Posts Tagged ‘Grunge’

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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.

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Pearl Jam – No Code

November 9, 2007

Apple, outlet, Dennis Rodman’s eye, pool ball, rotting teeth, zipper. The cover of No Code confounds and confuses, as does the album in it’s entirety. This album was released during a time when no one seemed to be able to quite figure out the point or overall goal of Pearl Jam in rock music. Jumping from mainstream rock anthems to hard rock, grunge, acoustic balladry, blues, classic rock revival, experimental junk rock, and back again within the span of one album, let alone their entire career, made Pearl Jam a hard band to pin in any area, and upon first listens, some songs or albums may appeal to some listeners and not others. Pearl Jam are a band that writes and plays whatever they feel like, exploring a wide range of issues, while still maintaining artistic integrity and an excellent sense of pure rock and roll. No Code is arguably Pearl Jam’s most diverse, jumpy, and spontaneous album to date, and probably the most prone to being misunderstood. What the hell is Pearl Jam trying to say with this set of thirteen seemingly unrelated songs? What the hell are Pearl Jam all about anyway?

My experience with Pearl Jam has stretched through my entire lifetime, since I was very young and my mother played the records and I heard them on the radio, to my childhood when she stuck with the band when the media did not, to my early high school years when I rediscovered the band and countless songs and hooks that colored my childhood, to now when I am progressively rounding up all the stray material and learning why exactly I enjoy them. When I popped No Code into my stereo years ago, probably six years after it was actually released, I recognized some of the songs and did not recognize others. This scramble of familiarity made things all the more confusing, yet kept me that much more interested and willing to stick with the album.

I began asking myself questions, because that is exactly what adolescents do. They ask themselves questions that they can’t answer, mostly because they are too lazy and don’t want to work hard enough to find the answers. Why do I like this album? Why does the album juxtapose (well, maybe I didn’t know words THAT big) hard rockers awkwardly next to quiet ballads? Why does Who You Are, the song that sounds like it SHOULD be the opener, come third in the line? Who is Jerome Turner? Why does Eddie narrate the lyrics to I’m Open? Is Lukin even a word? Why did this album only come with nine Polaroids with song lyrics on them, not even coving all the songs? And what is with all this cover art, indecipherable phantasmagoria?

It took me several years of occasional listening to unwrap No Code and get to the point where I enjoyed it fully. The songs that stood out on first listen were Hail Hail and Off He Goes, simply because I recognized them. Experiences like the ones I had with these songs were the reason that I started to get so interested in music in the first place. The nostalgia, rushes of memories, and sense of vague familiarity were what made many albums in my mothers collection feel like buried treasure. Although I gravitated to those songs in particular, there were several more that struck me as outwardly fantastic, such as the other single Who You Are. The aforementioned song is nothing short of a masterpiece for Pearl Jam and an accurate representation of No Code. It swirls into view with a pounding beat and is dotted with many tidbits of foreign instrument, such as steel drums and sitars. The sitar is used again to it’s full potential by the time the song has revealed it’s winning hook and cemented it’s place in the listeners ears. That paired with a wonderful guitar solo makes it one of the finest songs on the album.

This excellence is not lonely. It’s easy for me to say that every song on this album is really great, but from a commercial standpoint, Pearl Jam knew how to put their best foot forward with No Code by producing three singles which would become radio staples. Hail Hail, Who You Are, and Off He Goes are all fantastic songs in their own right, and all coming from three completely different directions. Hail Hail is one hell of a riff rocker, Who You Are is an eclectic anthem, and Off He Goes is a gentle acoustic ballad that rivals Daughter in sheer quality. These songs would be enough to reel in the casual listener, which would then be hit hard with all the other great things Pearl Jam has to say here. Every song is finely tuned and unique; Sometimes is a reflective prayer, In My Tree is a driving explosion of glorious sound, Habit is as angry and rhythmic as the preceding album Vitalogy’s Spin The Black Circle, and I’m Open is poetry recited over gentle ambient chords and soft beats. This album has about as much continuity and order to it as a fleeting stage one dream.

And yet somehow it works. No Code ends with Around The Bend, a deceptively simple lullaby of tropical style. This ending is deceptive, but ultimately satisfying and beautiful. The listener naturally expects some kind of stylistic answer or solution within that last song, and this might be yet another unsatisfying venture on the first listen. But like the whole album, it opens up with a little time. This is the brilliant code that is communicated through the album perfectly, that is, there is no code. The second you start to pin down a pattern or style in Pearl Jam, they will undoubtedly change or surprise you. The only way to fully appreciate No Code, and Pearl Jam, is to take several steps backward and look at the full picture. Pearl Jam are an excellent band that make whatever music they want to, with whatever message they feel. The entire notion that Pearl Jam cast away their fan base by becoming more experimental is a sad misconception. Pearl Jam never attempted to alienate anyone. It is not their fault that they have a strong desire to push their creative boundaries, and it is not their fault that their true fans were revealed in the process. In any case, No Code is the keystone to Pearl Jam’s discography, and the picture of excellence by which the rest of their albums should be judged, even their earlier, more revered works such as Ten. It might not make any sense at first, but that makes it all the more fun. No Code is a puzzle which can be solved in a number of ways, all yielding the same solution, a transcendent masterpiece.

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Melvins – The Bootlicker

September 18, 2006

Sorry for the lack of updates on Thursday. I was pretty busy.

All things considered, the Melvins were responsible for a great deal of the grunge scene and are, although not known as so, one of the most influential acts of their age. And yet they sit in obscurity, just how they like it. I wholeheartedly enjoy Houdini for the heaviness if nothing else. To blare Hooch from my stereo is very enjoyable and satisfying. But there is always some kind of nagging feeling that if the band wanted to, they could probably produce something more poppy and outward. Of course, not anything close to pop really, but with a little more melodicism. I was expecting that with The Bootlicker, the second in a series of three albums on Ipecac around the turn of the century, the first being The Maggot and the third being The Crybaby. I was told that this album is where the Melvins strangeness and heaviness was manifested in a more open way. I guess that’s sort of true.

I am a tad disappointed by this purchase, I have to say. Granted, I haven’t heard either The Maggot or The Crybaby so I really only have one third of the intended picture. But I do think I have some kind of understanding of the album. It doesn’t present the Melvins in a more poppy way that the flower on the cover might suggest (the grunge scene really did have a thing with flowers, didn’t they?), but more a stripped down portrayal of an extremely heavy band with perhaps some accoustic guitars. The album in it’s entirety is very creepy and totally not what I was expecting from the band who made songs crafted more from anger and sludge than anything. Taking down the electronic walls does not reveal a more sensitive, enjoyable, and understanding band so much as a deeply disturbed, creepy, and paranoid band. You could easily pile on the guitars at this point and make all of the songs vintage Melvins, but instead they are all very different.

There are a few exceptions though. The only truly non-threatening part of the album is a later segment of Prig, which is a positively beautiful and almost, uh, cute (GASP!) little tune. At a few points, the band does sort of break out of their shell and bring forth a cool hook or something, but for the most part the album is covered in fog, what used to be sludge, slime, and grime. Part of Mary Lady Bobby Kins and Up The Dumper reveal some creepy realities, that while melodicism might be in the bands vocabulary, they have no interest in pursuing the concept without a little of their signature creep in the mix. And as soon as you think the positive attitude could go somewhere, it’s gone. For the most part, the rest of the album is creepy stuff. The song at the front of the pack, Toy, is utterly creepy and atmospheric, and sort of sets the tone for the rest of the album, which is essentailly a disk full of disturbing slow bass and high-hat oriented grooves.

I guess…stand out tracks might include Let It All Be, but it’s nothing you would want on a playlist. Although the track does explore the elusive groove that The Melvins aren’t too bad at delivering and is good background tunage for an urban nightime setting, the song is segmented into another macabre blurb. One thing that this album REALLY has to be desired is organization. Many times, more than one big idea is crammed into a song, and I think that they could have just as easily segmented everything and the album would be a lot less annoying. Out of all the grime, I’d say Black Santa, is one of the more accomplished pieces. It is rather reminiscent of a spaghetti western in some way, maybe if there were more zombies than Native Americans. Fans will find Up The Dumper hilarious. And if prig was decorated with more towering heavy guitars it would be a Melvins classic, at least if the first part. But instead it’s another segmented piece ruined a little by the variation. It is silly and fun in some perverse way nonetheless. And the accoustic guitar part is enough to baffle and bring a twinkle to even the most hardcore fans eyes.

I probably regret buying this album. And yet I can’t help but smile when I see it on my CD rack. There is something proud about it that I can’t explain. I think it probably did what it set out to do and I think it would please the fans pretty well. However, I’m not really a full-fledged fan, so I can’t really say that this was worth the price I paid for it. You can flip on some of the songs for good background music, and there are some more essential tracks on here, but the bottom line is, this is The Melvins in a completely different yet surprisingly confident setting.

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Nirvana – Roma (2/27/94)

August 24, 2006

I just felt like I needed to do some Nirvana rambling and because my friends are probably sick of that by now, I guess I might as well do it here.

How much Nirvana was officially released? Well, not that much. Most of what material hardcore Nirvana fans will have is B-sides and live stuff. Of course the vital stuff is the official recordings, but it’s hard to be a fan of a band that had three studio albums, one b-sides album, and two live albums. You kind of have to branch a little, and box sets and bootlegs are probably the best way to do this. I have no doubt that more official recordings of Nirvana shows will be released in the future, but hardcore Nirvana fans make a point to look for live Nirvana, sometimes live Nirvana that is not easy to get. There is something to be said about the live albums that were released. From The Muddy Banks of The Wishkah is a pretty good collection of some of the bands better live stuff. But theres a few clunkers I suppose. The live Spank Thru makes it well worth it and theres some other fantastic performances on there too. Unplugged is easily my favorite album ever. It’s pretty much flawless, and every song is utterly fantastic. But beyond that, you have to start roaming in bootleg country for any live material, and it’s hard to know where to start when there are so many different choices to make.

All things considered, Roma is probably the best place to start just because it’s so popular. While Unplugged is the best Nirvana you can get, it’s not like what Nirvana normally did. What is really important to have is some hard hitting live stuff, and this is a winner in that respect. And about 75% of fans will tell you that this is the best bootleg there is anyway. The reason being it’s utterly fantastic sound quality. It really sounds like it was professionally recorded. It wouldn’t surprise me if this concert was ever officially released, because it’s just that good.

The only bootleg that you can find that will match this in quality is Out of the Blue, and that’s a piece that only really big fans will enjoy because it mostly only contains the older material that the band did. With that said, Roma is filled with a huge set containing all of Nirvana’s hits and more popular songs. The most treatment is obviously given to the In Utero material, because the album came out not too many months before this. So you get some beautiful renditions of Heart Shaped Box, Scentless Apprentice (possibly my favorite Nirvana song), Dumb, and Rape Me. And of course theres some of the Nevermind era material like Come As You Are, Smells Like Teen Spirit, and Lithium, which while is not anything extremely exciting to hear live, is essential for the perfect Nirvana setlist. And of course there are a ton of great songs played here that weren’t singles and such, the rendition of Very Ape is admirable and a good job was done on Sliver.

I guess one of my few complaints about this disk is that not enough rarities were played. But then again, what is a rarity in the Nirvana respect? The only songs played here that I would really consider a rarity (and then again that’s still a stretch) are the fantastic opening Radio Friendly Unit Shifter, the monster of a live song School, and maybe Serve The Servants. Oh, and Lounge Act. But once again, I wouldn’t even really consider these songs rare for concerts but more uncommon than the others. All I’m saying is I would easily trade Drain You or Breed or Pennyroyal Tea for Paper Cuts, Aneurysm, or Aero Zeppelin. But beyond my nitpicking this is pretty much the quintissential Nirvana set list because it’s just so goddam huge, spanning twenty two songs.

Some tidbits include Krists various funny comments between songs. This is one of Nirvana’s last shows, and god knows Kurt was not in very good condition at this time. So he doesn’t do a lot of the talking. Krist enlightens the audience with words of wisdom. But with all this said, the band is in perfect condition. Very few, if any, mistakes are made at all. Dave is hitting away as hard as ever, and Kurt and Krist are in good playing condition too. Kurts voice is still great and he never misses a note. The only mildly complaint worth thing I could say is that Kurt didn’t talk to the audience enough, but he almost never did during shows. So who am I to complain? Pat Smear produces some good meat for the bands sound with his backup guitar. You can even see him on the cover between Krist and Dave. As far as previous members of Nirvana go, you will probably hear me give about as much respect to Pat Smear as Chad Channing. While Pat was a backup guitarist and we wasn’t as talented or vital as Kurt, Krist, or Dave, he was still a cool and reportedly very nice person who played some great guitar. As far as I’m concerned, they should have just included him as a full time member of the band. Now I know I’m getting extremely involved when I say this, but of all of the pictures I have seen of the band, the cover of Roma is one of my favorites. Not just because of how awesome the rest of the band looks, but because they actually look like a full fledged band with the four of them, a group of warriors now helped by numbers. Another little prize is the ending track, Demolition, which is essentially the band destroying their gear after the show. While it’s not that involving of a listen, really hardcore Nirvana fans will enjoy this track simply because of it’s capturing the moment.

So despite the fact that any fan could argue against the setlist as much as any other bootleg, this is the best you can get. It’s not quite as good as Unplugged or any other official albums, but it’s the essential piece on the opposite side of the spectrum of Unplugged. Considering Kurt Cobain would commit suicide around two months later, the enthusiasm in the playing and singing doesn’t let that uneasiness show. It’s an utterly fantastic live album and even casual Nirvana fans should pick it up somehow.

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Alice in Chains – Sap [EP]

August 7, 2006


With all due respect, Alice in Chains was a grunge powerhouse. They produced hit after hit and stayed on good terms with their fans, and not many other grunge bands could do that as sucessfully as they did. Maybe Soundgarden did it a little more sucessfully, but Pearl Jam turned fans off and Nirvana had an early end. In any case, Alice in Chains also fizzled out around the time Soundgarden did when Layne Staley went into drug enduced seclusion. But even then, the remaining members of Alice in Chains still produced a solo album with Jerry Cantrell. So at least three members know when they have something good going.

Which explains why Alice in Chains is touring again now. Granted, they are missing their star singer Layne Staley, who died in 2002. But I guess they aren’t letting that dampen their spirits too much, because they hired this guy named William DuVall to sing for them on the rest of their tour. And they are still acting like they are twenty somethings, albeit with a little more sophistication and expertise, but they are still getting all sweaty and riled up on stage, which is something that you would have expected them to do twenty years ago. Hell, they even called out Billy Corgan to sing Down in a Hole in Seattle, where they did a free show too. A free show? For Alice in Chains? Now that’s REALLY something they would have done twenty years ago. It’s interesting to hear the news, really. I haven’t and probably won’t be able to get to any of the shows myself, but I hear they are really cool arena rock gigs that are doing Layne justice instead of disrespecting him. That’s good.

But that really causes me to ask the question, will there be another Alice in Chains album? Yeah, solo albums are great and I’m still getting over Degredation Trip, but for as capable of a song writer as Jerry Cantrell is, I think the other band members bring out the best in him. Laynes gone, and I’m going to stop complaining about that. It’s too late to do anything, so bitching about how it’s really not Alice in Chains is stupid. OK, fine, then how about we have these four guys get together and call themselves Alice, or The Chains? That doesn’t sound like a bad idea to me. Hell, it just gives them something to do. And considering they are already screwing around on tour, why not just get them together and make them feel like they are twenty years younger even more? These guys were boozing and picking up chicks twenty years ago, and playing small clubs for chump change. I say make them do that for a few months and see what demos surface.

I was at Barnes and Noble again browsing the CD section (I don’t even know why I buy CDs at Barnes and Noble. It’s just stupid.) when I found this EP. I had been looking for it for some time. No libraries seem to have it at all unfortunately, which is understandable because it is an EP that was made fifteen years ago. Even at the steep price of ten dollars, I had to have this even if it only contains five songs. I think it was worth it.

Alice in Chains actually released two EPs in their career, and both of them are largely accoustic and relatively short. This is the first of the two EPs, and while it may not be quite as good as their second EP, Jar of Flies, it’s still a solid little collection of songs. It came out maybe a year or so after Facelift, which was quite the hit in the Seattle underground, and this is a pretty big contrast from the mixture of 80s sounding rock and alternative. The mood is melancholy, and it sort of points towards the rest of the bands career, almost signposting what is to come later on the Jar of Flies EP. There are actually five songs on the album, but only four can be taken seriously enough to be considered even on the EP. The fifth song is filler, an obnoxious little track known by some as “Love Song” that is actually not even refferenced on the back of the album or even named. It’s a bit of stupid Halloween goo, so it’s not really worth noting.

But the other four songs are very interesting. Brother is a sad tune that Nutshell would later be reminiscent of. The lyrics are beautiful and mysterious, and for the first time (I think, unless there is some backup vocal work on Facelift I’m forgetting), Jerry Cantrells voice is in the forefront while Layne Staley harmonizes an octave up. The two make a really good vocal team, and it’s a good thing that Layne was polite enough to move over when need be on AiCs more quiet tracks. This song along with the next one would appear later on with the bands accoustic Unplugged concert in 1996, which is where I first heard this song. It’s a pretty good live album, I would reccomend giving it a spin if you are an Alice in Chains fan.

Got Me Wrong is probably the most popular tune from the EP, and it has a shocking contrast from Brother. When I think about it, it might be the most positive song the band has ever made, and it almost makes a little sense considering it was made before the bands negative minor tonalities got set in stone with Dirt and s/t. It was actually featured in the movie Clerks which came out around this time. The song is classic positive grunge really, and it reflects the easygoing nature of the movies twenty somethings. Sometimes you just gotta be yourself and have a little fun, maybe play a little hocky on the roof. It’s a great song, and the accoustic version on Unplugged is equally as enjoyable and fun.

The next song, Right Turn, is another more melancholy tune, but it plays with a little more groove. This song actually features a myriad of vocalists, a few of which are special guests. First off Jerry Cantrell takes the wheel with some gentle words, then Chris Cornell of Soundgarden takes the reigns, then Layne Staley, then grunge hero Mark Arm of Mudhoney, followed by a grand combination of all four. I often wonder how each of the grunge bands in Seattle thought of one another, and when it all comes down to it, I think they all got along fairly well, in some kind of strange way. Yes, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were rivals, but Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder slowdanced, and you will often hear kind words come out of Eddies voice about Nirvana. Same with Soundgarden. While Kurt Cobain may have sworn not to like the band, he had a minor obcession with them in his earlier days, and Chris Cornells favorite album on Sub Pop was Bleach. Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder were both involved in Temple of the Dog, and Matt Cameron, a member of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, and Temple of the Dog was a Nirvana roadie for a little while. Mudhoney and Nirvana were tight, and then we hear both Mark Arm and Chris Cornell featured with Alice in Chains. In retrospect, for how much competition there was between the bands, there seems to be some kind of harmony.

The main body of the EP closes with Am I Inside, which exudes large amounts of paranoia and fear, and then some brief lazy happiness, and the cycle repeats itself. While this EP really only points towards Jar of Flies, it’s a good little collection of songs that the band got out, and it shows how diverse the bands tastes and songwriting ability is, even early on. 1992 was a big year for Alice in Chains, and while this is a good EP, it was far blown out of the water with the grand haunting symphony that was Dirt which had an October release, just in time for Halloween. It’s a good EP, and if you can pick it up, it’s well worth it. But make sure you eventually get the stronger EP, Jar of Flies. Both are good, and if you can get them packaged together, even better. Honestly, they could have been compiled onto one disk and it would be a near perfect but slightly rough flowing disk.

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Nirvana – Lithium (Single)

May 13, 2006


My favorite band has always been Nirvana, and I always get slammed for that. I like it for the memories, the artistic nature, the tunes, the words, etc. But the problem is, the radio killed them. They didn’t really sell out, because anyone who knows what that means knows that they would have to deliberately contribute to their popularity and purposefully and knowingly try to make themselves liked by everybody. Anyone who truly knows Nirvana knows this never happened.

The band only had three studio albums. Then there were two live albums, an album of B-Sides, and many EPs, bootlegs, and box sets. Beyond that, we have singles. And the Lithium single is still one of the most respectable singles the band ever released, even if it only has a few songs on it.

What is a single supposed to do anyway? Well, it promotes sale of the album. So if someone hears the song on the radio and likes it, they can buy the single and will hopefully be convinced later on to buy the album. And making a single also means the lead song has to be really good, and the single will promote radio play, which will also promote the album a lot. But the single also has to have some incentive for fans to actually buy the single, beyond the fact that it is material that the band released. So there is usually a B-Side or two, some interesting cover art, and maybe some cool liner notes to boot.

In this way, Lithium delivers on just about every level. Lithium was destined to be a staple of rock radio, and it deserved a single of it’s own. It really encompasses the carefree attitude of the 90s pretty well, and despite the grim lyrics, it’s a happy song. You just kind of have to let it go, and drift off a little. Or have an image in your head. Just don’t concentrate too much on the actual music. Be busy while you are listening to this song. Anyway, it’s a solid track and enough reason for someone who doesn’t know Nirvana too well to buy the single.

Then we have a live version of Been A Son. The song was released on the bands B-Side collection Incesticide around the same time, but to be honest with you, this may be better than the studio version. You will always find many versions of the song floating around, and many live versions too. But this live take just really packs a punch. The band is clearly in good condition here, and cranking the song out at a very comfortable pace. Kurts vocals are great here too. This is probably going to be the incentive for fans to buy the album, just because the take is so good.

Curmudgeon has floated around elsewhere a few times, but I think it appeared first on this single. Fans can tell you that the bands B-Sides can really get to be a personal thing. Each fan has favorites. This isn’t a unanimously liked or hated track, but in my opinion, it is really good. It’s got a swirling heavy guitar part, and the Krist Novaselich on bass supports it and Dave Grohls crashing drums keep up perfectly. Of course, casual fans probably won’t understand this one right away, but more persistant fans will flat out love it. It is probably one of my favorite of Nirvanas B-Sides. Kurt Cobains words are nothing short of poetry here.

And then there are some other goodies that come with the single. Fans will probably find the mildly disgusting images on the front and back covers of the single amusing. And even better is the fact that in the liner, we have the complete lyrics from Nevermind, which is actually a great treat, because the release of Nevermind showed no actual lyrics sheets. Well, there was a little blurb of some of the albums lyrics, but they were warped, changed, and scattered. A lot of people complain about Kurt Cobain being unintelligible, so the lyrics sheet will also really give fans a treat.

I got my copy of this CD-single by chance at Best Buy for less than ten dollars. Considering the single was released about fifteen years ago, finding it in this day and age at a Best Buy is pretty amazing. You could probably get a much better price at amazon if you check some alternative outlets from the page of the actual product. New could be as little as around five, and used could be less than two dollars. It’s a great deal, especially for fans. Well worth picking up, for sure.