Friday, April 29, 2011

What I Been Listenin' To

I can't tell if the 90's Hit Parade is preventing me from writing anything else, or if it's the only reason I'm getting anything written. At any rate, here's an update on stuff I've been listening to over the last few months.

Winter of 2011, I've been listening pretty obsessively to Kraftwerk, Faust, Eno and Berlin-era Bowie. The explanation of why is fairly straightforward: been following the Pushing Ahead of the Dame blog, which got me wanting to check out Low and "Heroes" (heard them each once before, I think). This lead me to Bowie's collaborator on these albums, Brian Eno. A few years ago, I had set about getting all his 70's solo discs when they were all reissued, but after Here Come the Warm Jets, I got distracted. So now, I went back and got aholt to Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Another Green World and Before and After Science (next up: My Life in the Bush of Ghosts). Kraftwerk were an important influence on these albums, and I've never really listened to them much, so I started investigating some of their mid-70's output. And then that made me think, you know, I've never really given Faust their day in court, maybe I should check them out. I'm sure none of that's very interesting, but hopefully the following paragraphs will be. First, let's back up.

When I was 18, my favorite band was the Butthole Surfers. They sounded like the inside of my brain felt during those years: the chaos and confusion, the repressed energy, the urge to scream and throw things, the feeling of being bound in my body. Another explanation is that there are two kinds of music I really like. I love weird music, music that doesn't sound like anything I've ever heard before. And I like really kick ass rock n roll. There are weirder bands, there are bands that rock harder, but I don't think there's any band that does both so well at the same time. So another way of putting this is that they succeed in sounding new and exciting, and sounding like something I already liked at the same time. To some extent, this is also true of Pussy Galore, Chrome, Shockabilly, Half Japanese, Geza X, Foetus, The Residents, Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Jimi Hendrix. These were all bands I became obsessed with at some point. But there was another group of bands that I wasn't as interested in, mostly British post punk* stuff. Bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Gang of Four, The Fall and Kraftwerk turned me off when I heard them. I didn't necessarily hate these bands, but when you're making a decision about what to listen to or buy, you tend to go for what you already like. Most of this is not even the result of a fair hearing: I heard one Fall album once in 1984 and concluded that I wasn't a fan. I'm sure I've heard Cabaret Voltaire somewhere along the way, but I can't even conjure what they actually sound like, only what I think they would sound like. Considering how long it took me to fully appreciate Sonic Youth, Minutemen or Captain Beefheart, dismissing these bands was extremely unfair.

To give you an idea of what I disliked about this stuff, check out the above song by Gang of Four (a song I taped off the short-lived free-form station WCEZ (Z-97) that broadcast out of Ft. Pierce, FL in the early 80's). It's a cool little song, nasty guitar solo at the end, but the way the singer is doing this dry, emotionless thing just doesn't work for me. Why would someone try to sound like that? Now, when I listened to Butthole Surfers records, it sounded to my ears like chaos, like paint splattered across a wall, like the manic paintings of Robert Williams. This appealed to me. With Gang of Four and some of these other bands, they make me think of Bauhaus design, clean lines and mechanical precision, which did not appeal to me at the time. This is, of course, how teenagers listen to music (and experience the world): by dividing everything into "good" and "bad." So if I love Butthole Surfers, I must hate bands that make me feel the opposite. Of course, as you grow up, you abandon these prejudices one by one. And so, over the last year, having pretty much accumulated all the punk albums I'd been interested back then, I started spending my eMusic bucks on some of this stuff that I hadn't liked so much the first time around. First up was Wire. I've had their first album, Pink Flag, for a while, and always liked it, so I tried their slightly more out there second album, Chair Missing. Chair Missing has some good songs, but too much drone stuff, which frankly bores me.

Next up: Public Image Ltd. Now, I've always thought these guys were OK, but I kind of had the feeling that without their previously famous singer, they wouldn't be nearly as well loved. So I downloaded Second Edition (aka The Metal Box). Can't say I like all of it, but there are some fine tunes on here: "Death Disco" with guitarist Keith Levine (more the star of the band than Lydon, if you ask me) throwing out lightning bolts of harmonics, "Poptones" with Levine doing weird swirley arpeggios, and of course, "Albatross." I can't be the only one to have noticed that Michael totally jacked this bassline for "Billie Jean," can I?

OK, so I wasn't that big on Wire or PiL. You know what British post-punk band is really awesome? Swell Maps.

Damn, that song is great. But we're getting away from my thesis, because Swell Maps are the kind of messy, chaotic punk that I always liked. So let's get back to Kraftwerk, who were always the epitome of the kind of band I didn't like. I started out with Autobahn, which is kind of neat, lots of long jams and interesting harmonic compositions. Then I moved on to Trans Europa Express, which is much more like what I always imagined Kraftwerk to sound like. Now, listen to this song:

It's like a piece of clockwork, so neat and symmetrical. That's not the kind of thing I'm usually attracted to in music, but it's equally fascinating in its own way.

Faust were an even bigger surprise. I swear I heard them on college radio back in the 90's, and my memory of them is that they would just jam on one chord for 20 minutes. (An interview in L.A. Record has me thinking that what I heard must have been their collaboration with Tony Conrad.) But the actual Faust albums I've been listening to are nuts! They don't sound anything like I thought they did. More than anything, they remind me of the Vampiros Lesbos soundtrack, just wacky psychedelic experimental stuff. I might even like them better than Can!

And Bowie? Well, back in the 80's/90's, I could never quite figure Bowie out. I liked some of his songs, but I could never really figure out what HE was about, or what he was trying to do. It was the movies Velvet Goldmine and Hedwig and the Angry Inch--both riffing on his Ziggy Stardust persona--that gave me an "in" to Bowie. I felt like they somehow managed to convey his aesthetic to me. So I began listening to the glam rock stuff. I finally internalized that stuff enough that I can move on to the weird, late 70's records. Interesting albums: at first they sound very weird, then after a couple listens it's surprising just how NORMAL they sound. And then they start slowly revealing their REALLY weird aspects. I particularly like the lyrics to this song off Low:

*I never liked the term "post punk," since all "post punk" bands are directly descended from the Velvet Underground, and all "straight up punk" bands are descended from the Stooges, who came around like three years after the Velvets, so really, The Ramones and Sex Pistols should be caled "post punk," and Wire and Joy Division should be called "punk."

90's Hit Parade #69

A description of what happened immediately after the above performance, from Sara Marcus' book Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Movement:

At the end of the song, the show launched into its next segment, an videotaped interview with a pair of Playboy models called the Barbi Twins. As the tape played, Jo and some of her friends regrouped, fuming. They'd been under no illusions about the nature of The Word, but it was disturbing how the show could absorb their provocations without so much as a blink, and then move on to a couple of self-described bimbos.

They edged up to the fake living room set where the boyish blond host, Terry Christian, was preparing to move things along. When the Barbi Twins segment was finished, Jo shouted--loud enough to be heard by over a million viewers across Britain--"So, Terry, you think all fucking women are shit, do you?"

"Ooh," Christian said, as if a three-year-old had just stepped on his foot.

"Crap!" the girls hollered. "Crap! Crap! Crap!"

The host's smile held fast to his face. "So did you like those young ladies?"

The girls booed boisterously. Others in the audience cheered or woofed, Arsenio-style. Cut to aerial view of the studio: the place was in an uproar. Militant fists beat against the air.

"I think somebody's out to make a name for themselves," Christian simpered, barely audible above the crowd. He said it again, but this time the screams from the audience jumped an octave. No cameras panned the studio now. Nobody in Brighton or Birmingham saw bouncers pounce on the girls and drag them from the studio.

Chris Rowley, left behind, shouted something inaudible that, whatever it was, pulled Christian off message. "Come up here, mate," the host challenged the musician, the violence beneath his grin peaking through like wallpaper glue. A beat. Christian rubbed his hands together as if washing them clean. Showed a dozen teeth, his lips rolling tensely.

"We'll be back after the break," he said, smooth again. And wasn't that just the problem? They always were back after the break. No matter how great the tupture, the regularly scheduled programming always prevailed.

But the programming also served as a vehicle for the rupture, and the kids who saw it were electrified. "My God!!!" one Melody Maker reader wrote in from Derby. "I've just seen Huggy Bear on "The Word" and they were WAY more exciting than Nirvana...I just can't help worshipping them!" Another reader, from Devon, gushed that the show "made me feel proud to be a babe with attitude--they were THERE, saying what I would have liked to."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

90's Hit Parade #70

Phish - Lawn Boy

Did I just lose the meager stack of credibility I had accumulated since I started this blog? Look, obviously, Phish are not the mind-bending, universe-expanding, game-changing band that their annoying phans (har!) believe them to be, but they're also not the horrible ear-rapists that people who've mostly never heard them think. How do I know they haven't heard them? Because whenever someone starts bitching about Phish, they always call them a "Grateful Dead rip off," and Phish really don't sound anything like the Dead. Phish sound more like a cross between King Crimson, They Might Be Giants and...I dunno...The Police (actually, they really sound like Gentle Giant, but who's ever heard of them?). The problem is, Phish are a band that are totally wrong about what their strengths are. They write good, occasionally great songs, and they're very talented musicians in terms of executing their off-kilter compositions and creating an appropriate mood for each song, but as soloists, they're boring as hell. They just don't have the chops, or an interesting enough style, to hold my interest for an 8-minute solo. I'm sure if I were to confront them with this critique, they'd be like "Oh man, we're not about showing off, you know, we're just trying to create a mood." There might even be some truth to that. Back in the late 90's, there was an internet radio station streaming random full live Phish shows 24-7. I listened to it at work a lot, and it was perfect work music: relaxing, pleasant but not too distracting. But to actively, attentively listen to live Phish is to be bored.

So I recommend their studio albums, of which Lawn Boy is by far my favorite. The songs are a bit more prickly than on some of their later albums, and even the long jam parts hold my interest. I particularly like the late night vibe on the title track. It has the same feeling as an early 70's mellow-out song like, say, Black Sabbath's "Planet Caravan" or ZZ Top's "Blue Jean Blues." Great lyrics, too, about going out to piss on your lawn in the wee hours and absorbing the dewy aromas of the plant kingdom.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Give Us Barabbas!

Happy Easter, everybody!

Friday, April 22, 2011


The 90's Hit Parade will return next week at it's regularly scheduled time.

Friday, April 15, 2011

90's Hit Parade #71

Primus - My Name is Mud

Primus are probably not the most hip band these days, since they're generally associated with the maligned genre of "funk metal" (perhaps inaccurate, but they do have that big, thumping bass right up front), and with the "jam rock" scene, AND are self-identified disciples of Rush, AND occasionally drop some juvenile humor ("Wynona's Big Brown Beaver"). That's basically the perfect formula to attract the hatred and derision of every indie hipster in North America. But they're a much weirder band then most folks'll give 'em credit for. Anyway, this is by far their best song. "My Name is Mud" is basically a character sketch. And that's it's strength: everything in this song is in service of character. The vocals and the music bolster the lyrics. It's like a little cartoon characiture (fuck you, spells check, I've tried like 20 ways to spell that word and you say they're all wrong so I'm just spelling it how I think it should be spelled!) of this murderous hick. You can just see the guy!

A couple of notes: first, I'm going on vacation this week (in fact, when this posts, I'll be on my way to the airport). I intended to do two of these ahead of time and program them to post next week, but I'm taking this online class, I'm sick, I'm getting ready for the trip and just fuck it. So expect no posts next week. I'll be back the following Tuesday with a band that will piss off more hipsters than Primus.

Second, a lot of people are doing themed music blogging (or tumblng) these days. Here's my favorite: Liz's 1001 albums. Most music blogs are, of course, by obsessive music geeks. Liz is not an obsessive music geek. She's the kind who never really listened to much music. Now she's going through a book called 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, listening to one a day and reviewing it. This is an amazing blog, because she has no context other than mass pop culture. For example, "Def Leppard is one of those bands that were the reason I started this project. I'd heard of them...they existed in my brain as "a band that exists" but couldn't, gun to my hand, tell you a damn thing about them. For all I knew, they were the best damn boy band this side of the Mississippi." So she's constantly having these revelations like "REM...did not know they were around in the early 80's. Learn something new everyday." It's also very cool because the book she's working from has both big pop hits and critically acclaimed cult albums. Her reactions to Captain Beefheart and Throbbing Gristle are hilarious. But it's also sometimes surprising: she surprises herself by enjoying Iron Maiden and Motorhead! I could say a lot more, but just look through the blog, it's one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in a while. Anyway, here's some more Primus:

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

90's Hit Parade #72

Cornelius - Count Five or Six

When I worked in Santa Monica, I would sometimes listen to KXLU, the only real indie station operating within Los Angeles. It's a cool station: it was the college station at Loyola Marymount College, and when the trustees decided to defund it, the students basically kept it alive as a listener-supported station, with the DJ's giving away mix tapes as giving incentives. You couldn't get it in on my side of town, but I sometimes listened on my commute. And to be honest, most of the time I was a little bored by it: here it was, 1998, and most of what they played sounded to me a lot like Sonic Youth, Big Black, Mudhoney or Sebadoh. I found it a bit disheartening that this was the most interesting stuff they could dig up. But there were moments when the station really impressed or delighted me. One day, leaving work, I cranked up the car and heard some strange music with a shiny, cartoonish sound over a hip hop beat. I really liked it. Right after came something that sounded like an exceptionally rocking Sonic Youth song with a catchy Beach Boys-esque vocal harmony on the chorus. Then a quiet, almost exotica-like song, again with the vocal influence of the Beach Boys (even had a Woo-ooh-ooh on the chorus), and then this thing posted above, with robotic counting in various time signatures overlayed with heavy metal guitar riffs. "Man," I said to myself, "they're playing some great stuff today. I gotta find out who some of these bands are." When the DJ finally came on to back announce, I found out that this was ALL THE SAME BAND. He had been playing the entire first side of Cornelius' album Fantasma.

The shorthand phrase people used to introduce Cornelius at the time (my friend Zane talked to me about him maybe a week after the KXLU incident, and sent me a dubbed cassette of the album) was "the Japanese Beck," a phrase which could make certain music geeks (eg, me) nearly explode with excitement. It was two years past the release of Beck's Odelay, a revelatory work that I was sure would spawn dozens of exciting copycats and offshoots. And yet no one seemed to be following the lead. I kind of think I like Fantasma even more than Odelay, but at any rate they are easily my two favorite works of the latter half of the 90's.

I strongly considered not including anything from Fantasma on this list, because the nature of the album is so cumulative that individual songs lose their impact when isolated (I think the same is true of Odelay), but I decided I just had to use something from this one. The obvious choice would be "Magoo Opening" (up until a couple minutes ago, I thought the title of this track was "Monkey," and I had always referred to it as such), but that's not really much of a song, is it? "Count Five or Six" has the same sensibility, but is a bit more developed. My point is, BUY THIS ALBUM.

Bonus Beat: DJ Shadow - The Number Song

Because these two songs seem to go together nicely, and because I don't have any Shadow on my list, which is probably unforgivable (again, he's more of an album artist than a singles artist).

Saturday, April 09, 2011

90's Hit Parade #73

Royal Trux - Ray O Vac

OK, I'm running a bit late this week, but here it is. People sometimes talk about the split up of Pussy Galore as if it were a divorce settlement: Jon Spencer got the flash and charisma, Neil Hagerty got the songwriting chops (Jon might have gotten the better end of that deal, as there was probably more of the former to go around). I'm not sure that's quite right, but it's probably not worth obsessing over: I think Pussy Galore, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Royal Trux are all great bands in their own way (Boss Hog, too!). According to Wikipedia, it was Hagerty who came up with the idea of Pussy Galore covering all of the Stones' Exile on Main Street on a cassette release, which makes sense. Royal Trux have a great sound that evokes early 70's blooze rock (Exile-era Stones, Neil Young & Crazy Horse, maybe The Faces) filtered through a punk rock grunge aesthetic (they particularly evoke Red Cross' Born Innocent--Jennifer Herrema's amazing vocal style even sounds a lot like the McDonald Bros. c. 1982). That's not really unusual, I guess. A lot of late-80's-through-the-90's indie rock is the sound of kids who traded all their 70's rock records when they got into Black Flag, then a few years later came back to them. Hell, Nirvana is exhibit A here, right? But somehow, Royal Trux's sound is so integrated, as if this were just how bands were supposed to sound. The combo of Hagerty's fluid slide guitar and Herrema's schoolboy growl produces, through some strange alchemy, one of the coolest sounds in the 90's rock canon.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

90's Hit Parade #74

A Tribe Called Quest - Can I Kick It?

Nice video for the remix, but of course the album mix is what we're talking about here. From about 1984 to the end of the 80's, rap was flowing in one direction: harder. From Run DMC to Public Enemy to NWA, and every step in between, it was all about sounding hard. So it really was a little revolution when De La Soul showed up with their bouncy little tunes based on Schoolhouse Rock songs. And then came the Tribe, with their cool, jazzy sound. Together, they constituted a radical rethinking about what it meant to be a b-boy.

Not all the samples on that first ATCQ album were actually from jazz records, but most of them sounded like it. Such is the case with the most recognizable sample on the album (at least if you grew up listening to rock), Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," which powers "Can I Kick It?" This was about the same time I was busy dissing Hammer and Vanilla Ice for building songs on clearly recognizable samples, so "Kick It" challenged me a bit to justify how much I loved it. I guess the remix above can justify it fine--it sounds just as good without Lou--or the scratching on the intstrumental bridge, oh it's so nice! But I reckon the fact that, 20 years on, nobody listens to "Can't Touch This" or "Ice Ice Baby" but people still rock this jam has to count for something, right? When the brothers all start to bob their head, from the high tops to the natty dreds, this is the song they're bobbing to.

Friday, April 01, 2011

90's Hit Parade #75

Elastica - Connection

Slick, high-gloss pop from a rock band, like the INXS of the 90's. No, that's not quite right. Garbage are the INXS of the 90's, and Elastica are like the cool version of Garbage. Oh hell, I don't know, this is just a really cool pop song. I like how it starts out with a stiff, fake DEVO beat (it was years later that I found out they were ripping off a Wire song), then ESPLODES into this full rock sound punctuated by descending guitar stabs. I don't have a lot to say about this song, I just think it's awesome, and I'm trying to get this done quickly before I have to leave. ONE QUARTER THROUGH, BITCHES!