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…

Spinning The New… 2

Taking a momentary pause from the Pearl Jam series for, as those playing along at home may have sussed our, the final three all dropped between 1993 and 1996 and I thought it was time to take a quick gander at the newer stuff spinning right now.

This is fairly genre-specific. I’m not about to jump any sharks and start discussing Eminem’s ‘diss track’ (this is something that baffles me as a concept) or even start talking about the new Paul McCartney stuff (some of the worst material I’ve heard from the former Fab that didn’t involve frogs). While I have heard the new Smashing Pumpkins track I must have dozed off listening to it so it’s not going to be appearing here.

Mogwai – We’re Not Done Yet (End Title)

Another year another new Mogwai album. Well, sort of. These dons of post-rock have seemingly hit a real stride in terms of output as there’s a been a release per year of late alternating between ‘studio’ and ‘soundtrack’ album. Their soundtrack albums are different to their ‘own’ as the music is, obviously enough, written to suit someone else’s vision / story but each have been strong and worth additions to their catalogue (take Atomic as a prime example). Kin the film would appear to be destined to be seen by nobody: a box office and critical bomb. Kin the soundtrack should be heard by many – it’s a great, moody, sci-fi soundtrack that feels like it could just as easily blend into the background on Stranger Things (yes, I’m a very recent convert all binge-watched up to speed).

Jim James – Just A Fool

Back in 2015 My Morning Jacket were talking up the possibility of a very quick follow up the then-new The Waterfall on the back of how much material they’d written and recorded in those sessions. It hasn’t happened and can’t see it happening any time soon. Instead we got three solo albums from Jim James: one patchy, one a continuation of his covers project and this year’s Uniform Distortion which I picked up from the record store while collecting my pre-order of KinUniform Distortion feels actually like a very fine MMJ album and is well worth exploring.

Kurt Vile – Loading Zones

There’s a new Kurt Vile album dropping later this year and I’ve already got it on pre-order. I got hooked on Vile’s sound following Smoke Ring For My Halo. There’s something hypnotic about Vile’s sound and once you’re hooked.. well.

J Mascis – See You At The Movies

Oddly enough, there’s a direct line between Dinosaur Jr’s J Mascis and Kurt Vile in terms of style and sound and the two have often shared a track. It’s fitting, then, that Mascis has a new solo record dropping this autumn too – his solo work is less wall-of-sound guitar than the Dino albums but he’s started mixing his trademark guitar solos and shredding into his folksier / acoustic solo stuff to strong results so I’m looking forward to Elastic Days – also on pre-order from my not-quite local dealer.

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not

In 1989 after touring behind Bug, escalating tensions and frustrations lead to Lou Barlow being booted out of Dinosaur Jr. He should have seen it coming; when the group first played together they were called Mogo and the seemingly shy and reticent guitar-shredder Mascis wasn’t upfront, the frontman was Charlie Nakajima who lasted precisely one show after using that stage as a platform for a lengthy anti-police tirade. Appalled by Nakajima’s actions but “too wimpy to kick him out” (J’s words not mine), Mascis instead asked drummer Murph and bassist Barlow to form a new band without Nakajima.

dinosaur-jr-new-song-goin-down-give-a-glimpse-of-what-yer-not-jools-holland-640x640Despite his slacker vocals and aforementioned demeanour, Mascis was something of a control-freak with whom communication was a continual burr. By the time of Barlow’s dismissal they’d created a trilogy of legend-forming and hugely influential albums and had begun to scratch at commercial success with songs like Freak Scene and their cover of the Cure’s Just Like Heaven. What followed for Dinosaur Jr was a major-label deal, the subsequent change in mix/production dynamics with lyrics and vocals being pushed higher in the sound, getting caught up and buoyed forward by the changed landscape formed by Nirvana’s Nevermind, the departure of drummer Murph, their most commercially successful album and song in Without A Sound and Feel The Pain before the seemingly inevitable drop-off in sales, major-label disinterest and J’s retiring of the band name in 1997.

After a few solo Mascis records (under the name J Mascis and The Fog) and Barlow taking swipes at J in numerous Sebadoh songs, the unexpected happened; the “classic” line-up reformed in 2005 for a tour promoting the reissue of their first three albums. Even more unexpectedly; the reunion held all the way to the studio for release of the first album of Dinosaur Jr’s Third Act; Beyond. Whether it be down to the mellowing out that time, age and even parenthood bring, better communications or just the ease in pressure that comes from realising they’re not expected to make a “Smash Hit Album” but they’ve now outlived both their first ‘classic’ run of ’84-’89 and the band’s major label period of ’90-’97 and are still going strong.

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not – as with the three albums that have preceded it – makes a formidable mix of the band’s early heaviness and the tighter, song-oriented structure that came with the major label sound to create a perfect balance off fuzz-heavy riffs and deft melodies all underpinned by J’s trademark soloing and softly-spoken, stoner-like vocals.

Stripping back a touch on the spread of sound featured on 2012’s I Bet On Sky, Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not is a much taughter and fiercer sounding affair. Opener Goin’ Down tears through at break-neck pace and the following Tiny rips along at a cracking pace and clocks in at just 3:12 of precise intent – cramming in heavy riffs, rolling bass lines, thundering drums and J’s solo without an inch to spare.

Those Mascis solos do take the spotlight throughout but with due cause and never sounding too heavy-handed in their placing. When I mumbled about I Bet On Sky I mentioned that albums of Dinosaur Jr Act 3 are of a formula, with anticipation for the inevitable guitar break but that “his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanket.” This still holds; Mascis’ guitar is still the star attraction on Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not, especially on I Walk For Miles and I Told Everyone.

In the interests of democracy or as proof as to how far they’ve come in terms of dissipating tensions – Barlow gets a couple of his tracks on each of the band’s latest albums. Here Love Is… stands out as the strongest, it’s structure calling to mind Led Zep’s III era folkiness before giving way to Mascis’ guitar while it and the album closer Left/Right are both stronger, more comfortable-sounding tunes than any of his which have graced albums since Beyond. Whereas on previous albums they’ve been something of a sore thumb and almost halted the flow, here they slip in gel more cohesively than every before.

The band are clearly getting on well and working together better than ever before and while the ‘if it ain’t broke’ adage can certainly apply to many of the tracks here, songs such as Lost All Day and, particularly, the changing dynamics of Knocked Around show that Dinosaur Jr remains a band willing to stretch its sound and try new ground rather than generate a few more tracks to drop in between Forget The Swan and Lung during the payolah tours.

I’ve yet to catch them live – I wondered recently how they tackle the subject of playing those songs recorded during Barlow and Murph’s absence from the band. Do they include them or do they go the Van Halen route of pretending a huge part of the band’s history and it’s most commercially successful and wider-known tracks don’t exist (in my mind and a little off-topic I’d call this route as stupid a decision as getting Roth back in the fold in the first place was but then the idea of Diamond Dave trying Right Now is as farcical as any part of his hammy vaudeville act) or do they let bygones be bygones and go for the crowd-pleasers? I was very glad then, to see, thanks to SetListFM, that their set lists from recent tours include a good mix of old, mid and new era tracks. I suppose it’s further testament to just how well they’re getting on.

I digress…

I’ve had this album for just a couple of days now but it hasn’t left my CD player since then (I’ll have to wait a little longer for the vinyl) and cannot see a way this doesn’t make the Best Of 2016 list.

 

 

Watching The Corners

I’m aware that when I’ve muttered about new albums from ‘big’ names – referring, that is, to their importance in my music taste-range – I’ve been pretty negative. There have been more than a few albums released this year that I’ve loved (whether or not I’ll end up doing a Best of 2012 is another thing) so I thought I’d start mentioning a couple of those instead of just slamming new albums.

One of those bands that were always around but I never really acknowledged or paid attention to almost until it was too late, was Dinosaur Jr. By the time I got round to checking out one of their albums it was their comeback disc Beyond. It was being hailed as a ‘return to form’, and people were ecstatic as it was ‘as if they’d never been away’ – except to me they hadn’t really because this was the first time I was listening and knowing who was playing. I played the arse off that album. It absolutely slayed me. So much so that within a pretty short space of time I’d gotten the rest of their stock – my wife even managed to find the otherwise “bastard to locate at a decent price” Without A Sound for me in Paris. Suddenly the buzz around Beyond made sense. It was a phenomenal return to form after the lucklustre release J. had made during the 90’s with other musicians under the name of Dinosaur Jr. Which is odd because I really liked his two efforts with The Fog – so much better than, say, Hand It Over.

dinosaur jr

From that point I’ve been eagerly awaiting new Dino albums (or the recent J. Mascis solo record) and was not disappointed either with Farm or this year’s I Bet On Sky. It’s true that the three albums are all very much similar (even excusing the use of keyboards on opener Don’t Pretend You Didn’t Know); 10 or 12 songs, the bulk of which are sung by J and contain either hurried or gently fuzzy rocking leading up to the point at which J can’t hold back any longer and lets loose the guitar solo that continues until the end of the track. And you know what? I bloody love it. The melodies are a world clearer than they were on the bands original trio before the lineup became a rotational club, J’s a lot more confident at the old singing game and his guitar tone is beatific. His phrasing and fluidity mean that when each song breaks it’s more like being wrapped up in a warm blanked of tone. Somehow each time he breaks it sounds different and he finds something new on that guitar neck.

After my wife and I recently dug back into the 90s I was flicking through a book she got me last Christmas. It’s the photo collection Grunge by Michael Lavine and with a bit of text from none other than Thurston Moore. There’s a bit of a love-in with Thurston and J – Thurston (along with his basement and daughter) were in the video for Dinosaur Jr’s Been There All The Time and J played some shit-hot lead on Thurston’s amazeballs solo lp Trees Outside The Academy. Anyway there’s photo of Dinosaur Jr in there and – at the back of the book – a summary of all the bands featured within. Thurston’s summary of Dinosaur Jr reads:

“Awesome heavy melodic power trio from Amhers, Massachusetts…. Gerard Cosloy convinced the band to record an LP fr his Homestead imprint and it, along with its successor, You’re Living All Over Me, released on SST, became indelible blueprints for a generation of extreme yet beautiful guitar love core”

I like that phrase “guitar love core”. While the original trilogy was certainly something and the years in between yielded a few gems too I think the most recent clutch of albums from the band a lot more of a guitar love in. Plus it game on a gorgeous slab of purple vinyl and nice, high-quality gate-fold too.