Monday, September 22, 2008

1994 - everyone's the same / we look the same / we talk the same / we even fuck the same.

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 La Salle College High School. I’ve pretty much loved Weezer since then, which also means that I hate almost everything they’ve done post-Matt Sharp, save for a few singles (and the first half of the “The Red Album,” which is arguably the best Weezer album of the new millennium). But while I’ve got a few years on my co-worker mentioned above, I was still one of the last kids among my group of friends to hop on the train in 2000. And even they were late. My lady friend Michelle actually loved the band back in their heyday. She’s one of the select few from Weezer's original fan base that loved Pinkerton in 1996.

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.

10. Tori Amos – Under the Pink

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.

9. Oasis – Definitely Maybe

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.

8. Our Lady Peace – Naveed

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.

7. Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary

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.

6. Rancid – Let’s Go

“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.”

5. Hole – Live Through This

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.

4. Mountain Goats – Zopilote Machine

The first time I saw The Mountain Goats live was at a log cabin on Swarthmore College’s campus. I’d been a fan for about four years at that point, having loved the eff out of about a third of the band’s catalogue at the time. Oh, how much I had to learn. The set leaned heavily on Tallahassee, which I didn’t own at the time. In fact, I only recognized the few songs from the just-released The Sunset Tree they performed. No All Hail West Texas. No Coroner’s Gambit. No We Shall All Be Healed. But it didn’t matter; everything songwriter John Darnielle said and did that night was gospel to me.

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 Georgia.”

“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 Tallahassee became a mission, but recreating that magical moment of hearing “Going to Georgia” for the first time was a quest.

Zopilote Machine, the album which “Georgia” comes from, is the first Mountain Goats album released on CD. Darnielle favored lo-fi recording during the ’90s, and I mean as low as you can go. He’d often record songs on a boom box as he wrote them until he had enough tunes to justify releasing an album, and the first few were only put out on cassette. While it wasn’t the first release to capture his gritty acoustic style, Zopilote is still a prime example of Darnielle’s meld of detailed storytelling, in-the-moment urgency, and basic chords. Live albums are rarely as good as live shows, but every Mountain Goats album from 1994’s Zopilote Machine up through 2002’s All Hail West Texas is like a personal set in your living room.

3. Jawbreaker – 24 Hour Revenge Therapy

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 Brazil. I knew a handful of Jawbreaker songs, all of which I found out were on Dear You when I bought that album’s rerelease.

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 Florida. The distinctions between pop punk and punk rock seem trivial to me now, but when I was 17, I was very keen on keeping things as aggressive as possible. The Bouncing Souls, Against Me!, and Strike Anywhere were all crucial listening, because those bands had never let met down (well, at least until Dead FM came out…). Pop punk acts like New Found Glory did fail me, though, and their sound began to sound increasingly standardized and streamlined.

When I moved into St. Neumann Hall at La Salle University, I had a lot of time on my hands, though, since I really, really didn’t want to be in my dorm room. Having two shitty, alcoholic roommates who hate women and love stealing things made sure I spent plenty of time at the library, hanging out with people, and walking around with my Walkman. After hearing Jawbreaker’s Bivouac, I opted to give Revenge Therapy another go-around, and I’m glad I did.

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 “Ashtray Monument” and “Outpatient;” and the romantic longing in “Do You Still Hate Me?” and “Ache.” Like the rest of Blake Schwarzenbach’s output, there’s a wealth of emotions at play on Revenge Therapy. When I originally balked at the record’s musical compositions, it was because of how simplistic the songs sounded in comparison to Dear You’s more intricate workings. But there’s something to be said for using basic pop songs for housing massively intimate lyrics. Some days, this album is all I have to fight off boredom and frustration, and I really would like to thank Schwarzenbach in person one day.

2. Nine Inch Nails – The Downward Spiral

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. “A Warm Place” came on, and the title couldn’t be more accurate. Bathed in organ, a simple string progression arises. The song has a slight Eastern/raga feel because of the guitar, and it washed over me that night, purging me of my insecurities, if only temporarily. It’s a simple song, but when your life is overcomplicated, simplicity is what you need.

1. Weezer – “Blue Album”

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 Chicago Cubs will beat every team in the league, 1995.

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