Monday, December 31, 2007

[014] Siamese Dream

Album: Siamese Dream
Artist: Smashing Pumpkins
Release Date: June 1993
Label: Virgin
Producers: Butch Vig & Billy Corgan

“And those moonsongs
That you sing your babies
Will be the songs to see you through”
- from “Luna”

Back when I was in my early 20’s, through my last year of college, and then during my first year at the record store, it seemed like all the girls I was dating or fooling around with were Smashing Pumpkins super-fans. It was more than CDs and t-shirts though; they raised their fandom to zealotry, all but worshipping at the feet of Billy Corgan and his shiny noggin, and I really think that losing themselves to the music made them a little more psychotic in the rest of everyday life. I didn’t understand this at all, because at the time I wasn’t into the Pumpkins. It wasn’t until later, after the band was no longer vital, and all the crazed Corganites were out of my life, that I got myself Siamese Dream and discovered what all the fuss was about, although I was swallowed by the massive enveloping sound of the album, while my various girlfriends were swayed, I guess, by Corgan’s prose. Is it irony that now I consider Siamese Dream a masterpiece, where I scoffed at it when my acceptance of it could have smoothed the bumps in my romance road…I don’t know, maybe, but it doesn’t matter now – what matters is I get to enjoy the album on its own terms.

You see, there are many different permutations of many bands – like we talked about the old and new Weezer, or the difference between the Dre-endorsed Snoop Doggy Dogg and the legally neutered Snoop Dogg, or QOTSA with and without Nick Oliveri, or Metallica pre-haircut and post, etc etc – and the Pumpkins are no exception. I, for one, fully support the Billy Corgan with hair, which would be 1991-1994, the first two albums and the Pisces Iscariot b-sides collection. Somewhere between the caged rat and that glorious house party, his hair disappeared and his ego blew up and super-sized the next album. Now, Corgan has spent the last decade descending into Pro-Tooled self-parody and pretension of the highest order, pissing away any of our faith he had gained from Siamese Dream, retroactively painted as a stroke of grand, colorful art rock genius released in the middle of Rock’s gray and plaid period. At the time, the Smashing Pumpkins seemed like part of the pack – Butch Vig behind the boards, a song on the Singles soundtrack, etc. – but looking back now Corgan and co. couldn’t be more different, with a distinct lack of the outward working class gruffness that the Seattle mutts clung to, however endearingly; in place of their flannel, Corgan and the Pumpkins wore thrift-store paisley. It was more like Prince, circa “Raspberry Beret”. And what was really great about the Smashing Pumpkins at that time was that the sounds that Corgan and Vig sculpted in the studio echoed the psychedelic swirl of their image, especially on the debut Gish; with Siamese Dream, they streamlined their attack. The guitars are fat as hell, but diamond sharp – I’m not a guitar player, but if I was, I’d find out what effects pedals Billy Corgan used on this album, and I’d buy them all.

I’ve been waiting to write about Siamese Dream since I started this list, but I didn’t expect it to end up so high; when I suddenly left you following Beck’s appearance, I was in the process of writing this for #21, but I couldn’t help the fact that every time I would listen to it, it got better. This may be because I turned up the volume each time. For my money, three-quarters of Siamese Dream is the best music to blast at eardrum-shredding volume of these past twenty years, sounding equally good whether booming in your car or in your earbuds, or of course over the P.A. of an arena; that fourth quarter is elegant, sweeping balladry. To be fair though, this is an album about rocking, and so I want to quickly touch on those few quiet numbers so we can get down to business afterward. You all know “Disarm”, the third single released from the album, and it’s a strong piece of orchestral Goth-Pop; the reason it was a wise choice for a single is the same reason why it doesn’t fit on the album: because the sound, mood, vibe, feel is completely different from the rest of Siamese Dream. To put it bluntly, it is not dreamy; it’s more akin to a Disney production gone down the wrong fork of the road through the haunted forest. Despite its acoustic guitar and swelling strings, it’s the most grungy thing here because of its rain-cloud demeanor; it’s no wonder why the music video is in black & white, cuz that’s how it feels. Admittedly, I have no idea what Billy’s on about, with the ‘killer in me, killer in you’ stuff, but it’s kind of disturbing and oddly reminiscent of Metallica’s “Unforgiven” from their Black Album. The other three ballads, all corralled onto the second side, fly in the opposite direction of “Disarm”, sailing through puffy clouds. “Spaceboy”, Corgan’s tribute to his ailing brother, is a nocturnal wonder drenched in mellotron waves, a Milky Way waking life, flying higher than Lucy over strawberry fields and walruses sitting on cornflakes. The guitar lines of the bouncy folk tune “Sweet Sweet” and lullaby closer “Luna” shine like the stars on a clear night, and the 2-piece string section floats like the clouds passing by. That’s three cloud references in one paragraph – beat that – and that’s because they definitely fit these moments of peace, as well as the Billy Corgan of old.

The rest of the album – some of the most exhilarating Rock & Roll ever produced – feels like the Rock & Roll daydreams of Corgan’s childhood come true, and he gets to play the star, the cosmic love child of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust and Ace Frehley’s Space Man. If the legends are true, and at this point I think we can say that they are, Corgan played pretty much everything on the album except Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums and the beautiful piano on “Soma”, contributed by R.E.M.’s Mike Mills. Despite the fact that the impression of a band statement is presented, I have no problem treating Siamese Dream like the triumph of a tyrannical mad scientist and his hulking henchman (which is essentially what the reunited band is now). There’s a certain pendulous momentum that Corgan’s riffs have on this album, coupled with a slippery ease, squirming and bending with his tall frame; listen to the colossal opener “Cherub Rock” and you can hear the guitars slithering around the drums, with Corgan cooing his record industry rant at the eye of the storm. Corgan was still singing back then instead of the shriek he unleashes nowadays, and Chamberlin’s precise, mathematical percussive display makes him sound like an octopus in MENSA. One of my favorite aspects of Siamese Dream is that as great as “Cherub Rock” is, easily one of the best album openers of all-time, there is still much more next-level music to come on the rest of the album; it’s only an appetizer.

There are at least half a dozen of these songs that I would rank alongside the all-time classics of hard rock from all the usual suspects you can think of, but Corgan ups the effect by releasing pressurized lyrics addressing the frustrations of an artiste struggling for freedom in a narrow-minded business. He has said many times that after the promising success of Gish and opening slots for Pearl Jam and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Pumpkins’ record company was pushing hard for the band to be the next Nirvana. Of course, Corgan isn’t exactly Kurt Cobain – he craves arena spectacle more – but he is still an artist in an accountant’s world, and the weight of the situation sent him into a deep depression. Consequently, the lyrics on Siamese Dream are Corgan pushing back at the world in various fashions. “Today” is his obvious grasp at mental equilibrium, laying his troubles out for the world, with “pink ribbon scars that never forget” somewhere on his person. It was the song that exposed the Smashing Pumpkins to the masses, and at the time it came off a bit precious, a little too easy a sentiment to dole out to the waiting mosh pits. But in retrospect, there’s something there in Corgan’s voice, a relief that can be missed; his peeling a song like “Today” off of his soul turns his stature as a songwriter – at least for this album – into a more flattering light. It made him vulnerable in an identifiable way, more human somehow.

A song like “Quiet”, obtuse in its lyrics possibly about the generational divide but acute in its full-force instrumental attack, is so irrepressible that you can’t help but bang your head; Chamberlin never ceases to amaze throughout the album, but “Quiet” is one of the few highlights from a drumming standpoint. Likewise, songs like the introspective “Hummer”, the anthemic “Rocket”, and the renewed outlook of “Mayonaise” all reveal the attention that Corgan and Vig paid to the tone and texture of the guitars; the sound they seem to be shooting for is the midpoint between My Bloody Valentine's Loveless and Kiss’ Alive, a massive sonic boom simultaneously fuzzy and smooth, aided by an all-encompassing low end that is rare on hard rock records. I had the great pleasure of meeting Butch Vig once, while he was drumming for Garbage and he remains the nicest “Rock star” I’ve ever met - I think he was a surprised that I wanted to talk to him about his work on Siamese Dream and not Nirvana’s Nevermind. We talked about the techniques he and Billy used to record the guitars, and they included things like running two tapes of the same part at different speeds, or Billy playing parts backwards, then reversing the recording to get a warped feeling, or simple things like recording dozens of tracks and just layering them on top of each other to create a guitar army. The numb disconnect of the 9-minute epic “Silverfuck” presents the gamut of sounds, darting back and forth between whispers of trace hum and tidal waves of squall and tribal drum patterns, with Corgan and Chamberlin rushing so fast towards the finish line that they can barely hold on to their instruments.

The triumphs of Siamese Dream though are the flip sides in the middle, the two-part centerpiece representing the absolute peak of the Smashing Pumpkins’ career. “Soma” and “Geek U.S.A.” are so phenomenal that I fear this entry could go long because I could write at such length about them. “Soma” – a sister in separation, a brother in breaking up, to the endpoint in “Silverfuck” – is quite simply the greatest piece of baroque Art Rock that Queen never recorded, as if ripped from the heart of A Night At The Opera. It is the royal son of “Bohemian Rhapsody”, but instead of choruses of Freddie Mercury swirling around you, it’s Billy Corgan’s guitar channeling Brian May better than anyone could hope for. His first solo is a silky marvel massaging your brain that then turns around and shoots you in the face with a shotgun; “The Hit” at the center of the song was what sold me on this album. An old friend explained to me that it was the kind of physical experience of sound that only happened live, in concert, and for a band to be able to capture it on an album was an incredible feat. And the song only escalates, climaxing with the second solo, one of the greatest pieces of lyrical guitar playing ever recorded, Corgan channeling his pain through the six strings, strangling the neck with all his might. Where “Soma” is feminine and gorgeous, “Geek U.S.A.” is masculine and aggressive. Beyond the serrated riffs, it contains Chamberlin’s best, among the greatest examples of Rock & Roll drumming I’ve ever encountered; it is his best playing on an album packed with what can be considered one of the best performances of all time. He moves so fast that by the end he has to stop for a moment just so Corgan, no slouch ripping yet another jaw-dropping solo, can catch up. Jimmy Chamberlin’s drums on “Geek U.S.A.” are like Jimi Hendrix playing guitar or John Coltrane playing saxophone. His sublime playing is almost hypnotizing in the way that he crams so many polyrhythms and varied styles into these five minutes, past the point where the drums merely guide the song, to where they are the central instrument dictating the melody. And it’s rapturous musical flashes like this that I guess would invite devotion the level of those girls I knew way back when. The Pumpkins had a less than stellar live reputation back in the day, but what I see on the videos below is a band, especially its frontman lost in the brutal bliss of the wall of noise he himself is creating. It's that passion that carries this album; I can say that the mind-blowing awe and immense satisfaction I get from listening to Siamese Dream lets me understand why anyone would have such faith in Billy Corgan and his band to begin with. In some ways – the ways which are majestic, the ways that make teenage girls scream – that’s a huge part of what Rock & Roll is about.

01. “Cherub Rock”
02. “Quiet”
03. “Today”
04. “Hummer”
05. “Rocket”
06. “Disarm”
07. “Soma”
08. “Geek U.S.A.”
09. “Mayonaise”
10. “Spaceboy”
11. “Silverfuck”
12. “Sweet Sweet”
13. “Luna”

"Cherub Rock" [live on Saturday Night Live, 1993]

"Soma" [live in London, 1994]

"Geek USA" [live in Munich 09.03]

"Silverfuck" [live at the 1994 Pinkpop Festival]

- BONUS: "Cherub Rock" [live in Munich 09.03]
- BONUS: "Quiet" [live in Atlanta, 1993]
- BONUS: "Today" [video]
- BONUS: "Today" [live in Chicago, 1993]
- BONUS: "Today" [live on Saturday Night Live]
- BONUS: "Hummer" [live at the 1994 Pinkpop Festival]
- BONUS: "Rocket" [video]
- BONUS: "Disarm" [video]
- BONUS: "Disarm" [heavy version - live at the 1994 VMA's]
- BONUS: "Geek U.S.A." [live, 1993]
the infamous clown clip, included on the Greatest Hits DVD
- BONUS: "Mayonaise" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Mayonaise" [live & acoustic in London, 1993]
- BONUS: "Spaceboy" [live in Chicago, 08.93]
- BONUS: "Silverfuck" [live in Chicago, 07.92]
- BONUS: "Sweet Sweet" [live, 1992]
- BONUS: "Luna" [live, 1993]
- BONUS: "Luna" [audio]

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

[015] To Bring You My Love

Album: To Bring You My Love
Artist: PJ Harvey
Release Date: February 1995
Label: Island
Producers: Flood, PJ Harvey and John Parish

“I’ve lain with the Devil
Cursed God above
Forsaken Heaven
To bring you my love”
- from the title track

It creeps up behind you, out of the shadows, unrolling its boney fingers and placing its cold hand on your shoulder. It is the chilling “To Bring You My Love”, the opening song of Polly Jean Harvey’s third and best album of the same name. As stark, reverberating guitar guides you back towards the dark, noises crash around you, like bottles breaking unseen down a sinister alleyway or the frantic scrape of a searching metal coat-hanger slipped in a car door to gain unauthorized access. You are understandably skittish, because as they say, this is not the kind of place you want to find yourself after dark. Cutting through your fear like a hot knife through butter, a distorted Delta Blues bellow imparts from the smeared lipstick mouth of a tiny little girl from the English countryside. There she stands, this little English girl, maybe 100lbs. wet and after a sandwich, in her silky blood-red dress, caked make-up looking like Robert Smith’s little sis, jet black mane cascading down her shoulders, and she’s yelling her confessions at you, her journey through the haunted house that is the heart of man. Now, it’s your turn.

You want to accept the challenge that is To Bring You My Love because you think from the beginning that you have it figured out – the role reversal, with the strong-willed female commandeering the male art of The Blues and keeping it for her own. But that is why you fail from the first step, because PJ Harvey tricks you, dismantling what you think you know so that the parts no longer equal the sum, and instead contribute to a new whole. Harvey may have played the Angry Young Woman on her first two albums, leaving listeners spun, to great effect, from intertwining the grim realities of her diary with her perversions and fantasies, only briefly touching on the subjects tackled with force on this album, but she succeeds here because she wildly explores hyper-femininity then see-saws back to blur the gender lines and construct androgynous theater pieces with which to explore the ground that Rock & Roll was planted in. To Bring You My Love is a masterpiece of the kind of emotional ore that forms the basis of so much of today’s popular music, ready to be mined for grand performance. And perform she did, retiring the uniform of the day, and gracing the stage in ball gowns and hot-pink catsuits, inhabiting each character with creepy intent.

A woman as a vehicle for Rock & Roll has always been a potent plan of attack, but despite the hair-raising howls of those that came before her, PJ Harvey’s third album might be the greatest female-helmed pure Rock & Roll album of all time. Unlike Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, she focuses more on the album as the art rather than the song. Unlike Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde, she’s not afraid to be scary. Unlike Patti Smith, she holds melody and songcraft dear. She accomplishes all of this by breaking everything down to its base essence and then reconstructing the music’s power out of the ragged pieces. In an age when the female in Rock & Roll had finally found her permanent footing on her own terms, Harvey vaulted past the field by ignoring the canon of feminism as it relates to the overall attitude toward the male of the species, and instead stole the cliché narrative elements of The Blues and recycled them from the female perspective. If the man is a rolling stone, then she casts the song from the woman-at-home’s perspective, like on “Send His Love To Me” and “C’mon Billy”, and squeeze The Blues out of the mental effects of being left behind. On the former, she waits patiently because the man said to wait, but she slowly slides to a stir crazy state, remaining for what seems like eternity, begging Jesus for his return. The latter is a harrowing plea for the father of her bastard child to return home to finally meet their son; this time, Harvey goes directly to the culprit with desperation, buttering him up with a come hither, like ‘look how I waited faithfully for you’; she works up a lather in the part of the mother, the lonely lover with the cold bed, and she sounds throughout as though she can lose the last marble at any moment.

In reimagining The Blues, Polly Jean decided to shed her band from the first two records, and work not only with new collaborators, but in new artistic shades and colors. She wanted to be somewhat faithful to the time period that The Blues came from, so the album opens with visions of the desert, like she’s back in the Dust Bowl, standing at the crossroads – this is echoed by the video for “Send His Love To Me”. Now, you’d think if you wanted to paint a picture of the hard times that birthed The Blues, you would keep producer Steve Albini around – he had handled PJ’s previous album Rid Of Me - as he is known for his dry, desolate production, but Harvey instead hired Flood, who had been working with U2 and Depeche Mode on each of their gritty reinventions from the early 90’s. Flood has a dance background, but his mixing skills are where it’s at, always featuring a sense of depth and color rarely heard during the distorted days of Grunge. Flood and Harvey together, along with Harvey’s childhood friend John Parish, stir up a muddy mess of Rock’s roots, replete with images of drowning and pleas for salvation; almost every song conjures religious tales or straight away begs for God’s helping hand. In the cold, barren night of “Teclo”, Harvey fears her grave and prays for a reprieve, while on “The Dancer”, she evokes Sergio Leone while suggesting that even if salvation comes, her “black and empty heart” might be too far-gone to realize.

The biggest stylistic shift here is the reduction of guitar, which ironically is usually the primary weapon of a Blues musician; it instead is placed on an even playing field with the bass, occasional strings and increased presence of atmospheric keyboards and full-bodied organ. And with the guitar in the backseat, Polly instead builds all the tracks from their rhythms up, with special attention paid to the throb of the songs, keeping her and the album’s sexuality palatable without the overt mentions of the past. The simmering breakthrough single in a slinky dress, “Down By The Water” is the perfect example, laying its foggy narrative of dangerous secrets over a droning bass tone and junky, click-clack percussion. The sensual, grinding churn of “Meet Ze Monsta” has Harvey begging to be swept away by the black – whether she’s talking about figurative darkness or the allure of a dark-skinned lover is left hanging – while Flood processes the guitars to the point that they come to you shriveled up, decaying into a wash of noise. Harvey is selling herself to you, oozing sex out of every pore the way Iggy Pop used to back in the Stooges days, yet another realization that Harvey is connecting with the history of the music in a primal, visceral way. The monstrous “Long Snake Moan” is easily the heaviest song of her career, tapping into the adrenaline rush of Rock & Roll through tangible volume, paralleling the intoxication of sex with the sadist pleasures of violence, bragging “It’s my voodoo working!!” The midnight delirium of “Working For The Man” echoes that thread, mumbling its moans, sighs, and come-ons over a street-lit stiff urban funk, the bass not so much rolling as pulsing, and a lyric presenting sin as a surrender, something to be saved from – like it or not – with Polly playing the hand of the savior.

The combined effect of the songs on To Bring You My Love is almost disorienting, so powerful that it shakes the listener to the core of their soul, and tempts the Devil with easy pickings. It’s that ache that makes it so lasting, as mythic as the Blues traditions it reinterprets. If Liz Phair’s Exile On Guyville inverted The Rolling Stones’ classic Exile On Main St, then To Bring You My Love inverted the Blues that The Stones had based their music on – No, more than that, PJ Harvey went back to the cotton fields and re-cultivated the soil, casting her black-hearted magic on the crop so that the Negro spirituals were altered, therefore mutating the Blues that resulted. In order to remake her own art, and to try and fill her soul with meaning, Polly Jean Harvey had to first reconstruct another Rock & Roll, one that was, no matter how unsettling and dark, new and improved.

01. “To Bring You My Love”
02. “Meet Ze Monsta”
03. “Working For The Man”
04. “C’mon Billy”
05. “Teclo”
06. “Long Snake Moan”
07. “Down By The Water”
08. “I Think I’m A Mother”
09. “Send His Love To Me”
10. “The Dancer”

"To Bring You My Love" [live-in-studio, 10.07]

"C'mon Billy" [video]

"Down By The Water" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 09.95]

"I Think I'm A Mother" [live on Sessions at West 54th St., 01.99]
a little bonus interview by David Byrne

- BONUS: "To Bring You My Love" [live at the 2003 Big Day Out Festival]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live for the BBC, 1995]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live on 120 Minutes, 1995]
- BONUS: "Meet Ze Monsta" [live at the 2004 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Working For The Man" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "C'mon Billy" [live on French TV, 11.95]
- BONUS: "Teclo" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Long Snake Moan" [live at the 1995 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Long Snake Moan" [audio]
- BONUS: "Down By The Water" [video]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [video]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 09.95]
- BONUS: "Send His Love To Me" [live on Letterman, 1995]
- BONUS: "The Dancer" [live for the BBC, 08.95]

Update + goodies

Ian wanted to get all up in my grill about not posting everyday, but I can say that my internet connectivity is still limited, but more importantly, now that I'm down to the top 15 undeniable classics, I refuse to skimp on my writing. I am posting them as soon as they're finished and all the videos are picked for your viewing pleasure. So they take a little longer, and hopefully you'll think that it's worth it.

To hold you over until I unleash #15 (which will be sometime later today), I present this video of the band No Age playing two songs in the record store Other Music in NYC. Honestly, today is the first time I've gotten a chance to listen to No Age, but I'm on the bandwagon - good old fashion punk rock with a great head on their shoulders. Enjoy the video.

Monday, December 17, 2007

[016] Surfer Rosa

Album: Surfer Rosa
Artist: Pixies
Release Date: March 1988 [UK], August 1988 [US]
Label: 4AD/Elektra
Producer: Steve Albini

“I was talking to Preachy Preach about Kissy Kiss
He buy me a soda
He buy me a soda
He buy me a soda and try to molest me in the parking lot
Hey hey hey hey”
- from “Bone Machine”

“I was basically trying to rip off the Pixies”
- Kurt Cobain in Rolling Stone, 1994

So, why are we here, people? Sometimes we have to ask ourselves why for everything. Why Surfer Rosa, for instance? I mean, I can’t just hand you all the answers, because I still have questions myself; I’m not a know-it-all, just a know-more-than-most. It took me all week to get to this point, where I actually know what to write about the Pixies’ debut full-length (it was preceded by the Come On Pilgrim EP, which was included on some old versions of the S.R. CD). Cracking open my various books and surfing the web, thinking long and hard on it, it has occurred to me that while Surfer Rosa is indeed a superb record, its classic status has been galvanized by all that has been said about it. I was sitting here trying to figure out what my exact point was, so I called my friend Bruce. Brucie is a few years older than me, so I knew he’d have an answer to my all-important question, namely “Did you listen to the Pixies before Nirvana’s Nevermind blew up?” Bruce, who was nineteen when said Grunge classic came out, said no, that he read in some magazine that Kurt Cobain considered the Pixies his paramount influence, etc etc. And that was the precise answer I was looking to get, the one that has essentially produced the legend of The Pixies – they were just another in a movement of college radio bands bubbling over in the late 80’s until Mr. Cobain was chosen as his generation’s supposed mouth-piece and had the chance to knight them when asked by the press. Ever since, the Pixies have been on the receiving end of what every great but less-than-famous band should be awarded – immortal status, due in large part to legions of Nirvana fans hitting the $8.99/2 for $15 bargain tables at their local music stores, and discovering this great little Art-Punk album.

Knowing that Cobain’s statements delivered us a decade plus of journalistic recalibration and late-to-the-party fandom – people liked the album when it came out, sure, but not like they would more than fifteen years later – it’s surprising when you listen to Surfer Rosa for the first time because it is the complete antithesis of an epic. At just 34 minutes, it’s almost cute and cuddly. When Black Francis starts “Broken Face” with his clipped child-like yelp, chirping “uh-huh uh-huh”, you can’t help but laugh, and what follows is 90 seconds of “Banana Splits” inspired pogo-punk-rock and something about having no lips or tongue that perfectly embodies the spirit of the album. It’s all about fun really, with their wacky stylistic shifts close to endearing. Everything in the future turned so serious and sour – the inter-band tensions and meltdowns, producer Steve Albini bad-mouthing the band in the press, etc. – it’s refreshing to just have a good memory of this great band. There are moments in “Gigantic”, one of the greatest songs-as-events in Rock history, when you can actually hear Kim Deal smiling as she sings this tribute to voyeurism and jungle fever, purring “Hey Paul, let’s have a ball”, flashing that broad toothpaste-commercial Cheshire grin that made punk boys-in-training swoon like girls at a New Kids concert. It warms the heart, and beyond that indescribably puzzle-piece fit of Frank & Kim’s voices, his high-pitched whine backing her here, while she returns the favor by cooing all in the background of “Where Is My Mind?” like a haunting morphine-drip take on “Sympathy For The Devil”, the aural equivalent of the eventual climax to the film version of Fight Club that it would soundtrack, the beautiful moment when Edward Norton’s narrator grabs Marla Singer’s hand as the world implodes; anytime Frank and Kim sing imperfectly in unison, a Rock angel gets its wings. And I don’t think I’m reaching when I say it’s the best song ever written about scuba diving.

What kept Surfer Rosa a classic once all those curious converts took the leap and bought it is that these moments of levity increase the replay value; it’s an album you want to throw in and just listen all the way through. No heavy concerns, no need to decipher the hidden messages or in some cases, Frank’s Spanglish; just the pleasure of good music. Black’s second language howl on “Oh My Golly”, merging with Joey Santiago’s buzzing guitar sounding like a swarm of bees rushing around your head, is as flawless as everything else he does with his voice, a bizarre cross between Bad Brains’ H.R. and the Talking Heads’ David Byrne with a perverse sense of humor and surrealism, and his M.O. set the stage for countless imitators across the years. The way that he stretches his voice is like the way the band stretches their music, not to be particularly arty or interesting, but just for the fuck of it. I don’t think there was any specific methodology behind following up the bluesy prison letter/T.Rex homage “Cactus” with the superhero surf rock of “Tony’s Theme”, complete with Frank’s chopped barks and lyrics about cards in spokes. It was whatever they felt like playing that day, completely devoid of pretension; Albini kept it light, at least it seems that way from the playful dialogue on the second side. The hardcore gallop of “I’m Amazed” neatly sums up 80’s punk for no reason, while the skanking guitar of the otherwise white noise “Something Against You” points its fat, accusatory finger at tons of Warped Tour bands. And for such a great album, “Brick Is Red” ends with a relative whimper, like maybe they just went out for lunch, but never made it back. Taking a step back, one might realize that the band’s stature as innovators might be helped by their lack of respect for conventions – they jump between all these styles with complete ease because they never stop to consider it might be weird. That assumption of freedom actually granted it, and in that way the Pixies broke new ground for the entire Alternative nation that funneled in behind them.

Some writers have called the Pixies the most influential band ever on Indie Rock, and while I think that might pushing it a bit, it must mean something because, as I said, it appears that the Pixies have become whatever people say about them; there is definitely a lot to Surfer Rosa that informs the last 19 years of Rock music. In fact, if you look at their career on the timeline of all things “alternative”, underground or punk, the Pixies are very much to that genre’s movement as Eric B. & Rakim were to Hip-Hop’s development. Both came out with the intent of just making a name for themselves, making a good racket, but were so good and happened to be in the right place at the right time that the music had to bend to their lead. Looking even further, both pioneering acts had nearly identical careers, debuting in 1986, releasing four worshipped studio albums, of which the first two for each have been hailed as classic works, before both calling it quits in 1992. Like Hip-Hop being altered forever by Eric B. & Rakim, Alternative Rock turned the corner around the Pixies. For both these acts to have the careers they had, I think that says something special about the fertile commercial environment of the late 80’s, an era usually remembered for vapid hair Metal and even more dim mallrat Pop. It can be assumed that the movers and the shakers in the record companies, the ones out in dank clubs looking to sign new visionaries every weekend, were around the same age as the members of the Pixies and all the other independent label post-punk bands, and so they grew up getting lost in the same music, Ramones, Sex Pistols, whatever. They primed the industry for these bands to get their shot on the big stage; compared to the feeding frenzy that came in the wake of the Seattle bands, this was on a smaller scale, but something has to be said for the major label pick-up of bands like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and R.E.M., and the Pixies snuck right in behind them.

And to look at Kurt Cobain and his peers, they were the ones listening to that music, getting excited about those scenes, and of course, unless your favorite band is selling multi-platinum each time out of the box, when you become an artist you’re going to want to use your newfound attention to give lip service to your favorite bands, and maybe more. Kurt Cobain famously chose Steve Albini to produce Nirvana’s In Utero because of his work on Surfer Rosa, the way he made David Lovering’s in-the-pocket drums sound so massive, or roughing up the edges of the six-string onslaught on “Bone Machine” and the callus anthem “Vamos” to make Joey Santiago sound like a schizophrenic with a penchant for filthy Neil Young riffs. This all makes me think about how me making this list is like Cobain talking up the Pixies; word of mouth is a powerful thing when it comes to music, and the Pixies’ present godlike stature is proof. And time allowed the reconsideration, revealing that Surfer Rosa was a bridge to the future, whether it was between the Talking Heads and Modest Mouse, Elvis Costello and Spoon, or between Hüsker Dü and Nirvana. Really, it is the 80’s, a bridge from the 70’s to the 90’s, but in order to go forward, we had to go back and have the Pixies with us to guide the way. Surfer Rosa is here because, like so many of these great albums, it’s was a roadmap to today.

01. “Bone Machine”
02. “Break My Body”
03. “Something Against You”
04. “Broken Face”
05. “Gigantic”
06. “River Euphrates”
07. “Where Is My Mind?”
08. “Cactus”
09. “Tony’s Theme”
10. “Oh My Golly!”
11. [untitled interlude aka “You Fuckin’ Die! (I Said)”]
12. “Vamos”
- “There were rumors he was into field hockey players…” [interlude]
13. “I’m Amazed”
14. “Brick Is Red”

"Bone Machine" [live at the 2004 T In The Park Festival]

"Gigantic" [live in London, 1988]

"Where Is My Mind?" [live in France, 2004]

"Vamos" [live in London, 1988]

- BONUS: "Bone Machine" [live, 2004]
- BONUS: "Break My Body" [live in London, 06.91]
- BONUS: "Something Against You" [live in London, 1988]
- BONUS: "Broken Face" [live, 10.86]
Super early home video footage
- BONUS: "Gigantic/Vamos" [live in Germany, 1989]
- BONUS: "Gigantic" [live at Lollapalooza 2005]
- BONUS: "River Euphrates" [live on Dutch TV, 1988]
- BONUS: "River Euphrates" [live in London, 06.91]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in London, 1988]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in Greece, 1989]
- BONUS: "Where Is My Mind?" [live in Manchester, 2005]
- BONUS: "Cactus" [live & acoustic at the 2005 Newport Festival]
- BONUS: "Tony's Theme" [live in London, 1988]

DOUBLE BONUS: excerpts from loudQUIETloud
a documentary about the Pixies' 2004 reunion
- Excerpt 1
- Excerpt 2
- Excerpt 3
- Excerpt 4

Saturday, December 15, 2007

[017] The Low End Theory

Album: The Low End Theory
Artist: A Tribe Called Quest
Release Date: September 1991
Label: Jive
Producers: A Tribe Called Quest, with Skeff Anselm

“All it is is the code of the streets
So listen to the knowledge being dropped over beats
Beats that are hard, beats that are funky
They could get you hooked like a crackhead junkie
What you gotta do is know that Tribe is in the sphere
The Abstract Poet prominent like Shakespeare”
- Q-Tip, from “Excursions”

The Low End Theory is my favorite album of all time. I’ve come to the realization that it achieved that status by default. I have had many different ‘favorite’ albums over the past 20 years, which is essentially how long I’ve been interested in owning the music I like, and while A Tribe Called Quest’s sophomore album has never been the number one ruler, it’s stuck around longer than any other; it has lingered as one of my top ten, ‘desert island discs’ if you like, pretty much since I purchased the cassette in 1992. Dozens of other albums have come and gone; I’ve grown up and over many of them, while some just faded with the artists’ careers like old Polaroid photos. Some have given way to other records by the same group, like how Sticky Fingers by The Rolling Stones was once my favorite album, but now I prefer Exile On Main St. Tribe's Low End Theory has endured though, standing by my side through more of my life than any other album, on this list or otherwise. In fact, there are few people that have been in my life longer than Low End Theory has. My family is small. I have my one brother, and most of the rest of my family lives in Europe. A lot of my friends have large families, lots of siblings and cousins. I always envied my friends for this reason, and so maybe music takes that place in my life. The Low End Theory has been my cousin, my friend, my other brother. I’ve included it in every facet of my life. I will find a way to play it on my wedding day, and will probably leave instructions for it to play at my funeral, even though none of the songs on the album lend themselves specifically to either of those events. I would even go so far as to say that Low End Theory is my most prized possession – despite showing the wear of years, the plastic case covered in scratches and cracks (not to mention that I own three copies, 2 CDs and a cassette) – because it’s given me more than anything else I own. It’s been so present throughout my life that I guess I use my love of Low End Theory to define who I am as a person, in the same way a sports superfan talks about ‘their’ team as ‘We’ – ‘We drafted well this year’ or ‘I hope We make the play-offs this year’.

Now I’m faced with a virtually impossible task – for me to try and tell you why Low End Theory is a great album is like trying to explain why you love your brother or sister, what makes them a good person, etc. You just love them because you’re supposed to; that’s just the way it goes. And while that may sound like a ridiculous notion to hang on a simple LP, because that LP is Low End Theory it doesn’t seem so outlandish. This is the intangible, the reason why A Tribe Called Quest’s second album is not only on this list, but towards the top. Ask anyone that owns the album, and they’ll all flash a smile ear-to-ear when talking about how much they love it; they will also almost always tell a story about their past, how Tribe’s music reminds them of a crazy high school party or studying for finals at college. Ask anyone who’s ever heard it, and you probably won’t find one person that could say they hate it. As it says in the sidebar, in addition to being the best, these are the most beloved albums, and I would definitely say that The Low End Theory is one of the most universally beloved albums for my generation. There can’t possibly be a way to not like it.

OK, but why is that?? The answer to that question doesn’t sit up and say hello like it does for so many of these others albums, because a casual listener will simply hear a great Hip-Hop album. There’s nothing on the album that really sticks out as fancy, though “Scenario” and its public arrival of Busta Rhymes do end the album with the “RAOW RAOW” of a dungeon dragon. Low End’s greatness is this…this…THING that just waves and smiles at you and it appears tangible right in front of you and you still can’t describe what it is. The rhymes are very good, but not like Rakim or Biggie or Nas good. The beats are very good, but not quite Bomb Squad or RZA or Primo good. The songs, for the most part, initially hit your brain in a very subtle way, and they remain like that because, I would say, Low End Theory is what Hip-Hop is supposed to sound like, and so therefore it’s not really shocking. It’s fully formed, with everything in its right place. Despite Tribe’s beats now sounding powerful compared to today’s thin programming of rimshots and handclaps and clicks, these rhythms aren’t necessarily hard as they are relentlessly funky; they hit the sweet spot in the back of your brain that controls head-nodding and foot-tapping. Despite the reputation of the Native Tongues as hippies and whatever, the rhymes are nothing of the sort, and aren’t as soft as people think they remember them being, with enough bristling at the everyday problems that any 21 year old would encounter – even the photos of the band in the CD booklet show that the trio abandoned the bohemian garb they sported for their debut, dressing instead in simple polos, button-downs, and jeans. Maybe that’s the reason why The Low End Theory makes a good friend - because it’s actually pretty straight forward and normal. I mean Phife can famously talk sports with you, maybe tell you a story about that dude down the block or that girl from back in the day, while you could listen to Q-Tip gush about his record collection for hours, or maybe debate the issues of the current events, but this is what you do with your people anyway. And Tribe made that comfort into an album with effortless cool.

It’s never really clear how much of the production is a group effort, though I guess it’s telling that later Ali and Tip formed the production team “The Ummah” with J Dilla, and Phife was not included (though, to be fair, Phife had also moved down south). But assuming Ali Shaheed Muhammed is so good at what he does, unless I come out and say Ali is solely and directly responsible for the beats on this album, he would get passed over for recognition. He was one of the first DJ’s to stand behind a turntable deck at the back of the stage, doing his thing, but on the album, you almost never hear scratches or anything. He instead puts the studio hat on and caresses and massages the samples until they’re loops, and the loops until they’re grooves, and the grooves until they’re songs. On much of Low End Theory, the tracks are so seamless – the echo of the snare on “Buggin’ Out”, the timbre of the bass on “Skypager” – they could be a live band. Tribe’s choices of beats, basslines, what have you, are so brilliant that these pieces of vinyl from times past seem like they were waiting around just for Ali to cut them up. The much-discussed Jazz flavor of Low End Theory – best utilized in the overlapping horns and centrifugal bass of “Excursions”, the Ron Carter guest spot on the breezy “Verses From The Abstract” (big up to the angelic Vinia Mojica as well), the hum of “Vibes & Stuff”, and of course the absolute perfection of the ghostly jeep-ready “Jazz (We’ve Got)” – was a big deal in 1991, that Hip-Hop Golden Era gray area between the mind-bending schizophrenia of Nation Of Millions or 3 Feet High, and the glossy criminology of The Chronic, but there’s just as much old soul in this record. The urban caveats of “Everything Is Fair” ride a cherry-picked Funkadelic snippet, while the irrepressible “Buggin’ Out” lays back on its ride cymbal like the second half of Aretha’s “Chain Of Fools”. Q-Tip’s spitfire perceptions on “What” bounce like super-balls off organ which could be excised from classic Stevie Wonder, while the funk of "Rap Promoter" could by Curtis Mayfield. Closing out the album on a perfect note, the posse cut “Scenario” with the Leaders of the New School is still one of the greatest, most exhilarating singles in Hip-Hop history, so infectious that I definitely remember it being the first Rap song I wanted to know all the words to.

A Tribe Called Quest didn’t have to deal with as much hippie accusations as their spiritual cousins in De La Soul because when they came out with People’s Instinctive Travels And The Paths Of Rhythm, Q-Tip, presented as the group’s main voice, spread his subject matter out, immediately tackling what he saw around him. When they returned with Low End Theory, now with Phife in an increased vocal role, the MC duo developed a new post-Run-DMC tag team style which allowed both voices to stretch out and carve individual signatures. Phife had honed his flow with a rubbery but unshakable rhythm, bringing stinging lunchroom humor that was second-to-none. He was the definition of reliable, almost like the AC/DC of MC’s, beginning almost every verse by reminding you who he was and who he was representing, and then usually throwing in something about himself (like, say, his small stature or “hockey puck” complexion); the amazing thing was that his shtick never got old. You loved Phife for being Phife. Q-Tip on the other hand was comparably unpredictable. It’s taken me all these years to really notice though, because for the most part the talking point with Tip has always been his tone of voice, that slightly high, slightly nasal delivery. Dissecting Low End as I am now, I find that Tip was predicting the type of playfulness that would inform so many MC’s for the next decade, from Busta to Mos Def to Snoop to even Biggie. Tip was adaptable, he found the nooks and crannies in a beat; the way he speeds up and slows down on “Buggin’ Out” reveals his genius technique, and if his “well-agitated” verse on “Scenario” wasn’t so in-the-pocket, it wouldn’t have set up Busta so well for take off. In becoming such a tight unit, Q-Tip and Phife saw the opportunity to present responsible and intelligent rhymes on society’s issues from the perspective of Young Black Male, while being careful to not beat you over the head with polemics like Public Enemy. Tribe came with messages but tempered with humor. Phife’s “Butter” is funny, but it’s also a sharp critique of the fake, image conscious girls. “Check The Rhime”, “Rap Promoter” and “Show Business” all explore the shady financial problems in the music industry with laser precision, while Tip comments on the industry’s cyclical nature on “Excursions”. On the great “The Infamous Date Rape”, Tip and Phife have a go at the delicate tensions of dating in the age of no-means-no debates and full-force AIDS fears; their balance of male confusion and polite sensitivity for the female is incredibly acute for both their age and the era of Hip-Hop. What’s really important in the end is that these songs rarely cease being fun, and that’s Tribe’s secret. They’re able to be accessible, even lovable in places, without losing the hard masculinity so essential in Hip-Hop at the time. The Low End Theory is a masterpiece of that balance between soft and hard, and that’s why it’s loved the world over and that’s why it’s always welcome in my life. Honestly, because I love The Low End Theory so much, the fact that I’ve written these 2000 words – my most yet for the list – seems like just scratching the surface, except that everything past this point can’t be put into in words. I can simply just feel it.

01. “Excursions”
02. “Buggin’ Out”
03. “Rap Promoter”
04. “Butter”
05. “Verses From The Abstract”
06. “Show Business” [feat. Lord Jammar, Sadat X, & Diamond D]
07. “Vibes And Stuff”
08. “The Infamous Date Rape”
09. “Check The Rhime”
10. “Everything Is Fair”
11. “Jazz (We’ve Got)”
12. “Skypager”
13. “What?”
14. “Scenario” [feat. Leaders of the New School]

"Check The Rhime" [video]

"Jazz (We've Got)/Buggin' Out" [video]

"Scenario" [video]
Check the Redman cameo, 21 & eating chicken

"Scenario" [live on The Arsenio Hall Show, 1992]
Arsenio was so big at the time, this is the exact moment that Busta Rhymes became famous.

- BONUS: "Excursions" [audio]
- BONUS: "Buggin' Out" [audio]
- BONUS: "Rap Promoter" [audio]
- BONUS: "Butter" [live at the 2006 Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle]
- BONUS: "Butter" [audio]
- BONUS: "Verses From The Abstract" [audio]
- BONUS: "Show Business" [audio]
- BONUS: "Vibes And Stuff" [audio]
- BONUS: "The Infamous Date Rape" [audio]
- BONUS: "Check The Rhime" [live on Letterman]
Rarely-seen performance with Paul Schaeffer's band on the backup
- BONUS: "Check The Rhime" [audio]
- BONUS: "Everything Is Fair" [audio]
- BONUS: "Jazz (We've Got)" [audio]
- BONUS: "Skypager" [fan video/audio]
- BONUS: "What?" [audio]
- BONUS: "Scenario/Check The Rhime" [live at the 2006 Bumbershoot Festival, Seattle]
- BONUS: "Scenario" [audio]

Thursday, December 13, 2007

[018] The Bends

Album: The Bends
Artist: Radiohead
Release Date: March 1995
Label: Parlophone [UK], Capitol [US]
Producers: John Leckie, with Radiohead, Nigel Godrich, & Jim Warren

“We’re too young to fall asleep
Too cynical to speak
We are losing it, can’t you tell?
We scratch our eternal itch
Our twentieth century bitch”
- from “My Iron Lung”

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Radiohead’s recent foray into internet programming, it’s that even your favorite, most guarded, genius musicians are still just music fans at heart; you saw the band and their now sixth-man producer Nigel Godrich spinning their favorites 12”s, smiles across their faces. It there’s a second thing you could take from the broadcasts, it’s that Radiohead are not the basketcase depressives that everyone thinks they are, especially singer Thom Yorke. And it seems to me that their new album, In Rainbows is the first one since…well since ever that felt happy, not to mention they didn’t attempt to ratchet the bar even higher. They’ve been doing that forever and a day, and this time they just wrote some songs, burned them on a CD, and slapped the internet up side the head with them. It’s odd then that I feel a cosmic connection between the new album and The Bends-era Radiohead. The reason I feel the bond is because the new album is a sort of return to Radiohead version of “Pop” songwriting, of which The Bends is a mid-90’s pinnacle. The reason the bond is odd is because where the band needs to prove nothing with their new album, on The Bends, they needed to prove everything.

If you were Radiohead in 1994, and you were getting ready to record your second album, you might feel like the end was near. “Creep” was such an unexpected hit that the fickle public might ignore the band the second time around – the story of the One Hit Wonder is well worn at this point – and I’ve seen first hand how dismissive the music business can be to artists they were trying to pimp out to you just a year earlier; imagine being the artist in question in that equation. In the US, Hip-Hop and Warped Tour Punk were finding their footing, and in the UK, it was the emergence of Oasis and Blur. Where could a band like Radiohead possibly fit in that landscape? The answer was that they were going to carve out their own little niche in the Rock world, even if it was going to drive them absolutely nuts, a place where grungy post-punk guitar distortion could coexist with soaring Queen vocals and ambition. Well before the recording of The Bends was under way, Radiohead let the world have a peak at their new direction when they released the My Iron Lung mini-album, containing a batch of forward-moving acoustic tunes along with the title track. The song “My Iron Lung” lays out their apprehensions with the music biz in one shot: “This is our new song, just like the last one, a total waste of time”. Sonically, they raised their game by performing a brilliantly comic social experiment, taking the skeleton of “Creep” and wrapping a new song over it. “My Iron Lung” laid out their newly focused three-guitar strike, a buzzing alarm clock for the Rock world that was preparing to sleep on them.

The Bends is one of the greatest guitar albums of all time, but not because of post-Van Halen pyrotechnics. Don’t get me wrong, Jonny Greenwood could rip a ferocious solo with the best of them, and he does in more than one instance here, but Radiohead’s trick is their depth of texture. By the time opener “Planet Telex” kicks in, you would’ve thought Jonny and Ed O’Brien had jumped on all their effects pedals at once, sending shards of sound flying in every direction. On stirring ballads like “Bullet Proof” and “Street Spirit”, they spin delicately ringing webs of arpeggios, while on heftier tunes like “Bones”, “Black Star” and the title track they build up walls of six-string beauty, only to have all the fun of swinging a wrecking ball at them. I’ll let you in on a little secret though – they got a lot of their ideas for The Bends guitar sound from R.E.M.’s Peter Buck. No one seems to remember that The Bends was very significantly written and recorded in the aftermath of Radiohead opening for R.E.M. on the Monster tour, and the influence is obvious. Just break it down: young band trying to find a foothold in the business of their art, and they get the chance to open for one of their idols, and not only that, they become fast friends, especially Yorke and Michael Stipe. You don’t think they tried to pick up every bit of advice they could? We all – and in ‘We all’ I mean the music nerds of the internets – put Radiohead up on this pedestal, and deservedly so, because they are the best band of the last decade and change; but their DJ sessions and choice of favorite songs to cover recently reveal a lot about how they treasure their album collections – a way that makes them mortal men. Shit, they probably had their notepads out on the side of the stage every night of the tour; the fact that the much-maligned Monster might have helped to birth the classic Bends is right enough for it to exist.

Now, I admit that R.E.M. was just following My Bloody Valentine’s lead and U2’s turn on Achtung Baby, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and Radiohead had the same ideas anyway, plus the same affection for the Pixies’ quiet-to-loud dynamics as Nirvana – like “My Iron Lung”, at least half the songs on the record have a explosive Rock freak-out section in the middle, but they’re never stale, proving Radiohead to be ahead of their peers even then. The other big influence on the band’s songwriting for The Bends was that their tour bus listening for that R.E.M. tour was Morrissey’s Vauxhall & I, which clearly had a subconscious effect on the more wistful numbers like the accessible “High & Dry” and the towering peak of “Fake Plastic Trees” (one of the best singles of the decade, with Yorke's emotional vocal recorded immediately after seeing Jeff Buckley in concert), even the swooning chorus of the sweltering hot “Black Star” (you know, the song that Muse has based their entire career around rewriting over and over). See, this is why I brought up the fact that Radiohead are just diehard music fans like you and I – I’ve always felt that The Bends was a purposeful tribute to their influences, mostly because they thought they might not get another chance to say thank you, if the music business black hole swallowed them up. The world is very lucky that The Bends is as good as it is and that it took hold by word of mouth, because one wrong move and we’d be suffering the further hits of Seven Mary Three while Radiohead would languish, misplaced on the flannel clearance rack with Toadies and Dishwalla and Dig.

Before I keep spewing overarching theories and opinions, I need to remember to talk about the songs. The Bends is a classic record because it is a perfect collection of songs, tunes so well written and arranged that they decimate the large majority of the guitar-oriented bands from the time period. 12 hits, zero misses, every one of these brilliant slices of Alternative Rock could have been a single, and half of them were, with “Iron Lung”, “High”, “Trees”, “Just”, and “Street Spirit” forming one of the greatest salvos of single releases ever unleashed from one album, with the latter three coming complete with iconic music videos that cemented Radiohead as not only potential stars, but as a band of survivors.

On “Planet Telex”, the rhythm section of Colin Greenwood and Phil Selway hopscotch all over the guitars, predicting the similar stutter-step they would do on Ok Computer’s opener “Airbag”. In the slashing title track, probably their most straight forward Rock & Roll song, Thom Yorke wishes it was the 60’s, but I don’t know why, because in the here and now is where his band accelerates away from the pack. Conversely, the quieter songs informed a decade-plus of British guitar Pop from bands like Travis and especially Coldplay; they can claim allegiance to U2 or whomever they please, but when they emerged, it could have been possible that their record collection consisted only of this album and Jeff Buckey’s Grace. In the movie Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s reaction to “Fake Plastic Trees” is that Radiohead are “complaint rock”, which is completely unfair considering that would apply to Nirvana and dozens of other massive bands of the era, besides that fact that no matter what Thom Yorke is bleating about, he and the band do everything with such focus of vision, who cares how downbeat it is; their depression is even more glorious and palatable than Robert Smith’s. Even the “lesser” songs – the demolishing “Bones”, the psychedelic “Nice Dream”, the swinging “Sulk” – would be essential highlights in a lesser band’s discography; the notion that I’m referring to them as inferior seems ridiculous even to me. As the album closes, Thom Yorke’s awe-inspiring voice rising with the strings and soaring above the church-tower-bell-guitars of “Street Spirit”, you realize that, if my theory is correct, Radiohead recorded a fitting tribute to all their heroes while proving how much they really learned from them – not only does it rank among those bands’ greatest statements, but in many cases it surpasses them, and in that way Radiohead accomplished their goal, proved what they needed to prove, providing an aural delight for the next generation to one day pay tribute to.

01. “Planet Telex”
02. “The Bends”
03. “High And Dry”
04. “Fake Plastic Trees:
05. “Bones”
06. “[Nice Dream]”
07. “Just”
08. “My Iron Lung”
09. “Bullet Proof..I Wish I Was”
10. “Black Star”
11. “Sulk”
12. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)”

"Fake Plastic Trees" [video]

"Just" [video]

"My Iron Lung" [video/live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD

"Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [video]

- BONUS: "Planet Telex" [live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Planet Telex" [live at the 2004 Coachella Festival]
From the 2006 documentary, Coachella
- BONUS: "The Bends" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 05.95]
- BONUS: "The Bends" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "High And Dry" [video - US version]
- BONUS: "High And Dry" [live on Later with Jools Holland, 05.95]
- BONUS: "Fake Plastic Trees" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Fake Plastic Trees" [live at the 2003 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Bones" [live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD
- BONUS: "Bones" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "[Nice Dream]" [live & acoustic on MuchMusic, 03.95]
- BONUS: "Just" [live at the 2003 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "My Iron Lung" [live in NYC, 1997]
- BONUS: "Black Star" [live in London, 05.94]
from the Live At The Astoria DVD
- BONUS: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival]
- BONUS: "Street Spirit (Fade Out)" [live in NYC, 1997]

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

[019] It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back

Album: It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back
Artist: Public Enemy
Release Date: June 1988
Label: Def Jam/Columbia
Producers: Hank Shocklee & Carl Ryder, with Eric “Vietnam” Sadler

“’YES’ was the start of my last jam
So here it is again, another def jam
But since I gave you all a little something that I knew you lacked
They still consider me a new jack
All the critics, you can hang ‘em, I’ll hold the rope
But they hope to the Pope and pray it ain’t dope
The follower of Farrakhan
Don’t tell me that you understand until you hear the man
The book of the new school Rap game
Writers treat me like Coltrane, insane
Yes to them, but to me I’m a different kind
We’re brothers of the same mind, un-blind”
- from “Don’t Believe The Hype”

On virtually any other list like this, Public Enemy’s Nation Of Millions would be the top seated Hip-Hop album. There are three possible reasons why this constantly happens. First, there are the white critics dealing with Caucasian guilt placing it in the top spot because P.E. brought Rock’s fire to Rap music. It’s accepted at this point, the same kind of hand-me-down ‘certified classic’ as Pet Sounds or Dark Side Of The Moon or Sgt. Pepper’s, great albums that in the light of history now appear overrated – and it’s the kowtowing to these albums that inspired this list in the first place. Second, there are the critics that hold the opinion that this was the first truly great Rap record, ignoring admittedly inferior but no less genre-essential discs like Paid In Full, Criminal Minded, Licensed To Ill, and Raising Hell. And third and finally, there are the critics who rate the album not on its musical merits, but on its overall massive impact on world culture. Now I will allow that following Eric B. & Rakim’s reinvention of what you could do in Hip-Hop music, Public Enemy leveled all competition with this boundary-less album, and stood at the top of the mountain for at least a strong year, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best ever; it is a flawed masterpiece, unfortunately dated in places, still held in high esteem because of the resonance of its moment in the sun. I can however also tell you that it deserves so much of its praise because it is one of the most fearlessly creative records of all time, with a rare mix of Punk Rock’s passionate dissatisfaction and refusal to settle for less, and the over-the-top ambition and bombast of Arena Rock in order to get one’s point across – all crammed into a Hip-Hop mold that at the time was struggling to expand not only artistically, but commercially. Nation Of Millions did indeed break the mold into a millions of pieces, creating a layered sonic blueprint for more than just Hip-Hop. The reach of Public Enemy’s influence is extremely long and powerful in these past 20 years. I’m just saying – it’s not a perfect record; there are simply better Hip-Hop albums out there.

But let’s talk about the good… After debuting a year earlier with some good songs and some awkward growing pains on Yo! Bum Rush The Show, P.E. announced their second-wave battle plan by releasing “Rebel Without A Pause” as a b-side to Bum Rush’s “You’re Gonna Get Yours”. Taken on its own, “Rebel” still sounds like the revolutionary statement it is, an earthquake sending shockwaves through all of music. For four minutes, the beat is relentless, the shrieking horns piercing eardrums everywhere, over a perfect Funk foundation. Chuck D spits a wealth of confrontational rhymes, taking on all doubters with fury that Johnny Rotten could have only prayed for. The stage was set, and with the live intro of “Countdown To Armageddon”, DJ Terminator X drops an air raid siren just to let you know that P.E. is coming for you, and you better run, cuz you’re fuckin’ screwed, and as Professor Griff notes, “Armageddon – it been in effect – go get a late pass!”

Chuck D’s voice is one of the greatest sounds in Pop music history, charging onto the scene with a “BASS! How low can you go??” Kicking off the album with “Bring The Noise” is a brilliant move considering that it not only presents Chuck’s best foot forward, but it encapsulates the many themes that he and the group are about to tackle on the rest of the record. Where 1990’s Fear Of A Black Planet (#42) was largely a sonic statement by P.E.’s production team The Bomb Squad, Nation Of Millions is undoubtedly Chuck’s record. His voice, honed through years of college radio, put Public Enemy on the map. He didn’t sound like he was overdoing it like Run-DMC, but he wasn’t subdued like Rakim either; he wasn’t stroking his ego too much like LL, and he wasn’t being boisterous for attention like the Beastie Boys. Chuck was simply incensed by the world around him, and felt the need to give the world “CNN for the streets”, his specific aim of combining The Clash and Run-DMC. On “Prophets Of Rage”, his voice is mixed high in the mix, putting his vicious messages in the front of the churning soup of The Bomb Squad, distilling his New School leadership by saying that he’s “past the days of ‘yes y’all-ing’”. On the flat-out amazing “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”, Chuck confronts the hypocrisy of the US government by unfurling a jailbreak narrative, escaping from the cell he was imprisoned in, he says “because I’m militant”, during the first verse of “Bring The Noise”. Compared to other standard bearers of the New School, like Rakim, KRS-One, and Big Daddy Kane, Chuck rapped in the most abstract style. Allowing hype man Flavor Flav to play the exclamation point, Chuck rhymed with a singular non-flow; like John Coltrane, who he notes, on “Don’t Believe The Hype”, he was compared to, Chuck lets his words follow the beat, rarely trying to cram words where they won’t fit, and having no problem pausing to let the music catch up.

The Bomb Squad, led by Hank Shocklee, provided the soundtrack for Chuck and Flavor’s fiery political rhetoric. On Nation Of Millions, they explored the James Brown “Funky Drummer” breakbeats that were prevalent at the time, but in a more hectic manner, sometimes laying down more than one percussion track to give the songs added punch. They also sped the tempos up, shocking Hip-Hop fans and peers alike. “Bring The Noise” flies out of the gates, and the rest of the album rarely lets up. Gritty Blaxploitation Funk rhythms were layered with Rock guitars – “She Watch Channel Zero” samples a Slayer riff – topped with piercing squeals of disembodied horns, elevating tracks like “Louder Than A Bomb” and “Terminator X On The Edge Of Panic” to the level of Hip-Hop essentials. And if it wasn’t noisy enough for you, Flavor on Nation Of Millions is almost like another instrument of The Bomb Squad, hollering the whole time, with his clock to let you know what time it was. Best of all is “Night Of The Living Baseheads”, P.E.’s scathing examination of the drug epidemics crippling the inner city in the 80’s, giving equal time to chastising the addict and the black dealer destroying his own people. The song is everything you want from Public Enemy crammed into three minutes, Chuck and Flavor’s voices over honking car alarms and a beat making sharp turns, Terminator X slicing up records like no DJ before him.

If you happen to be over 30, and in your reminiscence you still want a clear reason why Nation Of Millions isn’t higher on the list, I’ll present you with this: as a piece of art, a part of popular culture, this album is more important now in a non-musical capacity than in a musical one, and strictly on a music basis, I’m weighing the other albums to come as stronger pieces of art or more concise statements. Additionally, now that music has caught up to The Bomb Squad’s advances, you find yourself starting to look for the advances the album produced socially. Nation Of Millions was the second Hip-Hop album I bought, and recognizing how it’s enriched my life, it seems to me that it should be the second or third Hip-Hop album that everyone buys; everyone starts with the one or two albums that get them into Hip-Hop, but then should come P.E., because not only does it illustrate Hip-Hop’s wide open potential, even twenty years later, but it promotes racial confidence, understanding and equality. Don’t believe me? Well, I’m proof. I might get a lot of flak for this, but I would say that having grown up listening to Public Enemy’s messages and street reports on the life and world of the black man in America, I move through life with infinitely less of the suppressed, subconscious racism that seems to plague people I know, who probably had it instilled in them from an early age, especially people from the older generations. Public Enemy did that for me - it allowed me to encounter the people of the world on an even playing field, and that’s more of a gift to the world than any of P.E.’s tracks bumping in your trunk. I would even draw the line forward to the trends of wide open Pop music, to discerning Indie hipsters openly loving Timbaland as much as, say, Aphex Twin or Pere Ubu – good music is good music. As much as whichever late 80’s Alternative Rock band you want to name who helped crack the mainstream open for the 90’s to rush in, Public Enemy was equally important, inspiring intelligent debate and discussion through heart-stopping adrenaline-rush music. In the end, it doesn’t matter that it’s not perfect, cuz change is never perfect, and considering that in just the two years prior, we were still listening to the skeletal boom bap of Run-DMC, Public Enemy’s cacophony of ecstatic noise is definitely a case of the new boss being leagues beyond the old boss.

01. “Countdown To Armageddon” [interlude]
02. “Bring The Noise”
03. “Don’t Believe The Hype”
04. “Cold Lampin’ With Flavor”
– “The name of my DJ” [interlude]
05. “Terminator X To The Edge Of Panic”
06. “Mind Terrorist” [interlude]
07. “Louder Than A Bomb”
– “Rock the funky beats” [interlude]
08. “Caught, Can We Get A Witness?”
09. “Show ‘Em Whatcha Got” [interlude]
10. “She Watch Channel Zero?!”
11. “Night Of The Living Baseheads”
– “Bass for your face” [interlude]
12. “Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos”
13. “Security Of The First World” [interlude]
14. “Rebel Without A Pause”
– “Bring that beat back” [interlude]
15. “Prophets Of Rage”
16. “Party For Your Right To Fight”

"Bring The Noise" [audio]

"Night Of The Living Baseheads" ["Dope" extended video]

"Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" [single edit - video]

"Rebel Without A Pause" [video]

- BONUS: "Don't Believe The Hype" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Cold Lampin' With Flavor" [audio]
- BONUS: "Louder Than A Bomb" [audio/fan video]
- BONUS: "Caught, Can We Get A Witness" [audio]
- BONUS: "She Watch Channel Zero?!" [audio]
- BONUS: "Black Steel In The Hour Of Chaos" [audio]
- BONUS: "Rebel Without A Pause" [audio]
- BONUS: "Prophets Of Rage" [video]
Released to promote the Power To The People & Beats greatest hits album
- BONUS: "Party For Your Right To Fight" [audio]

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

[020] In The Aeroplane Over The Sea

Album: In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Artist: Neutral Milk Hotel
Release Date: February 1998
Label: Merge
Producer: Robert Schneider

“There are lights in the clouds
Anna’s ghost all around
Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me, soft and sweet
How the notes all bend and reach above the trees
Now how I remember you
How I would push my fingers through
Your mouth to make those muscles move
It made your voice so smooth and sweet
But now we keep where we don’t know
All secrets sleep in winter clothes
With one you loved so long ago
No we don’t even know his name”
- from the title track

As I’ve sat down to work on this project and write about these albums, I try and do a fair amount of research on each one. I have a lot of ‘useless’ knowledge knocking around my head, but I find it’s sometimes not enough for what I’d like to convey. I visit Wikipedia, Allmusic, maybe Pitchfork or Rolling Stone; every once in a while, I’ll go to a band’s website, or google their lyrics if I need to. But as I listen to In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, I realize I don’t want to know anything about them, their leader Jeff Mangum, or the making of this album. I don’t want to know what Mangum looks like, and I definitely don’t want to see what he looks like when he’s singing, which paints my eminent video search in doubt. I would prefer the mystery stay intact, and if you’ve heard this album I think you’d agree. In fact, I already know too much. Off the top of my head I can tell you that this is NMH’s second album (On Avery Island was the first), and they’re a part of the Elephant 6 collective, which I believe is centered in Georgia – maybe Atlanta, or Athens, I forget. I can also say I’m pretty sure that other than a scant few appearances and a live album, Mangum has been an artistic recluse since this album came out, for almost a decade. And lastly, I can tell you he’s alive, right now…I think, I mean, I don’t have a team watching the guy’s house or anything, but as far as I know, he’s chillin’ right now, maybe watching Rachel Ray or Unsolved Mysteries or some shit. Like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett or the man known as Jandek, Mangum has become a whisper, a rumor, a ghost, an unseen man with a beloved, haunting voice singing you oddities through your headphones. He makes Portishead and Axl Rose seem like Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan…not talent-wise, just, ya know, media attention-wise.

This album is such an enigma that it makes me hate what I know. I wish I could go back to when I first opened the CD wrapper, and discover it all over again, shutting out the little info I would eventually pick up. All one could ascertain from Aeroplane’s liner notes is that the voice belongs to Mr. Mangum, maybe his Elephant 6 affiliation if you’re perceptive, and yes, these songs were indeed recorded in the late Summer of 1997, not in some unspecified lost time, the way the album plays, like a dusty artifact found in an attic. There is nothing here, beyond the overcharged fuzz bass pointing to a post-Punk timeframe, to suggest any historical alignment to any of Mangum’s music. Surely he has peers – I guess Will Oldham and Jonathan Donahue of Mercury Rev – and he has followers – definitely Conor Oberst – but no one sounds like Neutral Milk Hotel, and NMH doesn’t sound like anyone either. This is an album that you are never prepared for, even if you are 60 and have sampled all of music’s pleasures; to call it Folk music would be like calling love something to pass the time, a short-sale punishable by banishment from the human race. If Pop music is a circus, then Jeff Mangum is surely the tarot card reader, mystifying at every turn, speaking in what seem like acid-damaged riddles.

“The King Of Carrot Flowers” starts innocently enough, a quiet tune over acoustic strum, but by the time Mangum sings “Your mom would stick a fork right into daddy’s shoulder”, your ears have perked up at his non-linear tales of family strife and searching pubescence. He’s already confounded you, and be prepared to stay disoriented for the rest of the 40 minutes, as he arranges chaos into beauty, communicated in fragile devotion, rambunctious outbursts, funeral regret, rebellious impulses, and naïve awe. It is a document of moments that never happened, but always happen, and keep happening, innocence, heartache and lust doomed to repeat. The drone of the organ on “King Pt. 2” intertwines with Mangum’s Christ worship, warping his hymnal back to the early field recordings of the 1900’s until the band crash-lands from Planet SST for Part 3. The swaying wonder of the title track raises the album even higher, encapsulating the gothic side of the American South, specifically the dark corners of New Orleans’ French Quarter. As Mangum sings “What a curious life we have found here tonight, there is music that sounds from the street”, drunken horns stagger down the middle of the road, bumping into each other, with one sober trumpet left standing as the designated keeper of the melody; they’re accompanied by the sighs of bowed saws, like scary winds whistling through a gloomy forest, wavering like the audio on old reel-to-reel films. He ends the song laughing on a cloud, feeling strange to be anything at all, and you wonder how can someone obviously so genius (albeit cracked genius) present himself as so unsure of his talents.

If the title track is New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebrations, then the instrumental overture “The Fool” is a funeral procession shuffling down the narrow streets, brass blaring their pains like car horns over a plodding waltz. The album’s chewy center, “Holland, 1945” is a slice of Pop-Punk so far out of place on this album until the mariachi horns enter during the chorus, and you realize that from the preceding funeral, you’ve been reborn, and hidden amongst the surrealist lyrics, Magnum opines on reincarnation and the cycle of life, “bodies once moved but don’t move anymore”, with the girl he loved from Holland now “a little boy in Spain”, concluding that “it’s so sad to see the world agree that they’d rather see their faces fill with flies all while I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes.” Mangum continues his exploration of the transport from this world to whichever afterlife he believes in on “Ghost” which revisits the lift-off of the spirit from the flesh from different angles, and with much bombast, leading into the untitled tenth track and second instrumental overture. A swinging playground romp, it features a uilleann pipes solo, a trombone on a bungee, what sounds like a circus calliope, and well, everything they had lying around; someone’s probably banging on the kitchen sink in the back somewhere.

Save for “Communist Daughter”, a Beatlesque lament decorated with a French horn, that leaves us with the songs that have been hoisted up by fans as the talking points, the best feet forward of Aeroplane: the two-part “Two-Headed Boy” and the 8-minute “Oh Comely”. For all three, Mangum manages to rival peak Dylan, pulling the passion of “Desolation Row” and the extroverted pain of “Ballad Of A Thin Man” through the surrealism of his “115th Dream”. What “Oh Comely” is about is anyone’s guess really; it begins like so many of these songs, seemingly dealing with death, with Mangum promising, “I will be with you when you loose your breath”. He then slithers and squirms his way through a dizzying abstract poem filled with fruit falling from holes, comforting friends, enemies to be crushed, roaming daddies knocking up whores, white trash mommies, stadium rocking, ovaries, green fleshy flowers, “sugary sweet machines smelling of semen”, and mass graves (500 families??). His voice careens back and forth, reaching for notes he can barely make, but with the faith that his passion means more than his skill, rising to meet and become one with the horn section, running through vocal melodies recalling the intersection of traditional Celtic and Appalachian folk music, and even vaguely hinting at Japanese chord progressions in the song’s epilogue, closing with the cannibalistic image of moving inside a stranger’s stomach – no easy answers here, but the journey is the reward. Like “Oh Comely”, part one of “Two-Headed Boy” features Mangum throwing his voice around like few of his contemporaries have the courage to do. It is a nakedly emotional song, rushing along like some alternate universe version of The Who’s “Pinball Wizard”. Little is explained about our titular possibly-Siamese young man, but he sounds a bit deaf, dumb & blind, treated almost like a museum exhibit – the immortal lyric of “placing fingers through the notches in your spine” positioned against “pulleys and weights” – and apparently his special needs must be handled with care. When Mangum returns with the slower second part, he’s making no more sense, but he’s still got you riveted. He alludes to the boy’s father, and a possible separation of the heads, a longing for a brother “one in the same”, touching even on lyrics of other songs from the album, drawing everything together, like the closing of a stage play. The melody of part one slips back in at the closing, Mangum laying down the hope of a future with a caring woman and a peaceful life for our boy. But wait, he finishes your journey with uncertainty, with the line “don’t hate her when she gets up to leave”… Then he gets up to leave. You hear him put the guitar down, take off his headphones, and walk off, shoeless feet on a hard wood floor. He leaves you hanging with the mystery, of the album and of himself as the musician. Just as his bizarre cast of characters must continue on with uncertainty, so must the end of Neutral Milk Hotel’s story in the history of music remain uncertain. We can only hope that Mangum one day puts the headphones back on and picks up the guitar again.

01. “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pt. One”
02. “The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three”
03. “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea”
04. “Two-Headed Boy”
05. “The Fool”
06. “Holland, 1945”
07. “Communist Daughter”
08. “Oh Comely”
09. “Ghost”
10. [untitled]
11. “Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two”

Now that I've seen these videos, watched the voice come out of the body, it thankfully doesn't lessen the magical effect, though I expected Jeff Mangum to be a little older, and yet again this was a decade ago. Anyway, I hope you enjoy watching as much as I did.

“The King Of Carrot Flowers Pts. Two & Three” [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]

"In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]

"Two-Headed Boy" [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]

"Oh Comely" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]

- BONUS: "Holland, 1945" [live in Athens, GA, 10.97]
- BONUS: "Ghost/Untitled" [live in Austin, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Two-Headed Boy Pt. Two" [live in Athens, GA, 03.97]