Albums of my years – 1994

I want you to go in that bag and find my wallet. Which one is it? It’s the one that says…. Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. 1994, the year of Pulp Fiction, Forest Gump, The Shawshank Redemption and Natural Born Killers. It’s the year that Jim Carey rubber-faced and over-acted on cinema screens in not one,  not two but 3 hits of his schtick: The MaskAce Ventura: Pet Detective and Dumb and Dumber and Hugh Grant stammered his way into Andie MacDowell’s delicates in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

In music it was the year that Lisa Loeb implored us to ‘Stay’ because she missed us, Whigfield was preparing for ‘Saturday Night’ (dee dee nah nah), All-4-One swore about something, Boyz II Men announced they’d make love to us, we were all Maria Carey wanted for Christmas and Big Mountain assured us they loved our way, baby.

It was a big year for Aerosmith – they released their Geffen-era hits album Big Ones having headlined the Saturday night at Woodstock 94 – according to Tyler it “rained like a cow pissing on a flat rock” during their set, opened their own Mama Kin Music Hall in Boston, seen singles ‘Crazy’ and ‘Deuces are Wild’ still manage to do the business in a music scene already rapidly changed since their recent reemergence and become the first major band to premier a new song on the Internet; the Get A Grip cast-off ‘Head First’ was downloaded for free by 10,000 CompuServe (remember them?) subscribers in 8 days.

This side of the Atlantic, the ball-ache of Oasis vs Blur (neither, thanks) was underway with the rise of Britpop as Parklife and Definitely Maybe began being milked for songs to fill the airways. Albarn figured he, and Britpop, were there to kill off grunge. The conceited prick that he was, told NME in 1993 that “If punk was about getting rid of hippies, then I’m getting rid of grunge. People should smarten up a bit, be a bit more energetic. They’re walking around like hippies, stooped, greasy hair… It irritates me.” Yeah, because Blur,  Oasis and Britpop was all about looking smart and not lolling about the place like twats:

 

In ‘grunge’, though, things went very dark in ’94. On March 3rd, Kurt Cobain overdosed on Rohypnol and champagne in Rome and slipped into a coma. A few weeks later, back in the US, police confiscated four guns and twenty-five boxes of ammo from his house after Courtney Love dialled 911 fearing he was suicidal. An intervention on the 25th March saw Kurt agreeing to enter rehab – he checked in to the  Exodus Recovery Center in Los Angeles on March 30, 1994. The next evening he went outside for a cigarette, scaled the six-foot-high fence, hailed a cab and flew back to Seattle, sitting near to Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Duff McKagan. While he was spotted in various places throughout Seattle over the next couple of days, nobody could pin down his whereabouts – Love hired Tom Grant, a private investigator, on April 3rd to find Cobain. On April 8th, 1994 an electrician called Gary Smith (who had been hired to install a security system) found Kurt Cobain’s body on the floor of the musician’s home – Smith thought Cobain was asleep until he saw the shotgun pointing at his chin. Kurt Donald Cobain was 27 when he c omitted suicide. His daughter hadn’t yet reached her second birthday. Cobain had, an autopsy would reveal, taken his life on April 5th, his blood contained a high concentration of heroin and traces of diazepam.

I think it’s fair to say that while the ‘grunge’ scene was already marked by some pretty horrific incidents – Andrew Woods’ death in ’90 and the brutal rape and murder of The Gits’ Mia Zapata to name but two – Cobain’s suicide marked a real tangible shift. It’s become a sort of time-marker for the scene in a way with everything after being viewed in relation to it. Even with amidst the phenomenon the Seattle scene had become, the members of the musical community were still close and Cobain’s suicide was a blow to all.

Hole’s Live Through This was released a week after Cobain’s death. I guess in ’94 it was a lot harder to stop wheels that were already in motion because, just saying, you’d kinda think you might wanna not release an album with such a title a week after your husband put a shotgun in their mouth… Heroin is a cunt of a drug; shortly after the release of the album and just ahead of a scheduled tour to promote it, on June 16th, Hole’s bass player Kristen Pfaff was found dead in her apartment following a heroin overdose.

Nirvana’s Unplugged album, recorded in November ’93 and released in November in 1994 arrived after plans for a double album called Verse Chorus Verse which would compile the bands live performances on one disc and the full unplugged set on the second, fell through in August (compiling it was too emotionally draining for the surviving Nirvana members). It’s widely held as one of the best unplugged sets released and marked a touching final Nirvana release.

So what was released in 1994? Well, to put it succinctly; a fucking lot.

Neil Young and Crazy Horse released  Sleeps With Angels, the title track written about the death of Kurt – who’d quoted Young in his suicide note, while REM released their much-maligned Monster which was dedicated to River Phoenix with the track ‘Let Me In’ a tribute to Kurt. Monster is a great album let down, in my opinion, by poor mixing – I always thought that a good chunk of the songs felt buried in a mix that, it turned out, producer Scott Litt also regretted after burying the vocals low in the mix and under distortion in an effort to keep up with the ‘grunge’ sound of the time. Thankfully last year’s 25th Anniversary reissue featured Litt’s remix of the album and gave it the sound it should have had in 1994:

Weezer was introduced to the world in 1994 with their self-titled debut (which would become known as the Blue album) which still stands as one of their finest collections – ‘Undone’, ‘Say It Ain’t So’, ‘Only In Dreams’, ‘My Name Is Jonas’, ‘Buddy Holly’…. all on here. While Rivers and co went Blue, The Stone Temple Pilots went Purple with their second album – also a great slab of the alternative-flavoured good stuff that’s stuffed with some of their finest too:

It’s weird to think but 1994 also saw the debut of Jimmy Eat World with their self-titled debut. I’ve a lot of time for early JEW and their first album is worth a listen for the curious but it’s still early days. In terms of debut albums in 1994 it’d be hard to beat Portishead’s Dummy. Popularising trip-hop, winning the 1995 Mercury Music Prize and just gobbling up acclaim, it’s an album that’s pretty much unlike anything else released that year and I think even they have yet to top it.

Voodoo Lounge was definitely not The Rolling Stones’ debut – a pretty decent Stones album (I have a huge amount of time for ‘Thru and Thru’) it’s their 20th and, not to be considered ‘out of touch’ with the musical zeitgeist, they announced the Voodoo Lounge Tour by arriving on JFK’s presidential yacht… meanwhile Pink Floyd released what would be their final studio album, one of my own favourites, The Division Bell. Pink Floyd’s last album didn’t go down as well as it should have at the time but I think it’s aged very well and stands as a much stronger farewell than A Momentary Lapse of Reason and a million times stronger than The Final Cut would have been.

Demonstrating just how much the musical world had shifted since both the Stones and Floyd released their previous albums, both were massively outsold by an independent release from a punk-rock band from California – not that one. The Offspring’s Smash, released on Epitaph, became the best selling independent record of all time with more than 11 million shifted to date – don’t worry, Gilmour and Mick & Keith cleared up BIG time when it came to tours behind The Division Bell and Voodoo Lounge.

Oddly enough, as a lot of older artists found themselves a little out of touch in ’94, Johnny Cash chose this as the year to prove he was still very much a force to be reckoned with. With major labels deciding the sun had set on Cash’s career, he was offered a contract with Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label. Produced by Rubin, and recorded in the producer’s living room and Cash’s own cabin, American Recordings was a stripped-back collection of well-chosen covers and originals that became one of the year’s and Cash’s finest albums and usher in a decade of commercial and critical acclaim for the Man in Black.

Fittingly, Nine Inch Nails also released their second album The Downward Spiral in 1994 featuring ‘March of the Pigs’, ‘Closer’ and ‘Hurt’ which Cash would go on to cover in 2002. Oh, and Rick Rubin would wave his magic wand again in 1994, producing Tom Petty’s superb Wildflowers – the long-awaited reissue of which with a second-disc’s worth of extra material looks a lot closer now.

Still with me? Pretty strong list so far, right? Well what about the Tori Amos’ Under the Pink, also released in 1994? ‘Cornflake Girl’, ‘Pretty Good Year’, ‘God’? No? … or Green Day’s Dookie which arrived at the start of ’94 and went on to shift 20 million copies on the back of songs like ‘Basket Case’ and ‘Longview’.Weight – the Rollins Band’s fourth album which hit hard with ‘Liar’ and Mark Lanegan released his finest album, his second, Whiskey for the Holy Ghost AND Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds released the phenomenal Let Love In in 1994 too.

But then there was also the debut from Seattle’s Sunny Day Real Estate – Diary pretty much defined the second-wave of emo and is an absolute classic. ‘Lightning Crashes’ and ‘I Alone’ helped push Live’s Throwing Copper on to massive figures and Built To Spill got the car with their second album There’s Nothing Wrong With Love – already a leap forward their next, in 1997, would be a real genre-definer.

That’s a pretty fucking strong list of albums for a year. But 1994 also heralded Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, Trash and No Star – the Butch Vig and band helmed album included ‘Bull In The Heather’, ‘Starfield Road’ and ‘Winner’s Blues’ – and Dinosaur Jr’s Without A Sound is another 1994 album- easily one of their best with ‘Feel The Pain’, ‘I Don’t Think So’ and ‘Get Out of This’ coming to mind as standouts. If you’re not familiar with them how about this:

Yup; Soundgarden’s genre-defining Superunknown was released in 1994 too! I mean… it’s just the best thing they ever did. It’s such a varied and accomplished slab of the great stuff…

The Cranberries released No Need to Argue in 1994 and ‘Zombie’ got stuck in everybody’s head, in their heeaaad…. Elliott Smith released his debut solo album, Roman Candle and The Black Crowes released their sublime third album, Amorica. After scrapping an album (Tall – the sessions for which can and should be checked out on 2006’s Lost Crowes), The Black Crowes re-recorded the material with a different producer but then shot themselves in the foot by releasing what could arguably be one of their greatest albums with a cover that many retailers wouldn’t touch thanks to the clock-springs poking over the top of the US-flag thong.

Oh and Pearl Jam released what I still consider their finest – Vitalogy. But I can’t consider that as a featured album as I’ve already covered that one here. However, as close a call as it would be, for me there’s only one album that stands head and shoulders above the pack for 1994:

Jeff Buckley – Grace

I could talk for pages about Grace. I discovered this album at some point in the late 90’s – one of those cases of reading about it often enough to be inclined to check it out. I remember reading about how Buckley had both the voice of Plant and the guitar sound of Page and remember putting it on and being blown away.

Initially met with poor sales, Grace‘s popularity and reputation seems to have grown with each passing year, with Buckley’s own myth – the son of Tim Buckley whom he met only once (at 8 years old), possessor of an amazing talent who made only one album before his early death….  thing is, with myths the reality is often disappointing. Grace, however, is fucking amazing.

So here are just five things I love about Grace:

1) Mojo Pin

I’m not going to say every track is a reason to love this album. Though that could easily happen.

Mojo Pin is the best kind of opener. An absolute belter of a song that manages to contain every element you’ll find on the album itself: psychedelic leanings giving way to Zeplin-esque blues and hard rock propelled by a surging guitar; lyrics that hint at the spiritual, a love lost; rising and crashing melody and, of course – that voice.

2) The Sound

The Legacy Edition of Grace comes with a Making Of.. DVD. It suggests Jeff was hard to pin down musically and could be compulsive, over-flowing with ideas as he was. When making Grace they had to have three different band set-ups available at any time in order to accommodate his ideas. Not the smoothest of productions by any account and yet the final sound is amazing.

I don’t know enough to say it’s down to the recording equipment, the sound engineer or the production – all I know is that the richness of sound is beautiful and is probably down to Andy Wallace who produced, engineered and mixed the album (adding to a CV that included mixing duty for Sonic Youth’s Dirty,  Nirvana’s Nevermind, Rage Against the Machine, L7…).You can hear every element, perfectly balanced. The plectrum on the strings, the slip of a hand on a neck, you get the sound of real music being played – nothing artificial about it. A warm, enveloping sound.

3) Track 6, 02:18- 03:08

These points are all interlinked it seems for the element that adds to the richness of that sound is the band that Jeff built around himself. Signed as a solo artist – the Live At Sin-e album highlights several points that inform Grace as well as realise that here’s a guy with songs that would really benefit from a band – Jeff didn’t always manage to reign it all in to a concise, well-formed song. Early versions of tracks that would make Grace meander more – both on Live at Sin-e and last year’s RSD release In Transition –  and he pushes his voice a little too much, not yet there with his most unique instrument.

It’s also clear that Jeff needed a full band to truly capture and develop his ideas. One of those musicians bought in, toward the end, was guitarist Michael Tighe. Tighe bought something else to the mix – the song ‘So Real’. Buckley would add a chorus and a few lyrical changes and the song was so strong it pushed off Buckley’s own Forget Her from the final album. From that, between 02:18 and 03:08 is pure chainsaw-guitar magic wrapped up with a near-whispered “I love you, but I’m afraid to love you.”

4) Covers

Not the head shot that graced the cover, but the choice of covers here – that Buckley felt sufficiently strong about to include over his some of his over originals.

The now-famous take on Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is easily the definitive version of a much-covered song. A perfect tune to showcase Buckley’s vocal prowess, it’s flawless. Enough has been written about it that I can’t / shouldn’t go into it too much here – but I will say that just when I think I’m bored of it, I’ll here it again and hear something new in his reading of it and suddenly it’s perfect again.

‘Lilac Wine’ is transformed from a cocktail-lounge song into a near mystical experience that just-about manages to keep a lid on Jeff’s voice. Then there’s a take on Britten’s hymn ‘Corpus Christi Carol’, which, in Buckley’s hands, is more of a lullaby.

Jeff’s takes on each of these songs does what any good cover should – transform it into something new.

Even the choice of these songs is notable. This was 1994. The post-Nevermind alternative music scene still on the rise and yet here are tunes plucked from Nina Simone’s repertoire and a hymn first heard in 1504.

Of course, the over, more practical reason for the inclusion of three covers is that Buckley didn’t yet have enough material of his own that was up to inclusion. Though his song writing was moving forward (those tunes written by Buckley alone include’ Last Goodbye’) it wasn’t there yet and, sadly, we’d never get the chance to discover why because….

5) A One-Off

One of those elements that makes Grace so special is frustrating and tragic in equal measure; it’s all we really have in terms of a fully-realised document of his talent.

On the evening of May 29th, 1997, Jeff Buckley went for a swim in the Mississippi. Fully clothed, wearing his boots and singing the chorus to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’. He’d been swimming in the channel before. The roadie who was with had stayed on shore, moved a guitar out of the way from a passing tugboat’s wake, looked back out to the water to find Buckley had vanished. It would be five days before his body was found. His death, at the age of 30, was ruled as an accidental drowning.

The album he was working on at the time would never reach fruition. A compilation of those songs he was working on for it would be released a few days shy of a year after his death. Critically well-received, Sketches for My Sweetheart the Drunk showcased a new leaning for Jeff, tighter, harder and at times darker, the songs gathered across the two discs showed a marked evolution in his song writing. It’s a tantalising glimpse, a painful “what if?” that no amount of reissues or vault-digging can ever answer.

As such Grace remains the only final, definitive recording by Jeff Buckley. A true one-off.

Albums of my Years – 1993

1993: John Hammond spared no expense on his dinosaur theme park, Bill Murray lived the same day over and over, Harrison Ford searched for a one-armed man, Robin Williams looked like a lady (dude) and Matthew McConaughey loved high-school girls, man – “I get older, they stay the same age.”

In music it was the year that Whitney Houston dominated the charts singing about her favourite form of coordination (hand – eyeeeeeeee), DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince shook the room, Lenny Kravitz needed to know which way we were going, Bruce Springsteen showed MTV who was Boss by taking his electric guitar to his Unplugged performance and Meat Loaf left us all wondering just what it was he wouldn’t do for love*.

It was the year that the BBC Radio 5 interviewed Frank Black and found out that Pixies were finished… ahead of the other band members knowing. Black would call guitarist Joey Santiago to break the news but let Kim Deal and David Lovering know via fax.  New Order, Skin Yard (influential Seattle band featuring producer / engineer Jack Endino), Echo & The Bunnymen and, er, Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch also called it a day in 1993. However – on the bands formed side; this was the year that gave birth to At The Drive-In, Ben Folds Five, Daft Punk, Embrace, Garbage, Jimmy Eat World, Modest Mouse, Reef, Spoon, Supergrass and Wilco.

It was also a bumper year for great albums, plenty of which still feature heavy on rotation here. Fairly new discovery for me, Band of Susans dropped their fourth album Veil which tour off into a more experimental direction just as contemporaries Sonic Youth were steering toward song-focused albums. It’s a tricky one to define – it’s like a glorious hybrid of the noise-rock school that SY emerged from with punches of alternative rock and shoegaze mixed into what one critic called an “epic swell of guitar and noise:”

Speaking of shoegaze; Slowdive released their second, possibly finest, album Souvlaki in 1993. Dinosaur Jr released their phenomenal Where You Been – a real scorcher probably aided by the fact that it was recorded with a full band though it would be drummer Murph’s last with the band until the original lineup reconvened over a decade later.  However, Dinosaur Jr classics ‘What Else Is New’, ‘Start Choppin’ ‘Get Me’ and ‘Out There’ all feature on this album though I should probably state that I don’t think Dinosaur Jr have ever made a bad album.

Not an outright classic in itself, though one with at least four good songs on it, Radiohead’s debut album Pablo Honey arrived in 1993 and introduced the world to the band via the inescapable ‘Creep’ while Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We? marked the arrival of The Cranberries.

 

Having already asked us once, Lenny Kravitz repeated the question by naming his third album Are You Gonna Go My Way? – while Mama Said edges it in my books, it’s still a blast of the good stuff, as was Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen also released in 1993. Picking up on the experimentation with electronic and dancier vibes of Achtung Baby and running with it, U2 released the oft-overlooked Zooropa in 1993. Very much a different trip to anything else in their catalogue, Zooropa began life as an EP to promote another leg of the Zoo TV tour, Bono figured he’d push for a full album instead… it would be easy to say it does feel like an over-stuffed EP but there’s plenty of great tunes on it that make it well worth adding to the shelves including the title track, The Wanderer which featured Johnny Cash before his American comeback and ‘Stay (Farwa, So Close!)’:

PJ Harvey released her brilliant second album, Rid of Me and Kate Bush chose 1993 as the year for The Red Shoes which was not only her first album for four years but would be her last for another 12.

With Pixies having broken up at the start of the year, Kim Deal’s the Breeders dropped their second and most well-known album Last Splash in August and the single ‘Cannonball’ becoming their biggest ‘hit’ and propelling the album to platinum status. Meanwhile, having recorded it in 1992, Frank Black released his self-titled debut in 1993 as well. Still close to the sound of Pixies in many ways (including additional guitar work from Joey Santiago), Frank Black is a great album packed with great tunes that build on the Pixies sound.

Speaking of solo albums following the dissolution of great bands – Paul Westerberg’s first solo album 14 Songs also arrived in 1993 – it’s another cracking collection of songs that I still play and have expanded upon on this very blog. Also making a solo debut, though I don’t think The Sugarcubes would be mentioned in the same breath as either The Replacements or Pixies, Bjork’s Debut also appeared this year, featuring the brilliant tunes ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’. It was also debut time for Sheryl Crow who’s Tuesday Night Music Club was released in August 1993. I tuned in around this time and while I have more fondness for he next couple of albums there’s no denying that Ms Crow’s debut has both a great sound in terms of production – very much of its time – and is stacked with great tunes like ‘Run Baby Run’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Can’t Cry Anymore’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to name but four.

Now… here’s the thing. The above are undeniably strong albums and they’re all very much regulars on my stereo to this day. And yet there’s more and choosing between them is a tough one for me. See, 1993 heralded the arrival of Pearl Jam’s second album Vs. which is one of my favourite Pearl Jam albums – but I’ve covered that one at length as well so can’t feature it here too (rules are rules).

When it comes to staggeringly good debut albums, Counting Crows’ August and Everything After has got to be high on the list. AllMusic suitably claims this album “burst(s) at the seams with both dominant pop harmonies and rich, hearty ballads” – there’s just so much on this that – especially in the age of CD bloat – it’s all wrapped up within 11 tracks. It’s such a rich feast in terms of both the sound (thanks to T Bone Burnett’s production) but with beautiful melodies and lyrics that pack so much into them without becoming lost in a wash of words for the sake of it as some of Duritz’ later songs would. I must have spun this album more times than I could count and I still never skip a track, though perhaps ‘Omaha’ doesn’t get as much attention as, say, ‘Anna Begins’, it’s such a great album…

Then there’s the second album from Smashing Pumpkins: Siamese Dream also one of my favourite albums. It was a massive leap forward for the band and really threw their hat into the ring as one of the foremost alternative bands of the nineties. Songs like ‘Today’, ‘Cherub Rock’, ‘Disarm’ are amongst those that are appropriately considered hallmarks of the genre. Produced by Butch Vig, who was riding high following his production of NevermindSiamese Dream is not only the Smashing Pumpkins’ finest, one of the best albums of the 90’s but one that belongs on Greatest Album lists full stop.

However, also released in 1993…

Nirvana – In Utero

It would be virtually impossible for me to choose between some of the above – especially the last three – albums from 1993 were it not for the fact that Nirvana’s finest and, sadly, final album was also released in the same year as so many strong contenders for the crown. But, on September 21, 1993 – having been recorded by Steve Albini over two weeks in February.

Interesting side note and one fact that I always find interesting is that Steve Albini – known as a producer of independent releases and for his band Big Black – took a flat fee of $100,000 for his work recording and producing In Utero despite suggestions from Nirvana’s management company to take percentage points on record sales. I think, though my recollection may be fuzzy, when Dave Grohl mentioned how much he could’ve made from the album given that the album has shifted over 5 million, Albini said something along the lines of “you pay a plumber for the job when he does it, you don’t then send him a cheque every time your taps work”.

In Utero is a notably harder and rawer sounding album than Nevermind was. As sales for everything out of Seattle took off and media focused its attention on the city’s ‘scene’, the foremost proponents of ‘grunge’ were obviously getting pissed off with it – Pearl Jam’s Vs. is a far punchier and angrier beast than Ten – and Cobain himself was distancing himself from what he saw as the commercial sheen of his group’s second album. For a scene that grew out of the punk movement, it must have seen a necessary step to proving that you weren’t ‘corporate rock sellouts’. Either way, the albums the shift produced were outstanding.

With Albini’s mix seeming to cause concern at Geffen – Kurt would say “The grown-ups don’t like it” – the band themselves started to have doubts and asked Albini to remix it. He refused: “Kurt wanted to make a record that he could slam down on the table and say, ‘Listen, I know this is good, and I know your concerns about it are meaningless, so go with it.’ And I don’t think he felt he had that yet … My problem was that I feared a slippery slope.” With Albini nixing a remix, it would be Scott Litt (known for his work with R.E.M) that would remix and augment a number of the album’s tracks. For all the concern that Geffen’s initial feedback had raised, Litt only worked on two songs – the rest of the album was left as is, save for a little raising of the vocals and sharpening of the bass. They needn’t have fretted: preceded by the single ‘Heart Shaped Box’, In Utero topped the charts (not that this was the band’s chief concern) and received widespread acclaim from critics and their audience.

For me this album is as good as it gets in terms of Nirvana – it felt like they were at the peak of their game. Cobain’s continuing growth as a songwriter now matched with the passion and ‘punk’ leaning of their first record was the perfect combination. Tighter than a duck’s arse thanks to the touring and promotion of Nevermind with Dave Grohl now fully ensconced behind the drums and contributing the guitar riff for ‘Scentless Apprentice’, In Utero feels like fired up answer to any critics that doubted them as a flash in the pan.

Rolling Stone managed to get it right in their review: In Utero is “a lot of things – brilliant, corrosive, enraged and thoughtful, most of them all at once. But more than anything, it’s a triumph of the will.”

Of course, it also manages to capture just how dark and nihilistic Cobain’s lyrics were getting. It’s front-loaded with the blazers – ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Rape Me’ and ‘Dumb’ – but then there’s the harsher side of the album – songs like ‘Milk It’ and ‘Very Ape’ and, finally, ‘All Apologies’: “Everything’s my fault, I take all the blame.” Kurt was coming apart almost by the day and it’s all on here to hear.

Hindsight is though, of course, 20-20 and it’s easy now to listen to Nirvan’s final album and point to the signs. At the time, though, nobody could have known. It was, and still is, ‘just’ a massively engaging and powerful album not a cry for help or suicide note and that’s how it should be remembered.

I’d love to know where the band could have gone from here. The ‘You Know You’re Right’ song from the compilation Nirvana gives promise for an even better sound than In Utero but given Cobain’s state of mind toward the end it’s an unanswerable question – numerous times he talked of, and drafted letters to band members calling for, the dissolution of Nirvana. He was going to work with Michael Stipe on a strings-based sound for an album… he could have done so many things but… well, this isn’t that post. In Utero is the glorious sound of Nirvana doing everything right even if it isn’t the easiest of listens.

*I sincerely doubt it’s that, pervert.

 

Albums of my years – 1992

Schwing! Party on! Way! Excellent! Oh, my, God Becky, look at her butt…. It’s 1992!

The year that Wayne and Garth hit cinema screens, that Aladdin showed Princess Jasmine a whole new world, that Whitney said she’d always love Kev, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W Bush in the US Presidential elections and Def Leppard asked a very, very important question:

1992 is the year Nirvana toppled Michael Jackson from the top of the chart and ‘grunge’ began its ascendancy in sales and popularity – Nevermind hit the top spot in the US on January 11th. A month and a half later Kurt Cobain would marry Courtney Love on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii with just 8 guests, including Dave Grohl. Cobain wore his pyjamas for the ceremony.

1992 was the year the world was introduced to the be-mulleted turdburger Billy Ray Cyrus and his Achy Breaky Heart, the 9 million people that bought his debut album in its first year have got a lot to answer for.

In May, John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Rolling Stone digitally removed him from the photo on their upcoming cover feature), having been overwhelmed by the band’s new level of success and becoming a little unhinged… as the band’s world tour got underway he began hearing voices in his head telling him “you won’t make it during the tour, you have to go now.” Already enjoying plenty of drugs, when he returned to California Frusciante’s depression lead to a deep dive into full-on drug addiction that would keep him in its grip until 1998 when, suffering with a lethal oral infection and arms ravaged with abscesses, he’d check into rehab and enter sobriety. However, in 92, that was a long, dark six years away.

Speaking of overindulgence  – 1992, Guns ‘N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ clocked into the record books as the longest single to enter the Top 20 at 8 minutes and 57 seconds and its video’s budget of $1.5 million became the most expensive of all time (at that point). Similar indulgence would be applied to the video for ‘Estranged’ (which added another 40 seconds in song length)a year later when a rumoured $4 million was spent on Rose and co – ah the day’s when MTV actually played music videos to the extent that labels were willing to spend that much dosh courting airtime.

They probably needed to placate some fans – at a concert in Montreal in August, opening act Metallica’s James Hetfield was burnt by a pyrotechnics blast, he suffered second and third degree burns to the left half of his body, both arms and left hand, causing them to cancel the second hour of their show. When Guns ‘N’ Roses took the stage Axl Rose (did he ever perform a full concert on time?) decided his voice wasn’t up to it’s usual sound of a cat having its testicles removed without anaesthetic and called it quits for the night. Instead of being relieved at not being asked to “give me some reggae“, the fans were a little pissed off. So they decided a riot was in order, which spilled to the streets with overturned cars, smashed windows, looting  and setting fires.

At the end of August, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain was born after god knows how much drama and magazine reporting on the couples’ drug use during pregnancy… which, Love being Love, no doubt enjoyed stirring up for the sake of attention.  It meant that child welfare services launched an investigation into their parenting abilities and Frances was removed from her parents’ custody for a short time when she was two weeks old. There’s a real ugly and grim side to the world of celebrity and sometimes the consequences aren’t considered by its actors while they court it… but hindsight is a wonderful thing full of ‘if only’s and ‘why didn’t somebody’s… and there were times when the Courtney Love show seemed of more interest to the press than the music Nirvana made. Perhaps to remind people of the fact that there was more to Cobain than headlines, Geffen kept the momentum going with the release of Incesticide in December – a collection of b-sides, outtakes and demos that’s still better than a lot of the studio albums released in 1992.

Speaking of controversy – presumably having had enough of singing about being ‘Like a Virgin’, Madonna went full on erotic with Erotica in ’92, a concept album about bumping uglies which was accompanied by a ‘book’ of soft porn photos – ‘Sex’. It was an edgy time.

Pearl Jam rounded off a very busy 1992 – which saw Ten find its way into homes across the world, the band touring Europe, demoing songs for their next album and putting on the free ‘Drop in the Park’ concert for 33,000 fans in Seattle – with Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready joining acts including Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, June Carter Cash, Johnny Cash and Tracy Chapman to see Sinéad O’Connor get booed by an audience still angered by her ripping up a picture of Pope John Paul II on SNL – who knew Dylan fans were such devoted Catholics. Oh, yeah – I mean they joined other acts at a tribute concert to mark 30 years of Bob Dylan’s recording career.

Speaking of Bob – in 1992 he released Good As I Been To You. A collection of traditional folk songs and covers that was so well received he’d follow it with another collection of covers the following year…. just wait until he’d release nothing but covers and Christmas songs for decade.

Meanwhile Bush, Built To Spill, The Cardigans, Everclear, Feeder, Silverchair, Stereophonics, Sunny Day Real Estate, Tindersticks and Weezer were all amongst those bands forming in 1992.

Making the most of studio time allocated to recording ‘Would?’ for Cameron Crowe’s ‘Singles’ (also released in 1992) the previous year, Alice in Chains also recorded ‘Rooster’ and all the songs that would end up on February’s acoustic EP – Sap – the songs for which were left mostly acoustic after drummer Sean Kinney dreamed about making just such an EP with that title. I’m not sure basing career decisions on the dreams of a drummer is always the best approach (I heard Ringo dreams of murdering kittens) but Sap is a great addition to anyone’s shelves:

It’s also a much lighter listening experience than their next release of 1992. Arriving in September following the singles ‘Would?’ and ‘Them Bones’, Alice In Chains’ second album Dirt is an undeniable classic of the genre and still gets many a play on my stereo – though it’s an intensely dark and heavy listen in both sound and subject matter as Layne and Cantrell made no bones about drug addiction along with depression, pain, anger, war and death forming the inspiration for lyrics. ‘Sickman’, ‘Junkhead’ and ‘God Smack’ are the obvious contenders, all referencing heroin use while ‘Rooster’

Layne Staley would later come to change his mind on having sung so openly about his drug use –  “I wrote about drugs, and I didn’t think I was being unsafe or careless by writing about them … I didn’t want my fans to think that heroin was cool. But then I’ve had fans come up to me and give me the thumbs up, telling me they’re high. That’s exactly what I didn’t want to happen.” Thankfully, all of these dark and potentially ‘I can’t listen to that’ lyrics were both well crafted and strapped to some fucking awesome music:

Afghan Whigs would released their third album  Congregation in 1992, The Cure gave us Wish and provided DJs the world over with an easy gimmick by playing ‘Friday I’m In Love’ at the end of each working week – though the standout track for me is ‘From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea’ – Manic Street Preachers dropped their debut, Generation Terrorists.

Pantera released one of the decade’s heaviest  – Vulgar Display of Power and Rage Against The Machine declared that, fuck you; they won’t do as you tell ’em on their astounding, genre-bending powerhouse self-titled debut whose iconic cover art continues to find new homes and delight to this day thanks to its sheer force and unbridled passion in the delivery. Though they’d release another two studio albums in their career (not counting covers), nothing would match Rage Against The Machine in terms of immediacy and impact, not quite a breath of fresh air but a kick in the balls with a pair of heavy boots.

On a different end of the sonic spectrum – another 1992 debut came from Tori Amos whose Little Earthquakes was her first ‘solo’ album and featured the great tune ‘Precious Things’ along with eleven other cracking songs.

The Black Crowes got together with producer George Drakoulias to make what could be considered their finest album: The Southern Harmony and Musical CompanionA much bluesier, more maturing sounding album than their debut, their second album was powered to the top of the charts thanks to its four singes and stand out tracks – ‘Remedy’, ‘Sting Me’, ‘Thorn in My Pride’ and ‘Hotel Illness’.

Two other debuts in 1992 came from Stone Temple Pilots with Core and Blind Melon whose self-titled album probably gets more repeated plays than STP’s who never really did it for me to the same degree as others of that scene (though their fifth album Shangri-La Dee Da is an exception to that rule). In Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon had a great frontman and singer. ‘No Rain’ is one thing and may have done so well that Bee Girl graced the cover of the album, Blind Melon, but songs like ‘Tones of Home’ or ‘Change’ are real keepers. Both bands would lose their singers and try and keep going but I don’t think either will ever tap the same vein again in the way in which Alice In Chains have managed to do with William Duvall… but that’s a different blog.

Nearly five years after his last album and three since telling the E Street Band members he wouldn’t be needing their services for a while, Bruce Springsteen emerged with two new albums in 1992 – the first of which, Human Town having been sparked off by three instrumental tracks written by E Street Band member Roy Bittan… who would also produce the album. While needing another song to finish Human Touch, Springsteen wrote another album instead, the superior (of the two) Lucky Town. Released on the same day, the albums… well I’ve written on both Human Touch and Lucky Town already but while they’re not his worst (that still hangs on High Hopes) they’ve not been as well-received as his other albums. As Bruce would later acknowledge that, had it not been for his father he “would have written just happy songs – and I tried it in the early ‘90s and it didn’t work; the public didn’t like it.” Still, while in the recordings for, say, Darkness On The Edge of Town, The River and even Born In The USA there was enough material for a further three or four great albums – if you cull the dross from these two there’s enough for one great album there.

Having chosen not to tour behind Out Of Time REM had gotten straight to work on new songs, including the demos for ‘Drive’, ‘Try Not To Breath’ and  ‘Nightswimming’ which had been recording during that album’s mixing at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios. Automatic For The People is one of those albums that’s been written about so many times and for good reason: it’s a fucking classic. It is chock-a-block with great songs, I don’t think there’s a bad one on it and, given that I don’t think it’s their best, that’s insane. From opener ‘Drive’ through to the closing ‘Find The River’ via the lighter radio-staple ‘The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite’ (nothing to do with Jamaica, the lyric is “Call me when you try to wake her”), the gorgeous ‘Nightswimming’  and the colossal hit ‘Everybody Hurts’, it’s all gold. While clearly the same band, it stands apart from the sounds of Out Of Time and here I’ll refer to the Rolling Stone review for the album which sums it up suitably: “”This is the members of R.E.M. delving deeper than ever; grown sadder and wiser, the Athens subversives reveal a darker vision that shimmers with new, complex beauty”

Which only leaves my choice for featured album of 1992…

Buffalo Tom – Let Me Come Over

Let’s hop in the DeLorean and set the time circuits for October 2000 – we were all able to go outdoors and meet people, Donald Trump was just a prick who’d tried to get the nomination of the Reform Party and I, still at uni was a regular regular reader of Uncut Magazine. An actual printed music monthly as the internet then was… different. I remember scouring their Unconditionally Guaranteed CD each month for the one or two tracks that will make me sit up and pay attention and inspire greater digging. As a side note I really should do this again as the last time I did I discovered Big Thief and a few more enjoyable tracks.

There’s only one track on the October 2000 CD though that grabbed me: Taillights Fade by Buffalo Tom, a band from Boston who were releasing a career-spanning Best Of just as they kicked off a seven year hiatus.

It meant I picked up Asides From as soon as I could and, having played it through repeatedly without skipping a song, set off rapidly exploring and collecting their back catalogue. Of the now 9 studio albums the band has put out since forming in 1986, their third album, released in 1992, Let Me Come Over is held up by many as their finest hour (well, 51 minutes) and while it’s probably their biggest seller, I doubt it’s all that known. Hell, if I asked you to name me five Boston bands I imagine the list would include Aerosmith, Pixies, Boston (real original name lads), The Cars, Dropkick Murphys or even the Lemonheads or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones before Buffalo Tom (the Buffalo is borrowed from Springfield). And I think that’s a crying shame.

On the back of their first two albums, released in ’88 and ’90, Buffalo Tom had been branded as Dinosaur Jr Jr. Given the use of fuzz in the guitar tones and the fact that the albums were produced by J Mascis himself, it was an easy tag to apply. It wasn’t entirely accurate though as their third album would show. It would also mean that the band – now supported by RCA Records as well Beggars Banquet, would get a second go around in their bid for breakthrough as ears were pricking up whenever alternative rock was played on radios around the world.

With J presumably far too busy now as Dinosaur Jr’s major label push took other and with the band’s songwriting needing a different production approach and less use of the overdrive pedal, Let Me Come Over was helmed by Paul Q. Kolderie and Sean Slade. It was a massive leap forward. The sound on Let Me Come Over is painted with a much more layered approach and subtle brush – there’s a lot less shouting, acoustic guitar overdubs, more intricate compositions that feels like the band working as a piece rather than individual instruments with more mature and insightful lyrics.

Pitchfork have said of Buffalo Tom that they “wrote sharply observed conversational lyrics because it was too hard to be obscure.” Perhaps that’s why they were never able to break through – the songs are great; they’re well written, well played and the lyrics are clever and to the point at a time when alternative music was trying to be considerably more obtuse / mysterious in its song meanings and lyrics (hell, Ten didn’t even contain the song lyrics printed in anything resembling legible). It shouldn’t, though, detract from what’s a great set of songs and easily their strongest album.

Songs like ‘Mineral’ and ‘Taillights Fade’ (which it turns out is a favourite of Eddie Vedder who bought Bill Janovitz on stage with Pearl Jam on both nights they played Boston in 2018 much to the delight of fans and Bill to run through the song) are undoubted highlights that show off the band’s improved songwriting – drummer Tom Maginnis (the ‘Tom’ in the band name) points out in Asides From: “we were beginning to find our inspiration as songwriters and a sound of our own as a band”.

But the more straight-ahead rockers on the album like ‘Stymied’, ‘Saving Grace’ and ‘Velvet Roof’ also sound significantly sharper and more focused than on both the band’s previous direction – benefiting both from the less-cluttered production,  and the band members’ improved playing after constant touring.

I read something suggesting that Buffalo Tom were ‘always the bridesmaids’ of the alternative rock movement, having never quite broken through in the way they deserved – Let Me Come Over was probably as close as they’d get but perhaps they just weren’t edgy enough for the musical climate that was brewing at the dawn of the 90s. Regardless, and perhaps even because of their underdog status, Buffalo Tom are one of my favourite bands to this day and Let Me Come Over gets a regular spin on my turntable.

Following a seven year hiatus, Buffalo Tom got back together in 2007 and put out Three Easy Pieces, followed in 2011 by Skins. Only playing select, occasional shows, it’s safe to say the band is semi-retired these days – though they put out their best album since Let Me Come Over in 2018 with Quiet and Peace. Bill Janovitz developed a side-career as a real-estate agent but has put out a couple of fine solo albums and has also written two books on The Rolling Stones. I, and I’m sure other fans, would love it if he were to chronicle his own band too.

 

 

Albums of my Years – 1991

Here we are, 1991 – “the year punk broke.” This was the year in which grunge music broke through. Still in its infancy, though, the genre wasn’t the force in terms of sales it would become over the next couple of years. While Nirvana’s Nevermind (released in September) would be propelled by the surprise hit of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, metal was still a massive force and it would be Metallica’s ‘black’ album that became the year’s biggest seller along with the double wankfest of Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 selling massive figures and Garth Brooks, still a good few years away from turning into Chris Gaines, was making money as fast as they could print it.

In February, James Brown was released from prison on parole after his bizarre ‘89 episode – presumably the wardens were fooled by his cape routine and feigned exhaustion. Years away from revelations of child abuse, Michael Jackson renewed his recording contract with Sony records for $65 million – that’s a lot of monkey food. The Rolling Stones also signed a new deal with Virgin Records and Aerosmith – riding high on the back of their comeback and the success of Pump, signed a $30 million deal with Colombia Records / Sony Music, though it wouldn’t be until 1997’s Nine Lives that they would release anything for the label.

On March 20th Eric Clapton’s four-year-old son, Conor, died after falling from the 53rd-floor window of his mother’s friend’s New York City apartment. The loss of his young son, with whom he had only just realised his role as father took a heavy toll and inspired the song ‘Tears in Heaven’.

The film ‘Robin Hood; Prince of Thieves’ was released in 1991 and, from it, Bryan Adams’ ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ took the piss at number 1 in the UK for sixteen weeks. Also, in the world of soundtracks and infinitely more culturally and artistically more significant than Christian Slater’s English accent, ‘Baywatch’ returned in 1991 for a second season of slow motion running, drama and acting almost as convincing as the breasts on its female stars, kicking off with a new theme song:

On November 23rd, after years of speculation and insulting suggestions from the press, Freddie Mercury released a statement confirming that he had tested HIV positive and had AIDs. The statement didn’t say that Mercury was close to blind and could no longer leave his bed. Less than 24 hours later Mercury passed away from bronchial pneumonia resulting from AIDS. He was just 45.

Devo called it a day in 1991 as did Galaxy 500, NWA, Talk Talk, Talking Heads and The Replacements who played their last show together (minus drummer Chris Mars who had quit in 1990 ) in July at Chicago’s Grant Park, with each member leaving during the set with their respective roadies taking their places. Meanwhile Belly, Cake, The Chemical Brothers, Counting Crows, Heatmiser (featuring Elliott Smith), Incubus, Oasis, Portishead, Rage Against The Machine, Refused and, er, The Wiggles all formed in 1991.

So what about album releases? Well… Dickhead Dave got the year off to a cloudy start with the release of his third solo album A Little Ain’t Enough (despite the fact that a little of him is way too much). Still doing well with Sammy Hagar, Van Halen would release the imaginatively For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge in June and while its title is a little Spinal Tap (Hagar wanted to call it ‘Fuck’ but was, in a pure ‘Really? And you believed him?!’ moment, was told by Ray Mancini that ‘Fuck’ was actually an acronym for what would become the album’s title), it’s a strong slab of good stuff that includes quite a few of my favourite VH riffs.

1991 also saw the final album from Dire Straits – On Every Street. As recently surmised by Jim over at Music Enthusiast: There was some good stuff on it but Brothers in Arms had come out in 1985 and six years in the pop world is an eternity. Knoplfer’s other production credits for the year came from a seminal release from Bob Dylan:The Bootleg Series Volumes 1–3 (Rare & Unreleased) 1961–1991. One of my go-to Dylan volumes, this is one of those sets (like Springsteen’s Tracks) which always makes you wonder how the fuck some of this stuff was left off, like this cut from the Knopfler-produced sessions for Infidels (a fine, fine album):

Tom Petty re-teamed with the Heartbreakers for 91’s Into The Great Wide Open which, following the success of Petty’s Full Moon Fever was produced by Jeff Lynne. A lovely album, it was stocked with singles like such as ‘Learning To Fly’ and the title track along with great cuts including one of my favourites – ‘Two Gungslingers’.

On the heavier side of the year’s releases, Metallica’s Metallica (the answer is none, none more black’) was 1991’s monster – it spawned the classics ‘Enter Sandman’, ‘Nothing Else Matters’, ‘Sad But True’, ‘The Unforgiven’ … and would sell more than 16 million copies in the US alone.

One of my all-time favourite bands, Dinosaur Jr released their major-label debut in 1991. Green Mind is a great mix of J Mascis’ ferocious guitar playing, matching melody to walls of fuzz and power with a growing songwriting sensibility. It’s practically a J Mascis solo album as he not only produced by played most of the instruments too with original drummer Murph only playing on three of the album’s songs. Bass player Lou Barlow had been kicked out a year or two prior and would document this in ‘The Freed Pig’ on his new band Sebadoh’s album III, also released in 1991.

1991 is the year that the world was first introduced to Eddie Vedder. First via the Temple of the Dog album – discussed at length in 1990’s post. Released in April it was received well by those all-important critics but failed to chart… it would take a little more awareness of the key players for the momentum to build. Still it wouldn’t take long: preceded by the singles ‘Even Flow’ and ‘Alive’ Ten was released in August. A stunning debut, it would gradually build a following as the band hit the road hard to support it just as the grunge explosion began getting underway. I’d put it as a featured album or I wouldn’t be worth my salt as paid-up Ten Club member but I’ve already featured the album and rules are rules. Still, here’s a Stone-cold classic:

Another classic was dropped in 1991: Slint’s Spiderland. Their second and final album, Spiderland was a slow-burner and its popularity within the music world grew with time as it gradually found its audience and proved a massive influence on the post-rock genre.

Back over here, another genre-definer was released – My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic and gem of an album Loveless eventually arrived in November after two years of recording, 19 studios and contributing to the bankruptcy of its label. Hailed as a ‘virtual reinvention of the guitar’ Loveless left a long shadow on the scene and would find new ears and inspire lots more for years to come – just as well as it took 22 years for the band to follow up.

Another great of the genre, Slowdive, released their debut Just For A Day in ’91 but it was Massive Attack’s Blue Lines that rightly stole a lot of column inches over here that year:

As if the year wasn’t bursting enough with big albums, REM chose 1991 to release their Out Of Time and find themselves catapulted to the level of MASSIVE with singles like ‘Shiny Happy People’ (I still think it’s naff) and ‘Losing My Religion’ sitting alongside beautiful album tracks like ‘Low’ and ‘Half a World Away’.  It was major hit time too for Crowded House with the great Woodface arriving in July of ’91 and doing the business worldwide. It’s stuffed with great songs (though my favourite Crowded House album was a couple of years off) that would go on to become much-loved hits.

Another band to breakout in ’91 – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik found the band taking a different musical tact than previous and seeing monster results and was one of those early albums that would be regarded as a mainstay of the ‘alternative’ boom that would jump all over the 90’s. A band that really really deserved to be part of the 90’s alternative explosion but would break up before the decade was halfway through – Pixies released their fourth and greatest album in 1991: Trompe le Monde.

As the Pixies released their final album, Smashing Pumpkins released their debut in ’91 with Gish. Corgan’s monstrous cockwomble status and ego aside, they’d prove one of the scene’s finest in years to come. As we’re getting back to the ‘grungier’ part of the alternative scene, one of the genre’s too oft-overlooked acts The Screaming Trees released their fifth album Uncle Anesthesia in January. It was their last with drummer Mark Pickeral  and their first for major-label Epic. While it didn’t have the impact the band or label hoped for – the musical world was still waking up to the genre, to be fair, it was produced by Terry Date and Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell. Date also produced 1991’s Soundgarden album Badmotorfinger. Their first with bass player Ben Shepherd and released on September 24th 1991,  Badmotorfinger is an absolute stonker and features some of Soundgarden’s greatest songs.

Badmotorfinger is one of those classic albums that proved a breakthrough for Soundgarden. Already veterans of the Seattle music scene, Chris Cornell and co’s third album helped them reach the burgeoning alternative rock / grunge fanbase with singles like ‘Rusty Cage’ and ‘Outshined’. However, it would be another album released on the same day that busted everything wide open for the likes of Soundgarden, Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam to storm through… Nirvana’s Nevermind.

There’s a great scene in the 1996 documentary Hype! (available to watch on Prime and well worth doing so) in which Sub Pop staff discuss how, toward the end of 1990 they felt the storm of the scene that was building in Seattle had passed and would soon wind down, the focus would shift and things would return to normal… and then a band with a relatively small following but plenty of buzz about them dropped a song called ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’.

It’s overplayed and perhaps the most obvious choice to play but it’s a fucking classic for a reason. It did so phenomenally well for a reason – it’s a great tune that propelled the album Nevermind, the band and pretty much an entire scene into a new league. It’s one of those albums I play so often that I know every word. It’s not my favourite Nirvana album but it contains so many of my favourite Nirvana songs (and one of my all-time favourites in ‘Breed’) that I still get bemused – I’m too old to get bothered and riled up anymore – when people say “oh but it sounds too commercial” or “Kurt hated it”. No, he didn’t and no, id doesn’t. He loved it but needed to distance himself from it for fear of being seen as a sell-out. I fucking hate that aspect of the scene and music fans in general that mean artists are so worried about how it would be perceived as ‘not punk’ and blame that for the demise of it, and Kurt’s state of mind, and the rise of the absolute dog shit on the radio today….

However: that’s a boatload of great albums and yet these aren’t the ‘featured’ albums for the year. So, what’s it to be for 1991? Well, you may not have heard of this band, but:

U2 – Achtung Baby

“You who?” I hear you ask. “Is that the submarine that stole an enigma device?”

I give U2 an occasional jibe on this blog – like; what’s the difference between God and Bono? God doesn’t walk around Dublin thinking he’s Bono – but for good reason, as the years have gone by their recorded merit has deteriorated as Bono’s ego and the extravagance of being ‘the biggest band in the world’ grew in its place. The reason I do this is pretty simple really – U2 used to be great and they’ve made some absolute first class albums, the best of which (in my opinion) is Achtung Baby.

As the band’s popularity sky-rocketed in the 80’s and following the massive success of The Joshua Tree, U2 had started to get a little too caught up in trying to be serious and – as Bono said of Rattle and Hum: “We looked like a big, overblown rock band running amok.” That album and concert film summed it all up really: they’d gone from penning great tunes to paying too much attention to the look of it and were too self-serious. I mean; thank fuck for Bono taking a moment in ‘Silver and Gold’ to lecture us on apartheid before clumsily telling Edge to ‘play the blues’. It had stretched a little thin so when, at the end of that tour, Bono announced the band had “to go away and…and dream it all up again” it was probably welcome.

But I don’t think anyone was expecting Achtung Baby. It’s a total reinvention – while the band’s ethics and singing about the connections between people remained, everything else was a total reinvention. The way the band presented themselves changed – from Bono’s wrap around shades and black leather to the discovery of irony and dark humour in interviews with a bit of danger and the sound… the chiming sound of the 80s was seemingly buried now in distortion and lurching rhythms and textures not previously associated with the band as the emerged into the 90s with their first single ‘The Fly’:

I adore Achtung Baby – there’s not a song on it I’ll skip, even if I didn’t really want to listen to ‘One’ for a while as it became so omnipresent, it was always tracks like ‘Zoo Station’ and ‘Until The End of the World’ (in my favourite songs of all time list) that kept me coming back to it. I’m surprised my copy of it still plays it’s been slipped into so many different car CD players and stereos over the years, the case is pretty much battered and the booklet’s edges scuffed.

The album was gotten underway in Berlin, at Hansa Studios (where Bowie and Iggy Pop famously recorded four albums in 1977) in October 1990 as the band sought inspiration from the reunification of Germany. Instead it nearly broke the band as they argued over songs and the musical direction until they had a eureka moment with the writing of One which came in an improvised session as they worked on the arrangement of an early version of ‘Mysterious Ways’. As overplayed as it would become, it remains a great song (I really dig a lot of the vibe on this album including the artwork and the Trabants of the original video):

Just look at the list of singles released from the album alone: ‘The Fly’, ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘One’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’ – if any one of these comes on the radio you’re not likely to be changing channel.

But then there’s the tracks that weren’t released – and they’re all just as good. Take ‘So Cruel’, ‘Acrobat’ or ‘Love Is Blindness’ as examples:

The lyrics aren’t millions of miles away from territory they’d wandered previously – “And you can dream, so dream out loud, you know that your time is coming ’round,
so don’t let the bastards grind you down” – but there’s a little more darkness and questioning here and, instead of being married to obvious ‘anthem’ sounds, there’s an edge (and Edge’s playing) to the songs on Achtung Baby with a metallic distorted bite, that borrows from industrial, electronic and the alternative rock scene that sits so sublimely with these songs and reveals more each time.

It shifted somewhere in excess of 18 million copies and ushered in U2’s Zoo TV Tour which was both so very 90s and completed their reinvention. It was the start of a new journey musically – from here to Zoorapa (also containing great tunes) to Pop which could’ve been another masterpiece if they’d been allowed time to finish it – and in terms of touring as the set grew from Zoo TV to Pop Mart and giant lemons. At no point, though, would it be as wholly and compellingly perfect again as it is on Achtung Baby*.

 

*After Pop‘s lacklustre reception, the band ducked away for a while before returning with a Best Of which captured 1980-1990, the reception to which buoyed their ‘back to basics’ All That You Can’t Leave Behind album in 2000. It’s a decent enough collection though a little sticky-sweet and twee, they’d lost the bite they found in the 90s. A second Best Of covering 1990-2000 must have reminded them of it again as at least half of 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was really good and buzzed as well as chimed. After that though, for me, it was lost. Especially when they told me to get on my boots…

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Vitalogy

“This song is about… uh… people who don’t have taste but they like us anyway. It’s called ‘Not For You'”

If Vs. was the sound of Pearl Jam taking control, Vitalogy, released just a year later, is the sound of the band giving a big middle finger to anyone who hand’t got the message yet. Rougher, rawer and more eclectic than anything they’d either released to date or since with songs born out of jam sessions as the communication between band members started to falter, with “eighty percent of the songs were written 20 minutes before they were recorded” according to Stone Gossard. It’s stripped down, it’s lean and uncompromising and marks the first time Pearl Jam would really start to experiment. It’s rife with hostility and tension aimed both outward and inward as, three albums in, cracks began to show within relationships to the point that, while Gossard thought of quitting, drummer Dave Abbruzzese would actually be let go as sessions wound down.

Again – it shouldn’t be good. It shouldn’t be cohesive but it’s not only good: it’s their finest album yet – in my opinion and this is my Least to Most after all. As 1993 tumbled into 1994, Pearl Jam were hitting their songwriting peak and the songs on Vitalogy bristle with an energy that wouldn’t be matched again for a while and certainly not with the level of consistency found here.

The songs here form the template for all Pearl Jam songs to come – there’s the balls-out angry and heavy, there’s the flexing of creative / experimental muscle, the achingly poignant and the perfect mid-tempo. All summised in one rough-hewn gem of an album.

So – you want the balls-out angry and fast? Take that opening volley of songs:’Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ and ‘Not For You’:

As middle fingers to the label go, Pearl Jam chose ‘Spin the Black Circle’, much to Epic’s dismay, as the first single from Vitalogy. “See this needle, Oh see my hand, Drop, drop, dropping it down, oh so gently, here it comes, touch the flame, turn me up, won’t turn you away” is an homage to vinyl and was supposed to sound completely different – it’s a Stone Gossard riff that Vedder first heard at the wrong pitch: “I had come up with something in my truck with the tape player in my hand, but then I realized it was playing at a superhigh pitch. I turned it down, and it was really slow. I was like ‘Oh, fuck.”

‘Not for You’, meanwhile is as openly blunt and angry about the co-opting of the alternative scene as the band would be – save for the time Jeff Ament spotted Marc Jacobs and Anna Sui (who had released a ‘grunge’ line of clothes) and “I went down and did a fake fashion twirl and went ‘Hey Marc, what do you think of this for the next line?’ ” It’s hard to comprehend now in a way but I guess when Ricky Martin is cast on General Hospital as a clone of you – you’re gonna get pissed off. It also burns through ‘Corduroy’ (perfect mid-tempo) with it’s line “they can buy but can’t put on my clothes”:

Both ‘Not for You’ and ‘Corduroy’ are sole Vedder compositions. Vitalogy – dipping back to those inner band tensions mentioned – marked the first Pearl Jam album where Vedder’s songs would by far outweigh those of the other members. Half of the songs here (you can’t really count ‘Aye Davanita’ or ‘Hey Foxymophandlemama, That’s Me’ as songs) are marked as Vedder / Vedder on the lyrics / music front.

Vedder’s “it wasn’t a hostile takeover” caused issues in the group. Stone Gossard was said to have considered leaving as he was no longer the guy who made the final decisions on tunes and vacated his role as mediator within the group (something which Dave Abbruzzese has credited to his departure). With hindsight Jeff Ament has stated that it was simply a case that Vedder was working harder at writing songs than the rest of the band – McCready would enter rehab to receive treatment for alcohol and cocaine abuse during sessions too. “I still don’t know if he was consciously exerting wanting to take over the band or take the reins or the the power. I think it was more like, ‘Hey, man, I’ve got seven complete songs here. What do you guys have?’ and we only had little riffs or two-parter things.”

Of those Vedder / Vedder songs are the achingly poignant Immortality and, of course, one of the band’s most well known:

I’ve probably heard this song live on the numerous shows I have in my iTunes. These days when it’s played live it’s not really the same song but the original is still an out and out classic especially considering its troubled and lengthy gestation as a Pearl Jam studio song. Vedder, fearing it was too raw and direct in terms of emotion, was never happy with how it had been recorded (the band had first tried getting it on tape for Vs.) and, at one point, came close to giving it to Chrissie Hynde to record instead. As it is he changed the final mix for ‘Betterman’ right at the last.

The creative: perhaps too wary of releasing quite so many obviously strong and high-pedigree songs on one album, Pearl Jam used Vitalogy to drop some of their, frankly, weirdest shit to date too. So, following up the beautiful Ament / Vedder collab, ‘Nothingman’…

… is ‘Pry To’

While what could have been a one-two-punch knockout of ‘Betterman’ and ‘Immortality’ is softened by the slotting of ‘Aye Davanita’ between them – it’s “just screwing around” with chanted non-lyrics that O’Brien looped. Then again, there’s something charming about ‘Bugs’ which Vedder, suffering from poison at the time, plays an off-tune accordion.

Then again, perhaps I’m overthinking it. Maybe they really just did like those interludes. But let’s look at it this way: if Vitalogy had been stripped of those and released as a ten track album comprising of songs like ‘Corduroy’, ‘Betterman’, ‘Nothingman’, ‘Last Exit’, ‘Spin the Black Circle’ etc… even with the lean produciton behind them, there’d have been no real way for them to get away from it or say no so easily.

As it is, glorious rough-hewn warts and all, Vitalogy is my favourite Pearl Jam album.

Least to Most: Pearl Jam – Lightning Bolt

“It’s a fragile thing, this life we lead
If I think too much I can get over-
Whelmed by the grace
By which we live our lives with death over our shoulders”
Sirens

Four years seperated the release of Backspacer and Lightning Bolt, Pearl Jam’s tenth (and, currently, most recent) studio album. A band that used to release an album every 18 months or so like clockwork had learnt to slow down and catch their breath between releases and tours.

In those four years the band was far from idle. There were re-releases / expanded editions of Vs and Vitalogy, a live album and the whole Pearl Jam Twenty celebration / lap of honour that included a Cameron Crowe helmed documentary, book, compilation (all very very good), two day festival and tour.

Oh – and a plethora of solo activity: Jeff Ament formed RNDM with Joseph Arthur and released and album as did his other side-project Tres Mts, Stone Gossard dropped a couple of Brad albums, Matt Cameron slipped back onto the drum seat for a little-known Seattle band called Soundgarden’s reunion, Mike McCready got in on a Mad Season reunion-of-sorts and formed Walking Papers with Duff McKagan (yes, that Duff McKagan) and even Eddie dropped a solo album, again ‘of sorts’, with Ukulele Songs (which is fine depending on your appetite for half an hour of Eddie and his uke).

Why do I mention all these solo projects in a review of a Pearl Jam band album, I don’t hear you ask. Well, for all the claims that these side projects help the band members bring more into album sessions and that may have been true in the 90’s when the band had couldn’t stand up for ideas falling out of their arses, I think it’s now the opposite case. When sessions for Lightning Bolt were delayed and interrupted by these commitments and solo tours I can’t help but feel that creative and energy levels were actually drained than recharged and the band’s tenth studio album kind suffered as a result.

But does that matter? Let’s face it: Pearl Jam are in a pretty unique position that few bands or acts reach. Twenty-two years into their life as a band they’re one of the greatest live draws still regularly touring, can sell out arenas, stadiums and ball-parks across the globe, their place and legacy are sealed and were – in 2013 and now – at the point where as long as their new album didn’t stink the place up like Pepé Le Pew and contained a good few songs to mix into the live set, will continue to be able to do so for years to come and keep their legacy intact even if it’s unlikely to bring any new fans into the fold.

Sill “everyone’s a critic looking back up the river” as the first words that ushered in Lightning Bolt point out and there’s a lot of strong material and a willingness to experiment and push boundaries within these forty-seven minutes that show Pearl Jam aren’t quite ready to rest on their laurels and are still trying to push their songwriting forward.

Lyrically, these are some of Vedder’s most accessible and direct, an extension of the approach begun on Backspacer (“For years, it was playing word games and expressing those emotions, but doing it in such a way that was cryptic and where Mark Arm from Mudhoney would still have some modicum of respect for me. But nowadays, it’s more like sitting down and writing a song, and whatever comes out, comes out.”) and musically it’s a lot more diverse than their previous album, with Stone Gossard referring to  “a slight return to some of the more sort of peculiar things we did, say, between No Code and Binaural.”

I really dig a huge chunk of Lightning Bolt and love that diversity in their sound, aptly beefed up by the physicality of Brendan O’Brien production. Take ‘Pendulum’ – how often to you get to hear Mike McCready using a bow on his guitar? – for a good start:

It’s a dark, broody beast that really doesn’t feel like the ‘by the numbers’ Pearl Jam you’d expect of a band this far into their recording career and works great live. It was a Gossard add Jeff Ament composition that even they didn’t expect Eddie to latch on to and work up into a band song. While we’re in the mid-section, ‘Pendulum’ is preceded by another Ament & Gossard composition and highlight, ‘Infallible’, whose groove and progression are like noting else in the PJ catalog and I love the directions the melody veers off in, with near-Beatles like passages :

A lot of attention pre and post release was given to ‘Sirens’ with due course. It’s one of the band’s finest. From a musical point of view, it’s a Mike McCready compostion (which I can never have enough of) inspired after attending a stop on Roger Waters’ ‘The Wall’ tour and wanting “to write something that would have a Pink Floyd type feel”. You can tell pretty much exactly which song he was cribbing from but when paired with Vedder’s most open and direct lyrics it’s elevated beyond ‘power ballad’ territory to a yearning ode on the fear of life’s fragility and our own mortality.

Of course, there are some more expected leanings on Lightning Bolt. ‘Mind Your Manners’ is a ripping, Dead Kennedys inspired rocker that finds Vedder back in angry mode and plays to their strengths, as does ‘Let The Records Play’ which threads a ‘power of spinning vinyl’ theme around a tasty Stone Gossard (this is very much a record for Stone fans) riff with great results.

Instead of a couple, Lightning Bolt produced a good half dozen songs that really add to Pearl Jam’s setlist (even if they’re not the ones that Ed scrawls onto a piece of paper ahead of a show) and any PJ playlist – including the one which will follow this series*. However, there are a few that don’t make the cut.

I still haven’t really clicked with ‘My Father’s Son’ and while ‘Lightning Bolt’ and ‘Getaway’, for example, are fine songs they don’t particularly add anything to pull this album further up in terms of its ‘go to’ placement in the band’s overall catalogue.

Vedder said of the writing that they’re continually trying to ” make not just the best Pearl Jam record, but just the best record.” While Lightning Bolt may not be the one, it is stronger than you’d expect of a band’s tenth album and finds the band not only playing to their strengths but still pushing in unexpected directions. As long as they continue trying to do so it’s worth checking in and always worth getting to a Pearl Jam show when they come to town.

Oh, and in terms of album closers, though, they went with a beauty on Lightning Bolt with ‘Future Days’.

Highlights: ‘Mind Your Manners’, ‘Sirens,’ ‘Infallible,’ ‘Pendulum,’ ‘Let The Records Play,’ Yellow Moon,’ ‘Future Days’.

Not-so highlights: ‘My Father’s Son, ‘Sleeping By Myself’.

*At this rate that may be a Christmas special

Currently Listening

Righty ho.

There’s a lot going in my ears at present so I thought I’d drop a few on here while working on a couple of longer pieces and ahead of the inevitable ‘Holy Shitballs OKNOTOK Is Amazing’ post* and share what’s been cropping up regularly in the mix as it were.

Pearl Jam – Of the Girl (Instrumental)

I’m putting together a post about Pearl Jam, specifically their fallow period from 2000-2005 and I think Binaural often gets a bad rap. There’s a lot going on in the songs as this instrumental take of ‘Of The Girl’ from the PJ20 soundtrack shows.

The War On Drugs – Holding On

Because there is a new War On Drugs album dropping this year and this is the first single from it. Shame that the wax looks to be what I’d consider over-priced.

The Appleseed Cast – The Waking of Pertelotte/On Reflection

I don’t think I’ve touched on this band here so far. I can’t get enough of the Low Level Owl albums these days (even if they passed me by first time) and I love, LOVE Josh “Cobra” Baruth’s drumming. These are two seperate tracks that open Volume 1 but are best experienced flowing together as intended .

The Kinks – I’m Not Like Everybody Else

So many great Kinks songs to chose from…. this is a Ray song sung by Dave. It was a b-side to ‘Sunny Afternoon’ but the version I keep listening to was from their final release To The Bone and I first heard it and got hooked via ‘The Sopranos’. **

Fleetwood Mac – Albatross

Because a) this is a great tune to listen to when the sun is shining and b) early / Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac   > Rumours Fleetwood Mac.

*I dropped needle on it once and confirmed I need a new stylus. Until that arrives….

** See also: ‘Living On A Thin Line‘.

….it was a very good year

… to quote Mr Sinatra.

So, after a period of hint dropping, it was confirmed that, in a rare move, Radiohead would be revisiting their past and would mark the 20th anniversary of the game-changing OK Computer.

My copy of OKNotOK 1997 2017 as it’s called (3 LPs featuring three unreleased tracks and eight B-sides, all newly remastered) has been secured in its indies-only blue variant with my new-favourite shop and I’m sure that I’ll be talking more about OK Computer when I’ve dropped needle upon it.

However, the fact that it’s now 20 years since 1997 has seen a few of those nostalgic lists appear on various sites (Spin published a pretty solid 79 Best Alternative Rock Songs of 1997 list) and it got me to thinking that, from an alt-rock point of view at least, 1997 was a very strong year for releases. Let’s take a butchers…

Yes, kicking off with the fact that if ’97 saw Britpop killed by Oasis’ abhorrently indulgent and tuneless Be Here Now, then Radiohead’s OK Computer nailed down the coffin. I remember catching the video for ‘Paranoid Android’ on MTV2 and being blown away.

Foo Fighters would release their second (first as a band) album The Colour And The Shape, an album which is still held up as their best by so many* and contains some of their biggest tunes like ‘My Hero’, ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘Walking After You,’ and, of course that barely-known song ‘Everlong’.

The ‘Everlong’ video was directed by Michel Gondry who also directed the video for Björk’s ‘Joga‘, which features on her album Homogenic which also came out in 1997. Built To Spill used their major label debut to mark a massive stylistic shift and dropped the sublime Perfect From Now On, Portishead released their self-titled album and, while Hand It Over isn’t the best Dinosaur Jr album (it would be the last issued under that name for some time), it features some belters in ‘Nothing’s Goin’ On‘ and ‘I’m Insane’ guaranteeing it gets pretty regular plays from me.

A chap called Elliott Smith released his third album, the beautiful and much-loved Either/Or containing some of the best songs he’d ever produce in his all too-short life.

The post-rock cannon got two very important débuts in 1997. Godspeed You! Black Emperor released their F♯ A♯ ∞ and would go on to become, to me at least, the most important band in the genre. Meanwhile, five blokes from Glasgow in a band called Mogwai released Mogwai Young Team on their way to also becoming a hugely important band in the genre.

Ben Fold Five’s Whatever & Ever, Amen, home to ‘Brick’, ‘Song For The Dumped’ and ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ was also released in ’97 and Pavement released Brighten The Corners.

Back into the less ‘alt’ side of things, that fella born Robert Zimmerman made a quick recovery from a life-threatening heart infection despite thinking he’d “be seeing Elvis soon” and dropped, seven years after his previous studio album, the hugely impressive return to form that was Time Out of Mind.

1997 was also the year that I started to get into Aerosmith  released a stonker of an album, even if it would turn out to be their last strong effort to date, in Nine Lives. Look at the evidence: Get A Grip in 1993 was a monster in sales terms but not that much critically speaking and not one I listen to too often. Nine Lives, however, is a powerhouse record of raw sounding rock with some real earthy tones and – for the genre – some pretty eclectic sound and instrumentation. There’s still not one song I’d skip, though I wouldn’t necessarily hold up ‘Hole In My Soul’ as exemplary the rest of the album – ‘Taste of India’, ‘Full Circle’, ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’, the Joe Perry showcase ‘Falling Off’, ‘Somethings Gotta Give…’ ‘Fallen Angels’ – is a classic. Even before they changed the artwork and it shifted like hotcakes thanks to the addition of that asteroid movie song.

There’s also… Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ The Boatman’s Call and, I’m sure, plenty I’m omitting that a look through over such lists will make me go “oh, of course…” but with a lot of strong albums released and the fact that I was earning a regular pay cheque  (weekend work at a supermarket) at this point to fund my growing habit, there’s an awful lot of music in my collection from 1997 that still gets a lot of play.

*I could do a Foo Fighters Least to Most…. The Colour and the Shape battles it out with Wasting Light in my mind for their best to date. Both represent their most consistent and one will have the edge over the other depending on the day.