Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1993

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. Click over yonder to review Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Hyden ventures away from Seattle in his review of 1993, focusing on the acts that made it big from his closest metropolis as a teenager and my hometown: Chicago.

My expectations for this segment were far too lofty. But that's understandable. Of all my musical passions in life, this "moment" was the most inextricable from my own existence. I graduated high school and found the profound liberation that is college life. Those events were inextricably linked with the development of my passion as a music fan. Plus, it certainly didn't hurt that 18-and-over shows were suddenly events available to me. It was the first real awakening of my life; the music couldn't have mattered more. And the Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream was the album that it all centered around. It was the first record I truly connected with. I even believed with great certainty that Billy Corgan and I had nearly everything in common. Perish the thought...

But I had very little to do with the other two albums Hyden covers. Liz Phair was undoubtedly important, giving an indie voice to women that hadn't existed. If mainstream trends are founded on grassroots movements that comprise the initial foundation, then Phair opened the door for Tori Amos, Fiona Apple, and every Lilith Fair. Hyden's take on the album is awfully cogent:

"I found Guyville titillating and unnerving, which is essentially how I felt at the time about every girl I had ever met. In my world, women had all of the power, which created a not-quite-healthy mix of worship and resentment of femininity that’s common to a lot of boys that age."
That's my soul up there, man. Or at least it definitely was in 1993.

He then gets into Urge Overkill, a band that held my interest for all of twelve minutes or so. The rock world didn't stick around a whole lot longer. This is all backdrop to tackle the concept of "selling out" - tremendously important in 1993. And Hyden provides great context here, quoting the gleefully dickish Steve Albini. Albini raised the torch of the true underground.
"To Albini, indie-ness was both a science and an evangelical religion; he could be persuasively pragmatic about how bands were better off personally and creatively treating music as a pastime rather than a job, and then land patently insulting roundhouse blows against anyone dumb, silly, or unlucky enough to disagree with his fiercely held views."
It never struck me that there were so many levels to the notion of selling out to the mainstream and being true underground. Without a doubt, I would have been declared a poseur by many. I must admit that in my life, I used people's taste in music to judge them. But this was never more true than in 1993. Let's put it into context. Despite the success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam, most people were still into some pretty terrible music and pop culture in general. Zubaz pants were only one year past their peak, for instance. Most of my high school class was into the Grateful Dead or classic rock. To be with the kids that gravitated toward something new was to refute the status quo.

It took me years and years to stop judging people based on their personal tastes. Today it is totally irrelevant to me, but perhaps at the time taste was a clearer indicator of character than anything. There was, for those brief couple of years, a difference between people who liked Pegboy and those who liked The Beatles. There was something reliable about each group. So while Albini may have been tilting at windmills, he at least did so with a worthy point.

Meanwhile, at the very same time, something was starting in alternative music that would never be stopped. That something was perfectly embodied by the Spin Doctors. A crappy band with a crappy name and crappy songs packaged to appeal to the Alternative generation. Perhaps Hyden is leaving them alone for now to lump them in with Candlebox and Collective Soul when we get to 1994. But the hijacking of the movement had already begun. I mention this now because it is central to the issue. If someone said they were a fan of "alternative music", yet hit the town wearing a Spin Doctors t-shirt, you could immediately tell that they weren't part of any scene.

Back to the band at hand - Smashing Pumpkins. As I said, at 18 this album was one of the most important things I'd ever owned. I went to two of their warm-up gigs at Metro, assuming the next time they came through Chicago it would be at the Aragon, then the UIC Pavilion, then Soldier Field. In a way, those were the last shows I saw as an impressionable youth. Just a couple months later, the band was taking the world by storm, and I had to play up the fact that I had the EPs, not just the albums. I was still trying to show how cool I was by talking up a band everybody already knew.

We all know what Billy Corgan became. And I was one of the last people to acknowledge it. Hyden sums up what happened to the band thusly:
"Like Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog’s masterpiece of megalomania, Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, Corgan kept the band together to satisfy his maniacal pursuit of endless power and riches. In Aguirre, Kinski ends up adrift on a lonely stretch of the Amazon with a raft full of corpses and wild monkeys; Corgan had better transportation, riding the stainless steel perfection of Siamese Dream’s impeccably conceived guitar-rock hymns straight to the promised land."
The point here is that he was selling out from day one. Whether Corgan was always a nutty egomaniacal asshole could probably be easily determined. But I don't care to make that determination. For me, 1993 will always be the year that I broke out and it wouldn't have happened without this music. By the next year, the alternative scene ship had wrecked. At the very least, I had to start choosing friends on a more substantive basis. All part of growing up.

But let's make sure we end on a high note. 18-year-old me is somewhere in this mosh pit. See if you can find me. I'm the one going crazy...

Part 5 was posted today, which means I'm behind (as usual). Feel free to dig into that one here.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

It will make you shake a turkey

Overheard this track on EdWord's latest podcast. It was far too compelling not to share with the rest of you. Play it loud.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Top 50 Albums of the 00s - #19: Band of Horses - Everything All The Time

Yep, we're counting down the top 50. Click here for overview and criteria.

The album sets out floating on dreamy waves that have no real business on a rock record. Ben Bridwell's vocals are so high pitched they border on whining. But the track is really just there to set the scene. It's by contrasting with the opener that the record finds its groove. Hell, they couldn't even think of a good name, calling it "The First Song." Might as well have just used "Amuse-bouche." When "Wicked Gil" kicks in with its pulsing riffs, it sounds like Swervedriver by comparison.

Band of Horses
was founded by Bridwell and Mat Brooke in Seattle when their previous group, Carissa's Wierd fell apart. I knew very little about that band, but must say I'm not sad to hear that they are no more. The obvious highlight on the record is the catchy single, "The Funeral." The song did so well on the indie circuit that the band had problems dealing with the success. Leveraging off the rampup of the first three tracks, "The Funeral" is meant to be ironically positive, and the music is downright triumphant. You can't ignore this song. It would have been fine if they had made that the record's centerpiece and left it at that. But every tune that follows brings its own importance. These are songs with some weight. Despite the ambiguous lyrics, they somehow matter. Well, maybe not "Weed Party" but it's fun enough that you can forgive its levity.

The ebbs and flows of the album pass quickly (it's only 36 minutes long) and we arrive at the end way before we're ready to be done listening. I have always been a sucker for harmonies, perhaps because I can sing along with my mediocre voice. In quiet moments, the vocals resemble echoes of one another. It's a unique sound that gets deep into my head every time I hear it. "St. Augustine" in particular will stay with me for days on end. Unfortunately after this release, Brooke left the band and even though the subsequent records are solid in their own ways, they haven't captured that subtle soul since. Everything All The Time remains both a testament to their collaboration and in heavy rotation on my stereo. I don't expect that to change anytime soon.

Please enjoy some lo-fi videos...

The Funeral

I Go To the Barn Because I Like The


Previous Entries:
#20 - The Lawrence Arms - Oh! Calcutta!
#21 - Amy Winehouse - Back to Black
#22 - Mission of Burma - The Obliterati
#23 - Don Caballero - World Class Listening Problem
#24 - The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
#25 - Tapes 'n Tapes - The Loon
#26 - Kings of Leon - Aha Shake Heartbreak
#27 - Idlewild - 100 Broken Windows
#28 - Common - Be
#29 - The Futureheads - News and Tributes

The Alternative 90s: The AV Club's Retrospective: 1992

Here we continue to react to the Steven Hyden's take on the Alternative 90s. We started with Part 1 here.

In covering 1992, Hyden focuses almost exclusively on Pearl Jam, using them to highlight the double-edged sword that is massive mainstream popularity. Hyden does excellent research here and has penned what is so far the best column in the series. The backstory on Pearl Jam is far more fascinating than I realized.

Honestly, the band never interested me that much. By the end of my freshman year of college, they were by far the most popular band in the world (of college freshmen) to the point where there had to be a painstaking explanation prepared for every guy wearing a dirty white baseball cap that couldn't understand where I was coming from. And this is really the whole point of Hyden's latest. How could a band that seemingly had no desire to be universally liked end up being the most popular band of its era? And what the hell are they supposed to do once they find themselves in that situation?

But first the setup. Hyden talks about how they arrived:

"I hated that the chorus didn’t tell you what 'even flow' was supposed to be, and the line about thoughts arriving like butterflies sounded like a bad Natalie Merchant lyric. Still, the video for 'Even Flow' succeeded in doing for Pearl Jam what the 'Pour Some Sugar On Me' video had done for Def Leppard four summers earlier: It made you wish really hard that Pearl Jam would come somewhere near your town very soon."
And that sounds about right. All of Ten is basically a series of riffs lifted from one Jimi Hendrix song - Voodoo Chile (Slight Return). That happens to be one of the greatest songs in the history of everything, so they certainly could have chosen worse. (Incidentally, hearing Even Flow can't help but remind me of Adam Sandler's caricature of Eddie Veder. That happen to you?)

There's no denying that Pearl Jam was the right place at the right time. No reasonable fan would consider them virtuosos in any respect. But to this day Eddie Vedder makes for a compelling frontman, the most accessible of the Alternative movement.
"As Vedder and his increasingly marginalized supporting cast distanced themselves from the record’s gauche chest-thumping by churning out progressively restrained, more 'mature,' and less expressive music, Ten was dusted off by other bands and recycled again and again. Today, Pearl Jam is a popular touring band and intermittently successful on the charts; Ten, meanwhile, is still all over modern-rock radio, though only a handful of the songs are actually by Pearl Jam."
The point is, it's nearly impossible to stay on top while doing something in earnest. I would add that it doesn't help if you're not a very talented band to begin with. As much as I am ragging on the band here, you have to give them credit. They could have gone the route that nearly every popular band from the 90s went. To "Jonas Brothers" it up. But they took another path.
"Pearl Jam isn’t the first veteran rock band to see a decrease in fans as it got older. But it’s the best example of a band deliberately expediting the process."

Hyden finishes by noting that with 20/20 hindsight we can easily identify that the band (and therefore the year 1992) represented a fulcrum for the direction of Alternative music.
"For three years, Vedder occupied a unique and important place in mainstream rock; that he allowed it to be taken over by people like Scott Stapp isn’t unforgivable, just unfortunate."
It's impossible to argue with that statement.

Part of me will forever associate Seattle with the early 90s grunge scene. My brother lived there for several years. I've visited twice. I've made many friends from that city. But even though it should have, my impression hasn't changed. Maybe because of the age I was and the way a person forms perspective. It's 2010, and I still view the Emerald City through flannel-colored glasses. That's not just unfair but ridiculous. And yet I'm sure that millions of people around the country think the same way.

Back to the topic at hand. Pearl Jam never meant very much to me, even as they were capturing all the hearts and minds surrounding me. Hence, I don't find myself caring that much about their story. In fact, I often forget they even exist. Futhermore, I forget that they were not only a part of the movement, but one of the two or three most important bands in it. But like I said, it's a fascinating story. This is a superb piece and you can tell Hyden is building to something even better. I can't wait for the next one. Good thing it comes out today.

Monday, November 15, 2010