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…

Albums of my Years – 1989

1989 saw two events that would have a massive impact on my future, though I didn’t know it at the time: the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the Romanian Revolution in December. At the time, as an 8 then 9 year old, I wouldn’t have known about the importance of these events – or David Hasselhoff’s involvement*.

But the arrival of glasnost had an impact on the music news of 1989. In January, Paul McCartney Снова в СССР (Back in the USSR) – an album of covers – exclusively for release in the Soviet Union with no exports. Copies that did make their way into ‘the West’ fetched daft money for a Macca album until Paul decided to release it universally in ’91.  August’s Moscow Music Peace Festival was held in Moscow, showing the Russians exactly why Western music should be banned with acts such as Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, Skid Row, Cinderella, The Scorpions and Bon Jovi doing their bit to undo decades of international politics and create a hole in the ozone layer over Russia with hairspray use.

1989 marked goodbye for The Bangles, The Jackson 5, Gladys Knight & the Pips, grunge and Seattle scene forerunners The U-Men and both a ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ again to The Who – who had reformed for a heavily criticised The Kids Are Alright anniversary tour and promptly called it quits again until 1996. 1989 was the year Bruce Springsteen made a few calls and told the E Street Band he would not be using their services for the foreseeable future. It was hello to The Black Crowes, The Breeders, The Cranberries, Hole, Mazzy Star, Marilyn Manson, Mercury Rev, Neutral Milk Hotel, Morphine, Pavement, Red House Painters, Slowdive,  The Stone Temple Pilots…  oh; and Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, who all formed in 1989 and were (mostly) poised for some heavy action in the 90’s and presence in my music collection.

In terms of album releases, 1989 has plenty to offer. Five years on from the ‘Boys of Summer’ featuring Building The Perfect Beast, Don Henley and his ponytail released The End of the Innocence with help from Bruce Hornsby and Heartbrakers Mike Campbell and Stan Lynch, I still quite enjoy the title track. 1989 saw a massive return to form for The Rolling Stones: Steel Wheels saw Jagger and Richards healing the rift between them and crafting an album packed with great Stones songs though was the last for both their label Columbia and to feature Bill Wyman who would leave the group at the end of the tour behind the album (though it wouldn’t be announced until ’93).

I’ll also go a little away from the expected here and say that 1989 also saw the release of an absolutely great pop album – Madonna’s Like A Prayer which mixed just under a dozen cracking songs (including one written and produced by Prince) with a classic, lush sound courtesy of Patrick Leonard’s production. Stepping back into this blog’s wheelhouse, Tom Petty released his first ‘solo’ album Full Moon Fever which went onto sell a crazy amount of records and would become his commercial peak. We all know this one – it’s packed from head to toe with pure gold: ‘Free Fallin’, ‘I Won’t Back Down’, ‘Runnin’ Down A Dream’, ‘Yer So Bad’, ‘Alright for Now’… they’re all on here.

Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble’s fourth album In Step arrived in June of ’89, Billy Joel released Storm Front and let the world know that while he didn’t start the fire, he could create one hell of an earworm alongside the stately ‘Leningrad’ and personal favourite ‘The Downeaster ‘Alexa” and Mother Love Bone released their debut EP, Shine which featured pretty much their only decent songs**:

Anything else released in 1989? Fuck… how about The Cure’s Disintegration – one of the best albums ever?

Or Nirvana’s debut album Bleach? Yes – both of these were released in 1989 along with Soundgarden’s second album and major label debut Louder Than Love which matched them with metal producer Terry Date and then lumped into the ‘heavy metal’ genre for some time much to the complete bemusement of their Seattle contemporaries and fans who knew how different they sounded usually. I think it was Mudhoney’s Mark Arm who pointed out that, pre-Nirvana, when an ‘alternative’ band signed to a major there were only two ways to go: the metal Guns ‘N’ Roses route or the REM route. Soundgarden were heavy and went the metal route.. they’d not really shake it off until 94’s Superunkown.

Meanwhile, riding high again without being high, Aerosmith decided to up the ante with their next ‘comeback’ album and knocked it clean out of the park with the best album of the second-half of their career: Pump. As strong and gleaming as Perry’s torso on the cover, Pump is an album of back-to-back GOLD, with Aerosmith’s raunchy, hard-edged riffing married to a great-sounding production. Less cheesy than Permanent Vacation and less over-worked than Get A GripPump is Aerosmith at their peak and revelling in it, better songs, more power and clearly here to kick arse:

There was also Don’t Tell A Soul by The Replacements in 1989. Much-maligned, the album was royally buggered up by the mix that Chris Lord-Alge decided to apply what, according to Wikipedia, he and his brother were famous for “abundant use of dynamic compression[5] for molding mixes that play well on small speakers and FM radio, thus somewhat contributing to the loudness war” to some of Paul Westerberg’s finest compositions to date. It killed the album at a time when the band were probably at the only point in their career when they coulda shoulda woulda broken through. Instead it’s one for the faithful only to really love and wouldn’t be heard as intended until last years’ Dead Man’s Pop box allowed producer Matt Wallace to release his original mix.

Oh, and then there’s the fact that Bob Dylan decided 1989 was the right time to return to his power and prominence by teaming with Daniel Lanois (who was recommended to him by someone called Bono. You may not have heard of him, he’s the singer with an obscure, little-known Irish band called U2) with the phenomenal Oh Mercy which features more than enough classic Bob Dylan songs to rank it as a vital addition to any fan’s collection:

I’m sure I’ve probably missed a few key albums from 1989 but there were so many. But if none of the above great, classic releases make it as my featured album for the month then it must be Boston’s other famous act….

Pixies – Doolittle

Album number 2 from Pixies is an out and out classic. I still hold by my statement that the band have never released a bad song, but Doolittle contains out and out classics from start to finish – ‘Debaser’, ‘Tame’, ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’, ‘Here Comes Your Man’, ‘Wave of Mutilation’… it’s just perfect.

I got into Pixies long after they called it a day, I can’t and won’t pretend I was into them when they were originally a going concern. But by the time they got back together and playing shows again in 2004 I was already way up to speed and in love with their back catalogue. When they did eventually get around to making new music (minus Kim Deal who didn’t want to be involved), I was straight on the pre-order link for EP1.

Doolittle was my, and I’m sure loads of other fans’, first Pixies albums and remains an absolute favourite – I got into them on the back of references in interviews of artists who count them as influences (amongst the many, Cobain would consistently cite them as vital) and having heard ‘Monkey Gone To Heaven’. I didn’t look back and within a few weeks had quickly added their then compete works to my collection.

The band’s second album, Doolittle was the Pixies’ first international release and has continued to sell well since release (let’s not get ahead of ourselves; Pixies don’t exactly shift mega numbers) and is often placed in lists of greatest albums be it alternative, 80s or just great albums.

Doolittle marked the band’s first album with producer Gil Norton, they’d work with him on their next three albums (including Indie Cindy) but it wasn’t an instantly harmonious relationship. I’ve often read that Norton isn’t the easiest producer to work with and on Doolittle sessions he’d suggest adding to songs and changing their structure in ways that would often piss Frank Black off especially as he’d try and lengthen their songs. Apparently it got to the point that Black took Norton to a record shop and gave him a copy of Buddy Holly’s Greatest Hits as a kind of “if short songs are good enough for Buddy Holly..” point making exercise. Black would say of Doolittle “this record is him trying to make us, shall I say, commercial, and us trying to remain somewhat grungy”.

Whatever the process and arguments (and I’m not even gonna touch on the whole bickering between Deal and Black), the result is unarguably a classic that was critically and (for the band) commercially well received with sales up to a million units and it remains both one of the best alternative albums of the 80s and a big favourite of mine.

 

*I don’t know what’s gone wrong in the Hoff’s head or when it went wrong but the man remains convinced he played a, if not the, pivotal role in the reunification of Germany.

**Sorry, as important as the group is to Pearl Jam history they’re a little too glam / Poison cover band for the most part in my ears.

Over and Out

It’s not the easiest thing to go out on a high note, just ask George Constanza. Seinfeld managed it. So did the Sopranos, come to think of it. Some just drag it out too long. The lifestyle and money too good to turn down after syndication kicks in perhaps. Joseph Heller was once told by a reported that he hadn’t written anything since that was as good as Catch-22, to which he responded “who has?”

It’s even trickier for musicians to do so – very few go into sessions with a definitive “this will be the last time” approach, some call it a day following poor reception to a bad album and others leave this mortal coil with their last recorded output barley touching their former dizzying heights.

Were Dylan to meet Elvis tomorrow, for example, I doubt it could be said that he’d left a great final record in Triplicate. At The Drive In and Refused almost managed it – but then they got back together and managed to slap their legacy in the face with a bloody great fish.

I go these lengths to point out that a good final album isn’t all that common as a build up, of course, to sharing my list of Ten Great Final Albums. Displayed below in no particular order but with two qualifying criteria: ‘only’ albums (Jeff Buckley’s Grace for example) don’t count and nothing posthumously released is eligible.

Nirvana – In Utero

Originally it was going to be called I Hate Myself and I Want To Die as a joke. Cobain’s piss take of how he was so often portrayed as “this pissy, complaining, freaked-out schizophrenic who wants to kill himself all the time.” In an attempt to distance themselves from the overwhelming popularity of Nevermind and sheer off the sound of Vig’s production that – despite loving it at the time – Cobain would slate publicly as too commercial, Nirvana recorded In Utero with Steve Albini.

As raw and uncompromising an album as a major like Geffen would allow. There’s a lot of talk and mumbling about how the label insisted on having it remixed and polished by Scott Litt (known at the time for work with REM and The Replacements) but the band had already approached Albini to remix it but the producer refused – claiming he’d recorded exactly the ‘fuck you’ ablum Kurt had asked for and wouldn’t released the master tapes to be remixed by someone else. After much back and forth he relented and Scott Litt and Andy Wallace were allowed to work on some of the songs.

In Utero ranks as my favourite Nirvana album and would certainly feature high on my all-time list. ‘Serve the Servants’, ‘Scentless Apprentice’, ‘Heart Shaped Box’, ‘Dumb’…. it’s not only stuffed full of killer tunes but the whole album feels so intense and powerful. The only thing that bugs me about it is that it still showed so much more potential for what was to never come. As a final album, though, it takes some beating.

Chances of a follow-up: None. Well, the surviving members of Nirvana could cut some new material with a different vocalist but then they’d probably chose someone crap like a former Beatle and call it something else entirely.

Sonic Youth – The Eternal

Boy does it pain me to talk about Sonic Youth having a final album. However, The Eternal, released in 2009 and their 15th studio album – is Sonic Youth’s final studio album. To quote from a previous post about them, Sonic Youth were one of the greatest things to blow my ears apart, literally; I’m convinced that the hearing in my right ear has never been the same since I was close to front row and very close to intimate with Thurston Moore’s amps as they performed Daydream Nation in its entirety at Camden’s Round House.

Listening to SY for the first time was like getting a key to a room full of ‘next-level music’. It was music that didn’t give a fuck – pure punk in that respect yet somehow effortlessly cool. No regard for standard tuning. No regard for form and traditional structure. No regard for anything but the feel. And it all made sense. Explosive and experimental guitars that powered through songs that always managed to feel both on the brink of collapse yet tight and in control. A three-decades long career stuffed with ground-breaking work based on the guitar work of Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore with vocals from both along those of bass player Kim Gordon. And then, suddenly, it was over as the divorce of Gordon and Moore collapsed amidst rumours of mid-life crisis infidelity on the part of Moore. Their latest album The Eternal very quickly became their final album.

In many ways, even down to the title, it’s a fitting final album. It contains some of their finest songs and showed that, more than 25 years on from their debut EP, they were still evolving and making great music. Songs like ‘Sacred Tricksters’, ‘What We Know’ and ‘Anti-Orgasm’ sit among their best and the album, for all it’s sonic experimentation and guitar freak-outs, is one of their most consistent and accessible as though, no-longer on a major label, they were interested in as many people as possible getting into their songs.

Chances of a follow-up: Very very slim. While drummer Steve Shelley has worked on projects with both Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo, the acrimonious dissolution of Moore and Kim Gordon’s marriage points to Sonic Youth as wrapped up.

Jimi Hendrix – Electric Ladyland

Given the sheer amount of posthumous compilations of ‘previously unreleased’ recordings or ‘intended next albums’ you’d think that Jimi Hendrix spent more time in the studio than he did anything else. However, there were only three studio albums released in his lifetime (all recorded with The Jimi Hendrix experience and released within an 18 month period).

Jimi’s final studio album Elecrtic Ladyland is a stone-cold classic. A double album that contains pure gold. Take Hendrix’ reinvention of ‘All Along The Watchtower’ which was so good it overwhelmed Dylan himself, take ‘Crosstown Traffic’, take ‘House Burning Down’ or take the 15 minute long jam of ‘Voodoo Chile’ with Steve Winwood’s organ whirling away – which itself led into what is easily one of the greatest songs ever put to tape: Voodoo Child (Slight Return). Apparently – the Experience returned to the studio the next day to find cameras rolling for a documentary, rather than try and repeat the magic of the previous night’s jam session, they improvised it on the spot and a monster was born:

Chances of a follow-up: got a shovel?

Band of Susans – Here Comes Success

Band of Susans I got into far too late – some 20 years after they called it a day. Born out of the same New York noise rock scene that gave us Sonic Youth but with a more layered, complex sound that saw them draw comparisons to shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine woven into an experimental mix. The original lineup had three women named Susan and always had just as many guitarists. In their ten year life as a band, with fairly fluid lineups around the three Susans (which eventually became just the one, Susan Stenger) they put out five stonking albums of guitar-centric music that was markedly different to the field in which they were often lumped but never really found as wide an audience as they deserved.

Here Comes Sucess – complete with sarcastic title – is arguably their finest work and one of the best records I’ve discovered in the last year or so. Nine songs that all kick around the seven minute mark. All slow burning, hypnotic worlds that revolve around Stenger’s bass lines with intricate and explosive guitar workouts.

Chances of a follow-up: All members are still active in music in one way or another but given how little attention was paid to the band, their split or – if the low level of monthly listens the band receive on Spotify is any indication – their back catalogue, I’d say none.

Elliott Smith – Figure 8

If I can bring myself to do so there will be a wider-scoping post on Elliott Smith. However…. there was supposed to be a double album. Something to do with record contract obligations with DreamWorks. Smith had graduated to the major label after the success of Either/Or and his exposure via the Goodwill Hunting soundtrack. But he also fell into depression. Following on from Figure 8, Smith went through a troubled period of addiction, paranoia and all kinds of trouble before cleaning up. He had a clearer state of mind, sessions were underway with a good number of tracks recorded and mixed. However, Smith died on October 21, 2003 at the age of 34 from two stab wounds to the chest (which was reported as suicide but officially left open with the question of homicide). As such Figure 8 remains his final recorded statement and it’s a beauty.

Full of lush production,  pop-like song structures that wear their Beatles influence on their sleeve and pretty much every instrument played by Smith, Figure 8 contains some of Elliott’s finest songs from ‘Son of Sam’ to ‘Everything Means Nothing to Me’, ‘Easy Way Out’, ‘Pretty Mary K’… A real loss.

 

Chances of a follow-up: soon to be released on St. Peter’s Gates Records.

REM – Collapse Into Now

How do you bow out in style? REM’s the closest any act has gotten to following the Seinfeld route of stopping at the top before things go south. Well, if we ignore Around The Sun that is.  Guitarist Peter Buck has said that, as the band entered the studio to record “We got together, and Michael said, ‘I think you guys will understand. I need to be away from this for a long time.’ And I said, ‘How about forever?’ Michael looked at Mike, and Mike said, ‘Sounds right to me.’ That’s how it was decided.”

Collapse Into Now is a great final album, it’s nothing but strength. Following the all-out single-focus return to form of Accelerate, REM’s final album paints with every brush at their disposal – it has the odd effect of listening to a new album as a greatest hits. All of these songs are new yet there are echoes of their finest work across each. I’ve written a full post on this one before so won’t repeat myself but will point out that I still consistently pull Collapse Into Now off the shelves and don’t skip a single track. ‘Discoverer’, ‘All The Best’, ‘Mine Smell Like Honey’, ‘Oh  My Heart’… all gold. Perhaps, most likely probably, because they knew it was their last, the band put their all into this and created a final body of songs they could be proud of. I’m just glad they didn’t decide to call it a day after Around The Sun.

Chances of a follow-up: I mean…. you can never say never, right. Not while all members are still alive and well and engaged musically in some form… there’s group projects and meetings for the ongoing ‘business’ side of REM’s catalogue but I, sadly, don’t see it happening. I don’t think they have anything to prove and if their hearts aren’t in it…

The Replacements – All Shook Down

The Replacements were already kind of over before All Shook Down. It was supposed to be a Paul Westerberg solo album but before recording could get underway his management talked him into making one last Replacements album from the material.

As such All Shook Down features a few session musicians but not to the point of it not being a Replacements record – there are no additional guitarists or bass players listed so it’s a safe bet to assume that Paul Westerberg and Slim Dunlap handled guitar parts with bass either missing from some songs or handled by Westerberg when Tommy Stinson wasn’t about (Westerberg’s solo albums often did away with bass altogether). Perhaps as a side effect of the material’s original intention, it’s one of the most consistent Replacements albums recorded without a single foray into ‘Lay It Down Clown’ territory.

The album is full of strong songs and I’m sure that if such a solidly great album come sooner in their career they would’ve finally secured the attention / success they deserved. As it is, this collection of tunes such as ‘Merry Go Round’, ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘When it Began’ and ‘Someone Take The Wheel’ makes for a fantastic swansong.

Chances of a follow-up: unlikely. Original guitarist Bob Stinson died in 1995, replacement Slim Dunlap suffered a severe stroke in 2012 and could not take part in the reunion shows while drummer Chris Mars has given up on music to focus on his art. The well-deserved lap of honour tours that followed the reunion in 2012 of Westerberg and Stinson yielded an aborted attempt at recording new material with the old ‘just didn’t feel right’ results.

The White Stripes – Icky Thump

Ah the White Stripes… while I’ve got no real time in Jack White these days, there’s no denying that The White Stripes generated a great deal of catchy and solid tunes in their 14 year career together. The tour behind their last album, Icky Thump, was called short in 2007 after Meg began suffering acute anxiety. Quits were called by the duo as a band in 2011 after a period of inactivity.

Oddly, Icky Thump is not only the last White Stripes album but also my favourite. I love the title track, the hook of ‘300 M.P.H Torrential Outpour Blues’, the daftness of ‘Rag and Bone’ and stomp of ‘You Don’t Know What Love Is (You Just Do as You’re Told)’. ‘Conquest’ aside, there’s not a song on Icky Thump I don’t enjoy. For my money it’s the strongest entry in their catalogue, a leap on from the already great Get Behind Me Satan and Elephant and I was really hoping they’d continue that trajectory. Ho hum.

Chances of a follow-up: Meh. Jack seems too busy being all kinds of a muppet and Meg… where is Meg?

Nick Drake – Pink Moon

Another career and life cut far too short and another on this list with only three albums left behind. Nick Drake died at just 26 – an overdose of antidepressants that was ruled suicide. He disliked both performing live and giving interviews which helped keep him so under the radar that his albums barely registered during his lifetime; not one of them sold more than 5,000 copies while he still drew breath. His three albums are beautiful, minimal yet deeply affecting records of tender melody and soul that I never tire of and ‘River Man’, ‘Time Has Told Me’ and ‘Place To Be’ would certainly be in the long and short lists of my favourite songs.

There’s no video footage of Nick Drake as an adult – only still photographs. It wasn’t until his albums were released in a box set – Fruit Tree – some five years after his death that the music world began to pay attention. To the point that Drake’s final album – Pink Moon – would be included in Rolling Stones’ list of 500 Greatest Albums of All Time: “Drake recorded his last album in a couple of nights, delivered the tapes to Island Records and checked himself into a psychiatric ward. If the music were as dark as the lyrics, it might be unlistenable. But Drake’s soothing vocals and unadorned acoustic picking make Moon unfold with supernatural tenderness.”

Chances of a follow-up: I’m running out of pithy comments about resurrection..

Pink Floyd – The Division Bell

Two quotes:

“Pink Floyd is a spent force creatively.” Roger Waters
“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” The Dude, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.

Man it’s a good thing nobody cares what Roger Waters says as much as he thinks they do. Don’t get me wrong, A Momentary Lapse of Concentration isn’t a great album by any measure but it paved the way forward for a Pink Floyd without that knobhead ordering people around and dictating dreary songs about soldiers and Thatcher. 1994’s Division Bell, though, is a fucking awesome album and ranks in my Top 3 Pink Floyd albums on any day of the week.

Without the legal problems that surrounded the recording of its predecessor, The Division Bell sessions were relaxed and songs were born out of lengthy jams and improvisations with music predominantly coming from Gilmour and Richard Wright – the album would feature his first lead vocal since DSOTM. Which is fitting as The Division Bell, for all its then contemporary touches, is the closest the band had come to sounding like ‘classic’ Floyd since before The Wall. Every time I slip this one into the CD player I find something else to love. The opening trio of songs is unimpeachable, ‘Marooned’ is a great tune, ‘Coming Back to Life’, ‘A Great Day for Freedom’, ‘Lost for Words’ are spot on and underpinned by Gilmour at his finest in terms of both voice and the fluidity and beauty of his playing. Oh, and in ‘High Hopes’ they had the perfect final Pink Floyd song.

Chances of a follow-up: Nah…  While Nick Mason doesn’t consider the band broken up David (never Dave) Gilmour seems content with the odd solo album and colossal tour playing the usual Floyd-heavy quota of tunes to keep him in comfortable retirement. Richard Wright left us in 2008 and Roger Waters has yet to raise sufficient moneys to fund the removal of his head from his own rectum where it’s been stuck since the early 80’s.

 

Least to Most: Foo Fighters, Part 3

Foo Fighters

It’s surprising the amount of stick Dave Grohl got for moving forward and making new music. Or, as some saw it, daring to make new music after the death of Kurt Cobain. As the man himself has often pondered – did they just expect him to stop? Music was all he’d done up until that point and he was only 25, why should he stop? In October of 1994, six months following Cobain’s suicide, Grohl booked some time at Robert Lang Studios in Seattle – where Nirvana’s final, aborted studio sessions had taken place (which yielded the demo of what would become ‘You Know You’re Right‘) earlier that same year – and recorded a fifteen-track demo, playing every instrument (save one guitar solo) himself.

Not sure where his future lay Grohl considered looking for another band with a vacant drum stool. One such stool had recently been vacated by Stan Lynch and there’s a great video of Grohl going full Animal with the Heartbreakers on SNL – “it was the first time I’d looked forward to playing the drums since Nirvana had ended.” Ultimately, though (and even after a couple of shows sitting on the vacant Pearl Jam drum stool*), Grohl wanted to give his ‘Foo Fighters’ project his attention as the demo tape he’d circulated was now picking up major label interest. The name was applied to the demo tape as Grohl wanted some anonymity post-Nirvana and to suggest that a group was behind the music.

Released in July 1995, there’s something wonderfully charming and warm about Foo Fighters. It’s very much a product of its time – the guitars are very grunge-like and loaded with the same levels of fuzz associated with Grohl’s former outfit but the songs quickly jump into more melodic and lighter routes and there’s an overwhelming sense of lightness and, yes, goofiness that wouldn’t be present on any other Foo Fighters release (likely down to the fact that the largely nonsensical lyrics were written 20 minutes before recording). It’s loaded with hook, charm and warmth and positivity. Though I have to wonder if I’m the only Foo Fighters fan that doesn’t care for ‘Big Me’.

Highlights: ‘This Is A Call’, ‘I’ll Stick Around’, ‘Alone + Easy Target’, ‘Good Grief’,’Floaty’

Wasting Light

Fuck but I love this album. This is the one instance in which the Gimmick behind it paid off in spades. In an effort to recapture some of the rougher sound of earlier Foo Fighters releases, Grohl decided that Foo Fighters Album 7 would be stripped of all the production bells and whistles that had been draped over Echoes, Silence, Patience & Grace and bought in Butch Vig and to record the entire album on analogue equipment in Dave’s garage.

At this point, though, it would be futile to expect such a process to result in a raw sounding record. It’s not like Dave Grohl has a small garage for that matter either. But, what makes Wasting Light such a late career highlight is that Vig captures a sense of purpose and drive in the band that had been lacking for at least three albums previous. It’s a big, anthemic rock record shorn of production sheen and filled with a sense of energy that comes from the fact that they recorded the entire album live and – with Pat Smear back in the ranks – a heavier, three-guitar strong attack.

From the off with ‘Bridges Burning’ powering into ‘Rope’ and ‘Dear Rosmery’ there’s no let up. Instead, when you’d expect it at track four, ‘White Limo’ has been described as “a blistering, paint-stripping thrash track” with Grohl’s vocals lost as he screams at what must be the top of his register. There’s no slowing down on Wasting Light. No ballads. ‘These Days’ looks like it’s gonna be that track until it turns into a thumping Foos classic that will no doubt rub shoulders with ‘Run’ and ‘Something From Nothing’ on the inevitable Greatest Hits 2. No, Wasting Light found a revitalised band firing with an energy and power few thought they had left in them and got me really paying attention to the band again and, depending on the day of the week, could just as easily sit right at the top of this list.

Highlights: ‘Bridges Burning’, ‘Rope’, ‘White Limo’, ‘These Days’,’Arlandria’, ‘Walk’.

The Colour and The Shape

Twenty years on (gulp), the moment when the practically-throwaway ‘Doll’ gets torn apart by the arrival of ‘Monkey Wrench’ and The Colour and The Shape shifts into gear remains shit-the-bed-amazing. So good that the band themselves would give the formula another go and top it with ‘T-Shirt’ giving way to ‘Run’ on this year’s Concrete & Gold. That being said, while ‘Run’ is a great song, it doesn’t match the sheer power and fire of ‘Monkey Wrench’ – an absolute stone-cold classic. And it’s not the only one on the album for is home to a tonne of em: ‘Monkey Wrench’, ‘My Hero‘, ‘Walking After You’, ‘Enough Space’ and, easily their best song, ‘Everlong‘.

The Colour and The Shape was the first Foo Fighters album recorded as a group (although Grohl would end up re-recording the drum parts himself leaving drummer William Goldsmith little choice but to leave the band. He’d be replaced by Taylor Hawkins before the tour behind the album began) and is the most cohesive and consistent set of songs they’ve put to tape, still. After an extensive tour behind Foo Fighters, the band were coming together with Grohl emerging more confident in his role as singer and band leader – if you go back to ‘Monkey Wrench’ when he hits his final “one more thing before I quit” you can here that confidence screaming through. On the downside his first marriage was ending in divorce. This meant that, in place of the nonsensical lyrics on the first album, much of Grohl’s domestic strife was poured into the lyrics – ‘Everlong’ in particular is a strange mix up as it was written against both the collapse of his marriage and the beginning of a new relationship.

What makes this album stand out for me is that in between the staggering strength of the obvious hits, the songs that are so often forgotten are really bloody good too. Take ‘Enough Space‘ – watching ‘Back and Forth’ it’s clear how important this song was as one of the first new ones Grohl wrote for the band, with a tempo inspired by the jumping up and down of European audiences to heavier tunes. Or ‘My Poor Brain’ or ‘Wind Up’ or the best Foo Fighters album closer to date – ‘A New Way Home.’ These are great tunes and on any other album would be stand-outs. When put on an album stacked with killer classics they’re almost forgotten but prove that The Colour and the Shape is an album full of strengths (and ‘See You’ which, frankly, you can forgive).

Check out any review for a new Foo Fighters album and it will be this one that it gets judged against and with reason. The Colour and The Shape built the template of every song and direction the Foo Fighters would make yet remains their benchmark in terms of quality and consistency.

Highlights: All of it.

*Despite all the MTV (and Courtney fuelled) Nirvana vs Pearl Jam schtick the animosity between members really wasn’t there. Grohl sat in for two shows in Australia pre Jack-Irons and it’s been suggested that, having heard and recognised Grohl’s direction, they told him he’d be better doing it alone rather than playing for someone else. Eddie Vedder would actually premier two of the album’s songs on his radio show in 1995 as well as playing alongside Grohl in Mike Watt’s backing band – whose tour Vedder’s band Hovercraft were on along with Foo Fighters.

Soundtracks: Singles

The Film: 

Singles is a pretty decent little film. I say ‘little’ as it’s not one of those huge studio jobs involving comic book heros and arse-quaking explosions that are clogging up cinemas these days like so much backlogged faecal matter. No, it’s a charming film made for a modest budget ($9m), held in pretty strong regard amongst critics and fared pretty well at the box office ($19.5m) and has gone on to an even stronger after-life on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray etc.

An exploration of relationships in their bloom, chaos, flourish and collapse amongst a group of those young folks at the time called Gen X. It’s a solid and often funny film that was Cameron Crowe’s first step away from those teen-angst films such as Say Anything. It also happened to be set in Seattle, in 1992 with one of it’s characters, Cliff (Matt Dillon in a role that Crowe had tried to get Chris Cornell to play*), the singer of a grunge band – called Citizen Dick (which also featured Stone Gossard, Jeff Ament and Eddie Vedder) – and events play out against the backdrop of the then ascending Seattle music scene of which Crowe (formerly a writer for Rolling Stone) was a dedicated fan.

The Soundtrack:

So the soundtrack… it arrived a few months ahead of the film’s release and was a huge hit as these things go, going top ten and selling over two million copies. It featured new songs from Pearl Jam who were starting to break through, Alice in Chains’ ‘Would?’ made its debut on the album along with a song from Soundgarden and a Chris Cornell solo tune.

It served not just as an amazing primer to the city’s nascent music scene but features some great songs from non-Seattle bands such as Screaming Trees, Smashing Pumpkins and two absolute belters from Paul Westerberg only months after The Replacements had called it a day, ensuring, in its way, that these songs would not be shoe-boxed as ‘grunge’ but would be shown amongst the a much-wider alternative rock scene.

Noticeable by their absence among the other 3 of the Big 4 is Nirvana. Nevermind hadn’t dropped while Singles was in production and while musicians such as Ament and Cornell amongst others, were very involved in the film’s production (more to come), Kurt viewed ‘Hollywood’ as something to be steered very clear of. It’s also likely that Warner Bros – who would need to approve the soundtrack participants – didn’t see Nirvana at the time as a commercial viability. Oops. Still, they changed their mind on that front when, as studio politics and games meant the film suffered a delayed release by which time Nevermind had hit. So Warner Bros thought ‘let’s try and cash in’ and floated the idea of releasing the film under the name ‘Come As You Are’ instead. Even sending the band a copy of it to seek approval. Thankfully it never happened…

So, back to the soundtrack. It’s a killer selection of Seattle and Alt-Rock tunes, yes. But it’s not just a near-perfect mix-tape that I’ve damn-near worn out. The songs also fit the scenes they’re used in, too. As Campbell Scott’s Steve walks around Seattle it’s Cornells ‘Seasons’ that keeps him company and when he needs to let off steam he does so by going to Alice in Chains or Soundgarden shows and losing himself in the crowd.

Plus, according to Everybody Loves Our Town: An Oral History Of Grunge (a must-read), the royalties and monies received for being part of the soundtrack helped an awful lot of bands that never scaled those heights reached by Seattle’s Big Four, with some using the funds as mortgage down-payments. If I recall correctly, Mudhoney – who were late arriving to the soundtrack ‘party’ – recorded their song, ‘Overblown’, for a fraction of the pretty sizeable budget and kept the rest.

Touching back on that involvement for a second…. Three of Pearl Jam’s members featured as Matt Dillon’s Cliff’s band mates. At some point, however, they’ve ditched him and a deleted scene showed him giving it a go solo:

For a bit of authenticity Jeff Ament designed the Poncier tape. He added a handful of genuine-sounding song names to the label too*. Perhaps because he’d been unable to find time to play the role or simply because he was a nice bloke, Chris Cornell saw the list of songnames and took it upon himself to record a song for each of the titles. Of the Poncier Tape songs only ‘Seasons’** made the film and its soundtrack, initially.

Now though the Deluxe Reissue of the Singles soundtrack is with us. It collects those missing Poncier Tape songs (amongst which an early ‘Spoonman’ can be enjoyed) and couples them with a few other songs that didn’t make the cut the first time round to flesh out the included bands roster to bring in Truly and Blood Circus. For my money it’s not a bad set of additions but the single-disc will serve all brilliantly. That being said, Westerberg’s ‘missing’ songs are a welcome addition to my collection. Citizen Dick’s own ‘Touch Me I’m Dick’ isn’t what you’d call a highlight.

I’m running through a few Cameron Crowe films and their soundtracks in my head – Jerry Maguire (which made a hit of Springsteen’s ‘Secret Garden’), Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky, even Elizabethtown which was itself a bit of a dud film had a stellar musical accompaniment – and it’s a safe bet to say that the man doesn’t make a bad one and really knows how to get just the right tune into the right place. Singles, his first attempt at a more serious film, is also a perfect example of that.

*All too often in ‘music’ films the song names or actors with musical instruments are as convincingly ‘real’ as a pair of tits on Baywatch.

**For those curious it’s FCFCCF

Quick list: Top Five Second Albums

Following the Top Five Debut text, I recently texted  two of my most music loving, list-compiling friends another simple message: “All time top five second albums?”

Only the one cross-over across the lists (Nevermind popping up on two of the three). Here, however, are mine (in no particular order, that’d be too hard):

Pixies – Doolittle

Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’

In all likelihood still my favourite Dylan album.

Nirvana – Nevermind

Yes, I know; this is such a commercial choice… blah blah. Commercial, sell-out, whatever – the importance of this cannot be denied.

My Bloody Valentine – Loveless

Foo Fighters – The Colour and The Shape

I still don’t think they’ve bettered this. Yes this makes my list a bit Grohl-heavy but what can you do?

 

The second album is important. A debut album tends to be more of a compilation of songs that the artist has been living / gigging / tinkering with for years prior to a deal. A second finds them more established, a bit more at home with the idea of recording and who they are and building on those foundations laid by the debut. I think….