Archive for the ‘Grunge’ Category

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Chicago Music Festival Report

April 14, 2010

In 2008, I went to a single day of the Pitchfork Music Festival and all three days of Lollapalooza. In 2009, I did the opposite and went to all three days of Pitchfork and a single day of Lollapalooza. This Summer I’m happy to say I’ll be able to do all three days of both. I have my lovely grandmother who bought me Lollapalooza tickets a a surprise.

A dramatic reenactment of our phone conversation:

“Grandma! Those tickets must have been awfully expensive!”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ve been saving up quarters.”

Anyway, I thought I’d give my two cents on both festivals’ lineups.

Lollapalooza has ace headliners this year, and they’ve got the goods to call on legions of rock ‘n roll fans throughout the country.

The more mainstream leaning headliners are very strong. Soundgarden is this year’s alt-rock headliner, and the festival’s older devotees and 90’s rock fans will jump to see one of the band’s first reunion shows. Green Day, though they have lost some indie fans since their glory days, have more than enough star power to fill a stadium, and they will probably change the face of the crowd this year. But the real game changer this year, on a brilliant booking move by Perry Ferrell is the pop juggernaut Lady Gaga, who will sell thousands upon thousands of tickets for Lollapalooza. She’ll attract pop fans, preteens and hipsters alike. It stands that not many, if any other festivals have the means or the balls to pull this kind of headliner.

The indie rockers will be drinking tears of joy this year based on the presence of The Arcade Fire alone, who are due for a tour and a new album. They have been out of the live circuit for a while, but they are more than strong enough of a band to make the headliner slot. The Strokes are also a dazzling attraction. Like the Arcade Fire, they’ve also been out of commission for a long time and they’ll enjoy widespread excitement and ticket sales in response to their headlining spot. But the year’s left field headliner is Phoenix, who due in large part to their 2009 album “Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix” have skyrocketed to the top of the indie food chain, and this slot will be great for Lollapalooza as well as Phoenix, who will consequently get a huge crowd and massive cred regardless of who they go up against in the lineup.

There’s more than enough other shit to keep just about everyone shelling out cash for at least a one day ticket:  Jimmy Cliff and Devo for the older crowd, Slightly Stoopid for the hippies, The Black Keys for the blues fans, AFI for the emos (they’re still around?), Erykah Badu for R&B and funk fans, and Social Distortion and Gogol Bordello for the punks. Perhaps more importantly, there is a large selection of big indie names on the lineup: The New Pornographers, Spoon, The National, Hot Chip, The Dirty Projectors, Yeasayer, The xx, Stars, Matt & Kim and, my favorite, The Walkmen.

Lollapalooza may have a lot of great acts, but Chicago’s biggest indie festival The Pitchfork Music Festival is comparable if not greater in terms of amount of sheer talent.

As with previous years, there is a whole slew of artists at the Pitchfork Festival that you won’t be able to see in too many other places this summer. From the start, Pavement was the festival’s big seller, probably being the major reason that three day passes sold out within the week they were available. The band have reunited for a tour in support of their compilation album “Quarantine the Past,” and we all couldn’t be happier to have the chance to see them live. The other two headliners, Modest Mouse and LCD Soundsystem, are also sought after bookings this Summer, and they sealed the deal.

But there is much more to rabble about beyond the headliners. Wolf Parade, Liars, Broken Social Scene and St. Vincent are also strong sellers. Other stuff you’ll hear me making noise about: Sleigh Bells, Alla, Kurt Vile and The Tallest Man on Earth.

The festival’s hip hop lineup this year is as strong as it has ever been, featuring the likes of Raekwon, Big Boi and El-P. You’ll see me in the crowd for all three.

There are some other very special acts that you probably won’t be able to see in many other places this Summer, particularly Robyn, Panda Bear, Dam-Funk, Major Lazer, and Lightning Bolt.

In terms of the past year’s up and coming Beach Pop scene, Pitchfork has nearly half of the major bands covered: Beach House, Delorean, Real Estate, jj, Girls, Neon Indian, Surfer Blood, Best Coast and Washed Out will all make appearances, plus the likes of Local Natives, Free Energy, and The Smith Westerns, who are though not exactly beach pop are closely related in style and popularity.

Lollapalooza will always have the capacity to bring together acts that will sell hundreds of thousands of tickets, and still have a strong selection of indie bands on tap. Though smaller and more geared towards a specific crowd, The Pitchfork Festival’s lineup this year has finally matched Lollapalooza’s in terms of sheer talent and diversity. We’ve got two great major music festivals lined up for the Summer, and I’m excited for both.

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Stationary/Moving Pictures

February 24, 2010

It is early in the evening and I am reading John Dos Passos. And I am listening to Stars of the Lid, because Stars of the Lid make the only music that I can listen to while studying. Their drones and long-held notes frame my existence for short periods of time before they shift into another form.

I have been extremely tired lately. Tired, apathetic, lethargic. But not depressed or anxious, which is a big change. But my limbs are very heavy, I don’t have much motivation to do much, and I can’t seem to get excited about anything. This is not to say that I feel that things bore me or that I feel as if I’m above being excited by anything in my life right now. I realize that this is a personal problem and I would like to rectify it, but I’m not sure what I can do. Exercise is a possibility, but the thought of going to the gym makes me tired and uncomfortable, but it would still most likely be a good idea. In any case, I just find myself wanting to retreat to bed almost all the time, and when I have time planned to do something like study, read or write, I’m often just stricken with a really overwhelming sleepiness. If I then do go lay down on the couch or my bed, I can’t close my eyes and go to sleep, and so I get bored, get out of bed, go somewhere, and the cycle begins anew. Writing and music are still things I spend time on, but mostly because I’m bored, and they don’t really excite me like they used to. Maybe someone would just call all of this laziness, and it very well might be, but that I haven’t really pinned it as this makes me think there is more to it than that. My psychiatrist didn’t seem to take much notice of it when I told him about it, but my counselor did. I’ll ask my psychiatrist about it again when I next see him, and I’ll continue to explore the issue weekly with my counselor.

I feel like I need to remove myself from this time and place. I can’t do either but I can at least pretend, and maybe that would make me feel somewhat better. I’m going to take a cheese grater to my jeans tonight. I’ve been showering every other day, and I don’t find myself to be smelly. I’ve been listening to Love Battery and Hole, and Nirvana are beginning to excite me again. I’m going to buy converse sneakers, next time I need a new pair of shoes. I’ll probably buy a pack of Turkish Golds and get rid of the pack very, very slowly. I’m wondering why it is exactly that I want to do all this. I’m thinking there may be a deep seeded reason, some kind of desire for a certain culture that I never got to experience. A lot of people may call it pretending to be something I’m not. I don’t think that. I think it’s finally becoming someone I want to be. My biggest hate is people pretending to be someone else. “Myself” is someone I know deeply and closely, and it’s about time I let him out as much as humanly possible.

This week I’ve been reading Faulkner’s “As I Lay Dying” for my class on American Literature from 1865 to the present day, and I’ve been enjoying the hell out of it. Granted, the thing is exhausting. I can typically only stand to sit and go through about five to ten pages at a time, because the way it is written is exhausting and hard to follow. But it seems pretty self-evidently brilliant. Faulkner’s characters are just incredibly human, despite the fact that their actions and the way they are written is quite surreal. The story seems to be viewed through a blurred looking glass, the immediate, stream-of-consciousness perspectives of individual characters. It is a willfully difficult story and Faulkner clearly knew this, but still there are many rewards to be found here, though I’ve yet to isolate more than a few of them, and there are no doubt more. I need to teach a class session on this book, and I’m looking forward to that. I think it will be refreshing and informative to have a conversation with my class about this book.

I am looking for things to take pictures of. I want to get through this last roll so I can develop what I have and get back the pictures of the snow filled Washington DC. It is supposed to snow again tonight, a lot. I’ve heard upwards of a foot. Maybe more pictures? Hopefully my aunt will send me the old camera soon, the antique. I would love to take pictures with it. I want to pursue photography now that I have a camera, even though I’m not in a photography class anymore. If you would let me take pictures of you, please let me know.

For now, more Stars.

Best

ATB

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Halloween Albums

October 24, 2008

Halloween is near, and I have started to pick out some spooky favorites from the music library. I figured it might be appropriate to acknowledge some of the more genuinely scary or creepy albums I have come in contact with over the years. Six might seem like a rather arbitrary number, but these releases are of a rare breed and I find each one to be essential to the list. Of course there’s nothing wrong with traditional Halloween music (the Monster Mash, sure), or some other fun retro music that might be appropriate for the holiday (The Cramps!), but if you want something that might really creep you out, this list might be able to help.

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Alice in Chains – Dirt

Alice in Chains’ second album Dirt arrived just in time for the Halloween season in 1992, and took over the grunge scene with its spooky hard rocking style. The album is almost unbelievably advanced past the band’s debut album Facelift, every song taking on its own texturally rich identity. In terms of technical skill, every member of the band is in prime form despite their drug addictions which are reflected heavily in the album’s lyrical themes. The late and great Layne Staley spits “what the hell am I/thousand eyes a fly/lucky then I’d be/if one day deceased” on one of the album’s underhand knockouts Sickman. We can hear both the anger and anguish associated with personal breakdowns and drug abuse. The consistency of the album alone makes it one of the finest albums that grunge had to offer, with a killer lineup of singles, the hammering Them Bones, Vietnam reminiscent Rooster, and possibly the greatest grunge single ever, Would?. But the highlights don’t stop there; the album also has a slew of brooding, slow moving, moody masterpieces (Dirt, Rain When I Die, Down In A Hole), as well as many other sleeper highlights (God Smack is the origin of the name of AiC knockoffs Godsmack, to exemplify the album’s influence). Although Alice in Chains’ best work may be scattered throughout their albums and EPs, Dirt is easily their most representative and possibly most accomplished work, a scary, fun, and emotional masterpiece of its genre.

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Slint – Spiderland

Considered the premier post rock album, Slint’s second and final album Spiderland is made by a band with absolutely nothing to lose. Perhaps it is this that makes it so startlingly affecting. How out of no where the album must have seen at the time is also probably a reason that it was as vastly influential as it is. But legacy aside, Spiderland is quite a scary album by all accounts, softly building damaged melodies out of nothing and then disassembling them again. As soon as the opening arpeggiated harmonics of Breadcrumb Trail start, it sounds like the beginning of the end. This mysterious, slow urgency pulls the listener through the albums six unsettling songs with great anxiousness. All of Slint’s weaponry is fully formed here; their percussive anger, David Pajo’s atmospheric guitars and sense of instrumental tension, and Brian McMahan’s oft whispered creepy poetry. These elements make for six completely perfect songs, the rocking Nosferatu Man, the quiet, brooding Don Amon, the sadly beautiful Washer, and the extremely quiet instrumental For Dinner… It all seems to lead to something, and when it does, we get one of the single scariest and most beautiful songs of the nineties, Good Morning Captain, which evades all explanation. It may disappoint fans that the subsequent two song Slint EP was as far as the band would ever go, but Slint’s three releases, and particularly Spiderland were all they needed to be one of the most important bands of their genre.

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Boards of Canada – Geogaddi

With Board’s of Canda’s second major full length release Geogaddi, brothers Michael Sandison and Marcus Eoin make certain that their love of degradation and psychosis plays itself out on more than just their own production values. In fact, one might be given the false impression of their own mental degradation while listening to the album, it is so elaborately and eerily constructed. Although its format is essentially the same as its championing predecessor Music Has The Right To Children (long pieces dispersed with very short pieces, beat driven IDM), their style is distinctly advanced over their previous works. The album is almost extravagantly detailed with myriad fascinating jigsaw pieces of sound; reversed beats, distorted vocal samples, dissonant chords, and heavy aural contrasts provide the album’s basic groundwork. Although some pieces here are vaguely reminiscent of previous fan favorites (Sunshine Recorder, 1969, Dawn Chorus), every song is highly advanced and vaguely unsettling. Throughout the album Boards of Canada paint as they call it a vast, winding, labyrinthine “journey” through a beautiful and horribly warped dreamland. Once you follow the white rabbit down the hole, something immediately seems very, horribly wrong, and this feeling is played with, turned upside down and inside out at every turn of the album. The more you think about it, the more it scares you, and the more one recognizes its intricacies such as mathematical structures, biblical references, and distorted fascination with the occult, the more one wants to dismiss Geogaddi as pretentious and supersaturated. However, it is a genuinely creepy album, and its ominous atmosphere cannot be denied. And yet the brothers state the ultimate innocuousness of the album in interviews. “…If we’re spiritual at all, it’s purely in the sense of caring about art and inspiring people with ideas.” (interview “Play Twice Before LIstening” by Koen Poolman). Despite what its message is, Geogaddi is an album that genuinely brings you to the brink of your own mind and refuses to let you forget the experience.

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Coil – The Ape of Naples

If any album has ever been literally haunted, or at least come close, The Ape of Naples is the culprit. Created posthumously after Coil frontman John Balance tragically fell to his death over the banisters of his Mansfield home in a drunken stupor, The Ape of Naples is actually a collection of the industrial/electronic band’s leftover material. This makes the overall cohesion of the album nothing short of a small miracle of planning. In fact, it makes little to no sense that this album is more than a rarities compilation, and it is more, much more. Through it’s lengthy textural songs it develops many stories with real life reference points, perhaps outlining both the experiences of the unsettling said ape on the cover art as well as John Balance’s descent into alcohol addiction. The haunting opening chords of Fire of The Mind (the original title of the album) set the stage for an album loaded with treasures, all uniquely disturbing and affecting. Songs call on an eclectic selection of instruments such as accordions, marimbas, horns and pipes, and as always carefully synthesized melodies, beats, and atmospherics. Songs range from gentle to violent, and the album’s transformation is downright scary. The Ape of Naples is an all around great performance from all those involved, but John Balance remains the album’s key player. His voice touches every song in different ways, and his emotion is fluid, sometimes gracing songs with subtle melancholy and other times with spitting anger. The album comes to a close with a cover of the British sitcom Are You Being Served?’‘s theme song Going Up, featuring vocals from Balance’s final onstage performance at the Dublin Electronic Arts Festival in 2004. And with John Balance’s final vocals, locations of bedding materials, tea, and travel products as well as the final direction of an elevator, it isn’t hard to hear him simultaneously falling down and going up.

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Merzbow – 1930

Many non-noise fans may turn on Japanese noise godfather’s quintessential album, 1930, and be disgusted. It is, to put it one way, a deliberately disgusting album, barely music in any traditional sense, and more of a terrifying sound assault. Perhaps best at home in a torture chamber (just how the bondage obsessed Merzbow would like it), listening to 1930 at loud volumes is a potentially terrifying experience that can push one’s sanity to the limit. Once again, it is barely even music, but more an aural representation of a mile high battleship with cannons filling every square inch, all firing at the listener at the same time. Reach for the off switch and the terror goes away temporarily, but curiosity will make you turn it on again at some point, and when you get curious enough to listen to the entire thing, you probably won’t be able to turn it off as much as you want to. There is something almost inhuman and unearthly about 1930 that manages to consistently fascinate here, and even if you can’t bear to turn the volume up higher than a whisper, it is unspeakably overbearing. Everything from the fiery title track to the dizzying cacophony of Degradation of Tape to the final explosive, twenty two minute, ever changing Iron, Glass, Blocks and White, everything here is sheer chaos. For how brutal and unpredictable it is, it is no surprise that this horrifying album is considered a cornerstone of noise music. To say it is good or bad is irrelevant, because it definitely shouldn’t be judged by the same standards as any other album on this list, let alone any form of “art” on this planet.

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Brian Eno – Ambient 4

Brian Eno’s final installment in his Ambient series is possibly the most emotionally startling ambient album of all time, and may be considered to be the first dark ambient album. In that sense it is hard to imagine the entire genre of demonic dark ambient texture without this album as a precursor, although Ambient 4 is anything but paganistic or demonic. In fact, there is little to nothing subversive about Ambient 4 in the slightest, except perhaps its one odd song out, the deliberately creepy Shadow featuring Jon Hassell on trumpet, although if we are talking about scare factor the song is the album’s clear winner. Beyond this song, the album makes its goals known almost instantaneously and follows through with its goals systematically, like the other members of the beautiful ambient family. Moreso than any other album on this list, Ambient 4 carries a wide range of emotions with it, of which horror is only one. The collection of soundtracks to geographic locations here range from touchingly calm (A Clearing) to impendingly scary (The Lost Day). The distant chains of Lantern Marsh, the distorted miasma of Tal Coat, the birds and frogs of Leeks Hills…The album is startlingly emotional in ways that can be simultaneously relaxing and unsettling. On one hand, you get the feeling that at any point during the album someone could appear behind you and cause your heart to skip a beat, and yet at the same time the soundscapes are warm and completely safe sounding. The wide range of emotion here is mostly due to simple skill in production and crafting of music. The soundscapes sound so deftly realistic that the emotion comes quite naturally and makes the overall product quite moving. This may be the one to play on the boombox outside when the trick-or-treaters come by.

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Mudhoney – The Lucky Ones

October 11, 2008

The Lucky Ones is Mudhoney’s third album in three years, following 2006’s Under A Billion Suns and 2007’s live album Live Mud. The godfathers of grunge have not been this prolific since at least fifteen years ago, although their attitude seems not to have changed much since their heyday. This works both to their advantage and disadvantage, but mostly the former. The band’s previous studio album, Under A Billion Suns, was arguably the most dramatic departure in style of Mudhoney’s entire career to that point; politically charged lyrics, slow grooves, noisy horn sections and a crystal clear production made the album one of Mudhoney’s most distinct. It was promptly dismissed as one of their worst. Fans and critics alike seemed to find the new sound uncharacteristic of Mudhoney’s typical shamelessly testosterone fueled punk, and thus undesirable. Undesirable, despite the fact that the album was the band’s best album since My Brother The Cow. Perhaps what turned people off about Under A Billion Suns was the change. What fans love about Mudhoney albums are Mark Arm’s snarling vocals, Steve Turner’s dirty riffing, Dan Peters’ booming percussion, and the distinctively grungy production values that have always supported all of these, qualities that have not diminished in power in twenty years. What Mudhoney fans really love are the occasional noisy, obnoxious, samesy punk releases that the band put out every couple years. But appreciating Under A Billion Suns is a rewarding task that is parallel to more current band issues, namely The Lucky Ones, the loud punk record that fans definitely wanted instead. And the album is probably the band’s most balls out album in over a decade. One might relate the color scheme of the album cover to that of Fun House by The Stooges, and the comparison would be quite valid. Even from the opening number I’m Now, the ass swinging influence of The Stooges is apparent. And continuing throughout, The Lucky Ones is a loud, beat driven, horny album that goes back to Mudhoney’s roots. In fact, many songs here show Mudhoney louder, faster, and more cutting than ever heard before. The album also has momentum that Under A Billion Suns never quite had, saving some of its hardest hitters for close to last. The Open Mind is particularly rocking, maybe even danceable with its off beat accents. But the album’s finest moment, or perhaps second finest only to the scalding title track, is Tales of Terror, a fierce punk dirty bomb that shows every member at possibly the most rocking in their entire careers, particularly Mark Arm, whose legendary screaming vocals aren’t even a tiny step down from what they were in the 80s. If a lack of change is Mudhoney’s minor weakness, it is also their greatest strength. Mudhoney are still kicking ass and taking names, now more vicious than ever before, and although most Seattle grunge bands have fizzled out, these guys are still screwing your daughter and making a ruckus just like they were two decades ago.

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Alice in Chains – Jar of Flies

September 19, 2008

While Alice In Chains made a great deal of angry metallic hard rock, they also made two EPs worth of equally emotive music. Both Sap and Jar of Flies are melancholy EPs that find Alice in Chains at their most vulnerable. While Sap was a fun outing, it was also a little unsure of itself. Jar of Flies, however, perfectly articulates what it is trying to say without missing a step. What makes it so appreciable at first listen is how different it is from any other Alice in Chains release, in that none of the songs have the heavy crunch that the full albums do, and instead rely on texture and simple melodies to do their work.

Launching with Rotten Apple and Nutshell was a dangerous move. These are two of the band’s most well put together songs, and one would think that putting them back to back would make for too difficult of a beginning. But their juxtaposition only does them good. Rotten Apple is the albums foremost statement. Everyone is at their instrumental prime here. Layne Staley works layered vocals like no one else can in wispy flourishes, Jerry Cantrell presents an almost funky sounding guitar solo while alternatively strumming complex but warm chords, Mike Enez’s bassline is the strong supporting undercurrent of the song, and Sean Kinney delivers a knockout drum performance. All of this comes together to make quite a start…sad and affecting, yet somehow fun and digestible, as Cantrell’s fun riffing at the end suggests.

If Kurt Cobain ever wanted to heal the fully realized articulation of what it means for “comfort in being sad,” we can only wonder if he heard Nutshell before his suicide later in 1994. This is likely the saddest song committed to recording, mostly due to Layne Staley’s vocals. His delivery is completely earnest and believable, and when he says that he would be better off dead, we know he means it. Kinney’s steady rhythm sounds almost like the crackling of a campfire. Enez’s bassline is once again the core of the song. Cantrell takes the cake with a memorable chord progression and a muscular solo.

From here the album hits its emotional extreme with the second single from the EP, I Stay Away. This is about the hardest and softest the EP gets, all within the same song. After a short delicate string intro, the song starts its light, emotional verse. Each verse is interrupted what feels like halfway before it should to make way for an angry alternate second verse, which sounds like a slowed down Dirt outtake. The song teeters in this schizophrenic style until it finally reaches its chorus only to be once again interrupted by the angry second verse. When the song finally does hit the entirety of its chorus, the full force of the violin melody does its emotional damage. This song is the blends the sadness that precedes it with the recovery that proceeds it.

And that recovery comes with No Excuses, the disks first single, which pulls the listener up by their collars into something more happy. Instead of settling for despair like the songs before it do, No Excuses, much like Got Me Wrong from the Sap EP, seems to offer a constructive solution to the problem, and therefore lyrically feels very accomplished. It also helps that the song might just be the catchiest single in Alice in Chains’ library. Once again, the performances all around the board are perfect, and by this point we can trust the band. Also notable here is Jerry Cantrell’s excellent backup vocal performance. It is hard to not think of Staley and Cantrell as being one of the best vocal duos in rock history.

Whale and Wasp is the EP’s odd duck, in the sense that it is an instrumental. However, it is just as well constructed a song as any other piece on the disk. Like its title suggests, it also deals with extreme contrast, like I Stay Away, albeit somewhat more softspoken. The song alternates between a minor toned guitar strum that is complemented by sharp, haunting solo tones, and a more happy chord progression that is complemented by a cello solo part. By the end of the song, both parts meld to make a lush major toned melody that acts as a compromise to the conflict that came before it.

After this we have the most tender song on the album, Don’t Follow. The song is a lullaby, the basis of which is a lightly plucked melody on an acoustic guitar from Jerry Cantrell that develops into a gospel piece with Layne Staley’s finest vocal performance on the disk. And finally, the EP is capped off with the funky sounding Swing On This, probably the most positive song Alice in Chains ever made. In fact, Layne Staley does say “I’m okay,” halfway through the song, albeit in his signature haunting doubled vocals, but we believe him here as much as we believed him on Nutshell. The speaker finally gives up being alone and says that it is time to come home, which is a proper resolution to listlessness, confusion, and recovery present on the rest of the album. Jerry Cantrell ends the disk with a similar funky guitar solo to that which ended Rotten Apple at the beginning of the EP.

The magnitude of excellent songs on Jar of Flies would have been enough to make the EP be one of the best ever. These songs are completely confident of themselves and understanding of complex emotions. But its development is what makes it truly striking, and an easy pick-me-up for me when I feel sad. I used to think Sap and Jar of Flies should have been combined to make Alice in Chains’ finest full album, but I see now that this could not have worked. Jar of Flies is perfect on its own. It tests the limits of the artistic possibilities of the EP format and succeeds in revealing a wealth of conclusions of its strengths and boundaries, as well as being a perfectly formed album. And it ended up being one of the top selling EPs of all time, and also being the first to reach number one on the Billboard Top 200. Those numbers don’t lie. This is likely the greatest EP of all time and Alice in Chains’ definitive statement.

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Tool – Opiate

September 15, 2008

Tool guitarist Adam Jones has said of Opiate that the band wanted to put their fastest, most muscular songs out first to make a splash, and it is easy to see how the plan worked and gained the group early popularity. If Tool’s later releases see their ideas fully realized and developed, they are still exhausting and difficult, while the Opiate EP is alternatively short, testosterone fueled, and fairly easy to digest, and probably the reason that Tool were initially grouped into the grunge scene by critics. The single Sweat is representative of the overall style of the album, heavy yes, but also catchy and skillfully written. In fact, it will surprise some that Tool seems to enter their career with great finesse. Adam Jones and Danny Carrey in particular play fast and complex rhythms that would come to characterize the band later on. Maynard James Keenan’s lyrics are the most undeveloped aspect of the band at first notice, but he does tell us up front that he “can say what he wants to,” so it is hard to argue against such confidence. The excellent albums that follow it are superior, but Opiate is anything but insignificant.

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Nirvana – Bleach

September 2, 2008

When I first bought Bleach, it came with a sticker on it, a black and white picture of Kurt Cobain, Krist Novoselic, and original drummer Chad Channing, with the words “This is Nirvana’s First Album” in the signature Nirvana font. This actually makes some kind of sense in the area of marketing, because most anyone who would buy Bleach has already heard the band’s radio hits, of which Bleach has none, and it almost needs to be spelled out that the album is in fact by Nirvana, the same band that tore down as many barriers and rounded up as many fans as they did within two years after its release.

Bleach shows the band in a much different condition than they are best known for. Instead of the later problems with fame, they had a hard enough time putting bread on the table let alone getting noticed when it was being made. It comes as a surprise to many that an album with as much toil and trouble behind its recording and production as Bleach could be so much less monumental in comparison to Nevermind and In Utero, but the album is actually more “grungy” than most everything else was on the grunge market at the time, and it did do some things that hadn’t been approached before.

Instead of combining melodicism and heavy production like Nevermind and In Utero would later do, Bleach seems to waver back and forth between the two. It is hard to listen to the albums pop pieces, Blew and About a Girl, in context with the rest of the album’s stark heaviness, but in that sense this contrast actually foreshadows some of the band’s later work. Side A is the most consistent and powerful, containing the aforementioned hits as well as two songs worth of scalding guitar heroics, School and the Shocking Blue cover of Love Buzz. Much of the rest of the album is extremely heavy, most times to the point where it is rather silly, and also rather poorly written. There are a couple sludgey songs that are heavily inspired by The Melvins, namely Paper Cuts and Sifting. The rest are fast and heavy, with the verses consisting of uninspired riffing with pockets of memorable choruses in between. Lyrically Bleach goes back and forth between interesting and meaningful vocal melodies to scowling potty humor. In short, Cobain has clearly already learned how to write memorable, meaningful hooks, but doesn’t really know what to do with them.

Two essential tracks from the Bleach sessions that are actually very consistent were not included on the original pressing of the album. The 1991 remastered reissue contains Big Cheese and Downer, two of the better songs from the sessions. It makes little sense that these songs were not included on the original release. Big Cheese is a grimey rocker much in the vein of Love Buzz. Downer is the shortest song present, clocking in at under two minutes, but does more damage than many of the albums less accomplished songs combined, presenting a pessimistic world view as well as some of the band’s most memorable riffs from their early years.

Some of these songs may seem dated or cliche, but in fact this is a very early grunge album that most everyone liked and took cues from upon its release. Although it is undeniably patchy, Nirvana mostly have the right idea, and Bleach is one of the heaviest and most influential early grunge albums as well as a document of an era in music, paving the way for Nevermind two years later.