Albums of my years – 1995

Wow: 1995. It was like ten thousand spoons when all you needed was a knife, and other things that weren’t actually ironic. Don’t you think?

It was the year that Bjork insisted ‘ It’s Oh, So Quiet’, that Oasis had everyone trying to figure out what the fuck a ‘Wonderwall’ was (everyone except George Harrison), Lenny Kravitz probably looked at Britpop before declaring that ‘Rock and Roll Is Dead’, Supergrass however decided that, actually, everything was ‘Alright’ and Bryan Adams asked us if we’d ever really, really ever loved a woman. But nobody could answer him because we were probably all too busy humming The Connells’ ’74-’75’.

It was the year of Batman Forever – a god awful film (which would only be surpassed in terms of ‘holy shit, Batman, what’s that smell’ when Joel Schumacher decided that Batman & Robin should also be made) with a killer soundtrack that somehow eschewed the expected and threw in great tunes from U2 (‘Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me’), PJ Harvey, Mazzy Star, The Offspring, The Flaming Lips, Nick Cave and Sunny Day Real Estate! Oh and a song by Seal about getting hot and steamy in a florists.

It was the year Mel Gibson assured us, in a Scottish accent as good as Sean Connery’s Russian, that his freedom couldn’t be taken, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld sank to the murky depths from which it sprang, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino stalked each other in Heat and Woody met Buzz. Yup; Toy Story was released 25 years ago.

Back in music, Tommy Lee married Pamela Anderson and had a very secret and private honeymoon where they most likely stayed in and read Russian literature to each other.

Bruce Springsteen called the E Street Band for a somewhat awkward and brief reunion to record some new tracks for his Greatest Hits album – captured on the ‘Blood Brothers’ video. The group cut ‘Secret Garden’, ‘Blood Brothers’ and re-recorded earlier tunes ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Murder Incorporated’ along with ‘High Hopes’ (much better than the version later released) and ‘Without You’ which would appear on the Blood Brothers EP. This isn’t a Bruce post but I’ll also point out that if Bruce is in a studio with a band – not just any band, mind, the E Street Band – then you can bet your arse there’s gonna be more than that recorded. There was also ‘Back In Your Arms’ which would see the light of day on Tracks, ‘Missing’ which would appear on Sean Penn’s ‘The Crossing Guard’ soundtrack, and ‘Waiting on the End of the World’ which has been punting about on YouTube etc for a while. But… there was also an early take on ‘Dry Lightning’ and other tunes which he’d tried with a smaller band in 1994 such as ‘Nothing Man’, ‘Dark and Bloody Ground’, I’m Going Back’, ‘Angelina’ and more thrown in the vaults never to be heard from again… unless there’s a Tracks 2 coming.

Jerry Garcia crashed his car in January but was uninjured. However, having relapsed into drug addiction, he checked himself into rehab later in the year though died in his room in August after suffering a heart attack. He was 53. Also lost to the music world in 1995 was Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon. Hoon was found dead after a night of binging on drugs after what he felt was a disappointing show. He was 28 and left behind a daughter who was only months old. Addiction is a terrible fucking thing. I can’t tell you how angry I get when I see children losing parents to it.

Tired of the vast scale and drama that Dire Straits had become, Mark Knopfler called it a day for his band in 1995. I’m pretty sure that, as good as one last show would be (even if you don’t push it and ask for David Knopfler to take part too), a reunion won’t happen. Sunny Day Real Estate, Slowdive and Kyuss also called it a day in ’95. However, on the flip side of that coin, it was ‘hello’ to Alabama 3, Biffy Clyro, Blonde Redhead, Cursive, Eels, Elliott, Faithless, Idlewild, Mansun, Matchbox 20, Mogwai (fuck YEAH!), Mojave 3 (formed with former Slowdive members), Semisonic, Sleater-Kinney, Slipknot, … and er… Death Vomit, who all formed in 1995. Which kind of makes up for the fact that Nickelback also chose this year to start slowly murdering music.

R.E.M were having a pretty shit time of it on their Monster tour – Michael Stipe suffered a hiatal hernia, Mike Mills needed an appendectomy and Bill Berry left the stage during a concert in Switzerland after he suffered a brain aneurysm. Still, somehow during all these they’d be finding the time to put together the songs that would form their next, and finest, album. But that’ll have to wait until the 1996 post… so what dropped in 1995? Well, sticking in this blog’s wheelhouse, Van Halen released Balance their last album with Sammy Hagar and the last time they’d hit the top spot.

Slowdive also released their final album ahead of their breakup, Pygmalion was a real solid dose of the great stuff and, thankfully, the band would eventually reunite and drop another great new album some decades later. Sunny Day Real Estate’s aforementioned break-up took place during the recording of their second album, so by the time they handed it over to Subpop the label found themselves in the unpleasant situation of having a much-anticipated album but from a band that no longer existed and had no interest in it or promoting in. The lyrics weren’t finished and the “just make it pink” direction for the artwork was taken literally by the label who released it as LP2 in 1995 and yet, somehow, it’s a bloody brilliant album and one that gets a regular play on my turntable.

Sunny Day Real Estate’s tight rhythm section of Nate Mendel and William Goldsmith weren’t idle long, though – a chap called Dave Grohl needed a band and pronto. Grohl’s self-performed Foo Fighters album was released in mid-95 and he needed a group to take it out and play the arse off it. Goldsmith’s tenure would be… troubled at best but Mendel remains in Foo Fighters to this day as does Pat Smear (albeit having left then returned a few years later) and the first album has since shifted a few million units even if Grohl still insists it was never actually meant to be an album. While its composition and recording means it sounds very much unique within the Foo’s catalogue, it’s a great album and one of the year’s best:

No post-breakup blues from Kim Deal in ’95 – following the demise of the Pixies and sister Kelley’s drug bust putting The Breeders on hold, she formed another new band and The Amps released their only album Pacer the same year. She’d also pop up on Sonic Youth’s ‘Little Trouble Girl’ from their album Washing Machine – another corker from the band packed with great tunes like ‘Becuz’ and ‘Junkie’s Promise’ though not quite up to their promise.

Meanwhile, formed out of the ‘remains’ of Uncle Tupelo, Wilco released their debut A.M and Australian teens Silverchair released their debut Frogstomp which was, correctly in this instance, seen as their attempt to sound as identical to those bands they were enamoured by as they could (they’d get better) but was still pretty decent when you consider it’s an album by three 15 year olds.

Having recorded her debut at a similar age, Alanis Morissette released an altogether different album in 1995 to her two previous Canada-only albums; Jagged Little Pill was one of those albums that seemed to define the year with singles like ‘Ironic’, ‘You Oughta Know’, ‘One Hand In My Pocket’ playing from stereos everywhere as their videos seemed just as dominant on MTV (remember – it still played music back then) on their way to becoming part of pop-culture. Reviewed in retrospect it’s still a powerful album dominated both by Alanis’ vocals but by the ‘angst’ of it, Glenn Ballard’s production and the  sheer consistency of it.

Ben Folds Five released their self-title debut in 1995 as did Garbage whose album contains some absolute belters like ‘Stupid Girl’ and ‘Only Happy When It Rains’. Blind Melon’s second album Soup was released just 8 weeks before singer Shannon Hoon’s death. It’s a real move forward from their debut and was received with a lot more positivity from critics – songs like ‘Galaxie’ and ‘2×4’ are always good to hear. Tindersticks released their second (and second self-titled) album in ’95 and I can never hear songs like ‘My Sister’ or ‘Tiny Tears’ enough.

Neil Young’s Mirror Ball was released in ’95 – recorded in just a couple of weeks toward the start of the year with Pearl Jam as his backing band minus Vedder who was dealing with a stalker issue though still appeared on a couple of tracks. The group – without Eddie – would tour Europe with Neil to promote the album. Bjork’s Post arrived in 1995 and, beyond the annoying ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ included the amazing ‘Hyperballad’ and the Red Hot Chili Peppers released their only album with ex-Janes Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro with One Hot Minute and proved that what looks good on paper doesn’t always work. It’s not… terrible.. but the combination of Navarro and RHCP could’ve been a lot more potent than it was.

Jumping back across the Atlantic to make an abrupt change in sound and scene, one of the few positives about Britpop for me was that it – much like ‘grunge’ in the US – allowed over bands who were ‘kinda but not quite’ Britpop to get attention and success. Released at the height of it, Pulp’s Different Class remains – unlike many of that era – highly listenable with ‘Common People’ and ‘Disco 2000’ absolute classics. Meanwhile, Radiohead were preparing the nails for Britpop’s coffin…  The Bends was released in March 1995 and is a stone-cold fucking classic. The term ‘massive leap forward’ seems to have been invented just for the shift from Pablo Honey to The Bends. Yes it’s the shift in songwriting and approach that would reach perfection on OK Computer but The Bends is pretty damn perfect in its own right – ‘Just’, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’, ‘High and Dry’, ‘Street Spirit (Fade Out)’… It’s just insanely good.

Popping back State-side for the last push…. Elliott Smith’s second solo album was released in 1995 too. The self-titled album, perhaps best-known for ‘Needle In The Hay’ is another favourite and is too oft-overlooked in his catalogue. Pavement released their third album, the great Wowee Zowee in April 1995 and, despite what the critics said at the time, it’s one of their best.

How do you follow-up an album as amazing as Siamese Dream? Well, if you’re Billy Corgan you go bigger, of course. Bigger and grander by far. Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is a monster of an album – a whopping 28 tracks covering seemingly every spectrum of the Pumpkins’ sonic sweep from tender, string-laden beauties like the perfect arrangement of ‘Tonight, Tonight’ and the gorgeous ‘Porcelina of the Vast Oceans’ to the fiercer, heads-down rippers like ‘Bullet With Butterfly Wings’ via the all-time classic ‘1979’. It could so easily be at the ‘top’ of this list, it’s great album and a real favourite but… it’s just too fucking long, Billy; what the hell man? Talk about ‘cd bloat’…

Former poodle-haired rockers Bon Jovi have come in for a bit of slack on this blog but These Days was not like any other Bon Jovi album – shorn of over-wrought production (albeit far too temporarily) These Days struck a much more mature and cheese-free approach and deserved its surprising presence on many a ‘best of the year’ list at the end of 1995 with many suggesting that, were it recorded by anyone else, the album would’ve been ranked higher still. New Jersey’s more-famous son Bruce Springsteen had another album up his sleeve in the decade’s middle year. Having released Greatest Hits in February, complete with an E Street Band powered video for ‘Murder Incorporated’, Bruce threw a complete left at the end of the year with November’s released of The Ghost of Tom Joad. His second ‘solo’ and mainly acoustic album it’s great but… I’ve already featured The Ghost of Tom Joad so cannot sit it here at the top either…

There was another import self-titled release in 1995, the final album from the Layne Staley fronted version of Alice in Chains. Alice In Chains feels to me like a sonically different beast to AIC’s two previous albums, steering closer to the melodies of Jar of Flies than the heavy-riffing of Dirt and while the subject matter for lyrics is still pretty dark, it makes for an easier listen and is lighter in its sound with ‘Grind’, ‘Brush Away’ and ‘Heaven Beside You’ sitting amongst my favourite Alice In Chains songs.

Which, looking at my shelves, really only leaves…

Mad Season – Above

Sure there were undoubtedly bigger, more important and more well-received albums in this year and I’ve know doubt that any of those mentioned above would happily slot in here but when I think of 1995 in music now it’s Mad Season’s sole album Above that pops up almost instantly.

A ‘grunge supergroup’, Mad Season was formed by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, Screaming Trees’ Barrett Martin, Alice in Chains’ Layne Staley and John Baker Saunders. During early sessions for ’94’s Vitalogy, McCready had entered into rehab for drug and alcohol addiction and had met bass player John Baker Saunders there. The two returned to Seattle and began playing with Barrett Martin. It was McCready who bought in Layne Staley to sing in the hope that being around sober musicians and having a new project would help push Layne to get clean himself.

I remember the first time I heard Above will deep-diving into my then newly discovered love for ‘grunge’ and realising it was nothing like what I was expecting. I don’t know what I thought it would be – like Layne fronting Pearl Jam perhaps…. but it’s something somehow both distinctly different to the sound of those two most famous of its ingredients yet still familiar enough to let you know where its roots lie.

Instead of AIC’s heavy riffage, there’s more of a bluesy sway to a lot of Above thanks to Mike McCready’s awesome playing. Mark Lanegan stopped by to sing on a few songs including ‘Long Gone Day’ and ‘I’m Above’ incase more was needed to apply a ‘supergroup’ tag. It’s not a perfect album but it’s still a favourite. You get a sense that the members are using the opportunity away from their main gig to try a few things out and push in a different direction – always something worth going for – and I think, for the most part it works.

But it’s also important to remember that this is a first album, it wasn’t conceived as a one-off it’s just how fate took it. I can’t help but think that they would’ve gone on to better. I mean, the music for two songs were written before Staley was recruited, the rest within a week and Layne completing his lyrics in just a few more days. All at a time when AIC were preparing their next album, Pearl Jam were coming off the back of Vitalogy… had time allowed the group to get it together again after touring and feeling each other out more as players and the group’s capabilities the next album would’ve soared.

As it was they’d play a good few shows in early ’95 to promote the album but soon their ‘day jobs’ started to call their attention and so Mad Season took a break. By the time they tried to revive the group for another go in 1997, Staley’s addiction had taken such a toll on his health that he was no longer interested or, probably, capable. His last live performance was in July 1996. The remaining members began instead working with Mark Lanegan on some new songs and adopted a new name – Disinformation – to reflect the change in lineup. Conflicting schedules would make it difficult for work to progress and then, in 1999, John Baker Saunders died after a heroin overdose. McCready continued to work with Pearl Jam, Lanegan forged a successful solo career and Martin – after Screaming Trees ended – would tour as REM’s drummer having played on their album Up along with forming Tuatara with Peter Buck. In 2002 Layne Staley would also succumb to his drug addiction.

As such, Above is that single-shot blast of greatness from Mad Season and captures a brief, fleeting moment in time when these great players were able to make it work. It also sounds so very 1995, surely this was the only time when a side-project could get such major label support and promotion.

Albums of my Years – 1990

Ah 1990 – the start of the decade to which this blog returns so often in its internet-powered DeLorean.

At the start of 1990 a platform on which many of the decade’s biggest names would appear over the coming years kicked off in January; MTV Unplugged aired for the first time in January, featuring Squeeze.

Billy Idol took a spill on his motorbike in February, breaking a fair few of his bones. It meant that the major role Oliver Stone had in mind for him in ‘The Doors’ was reduced to a bit part and, in a very curious twist of fate, the role of T-1000 in the upcoming ‘Terminator 2: Judgment Day’ had to be recast entirely having originally been written for him. That would have been a very different film.

On March 16th, Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was found in a comatose state by his girlfriend Xana La Fuente. Having struggled with a drug addiction for some time previous, he’d overdosed on heroin. He was placed on life support in hospital, however the haemorrhage aneurysm he’d suffered meant that he’d lost all brain function. After friends and loved ones had said their farewells to one of the Seattle music scene’s beloved and promising figures, his life support was switched off and he passed on March 19th. Mother Love Bone’s debut album Apple would be released in July.

In April a promising band from Aberdeen, Washington got together with a producer called Butch Vig in between tour stops to record a few tracks for their second album. Nirvana were still signed to Sub Pop but were already looking to make changes. After recording a few tracks with Vig, Cobain and Noveselic weren’t thrilled with either their label or drummer. Very soon Chad Channing would leave Nirvana and demos from the session in Madison would be landing on the desks of keen major labels. Melvins front man (and general knob head) Buzz Osborne introduced Nirvana to Dave Grohl – probably because he wanted his own drummer back as Dale Crover had been sitting-in as the band toured with Sonic Youth. By the end of 1990 Nirvana had a new drummer in Dave Grohl and were signed to DGC Records following the advise of Kim Gordon and Soundgarden manager Susan Silver (hence; “forever in debt to your priceless advice”). They’d give Butch Vig a call again in 1991…

In August, the Alpine Valley Music Theatre welcomed all-star encore jam session with Stevie Ray Vaughan and members of Eric Clapton’s touring entourage. As there is only one road in and out of the venue, the band took a helicopter on to Midway International Airport. However, having taken off in foggy conditions with limited visibility, the helicopter crashed into a nearby ski hill. Pilot Jeff Brown, agent Bobby Brooks, SRV’s bodyguard Nigel Brown,tour manager Colin Smythe and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all killed. Vaughan was just 35.

Mother Love Bone guitarist Stone Gossard, devastated by the loss of Wood, had spent his time following Wood’s death writing significantly harder-edged songs. He got together with another guitarist for a couple of jams and it was Mike McCready who suggested Stone give his former band mate Jeff Ament a call to get involved with the music they were putting together. The then-trio put together a five-song tape to use in recruiting both a drummer and singer. They sent the tape to Jack Irons, the former Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer, to see if he’d be interested in getting behind the drums for the new band. Irons had just formed a new band called Eleven and passed but, at their request, said he’d share the tape with any singers he knew that might be suitable. He knew a dude called Eddie Vedder….  Vedder listened to the tape before heading out for a surf where inspiration struck: he  then recorded the vocals to three of the songs (“Alive”, “Once”, and “Footsteps”) as part of what became known as the Momma-Son trilogy. He sent the tape back and within a week Vedder was part of the band. Mookie Blaylock – as the band was then called – played their first gig at Seattle’s Off Ramp on October 22nd 1990.

Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell, who had been roommates with Andrew Wood, started writing a few songs in tribute to his friend as he headed out on tour in Europe a few days after his passing. As the music was outside of Soundgarden’s wheelhouse, he approached Ament and Gossard with the idea of recording the two songs and putting out a single. Rounding out the lineup with Mike McCready and Soundgarden’s Matt Cameron, Temple of the Dog was formed and the idea of a single was put aside for an EP which became an album recorded in 15 days. It was the first album to which Eddie Vedder would contribute – during the recording of ‘Hunger Strike’, Cornell was having difficulty putting the vocal parts in place during a practice so Vedder (having just flown up from San Diego to ‘audition’ for Ament and Gossard) stepped up and, according to Cornell; “sang half of that song not even knowing that I’d wanted the part to be there and he sang it exactly the way I was thinking about doing it, just instinctively.”

Along with Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog, 7 Year Bitch, Blind Melon, Tool, Tortoise, Truly and The Verve all formed in 1990.

So what about album releases in 1990? Buffalo Tom’s second album Birdbrain, again with J Mascis assisting in production, dropped in ’90 as did Jane’s Addiction’s second album, Ritual de lo Habitual, both of which stocked with great tunes though only one contained a track about shoplifting that would be played to death despite it being one of the album’s weakest songs.

Screaming Trees singer Mark Lanegan also released his debut solo album in 1990 – The Winding Sheet marked a real move away from the sound of Screaming Tress and, while not his finest, is well worth a listen. There was also a debut from The Breeders – a band started by Pixies bass player Kim Deal as a response to her growing lack of fulfilment in that band. Pod was made for a tiny budget and recorded in something daft like ten days but went down a storm, with Kurt Cobain often citing it as amongst his favourite albums.

Meanwhile, in a genre that seemed a thousand miles away a band that would later come to curse the advent of the Seattle Sound*, The Black Crowes released their storming blues-rock, hard-southern-rock first album Shake Your Money Maker. Not gonna lie; I like this one a lot, it’s an unabashed blast of the good stuff from start to finish that always goes down well.

Speaking of that scene which would become so dominant in the next couple of years, Alice in Chains got a jump start and released Facelift, their first album, in 1990. I mean, just take a look at some of the tracks on it – ‘We Die Young’, ‘Man in the Box’, ‘Sea of Sorrow’… ‘Bleed the Freak’, ‘Love, Hate, Love’…… it’s an absolute benchmark of an album that should be included in all kinds of lists and still is. It was the first ‘grunge’ album to go reach Gold status (in September ’91) though its sales would soon be eclipsed by other bands of that scene, Facelift remains a great album.

Across the Atlantic, another debut was released in 1990; the first and only album from The La’s; The La’s. The recording, release and end of the band’s career is a hell of story that’s worth it’s own post alone one day but their sole album remains a classic some thirty years on and I still remember feeling gobsmacked standing in the crowd at Wembley Arena in 2000 as Eddie Vedder started pontificating on it from the stage before breaking into a cover of ‘Timeless Melody’:

Not just a year of great first albums, 1990 saw the final album from The Replacements, All Shook Down – a great group of tunes that Paul Westerberg had originally intended to be for a solo album before his management persuaded him otherwise – more on that can be found here.

Having completed work on The Breeders’ Pod in England- Kim Deal headed back to the US and joined the rest of the band in LA as Pixies recorded their third album – Bossanova, released in August of 1990.  An absolute classic, Bossanova is a great album and contains a wealth of great tunes like ‘Velouria’, ‘Dig for Fire’, ‘Allison’ and is a regular in my car to this day.

Again, it’s an all-time favourite of mine but it was released in a year that was already beginning to feature some of those albums I’d mark as such, especially…

Sonic Youth – Goo

At some point in my 20s I’d reconnected with a friend I’d worked with before who had then gotten a job in a record shop (well, cds). He was in a band and I gravitated toward the scene, we’d all hang out, get small and absorb music and go to band practice etc…

At some point I needed a new place to live and ended up moving into this guy’s flat for a while. It was above a bakery which meant that it was like an oven in the summer and, at night, often impossible to sleep because the threshing machine beneath my room would kick off and clatter into the early hours…. heady days. It was there I discovered Sonic Youth and Goo. I still distinctly remember sitting there as my friend queued up ‘Tunic (song for Karen)’ for the first time. I may have been a little… baked, I can’t recall for sure but what I do remember is being hypnotised by it and very quickly becoming obsessed with it.

Released in June 1990, Goo is Sonic Youth’s sixth album and their first for DGC. In an attempt to test the humour of their new label they gave the album the working title ‘Blowjob?’ – I doubt there’d be so many t-shirts featuring its iconic album art (created by Raymond Pettibon) if they’d pushed too hard on that.

Aside from my own love of the band, Goo is apparently responsible for Placebo. Brian Molko has said that ‘Kool Thing’ was the first Sonic Youth song he heard and, were it not for Sonic Youth, he wouldn’t have started his own band. ‘Kool Thing’ is a delicious piss-take of a song; Kim Gordon had interviewed LL Cool J the previous year for ‘Spin’ magazine, she was a big fan but found his lack of interest in anything other than himself and his grossly misogynistic views appalling. ‘Kool Thing’ is both a send up of his attitude (Chuck D providing the seemingly disinterested responses) and her left-wing politics.

The exposure of ‘Kool Thing’ and a lot of press helped Goo shift a massive amount of records for Sonic Youth – by December it had shifted 200,000 units, much more than their new label had hoped for – and, as their most accessible (even to date I think this still holds) garnered a huge amount of positive press. Rolling Stone’s review got it pretty spot on in, if a little daft in its phrasing, referring to it as a “brilliant, extended essay in refined primitivism that deftly reconciles rock’s structural conventions with the band’s twin passions for violent tonal elasticity and garage-punk holocaust”.

1990 was the perfect time for Goo – this thing called ‘grunge’ was started to arrive on the scene, people were getting fecked off with the likes of Guns ‘N’ Roses and big stadium ‘rawk’. Hairspray bands were dying – Jon Bon Jovi was a year away from a haircut – and while punk hadn’t ‘broke’ just yet, it was about to; Goo was released at a time when the audience for its music was ripening. They and contemporaries like Dinosaur Jr had put in the groundwork for years before building up their own audience through hard work and harder touring and would now be championed by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, granting their music an even greater level of exposure to an audience hungry for this new alternative (even if they were already five albums in to a stellar career).

For me, the discovery of Sonic Youth’s Goo came along at a time when I was wide open for music and, in my mid-20s, at my most receptive state for it. These were heady, carefree days and I could dive headlong into a love affair with a new-to-me band like Sonic Youth, which is what Goo made me do. This album helped me discover a band that ranks among my favourites and I couldn’t even put a conservative estimate on the number of times I may have listened to it. Daydream Nation is undoubtedly their finest but Goo is both a very close second and a personal favourite.

 

 

*In a recent interview, one of the brothers Robinson revealed that they hated everything out of this scene as they felt that the grunge and Seattle inspired alternative shift in music robbed them of greater success they felt due.

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.

Back in 2014

I’m always late with these things. It’s probably for two reasons – well three…. I see too many people giving their “Top Albums of the Year” lists when, really, who cares?…. I think the timing of too many of those lists means great albums released as the year draws to a close don’t get that little bit more exposure by inclusion and albums released in the early stages tend to be forgotten come December. Thirdly… well, life keeps me busy.

However…

I listened to a lot in 2014 and plenty of new music within that lot. Pretty sure it was a good growth year for my vinyl collection too as I tried, for the most part, to stick with vinyl when it came to buying new music.

There were a couple of instances where I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the black circle though…

Two big names released new albums this year and, despite initial expectations, I was left a little disappointed by both. I’ve mumbled enough on the let down of Springsteen’s High Hopes here. It still holds, I’ve not gone back and listened to it and discovered any hidden layers since. That it made Number 2 on Rolling Stones’ albums of the year list baffles me. Then again they gave U2 the Number 1 slot and I don’t think I’ve heard anything that bad that wasn’t coming from an adjoining cubicle in a public toilet.

The second disappointment was more of a shocker, though. It was a shock to hear that, after twenty years, Pink Floyd would be dropping an album. It was a bit of a surprise that it was to be ambient / song-free and I was even more surprised that my excitement didn’t continue after I’d heard it. Granted, I first heard The Endless River through headphones on Spotify (having been put off by the hefty price tag associated with vinyl pre-orders) and when I picked up the CD it did reveal more. It’s not a bad album but it’s not a great album, which their legacy deserves. It’s an album divided into four distinct parts and I think it’s fair to say I like 2/4 of it, love 1/4 and outright loath the other 1/4 – the first half is a decent lead in, the third quarter is abysmal and the final stretch from Talkin’ Hawkin’ is spot on.  While Louder Than Words is a nice nod to and send off for Rick Wright, I still think High Hopes was the perfect way to say farewell to Floyd.

That’s the negative out of the way.

photo 1There was a lot of new music I loved in 2014. Mogwai got things going with the early release (and then forgotten about come those Best of lists) of Rave Tapes. A lot of spins on the record player and a lot of plays in the car – while not as adventurous or different in sound as the press would suggest, it marked a good step forward in their sound and did find them incorporating additional elements into the mix. Though am I alone as a Mogwai fan in not really enjoying it when they sing?

Speaking of which… Thee Silver Mt Zion’s Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything was another stand out. I tend to view Silver Mt releases with mixed emotions; as much as I enjoy them I’d still rather Godspeed was the main going concern. Still, Fuck Off Get Free… is a solid addition to a very strong canon and sees Menuck really developing as a lyricist.

Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There found its way into my collection in October after reading positive review after positive review. It justifies those reviews. Loved it. Lot of pain and emotional fall out in the lyrics but such delivery and luscious song writing.

I was given Ryan Adams‘ self-titled new album this year too. I wasn’t hugely taken with his ‘comeback’ album Ashes & Fire (don’t get me wrong; it’s good, but…) but this one is a different kettle of fish altogether. Sounding much more vibrant, confident and sure of himself than perhaps ever, really. More direct and accessible than previous albums, hugely enjoyable and listen-able from start to finish.

I spoke of the Foo Fighters’ Sonic Highways – it’s still getting a lot of rotation (again, probably fuelled by the fact that my son enjoys it so much too) and more appreciation with each listen. Still can’t get over the cumbersome nature of Congregation as a lyric.

Also warranting a few rotations was the latest J Mascis solo trundle – Tied to a Star. While not as much as a revelation as his first ‘alone with an acoustic’ album Several Shades of Why, Tied to a Star is very enjoyable, adding a bit more of a backing band to flesh out the sound along with the odd burning guitar solo though never quite realising the highs of either the former album or his Dinosaur Jr work, of which I hope there’s more to come this year.

A couple of EPs – both the third in a series – bookended the year for me: Pixies EP3 (which also allows me to count Indie Cindy as one of this year’s most played) and EP3 from SQÜRL. Though vastly different in sound of course, both are cracking ends to a trilogy and contain some of each bands best work. Though the SQÜRL EP gets the win if only for the presentation and picture disc.

At the tail end of 2013 I started getting in the War on Drugs. Their new album Lost In The Dream made its way to the top of a lot of end of year / critics choice lists and it thoroughly deserved to. I loved it. It threw me at first – I thought there was something wrong with my record player thanks to the sound. It’s a beauty. It does recall a lot of those 80’s rock landmarks like Springsteen, Petty and the whole Den Henley  Boys of Summer vibe (all of which get a tick from me) but they’re hinted at, alluded to rather than worn brazenly on a denim-clad sleeve, it’s very much a contemporary sound. One which is so easy to get lost in as you travel through the album – despite being great to spin on a Sunday afternoon, it’s very much an album for listening to on the move. Hazy, dream-like sounds danced all over by some sublime guitar lines.

photo 3In terms of Re-Issues… I only really got into two. Some Pixies magic (again) with the end-of-year release (so will ludicrously miss being included on all those lists when it deserves to sit atop them) of Doolittle 25 meant a triple album of greatness, with the original album remastered, demos, b-sides and Peel sessions all making a compelling release. The second was Led Zeppelin’s IV reissue – hugely superior sound quality and a second slab of vinyl containing alternate takes and mixes adding to an already faultless album.

Most Played?

Bu6ErPKIEAAJp0PThe record that probably got the most spins this year? It’s a very tasty album indeed. It’s the Mondo Tees reissue of the Jurassic Park soundtrack. I love this for so many reasons. I was (very) lucky enough to be given this for my first Fathers Day by my wife after I’d hum this to get our son to sleep. I was also very (very) lucky enough to get one of the very rare Dilophosaurus version. Also, John Williams created another beautiful soundtrack for JP back in 1993 all summed up beautifully in Welcome to Jurassic Park:

I’m still playing catch-up with some of 2014’s releases – I’ve only just picked up Karen O’s Crush Songs and have yet to drop needle on it’s lovely blue vinyl, nor did I get around to hearing new albums from Jenny Lewis, Ben Frost, Spoon or even the terrifying good (based on the little I have heard) Swans albums dropped in 2014. What can I say; I’m a busy guy and who really cares what I think of them?

 

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….

They call this dance the washed-up crawl

Ahhhh the Pixies.

Have they made a bad song?

No.

Even one of their new songs (and title of their ‘new’ album) Indie Cindy points to this “Put this down for the record, it’s more or less uncheckered”.

As such there was more than a little weight of anticipation and no small amount of pressure on any new music they were to put out following their re-emergence as a recording act.

I, for one, spoke of my excitement upon hearing BagBoy and the news of EP1. That was in September last year. A year ago, in fact. Since then they released three EPs of new music and compiled the twelve songs onto one disc for those who didn’t grab them as EPs. I did.

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Going back to my original sentiment – there wasn’t a bad song to be found amongst these dozen shiny new tunes from the man who calls himself Frank Black and his merry men.

The “merry men” element has been one of the biggest focus points from the press – the lack of Kim Deal on the new material. Of course, it was bound to be that way. Her absence is felt though, and no disrespect meant, not in a way that makes this any less of an album. It is noteworthy of course than the first new song and album highlight “Bagboy” does feature backing vocals from a Deal soundalike. Described by the band as pure coincidence it could, still, be interpreted as a deliberate move to aid the transition to a Kim-free Pixies.

I did say album highlight. For me it contains an element of magic when, at the two minute mark , Frank Black joins in with the “Bagboy” calls….

But this is an album full of highlights. From the thumping opening of What Goes Boom to the sign off “Goodbye and goodnight, goodbye” of Jamie Bravo via the delightful, acoustic layers of Greens and Blues, the brooding grower of Silver Snail, Indie Cindy’s kiss-off lyrics to the Pitchfork ‘indie kids’ , the  born-in-a-studio-jam Snakes and the brilliant Another Toe In The Ocean.

It has everything you’d expect from the Pixies – soaring harmonies, catchier than catchy tunes, Frank Black shouting nonsense in both English and Spanish and guitar lines that weave magic despite their simplicity and huge dollops of weird. The different ingredient, and one which has split critics, is that – t0 my ears at least – this album is defined by a more relaxed, confident vibe.

Some critics have defined this as “the problem. Pixies no longer seem a little strange, or in need of excuse. They seem like a really pretty good alt-rock band…”

No they don’t sound ‘strange’. But then given that we’re talking about an older group of musicians now, who have spent the 13 years between albums continually working (in music and…. magic) they were never going to sound as they did before. For critics to criticise them for just this, for not sounding like Pixies of old, is both naive and hypocritical. They’d be the first in line (definitely Pitchfork handing down their 1.0 and 2.0 reviews from their throne of pretension) should they have tried.

I’ve read that Gil Norton, when meeting the band to discuss recording new material and the weight of expcatiation, told Frank Black to approach the song writing not as if this were the first new Pixies album in 13 years but, instead, to do so as if the band had been off touring outer space. Accordingly it’s a collection from a band that carried on evolving in their style away from our ears. Instead of ‘picking up where we left off’ it’s catching up with friends and finding out where the intervening years have lead them.

Then, to further ease the pressure… release it in segments not as THE FIRST NEW PIXIES ALBUM IN OVER A DECADE (P.S: NO KIM DEAL).

It was an undoubtedly savvy move. It allowed them to not only test the waters and gauge reception to their new material (surprisingly not all overly positive) in a gentler way than the conventional album-roll-out and the expected press hype around the first new Pixies album in 13 years would allow. It also gave those of us who adore the band that little something extra in having the three EPs on vinyl. Besides; who does convention roll-outs these days?

Now the dust seems to have settled. The band have released a new video for Ring The Bell and are gearing up for another tour. Surely the downside of having only just, technically, having released a ‘new album’ when the songs have been drip-fed out for over a year is that, I’m sure, the press is already forming the questions “so… what now?”

Whatever it is, I wait the eager anticipation: it’s so good to have them back.

 

This is a song about a superhero named Tone

Last year I read a book called “Perfect From Now On; How Indie Rock Saved My Life”. I think I found it via a Goodreads recommendation, I’m not sure. I did think that any book with a title borrowed from a great Built to Spill song and that subtitle warranted a read – it didn’t hurt that the cover was a bank of record sleeve spines.

I’m not going to drop in a book review here (and I’m not about to start a Mumbling About Books blog either, I barely give this one the time I want to) but it wasn’t too bad a read. Nothing amazing. Plenty of amusing revelations and elements familiar to all alt-rock / indie fans, I’m sure. A little too heavy on and Guided By Voices concerned though for my liking. What the book became really warranted a different title.

The reason I bring this book onto a rarely-updated music blog is that it mentions a universal truth – that the Pixies never released a bad song (although I feel it wrongly uses the exception of Bam Thwok).

The Pixies

Across the woefully-short discography of Messrs Black, Santiago, Loverling and Ms Deal there’s not a single duff song. They blazed a way that inspired both exciting new bands (it’s impossible to not point out that Kurt Cobain held them up as a big influence) and pale imitations. Their songs were tightly wrapped blasts of fun, essentially. There were hallmarks – the ‘loud-quiet-loud’ dynamic, the surf-guitar, the yelps and shouts, crazy lyrics and wonderful harmonies – that nobody else could do as well and so consistently.

Plus, they wrote a song about a superhero named Tony. How could I not love a band that does that?

I did, like so many artists, come to the Pixies too late. They weren’t a functioning unit when I started listening to them. The reunion and reunion tours were good and the documentary that accompanied it still makes for fascinating viewing.  However, the need for new Pixies music, the curiosity, the eagerness is something that has finally been sated. The sudden release of Bagboy caught everyone – except for the band themselves – by surprise.

This is a new song in the fullest sense. It’s not a throwaway like Bam Thwok (which I still feel is underated) or a cover (the only other song to have emerged since the reunion was a cover of the much-missed Warren Zevon’s Ain’t That Pretty at All  ). This is what has been missing in both of those tunes – the Pixies of now. Not a rehash of old songs, not a tepid ‘sounds just like they did on Bossanova’ – this is a tune that shows a band that hasn’t been frozen in time, one that is making contemporary sounds (take note, Soundgarden) and music. It sounds alive and ready to go.

I loved this one off the bat. My adoration for the song and band has even meant I’ve ignored my longterm dislike of being referred to as Tone:

photo (1)

 

To say I’m excited, then, to hear the new EP-1 would be an understatement. I know that I can go and hear it now. I even have the download files sat in my email. But, I got in there with the vinyl order before they sold out and I’m resisting the urge (thanks to a horrendous 4-hour traffic jam and the stress involved I wasn’t even able to pay attention to the airing of Indie Cindy on X-FM this week) to hear it until I drop the needle down on side one.

Of course, that being said, I’m also excited to hear EP-2 and any that follow as the band utilise the freedom of releasing how they like thanks to not being on a label (I’m sure it also helps divert any pressure away from actually making “The New Album from The Pixies”).