November 28, 2009
Welcome to another edition of Brook Pridemore’s The Nineties-ist. This edition discusses 1994, Courtney Love’s response to the death of Kurt Cobain (and how Rivers Cuomo plays into all this) and Pearl Jam, Korn, and the steep descent of metal. For earlier installments, go here.
One of the funniest conspiracy theories I’ve heard about in the last few years is that Kurt Cobain and Rivers Cuomo are the same person. Right: Kurt Cobain was so affected by the spotlight that he faked his own death, only to return a few months later with a new, poppier sound and a slightly altered look. Even his wife, Courtney Love, believes his death was real. Yeah.
When you think about it, the number of flimsy similarities between the two men are astounding. Nirvana and Weezer were both signed to the David Geffen Company (their recording careers only overlap by the slimmest margin). Both men were the sole songwriters in their respective bands, though Cuomo has deferred to the other guys in recent years, and Dave Grohl got to write one of the B-Sides for In Utero. Cuomo and Cobain are both often seen wearing sweaters in photographs; Cuomo’s dapper and preppy, Cobain’s most likely intended to cover up track marks. Both debuted with music most people did not hear (Weezer’s earliest recordings are still-unreleased pop metal tracks), followed by a slicker-than-owl-shit major label debut, then followed by an intensely personal, self-produced sophomore effort. In Utero is infinitely better than Nevermind, and Pinkerton is infinitely better than The Blue Album. Weezer, after Pinkerton, have slowly pissed away everything that was great about them, while Cobain didn’t last long enough to watch his career go to shit.
Of course, Cobain was a left-handed guitarist, while Cuomo is right-handed, but have you ever noticed that Cuomo became something of a fret-shredder between the first two albums?
More on #11: 1994
July 23, 2009
1994 | Matador
Not to get back on the whole 90s rock kick (see my slobbering praise of The Promise Ring, Butt Trumpet and The Rentals for further reference), but there exists a handful of records that are of one time period exactly. For example: Mazzy Star’s So Tonight That I Might See, the very definition of somnambulent, could have been released at any time, but could never have been a hit album with radio and MTV exposure at any other time than 1994, in the immediate wake of Kurt Cobain’s death. They Might Be Giants’ first album could only have been released in 1986, the same with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill — two albums that illustrate the wealth of possibilities in sampling other artists as a form of expression, at a time when artists could use samples without paying out the nose for the rights.
And Helium, who sound like they’re channeling all of rock’s conventions through a gray and black kaleidoscope, could only have released their debut EP, Pirate Prude, in 1994. Again, in the wake of Cobain’s suicide, as Courtney Love’s Hole was barreling up the Billboard charts and Alanis Morrissette’s angsty debut, Jagged Little Pill, was still a year away, Helium was one of a handful of smaller bands who made compelling records that threw convention out the window for the sake of art. Leader Mary Timony, who plays electric guitar that sounds like grunge played on a Danelectro, sings in a high, bored monotone reminiscent of the Velvet Underground’s Moe Tucker — though a bummed-out Moe on some heavy downers. Helium rocks, but glacially, and indifferently. Everything pounds with energy, though as if the urgency of normal rock music has been tempered down to a neutral, effortless pace. Timony, bassist Brian Dunton and drummer Shawn King Devlin, get where they’re going, all the while not caring whether you (or even they) enjoy the ride.
More on Helium | Pirate Prude
July 4, 2009
HATE TO ADMIT IT, BUT…
1994 | Trauma Records
It was kind of fun to watch big bands of the mid-90s get poised for stadium success on the club level. In the last days of post-Nirvana rock and roll, paying one’s dues was still a necessary step towards coming up into mainstream success. Dave Grohl – former drummer for a band who had played in front of a quarter of a million people MANY times – took his Foo Fighters on the road for the first time in 1995, opening for former Minuteman Mike Watt. Ultimately, Grohl took his own songs back to the stadium (and, God bless him, Mike Watt still jams econo), but on the way, he had to – got to, really – play “This is a Call” and “Big Me” in the same sweaty clubs he’d started out in.
And it was really cool to see the combinations that bands got thrown into on tour. Summer 1995, I got to see Bush and the Toadies – one of whom was about to go supernova and the other to toil in semi-obscurity (albeit with a small, but rabid fanbase), though we didn’t know who yet – on what amounted to a double-headliner bill in Detroit.
The Toadies were good. They looked the part of a legit underground rock band (and probably still had jobs when they weren’t on tour), and they seemed to have fun, even though their songs kind of had that off-kilter rhythm and quirk about them. Bush, though – they had the stadium-level show down to a science, probably had been rehearsing it in practice spaces at home in England. Frontman Gavin Rossdale gestured to the crowd, and the crowd went wild. Floodlamps painted the four men onstage like gods. They could very well have been lip-syncing, that’s how little one could see through all the smoke and lights. The band played probably everything from their debut, Sixteen Stone, and maybe a B-Side or two. And here was another cool thing about mainstream bands touring their first albums – dudes had no choice but to play the B-sides.
More on Bush | “Glycerine”
April 30, 2009
1994 | Chrysalis Records
“Novelty music” is an umbrella term that covers more than Tiny Tim, “Weird Al,” and whoever else gets covered on Dr. Demento. Not that I’m turning my nose up at “Weird Al” or anything, but some “novelty” records – like Ken Nordine’s Colors, a series of audio vignettes about different shades of refracted light – get labeled as novelty or “exotica” due to their sheer intellectualism. Then there are those records, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that are so vulgar and stupid you can’t help but laugh at them.
Butt Trumpet, who claim to be the only punk band other than the Sex Pistols to sign to EMI, fit tightly – and proudly – into the latter category. Formed in 1991 by Thom Bone, the band has gone through many permutations, the most notorious in 1994, when a major-label deal with Chrysalis Records put the words “Butt Trumpet” into the mouths of adolescent idiots all across the nation. The album they produced, Primitive Enema, is a troglodytic punk/metal fusion stuffed with scatological humor and bellowing/whiny lyrics, rife with what Bone, may or may not consider his rhetoric. Primitive Enema was required listening for a fifteen year old kid weaned on Primus and Beavis & Butt-head.
More on Butt Trumpet | Primitive Enema
September 7, 2008
1994 | Atlantic
Serendipity worked for Daniel Johnston, although serendipity was healthily aided and abetted by the enthusiastic support of a gaggle of high-profile fans. Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and David Bowie, among others, had sung his praise for years, but Johnston’s big “break” came when Kurt Cobain wore Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You?” t-shirt to the MTV Video Music Awards in 1992. Millions of people saw that show, and by proxy, millions of people saw that shirt, shuttling Johnston straight past radio and injecting him into the public conscious (subcutaneously, at least).
But what to do for an album, after the bidding war landed Johnston on Atlantic Records? Can a major label artist go back into his sister’s basement and create a follow-up on a poorly recorded chord organ? Apparently not. Butthole Surfer Paul Leary, fellow former Austinite and longtime proud fan of Johnston’s, was commissioned to produce. Along with Butthole King Coffey on drums, Leary played nearly all of the guitars and bass on Fun, presumably in an attempt to streamline Johnston’s sound and make it more palatable for a mass commercial radio audience.
Remember, this is 1994, the Butthole Surfers had streamlined their own sound way down from the squalling cacophony of their 80’s freakouts, and were mere months away from household name status with 1996’s “Pepper.” So the stretch is not that far off. With Fun, Johnston and Co. tried earnestly to make a commercially palatable record that also retained Johnston’s meek, childlike demeanor that endeared him to fans.
Did it work? Of course not. There is a very good reason that Johnston’s closest real brush with commercial success was when Mary Lou Lord’s cover of his “Speeding Motorcycle” was used in a Target commercial – Johnston’s charms, while bountiful, are an acquired taste for a specific palate. What you end up with on Fun is a mishmash of Johnston’s love songs and neuroses (done better elsewhere) and a churgling, electric/gentle acoustic tug-of-war from the Buttholes, et al., that never lets the album settle into a groove. It’s weird. All of the studio trickery makes the album clean, but it’s not good. And even though it’s not good, Fun is also not bad in the way elements of Johnston’s earlier homespun records charmingly were. They (the suits) got the “co-opting-mentally-unstable-artists” thing right (to similarly disastrous commercial results) a couple of years later when American Recordings let Wesley Willis do exactly what he always did. Fun, however, is recommended for completists only.
by Brook Pridemore
August 21, 2008
1994 | Grass Records
David Dondero, the folk-punk hero with a minimal, yet rabid, fan base led Sunbrain in the early 90’s, releasing four albums, and touring like mad before falling apart in 1996. He’s gone on to make six solo albums to varying success, toured with much bigger bands like Bright Eyes, Against Me, etc., and carved a little place out in the hearts of road-weary ramblers in all corners of the nation with his unique batch of song-stories and highway ballads. Here, though, Dondero and company (Steve Glickman-drums, Russ Hallauer-guitar and Eric Nail-bass) are a pretty deeply ensconced in the punk/indie aesthetic of the early to mid 90’s, which is not entirely to their benefit.
Dondero’s voice is wavering and often strangely seeming to be on the verge of tears (for the uninitiated, a young Conor Oberst saw Sunbrain in the early 90’s and decided to start singing like Dondero, and now does). But there is a deeper, sonorous quality to his voice that comes out in the more laid-back material of his later career. It’s a dynamic that’s sort of like being able to go from calm to livid at the drop of a dime. On Good Side, however, the instrumentation rarely leaves enough room for Dondero to show off his range, mostly strangling the vocal into “livid” territory. The music falls into same-y muck as well. With the exceptions of “Way Gone,” a groovy, bass-driven number, and “Not So Stranger,” which I thought was two or three short songs before getting up and noticing that it was one song, all over the map, most of the music here is of that noisy idiom of other 90’s also-rans like Dandelion and Enormous. Noisy, but somehow not driving. Closer “Recover” is a Dondero solo composition that acts as sneak preview of what’s to come, in embryonic form.
by Brook Pridemore
July 30, 2008
Days in the Wake
1994 | Drag City
Will Oldham occupies a unique, odd position in the greater Americana subconscious. Far from a household name, but universally known among certain sects of record nerds, Oldham has been making music with an ever-evolving cast of supporting characters and, initially, an ever-evolving name, since his auspicious debut with the 1993 Palace Brothers album There is No-One What Will Take Care Of You.
Perhaps Oldham and Co.’s finest moment is Days in the Wake, a collection of simple ballads that centers almost entirely around Oldham’s high, reedy voice and gentle but propulsive acoustic guitar. A far cry from what he’s doing these days (as Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Oldham’s new Lie Down in the Light is routinely gorgeous and surprisingly “up”), Days in the Wake often sounds like abject sadness set to music. “When you have no one, no one can hurt you,” goes the opening line to “You Will Miss Me When I Burn”, setting a precedent for a long descent into loneliness. Indeed, on “I Send My Love to You” and “Meaulines”, Oldham’s voice audibly cracks; whether from vocal strain or emotion is unknown. The effect, however, makes Oldham sound like a lost kid, desperate to be heard through a haze of white noise.
What sets Days in the Wake apart from the multitudes of other sad bastard, solo acoustic guitar albums? The fact that this was released in 1993, probably just before Nirvana’s Unplugged special aired. Although popular music had gotten very “cool” by that point, loud and fast were still very much the rule and the norm. In 1993, folk, bluegrass and alt. country had yet to come in to vogue. What’s the most punk thing you can do, when everyone’s cranked to eleven, speakers blown, eardrums bleeding? Strip it all the way down to the essence. One voice, one guitar. Simple and beautiful. Ultimately, punk as fuck.
by Brook Pridemore
July 29, 2008
The Magnetic Fields
The Charm of the Highway Strip
1994 | Merge
Many people like The Magnetic Fields, but few have even heard of their best album: The Charm of the Highway Strip. The album title comes from a quote by landscape design author J.B. Jackson: “Let us hope that the merits and charm of the highway strip are not so obscure but that they will be accepted by a wider public.” Ironic that in the shadow of the critically-adored 69 Love Songs, Charm has not quite been accepted by the larger public, seemingly because people prefer to hear quirky, cutesy, purposefully-cliché songs about heartache than bear the burden of deeper meaning. 69 Love Songs was penned for a coffee-shop; Charm is an homage to the open road. Long after humanity has destroyed itself, the spirit of the open road will remain. I can’t say the same for a Café Latte.
As a singer-songwriter, Stephin Merritt has two main avenues through which to communicate: words and chords. One major element of Charm’s success is the interplay between the sound of the record and the lyrics. The album’s overall tone could be likened to sunflowers dancing. But in contrast to something “sunny,” the lyrics are often sincerely heartfelt, and often depressing as well: lost time, regret, longing, heartbreak, and identity are major lyrical components. As fragile as gravity holding together the stars, bright and jovial music interlocks with bleak and pained words, forging an alloy of incomparable durability.
While positively inclined and quickly drawn to Charm, upon first listen I was not in love. What attracted me initially were Merritt’s insanely rich and sorrowful voice; almost total digital/keyboard instrumentation; and the deliciousness of so much talk about roads, travel, and movement. Apropos of an album with “highway strip” in the title, Charm is truly the ultimate road companion. Not only do most of the songs have an upbeat pace akin to spinning wheels, but the lyrics are drenched in driving and travel: “Some roads are only seen at night / ghost roads, nothing but neon signs”; “O Sunset City, I’ve got to see the world / don’t hold me too tightly, don’t whisper my name”; “The roads don’t love you, and they still won’t pretend to.” Having accompanied me on many drives, The Charm of the Highway Strip has become as essential to road travel as gasoline, and its grandeur sometimes even trumps that of the destination.
by Dan D’Ippolito