90’s Albums Revisited: April 1990

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.  So click the link to explore the month:

April 1990 – Listen To The Albums: 39-Smooth/Repeater/The Good Son/Goodbye Jumbo

April 1990:   

“39/Smooth” – Green Day

39/Smooth is Green Day’s debut album and is both a solid listen and an interesting look at a band in embryo. Nearly all of Green Day’s trademarks are here. The music has both a sense of melodicism and a sense of humor and playfulness that would serve the band well later on in their career.  That said, 39/Smooth is undeniably the work of a young band on a small label. The production is decent but raw and the songs themselves are good but not great.  All in all, on 39/Smooth is a solid, small budget punk album; which is exactly what fans of punk wanted in the years before Nirvana changed the rock landscape. In hindsight, one can hear the band that would go on to become international superstars – especially on tracks like “At The Library” and “The Judge’s Daughter” – but in the moment 39/Smooth must have just seemed like another, slightly better than average, punk release. Note: 39/Smooth is no longer available in its original form but the entire album has been collected, along with a two EP’s, on the compilation release 1,039/Smoothed Out Slappy Hours, where the first ten tracks are the original 39/Smooth album.

“Repeater” – Fugazi

April 1990 also saw another punk release of note, DC hardcore punks Fugazi’s second record Repeater. The contrast between Repeater and 39/Smooth is notable both in the style of punk rock (disproving in one listen that punk all sounds the same) and in the excitement surrounding it. Nearly any music critic or fan of punk rock would have, at the time, felt that Fugazi’s Repeater was both the superior and more important release. Repeater is tight and hard and full of righteous anger, where 39/Smooth is loose and pop-oriented and full of bratty rebellion. Interestingly, for many at the time, Fugazi was seen as the face and future of punk rock. A listen to Repeater both shows why was the case and why it didn’t happen. Repeater is what serious punk was supposed to be as the 80’s ended, politically aware and musically visceral. Songs like the punishing “Repeater”, the angular “Sieve-Fisted Find”, and the superb instrumental “Brendan #1” are album highlights. They are also good examples of why Green Day, and not Fugazi, later found mainstream success as Repeater is not radio friendly or commercially accessible; that doesn’t make it a bad album, just one that is aimed at a specific audience.

“The Good Son” – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds 

The Good Son is a quieter, calmer, more reserved record than most of the albums that precede it.  However, this isn’t really a softening of the sound of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds so much as it is turning that emotion inward.  The album is still dark and eerie and deals with themes common to a Nick Cave release. “The Good Son” is the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son told from the other son – the “good” son’s – perspective, while the lush harmonies of “Foi Na Cruz” has a dusty, folky vibe. The meat of the album though are a run of three songs right at the heart of The Good Son that includes the melodic and melancholy “The Weeping Song”, the broken romance of “The Ship Song”, and the pent up rage of “The Hammer Song” which comes close to capturing the catharsis of previous albums. The Good Son is not a radical reworking of Nick Cave’s style, but it is a subtle shift that works.

“Goodbye Jumbo” – World Party

While not a perfect album, World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo is an album that should be better known than it is.  Borrowing liberally from intelligent and cinematic 80’s college rock with a touch of Beatlesque pop and a light psychedelic flourish Goodbye Jumbo looks back to U2 and Seeds of Love era Tears For Fears and forward to elements of Coldplay and Keane without ever really sounding like any of those bands. Opening track “Is It Too Late?” has a light hip-hop vibe that was somewhat unexpected in 1990 and the two singles – “Way Down Now” and “Put The Message In The Box” – are both winners that found some success in the dying days on 80’s styled College Rock. “Take It Up” is another superb track that has largely been forgotten and nearly all the album plays well. World Party’s Goodbye Jumbo is an album worth discovering or rediscovering.

A Brief Overview of Rock ‘N Roll History: The 1950’s

Early Black Rock:  Rock and roll was born around the year 1950 and was originally primarily black music for a black audience.  It combined elements of several regional styles of pre-rock black music like Jump Blues, Delta Blues, and Rhythm & Blues, while also mixing in elements of gospel, jazz, country and other forms of popular music. Rock and roll slowly began to increase in popularity as its appeal in white America began to grow, especially among young people.  However, while its popularity grew its reputation for being dangerous and dirty did not, especially in the racially divided and often racist south were it was born. So, almost from the beginning, rock and roll faced opposition from parents, religious groups, and much of conservative white America. This opposition however only gave rock music a feeling of rebellion and a climate of social change that appealed to many young people who, as always, were looking for ways to differentiate themselves from their parents’ generation.  And it was great to dance to.  Follow the link to listen to a six song playlist of this genre (you will need to sign up for a Spotify account):

Early Black Rockhttps://open.spotify.com/playlist/55VfcpiyNTylCE2s0nbYxp  

 

Early White Rock:  While rock and roll’s reputation was bad and many people opposed it or thought it was a passing fad the mainstream record companies began to realize they could make money off of this “black” music. Indeed, they had already signed record deals with some of the early African American musicians. However, the record companies realized part of the issue with rock music was that many people, especially in the south, would not listen to music made by black artists. The record companies’ solution was to find white artists that could mimic the sound and style of the black musicians. This strategy both worked and didn’t work. Unquestionably rock music became increasingly popular as this group of new white rock stars began to have hits, but since the music was still essentially the same in rhythm and style it did little to improve the reputation of rock and roll. In fact, some more openly racist people were more bothered by Early White Rock than Early Black Rock because now white people were trying to sound black and imitate the playing style of black musicians. To be fair, many of rock’s early white stars did nothing to improve the reputation of the music. For example, Elvis Presley became famous for covering  the hits of early black rockers and shaking his hips provocatively, Eddie Cochran chased girls and was killed in a high speed car crash, and Jerry Lee Lewis lit pianos on fire while on stage, went by the nickname “Killer”, was kicked out of Bible college for playing rock versions of hymns for his classmates, and marrying his thirteen year old first cousin. Early White Rock made stars and had hits but only added to rock’s reputation for being socially disruptive and morally evil.  Follow the link to listen to a six song playlist of this genre (you will need to sign up for a Spotify account):

Early White Rock: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4xEnP1L51PyC5xJMahm9Et 

 

Corporate Rock: One of the longstanding tensions in rock and roll is the struggle between the record companies to make money and the artists to control their own fate and make the music they want. The first time the record companies really flexed their muscle was in the late 50’s and early 60’s when they realized that their attempt to make rock music more safe for white listeners by creating Early White Rock had failed to do so.  However, at this early point in rock history the artists had almost no power and no control over their own music, even if they wrote it, and so the recording industry largely abandoned their early stars and promoted a whole new generation of very clean cut, handsome, young boys who would appeal primarily to a young female audience as the next generation of rock stars. These new “rockers” did not have much, if any, of the black influence in their music or the sound of their voices. While this was considered rock music at the time, in a real sense these artists were an attempt by the record companies to remove the black influence from rock music and promote a parent-friendly group of artists, essentially changing what rock and roll was.  Basically, this was rock-influenced pop music being promoted not too differently than the way modern boy bands are; nominally rock, but pop-oriented, catchy, and targeted at a young, female audience. This strategy actually worked as most of the early rock stars faded away or found themselves unpromoted by the record companies that were pushing their music only a few years earlier. Even the ones who survived this time, like Elvis Presley, did so by focusing on singing love ballads more than rock songs. Corporate Rock was a success and it seemed, for a time, like the record companies had found a way to make rock music more “safe”. In spite of these changes, some really good music was made in this genre and it has become the genesis of much of modern pop music. Follow the link to listen to a six song playlist of this genre (you will need to sign up for a Spotify account):

Corporate Rock:  https://open.spotify.com/playlist/3g5yyUOuRbMFM5lAO2T29k   

90’s Albums Revisited: March 1990

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.  So click the link to explore the month:

March 1990 – Listen To The Albums: Violator/I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got/Social Distortion/Peace

March 1990:

“Violator” – Depeche Mode

March of 1990 was an incredible month for excellent alternative albums and the crowning achievement is Depeche Mode’s masterpiece Violator.  In my opinion, Depeche Mode’s Violator is one of the greatest albums ever made. Depeche Mode’s rise from a pop-oriented synth outfit, to pioneering synth/industrial group, to atmospheric goth masters, to international electro-rock superstars, hit its apex with the sleek, dark, and diamond-sharp Violator. At nine tracks long all the fat has been cut and Violator has no weak songs or low moments. This allows Depeche Mode to play around within the confines of the sound they have created with this record. Violator has the electro-blues of “Personal Jesus”, the Motown-laced synth of “Policy of Truth”, the apocalyptic drama of “Halo”, the majestic dance-balladry of “Enjoy The SIlence”, the minimalist confessions of “Clean”, and the sexy pulse of “World In My Eyes”; and those are just the six singles. The genius of the album is that while these songs all have their own nuanced mood, they also fit together like pieces of a larger puzzle, and the result is an absolute genre-defining masterpiece.

“I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” – Sinéad O’Connor

Sinéad O’Connor’s sophomore album I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got made her an international superstar on the back of the Prince-penned ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U” which showcased her incredible voice and smoldering emotions. However, if all you know is “Nothing Compares 2 U” then you have missed out on an amazing album full of emotion and atmosphere. Highlights include the celtic-tinged and ethereal “I Am Stretched On Your Grave”, the raw divorce ballad “The Last Day Of Our Acquaintance”, the folk/protest song “Black Boys On Mopeds”, and the more pop-oriented follow-up single “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. Her career would soon go off the rails but this album stands as a testament to her talents at their peak.

“Social Distortion” – Social Distortion

While I don’t think Social Distortion’s self-titled is their best album (although I do really like it) it is the album that raised them from the underground world of punk to a taste of mainstream success and helped to open the door for a punk rock revival later in the 90’s for bands like Green Day, The Offspring, and others. A mainstream success that would always elude Social Distortion just a little. This album does have three of Social Distortion’s most famous and beloved songs in “Ball & Chain”, “Story Of My Life” and their superb cover of Johnny Cash’s “Ring Of Fire”. There are a handful of really good album cuts as well, such as the bad boy anthem “Sick Boys”, the classic punk of “Let It Be Me”, and the bluesy closer “Drug Train”.

“Peace” – Anything Box

Few bands had their career so thoroughly derailed by a series of unfortunate events more than did Anything Box whose debut and best-known album Peace was released in March of 1990. A classic synthpop album with an obvious nod to Depeche Mode, Anything Box’s Peace had a near-perfect blend of melody and melancholy and its hit “Living In Oblivion” seemed to indicate good things for the band. Two other songs – “When We Lie” and “Kiss Of Life” – were minor club hits and the album had several other excellent songs like the wistful and sad “Carmen”, the bitter and biting “I Felt The Pain”, and the sweet pop of “Just One Day” that indicated the band had depth and talent. Then the bottom fell out. Grunge and alternative rock made 80’s style synth music seem outdated and the band fell into a protracted legal battle with their record label that shelved their excellent follow-up album Worth for many years, basically stalling their career outside a cult of devoted fans. However, none of that can change the fact that Peace is a very good album and deserves a listen.

Alternative Reality: Songs of the Day Playlist – October 2019

Alternative Reality: Song of the Day Playlist – October 2019

An alternative music playlist that collects the September Songs of the Day on the Alternative Reality Facebook page – Alternative Reality: The Legacy of Alternative Rock​. The October list focused on female artists and female-led bands and includes hits and deep cuts by artists including Eurythmics, Mazzy Star, Concrete Blonde,  Suzanne Vega and many more!

Listen to the list: October Songs of the Day

Albums Re-Imagined: “Out Of Time” by R.E.M.

Let me start off by saying that I am an album guy. A good album flows well, enhances the songs, and is a work of art above and beyond the individual songs collected on it. One of the tragedies of the digital age of music is the demise of the album as an art form. So, in this project I plan to take albums (some classic and some not) and re-imagine them. In some cases with a goal of making them work better as an album and in others just to see how well they hold up if I mess around a classic. I don’t have hard rules but generally the idea is to mix up the running order, change the opening and closing tracks, and occasionally add in or take out something that I think should or shouldn’t have been there (although I will usually include all studio tracks that the band included on the original album). Feel free to play along and create your own versions of the albums as well and post them in the comments.

Albums Re-Imagined: Out Of Time by R.E.M.

Listen To The Re-Imagined Album: Out Of Time (Re-Imagined)

R.E.M. had been flirting with the mainstream since the late 80’s. Songs like “The One I Love” and “Stand” had been pop radio and MTV hits, not just successful on 80’s college radio. However, it was 1991’s Out Of Time that really broke the band into the mainstream and launched them on a path to superstardom that would last a decade and make them one of the biggest bands on the planet. On the one hand this makes sense as R.E.M. had long been America’s leading underground and/or college rock band and 1991 was the year Nirvana and grunge rock brought “alternative” music into the mainstream.  On the other hand though R.E.M. sounded little to nothing like the new alternative music that was becoming popular; and that was particularly true with Out Of Time, which is a moody, folky, largely acoustic album. 

That feeling of being out of place or out of time (pun definitely intended) is made even greater by the running order of Out Of Time, which quite frankly is strange. The album opens with the biggest outlier on the record, the white man’s funk/rap/pop song of “Radio Song” before going directly into “Losing My Religion”.  Of course, “Losing My Religion” became a massive hit so in hindsight it doesn’t seem as strange to place it second, but in truth it is a moody ballad built off a mandolin riff and an archaic southern expression. The rest of the front half is equally odd as it contains a minimalist percussion piece (“Low”), a song with lead vocals by bassist Mike Mills rather than Michael Stipe (“Near Wild Heaven”) and a mostly instrumental mood piece (“Endgame”).  The album then moves on to it’s more song-oriented second half.

Obviously, the unusual running order didn’t do anything to hurt the record, but I thought I would reorder it nonetheless. I am also adding one extra track – “Fretless” – that was written during the Out Of Time recording sessions but then given away to the movie soundtrack Until The End Of The World, as it really belongs here. There is another rarity that I really like and that was ultimately used on the Coneheads soundtrack, the quirky “It’s A Free World, Baby”, but it just didn’t seem to have a home on the album so I still left it off my new version even though I do think it is a good song. So here is my new version of R.E.M.’s Out Of Time, which I won’t say is necessarily better, but that I do like. With my version I attempt to build a loose narrative arc about conflict, denial, defeat, and redemption, which I will outline further as you read below.

 

1. Belong – Admittedly “Belong” is something of a strange song, but it has incredibly beautiful harmonies and is a great introduction to the moody, folky, defiant tone that many of the songs on Out Of Time have. It also is the kind of song, with its spoken-word verses and non-verbal chorus, that immediately reaches out and grabs the listener because it is so different from what is expected. Indeed, I have always felt that “Belong” packs an incredible emotional punch for a song that actually says so little. While lyrically the song is quite strange (in a good way), musically “Belong” is one of the more traditional R.E.M. moments on Out Of Time. Peter Buck’s guitars chime and ring like classic early R.E.M., Mike MIlls’ bass drives the song and carries much of the melody (and his harmony vocals are amazing), and Bill Berry’s drums and percussion provide the firm backbeat needed to ground such a dreamlike song. Thus, “Belong” is both challenging and familiar for fans of the band and a great opener.

2. Me In Honey – My original thought was to open my version of Out Of Time with “Me In Honey” but I just couldn’t have the first thing we hear on an R.E.M. record be The B-52’s Kate Pierson’s vocals since she isn’t actually in the band. That said, “Me In Honey”, with its acoustic strum and yearning, searching vocals is the perfect track to follow “Belong” as they set a tone that serves the album well as they are both warm sounding but questioning or searching. I have often described R.E.M.’s 80’s output as “southern gothic” and these two tracks open up my version of Out Of Time firmly within that tradition while also establishing the somewhat different, more expansive, sound that Out Of Time takes. Both songs also introduce the idea of a person who is in conflict and must now deal with the unexpected hand they have been dealt.

3. Shiny Happy People – The most upbeat, pop moment on the record and a hit single, I’ve moved “Shiny Happy People” up to the third spot. I like it here for a variety of reasons. First, it’s catchy, warm and fun and changes the mood up from the first two tracks without changing the tone of the record harshly.  Second, I like the segue from using Kate Pierson sparingly as aural coloring on “Me In Honey” to her being used as almost a co-lead here on “Shiny Happy People”. Third, because the song is much more pop-oriented and, well, happy, it disrupts the thematic flow of the record much less here than buried deep on the album. 

4. Near Wild Heaven – “Near Wild Heaven”, with lead vocals provided by bassist Mike Mills, is actually also track four on the original version of Out Of Time but I have moved everything around it so it fits into the puzzle differently. A dreamy pop song with chiming, shiny guitars and ringing arpeggios, “Near Wild Heaven” is an homage to key R.E.M. influence The Byrds and the second most pop-oriented moment on the record, even if it sounds like something lifted from the late 60’s rather than the early 90’s. Following “Shiny Happy People” it continues the sunny, warm feel of this section of my version of the record but is also serves a musical transition to the darker, folkier music that is coming. “Near Wild Heaven” has just a touch of a sad, dark undercurrent here; as if the song is being sung by somebody looking back at a happy, carefree time but also realizing that the age of innocence is about to end.

5. Losing My Religion – The flow from “Near Wild Heaven” to “Losing My Religion” works surprisingly well as the band shifts from the nostalgic Byrds-like sound of “Near Wild Heaven” to the moody mandolin-based romanticism of “Losing My Religion”, which in this spot serves as a thematic and emotional gateway into the rest of Out Of Time, while still front-loading “Losing My Religion” enough that it isn’t lost in the depths of the record. Built off an old southern expression, the phrase “losing my religion” means to be at the end of one’s rope, to not be able to deal with anymore, to be ready to give up, and the song certainly creates that feeling, making “Losing My Religion” one of the greatest and most beautiful moments in 90’s music. From here, my version of Out Of Time really embraces the alternative folk vibe that most of the album deals in and follows the loose arc of collapse, defeat, and redemption . This could be an issue if the songs were more alike, but R,E,M. really varies the sound of these songs while also managing to make them all feel emotionally and sonically connected.

6. Country Feedback – A fan favorite that was buried very, very deep on the original version of Out Of Time I have moved it up so that it runs back to back with “Losing My Religion”. Both songs are dark, bordering on hopeless, but where “Losing My Religion” is lush and beautiful “Country Feedback” is worn, weary, and broken; the song of a desperate man ready to do desperate things. For me it always conjures up sepia-toned mental images of homeless, impoverished families in the Great Depression and ruinous environmental degradation.  Buck’s guitars seem to moan and cry and Stipe sounds beaten and broken, yet deeply angry. It may sound terribly depressing on paper but it is an incredibly powerful song and in this position it serves, with “Losing My Religion” as the emotional and thematic center of the album and really does lend powerful meaning to the album title: Out Of Time.

7. Texarkana – In the place that would have opened up the second side of the album in the old pre-CD days is the more propulsive, but only marginally more upbeat, “Texarkana”. The song is Mike Mill’s second lead vocal (something that had never happened before and would never happen again on an R.E.M. record) but here his vocals are buried deep enough in the mix that it almost doesn’t matter who is singing. “Texarkana” feels lost, or perhaps stuck between two places at once, as the song title implies (although that would mostly be a happy accident since the title is really just a holdover from an earlier version of the song that Stipe sang with different lyrics). All in all, “Texarkana” is just upbeat and propulsive enough to pull the album out of the emotional and sonic mire that the previous songs created, but not so much more lighthearted as to be jarring in tone.

8. Low – “Texarkana” is relatively big sounding, with its full band instrumentation and soaring backing vocals provided by Michael Stipe, in spite of it still feeling somewhat lost and hazy. The minimalist “Low”, built up from Berry’s soft percussion, is the perfect counterpoint. “Low” feels more sad than defeated, and even ends with a sense of hope and defiance, when it picks up a little over the back half. I have always really liked “Low”, but it also felt somewhat out of place positioned so early in the track order of the original version of Out Of Time. It is such a quiet, sad, yet potentially triumphant song that it fits the sound and mood of this part of my version of the album, while also offering a partial break from the thematic bleakness.

9. Fretless – Not included on the original version of Out Of Time is the outtake “Fretless”. Used as part of the soundtrack to the obscure film (but excellent soundtrack) Until The End Of The World, even Peter Buck has said R.E.M.’s decision to not include it on Out Of Time may have been a mistake. I have put it back in. A soft, warm, but achingly desperate ballad built off of piano, organ, and strings, ”Fretless” feels like a fever dream. And while the song is relatively simple, it is quietly cinematic and epic, whereas “Low” was sparse and subtle. Together they form a nice, but varied, quiet storm here on the back end of the record. I also like how Kate Pierson’s backing vocals tie this later part of the record to the earlier, more hopeful beginning and brings things full circle.

10. Half A World Away – While nobody would ever argue that “Half A World Away” is upbeat or happy, it almost feels that way placed here after “Low” and “Fretless”. “Half A World Away” is another mandolin-based folk ballad, this time dealing with loneliness and separation from loved ones, but the song feels much more positive than anything on my version of the album since “Near Wild Heaven”. The song is wistful and nostalgic, rather than beaten and bruised, and its protagonist may be a long way from the ones he loves but he is with them in his heart and knows that the separation is temporary. Placed here, “Half A World Away” seems to be say we haven’t made it through the hard times yet but the end is in sight, and I think we can make it. Somehow, the song feels tired and sad, but also hopeful, and I think it really works well within the sonic story arc I have attempted to create here with my version of Out Of Time. Placed this deep on the record it is also separated enough from the other mandolin ballad “Losing My Religion” that it doesn’t seem too similar or derivative. 

11. Endgame – Continuing the album story arc I have attempted to create I (almost) end my version of Out Of Time with “Endgame”. “Endgame” has no words, but both the music and Stipe’s emotive cooing, are warm, rich, and feel like the happy end to a long and difficult journey. “Endgame” feels like coming home and finding rest and so I have placed it here as the peaceful and pastoral conclusion to our musical and thematic narrative.

12. Radio Song – “Radio Song” is the most difficult song to place in any version of Out Of Time. Musically it is quite different than the rest of the album in that it is rooted in funk and hip-hop (featuring rapper KRS-One) rather than the folk and acoustic pop overtones of the rest of the record. Lyrically, “Radio Song” is also an outlier, basically serving as a pop-friendly attack on the evils of pop radio and its ability to shape what is popular regardless of whether it is good or not. As the champions and (reluctant) voice of 80’s college radio R.E.M. were in a good place to speak to this but that doesn’t change the fact that it makes “Radio Song” a strange thematic fit with everything else that is here.  R.E.M. chose to deal with it by placing it as the opening track, but I think it works better here at the end. In my version of Out Of Time I attempt to tell the loose story arc of a person who must deal with the unexpected difficulties that life has thrown at them, who pretends all is fine with life for awhile, and then must deal with the bottom falling out and everything falling to pieces before ultimately finding hope and eventually healing. “Radio Song” doesn’t really fit anywhere into this arc in story or sound. That said, I really like it as a coda to the whole thing that serves as both a funky lighthearted moment at the end and as a very meta commentary that pop radio doesn’t support the kind of emotional storytelling and mature music that this album just offered.

90’s Albums Revisited: February 1990

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.

February 1990 – Listen To The Albums: Blue Sky Mining/Gold Afternoon Fix/Carved In Sand/Dark At The End Of The Tunnel

“Blue Sky Mining” – Midnight Oil

Midnight Oil, like many first wave alternative bands of the 80’s, saw both their mainstream acceptance and popularity increase throughout the decade until they had a major success with 1987’s album Diesel and Dust.  Three years later Midnight Oil released the very good Blue Sky Mining, an album that purposefully replicates the formula of Diesel and Dust while still adding some new elements. The best moments on Blue Sky Mining are the three successful singles. “Blue Sky Mining” subtly inverts the pattern of their massive hit “Beds Are Burning” from Diesel and Dust and is imbued with an anxious tension (and a great harmonica riff). “Forgotten Years” and “King of the Mountain” both are hard charging and recall the bands earlier, more punk roots, without abandoning their newer love of a good hook. Midnight Oil also continue to fight for environmental and other social issues here and “One Country” is a powerful, defiant slow-building anthem that is a personal favorite from the band.  Blue Sky Mining approaches the greatness of Diesel and Dust and serves as an excellent companion album to it. Well worth a listen.

“Gold Afternoon Fix” – The Church

February 1990 was a good month for great releases from Australia.  Besides getting Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mining we also get The Church’s Gold Afternoon Fix. There are other parallels here besides both groups hailing from Australia.  Like Midnight Oil, The Church were also following up their breakthrough American album with 1990’s Gold Afternoon Fix. The band recorded the album in Los Angeles and the sessions were hostile, both within the band and toward the record company and some of that darkness bleeds into the music. Gold Afternoon Fix didn’t replicate the success of their previous album but that doesn’t mean the music isn’t great. The singles were the warm, yet subtle diss of Los Angeles “Metropolis” and the darkly bitter (and perfect for Hollywood) “You’re Still Beautiful” and they are both highlights. Other high points include the darkly mysterious opener “Pharaoh”, the propulsive “Russian Autumn Heart”, the quiet “Disappointment”, and the appropriately named closer, “Grind”.  Gold Afternoon Fix is a great successor to The Church’s Starfish and a great album in its own right.

“Carved In Sand” – The Mission

While I am a fan of both post-punk and goth music The Mission are a band that I actually don’t know very well; sort of a blindspot in my knowledge. I knew a few songs and a bit about their history but for some reason I have never really explored their music much.  So I was a little surprised by Carved In Sand as it was both better and more varied than I expected. The album is inconsistent but the anthemic “Deliverance”, the scathing attack on child abuse “Amelia”, and the folky workingman’s anthem “Grapes of Wrath” all stood out to me.  Most of the album was listenable, and while it did start to fade a little over its back half, for the most part I found Carved In Sand to be a pleasant surprise.

“Dark At The End Of The Tunnel” – Oingo Boingo 

Oingo Boingo’s Dark At The End Of The Tunnel has a pretty miserable reputation.  And while it is undeniably less fun and quirky than most of Oingo Boingo’s previous work, I found the album to be considerably better than its reputation.  Part of its problem is that it is one of those albums that seems to get better as it goes. Opening track “When The Lights Go Out” is a pounding rocker and is a solid song (although Oingo Boingo have done similarly themed songs better) but the next few tracks are among the weaker ones on the album.  However, the album picks up with the moody rocker “Long Breakdown” and then runs through a fairly strong middle section that includes “Flesh and Blood”, which sounds like classic Oingo Boingo even if it’s not quite a classic, the ska-inflected “Run Away (The Escape Song)”, and the weirdly pretty “Dream Somehow”.  I also particularly like the album closer “Try To Believe”, which may well be the most straightforward pop song Danny Elfman and company ever wrote; it’s also probably the best thing on the album. Much of the criticism of Dark At The End Of The Tunnel are complaints the album is less strange and silly than earlier Oingo  Boingo and that is absolutely true. However, if the point was to create a more serious, more streamlined version of Oingo Boingo (which seems to be the case as the zeitgeist of alternative music was changing and the much more serious grunge and alt rock of the 90’s was about to break into the mainstream) then Dark At The End Of The Tunnel is a success.  I agree it is not a classic album, and it can be inconsistent, but I also think it is a much better record than it is given credit for being.

90’s Albums Revisited: January 1990

In 90’s Albums Revisited we will look at four key albums released month by month starting in January 1990.  As this is an alternative music site I will generally focus on albums that would fall under the “alternative music” umbrella, but I may stray into the mainstream world on occasion. Also, for whatever reason, the month of December is consistently a thin month for new releases so I will fill out the list for that month by including albums from earlier in the year that I originally did not include and will indicate these releases as such when I do this. I hope you enjoy this journey, may you revisit old favorites and find some new ones.

January 1990 – Listen To The Albums: Reading, Writing, & Arithmetic/Flood/Pale/Shake Your Money Maker

“Reading, Writing & Arithmetic” – The Sundays

The Sundays combined elegant, jangly pop rock based on the sound of 80’s indie groups like The Smiths and combine it with the strange but sweet voice of Harriet Wheeler. It is a formula The Cranberries will ride to greater mainstream success a few years later, but with less drama. I remember loving the chiming, ringing sound of hits like “Here’s Where The Story Ends” and “Can’t Be Sure” but there are other great tracks, like “I Won”, “A Certain Someone”, and “My Finest Hour” to recommend the album as well. Because of the way Harriet Wheeler sings Reading, Writing & Arithmetic can sound a little bit the same at first, but after a few listens the songs begin to separate and pop and the album becomes well worth the time invested. A delicate gem that was part of an 80’s first wave/college rock alternative music scene that would soon be radically altered by the success of grunge and 90’s alt rock.

“Flood” – They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants are the kings of indie nerd rock and Flood is their masterwork. The album was able to walk the line between the absurdist indie rock of their first two albums and enough mainstream polish and popcraft to actually receive notice from MTV and other mainstream music outlets. Songs like “Birdhouse In Your Soul”, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”, “Particle Man”, and “Your Racist Friend” were catchy enough to garner mainstream notice without alienating the groups core fans. Meanwhile tracks like “Hearing Aid”, “Letterbox”, “Lucky Ball and Chain”, and “Women & Men” showcase They Might Be Giants’ ability to write songs in almost any musical style while still making the songs uniquely their own.  At nineteen songs Flood may have two or three tracks too many (an issue many albums of the CD era fall prey to) but the truth is that nothing really drags while it is playing so choosing what to cut would be hard.

“Pale” – Toad The Wet Sprocket

Pale is Toad The Wet Sprocket’s second album and their last before breaking through to the big time with their next album Fear.  I like Toad The Wet Sprocket well enough but their music rarely really excited me.  That said, I admit that I didn’t know Pale very well before this project.  I knew and liked the singles “Come Back Down” and “Jam” well enough and I am sure I had listened to the album at some point, but it was not an album I really knew or that I had a strong desire to explore. One of the great things about this project is that sometimes it gives me a reason to explore an album like that and I was shocked at how much I enjoyed Pale.  As an album Pale lacks the polish and sheen that I think hurts some of their later albums but still has the mature feel and world-weary tone that marks the best work of Toad. On Pale the music is allowed to breathe and connect at an emotional level and this really lifts excellent songs like the dreamy “High On A Riverbed”, the muscular “Corporal Brown”, the dark and earthy “Chile”, and the criminally short “Liars Everywhere”.

“Shake Your Money Maker” – The Black Crowes 

With their brand of southern and classic rock revivalism The Black Crowes don’t really fall under almost anybody’s definition of alternative rock; including mine.  That said, they also were completely out of step with pretty much all the other music being made in January 1990. The Black Crowes weren’t new wave or college rock, they weren’t hard rock or hair metal either, and they were not really part of the emerging (but not yet ascendant) grunge and alt rock scene.  They were outliers matching to the beat of their own drum; a drum set to the cadence of The Faces, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, Aeroesmith, and classic Motown and blues artists, and they were fresh and exciting sounding in 1990. Rockers like “Twice As Hard”, “Jealous Again” and their cover of “Hard To Handle” had swagger, groove, and grit, while ballads like “Sister Luck”, “Seeing Things”, and the haunted and harrowing “She Talks To Angels” proved their ability to make an old sound new right from the beginning. In fact, The Black Crowes were rarely so consistent or focused again and that makes Shake Your Money Maker likely their best album.

Albums Re-Imagined: “Rattle & Hum” by U2

Let me start off by saying that I am an album guy. A good album flows well, enhances the songs, and is a work of art above and beyond the individual songs collected on it. One of the tragedies of the digital age of music is the demise of the album as an art form. So, in this project I plan to take albums (some classic and some not) and re-imagine them. In some cases with a goal of making them work better as an album and in others just to see how well they hold up if I mess around a classic. I don’t have hard rules but generally the idea is to mix up the running order, change the opening and closing tracks, and occasionally add in or take out something that I think should or shouldn’t have been there (although I will usually include all studio tracks that the band included on the original album). Feel free to play along and create your own versions of the albums as well and post them in the comments.

Albums Re-Imagined: Rattle & Hum by U2

Listen To The Re-Imagined Album: Rattle & Hum (Re-Imagined)

I figured I would start this project off with an easy one, U2’s 1988 album Rattle & Hum. Rattle & Hum is a perfect candidate to be re-imagined for a variety of reasons. U2 made Rattle & Hum at the end of the 1980’s just as their fame moved into superstar status in the wake of the massive success of the Joshua Tree album and the band thought they could do no wrong. Thus, they indulged their hubris and their love of Americana and made the rockumentary and accompanying album Rattle & Hum which, admittedly, is something of a mess.

Most of the issues which dog Rattle & Hum are fixable though. A major part of the album’s problem is that it can’t decide what it is. Rattle & Hum is an odd mix of new studio songs, reimagined older hits, live versions of hits, little known tracks, and covers of classic American rock songs, and most strangely of all, weirdly included snippets of American culture like Jimi Hendrix’s Woodstock rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and an excerpt from  Satan & Adam’s “Freedom For My People”. These decisions make some sense on paper since Rattle & Hum was meant to serve as the soundtrack accompanying U2’s rockumentary of the same name. However, in practice it just makes the album a mess.

So to fix it I propose treating Rattle & Hum as a traditional studio album. My re-imagined version of Rattle & Hum will cut out all of the weird cultural snippets, the live tracks, the reimagined gospel version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the live cover songs. Instead, it will focus on only the eight new studio tracks and add in three of the albums studio recorded B-sides. Doing this accomplishes a few things. First, it puts the emphasis on the new songs without all of the clutter, and many of these songs are very good if not always up to the level of U2’s best work. Second, it allows Rattle & Hum to be considered as a regular studio album as opposed to the hodgepodge it was. Third, for good or ill (and that may depend on your feelings about U2 at this stage of their career), it creates an album that does what U2 intended. Rattle & Hum explores the history of American roots music and early rock and presents U2’s version of what those influences led to in them (while getting to write and play with some of their heroes). And while it may arguably be true that U2 never sound more Irish than when they are trying to be American, that is what U2 were trying to accomplish here, so love it or hate it that is what my version of Rattle & Hum is and I think it is significantly better than the original album.

 

1. Desire – From its opening riff to its last frenzied note “Desire” is red hot and tense and a much better album opener than the silly live version of “Helter Skelter”.  It also never hurts to open the album with a big hit.

2. Hallelujah Here She Comes – Originally the B-side to the “Desire” single, the song is a pretty song that mixes folk and gospel in an interesting way.  As a song it is far better than nearly all of the live songs I cut off my version and probably better than several of the other studio songs that were included. Placed second after “Desire” it helps to set the Americana tone of the album.

3. Angel Of Harlem – Written as a tribute to jazz singer Billie Holiday “Angel Of Harlem” has a light jazz and soul feel and continues the flow of the Americana theme while also front-loading the singles.

4. All I Want Is You – This one was tough to move in the running order as it is a near perfect closer, with its slow, cinematic build and long symphonic outro. However, it provided a nice tonal shift following my opening trilogy of songs and the long ending, which has a very moody and melancholic feel, flows well into the song I placed after it on my version.

5. Dancing Barefoot – A cover of the Patti Smith indie rock classic, “Dancing Barefoot” is too post-punk in its mood to really fit the Americana theme tightly (although Smith is American) and it was not included on the original release, instead being used as the B-side for “When Love Comes To Town”.  However, U2’s version of “Dancing Barefoot” is stark and stunning and it deserves to be on the album, especially as I cut all of the other covers and its darker mood follows up the symphonic ending of “All I Want Is You” nicely.

6. God Part II – Probably one of the weaker songs included on the original Rattle & Hum, U2’s response to John Lennon’s “God” doesn’t really fit the warm mood or Americana theme of the album especially well, but if there is a place where it may fit well and not overly disrupt them theme of the album it is following the darkly lustful “Dancing Barefoot” that I included.

7. Love Rescue Me – My version of Rattle & Hum strays away from its American roots influence a little in the previous few songs (I think those songs flow better together rather than scattered over the album) but starting here with my track seven – the beautiful and overlooked Bob Dylan-aided “Love Rescue Me” – that roots and Americana feel picks back up and never really goes away again, strongly reinforcing the concept U2 was striving for to begin with.

8. When Love Comes To Town – U2’s duet with blues legend B.B. King on  “When Love Comes To Town” is a perfectly acceptable, if somewhat unremarkable, stab at a blues rock song.  The kind of song that sounds fine while it is playing but doesn’t leave too much of an impression afterwards. However, it picks the pace back up after “Love Rescue Me” and it shows off U2’s impressive credentials with American music legends by putting their duet with B.B. King right after their song with Bob Dylan.

9. A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel – Another B-side left off of the original version of Rattle & Hum, “A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel” obviously pays tribute to Elvis Presley and it is easy enough to imagine The King singing along with them on this song if he were still alive (and thus continuing the run of all-star guest appearances). And while “A Room At The Heartbreak Hotel” is probably not as strong as the other two former B-sides I have included on my version of the album it does sound and feel very much like a hybrid of Elvis and U2’s styles.

10. Heartland – One of the weaker tracks on the original Rattle & Hum, it’s not that “Heartland” is bad, it’s just that it sounds more like an unremarkable outtake from The Joshua Tree than something that should be on Rattle & Hum. That said, it serves as something of a quiet storm and palette cleanser here near the end of the album as we move into our big conclusion.

11. Hawkmoon 269 – I already discussed how “All I Want Is You” is really the perfect closer for this album, but since I moved it as part of re-imagining of the album, another good closing song would be “Hawkmoon 269”. Like “All I Want Is You”, “Hawkmoon 269” builds from a restrained beginning to an epic conclusion. In this case though the song builds to a cinematic and big moment instead of an aching, personal one. Not a bad way to end my version of Rattle & Hum with a bang.

Ten To Hear Again: Soundgarden

Ten To Hear Again: Soundgarden

Listen To The List: Soundgarden – Ten To Hear Again

If the Soundgarden you know best are songs like “Outshined”, “Spoonman”, “Pretty Noose” and “Black Hole Sun”, here are ten to hear again (or for the first time):

Soundgarden was a band that brought together a variety of influences to create their unique sound and then, ultimately,  wove them together in a style that rose above their influences to become something all their own. Soundgarden’s music was definitely influenced by the murky local Seattle sound that ultimately became known as grunge, and the band was rightly seen as one of the pioneers of that sound.  However, Soundgarden also relied heavily on the heavy riffing of metal bands like Black Sabbath, the bombastic arena rock tendencies of groups like Led Zeppelin, flourishes of harcore punk, trippy pyschedelia, and elements of pop as well. These threads increasingly came together to create Soundgarden’s trademark sound and to make them one of the heaviest, most varied, and most successful of the grunge bands.  So, if the Soundgarden you know best are songs like “Outshined”, “Spoonman”, “Pretty Noose” and “Black Hole Sun”, here are ten to hear again:

 

  1. “Slaves & Bulldozers” – From the album Badmotorfinger

Combining elements of plodding metal, trippy psychedelia, and grunge murkiness “Slaves & Bulldozers” is the secret gem of Soundgarden’s breakthrough album Badmotorfinger; a powerful mishmash of styles that proved Soundgarden had arrived.  One listen to “Slaves & Bulldozers” shows why Soundgarden could be nominated for a Grammy for best Metal album in the years before grunge was recognized as a distinct style of its own.  “Slaves & Bulldozers” also rivalled the singles for the honor of being the best song on Badmotorfinger and served as proof that their album tracks could rival their singles, an issue that plagued their early records.  Absolute power.

 

  1. “My Wave” – From the album Superunknown

While “My Wave” was released as the fourth of five singles from Soundgarden’s landmark album Superunknown it was easily the least well known of those singles.  Featuring a fat power chord on the verses that gives way to a psychedelic squall on the chorus ,“My Wave” finds guitarist Kim Thayil and bassist Ben Sheppard working in tandem to create something that is both pummeling and that has real forward momentum.  This serves as a perfect musical bed for Cornell’s lyrics that equate keeping the world’s problems off “my wave” as the music has a weight that rushes forward and eventually breaks. “My Wave” is one of Soundgarden’s better more direct moments.

 

  1. “Hands All Over” – From the album Louder Than Love 

Longtime fans of the band will know this song as “Hands All Over” was a single from Louder Than Love, the last Soundgarden album to be released before grunge broke as a national phenomena and Soundgarden had their commercial breakthrough.  “Hands All Over” combines Soundgarden’s love of Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in a way that may not yet be totally unique but that is, without a doubt, both powerful and impressive.  “Hands All Over”, in my opinion, is Soundgarden’s best pre-Badmotorfinger moment and is a song that casual fans of the group should know along with the later hits.

 

  1. “Mind Riot” – From the album Badmotorfinger 

Grunge rock always had two sides to it:  It was half heavy metal and half punk rock.  Indeed, this marriage of styles was what made it a unique style and what caused its sound to vary so much from band to band.  Soundgarden, for the most part, fell firmly on the more metal-driven side of grunge, and that feeling of metallic weight and sonic power can be heard on “Mind Riot”.  Yet, for all that, something about “Mind Riot” has always felt like a punk rock song to me in its attitude.  “Mind Riot” also has just a touch of pop melody running through it and while it was hard to hear at the time, in hindsight, one can hear the song pointing forward to Chris Cornell’s more streamlined solo career as well.  Indeed, I always felt “Mind Riot” would have made a great fourth single from Badmotorfinger.

 

  1. “Girl U Want” – From the EP Satanoscillatemymetallicsonatas 

“Girl U Want” is Soundgarden’s fairly faithful cover of a song by new wave pioneers Devo (yes, Devo!).  Soundgarden slow it down a little and give it a heavier and more menacing tone, but it is clearly not a radical rewrite.  Where the Devo version exudes waves of sexual frustration, Soundgarden’s evokes a dark feeling of building lust and so takes on its own tone, while still being faithful to the original.  Originally included on an EP packaged with early copies of Badmotorfinger “Girl U Want” was given wider release when it was included on the B-sides and rarities package Echo Of Miles.

 

  1. “Fresh Tendrils” – From the album Superunknown 

Co-written with drummer Matt Cameron, who has a gift for writing melancholy rockers with just a hint of pop appeal (a talent he would soon take to Pearl Jam where he would end their revolving door of drummers and co-write underappreciated songs like “You Are”). “Fresh Tendrils” has the feel of a massive beast rising from the water and plodding across the land to, slowly and inexorably, catch and destroy you.  It has a sense of inevitability and power that feels like Soundgarden even while largely avoiding the murk of Soundgarden’s earlier work. “Fresh Tendrils” is definitely one of the highlights of their highly lauded album Superunknown; and while it is hard to argue with any of the five songs chosen as singles “Fresh Tendrils” sure feels like it could have been a hit.

 

  1. “A Thousand Days Before” – From the album King Animal 

After an acrimonious breakup and an eighteen year hiatus Soundgarden roared back in 2012 with King Animal and it sounds like nothing has happened in the intervening years. This, by the way, should be considered a good thing as the band pays no attention to current trends or, for the most part, Chris Cornell’s solo career and time with Audioslave, and just returns the metallic shredding and murky grunge they were known for in the early 90’s.  The one song that perhaps is a bit of an exception is shiny and lightly psychedelic “A Thousand Days Before”. This song doesn’t feel out of place on an album that followed Superunknown and Down On The Upside but would have been out of place on some of Soundgarden’s early, sludgy works.  “A Thousand Days Before” is undeniably rock, but it does feel produced more like a pop song and it works, giving the song a near epic gloss that follows in the footsteps of, although never quite achieves, the feeling of Led Zeppelin.

 

  1. “Rhinosaur” – From the album Down On The Upside 

Down On The Upside was both a move forward and a retreat from Superunknown.  The album pushed the psychedelic elements more to the fore while also simultaneously returning to the harder edged production of earlier records.  This can help or hinder depending on the song but in the case of the crunchy, riff-driven “Rhinosaur” it works superbly and makes this bone-breaking mauler one of the best tracks on Down On The Upside.

 

  1. “Like Suicide” – From the album Superunknown 

I debated whether or not to include this track due to the circumstances of Cornell’s death, but it is one of the band’s best non-singles and closes out their magnum opus Superunknown perfectly.  Slow building desperation set to a musical framework that straddles the line between early and late Soundgarden.  It’s a classic even if it has become more haunting in the years since his death.

 

  1. “Rowing” – From the album King Animal 

“Rowing” opens with a gang chant rhythm and a lyric that is defiant in the face of problems.  The song briefly rises above the pain and conflict with Cornell wailing his defiance above a full band stomp, but the song ends somewhat ambiguously when it falls back into the prison gang feel of the opening for the end.  In my opinion, it is one of the more interesting and effective songs on King Animal.