Monday, October 20, 2008

1998 - now all these tastes improve / through the view that comes with you.

…aaaaaaaaaaand I listened to none of these albums in 1998 save for Hello Rockview. Not that it matters much. What is worth noting, though, is that this is the first list to consist entirely of albums which I did not hear through radio or television (Granted, I did eventually see Less Than Jake’s “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” music video, but it was I was already a fan. Yes, these things are important). All of these bands/albums came across my lap via hanging out with friends or reading good ol’ music journalism. Props to Alternative Press for introducing me to Braid and Sunny Day Real Estate’s How It Feels to Be Something On. Extra props to the friends who got me into the remaining eight albums on this list.

I think friends are the best way to find new music. Radio and TV are too narrow, too dedicated to the lowest common denominator. And the Internet is vast and bountiful, but without any sort of focus. And sometimes bloggers are just plain wrong (Black Kids, Vampire Weekend, everything Rilo Kiley’s members have done after 2005). But with your buddies, you can maintain an open dialog. You can listen to an entire album in a room or on a road trip and discuss it track by track, forging an intimate connection. While not all of the albums on this list were specifically played for me by friends, the artists were, and for that I’m grateful to know such people. This is why it’s important to have friends with different tastes from you; while you might not always agree, you may learn something yet.

10. Sunny Day Real Estate – How It Feels to Be Something On

FACT: SDRE pretty much broke up in between all four of their albums. These dudes just could not get along, which bums me out since I consider their three proper LPs (the leftovers that constitute “The Pink Album” don’t quite count) to be some of the best songwriting this side of the universe. Diary will always be my first love, but the ambience, spirituality, and groove of How It Feels to Be Something On sit mighty well with me too. The aggression is used sparingly here, so you really feel it more when it does come about. Generally, though, this one is probably the closest in spirit to the orchestral indie gospel folk hodge-podge of frontman Jeremy Enigk’s solo work. Earnest, strident, U2-like bands were plentiful in the ’90s (wassup Live?), but few could add/match the slinking atmosphere of How It Feels to Be Something On, not even U2 themselves. Personal favorites include “Two Promises,” “The Shark’s Own Private Fuck,” and “Pillars,” ‘cause they’re cool like a snowman with a leather jacket and nothing to prove.

9. Cat Power – Moon Pix

ANECDOTE: While Spin aped her a lot, I never really got into Cat Power until college. My business partner and munitions expert, TR, posted the video for “Cross Bones Style” on his blog, and that’s all it took to hook me. The video is cool yet goofy; a bunch of black clad ladies dance while Cat Power (a.k.a. Chan Marshall) and a drummer play. But it has such an incredible aura – the dancing is ironic yet kind of appropriate for the song. The song itself is soulful and quiet, but with a quick beat to propel it, making this subtle piece suddenly bouncy. It’s arguably still my favorite Cat Power song, so much so that I was originally disappointed by Moon Pix. The opening track, “American Flag,” is pretty much the opposite of “Cross Bones Style” – it’s sloppy and dissonant, albeit within Cat Power’s folky realm. Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this album for its many peaks and valleys.

8. Guster – Goldfly

As much as I loved punk rock in my teens, a decent chunk of my high school years were spent listening to jammier stuff, like Guster’s Goldfly. There were plenty of acoustic college troubadours getting play at La Salle College High School, including Dispatch, Howie Day, and John Mayer. Guster always seemed smarter than them, though. Goldfly has an energy and desperation more in tune with Violent Femmes (whom Guster once covered for an MTV2 special) on tracks like “Airport Song” and “Great Escape.” That’s not to say the band didn’t have some bongo bro-ha moments – check out “Medicine” and/or “Demon.” But while my “Me Gusto Guster” days aren’t as fervent as they used to be, I still spin Goldfly on occasion and smile; and I definitely still make an effort to check out the band whenever they come through Philadelphia.

7. Cursive – The Storms of Early Summer: Semantics of Song

Pretentious album title aside, Cursive’s second full-length is a blistering emo stomper from a time before the band started experimenting with strings and horns. As is, it’s a furious guitar-oriented record – check out those squeals on “The Rhyme Scheme” – made all the stronger by frontman Tim Kasher’s lyrical focus. Has Kasher ever recorded a non-concept album? This one’s story is right in the title; it’s about the semantics of song. Kasher explores the boundaries of the emo genre with a slight indie tinge and a voice that can go from bellowing to whining whenever it pleases. Also worth mentioning are the drum breakdowns on “Tempest.” Cursive has pretty much always rocked, but they were at their most straightforward on Storms. After this they started fucking with their formula, to great success.

6. Braid – Frame & Canvas

I was late to the Braid party, circa 2008. But when I fell, I fell hard, buying Frame & Canvas, The Age of Octeen, and both Movie Music rarities collections within a two month span. There’s something about frontman Bob Nanna’s voice; it’s so distinctive. Nanna isn’t traditionally tuneful, but he’s not overwhelmingly screechy or whiney either. He shows a good amount of grit on tracks like “The New Nathan Detroits” and “First Day Back,” but he’s still intelligible, and he clearly never crosses over from singing to screaming. It’s a sort of melodic shout, something that seems increasingly rare in emo music these days. Bands like A Day To Remember tend to split up shouting and singing into separate movements, going for polarization over cohesion, resulting in a sound that satisfies neither my need to be rock nor feel. Nanna, meanwhile, does it all on Frame & Canvas, complemented by pounding drums and chugging guitars. That the band effortlessly sums up my college experiences so perfectly is a nice bonus.

5. Rancid – Life Won’t Wait

Despite being arguably Rancid’s most difficult record due to length and sheer vastness of experimentation, Life Won’t Wait seems to be the group’s album which I listen to the most. Jumping effortlessly from oi punk (the first four tracks) to 2-tone ska (“Life Won’t Wait,” “Hooligans”) to rockabilly (“New Dress”) before mixing it all together (album-ender “Coppers”), Life Won’t Wait is a staggering love letter to world music and the friends who love it (Literally… check out “Who Would’ve Thought”). This is the album where Tim Amstrong came the closest to realizing his love of Joe Strummer, crafting Rancid’s answer to The Clash’s Sandinista!. It’s hard for me to pinpoint which Rancid album is my favorite because it’s constantly in flux, but I have no trouble calling Let’s Go, …And Out Come the Wolves, and Life Won’t Wait a holy trinity of ’90s punk rock.

4. Jets to BrazilOrange Rhyming Dictionary

My cousin Mike once said Orange Rhyming Dictionary was the definitive Jets to Brazil album because it sounded like a Jawbreaker record. While I disagree with that sentiment (Perfecting Loneliness 4-evaz!), I get what he meant. To those who knew them, Jawbreaker was a mighty source of life, offering energy and empathy with every song. For some reason, fans didn’t crossover as much for JtB, something that bothers me still.

Of course, it’s hard for me to comment, because I heard Jawbreaker and Jets to Brazil simultaneously. I’ve written before about how finding underground music was hard in the ’burbs, thanks to a lack of good record stores and my parents’ fear of online shopping. My family got Internet access sometime in 1999/2000, but it wasn’t until we jumped to a new computer in 2001 that I really got to take advantage of the world wide web.

That is to say, I downloaded a shit ton of stuff that I couldn’t find in stores.

Mp3s weren’t that well-tagged on the ‘Net, so while I heard Jawbreaker’s Dear You and Jet’s to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary at the same time (per recommendation from Mitch Clem’s very excellent comic Nothing Nice to Say), everything was labeled as Jawbreaker. So it wasn’t that hard for me to deal with JtB’s more indie rock, non-punk leanings; I thought that’s exactly how the band was supposed to sound. It made sense to me that “Crown of the Valley” and “Sweet Avenue” would play alongside “Fireman” and “Save Your Generation.” And it still makes sense to me in 2008. Musically, Orange Rhyming Dictionary continues the sonic shift Blake Schwarzenbach had already begun on Dear You; the album is mostly loose and expansive, albeit less dark. Lyrically, the record expands on the hyperspecific personal anecdotes from Dear You while becoming more metaphorical so as to protect Schwarzenbach from being hurt by criticism. It’s weird, Orange Rhyming Dictionary puts Blake out in front less by avoiding detailed stories like “Bad Scene, Everyone’s Fault,” but there’s no mistaking who Blake is talking about on “I Typed For Miles.” “No one cares / your voice is average,” he intones, just one track away from the romanticism of “Sweet Avenue.” In many ways, Orange Rhyming Dictionary is Schwarzenbach’s struggle to move on after Jawbreaker’s collapse. I’d like to think he succeeded.

Not to take away from the top three on this list, but Orange Rhyming Dictionary also has a lot of personal meaning for me, not just because of the solace it gave me during my teenage years, but because of how much it reminds me of Michelle now. Whenever I develop a crush on a girl, I tend to associate certain songs with her. Usually, the songs tend to be about failed/doomed romances (The Smiths’ “I Know It’s Over,” The Cure’s “Love Song,” Jets to Brazil’s “You’re the One I Want,” and everything on Weezer’s Pinkerton have gone to one unlucky lady after another). But with Michelle, I found myself more and more identifying her with the lyrics to “Sweet Avenue.” The song is a hopeful one; it’s about the way a good love makes you not just happier, but healthier. It’s like meeting another soul saves you, from yourself and from the outside world’s troubles. I really do believe Michelle saved my life.

tasting you and rain I
walk down to the train
try not to look down
this day could someday be
an anniversary
everything is light and sound

facing forwards going slowly
wait for you to show me
where this train wants to go
living by the hour I
stop for every flower
everything is soft and slow

now all these tastes improve
through the view that comes with you
like they handed me my life
for the first time it felt right

thank you for making me
see there's a life in me
it was dying to get out
holding you we make two spoons
beneath an April moon
everything is soft and sweet

this cigarette it could seduce
a nation with its smoke
crawling down my tired throat
scratches part of me that's purring
softly stirring

I'm a captain of industry
smoking famously
feet up on the windowsill
looking at all these trees I
feel affinity with
everything so soft and still

budding at my fingertips
touching you I start to bloom
alive with trains and passing ships
soft and sweet along your lips now
I go "oh wow"

thank you for taking me
from my monastery
I was dying to get out
with tears of gratitude
I like my latitude
cross town train to you

now all these tastes improve
through the view that comes with you
like they handed me my life
for the first time it felt worth it

like I deserved it

3. Alkaline Trio – Goddamnit!

In punk rock, fans sometimes get too caught up in a band’s early work to ever really love what comes next. It happened to Jets to Brazil, Rancid, and Sunny Day Real Estate, and that’s just what’s on this list. People get so caught up in a 24 Hour Revenge Therapy or a Diary that it defines their every experience, leaving no room for another album to enter their lives. At the same time, though, sometimes a band really does get it right the first time or so. Such is the case with Alkaline Trio’s Goddamnit!.

Like a good chunk of this list, I was late to the Alk3 party. I was familiar with the band’s Vagrant work in high school, but nothing really grabbed me like Jawbreaker or The Bouncing Souls did. That changed in high school, when my roommate Eric, in a surprising, sexy, and succinct display of authority, put a copy of Alkaline Trio’s Maybe I’ll Catch Fire in my hands and said, “Buy this.” I’m glad I listened; Maybe I’ll Catch Fire is awesome. I moved on to From Here to Infirmary, which was OK but also confirmed my earlier indifference to the group’s Vagrant years. It was the band’s two rarities compilations that sucked me back in, though, and made decide to round out my collection of the band’s Asian Man years.

What I’m getting at here is that the band’s first album, Goddamnit!, is the last Alkaline Trio album I heard in its entirety, barring this year’s Agony & Irony. In spite of hearing the band’s evolution in reverse, Goddamnit! is still my favorite Alkaline Trio album. The band is usually sloppy drunk live, but here they’re just sloppy enough to sound awesome and alive. Matt Skiba rattles of on a number of topics over succulent Chicago punk rock tunes, like how much cops suck on “Cops” or how cool his crush is on “Clavicle,” and they’re all catchy and moving. Because, you know, I do kind of hate cops and do kind of like waking “up naked next to you / kissing the curve of your clavicle."

I find it interesting that Alkaline Trio’s Goddamnit! and Jets to Brazil’s Orange Rhyming Dictionary were ranked side by side, because A) the bands played the same record release show and B) Alk3 drummer Glenn Porter once shat in a box and mailed it to Jets to Brazil.

2. Refused – The Shape of Punk to Come: A Chimerical Bombation in 12 Bursts

The venerable Drew Stephan played Refused at a party once, and it completely changed my life. While I’ll always sort of dislike how the band completely ripped off The Nation of Ulysses’ aesthetic, I have to celebrate what the band did with it for their breakthrough third album, The Shape of Punk to Come. I tend to get bored by a lot of metal and hardcore for being too stiff rhythmically, but Refused infused a great deal of soul into Shape by incorporating electronic and funk elements. Songs like “Worms Of The Senses / Faculties Of The Skull” and “New Noise” make me want to drive as fast I can while making love to a 10-foot concrete wall while punching through the concept of poverty, that’s how juiced I get on it.

Eric and I used to dance to this album in our dorm room, a ritual that eventually spilled over into our work at the Collegian office. Simply put, you don’t know someone until you see him and/or her perform an interpretive dance to “New Noise.” There’s so much to work with, from the compelling opening guitar chords to the spacey techno holding pattern to the “Can I scream? YEAH!” to the explosive finale. It’s your entire life in miniature, provided you’ve had a good run.

Side note: I had to turn off The Shape of Punk to Come when I was listening to it at work, because it made me so angry that I wanted to flip my desk.

1. Less Than Jake – Hello Rockview

Hello Rockview, and Less Than Jake in general, is one of those items that constantly finds new relevance in my life. Whereas an album like Orange Rhyming Dictionary had to wait several years to really define my life, Rockview has always defined me in some way. This is the first album I ever felt “cool” for knowing about, courtesy of the use of its song “All My Best Friends are Metalheads” in the Digimon film (where my otaku at?!). In middle school, I was stoked on how catchy and peppy the record sounded. In high school, I came to appreciate how well the band utilized their metal background to add a punk energy to a ska songwriting style. In college, I was excited to try playing these songs with friends; I tried so dang hard to play “Al’s War” with Stephan in his basement. Post-college, well, let’s just say I get the whole “I gotta get out this town” vibe a lot more.

Point is, 10 years on, Hello Rockview is still a got-damn great record.

NEXT WEEK: God is a man, my head is in the sun, I’m a hopeless romantic, and kid things, 1999.

1 comment:

Paul Tsikitas said...

Refused are quite amazing. I'm a huge fan of "The Deadly Rhythm." Any hardcore song that has a Jazz breakdown is a recipe for success. Every song has it's own unique vibe and structure and yet it never veers off the track of being a perfect, cohesive album. Love Love Love. And I'm kinda pissed we never rocked that at the Leeg office. Woodsy would LOVE that!

I actually never listened to Jawbreaker, but am a huge fan of Jets to Brazil, esp ORD. Any suggestions on what to snag for Jawbreaker? Gilson played them on my radio show a few times when I trained him back in the ol days of WEXP and I remember enjoying them but never getting around to getting their albums.

As far as the new E6 goes, it's really tight. I mean, I'll be perfectly honest, I am really biased when it comes to E6, but even if I spoke well of the last two albums, they are definitely not as good as this record. The guitar driven hooks is what makes it. Musically, they are showing their muscle. Lyrically it's as schizophrenic as ever. "We Were Witchy Witchy White Women" is kind of a departure in style and structure, but for the better. Although the album isn't devoid of piano and synths, they definitely took the back seat to rocking guitars and intense percussion.