Out, It's... Ben Kweller. Shit's been out of print for like eight years, so I was glad to finally get my hands on a physical copy via eBay. And of course, less than a week after Freak Out came to my house, I found Willfully Obscure, a blog offering free downloads of both Freak Out and an earlier EP called Bromeo, which I didn't even know existed. Obviously, I'm only passing this along because the albums are no longer commercially available. Now go out and buy Sha Sha!
Continuing what I wrote about last week regarding historical revisionism, it’s weird looking at this list for 1995 and realizing how much of it could’ve been made back when I was in high school. Jawbreaker, Face to Face, Rancid, Ben Folds Five, The Mountain Goats, and Oasis were all favorites of mine “back in the day.” I wasn’t too big of a Bjork fan then, but I did purchase Post to see what the deal was, as I found myself humming along to “It’s Oh So Quiet” fairly frequently. I guess what I’m trying to say is that I am one cool S.O.B.
Or maybe not. The only artists from this list that I actually knew in 1995 were Oasis and PJ Harvey. The Gallagher brothers blew up that year, and I can remember watching the video for “Wonderwall” ad nauseum on VH1 [NOTE: My parents banned MTV in our house]. PJ, on the other hand, was a subject of extreme revulsion for me. Batman Forever was arguably my favorite movie that year, and the film’s accompanying soundtrack was prolly my favorite compilation at the time as well. Favorites included the singles “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” by U2 and “Kiss From a Rose” by Seal, plus the morbidly silly “Bad Days” by Flaming Lips (The Riddler listens to this song about killing one’s boss like a scene or two before he kills his boss. GENIUS!) and the straight up silly/great “The Riddler” by Method Man. Oddly enough, Sunny Day Real Estate and The Offspring were on there too. And while I tolerated the filler from Brandy (which Robin rocks when he drives the Batmobile, oddly enougher 2x infinity) and Massive Attack, there was one song I skipped over and over: “One Time Too Many” by PJ Harvey. The track is all guitar and no real beat, which really pissed off my nine-year-old self something fierce. “Who the gosh dang heck does this guy think he is?” I thought. Side note: This is the only time a woman has abbreviated her name and thus gotten me to think she was a he. Nice try, J.K. Rowling. I’m on to you!
“One Time Too Many” really buggered me. I can remember wishing so dang hard that “Kiss From a Rose” was track two instead of “Time,” because it would’ve been a great transition from U2.
I was a dumb kid.
But I overcame my crippling idiocy by the dawn of the new millennium and, upon hearing “Good Fortune” and “This is Love” from 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, realized that not only was PJ Harvey totally a pretty lady, but also totally jawesome. So yeah, learning experiences abound for ol’ JTP.
10. Bjork – Post
Building off of the dance floor base she established with Debut, Post expands into all sorts of directions while maintaining a strange sense of pop intimacy. Electronic leanings still prevalent on songs like “Army of Me” and “Hyper-Ballad,” but there’s more emotion in them – in this case rage in the former and a sad/romantic hybrid in the latter. Strings are experimented with on “Isobel,” “You’ve Been Flirting Again,” and “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which boasts a big band jazz sound that is as random within the context of the album as it is without it. Everything is unified by Bjork’s vocals, though, which can jump from crooning to searing in a second. Her biggest asset is that no one can sing like her. It’s not just the notes, but the way she enunciates every word that makes her stand out.
9. Ben Folds Five – Ben Folds Five
I tend to be a wee bit too self-serious at times, emphasizing “serious” lyricists like Bruce Springsteen and Blake Schwarzenbach, but I just want you to know I can get down with goofier fair. I’m thinking, of course, of Ben Folds Five, a true iconoclast during the ’90s. Along with Tori Amos, BFF helped bring back the piano as a rock instrument. Of course, it helped that the trio included crashing drums and a heavy ‘n’ fuzzy bass bottom. Ben Folds himself has never really evolved much beyond this album – cheeky, occasionally emotional lyrics, piano parts that alternate between being pretty and being slammed, and the occasional pop cultural reference are all it takes for him, but that’s all I could really ask from him. Listening to “Philosophy” or “Jackson Cannery” is always a good time. My favorite track from the band’s debut, though, is “Underground,” which makes light of the angsty alterna-nation with campy deliveries of lines like “Hand me my nose ring” and “Show me the mosh pit” cushioned by funky music. “Everything’s heavy underground!”
8. PJ Harvey – To Bring You My Love
To Bring You My Love found Polly Jean Harvey distancing herself from the blues/punk sound of her first two albums, perhaps spurred on by the break-up of her band PJ Harvey. Ditching the sound and keeping the stage name, Polly Jean settled into a slower, more expansive style on LP #3, something made abundantly clear with the opening/title track. “To Bring You My Love” is arguably one of the lesser experimental cuts on the album, but it still fucks with PJ’s formula enough to be startling. It’s slower, allowing each guitar lick and word to be more pronounced and devastating. PJ kinda stopped rocking, but man did she groove twice as hard to compensate.
The groovin’ is extra fine on tunes like “Down By the Water” and “Send His Love to Me.” “Water” is chock full of fuzz and restrained energy, with Polly Jean downplaying her howl in favor of a super creepy whisper on the chorus. “Love” drops the electronic instruments for drums, hand claps, and acoustic guitar. Ultimately, the changes might sound frivolous to some, but the aura is completely different, creating the first truly haunting PJ Harvey record.
7. The Rentals – Return of The Rentals
The neat thing about simple songs is that they’re almost infinitely flexible – you can add and subtract whatever you want based on what you’ve got. This was made most abundantly clear by The Rentals. Featuring (at the time) Matt Sharp and Pat Wilson from Weezer, the band’s debut, Return of The Rentals, took some basic pop songs and topped ‘em off with Moog, violin, tons of vocals, and a dirge-y mix of guitar, drums and bass. Some people say Return of The Rentals just sounds like Weezer with more synthesizers, to which I reply, “Yeah, so?” This stuff is catchy, fun, and occasionally moving (check out “Sweetness and Tenderness”). As an added bonus, a couple of these songs (“The Love I’m Searching For,” “Please Let That Be”) are rumored to have come from Weezer’s failed Songs From the Black Hole album.
6. Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters
A year after Kurt Cobain ended Nirvana with a shotgun blast, drummer Dave Grohl dropped Foo Fighters, a side project for which he played almost every instrument, save for a guitar part here and there. Nirvana is always going to trail everything Grohl does, but the tag is at its most applicable on this first effort. Foo Fighters is easily the most schizophrenic FF album; it’s as if Grohl needed to show every different radio rock style he knew. Ballads like “Big Me” and “For All the Cows” are the best known cuts, but there’s also the blistering punk of “Weenie Beenie” and the bizarre “This is a Call,” with its lyrics about how fingernails are fun, to account for. Then there’s “X-Static.” This one hints at the epic pop rock mastery waiting to emerge on The Colour and The Shape, with its lengthy guitar intro, pounding drums, and hummable “oooo”s. The Foos got better, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook this catchy debut.
5. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
Just a year after dropping the genre-defining Definitely Maybe, Oasis turned out another monster hit with (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?. As I wrote above, “Wonderwall” was a big deal back in grade school, and “Champagne Supernova” followed suit. When I finally bought the album in high school, though, I was surprised to hear an even better song than those two: “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” The album is rife with high quality pub rock with a twinge of Beatles psychedelia, but the best of the bunch is a little more down to earth (and devoid of frontman Liam Gallagher’s vocals). Songwriter and guitarist Noel Gallagher takes over on the mic here, and he’s really not that bad of a singer. Liam’s got a better Johnny Rotten sneer, but Noel does “Don’t Look Back in Anger” justice.
There are plenty of reasons to love this song. The rolling drums, the sweet guitar solo, the tasteful use of strings, but mostly I love how this songs sounds exactly like something you’d wanna sing after a few pints at the Shanachie. “Sooooo Sally can wait / She knows it’s too late as she’s walkin’ on by / My soul slides away / But don’t look back in anger / I heard you say.” Actually, now that I think about it, I think I have done exactly that.
4. The Mountain Goats – Nine Black Poppies
While I love The Mountain Goats ’95 full-length Sweden, I have to give a slight edge to this nine-song EP. It kicks off with one of the best TMG songs of all time, “Cubs in Five.” An ode to the possibility of the Chicago Cubs ever winning the World Series, “Cubs in Five” is a bombastic series of highly improbable (but not impossible) situations similar to a Cubs sweep. Live, the song is enhanced by John Darnielle’s apt storytelling abilities, as he is wont to regale audiences with tales of the Cubs’ many failed adventures. The EP doesn’t slack off after that, thanks to the heartfelt “Going to Utrecht” and the awkward “Lonesome Surprise,” which was recorded via long distance phone call.
3. Face to Face – Big Choice
Originally released in 1994, Face to Face’s Big Choice comes in at numero tres for 1995 due to some sweet bonus tracks from its rerelease a year later. And while the band tends to discuss Big Choice's recording sessions as being poop-tastic, the end result is one of the finest pop punk records of the ’90s. Big Choice is basically just Don’t Turn Away with better hooks, and that should be all you need to know. But if ya need more, here goes: Face to Face found a middle ground between catchy sing-alongs and blisteringly fast punk songs here. The band was always blessed with ridiculously good bassists, and original member Matt Riddle shines here, proving that just because punk is founded on three chords doesn’t mean it can’t move beyond that. Drummer Rob Kurth was a bit unreliable live, but his studio renditions of the almighty fast beat are flawless. And then there’s frontman Trevor Keith. I’ll say it here and now, Trevor Keith had one of the best singing voices in ’90s punk. Snotty without being whiney or unintelligible, dude’s vocals carried. With these three key players in place, it makes sense that Big Choice was one of the most important punk records in my life during high school, and it still rocks my face off all these years later.
2. Rancid - …And Out Come the Wolves
The year after Offspring and Green Day broke punk to the mainstream, Rancid had a blow-up of their own with …And Out Come the Wolves. Spurred on by the singles “Time Bomb,” “Ruby Soho,” and “Roots Radicals,” the record eventually went platinum and got major labels talking about punk’s commercial viability. Rancid stuck by indie Epitaph, though, which is probably for the best since that decision allowed the band to experiment more with ska and hardcore on later albums.
As for me, well, …And Out Come the Wolves is probably one of the albums I spent the most time driving around with. This perfect is perfect for two people since Lars Frederickson and Tim Armstrong share most of the vocals. I remember a lot of finger pointing and shouting whenever it came time for “Ruby Soho,” especially at the end when Tim and Lars start singing different parts. I also recall making epileptic air guitar movements whenever Matt Freeman had a solo (Check out “Maxwell Murder,” sucka!).
1. Jawbreaker – Dear You
I’ve written so much about the importance of Jawbreaker and Dear You to me that I’m starting to run out of things to say, but here goes:
Why the fuck wasn’t Dear You the biggest album of 1995?
Backed by producer Rob Cavallo, who was still hot from handling Green Day’s Dookie, Jawbreaker tackled a major label and tried to use the accompanying recording budget to make a record unlike anything they’d ever done before. Sure, Dear You’s more complicated songwriting has a connection to 1992’ Bivouac; plus there are flashes of 24 Hour Revenge Therapy’s pop punk style in songs like “Oyster” and “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault.” But overall, this one’s a loner, babe. Long, dirge-y, hopeless tracks abound.
One of those sad sack ditties, “Accident Prone,” has constantly come back to influence my life time and again. “Jet Black” is probably my current favorite, and “Save Your Generation” is very nice, but I used to ritualistically spin “Accident Prone” on repeat for hours every night. As I’ve written before, Blake Schwarzenbach had a knack for writing hyper-specific songs that really only applied to him but somehow managed to describe exactly how I was feeling. So while “Accident Prone” is about Schwarzenbach’s struggles with depression, what I hear is a song about my struggles with meeting women.
I am not a sexy man. Nor am I a particularly strong one. And I’m OK with that now, because I’ve found a woman who thinks I am sexy and strong (and has thought as such for over two years now. And no, I’m not paying/drugging her). But for a good while there, it was pretty hard to feel good about myself. I'm not particularly social, but I’ve never been too hard-up for friends. That said, I am terrible at socializing with women. I’m a bundle of nerves and insecurities and personal boundaries and transparent intentions.
Whenever I listen to “Accident Prone,” I always come back to the lines “I learned your name without words / I used my eyes / Not my hands.” To me, those words sum up how completely into one girl I foolishly was in high school, even though she had no reciprocation whatsoever (and was very aware of my infatuation). I tried to respect her lack of interest in me, and we actually managed to sustain our friendship for a long time before I finally decided I couldn’t handle the situation anymore and moved on. I came back to the song again in college, listening to the single edit and the album cut back-to-back sophomore year. And while this helped me get through my angst-filled existence, I’m OK with being happy instead. Plus, my girlfriend bought me an original blue pressing of Dear You as a graduation present, so I’m clearly better off with her. Wubs!
I would also like to mention that I enjoy Adam Pfahler’s drumming on this track a lot.
NEXT WEEK: four chords and the spite to use them, 1996.
Sunday, September 28, 2008
Anyhoozle, The Rentals, they of Weezer spin-off and "Friends of P." fame, released their first new song in over a year. "Colorado," an online compilation track, is available for streaming over on the band's MySpace site. Allegedly, you can download it somewhere, but that somewhere ain't offerin' it just yet. That's a dang shame, since "Colorado" is a fun lil fuzzy ditty about driving West through the great American expanse, searching for a sense of newness and vigor. Or something.
In all seriousness, though, The Rentals need more hype, because they write way catchier songs than anything going on in mainstream pop right now.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Hey kids, stop illegally downloading the new Dillinger Four album and check out some totes legal shit. Here's a poop-ton of stuff to check out:
-Spin is offering "Atomic Hells," the first single off the new Secret Machines album, fo' free fo' one week. And of course, be sure to check out "Dreaming of Dreaming," a free, non-album cut that rocks butts. AND AND... AND... you can stream a couple other tracks from the band's eponymous thirdskie record at their street team's Web site.
-Ben Folds is streaming his new album Way to Normal on his MySpace. I'm kinda iffy on the single, so hopefully this'll change my mind before shit drops 9/30.
-Do you like to emote? My close associate Soupy del Soup is giving away the cream de la awesome from his old band, The Premier, via his blog.
-Don't get an office job! Not a download, but it's still free.
Monday, September 22, 2008
My top two albums in 1994 were TLC’s CrazySexyCool and Boyz II Men’s II. Things have changed since then, but not really. I still dig guys with problems (Rivers Cuomo, Blake Schwarzenblach, Trent Reznor) and strong women (Tori Amos, Courtney Love). With the exception of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song),” I don’t remember actually hearing any of the songs on any of these albums in 1994, when I was eight years old.
Some folks put a lot of stock in being with bands from the beginning. It’s like we somehow mean it more if we always believed in them. I’ve been temping at a market research firm for the last few weeks, and a co-worker, who was two years older than me, mentioned how much he loved Pinkerton the first time he heard it… in 2006. My initial thought was, “OMG newb.” Right after that, though, I realized I was kind of maybe full of shit for thinking that.
My love affair with Weerez started in high school. It began from hearing kids in mall parking lots quote the band, and was nurtured by the band’s resurgence with “The Green Album” in 2001, the summer after my freshman year at
This being the Internets, I’m sure you already know that someone knew about something before you. I’m all too aware, and I try not to put too much stock in fandom history (unless you count everything I wrote above). The important part is that we all like these songs. Besides, bands are constantly changing my life. It’s impractical to hold on to everything when there’s so much to experience. In fact, last week I caved and bought The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday, realizing once and for all how wrong I was about that band. They’re freaking brilliant. As a consequence, I’ve also spent a week shouting the lyrics to “Stevie Nix” at passersby on my way to work. I’m a THS fan, even if I haven’t logged in the hours just yet.
Tori, you crimson courier of curious concepts, how you dazzle nearly every time. The best way to experience Amos is live, as she can jam and writhe better in her 40s than yer average 20-something indie troubadour, but failing that, I highly recommend you try popping one of her albums in to a car stereo. Amos satisfies an interesting niche for me; she rocks but she can also be mellow. She can really hit you right in the heartical parts, but man can she get funky. Some quality drivin’ tunes come courtesy of Under the Pink. The cut time drum beat and rolling piano part of “Cornflake Girl” makes for goofy dancing and pleasant head bopping. Same goes for “God,” which takes the Almighty to task. Those looking for a bit more rage for the road can check out “The Waitress,” a ditty about how much some co-workers fucking suck. Mixed among the somber piano ballads is “Past the Mission,” which goes from country twang verses to haunting, Trent Reznor-assisted choruses.
By lead songwriter Noel Gallagher’s own admission, Oasis burned briefly but brilliantly in the ’90s. Of course, longevity wasn’t necessarily at the forefront of everyone’s minds when the band debuted with Definitely Maybe. What mattered was how damn cocky and sure and rocking the boys were (and I guess that Blur feud mattered for some). The best British bands from the ’80s were able to rock (Iron Maiden) or have swagger (Morrissey, with and/or without The Smiths), but rarely did the two combine. Alternative further buried the idea of “the rock star,” that one could be a larger-than-life personality whose searing live sets were only overshadowed by one’s even more mythical social life, that one could have fun with being a celebrity and maybe get a few good tunes out of it. Oasis brought back Rolling Stones swagger hard, with songs like “Live Forever” and album opener “Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” The band never had any sellout mainstream guilt; they knew from the get-go they were going to take their pilfered riffs, punk sneer, and quasi-nonsensical lyrics to masses and make ‘em damn glad they did so. Love that Britpop jangle.
In a lot of ways, Our Lady Peace is the Canadian U2 (or maybe just the Canadian Live). Folks hate both bands for sounding too earnest (and having whiney vocalists), but I love them for their powerful drummers, chiming guitarists, and anthemic output, which is to say nothing of their humanitarian works. OLP has become somewhat of a guilty pleasure for me post-high school, but I still spin their pre-Gravity records on occasion. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t think they were one of the most passionate rock bands of all time when I was younger, because I totally felt that way, even though a lot of people really only know them for that stupid single “Somewhere Out There.” And while my tastes have broadened and gone less commercial, there’s something reassuring in putting on an old favorite like Naveed, a strident radio rock record that takes the time to decry violence against women (“Julia”) and big up alternative spiritualities (“Starseed”). Not that I need every song to have a “big message,” mind you, but it’s nice.
What I’ll always appreciate regardless of purpose is drummer Jeremy Taggart. Dude dominates Naveed, which was originally released on the band’s own dime by the by. Taggart has a fierce presence that never overcomplicates the songs. He throws in all sorts of flourishes, and when allowed he plays really fucking loud, but for the most part he makes it a point to not jerk off all over the kit. Think of him as the Canadian Dave Grohl. This balance of dexterity and brutality inspired me as a drummer when I started out.
If nothing else, you have to give Sunny Day Real Estate credit for bridging the gap between alt rock and ’90s emo. Sonically, there isn’t much to separate the band from its Sub Pop peers in Nirvana and Mudhoney. Sometimes I think the only thing that really separates Diary from Nevermind or Superfuzz Bigmuff plus Early Singles is that the lyrics are way, way more serious. But the feel you get from listening to SDRE is completely different. Gen-Xers had this sort of “nothing matters” vibe, which is cool but kinda boring after a while. I tend to think that everything matters, everything is connected, and nothing can be overlooked. Also, I’m fairly paranoid and overly serious, but that’s another essay altogether.
SDRE made it a point to actually analyze what they were doing with their lives, often through the lense of religion and alcoholism. Based on all the angelic imagery on the album, it’s no surprise that frontman Jeremy Enigk eventually converted to Christianity pretty hard. What is surprising is that Enigk and his pals could create an album every bit as lost and searching as any punk or industrial or metal or alternative record but imbue it with a spiritual sense that’s often ignored.
“When I got the music / I got a place to go.”
While they’ve taken plenty of slag for being inspired by The Clash (and that’s a bad thing because…?), Rancid is easily one of the greatest punk bands of the ’90s, if not all time. The group had a slight false start with their eponymous debut, but once Lars Frederickson joined up with the band for LP numero dos, Let’s Go, everything got awesome. Opening track “Nihilism” is like Rancid’s mission statement: Scattered between oi stomps and slurred Strummer-style singing are images of wandering through a dying urban landscape, intoxicated and alive.
“Radio,” co-written with Green Day’s Billy Joe Armstrong (who almost joined Rancid but opted to write the megahit Dookie instead), serves up the other half of Rancid’s mission: to use music as a tool for escaping one’s boundaries. I completely agree with Tim Armstrong’s gospel of punk here. The hits keep coming with the comic book-ish “Sidekick” and the old rock soul of “Salvation.” Let’s Go is an unrelentingly catchy, yet fierce, punk rock record. No wonder the band blew up the following year with …And Out Come the Wolves.
“I had a dream I was a vigilant sidekick / My name is Tim I am a lesser known character.”
Although it was recorded the previous fall, Courtney Love opened Live Through This by screaming “Go on / Take everything / I want you to.” The album was released four days after the body of her husband Kurt Cobain was found. Some conspiracy theorists claim Cobain wrote Live Through This, an accusation made more plausible by the fact that, so far, it’s also the best Love album, Hole or otherwise. While I’m willing to bet Kurt had a hand in it (they were a real married couple, after all), I don’t think he wrote the whole dang thing. Not that my two pesos matter much. Even if Kurt hadn’t touched the album at all, his spirit and suicide would still linger all over this album. When Courtney Love begs to be killed in “Miss World,” I think about her lying in her husband’s dried blood at home. “Doll Parts” feels like a description about life with Kurt under the media’s gaze, which might actually be true.
And then of course, there are the scene-baiting songs, like “Credit in the Straight World,” and especially album-ender “Rock Star,” which seek to shit all over the bastards back home who hate Courtney for getting out. Live Through This is a fabulously angry, punk as fuck album. To give it credit for its feminine perspective is to pigeonhole it; for me, this album cuts through scene politics just as well as Against Me! or Jawbreaker.
The first time I saw The Mountain Goats live was at a log cabin on
I’ll always remember one particular song that he played that night, though.
Near the end of his set, a female student shouted a request I couldn’t quite make out, declaring that it was her birthday and she deserved it. John stopped the show and made absolutely sure it was really her birthday. It took like five minutes, which is pretty long in terms of a show but also pretty funny because Darnielle is a sweet, thorough guy. With the girl’s DOB confirmed, her request was granted. The song she heard was “Going to
“The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway is that it’s you / and that you’re standing in the doorway” is the best line of the song, and one of the most romantic song lyrics ever. I made it a priority to research all the songs I didn’t know from that show. Getting
Zopilote Machine, the album which “
Amazingly, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy is the only Jawbreaker record I didn’t like upon first listen. I was pretty sick of pop punk by my senior year of high school, moving towards more of a sad sack indie sound a la Bright Eyes and The Smiths. I also really, really loved Jets to
24 Hour Revenge Therapy doesn’t sound like any of the above artists/albums mentioned. “Oh, this is pop punk,” I thought the first time I listened to it after arriving home from a family trip to
When I moved into St. Neumann Hall at
Really, Jawbreaker’s last three albums are tied for my top affections. Revenge Therapy holds its own with the snide punk putdowns in “Boxcar;” the paranoia, depression, and medical paranoia in “
Speaking of albums that saved my life, Nine Inch Nails is a band I keep loving and more and more as time goes by. Whereas my appreciation for The Bouncing Souls or The Mountain Goats has stayed consistent over the years, I keep finding new aspects of NIN to enjoy. I always liked The Downward Spiral in high school for its anger and aggression, like on “Mr. Self Destruct” or “March of the Pigs.” And of course I’ve always been affected by “Hurt,” one of the saddest, most emotionally damaging songs I’ve ever heard. I’ve never been a drug addict, but I’ve still got enough self-loathing to be able to relate to that song.
There was one track, though, that slipped through the cracks until one late night/early morning study session during sophomore year of college. My friends from high school and I had really begun to distance ourselves by that point, so tensions existed at home. Being an emo fuck, I was also strung out over lady woes. Late-night sessions spent studying for English classes and assembling Collegian (In my day, we did the whole got-damn thing in one got-damn night! It once took me 14 hours straight!) weren’t helping either. I was perpetually about to fall asleep in class, and perpetually about to bomb another paper on gender roles or world history since 1500 back at my room. I can remember one particular night, at around maybe 3 or 4 a.m., listening to iTunes shuffle and trying desperately to sort my shit out. “
The first practice session of every band I have ever been in has started with Weezer covers, not counting random jam sessions with certain friends. I’ve been in three semi-serious bands: Caution!, Emergency & I, and Backwards Alphabet. And I’m gonna throw in a fake La Salle band I was in five minutes called Dean Cicala and The Affirmations, because all four of those groups started off by covering tunes like “My Name is Jonas,” “Undone (The Sweater Song)” and “Say It Ain’t So.” For a certain group of kids, Weezer is a common denominator, a mutual reference point for adolescence, social collisions, and pop culture. Pinkerton gets the hype for being extremely personal, but I can relate to “Blue Album” just as much. I love X-Men, KISS, awkwardly slow dancing, referencing old sitcoms, and talking about parties way more than actually attending them, and those are all topics that “Blue Album” covers extensively.
Which is to say nothing of the musical side. A close associate of mine named Sam Fran Scavuzzo once told me that the opening picking part to “My Name is Jonas” is one of the easiest guitar parts he’s ever learned, but that doesn’t keep it from sound incredibly awesome (nor does it keep Sam from having the biggest ol’ grin when he plays it). Bassist Matt Sharp’s love of all things Moog gets some facetime on “Buddy Holly.” Then there are those guitar solos. The best can be found on “Say It Ain’t So” and “Only in Dreams.” The aching build-up leading into the solo on “Dreams” is the album’s ultimate climax, not unlike Prince’s “Purple Rain,” if I might be so bold/stupid. But while “Only in Dreams” touches the cockles of my heart, “Say It Ain’t So” makes me want to live (notice a theme this week?). After spending a good chunk of the song killing time and dealing with family strife, Rivers Cuomo lets loose the only way he knows how: on his dang axe, man. The best guitar solos are the ones people can sing along to, and “Say It Ain’t So” is definitely in that range. In fact, if you play the solo properly in Rock Band, the crowd actually does sing along.
I can remember the first time I heard someone play “Say It Ain’t So” properly. I was effing around on a dilapidated kit with Drew Stephan. We tried a couple of Less Than Jake and Against Me! songs, but the most magical of magic moments was hearing the harmonics from that beloved Weezer staple. Ultimately, Weezer songs are simple pop rock tunes that sound massive and legendary to the ear. These songs are such a fine merge of pop tunefulness and lyrical depth that to actually be able to recreate one of them with a few friends becomes transcendent. It’s moments like that which make me happy to be alive.
NEXT WEEK: the boy’s a time bomb, I dreamed I was a fireman, and the
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
Ted Leo, fine lover of all things Irish folk and/or Elvis Costello, recorded a charity EP to raise awareness and/or funds to fight police violence in Minnesota, specifically regarding how cops handled protesters during the Republican National Convention. Click the link to check it out. It's not too pricey, and the accompanying liner notes are pretty cool too. Also, it's friggin' Ted Leo, so it's definitely one of the cooler ways to smash the fascist pigs right in their stupid faces.
Monday, September 15, 2008
Up until now, there haven’t been too many women on my countdown. Sure, bassists Kim Deal/Gordon have shown up for Pixies/Sonic Youth, and Tori Amos and PJ Harvey debuted last week for 1992. But overall, these rock lists have been pretty dude-centric. I have no legitimate excuses for that; I could argue that my love of Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell hasn’t been accurately portrayed, or that my favorite lady-led band of all time, Discount, hasn’t shown up yet, but those don’t really justify much. I feel bad, because of this belief:
With fewer women in music, the ones who shine really shine. Looking back on my high school years, most of my female friends (and there were many – chicks dig nonthreatening, potentially gay dudes) weren’t musically inclined, with the exception of Julia Ellis (trumpet), Jenna Daugherty (bass), and Allie Interrante (lead vox in my high school band for a brief period). I don’t know why that turned out so. I mean, my friends were still passionate about music. Country, metal, emo, and punk were all discussed on a regular basis. They went to shows and bought the merch and memorized the lyrics (I’m only good at two out of three). But only a handful of them were actually musically active. And that bothers me. Coming from a punk background, I was told that anyone can do anything, which to me means that qualities like gender (and race, and ethnicity, and economic background) only determine where you start out, not what you do. The point of punk was that anyone can create music. But in practice, the genre is still kind of a boy’s club. I would love to see more women in music.
1993 had some incredible albums bearing a woman’s touch. Smashing Pumpkins bassist D’arcy Wretzky may not have been too prominent in the band’s songwriting, but PJ Harvey and Bjork were all prominent women entirely in charge of their compositions and image. Tori Amos had this annoying habit of releasing albums on the cusp of a year, so Under the Pink wasn’t out just yet, but she had plenty of singles floating around.
I’m not really sure what I was hoping to establish with this preamble. Sorry for that. In summation, estrogen + music = very nice.
10. Pearl Jam – Vs.
Pearl Jam is nothing if not a reliable rock band. Vs. doesn’t stray too far from the template set up for Ten, but it’s still a high quality classic rock album. I’ve always felt weird about using the term “alternative,” since I see so many connections between classic rock and alt rock bands like Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins. Even the alt bands with roots in underground genres like punk and post-punk are still coming from something much older and established. But enough about that. Vs. solidified Pearl Jam’s reputation, pushing them over Nirvana, even though no one wants to admit it. Tons of bands have tried to cop a feel from the band’s mix of bar band riffs and mucus-laden, evocative vocals (Nickelback, Creed, etc.), but Pearl Jam remains the best.
9. Fugazi – In on the Kill Taker
I know I just wrote about how important a non-masculine viewpoint is above, but man alive do I love the guys in Fugazi. In on the Kill Taker didn’t change Fugazi’s formula too much, although the band is ever so slightly softer than on Steady Diet of Nothing. It’s these tweakings that make me love each Fugazi record separately and as a whole. This is the point where the group started drifting away from post-hardcore into a more indie rock spectrum, but there’s still the frenetic drums, the crunchy, squealing guitars, and that fabulous energy from vocalists Greg Picciotto and Ian MacKaye. COME BACK FUGAZI.
8. Propagandhi – How to Clean Everything
Ah, the early ’90s, when every Fat Wreck band sounded like NOFX. Propagandhi eventually found their own metal-tinged identity, but on How to Clean Everything, the band sounded exactly like Fat Mike and co. There was one key difference, though: They were actually better than NOFX. Lead vocalist/guitarist Chris Hannah relied a bit too heavily on profanity in the early days, but his anger still comes through brilliantly. Future Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson added a dash of eloquence on the few tracks he sang on, though, which was nice of him. How to Clean and its sequel, Less Talk, More Rock, caught the band back when it still had a sense of humor, which is appreciated considering how many depressing socio-political topics the band covers: corporate oppression, flag burning, corrupt politicians, and sexism. COME BACK PROPAGANDHI.
7. Smashing Pumpkins – Siamese Dream
Siamese Dream is the official driving album for Michelle and me. It started the first time we drove up to Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada. That’s an eight hour drive if you’re lucky; I believe it took us about 10.5. Siamese Dream kept us awake during the Pennsylvania portion of the drive with its hour’s worth of atmospherically tinged, classic rock-influenced alternative tunes. Now, I was a Pumpkins fan in middle school, and I’ll defend the eff out of Machina if you push me. But as I got into Tool and punk rock in high school, the Pumpkins kinda fell by the wayside, until that trip. Driving through mile after mile of barren Pennsylvania hills in the winter time, I felt so exhilarated by Billy Corgan’s guitar pyrotechnics and Butch Vig’s dreamy production. Vig had already cemented his role in music history with the pop sheen he gave Nirvana’s Nevermind, which makes his more muddled work on Siamese Dream all the more pleasantly surprising.
And for the record, “Cherub Rock” owns, despite the lyrics. Also, BREAK UP SMASHING PUMPKINS.
6. Bjork – Debut
Given that she was always the best thing about The Sugarcubes, it’s surprising that Bjork didn’t release her first solo album until seven years after her band’s formation. Debut is a thrilling opening salvo of dance beats, experimental strings, and that voice we all love (or very, very strongly hate). A lot of ’90s club music hasn’t aged well, but 15 years later, Debut still holds up. The record hiccups on “There’s More to Life Than This,” which was recorded live in a bathroom stall for some reason, but only in terms of audio quality. The track is still pretty awesome. Bjork got much weirder later in life, but Debut is a solid album that even casual pop fans can love.
5. Flaming Lips – Transmissions from the Satellite Heart
Yes, Transmissions from the Satellite Heart contains the novelty single “She Don’t Use Jelly,” but I’d argue that it wasn’t actually a novelty tune. It’s just your average slap happy Wayne Coyne song about something oddly specific. Transmissions from the Satellite Heart contains 11 lovely ditties, all of which follow the “Jelly” pattern: Incredibly joyous and silly, but also kinda rocking and heavy. “Turn It On” and Pilot Can at the Queer of God” are a delightfully crunchy two-hit combo. “She Don’t Use Jelly,” though, will always be my favorite Flaming Lips song. Obvious choice? Yeah, but prove me wrong! Overall, I prefer the heavy, dirty Flaming Lips circa Transmissions from the Satellite Heart and Clouds Taste Metallic to the cleaned up space pop of The Soft Bulletin and beyond, but that’s kind of like comparing burritos and pizza – I’m gonna be stoked either way.
4. PJ Harvey – Rid of Me
Here’s one of two awesome albums from '93 helmed by Steve Albini, a big name producer with an indie sensibility. Here’s my thing about hi-fi recording techniques: Clarity in recording is constantly being redefined, just like CGI in a movie. It’s always better in the here and now, but in a few years it’ll be dated. I’m always amazed by how lifeless a lot of late ’90s rock bands sound now, having gone through a musical baptism in high school. I’ve already written about how bad a lot of ’80s big money productions sound; the vocals are always pushed too high in the mix, the music is always buried and mutilated and oversimplified, and the result is something that sounds nothing like a live band (and I prize live performance).
Lo-fi, however, will always sound the same. Tape hiss is tape hiss is tape hiss. The vocals might be indecipherable (a la Four Minute Mile), but the result is much more raw and invigorating (r.e. – every pre-4 A.D. Mountain Goats album ever). With Albini, you get the best of both worlds, though. His production on PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me is rougher than most albums, something perfectly suited for Polly Jean’s harpy howl and heavy blues riffs. The album was mostly recorded live, and it sounds it. But Albini is still a professional to a certain extent; he captures amazing performances from Harvey’s band. And while the vocals are lower in the mix, you can still clearly make out everything Polly says.
I’ve obviously gone on a bit of tangent away from the actual performer, but I want to give Albini credit for one more thing: Rid of Me is mixed awfully low compared to a lot of albums, so while it might not sound too good on a car stereo, it’ll certainly rattle your brains on some headphones.
Now, getting back to Polly Jean (finally), what can I say? Rid of Me is the more assured follow-up to Dry. It’s a more even listening experience, and few people have been able to replicate PJ’s take on heavy blues music (Looking at you, The Kills). Part Black Sabbath, part Patti Smith, all awesome, Polly Jean took a lot of rock’s clichés (desire for power, sex, and sexy power), and grabbed hold of them. The title track establishes her command of her body with lines like “Lick my legs / I’m on fire / Lick my legs / of desire.” And do I even have to describe “Rub ‘Til It Bleeds?” Throw in a jaw-dropping Bob Dylan cover (“Highway ’61 Revisited”) and you’ve got one of the best albums of the ’90s.
3. Tool – Undertow
Tool and Our Lady Peace were the first rock bands I ever felt were my own. I was introduced to Tool through their then-new album, Lateralus, but I quickly gobbled up the rest of their output in the coming months. I actually worked my way backwards, buying Ænima, and later obtaining Undertow and Opiate on the same day. Tool got wedged in with the alternative crowd, but I prefer to think of them as a metal band that simply sidestepped all of that genre’s shittier trappings (kinda like Alice in Chains and Soundgarden). You’ve got the crazy time signatures, the searing guitar solos, and one hell of a frontman.
For a long time, Undertow was actually my least favorite Tool album. Ænima had the more explicit displays of anger (“Eulogy,” “Hooker With a Penis”), which I could relate to as a youth. That album’s lyrics sound a little more juvenile to me today, though, elevating the less raging but still totally bitching missives on Undertow to shine through for me. Not that I ever disliked this album. I’m just saying I’ve grown to love it more and more with the passing of time. Plus, Undertow introduced me to that lovable scamp, Henry Rollins, with the song “Bottom.”
DON’T BREAK UP TOOL.
2. Nirvana – In Utero
Spin once explained the difference between Butch Vig’s production on Nevermind and Steve Albini’s work on In Utero as the same as watching someone getting punched in the gut, and actually being punched in the gut. That sounds about right.
In my opinion, Nirvana never made a bad record, and after hearing “You Know You’re Right,” I really think they had at least one more good album left in them. As is, though, their last complete studio statement is In Utero, an ugly, dissonant punk rock album riddled with sarcasm about deadbeat parents (“I tried hard to have a father but instead I had a dad”), the music industry (“Radio Friendly Unit Shifter”) and Kurt Cobain himself (“Teenage sex had paid off well / Now I’m bored and old”). The whole thing is violent and noisy and still catchy as hell. I dare you to walk around screaming, “HEY! WAIT! I GOT A NEW COMPLAINT!” Pretty soon you won’t want to stop.
1. Counting Crows – August and Everything After
I love Adam Duritz. I dig him so much I wanna punt Michelle Tanner every time she says “Counting Cows.” Not only is Duritz one of the most detailed and expressive lyricists of the ’ 90s, he’s also one of the most giving. While it took him a long time to adjust to fame, Adam now maintains a pretty open relationship with fans through the Internets and stage performances. Live, he makes it a point to register folks to vote, and even passes out petitions and pamphlets related to various topics like spousal abuse, animal rights, and more. A lot of people slag him for being a whiny bastard, but then again, a lot of people are stupid jerks.
August and Everything After is a stand-alone in the Crows’ discography in that it’s the only album written from a pro-fame perspective, as heard on lead single “Mr. Jones,” but otherwise it’s pretty much in tune with the rest of Duritz’s lyrical musings – sad but searching, achingly beautiful. Musically, August catches the band at their loosest and most acoustic. Recovering the Satellites aimed for being a loud pop rock record, but August is nearly a folk album thanks to songs like “Omaha,” “Raining in Baltimore,” “Perfect Blue Buildings,” and “Anna Begins.” Not that the guys don’t cut loose here too. “Round Here,” “Rain King,” and “Mr. Jones” are pretty rocking, and “A Murder of One” is one of those skin-tingling, transcendent moments. The song is an origin story about the band’s name, an exercise in poetic imagery, a pro-feminist/anti-abuse anthem, and a damn fine rock song.
NEXT WEEK: the boat dreams from the hill, Superman skivvies, a pretty good year, 1994.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Monday, September 8, 2008
My kid brother, Sam, was born in 1992. Like my sister (1989), he got a better birth year for music than I did. Not that I’m jealous about that at all. I think part of the reason why I envy my sister is that her music taste is much more in line with mine than Sam's, but still off on its own tangent. She doesn’t rock Fugazi or The Stone Roses much, which kind of bums me out. My brother, on the other hand, is your prototypical prep school kid. A high school sophomore, he listens to jam bands, hip-hop and classic rock. So while that gives us Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen in common, that only accounts for like 1/3 of his tastes. The little rap I like (Common, Fugees) is boring to Sam. Fun fact: I once tried playing him Common’s Be in an effort to bond; he fell asleep like three songs in. He’s more into Jay-Z (which I respect more than I like) and Lil Wayne (Tha Carter III is either the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, musically or otherwise, or a performance art piece on par with Andy Kauffman).
The reason why I bring this up is this: Music is a great way to make friends, but it’s also good at wrecking them. Sam and I have never really bonded over music outside of the examples mentioned above, and our relationship has stayed pretty strong for the last decade or so. My sister, Maria, and I, on the other hand, have had plenty of fights over music because our tastes aren’t different, just divergent. Isn’t weird when the things that bring you together push you apart?
Among other things, here’s how I know that 1992 was a kickass year for music: My favorite Jawbox record has the lowest ranking for its year. The first J. Robbins album I bought kicks off with the snarling post-hardcore guitar squeal of “Cutoff,” a muscular yet ethereal tune from an album rife with succulent rocking. Last week, I wrote about how Robbins was better than the average underground musician because he knew how to record music; same goes for his guitar work. As great as the music in the early ’90s was, a lot of bands had shitty guitar players (Dear Pavement, to paraphrase Beavis and Butthead, please try harder). Not so with Jawbox. Robbins had a solid backing in hardcore/metal/thrash, and he put it to good use. Novelty fits a specific niche for me; it’s aggressive and technical like a metal album but down-to-earth like a hardcore record.
Oddly enough, I got into Face to Face through Buffy the Vampire Slayer, courtesy of the band's Ignorance is Bliss song “The Devil You Know (God is a Man).” Ignorance is Bliss, of course, is the black sheep of the Face to Face catalog, as it’s the band’s only non-punk, art rock record. I didn’t mind though; when I followed up my Ignorance is Bliss purchase with the band’s pop punk albums, like Don’t Turn Away, I just rolled with it. See, there are different kinds of awesomeness in the world.
Don’t Turn Away is a solid first album, boasting some of Face to Face’s most popular live material, such as “Disconnected,” “Walk Away,” and “I’m Trying.” There’s little variation, but who cares? The tunes are catchy, quick, and rocking. Like J. Robbins, frontman Trevor Keith applied his metal background to punk to create something that was sleeker without sounding overcommercialized. One of the greatest pop punk bands of the ’90s, and still underappreciated in my opinion, Face to Face began their amazing album streak with ’92’s Don’t Turn Away.
The only reason I like Tori Amos is because my girlfriend Michelle is a superfan. By this, I mean Tori Amos has a lot of tics (weird vocal habits, bizarre lyrics about sex and rape and femininity) that are an acquired taste, and it’s only through the power of love (or something stupid like that) that I was able to learn to dig Tori’s groove. Michelle eased me into Amos through her early records, Little Earthquakes and Under the Pink. Little Earthquakes continues to be my favorite Tori album, as it bears a solid balance between traditional songwriting and personal lyrics. When people say Tori Amos is insane, they’re prolly thinking of Boys for Pele, and they’re kind of right.
Little Earthquakes, though, manages to get to the point more often than not, with solid rockers like “Precious Things” and “Crucify” and the quieter “Leather” and “Silent All These Years.” Then there’s “Me and a Gun,” an a cappella about Tori’s rape experience. This song is so personal and gut-wrenching that Michelle refused to play it for me for months because she didn’t want me to see her cry. On the flip side, though, there are empowering, fun anthems like “Happy Phantom” and b-side “Take to the Sky (
7. R.E.M. – Automatic for the People
Automatic for the People is one of the best R.E.M. albums of all time, and also the worst thing to happen to their career. Everything the band’s done post-1992 has in some way been in reaction to Automatic, whether as a 180 turn (Monster, Accelerate) or as a rehash (Up, Around the Sun). So, as the last great R.E.M. album, Automatic has a lot of baggage attached to it. But once this honest, heartfelt album starts playing, all of those concerns fade from my mind. Sure, “Everybody Hurts” is a little over the top, and “Star Me Kitten” will always sound fucked up after hearing the William S. Burroughs version, but as a whole, it’s a great pop record. “Drive” is totally rocking despite its mellow brethren, “Man on the Moon” is infectious, and have you freaking heard “Nightswimming?” Continuing the trend of making the second-to-last song the best, a la “Country Feedback” on Out of Time, “Nightswimming” is a simple piano ditty about the secret joys of summer. I think of this song whenever I remember my own nightswimming with Nate Adams and Sam Fran Scavuzzo circa July 4, 2008. Well, that and their one roommate who decided to swim naked.
You can't be the funny naked guy if no one laughs.
For a couple of years, Soul Asylum frontman Dave Pirner was totally cool, by which I mean he banged Winona Ryder and wrote the 12 great rock cuts that comprise Grave Dancers Union. Pirner might not be the greatest lyricist of the era – not as humorous as Kurt Cobain or as deep as Blake Schwarzenbach – but as far as straightforward scribes go, he’s tops. Grave Dancers Union was the biggest Soul Asylum record, thanks to hits “Runaway Train,” “Somebody to Shove,” and “Black Gold,” and while those are the strongest tracks, there’s still plenty to love. “Without a Trace” stays true to the older rock roots the band shared with Pearl Jam, but explores areas (the mafia and a hooker) that Eddie Vedder wouldn’t have touched on; “Get On Out” stomps around; and “The Sun Maid” is a mellow ending that doesn’t make much sense. Overall, Grave Dancers Union was a great pop rock album. Not a mind blower like some of the others on this list, but its steadiness makes it a reliable spin regardless of mood.
Kerplunk! isn’t that different from Green Day’s first album, but it’s still an improvement in every way. The band gained a better drummer in muppet-faced Tré Cool. Frontman, Billy Joe Armstrong developed ever so slightly as a songwriter – dig that early version of “Welcome to
Like Soul Asylum, Lemonheads delivered a dependable collection of pop rock tunes with It’s a Shame About Ray. Lemonheads had an edge over Soul Asylum, though – frontman Evan Dando always had a knack for hooks, and his songs are usually interesting regardless of their subject matter. On top of that, Dando got some help from fellow songwriter Juliana Hatfield, who supplied bass and back-up vocals. I’d love to see a Dando/Hatfield tour… so many cute jams!
It’s a Shame About Ray is famous for the re-issue add-on of “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon & Garfunkel, but the originals are great too. “Alison’s Starting to Happen,” the title track, and the peppy “Rockin Stroll” have a country-tinged familiarity. I love it.
I always favor hardcore bands that do things kind of differently, and that’s why I love the doo-wop/ska fusion on The Nation of Ulysses’ second album Plays Pretty for Baby. Like Fugazi, the band presented listeners with a post-hardcore dissonance attached to missives about the importance of maintaining both a personal identity and sense of community, not to mention saving the dang planet. More than anything, though, I love how The Nation wrote about living in the moment when it came to music. I’m a sucker for songs about songs, and “N-Sub Ulysses,” with its lines about going beyond The Beatles and “the real anti-parent culture sound,” is one of my favorites
Oh my sweet siren, Polly Jean, how I love just about everything you’ve done (Uh-Huh Her aside). While she’s gone through a few musical transformations, Polly Jean has pretty much always been really good at talking about really sad things (Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea aside). Her original trio, called PJ Harvey (I know, confusing, right?), put out two studio albums, Dry and Rid of
The bass solo from “Big.” The opening drum fill from “Shield Your Eyes.” The dissonance that pervades “Bivouac.” The angry rant that is “Tour Song.” And every lyric from “Chesterfield King.” These are the thrilling moments that define my life, encapsulated in punk rock songs far more expansive than the genre name implies. I can still remember the first time I listened to Bivouac. It was freshmen year of college. I hated my roommates for being drunk fucks. I hated my parents for giving away half my stuff so my brother could move into my room back home. I hated my high school friends for moving away, doing too many stupid fucking drugs, turning into egotistical jerks, or some combo of the three. The morning after purchasing Bivouac on a
I spent a few more days with the album, slowly digesting its sludgy contents. Dear You got me through some tough times in high school, but 24 Hour Revenge Therapy, purchased during my anti-pop punk phase senior year, didn’t sit too well with me. Bivouac reaffirmed my belief in Jawbreaker. Plus, it kept me from stabbing my roommates to death, in spite of all the parties, robberies, and sexual encounters they forced me to see.
NEXT WEEK: Cinderella's big score, buying myself a gray guitar, 1993.