Tuesday, September 27, 2011

90's Hit Parade #26

So I've been thinking about it (obviously), and I've decided that Smashing Pumpkins are my favorite of the big "alternative rock" bands of the 90's. Nothing against Nirvana, they're a kick ass band, but not really one of my favorites. Don't particularly like Pearl Jam, Soundgarden are OK but a bit too slick and stiff, Red Hot Chili Peppers already had their best days behind them by the time they hit it big, and I think most people would agree that Green Day, Offspring, Alice in Chains, No Doubt, etc. were second-stringers. The real competition would be Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails and Hole. Hole's Live Through This is probably my favorite album of that era, but they never really followed it up with anything as good. Rage are awesome, but let's face it, they make music for 16-year-olds. I like to crank up a few Rage songs now and then and feel 16 again, but it's not like I listen to them a lot. And while NIN probably have the most impressive body of work, I never quite warmed to that goth/industrial sound. So Smashing Pumpkins win by default. (I do prefer Jane's Addiction, but I think of them separately--if I remember correctly, they were already in the process of breaking up when Nevermind was topping the charts.)

Which is a funny conclusion, because while I always liked the band, I've never spent a lot of time thinking about them, and until this year didn't actually own any of their albums (I have since corrected this via iTunes). But their first three (maybe even four) albums form a pretty impressive body of work that represents the era well. When I first heard their first record, I remember thinking they sounded a lot like Jane's Addiction. In fact, that's what everyone thought, which is funny because nobody thinks that anymore. We just think of them as Smashing Pumpkins. But it's a great stoner rock album, veering back and forth between Blue Cheer-style heavy metal mayhem and dreamy, mellow psychedelia all while keeping a steady acid groove. It's repetitive, but I find it enjoyable throughout. They kicked it up a notch on Siamese Dream, keeping the heavy metal stuff but adding a knack for writing great radio-friendly pop songs in the Pixies/Cheap Trick vein, and a note of morose sulking courtesy of The Cure and Depeche Mode. And it all worked together, made a great sound and a really impressive album. And then we get to Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, which is not so much an album as a monumental act of hubris.

Melon Collie is, in some ways, the final statement of the "grunge" era, which I always think of as consisting of kids who grew up on 70's classic rock, then got rid of all their old albums when they got into punk, then a few years later remembered that they really did like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, and began trying to reconcile the two schools. Melon Collie is the final rejection of the idea that one must choose, that if you like The Ramones you have to hate Yes (or whatever). If anything, it rejects the whole punk rock ideology and attempts to one-up Physical Graffiti and Tales from Topographic Oceans. I'm tempted to say that it's impossible to make a good album with 28 songs, but then I remember Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs. But what you definitely cannot do is make a great album consisting of 6 different versions of the same 5 songs, which is pretty much what I hear on Melon Collie. So, yeah, the album is WAY too long, but the high points are pretty impressive. (Also, props to Billy and the gang for having the self-control to save the best single, "1979," for the last quarter of the album.)

Right off the bat, they tell you what they're aiming for, starting the album off with an epic instrumental that leads into this sweeping, string-driven power ballad. Then, in case you think they've forgotten how to rock, they pummel your face in with "Jelly Belly," "Zero" and "Bullet With Butterfly Wings." "Bullet," the lead single, is one of those songs that sounds great the first 20 times, and then starts to annoy you and you never want to hear it again, but at least in concept it's an amazing rock song, with a chorus that combines a headbanging rhythm worthy of vintage AC/DC with classic punk lyrics that could be on an old Black Flag album: "Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage." Teenage angst and frustration blasted through the radio waves so succinctly that I'm almost jealous of the kids who heard this when they were 15. And that same attitude is there on "Tonight, Tonight," conjuring an army of Holden Caufields out to "Crucify the insincere." (Sounds like the militant terrorist wing of the cult of The Great Pumpkin!)

Not only is this a beautiful song, but it's got a great video, one that really compliments the song with it's steampunk recreation of George Meilles' A Trip to the Moon. One of my favorite (like, top 5 at least) videos of all time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

90's Hit Parade #27

Ween - Frank

Ween's The Pod is maybe the ultimate stoner album. Not just in the sense of listening to it, but in the sense of it being so obviously made by stoners. It's so half-assed, way too long, lots of stupid humor, and lots of obsession over food. And it's awesome.

This song...just wow. So heavy. It's like a dense, dark chocolate cake. The guitar riff almost reminds me of Joe Walsh. This is one of two songs on the album with a chorus about porkroll egg and cheese, which pretty much tells you all you need to know about it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

90's Hit Parade #28

Public Enemy - I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Nigga

This isn't my favorite Public Enemy song (we'll get to it), but it is my favorite Flavor Flav song, so I figured I'd include it. This song is just butt funky. I always picture big, fat women doin' the butt dance when I hear it. Incredibly catchy chorus--it took an incredible act of will to not go around singing it in public (seriously, black people--if you want us to stop using that word, you need to stop making it sound so damn good!)


Ice T - Straight Up Nigga

I was obsessed with this album when it came out. It sounds pretty dated now. I should dedicate a whole post to Ice-T at some point, after I get this stupid countdown done. But for now, a good response to Flav.


A Tribe Called Quest - Sucka Nigga

Q-Tip attempts to bridge the gap here. His head is with PE, his heart is wtih Ice-T. Or his eyes say "no no no," but his lips say "nigga nigga nigga."

Friday, September 16, 2011

90's Hit Parade #29

Phish - Train Song


The train song is a classic American motif, and this is a fine one, a beautiful Appalachian melody sung in a high lonesome falsetto, with the sort of stoner imagery you'd expect from a group of travelin' hippies (I especially like the bit about passing the drive-in movie). Makes me think of sitting in a backyard in Athens, GA on a summer night watching fireflies and drinking some dude's terrible homebrew.

For some reason, I connect it with this song as well:

Monday, September 12, 2011

90's Hit Parade #30

Notorious B.I.G. - Party and Bullshit

A recurring theme in this countdown is how I've belatedly come to appreciate a lot of mid-90's rap like The Chronic and Nas that I didn't pay much attention to at the time. And here is my most egregious oversight. I guess Puffy's glitzy R-n-B grooves didn't appeal to me at the time, as I was still waiting for someone to one-up The Bomb Squad, so I never really listened to Biggie, even when he was within earshot. When I started hearing him lauded as one of the greatest MC's of all time shortly after his death, I chalked it up to post-mortem hyperbole. Then, maybe a decade ago, I got an mp3 of this song off of some blog and finally HEARD it. And I can't believe what I'd been missing.

Now, compared to, say, a Chuck D or Kool Moe Dee or someone, Biggie doesn't sound like he's trying that hard. If you listen, there's a lot of clever shit going on there, and he projects it like a motherfucker, but it just sounds effortless. There are some musicians who claim they don't know where their music comes from, that it just comes through them like the Holy Spirit. I bet that's how Biggie felt. Like, you ever hear that quote from Michaelangelo, that he looks at a slab of marble and just chips away everything that's not the sculpture? That's how perfect this rap feels, like every word is just the exact right word to go in that spot, and all Biggie had to do was say the right words. There's a zen to the way he fits it all right in the pocket, and there's also a bouncy thing going on, which might be why this particular song appeals to me so much. That boppity beat fits Biggie's bouncy lyrics so well that it feels like one thing: the bounce of the beat, the bounce of the lyrics, the bounce of the fat rolls under his shirt, all one big, perfect motion.

By the way, the sample source for that chorus:

Friday, September 09, 2011

90's Hit Parade #31

Heavenly - Hearts and Crosses

This is one of those songs that I can remember exactly where I was when I first heard it. Unfortunately, it's not an interesting story--I was driving down a back road that would take a long time to explain where it was--so I will have to write about the actual song. I guess this is an example of the sub-genre of indie pop known as "twee?" A disturbing, angry song that's all the more unsettling for being played as a happy, catchy little pop tune with a cheesy Casio keyboard.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

There's a Hole in my Bucket List

One day from seeing The Motherfuckin' Stooges, and Iggy breaks his foot. Consolation prize: photos of the band playing at Farmington High School in Michigan in 1970 (via Doug Wolk).

90's Hit Parade #32

Getting very near the end! I hadn't counted on the fact that doing these two entries a week was going to keep me from posting much else, but I feel like I'm close now. This should be done right around the end of the year, so in the first weeks of 2012, expect a few round up posts (favorite TV of 2011, etc.), and reviews of some of the books I've been reading (pretty much all non-fiction this year) and a few other things that I can't really get to right now. Then I'll start finishing up the Best Films of the 00's list (I'm into the top 20, so they're all films I have plenty to say about, just need time to say it). Anyway, back to the Hit Parade...

Tad - High on the Hog

In the Mudhoney chapter of This Band Could Be Your Life, there is much discussion of how Mudhoney got fucked over by the UK music press, who portrayed the band as a group of psychotic, backwoods hillbillies, then a year later ran exposes claiming that the band were not, in fact, crazed, backwoods hillbillies (which they'd never claimed to be), it was all an act! As far as I can tell, however, Mudhoney's labelmates TAD really WERE crazed, backwoods hillbillies who got their kicks ingesting copious amounts of mushrooms and Jack Daniels and rampaging through the Idaho wilderness in monster trucks. And by recording some of the rawest, most brutal RAAAAAWWK!!! music ever put to vinyl. Their 6-song Saltlick ep from 1990 is, to my ears, the best thing recorded in the whole northeastern SubPop grrrrrunge cavalcade (well, except maybe some of the late 80's Mudhoney stuff) (later Tad records suffer from the same law of diminishing returns that gets most metal bands, and they start to sound more like Helmet than, uh, a bunch of crazed backwoods hillbillies wigging out on mushrooms and Jack Daniels). "High on the Hog" stands out to me because it sounds like classic blooze rawk. You could almost hear, I dunno, Ted Nugent or Black Oak Arkansas doing this song. But it leads into the maniacally noisy "Wood Goblins," so I tacked that one up just for good measure.

Friday, September 02, 2011

90's Hit Parade #33

Beck - Mixed Bizness

It's difficult to pick a song off Midnight Vultures, Beck's "sex album." Side one especially is solid killer tracks, but I think this disco dancefloor burner stands out even in the crowded pack, and it's a standard on my party mixes. Midnight Vultures is maybe to Prince what Ziggy Stardust is to the Stones: all those sexy moves get filtered through Beck's Gen X irony machine, so you basically get Prince surrounded by air quotes. Beck's lyrics are as profoundly silly as they were on "Loser": lines like "You make a garbage man scream" and "I wanna defy the logic of all sex laws" and "She looks so Israeli" and some shit about Zankou Chicken. It's all about pairing up and gettin' busy, and throughout the album Beck stays busy pairing up peaches with cream, milk with honey, nicotine with gravy and, here, bizness with pleasure. Freaks flock together, baby! And local shopping malls receive anonymous calls (I don't even know what that means, I just love that line)!