R.E.M. – “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996)

R.E.M._-_New_Adventures_in_Hi-FiAs I said in my last post on 90’s music, my middle/high school years were marked by running into a lot of bands by the third or fourth, or in this case, fifth album. As such, I never experienced R.E.M.’s jangly, pop revolution in their first album trio. The first record I purchased was Monster, an album I like a lot more than this. Whereas Monster feels like an album with a coherent concept that was hard wrought, this album comes across as an indulgent inclusion of outtakes into half of a great record. Before I trash a bunch of the tracks, I’ll start with what I like.

There’s a really great album within the album here, and it’s one that could have been released as an EP that would have been, if not mindblowing, then really a solid 90’s genre piece that capitalized on the grittier side of the sleazebag vibe Beck hit on in Odelay. Michael Stipe has several modes, but when he gets menacing alongside some of the country-western guitars and distortion, it creates a bleak vibe to match the album cover artwork. Without further ado, I give you the real Hi-Fi:

  1. How The West Was Won And Where It Got Us
  2. Undertow
  3. E-Bow The Letter
  4. Binky The Doormat
  5. Low Desert

That’s it, man. Right there is all you need from this album. “How the West…” opens with a bizarre narrative that starts in a uranium mine and somehow flashes forward into L.A. (or somewhere like it). I still don’t really get the lyrical progression, but it seems like a kind of alt-narrative of manifest destiny, if that makes any sense. Undertow has some fuzz that pleasantly complicates the general pop refrain, fading out into some seriously good reverb to close the last minute or so of the track.

“E-Bow The Letter” goes full dark-Hollywood, a theme that Stipe would explore further in later records. Patti Smith delivers the backing vocals, doing her best Baby Jane impersonation of the faded ingénue. It might be one of my favorite R.E.M. songs of all time. “Binky” takes a more conventional approach, but the chorus is classic R.E.M., getting a good performance out of the Mike Mills (whose vocals are generally underutilized throughout). Finally, “Low Desert” flashes back to the menace with Stipe as an wandering outlaw, getting out of town just before he ends up in jail. It doesn’t really have refrains per se (just a series of hey, hey’s), but it’s got great lyric writing:

All the ashtrays, cities, and the freeway drives
Broken casino and waterslide
Eighteen-wheeler, payback dice
Gravity pulls on the power line

Jet stream cuts the desert sky
This is a land could eat a man alive
Say you’d leave it all behind

And then boom, you’re done, shaking the dust off your jacket. Sadly, this is more of a hybrid, shoehorning in what sound like too peppy rejects from Monster to round out the album. Perhaps my most loathed early R.E.M. song, “The Wake-Up Bomb,” communicates absolutely nothing that I can discern. I think it’s about being hungover after a “Don’t Stop Me Now” kind of night, but if I heard this song come on when I was hungover, with it’s overly enthusiastic percussion and Stipes screeching delivery, I’d rip my speakers out and throw them through the window. Not only that, it drags on for five interminable minutes. I wrote this entire paragraph during the first four minutes of re-listening to this song.

There are a couple of borderline tracks that might have made the cut. “Bittersweet Me” has a good guitar riff and baseline, but the lyrics are a bit lacking. “So Fast, So Numb” is likewise strong, and borders on that faded Hollywood vibe that “E-bow” mastered. The album closes out with “Electrolite,” which has typically beautiful piano playing from Mills, but it flies in the face of “E-bow” without fully establishing the contrast necessary to make it work against the vibe of the earlier tracks on the album.

Now I’ll bag on the rest. “New Test Leper” sounds like Stipe heard Natalie Merchant’s “Wonder” and translated it to the daytime talk show circuit. “Leave” starts with a ponderous slow guitar progression before blasting into some kind of engineered “wah wah” and repeating the same progression in a higher key with an electric guitar. Stipe borders on rock messiah, stadium filler territory here, channeling the worst of Bono. In further pomposity, there is a track near the end entitled “Zither” that consists solely of a solo using a Zither. I rest my case.

I read that this record was put down during sound check before tour dates. Hard miles on the road, the emptiness of the stadium, and the hollowness of stardom all add positive elements to the stronger tracks. It’s a pity that there was no one to edit out the rest.

Beck – “Odelay” (1996)

220px-OdelayThe first disc I ever spun on my brand new, Nickel-Cadmium powered, rechargeable, refurbished Sony Discman was Pearl Jam’s 1994 album, Vitalogy. That was, by my recollection, the last year my brother Brad lived at home during his final break from college. He had brought home with him his sweet stereo system and speakers that I have yet to eclipse in my personal ownership, and his vast CD collection. I had poured through it, sampling almost every genre of music popular on the college scene, but he moved to the big city and took his CDs with him (sadly, before dirt cheap CD copying technology arrived).

When Odelay came out, I was 13 (going on 14). I bought the album on a trip to Best Buy with my mother and grandmother (before you judge, see the part of the blog where I lived in the sticks and there was no music store in my town). My brothers had somehow pooled their meager earnings to purchase for me a Sony stereo system when I graduated middle school. It had a dual tape deck, a three disc turntable on the top, and a digital AM/FM tuner with 30 presets. I still have it today, and I bring it with me if I’m working (it is now a glorified FM stereo, as the CD player has been broken for years and the tape deck is essentially useless since I no longer have any tapes).


The amount of storeable presets was laughable, since we only got maybe 15 channels on FM, and only about three that I actually cared to listen to: Q101 (these days it plays a strange mix of early alternative and what is loosely called “alternative”), 103.5 (hard rock, now defunct), and 93.1 WXRT (which I equated at the time with old-person rock, but now is my go to).

In retrospect, none of these channels were very good. On occasion, I listened to a song I liked, and bought a really great album, but mostly I just ended up buying a lot of CDs made by bands of marginal quality for about four or five years before I got cable, started watching shows like 120 Minutes, and (ultimately) moved down to college. This was not a very productive period in my music life. I flirted with pointless bands like Alice in Chains, hoping to extract meaning from very thin performances. I got to many of them by the third or fourth albums, after the good stuff was done and over with.

I’m not sure all these years later that Beck was one of those acts, but re-listening to Odelay sure sounds like an album with a high concept, but precious little substance. For what it is, the album delivers on a wide variety of samples, inventive(ly sampled) beats, and definite atmospheres. I’m not sure what the dominant atmosphere is (even now), but “70’s night club with a variety of sleazy characters milling about” seems to capture many of tracks. Let’s just forget about all of those, including “Hotwax,” “Lord Only Knows,” the off-key “Derelict,” and the ubiquitous “Where It’s At” (if we’re ever going to get to some of the good stuff on this album).

“Devils [sic?] Haircut” opens the album and transcends a lot of the rock tropes at the time. The solos, such as they are, are jarring and full of abrasive guitar work. The drum echoes and guitar motif sound borderline industrial, and the track turns somewhat aggressive in a Reznor-esque way with Hansen’s final, distorted, screaming chorus. “The New Pollution” tries to follow in the same suit, but the slick production work and brash saxophone put it back in that 70’s club. It’s really trying to break through, but this track is a major regression in my opinion.

The energy on “Minus” and “Novocane” is still pertinent. On the former, the nonsensical lyrics are not a distraction, but carry the frenetic pace of the song. When it lulls out with a discordant break about 70 seconds in, I get the sense that Hansen is trying to communicate with the listener: “Goddamn dude, I just sent you to fucking space on a rocket ship, give me a sec.” He then returns even crazier, with a backing vocal track that’s going way off the rails, before once again coasting to a halt: “That’s it. You rode it. I’m out.”

That’s what still works for me about this album. The sleazebag vibe, whether this was a “concept” or not, doesn’t come across so hip anymore, especially not after his subsequent two albums where he milked exotica for all it was worth. My love for his forays into hip hop on this album tell me that I had a burgeoning interest in this genre as a kid, but my isolated upbringing in the Illinois countryside without cable television left me precious few outlets for such an exploration. The difference between Beck and hip hop artists that I listen to today: they have more to say than Beck, write lyrics that are clever/socially poignant, and are much more skilled at the delivery.

After all of this, I still have a huge affinity for the album. If nothing else, Odelay is a Herculean fusion effort, where Hansen successfully merges country, folk, rock, and hip hop into an aesthetic. I find the lack of lyrical meaning largely excusable (my favorite band in the universe, Wilco, has plenty of tracks with some crazy nonsense vocals). I can’t see my college age brother listening to this album with his friends and liking it, but much like the access to his CD collection, this album primed me for even weirder musical excursions in the future.

Okay, gotcha, next please

R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Rock and roll will never die – the return of 30 years in 30 weeks

Saving my ridiculously outdated blog from obscurity reminded me that I failed to complete my musical reminiscence that I began two years ago. Here’s what I originally promised back in 2013:

I’m calling this project #30yearsin30weeks, but the actual time frames are pretty arbitrary. I may give up on this relatively soon depending on how busy I get or how my interests shift. Seeing as I started this blog on a faulty premise, I’m not too concerned if I f**k this one up.

Yup, fucked it up just like I said I would. I promised an exploration of “middle/high school, college, and early graduate” albums, and delivered only on middle school. As I am currently high on my blog once again, I can promise you a renewed effort for a few months, and then another long absence when I get too busy. If I’m still around and writing this blog years from now, I may even quote that last sentence.

Here are the albums I said I would revisit last time I gave up, so that’s where I’m headed next:

Beck – Odelay (1996)
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Nirvana: “MTV Unplugged In New York” (1994)

Nirvana_mtv_unplugged_in_new_yorkI’ve fallen a bit behind in my reviews of classic albums, so for this piece I’ll be relying on some of my old writings. But before I crtl-v, I wanted to introduce this piece and discuss some of the back story behind my relationship with Unplugged. If you read the earlier pieces in this series, you can tell that Nirvana is a benchmark by which most of the music I listened to in the first half of the 1990s was judged by. Not without good cause, as this album was integral to one of the most important cultural events (I would argue) in 1994: Cobain’s death.

I lived in the sticks, far away from cable television (at least until I turned 16), so my first experience with this performance was listening to the album. Cobain was already long dead by the time the album was released in late 1994, and I don’t think I actually listened to it earlier than December 1994. I don’t know if I ever said this, but my town did not have a music store. Both the long lag time in finding out about new music and the fact that I didn’t have any access to purchasing music beyond driving half an hour to a Best Buy store strike me as queer realities of coming of age in the 1990s. It’s so strange that there was no network available to us for the sharing of music or watching live performances, but it was the reality. Even when internet access became a reality when I was around 15 (I got free internet because I worked at a curious ISP in someone’s basement), there was no system for viewing videos of live performances.

When I first listened to the album, I had what one might call the realization that I was hearing a masterpiece. There are only maybe three other albums that I can say the same thing about (Kid A [Radiohead], Yankee Hotel Foxtrot [Wilco], and The Suburbs [Arcade Fire]). In my youth, I probably listened to Unplugged about a thousand times. Although the filmed performance is full of iconic images in it’s own right (Cobain in his green sweater, hair in his face, eyes closed as he sings; Grohl delicately tapping symbols with brushes [as opposed to his usual pounding intensity]), sonically the music provides so many moments that it erases the need for images.

The opening notes of “The Man Who Sold The World” (electric no less) with Grohl’s tight drumwork leading in to Cobain’s raspy vocals. Ever the master of taking the explosion of emotion and intensity in the loud songs and packing that into the desperate sounding vocals in the quite songs, Cobain’s vocals here sound like a desperate plea. The guitar solo paired with the cello sound good only on the album (the mix on the film doesn’t do it justice), and they embody the desperate plea of the narrator in the song.

The bridge in “Dumb” is particularly moving, and once again the strings provide the added punch to Cobain’s melancholy vocals. Hearing most of these songs without the feedback and noise must have appealed to a large group of Nirvana fans, but for me it was really the first major introduction to these songs. They come off as refined, well constructed rock songs, yet folksy at the same time. Cobain must have realized the connection and was clearly influenced by his guests, the Meat Puppets. His performance of folk and standard songs is unique and powerful, despite detractors who (wrongly) saw this as a lack of originality or a failure to translate Nirvana’s biggest hits into acoustic arrangements. Particularly successful is the album’s final track, “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” an american folk song transformed into the Nirvana style. Slow, brooding, and climaxing with a blood curdling scream from Cobain, the song channels the creepiness of the Leadbelly arrangement while at the same time expressing Cobain’s deep personal discontentment with the music industry (he finds time to toss in a jab at David Geffin before the track) and his own personal anguish, which many people of the early 90s shared in earnest.

The songs that the band selects are appropriate, and unlike other bands trying to shoehorn in incompatible tracks into this format, Nirvana succeeds in effectively mastering the “stripped down” performance. Sadly, time does not always reward bold moves, especially in the consumerism of major-label music where the vast majority of the public expects bands to remake their most popular album ad infinitum.

Fourteen years later I took a course on celebrity at DePaul university, and I laughed to see literary critics trying to interpret Cobain and Nirvana as damaged, decomposing, and culturally irrelevant. I happened to be sick when I was reading his journals and watching the performances when I wrote a required response paper. I can’t say that I wasn’t a little pissed off when writing it, and I churned it out “punk rock style” (as much as getting an M.A. in Lit can be punk rock) in about ten minutes. It’s full of vitriol (and spelling errors) but I present it as I wrote it. I can’t even remember the shitty arguments presented by the literary “scholars” I quoted, but rereading it reminded me of why I am leaving the domain of literature studies behind me. Here it is, as I wrote it in 2008.

15 May 2008

Perpetual Dispossession: Cobain and the Self

At the conclusion of Mark Mazullo’s article, he surmises that “In the end, the idea of cultural authenticity stifled and devoured Kurt Cobain” (742). The authenticity that the celebrity consumer claims is ultimately self-defeating, since as Mazullo states the self of the celebrity is damaged or destroyed; he goes so far as to state that “we cannot know to what extent Cobain’s self or identity was ‘his own’” (738). If that is the case, then one seriously must question the motives behind reading his journals (although the term journal must be used loosely, since many half torn-up scraps and bits of writings and letters are casually and seemingly carelessly edited into the journals). The existence of writing to be published, while partially validated by some of Cobain’s remarks, only serves to extend the ability of the consumer to appropriate additional material from an artist who, according to Time Appelo, possessed only a “denial, repeated ad infinitum”; the current critical approach seems to validate a close reading of his journals and remove much of his voice trough posthumous destruction of his sense of self and reappropriation of his lyrics and image to generation x as a whole.

Marketing and capitalism seems to dominate the critical lens by which critics evaluate Cobain today. In stark opposition to the title page of the journals inviting readers to “please read my diary” (a statement that appears rich with sarcasm but devoid of any context), a note scribbled in two colors of ink laments the theft of his journals by obsessive fans and dissolves into exclamations of “Fuck you!” (263). It is clear that Cobain felt a deep sense of personal loss through the relentless (misguided) admiration of his persona and work. Mazullo envisions the 1993 Unplugged performance as a capitalistic snare set by MTV to entrap Nirvana and Cobain in their “corporate pretensions to art,” portraying Cobain as “lonely, angry, confused, and perhaps not quite as talented a musician as he had been made out to be” (716). Despite the authors obvious infatuation with David Bowie’s sound, the adjectives are surprisingly accurate to Cobain’s own representations of himself in his journal pages.

Tim Appelo argues that Cobain “often invited people to read his journals” and instructs the reader to not feel guilty about the act, but the highly questionable practice of reassembling excerpts from multiple sources in a juxtaposition of semi-chronological and sometimes completely irrelevant pieces (set lists written in blue ink on plain white paper) does not seem to portent the conditions that Cobain would have released his life and letters under. If anything, the most absent element of the journals is Cobain and his artistic intentions, which undoubtedly amounted to little if we are to believe that his voice and opinions were an amalgamation of a generation. The dispossession of Cobain’s self is continued by the poorly edited journals long after his body is gone.

OK, gotcha, next please:

I think at this point that I’m done with the early 90s (despite leaving out many good albums), so I’m moving on to around 95-98: my middle school and early high school years.

Beck – Odelay (1996)
R.E.M – New Adventures in HI-FI (1996)
Many Artists – Tibetan Freedom Concert (1997)
Sublime – Sublime (1996)

Green Day: “Dookie” (1994)

Green_Day_-_Dookie_coverI still don’t think I understand what punk music is. I missed the boat on that one a long time ago and never really got the chance to hop back on. I know that there was a scene in Chicago, but I was either too young or too restricted by the tyranny of distance to every really get into that scene. A lot of my friends listened to big name punk records (NOFX, Rancid, etc.) that I also listened to, but I never really dug deep into the genre.

Still, when I listen to Green Day’s major label debut Dookie now, I can say with 95 percent certainty that this is not really punk rock. They may have looked edgy in their punk attire with punk haircuts back in 1994, but I don’t hear any punk there. This is the pop treatment of punk that makes Sum 41 look hard.

I adored this record when it came out. It was the first CD I bought with my own money, and as I recall it had the explicit sticker on it as well, which made it even more badass. The punchy guitars and hooks really hold up well on a relisten, but the songs have a bit of a monochromatic feeling now. The chords and arrangement are all pretty similar, and there’s not much in terms of solo work to speak of. The “solos” as they are serve the perfunctory purpose of just bridging that time between the second and third verse without really expressing anything. No one needs a minute long guitar solo, but even short songs deserve about eight bars worth of solo work; economical solos that deliver the punch and then get the hell out of there are really refreshing (think Tokyo Police Club or, more recently, Parquet Courts).

Tracks like “When I Come Around” or “In The End” really just allow Dirnt’s bass playing to come to the front of the mix while Armstrong tosses in a few guitar flourishes; that’s not really a solo. Maybe this is just endemic in punk music, but I keep waiting for a guitar explosion and it never comes. The chords and melodies are great, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where one track ends and the other begins because the arrangements are so similar.

Also, I’m not really of the camp that you have to elocute like a proper gentleman when singing in a rock band, but Armstrong’s delivery on some of the tracks sounds like he never closes his mouth the whole time. Don’t even ask me to explain his slightly British vowel pronunciations, especially the ‘I’ which sounds more like ‘auI’ (maybe he’s a Shakespeare fan?). The recording, which supposedly was done several times to perfect the sound according to Wikipedia, sounds great on some tracks, but the guitars come across as tinny on other tracks like “Chump” for instance (perhaps there was some cross breeding of tapes?).

Some tracks still rock hard. “She” is the best song on the album: its arrangement is tight, and the guitar sounds are big and bold. I’m not sure if Armstrong is using some kind of vocal doubling tool, but his voice sounds big and pairs with backing vocals nicely. “Pulling Teeth” sounds like the fab four even if it is slightly overproduced. The sound that this three-piece band generates is really full given the time period, which I think is a complement. If you ignore the stigma of what punk is “supposed to be” then you can really appreciate the highlights of this album. If you want a harder edge, this album only hints at it, mostly on “F.O.D.” which one may call the last proper track on the album (the hidden track is more of an embarrassment than anything).

I know four years after I heard this album I got into the Violent Femmes and I asked myself “what the hell was that Green Day shit I was listening to?” Green Day shot themselves in the collective foot with later albums until trying to break away from the fart joke that had become their career by churning out American Idiot (2004), a potent (if sometimes lyrically challenged) attack on society that one feels actually said what they were thinking for ten years but didn’t have the balls to say. Since then, as with many of the bands I’ve profiled here, we know that they have been relegated to the laughing stocks yet again with a pointless Broadway musical and subsequent bombastic, then subpar efforts.

Sting: “Ten Summoner’s Tales” (1993)

Ten_Summoner's_TalesWell, I had a bit of a break as I was out of town. I’m just now catching up.

Reflecting on Ten Summoner’s Tales, it’s an easy album to reminisce about. The songs themselves are all reminiscent in their own ways, evoking images and characters that are memorable. Perhaps in homage to the summoner’s tale in Chaucer’s seminal work, Sting adopts the guise of a balladeer, roaming the countryside and recalling the humorous, historical, wistful, and eerie in equal measure. His accompaniment is lighthearted for the most part, and can shift to romantic or mysterious and back again without much effort.

“Love Is Stronger Than Justice (The Munificent Seven)” is a parable about greed transformed into lust, which eventually leads to fratricide. The twangy backing leads to a jovial feel with steel guitars mixed in with a gospel like organ, and the melody hits just enough sour notes to reinforce the duplicitous nature of the narrative. “Heavy Cloud No Rain” draws on the same playfulness and shows how the problems of the rich (at least in the French Revolution) are pretty much the same as that of the farmer when you’re waiting on nature to deliver some help.

“Fields of Gold” comes across as somewhat sentimental and sappy, but as my review of 90s music continues, that is pretty much par for the course. Given my obsession with fantasy novels at age 11, the images of farm maidens and long, meaningful exchanged glances were probably well received at the time. Listening now, it is more than a bit cloying, and while the Northumbrian smallpipes (thanks Wikipedia) definitely establish that fantasy mood of the English countryside, my 30-year-old self thinks that they probably could have been reigned in a bit.

Upbeat, poppy ballads like “If I Ever Lose My Faith In You,” “She’s Too Good For Me,” and [shudder] yet another “days of the week” love ballad, “Seven Days,” fit right in with the rest of Sting’s solo cannon. They are somewhat saccharine, occasionally annoying, and generally agreeable as background music.

“Saint Augustine in Hell” is a bit more adventurous, depicting a tale of uncontrollable lust. Named after the famous Catholic convert and saint whose late-fourth century Confessions were a “sensation” of sorts, the song toys with unbearable temptation and even features a spoken word monologue from the downstairs boss:

Relax, have a cigar, make yourself at home. Hell is full of high court judges, failed saints. We’ve got Cardinals, Archbishops, barristers, certified accountants, music critics, they’re all here. You’re not alone. You’re never alone, not here you’re not. [maniacal laughter] OK break’s over.

The references seem somewhat personal (especially “music critics”) and I’m not sure if Sting had a score to settle. I’m not sure who delivers the monologue, but it sounds like it could be the artist himself donning a strong cockney accent. The whole concept of “you’re not alone” seems to be cajoling by the Devil for the protagonist to acquiesce to his urges, but it also seems to contain some additional meaning due to it’s emphasis.

That song ushers in the three more somber tracks that actually give the album some character. “It’s Probably Me” has a bluesy, city vibe with some fine saxophone work to drive home the grittiness of the setting. It reminded me strongly of James’ “Don’t Wait That Long.” Sadly, it was somewhat ruined when I learned that the song was written with Eric Clapton (who, if he plays guitar on this track is utterly forgettable) for Lethal Weapon 3 and builds on “motifs” from the Lethal Weapon song “The Weapon” (some less generous folks might say it “steals” those “motifs” and “recycles” them). Sometimes, it seems, it’s better not to dig for these things.

“Shape Of My Heart” has a Spanish-style guitar played by the song’s co-writer and longtime Sting guitarist, Dominic Miller. It is a meditative piece that tells the story of a lovelorn, world-weary gambler searching for solace in the patters of a deck of cards that might revive his chances (and desire) for love. You wouldn’t typically think of a harmonica solo working well in this vein, but the whole thing kind of evokes a gambling man with a passionate, Wild West spirit subdued by the repetitiveness of a sterile Las Vegas casino floor.

That same harmonica opens “Something The Boy Said,” which flashes to a band of travelers in a middle-Earth-like setting marching towards their impeding death. I still can’t really make heads or tales of the narrative in the lyrics. The ominous prophecy of the titular “boy” seemed to be better echoed by the composition of the song when I was younger, but it has a very easy-listening vibe to it as I relisten that doesn’t match well with the spirit the song is trying to capture. There are somewhat cheesy sounding synth vibraphones, and the shift from minor back to major key in the bridge before the last refrain, while a technically sound maneuver, dispels the mood of the previous verse that describes “burning corpses” and the feast of the “carrion crow” that the narrator is too petrified to look back upon as he flees the battle (or whatever it was); death metal this song is not.

“Epilogue (Nothing ‘Bout Me)” is a kitschy comment on privacy in the pre-Facebook age that sounds absurd. It evokes the stupidity of tracks like “Englishman in New York” that embody the worst of Sting in my mind. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of his solo career in the first place (I much prefer The Police), but there are some songs that are insufferable, and this one comes pretty close to fitting the bill.

To this day I am hard pressed to explain why exactly I liked this album at age 11. I suppose it has something to do with the “right place, right time” theory of music, but a relisten reveals that the tracks are still slick, somewhat appealing, and even (in some cases) lyrically potent. As a concept album, it is a failure. Sting, though a master pop song craftsman, only achieves the country balladeer feel in roughly half the tracks. The other half just come across as generic, serviceable cannon entries. Likewise, the somber turn in the album’s second half no longer establishes the requisite mood for me years later due to some of the more hammy musical tricks. In a stripped down version, the lyrics and fundamental composition of the tracks might shine more brightly and give the otherwise well-composed tracks on Ten Summoner’s Tales some new life.

Phish: “(Hoist)” (1994)

Photo Aug 23, 10 29 27 PMI hinted before that I would be writing at least once about Phish, a band that I had an obsession with for about five or six years. I loved all things Phish during that time. I wore an extremely dorky Phish baseball hat, wore out two consecutive tie-die Phish t-shirts, and eventually owned every studio album and numerous bootlegs and live recordings. Embarrassingly, I also received and read the Phish newsletter, something that both dates me as someone old enough to care about receiving newsletters and as a youth who clearly had too much free time.

When I hit college, that mostly changed. My obsession died sometime during freshman year and never really rekindled, and I don’t really remember why. I think part of that shift in my listening life stemmed from a realization that while there may be some people just as into this music as I was, I wasn’t going to find them unless I was following Phish in an RV and going long stretches without bathing.

My strange introduction to Phish as a recording studio band as opposed to a live hippie-jam act may have led me to enjoy the band on an arc rather than an oscillating line. Hoist was the first album I heard by Phish, and its polished sounds and tight compositions are at odds with the majority of their work, which centers on improvisation and extended jam sessions.

I could probably talk a lot about each track, but you should really just watch the “making of” piece Tracking (1994). The film was shot and edited by the bass player Mike Gordon and is crude in terms of production values, but the sound (that I assume comes right off the boards) is high quality, and the film gives a nice glimpse into not only the endless work of recording track after track, but also the quirky recording process of the band and some of their improvised instruments (including a lemonade jug and rocks in cat litter pans).

Unlike their previous albums A Picture of Nectar (1992) and Rift (1993) the sound on the album is highly produced, and there are plenty of songs that have the sound of a single that A&R people must dream of; it seems like this could have been a huge crossover hit for the band, but it sold only a respectable 1M records after two years.

Hoist is star studded, with Bela Fleck playing banjo on “Scent of a Mule,” Alison Krauss singing a duet with lead singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio on the ballad “If I Could,” and my personal favorite, Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker from Star Trek TNG) playing trombone on “Riker’s Mailbox” (you can read about it here). All that fancification doesn’t really detract from the core quirkiness of Phish, and the album feels like a jam band taking a successful run at a polished studio album.

I talked last time about equal talent in bands, and Phish has some equally talented members, but Trey Anastasio is far more equal than the others. Anastasio is a talented folk and blues guitarist who really knows how to throw down. My only problem is that he occasionally slips into lazy repetitions on long jam tracks, but that isn’t a problem on this album as the tracks are carefully pared down to their essentials (excluding the somewhat incoherent “Demand” at the close of the album). “Axilla [Part II]” is by far his best performance, and the tape of him recording in the studio was treat to watch. That alone almost makes me want to see Phish again, but it also reminds me of one of the main reasons I moved away from their music.

By the time I reached college, Phish had already released live albums and more attempts at studio singles. When Farmhouse (2000) came out, it was clear that they were making an attempt similar to Hoist to cross over into the mainstream rock radio circuit. I had first encountered them on such an attempt (Hoist), but digging deeper I found a band that was deeply divided between extended improvisations in their live performances and their attempts to (re)create that atmosphere on studio recordings. I had too much history with the band at that point to accept their coming full circle, and while many of the people I met in college first encountered Phish through Farmhouse, my enthusiasm for their efforts of that type had already waned.

Oddly enough, the internet, which has brought me countless hours of music enjoyment and allowed me to discover hundreds of bands that I would never hear otherwise, was partially responsible for my declining interest in this band. As a young man with a CD collection I got a variety of bluesy and experimental jazz-type tracks from Phish, but once I was a master of P2P file sharing networks I branched out. Through P2P, I sought out obscurities like The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday and I even purchased some live recordings released in a massive series by Rhino (Phish did not tour central Illinois at all really, mostly stopping at Alpine Valley, which was far too expensive for me to drive up to in college). Alas, I couldn’t really sustain my interest in the band. My access to P2P sites ensured that I was able to have constant access to new music, relegating my CD collection to more of a secondary role (i.e. car rides and walking to and from classes/work).

On a relisten, the album is somewhat ruined by the note-for-note knowledge of each track that I forged on many long car trips and many, many hours cutting grass. The songs are generally good and the performances are well meshed, but my enjoyment has waned considerably. Watching Tracking briefly reminded me what superb guitar and backing vocals there are on this record, but I don’t see myself listening to this, or really any other Phish record, again anytime soon.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (9.4)
Green Day: Dookie (9.11)
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged (9.18)

James “Seven” (1992)

Photo Aug 14, 1 54 29 AM (1)For Christmas in 1992, I received two gifts that would change my life. The first was The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for SNES that, for better or worse, would consume my free time for at least a year. The second, was a CD boombox, which, even though I had no CDs at the time, would became one of my most prized possessions. As I recall, I had access to John Lennon’s greatest hits, a few Christmas CDs, and some assorted classical music. Cassettes were still the dominant form of listening material in my household.

That changed when my brother Brad would come home from college for summer break. He brought with him his fancy, extremely expensive stereo system and his collection of CDs, which numbered in the hundreds. It seems quaint now, but that CD library was extremely important to me. We only barely got radio reception from Chicago where I grew up, and what stations we did get were very limiting. In addition, digital receivers were in rare supply, so one had to manipulate a very small dial to tune in a station; at the fringes of broadcast range, that task required the feather touch of a brain surgeon.

To expand my own meager music offerings, I began by recording songs onto cassette from the radio. However, DJs had the annoying tendency to talk over opening instrumentals, so most tracks on these tapes were littered with the detritus that is on-air chatter. Worse yet, cassettes were clunky and time consuming to dupicate (duplicating a cassette took as long as the recording time, 90 minutes [for both sides] in most cases) and stringing together tracks required precision on the FF and REW buttons, something most consumer tape decks were not designed for.

The CD boombox gave me a way to combat this. Any time I had a CD from any source for a day or so, I could record that CD onto a (relatively) cheap cassette tape. These tapes could be taken with me and played on my Walkman, whether it was a trip to Chicago or mowing the lawn. On a side note, those tapes looked pretty good (despite the poor audio quality) during skip-ravaged Discman years of my late teens.

It was on a taped CD that I first experienced Seven by a relatively unknown band in the U.S., James. It was in my brother’s collection, and I probably first heard it near the summer of 1993.

The sound is something very different from the grungy, harder rock I was listening to at the time. Whereas a lot of my friends were trending toward the metal bands like Metallica, funkier sounds like Red Hot Chili Peppers, or punk sounds from bands like NOFX and Rancid, I made room for more pop- and folk-sounding bands in my listening repertoire. James had their roots in folk rock in the 1980s, but Seven has a lot more emphasis on big-sounding, instrumental crescendos. To me it is one of the definitive sounds of the 90s, with the jangling acoustic guitar and horns as a symbol of the hippie, return-to-nature vibe of the 90s that followed the artificiality of the 80s.

Photo Aug 14, 1 56 00 AM (1)There’s no shortage of emotion from vocalist Tim Booth, who really holds nothing back (including his falsetto) on this album, especially the opening track “Born of Frustration.” It has an opening guitar lick that is probably memorable to a lot of people – the song was a minor radio hit and was used in several commercials – before Booth breaks in with his falsetto followed by the blazing trumpet of Andy Diagram. Clearly the producer, band mates, or some combination of both recognized Diagram was on a tear during the recording, because he is featured on fully every track and gives the band that signature sound. “Sound” (funny enough) encapsulates all of the album’s major elements: Booth’s subtle vocals that quietly erupt in the chorus, his well delivered falsetto, and the brazenness of Diagram’s trumpet (thought it is a bit subdued in this song). Both band members have their opportunity to shine, and it’s not difficult to imagine why Diagram would later leave the band as his talent and contribution is equal to Booth’s on this album.

“Mother” is some kind of unspecified war ballad, opening with the somewhat unconvincing line “This war’s a motherfucker, how many sons will we kill today?” I’m guessing this might be related to the clashes between the IRA and British army in Northern Ireland, but it’s unspecified vagaries combined with its ponderous tone make it laughable when compared with more substantial war ballads (e.g. U2 “New Year’s Day”) or songs that don’t take themselves so seriously (e.g. New Order “Love Vigilantes”).

Luckily, the band doesn’t dwell on such temporal subject matter; the content is much more intimate and driven by the space in the hearts, bedrooms, homes, and worlds of personal relationships. Whereas “Born of Frustration” targets the burgeoning sexuality of adolescence (or some kind of frustrated love) and serves as a genesis of the album – and maybe hearkens to the genesis of life given the image of the fetus on the album cover – the scope of the middle of the album narrows considerably to the frustrations of a relationship. “Don’t Wait that Long” adopts the slow jam beat of R&B, with the whispered lyrics of Booth and breathy, backing vocals sending out a sexy vibe. Booth’s falsetto vocals are still masculine, but with a touch of the feminine as well, presenting an androgynous vibe that works well in intimate tracks like this. The dreamy sound of Diagram’s trumpet in the background almost mimics a saxophone, and my (somewhat cliche) mind’s eye puts him on a street corner with steam rising from the subway grates. I’m not familiar with Manchester, but a hot night in the city is surely captured sonically in this track.Photo Aug 14, 1 54 48 AM (1)

“Next Lover” is somewhat a product of the band’s “jam” writing style and has a rambling, raga feel that seems out of place on an album as polished as this (as does the somewhat overactive “Bring a Gun”). It is followed by the divine opening piano and guitar of “Heavens.” The track itself is relatively straightforward and a solid entry in the album, but the opening is just wonderful. “Protect Me” is a desperate, waltz-like ballad that functions as a plea, and in some ways a regresses the narrator to the feet of his lover(/angel/god?) to shield him from the horrors of the outside world.

Perhaps the most fascinating track is the concluding, pseudo-suite “Seven” that is both mysteriously titled and simultaneously dispels and reinforces the centrality of love that the album embodies. Much like the grandiosity of the opening track, the narrator of this track professes “God made love to me” and repeatedly rejoins, “understand the world we’re living in, love can mean anything,” before finally admitting at the end of the song that “love can change anything.” It would come across as a callous, masculine blow off, except that the man is rejecting the love protestation of the woman. It’s open to critical debate, but that’s the way I read it. The guitars on the track are as crisp as they come, but there are some ambient sounds interlaced in the latter part of the track; although they are relatively rudimentary, they portend the ambient sounds James would explore with Brian Eno to good effect in later albums.

Overall, I have very little bad to say about this album, and, while clearly embodying the spirit and sound of the time, it holds up relatively well on a relisten. It was one of my first introductions to an album that was solid from start to finish with little filler material. It also, in combination with the next entry in this series, opened the door to a world of contemporary music for me that was neither grunge, metal, or punk, the major musical tribes sweeping across the landscape of my youth.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Phish: (Hoist) [apparently it has parentheses in the title] (8.21)
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (8.28)
Green Day: Dookie (9.4)
Nirvana: MTV Unplugged (9.11)

Stone Temple Pilots: “Core” (1992)

STPIn the self-revisionist biography created in everybody’s mind, most of us recollect comparatively few negatives as opposed to the vast quantity of positives that populate our memories. Often, we are reminded by signs and tokens of past foolishness that we carefully censor so as to avoid cringing our lives away.

This is part of the reason why I am so happy I lugged a box of jewel cases around to remind me of the many musical blunders that dot my music listening history. Stone Temple Pilot’s Core falls decisively in that camp, as I can’t possibly fathom putting this record on and enjoying it in the slightest. Yet at the time, it was probably one of the most important records in my limited collection.

I can only speculate on why I valued this record so highly, but here is my theory. Growing up I was surrounded by a wide variety of music: classical, oldies (which are quizzically the same songs played on “oldies” radio in this decade), contemporary pop/rock at my family’s printing shop and in my brothers’ cars, and so on. STP was a hard, aggressive, sometimes melodic sound that was very different from what the older generations were listening to (my grandparents still watched Lawrence Welk for Christ’s sake). Likewise, I had only a few CDs in my collection when I owned this album, so there wasn’t a lot of choice to go to. We all know of the desert island scenario, where at a certain point you go to the music you have when facing the prospect of hearing nothing at all. This is the best I can come up with for listening to this monstrosity.

I know for a fact that my older brothers hated this record. My oldest brother despised it, and my other brother (the aforementioned, Brad) told me that the STP were grunge posers, ripping off better bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains. At the time I was defensive, but his assessment was correct in hindsight. This album is a second-rate knock off of Alice in Chains with very few redeeming qualities.

Photo Aug 04, 12 58 36 AMIn my youth, I was a music skipper. The advent of CDs as opposed to cassettes meant you could easily skip from track to track, listening to only the tracks you liked and relegating the remainder to the dustbin of history. I’ll surely talk about this again, but the gist of it is that on albums such as this I have almost no memory of the interstitial tracks that essentially pad out the radio singles. In this case it’s with good reason, as those filler tracks are just godawful.

Listening again, even the singles are of marginal quality, full of unjustified rock star machismo. An aphorism I have heard in various incarnations goes as such: “The best way to become famous is to act famous.” I find that thought to contain a glaring omission, in that nothing looks worse than someone arrogantly donning the mantle of success before it is earned. When Robert Plant assumes the stage in The Song Remains the Same he does so as an unquestioned god of rock at the heigth of popularity, delivering the gospel and smiting the nonbelievers. Unjustified in all regards is STP’s front man Scott Weiland arrogantly bleating out mediocre lyrics while doing some sort of zombified lambada.

Photo Aug 04, 12 59 12 AMThe album itself kicks off with the bombastic guitar pounding of “Dead & Bloated,” which is not to say that all the guitar work is horrible. Dean DeLeo plays some relatively solid guitar on many of the tracks, probably most convincingly on the regrettable “Sex Type Thing.” The track’s lyrics could not get much more rapey, including such perved-out gems as “You shouldn’t have worn that dress” and “You wouldn’t want me have to hurt you too.” It hits on the worst frat boy tendencies of vulgar bravado, and performing this song with a straight face should be a bit of an embarrassment, as would playing it on the radio 20 years later. Alas, it remains a hard rock radio staple, and is (somewhat justifiably) defended by the axiom of the artist not having to defend or conform to the values espoused by the narrator. However, a song must essentially say something, and the narrator of this song (in the guise of first-person narration) is totally unrebuked in his lust for date rape, leaving the listener to question: “what are audiences taking away from this music?”. I’m not going to get prudish or elitist – at least not for many years – and say the track is without any merits (as I said, the guitar work is really good), but it’s skirting a thin line that a better artist would be able to better justify. As Weiland comes across as a juvenile frat rocker (certainly at this point in his career), the track is somewhat indefensible.

Brendan O’Brien’s production work comes across heavily on Core. It sounds glossy and the performances are all very good, but unlike other O’Brien produced bands, this one has precious little to communicate. I take some seething undertones of rural (or perhaps urban) poverty from tracks like “Creep” and “Where the River Goes,” enough at least to connect Weiland’s gruff delivery to some of the rougher parts of grinding out an existence in the sticks. He’s definitely channeling the underbelly of America on “Plush” with the narrator scenting out a woman, yet the whole song seethes with barely-masked crassness: “And I feel so much depends on the weather, so is it raining in your bedroom?” This is definitely not music you put on over a romantic dinner, but the music does hint at prospects of moving on to a more pop-ish line of recording, something STP would prove more adept at.

The best I can say of this album is that it definitely sends out a vibe and creates a sound. Whether that sound is something you would listen to more than once is the ultimate question. If I heard this on the radio in my car now, I’d slap at the preset buttons frantically. At the time of limited musical options when I first spun this CD, I must have only barely grasped some of the now obvious themes that course through this piece like so much bile. Its sustained popularity (with many tracks in the multi-million listens on Spotify) attests to the fact that a lot of people found something true in the album, something perhaps closer to the undercurrent represented in the lyrics.

Later, STP would come back surprisingly strong with Purple (1994) and a couple albums that demonstrated they had more range lyrically and musically and could enter and exit the trashy, L.A. junkyard, sleezbag motif rather than dwell on it as they do in Core.

OK, gotcha, next please:
James: Seven (8.14)
Phish: Hoist (8.21)
Sting: Ten Summoner’s Tales (8.28)

Weezer: “Weezer” (1994)

weezerWeezer signed with 90’s megalith David Geffen and broke big in 1994, but their sound was not really typical of most grunge acts coming out of the West Coast. It has a quirky, (mainly) upbeat quality that combines the loudness of electric guitars and some decent solos with melodic acoustic guitars. It also comes across as glossy, and really embodies the “alternative rock” style of measured amounts of distortion and feedback. Each song on the album follows a singular vision, and the pacing is pretty tight by 1990’s standards (all but the last track clock in around five minutes). There’s a lot of good emo bands that came about as a result of Weezer (1994) (most commonly referred to as “the Blue Album” for obvious reasons), but the legacy of the band waned and they are mainly relegated to the laughing-stocks now.

I want to talk mostly about Weezer’s big break, which came from the laughable corporate sellout when the unholy Masters of Music combined with Bill Gates to slap the music video for “Buddy Holly” (a single from the album) onto the Windows 95 start up disc. I remember being at my friend’s house watching the video on his Gateway computer, and I guess the point of this promotion was to demonstrate the video capabilities of early microprocessors. It was a pretty effective demonstration for 1995, but we didn’t even have internet connectivity in the sticks in those days, so after watching the video my young brain was left wondering how this could really translate into more music consumption.

I guess the answer came in the form of compact discs when, as an 11-year-old boy, I finally owned my first CD: this one.

All too easily I fell into the trap of the consumer music culture and never looked back. Watching the video for “Buddy Holly” now as a 30-year-old man, I’m reminded how catchy the hook is and how tight the vocals are, but the video itself (directed by Spike Jonze) is entirely devoid of any clear idea other than “let’s get those Weezer fellows into Happy Days somehow.”

buddy_hollyHappy Days was in syndication at the time as I recall, so I’m sure that I knew who the characters were then, but I’ll be damned if I can remember anyone but the Fonz now. As a result, none of the disconnected sequences in the video really make any sense to me; if they were supposed to elicit a nostalgic response they failed on all levels. Likewise, the trick of putting actors into a live-action sequence from a television show must have been quite the technical feat in 1994, but now pretty much any teenager in their basement with a PC can edit together a sequence of Ronald Reagan French kissing Mikhail Gorbachev on top of the Berlin wall with minimal effort.

The band appears as a 1950’s rock and roll combo in matching sweater outfits. They cast congenial grins at the crowd, innocently flirting with female characters from the show. The surrounding action only barely matches up to the events on stage, which I’m guessing is due to technical limitations. I kept watching expecting something to happen, but the band just finished their song and left the stage. As far as Jonze’s message, I must be missing out on any potential subversiveness, as the video plays almost like fanfic for Happy Days.

in_bloomSo I swear now that I don’t plan on comparing every piece of music in the 90’s to Nirvana, but there is a good point of contrast here. Nirvana – in their video for “In Bloom” (1991) – makes an appearance on a show that strongly resembles The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. They adopt the same guise as Weezer, but midway through their song the camera cuts to an alternate reality that more closely resembles the sentiment of the music, where the band – now in dresses instead of matching suits – abandons their performance and destroys the period setpieces. In one cutaway, Krist Novoselic positions his guitar like an erect cock while Kurt Kobain stands over him in a dress and bangs out his guitar solo. Not exactly the 50’s rock you remember, am I right folks? The cutaways are so full of subversive metaphors – against the music industry, nostalgia, conservative culture, etc. – that you could probably write a whole book on the topic.

Weezer’s music on this album really plays to a new outlet for emotional expression in rock: straightforward and without the bristling anger that much grunge rock embodied. While Cobain was a repressive and depressed man in real life, his music was agressive and expressionistic. Rivers Cuomo captures the attitude of repressive, inwardly-focused adolescence and translates that directly into his lyrics, prefiguring the explosion of niche (read nerd) culture that we live in today.

The album itself was certified 3M in sales, and I recall joining the bandwagon and really connecting to the source material. While I was too young to get the D&D/Kiss culture discussed in “In The Garage,” I definitely played extremely dorky games like Axis and Allies, Stratego, Shogun, as well as every Legend of Zelda game you can think of. It still strikes a nostalgic chord in me to this day. The song taps into a very pre-internet notion that millions of people shared similar interests as you, but you just didn’t know it.

The pining of tracks like “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” and “Only In Dreams” resonates universally, especially the later which develops a bizarre fantasy of actually approaching your ideal soul mate only to fixate on your own awkwardness. The chorus relates the moment of realization where the narrator awakens and realizes his self-actualizing, romantic encounter was only an illusion:

Only in dreams you see what it means,
Reach out a hand, hold onto hers,
But when you wake it’s all been erased,
And so it seems only in dreams

The chorus can be read as a sort of resignation, where the prolonged interlude that follows is a swelling of disappointment and despair that breaks any resolution the narrator had developed. The bass line’s steady presence throughout the track gives it the cohesiveness of a sort of mini-suite.

Solid tracks like “Surf Wax America” and “Holiday” show the band’s ability to deliver a propulsive track and then back off, something that would crop up repeatedly in Cuomo’s intensely personal Pinkerton, the band’s next album. They can also go full tilt for the duration, as is demonstrated in the classic (and my favorite) track “My Name is Jonas.” Almost twenty years later, I still can’t get enough of that song. For sure it’s one of my top ten tracks of the 1990’s and it hasn’t seen many equals since then in my opinion.

So Weezer was busy opening the door for punk and alternative acts to break into the Emo circuit in 1994, and we saw that they could deliver solid, heartfelt music that still rocked pretty hard in the process. Sadly, their promise all but disappeared with the goofy lyrics and indulgent music following their (somewhat early) return-to-form record, Weezer (2001). In my opinion, almost everything they have made after that point has been partially responsible for major label support for godawful grandstanding and silliness in rock music, as well as the general whininess and trashy sound of the “screamo” genre.

OK, gotcha, next please:
Stone Temple Pilots: Core (8.7)
James: Seven (8.14)
Phish: Hoist (8.21)