February 14, 2010
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 2001, specifically 9/11/2001, and the significance of four albums released on that day. For earlier installments, go here.
So, our exploration of music in the 1990s has come to a close. Things were “bad” for creative rock music at the beginning of the 90s, then they were “good” for a while, then by decade’s end, things were “bad” again. The modern record industry didn’t die entirely on January 1, 2000, though; things crutched along for another couple of years, and so we’re still here, trying to figure out exactly when the industry hit critical mass.
Rather than do a serial exploration of 2001, as we have about other years in this column, I’d like to talk about one specific date: September 11. Many New Yorkers who were living here on the day have insinuated to me over the years that all things New York City can be divided into two categories: “pre”-9/11 and “post”-9/11. I was still living in Kalamazoo, MI, at the time, staring at my watch through my last year of college, obsessing over alt. country, and doing my small part to run one of the nation’s few remaining freeform independent radio stations, 89.1FM WIDR Kalamazoo.
WIDR’s director’s staff, myself included, were booked and all set to attend that fall’s CMJ Music Marathon, four days of music and conference all across Manhattan’s greatest clubs and shitty bars. Sure, it’s corny now, but we’d attended the year previous (my first visit to the city), and I’d gotten to meet some of my heroes (David Lowery, John Flansburgh), see shows that I still talk about to this day (Low, PJ Harvey, Sean Na Na) and left what was supposed to be my last pack of cigarettes on the bar at CBGB (the actual physical sight of the marquee made my breath stop in my throat). I was hooked, and my (then) girlfriend and I swore we’d be living in New York as soon as we could.
2001’s event just…wasn’t in the cards for us, I guess. The Marathon was scheduled for September 13-16. Our university vans were rented for September 12-18—we’d opted to take an extra day to catch the Daily Show, or some such thing, before coming home. Morning of September 11, I was made aware of the disaster by repeated phone calls from my roommate PJ’s mother: “Have you looked at the TV today? I don’t think you guys are going to New York.” We didn’t have a TV. I was trying to sleep. Finally, I told her to fuck off and stop calling, and that PJ would be home to call her eventually.
Of course she was right, and I’ve never had the chance to apologize for my rudeness. Our escape from Midwest boredom scuttled, I shook my fist at the sky and engaged in as much risky and hedonistic behavior as possible for the rest of my tenure in Michigan. Although I believed at the time—and still believe—that the notion of the 9/11 disaster being a US government-planned (or at least supported) attack, the loss of my CMJ escape prompted me to immediately start excusing immature behavior by saying, “If Brook doesn’t hit that tire swing/drink that fourteenth Guinness/etc., the terrorists have won.”
My behavior changed that very day, in fact. Several of my favorite acts released new records on 9/11, and I’da been Goddamned if I didn’t go out to Music Express and pick up all of them. That setup out of the way, I’d like to talk a little bit about four records that were released on September 11, 2001, and how they relate to the disaster.
1. They Might be Giants | A Mink Car
My heroes’ first album of all new material since 1996’s Factory Showroom, Mink Car stinks to me now of the first time TMBG started to falter. Maybe it was the album’s proximity to their first children’s album, No!—a far superior effort—which was released less than a year later. Lyrically, there’s not much tying it to the 9/11 attacks, although the presence of Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty (the singer’s first appearance on record since his band’s dissolution in 1998) somehow makes the band feel MORE New York. The ensuing tour seemed to reinvigorate the Johns’ interest in putting on a good live show, most shows dipping deep into the catalog (“Cowtown,” and “Fingertips” were the biggest surprises at the show I saw) and culminating in their cover of Cub’s “New York City,” a sweet pop-punk ode to NYC that has more or less become as much a TMBG song as “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” The Johns turned in their weakest record to date with Mink Car, but assumed the unofficial mantle of Brooklyn’s party music ambassadors to a world of nerds who needed TMBG’s brand of fun now more than ever.
2. Ben Folds | Rockin’ the Suburbs
Ben Folds’ first solo album—after the dissolution of his Five in 1999—saw the piano man playing most of the album’s instruments himself and tweaking his formula by adding guitar and synthesizer to the mix. Lyrics deal with his newfound love and the mental illness of (probably) fictional characters. On Rockin’ the Suburbs’ title track, Folds, who had kind of always sounded pretty retro, eschewing any references more modern than Axl Rose, turns the knife toward Fred Durst, et. al. “Let me tell y’all what it’s like bein’ male, middle class and white,” mocks Folds, over a bouncy 80s synth, piano entirely absent from the track, before digging deep into a hilarious mockery of Durst’s rapping style: “You better watch out, because I’m gonna say, ‘Fuck,’” he repeats in the song’s worth-the-wait coda. As in the case of Mink Car, Rockin’ the Suburbs doesn’t lyrically connect to the 9/11 disaster, but it’s important to note that Ben Folds has pretty much been a bore ever since its’ release.
3. Bob Dylan| Love and Theft
The way critics salivated over this record, and its’ supposed lyrical allusion to the World Trade Center destruction, has prevented me from listening to it more than a couple of times. I bought it on September 11, gave it a listen, and it sounded to me like an album of outtakes from 1997’s Time Out of Mind. Case in point, “Mississippi,” the only song actually held over from Time Out of Mind, is by far my favorite song on the record. Love and Theft was the first time I noticed critics’ habit of trashing an artist’s most recent release in favor of the new jam. Think about it: every Rolling Stones album is heralded as their best work since 1981’s Tattoo You, when in fact the Stones haven’t made a good record since Some Girls. The tragedy in this case is that Time Out of Mind absolutely IS among his best work, definitely as good as Blood on the Tracks, if not Highway 61 Revisited or The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
I got on a rant, there. Skip Love and Theft. Don’t listen to critics. I learned that lesson for the first time when Bob’s album dropped on 9/11.
4. The Moldy Peaches | Self Titled
I did not hear the Moldy Peaches album until over a year after its’ release—it came around to WIDR, but was stolen by some greedy little bastard before it made its’ way into the stacks (long enough, at least, that the first self-proclaimed “antifolk” I heard was Jeff Lewis’ debut album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, which was released partially in reaction to the Moldy Peaches’ huge success). The Moldy Peaches may very well have made the last great lo-fi album: this little collection of songs sounds like it was recorded onto a boombox (probably because it most likely was), and yet also sounds pretty carefully put together. The instruments mostly sound like shit, but they sound like well-played shit. Adam Green and Kimya Dawson’s absurdist sense of humor is of the toilet variety, but personal politics poke through the dick jokes all over the place. Case in point: “New York City’s Like a Graveyard,” which may have been about how boring the city can be compared to life on the road, suddenly took on a ghastly new meaning after the album’s release. The Moldy Peaches may never make another record, but they may never have to. Of the records released on September 11, 2001, this one is closer to perfect than any of the others.
Next Week: Brook Pridemore sets up shop in New York, Wilco finally releases Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and our journey is almost complete.
By Brook Pridemore