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.

Turning Pages: 50 Great Reads

So we’ve entered that time of the year known as ‘List Season’.

I don’t think I can honestly drop a ‘Best of 2018’ list this year as I’ve only given a handful of new albums a real deep listen and most of my reads this year were not published in 2018 so it would be a case of shuffling those into an arbitrary order. Plus – who gives a flip.

However… an ALL TIME list… now that’s something that’s always worth sitting up and paying attention to in between wrapping up gifts and eating your own body weight in Christmas dinner, right?

Well, William over at a1000mistakes recently dropped two such lists – 50 Great Reads and a Top 50 Movies. I don’t think I could get a list of 50 films together but books… that I can do.

So, without further preamble, here are my 50 favourite books /reads in no order other than alphabetical – though if it’s in bold it’s in the Top 10. This is also limited to fiction or I’d have been here all day:

Wasted Morning – Gabriela Adameșteanu

How to Be Brave – Louise Beech 

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin-  Louis de Bernières

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernières

Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov*

Confessions – Jaume Cabré

The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

White Noise – Don DeLillo

Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

LA Confidential – James Ellroy

Perfidia  – James Ellroy

Alone In Berlin – Hans Fallada

Iron Gustav – Hans Fallada

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks 

Hell at the Breach – Tom Franklin

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Diary of a Nobody – George & Wheedon Grossmith

Epiphany Jones – Michael Grothaus

The Good Soldier Svejk – Jaroslav Hašek

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemmingway

Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes

The President’s Last Love – Andrey Kurkov

Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez

The Life of Pi – Yann Martell

Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov

Dr Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

Pyramids – Terry Pratchett

Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett

See You Tomorrow – Tore Renberg

The Little Prince – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

For Two Thousand Years – Mihail Sebastian

Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith

Perfume – Patrick Süskind

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn 

Where Roses Never Die – Gunnar Staalesen

Cannery Row – John Steinbeck

Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi

The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

A Fraction of the Whole – Steve Toltz

Jihadi: A Love Story – Yusuf Toropov

A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles

The Man Who Died – Antti Tuomainen 

Journey to the Centre of the Earth – Jules Verne

Mother Night – Kurt Vonnegut

Slaughter House 5 – Kurt Vonnegut

Memoirs of Hadrian – Marguerite Yourcenar

The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

*Master and Margarita is, in all likelihood, my favourite read full stop. However, as with all translated fiction, finding the translation is crucial and can make or break a book. The Penguin edition published in 2006 with the blue cover is the best I’ve found and the fact that this was the version given to me as a gift by my wife one day in Oxford after she expressed disbelief that I’d not yet read it only helps ensure it’ll not be toppled from the top of this list.

Penguins, Presidents, Missing Digits, Cats and Time Travel

In my review of Juame Cabre’s outstanding Confessions, I mentioned that the novel gave me my first “book hangover.” I tried numerous times to start something fresh but could not get beyond a first paragraph.

So I turned to a book I’d been itching to read for some time from an author whose work I’d grown to love: The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov. B2AvSxRCcAEpAoN

Kurkov is perhaps best known for his 2001 work Death and the Penguin and its follow up Penguin Lost (I read these both as one piece in the collected ‘Penguin Novels’). These books bought him attention and comparisons aplenty. From Murakami to a modern-day Bulgakov. Subsequent novels expanded the canvas and character range yet met with a more muted response. But, let’s be honest, they’re asking too much. Even Bulgakov didn’t always hit the marks he hit in his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. Such tags are akin to branding any musician who appears with an acoustic guitar and a wordy hit as “the new Dylan”.

It’s inevitable, then, that those same critics will find fault in his subsequent work.

There are traits that you’ll find in the works of both authors but then you’ll find them in the works of many others, too: there’s an abundance of dark humour, satire, surrealism and the occasional talking animal and each can have a distinctly Soviet reference point – writing of times and people bound by communism and, later, the Iron Curtain and it’s echoes. Both are very much a joy to read too. Kurkov’s works are lighter (this isn’t meant as a negative in any way) and hugely accessible.

Perhaps the difference is that Bulgakov wrote at a time when the new oppressive rule of Russia was relatively fresh. Memories of a time pre civil-war highlighted the hardships the population was under. Kurkov’s novels are set in a post Iron Curtain world where the inhabitants of his story are coming to terms with the echoes of that time against the inbound surge of capitalism

From my point of view, there’s nothing “patchy” about his work since the Penguin books. I’ll go so far as to say The President’s Last Love is not only his best work to date but will stand up in my own Top Ten – a hugely original story with remarkable pacing and narrative structure and its mix of humour, tragedy and sublime absurdity is akin to that of an Eastern European DeBernieres.

His previous novel, The Milkman In The Night, was another tightly bound fantastical work with a plot involving a sleepwalker, a sniffer-dog, theft, a woman selling her breast milk, psychotic cats and, of course, plenty of misunderstandings.

The Gardener from Ochakov is another equally cracking read. Just read the back jacket:

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What’s contained within these pages is a light-hearted, time travelling adventure with Kurkov’s patent and potent mix of realism and fantasy (though no animals in this one), with thrilling drama mixing deftly with the mundane details of life.

There’s also a satirical nod to those that idealise the past under Communist, Soviet rule – those that will say, with a shrug, things like “ah yes but everybody had a job then”.

Thoroughly enjoyable and highly recommended.