Posts Tagged ‘Soundgarden’

Doubleshot Tuesday: Temple Of The Dog/Singles

27 April 2010

[Today: Remembering Grunge…]

A few years back I dragged The P out to the Great American Music Hall to see Mudhoney. I’m sure she was bored witless, but one of the things I love about my wife is that she’s always up for a show. I was never a huge Mudhoney fan back in the day, but lately they represent one of the few chances to get a taste of real grunge music, and they didn’t disappoint this semi-fan. It seems so apocryphal that I feel the need to qualify the following: as I remember it, lead singer Mark Arm ran up into the balcony overlooking the stage, climbed up onto the railing, and jumped down onto the stage. Not an impossible jump, but it seems like such a perfect grunge moment that now I wonder if I dreamed it up to satisfy my expectations of what the show must have been like. Who cares? All I remember is a great, rowdy show that delivered exactly what I was after…

Grunge reached its peak in 1992, the year I graduated from college. My college roommates were a diverse bunch – four guys who liked all kinds of different music, from metal to rap to classic rock to pure pop. My roommate Keith was a metalhead and had like-minded friends from Seattle who would drive down for periodic visits. Each time, they’d come storming in raving about bands like Mudhoney, Soundgarden and Nirvana. They brought us Temple Of The Dog in the fall of 1991, minutes after it was released and months before anyone else had a clue. We’d put their discoveries on the hi-fi and crank them up and drink cheap beer and sit around basking in the glow of this music. Additionally, my high school friend Aldo was at the University of Washington, and I’d get the occasional word from him about these amazing triple-bill shows he was seeing for two bucks in Seattle bars. It’s viewed in hindsight as a huge corporate grab (which it turned into) but grunge really was a local movement that had genuine energy and excitement behind it, well before the majors caught on.

At that time, of course, it wasn’t called “grunge”, it was just the next wave of rock, and it sounded a lot fresher than the same old stuff clogging the airwaves. I’ve never quite understood what distinguishes music as grunge – perhaps a combination of geography, attitude, flannel and distortion? The soundtrack to the movie Singles collects some great songs and provokes a few more questions. What is Paul Westerberg’s sap doing here? Are Smashing Pumpkins really grunge? Why was this movie so bad? Alice In Chains kill it on album-opener ‘Would’ – perhaps the purest distillation of the idea of grunge, but lead singer Layne Stahley’s gruesome death makes their music sound like chilling, self-fulfilling prophecy. Pearl Jam contribute a couple of decent songs that anticipate the boring albums they’ve been turning out for the last decade. Soundgarden add two completely different tunes that foretell their split later in the decade – ‘Birth Ritual’ and Chris Cornell’s acoustic ‘Seasons’. Nirvana was already too huge to be included here, but they were as doomed as grunge itself.

And right in the middle of the pomp of the Singles soundtrack sits ‘Overblown’ by Mudhoney. Shouting against the very commercialization of his scene that this soundtrack represented, Mark Arm sings “Everybody loves us/Everybody loves our town/That’s why I’m thinking lately/The time for leaving is now.” Ironically, Mudhoney was probably the band least affected by the spoils that grunge brought. And far from leaving town, Arm and Mudhoney are the last band still regularly conjuring the spirit of Seattle circa 1992…

Listen: Pushin’ Forward Back [Temple Of The Dog]

Listen: Would? [Alice In Chains]

Listen: Seasons [Chris Cornell]

Listen: Breath [Pearl Jam]

Listen: Overblown [Mudhoney]


6 January 2010

As The P and I were turning the page on the New Year, word came trickling in from several friends that Soundgarden had reunited. This news ought to make me giddy as a schoolgirl – I’m grungy enough that I still wear a thrashed, ancient pair of Doc Martens to work every day, and as I’ve previously documented in this space, Soundgarden was one of my favorite bands of the 90’s. Their unexpected breakup in 1997 was a shocker that still kind of bugs me.

But a funny thing happened when I heard this particular bit of news – far from getting me excited, it left me feeling bitter and unsatisfied. I don’t begrudge them the opportunity to reunite and make a few bucks, but 13 years of this band’s lifecycle has washed away, and my bitterness has to do with all the music they didn’t make during that time. For those who haven’t seen them, I wish you a supremely enjoyable show, and hope Soundgarden delivers the Greatest Hits Revue of your dreams. But I saw them in concert three times, back in the days when they were on fire, and I have no intention of pushing my luck and possibly tarnishing good memories.

In its original 1997 article on the band’s breakup, Rolling Stone quoted an unnamed source (probably band manager Susan Silver) as saying that “the only thing keeping [lead singer] Chris [Cornell] from superstardom was that he was in a heavy-metal band. If he could somehow step out of it, he’s groomed for the mainstream.” It seems clear from that statement, as well as other clues, that Cornell wanted to move into the musical mainstream and become a superstar. Sadly, he and his handlers didn’t realize that the mainstream was moving towards Soundgarden, and 13 years later, Cornell is much less well known (and probably less well-regarded artistically) than he was during his grunge days. The surprising multi-platinum success of Nirvana and Pearl Jam led not only to the death of Kurt Cobain, but provided outsized commercial expectations that brought on the premature demise of Soundgarden and left the late-90’s field open to nu-metal suckdogs like Papa Roach and Nickelback.

In August of 2008, The Onion ran a hilarious article headlined “SOUNDGARDEN INADVERTENTLY REUNITES AT AREA CINNABON” that fooled a few of my friends into thinking the group was actually getting back together. But at that point, the members of the group had been sending off signals for more than a decade that they had no intention of doing any such thing.

Explaining why he was opposed to the idea of a reunion, Cornell told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in 2005 that “It’s almost like we sealed the lid and said, this is Soundgarden and this is its lifespan, and put it out there. And it looks really great to me. I think getting back together would take the lid off that and then could possibly change what… to me seems like the perfect lifespan of the band. I can’t think of any reason to mess with that.”

Me neither…

Listen: Jesus Christ Pose

Weekend Playlist

4 January 2010

“I couldn’t talk to people face to face, so I got on stage and started screaming and squealing and twitching.” ~ David Byrne

The Black Crowes | Before The Frost…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | The Live Anthology

Kings Of Convenience | Quiet Is The New Loud

Beck | Modern Guilt

Peace Orchestra | Peace Orchestra

Erlend Øye | Unrest

Little Feat | The Last Record Album

Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force | Planet Rock: The Album

Moby Grape | Moby Grape

Blakroc | Blakroc

Blitzen Trapper | Furr

Bobby Womack | The Poet

Traffic | John Barleycorn Must Die

David Byrne | Rei Momo

Bonzo Dog Band | Tadpoles

The Headhunters | Survival Of The Fittest

Soundgarden | Down On The Upside

Neil Young | Time Fades Away

MGMT | Oracular Spectacular

Doubleshot Tuesday: Space-Age Bachelor Pad Music/Schizophonic!

17 November 2009

[Today: Loungin’…]

Like tail-fins on sedans and bee-hive hairdos, Lounge Music is one of those late-50’s accessories that has come to stand as a totem of its time and is dated in the best possible way. Musicians like Martin Denny, Les Baxter, and Juan García Esquivel made exotic, relaxed tunes that combined jazz and foreign rhythms and flew under such day-glo headings as Space Age Pop and Exotica (“Lounge” is a retroactive genre title). If this music is hard for rock fans to take seriously, that’s because it’s intentionally as light and fluffy as Kool-Whip®. Esquivel’s music is full of loony sound effects (BOINNNNNG!) and odd instrumentation, but just when you’re ready to write it off as a silly gimmick (The P claims that “it sounds like little trolls running up and down a staircase”) he drops a song that clearly anticipates the chill-out side of electronica. Esquivel may have tempted derision with boastful album titles like The Genius Of Esquivel and Exploring New Sounds In Stereo, but he delivers more than enough to earn the (some would say dubious) title King Of Lounge.

The early-90’s saw a surprising revival of Lounge Music, spearheaded by nouveau retro bands like Combustible Edison and Love Jones. The polar opposite of grungy beasts like Nirvana and Soundgarden, these Lounge bands dressed to the nines, plunked away on their xylophones, and made Kool-Whip® for the 90’s. If Esquivel and his Space Age cronies are a challenge for modern ears, the new Lounge bands multiply that difficulty by sounding completely derivative. Rare is the music that is simultaneously enjoyable and deplorable, but here we are. Not being much of a hipster, I’m unsure what purpose this music serves for me, although if I ever decide to start riding one of those antique bicycles with the huge front wheel and tiny back wheel, I’ll have my cruising music all sewn up…

Listen: Speak Low [Esquivel – from the album Equivel 1968!!]

Listen: Alright, Already [Combustible Edison]

Listen: Yeyo [Esquivel – The P: “…sounds like little trolls…”]

Listen: Short Double Latté [Combustible Edison]

Weekend Playlist

29 June 2009

Me, I’ve concentrated on music pretty much to the exclusion of other things.” – Lou Reed

Freddie King
Freddie King | Hide Away
[Album cover not pictured]

Jerry Lee Lewis | Live At The Star Club, Hamburg
Jerry Lee Lewis | Live At The Star Club, Hamburg

Shawn Phillips | Second Contribution
Shawn Phillips | Second Contribution

John Lee Hooker | Free Beer And Chicken
John Lee Hooker | Free Beer And Chicken

Instant Funk | Instant Funk
Instant Funk | Instant Funk

Soundgarden | Louder Than Love
Soundgarden | Louder Than Love

Rodriguez | Cold Fact
Rodriguez | Cold Fact

INXS | Shabooh Shoobah
INXS | Shabooh Shoobah

Various Artists | Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story
Various Artists | Journey Into Paradise: The Larry Levan Story

Calexico | The Black Light
Calexico | The Black Light

Jackson 5 | Greatest Hits
Jackson 5 | Greatest Hits

Miles Davis | 'Round About Midnight
Miles Davis | ‘Round About Midnight

Horace Silver | Silver's Blue
Horace Silver | Silver’s Blue

Donald Byrd | Mustang!
Donald Byrd | Mustang!

Alabama 3 | Outlaw
Alabama 3 | Outlaw

Gram Parsons | Grievous Angel
Gram Parsons | Grievous Angel

Basement Jaxx | Remedy
Basement Jaxx | Remedy

Radiohead | In Rainbows
Radiohead | In Rainbows

Mylo | Destroy Rock & Roll
Mylo | Destroy Rock & Roll

Gomez | Bring It On
Gomez | Bring It On

Ben Charest | Triplets Of Belleville Soundtrack
Ben Charest | Triplets Of Belleville Soundtrack

Various Artists | More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album
Various Artists | More Oar

Neil Young & Crazy Horse | Sleeps With Angels
Neil Young | Sleeps With Angels

Minutemen | Post-Mersh Vol. 3
Minutemen | Post-Mersh Vol. 3

Barry & The Remains | Barry & The Remains
Barry & The Remains | Barry & The Remains

Various Artists | Brothers On The Slide: The Story Of UK Funk
Various Artists | Brothers On The Slide: The Story Of UK Funk

Gift Of Gab | Fourth Dimensional Rocket Ships Going Up
Gift Of Gab | Fourth Dimensional Rocket Ships Going Up

Culture | Trod On
Culture | Trod On

Led Zeppelin | Coda
Led Zeppelin | Coda

Stevie Ray Vaughan | SRV: The Boxed Set
Stevie Ray Vaughan | SRV (Box Set)

Black Sugar | Black Sugar
Black Sugar | Black Sugar

The 25 Greatest Albums Of The 90’s

21 June 2009

The 90’s were a tough decade for music, but by the time the odometer finally clicked over to Y2K, it was possible to look back on a whole bunch of fine albums released over the preceding ten years. Here are 25 of my favorites…

Kruder Dorfmeister | The K&D Sessions™
25) Kruder & Dorfmeister | The K&D Sessions (1998) – This big, beautiful sprawling album blurred the line between electronica, dub, and remixing, and proved that Chill Out music could be artistically satisfying.

Listen: Bug Powder Dust

Built To Spill | Keep It Like A Secret
24) Built To Spill | Keep It Like A Secret (1998) – BTS lead singer and guitarist Doug Martsch was an axe hero for the 90’s, and his stinging, squalling solos bring to mind Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the height of their feedback-fueled jams.

Listen: Carry The Zero

Primal Scream | Screamadelica
23) Primal Scream | Screamadelica (1991) – Primal Scream was a mixed-up band, in the best possible way. With a name that sounds like a punk outfit, this Glasgow group was the farthest thing from that, incorporating elements of gospel, electronica, and good old Rolling Stones-styled rock & roll. Screamadelica is an uplifting joy ride…

Listen: Movin’ On Up

PJ Harvey | Dry
22) PJ Harvey | Dry (1992) – Hell hath no fury like PJ Harvey’s debut album. Dry took on feminine issues, but served them up on a platter of snarling punk and squinching feedback, along with a healthy side of biting lyrics. Bruisingly good.

Listen: Dress

Wu Tang Clan | Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers)
21) Wu Tang Clan | Enter The Wu Tang (36 Chambers) (1993) – With talents like Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, and GZA, the nine-headed Wu Tang Clan had superior parts that formed an even greater whole. Their debut drips with grease and grime in a way that only Exile On Main St. can match, and the album made stars out of the whole clan. Solo records were made, ODB OD’d, and The Wu never again reached this great height as a group. But Enter The Wu Tang remains one of the strongest – and greezyest – albums of all-time.

Listen: Method Man

Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
20) Yo La Tengo | I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) – A low-fi, low key ode to love, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One functioned as Yo La Tengo’s dissertation on the state of indie rock in the late-90’s. It’s full of buzzing guitars and swirling feedback, but this is a beautiful batch of songs that reflect the quiet anxiety that comes with any good love. Their sampling of crickets throughout ‘Green Arrow’ is but one of the typically clever and fantastically effective musical devices used here.

Listen: Green Arrow

Beastie Boys | Ill Communication
19) Beastie Boys | Ill Communication (1994) – This is the lynchpin between the smug, malevolent Beasties of the 80’s and the mature, world conscious group that they’ve become. ‘Sure Shot’ is one of the group’s best songs, but the Adam Yauch-penned ‘Bodhisattva Vow’ is a clear-eyed look at one man’s place in the world, and a tune that simply wouldn’t have fit in on earlier Beasties albums. From the punk fire of ‘Heart Attack Man’ and ‘Sabotage’ to the multiple dusty instrumental funk jams to the smooth raps ‘Root Down’ and ‘Get It Together’, Ill Communication has a little bit of everything that makes the Beasties great.

Listen: Sabotage

A3 | Exile On Coldharbour Lane
18) Alabama 3 | Exile On Coldharbour Lane (1997) – The Sopranos used ‘Woke Up This Morning’ as its opening theme song, but Exile On Coldharbour Lane represents a rollicking trip through electronica, country, and gospel, helmed by a sleazy/hilarious figure named Reverend D. Wayne Love. It looks like a disaster on paper, but this is a rolling musical carnival-slash-revival that has its tongue firmly in cheek and grooves firmly in pocket. Absolutely one of the great lost albums of the 90’s…

Listen: Speed Of The Sound Of Loneliness

Massive Attack | Mezzanine
17) Massive Attack | Mezzanine (1998) – Many prefer their first two albums (both great), but this band really hit their dark stride with Mezzanine. Less trip-hop than shadowy, claustrophobic atmosphere for urban decay, this album sets a mood within its first few seconds, and carries it to the bitter, lovely end. ‘Man Next Door’ casts a weary eye at constantly fighting neighbors, ‘Inertia Creeps’ is a slithering, intoxicating ode to doing nothing at all, and the whole of the record rides a slipstream of urban discord. But the darkness here is elegant enough that this became the soundtrack for every boutique, salon, and restaurant during the summer of ’98.

Listen: Man Next Door

The Stairs | Mexican R 'n' B
16) The Stairs | Mexican R-n-B (1992) – The Stairs suffered from nothing so much as an acute sense of bad timing. The lo-fi, psychedelic garage band ditties they were penning in the early 90’s had nowhere to go, but ten years later there would be a host of bands (White Stripes, Black Lips, et al) successfully mining the same vein. Mexican R-n-B meanwhile, is the lost album of the decade – a perfectly ripped garage album, rough around the edges and utterly timeless. It didn’t stand a chance in ’92.

Listen: Flying Machine

Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream
15) Smashing Pumpkins | Siamese Dream (1993) – Smashing Pumpkins were considered part of the grunge movement, but mainly because they had a key track on the genre-defining Singles soundtrack, and Billy Corgan’s vocals are dripping with angst. The lyrics here reflect some of his personal issues at the time, and most of the songs center around phrases (“The killer in me is the killer in you” or “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”) that sound like fortune cookies for profoundly anxious people. Corgan and company perfectly combined the technical flatulence of Prog with the fire and brimstone of Metal and the confessional self-probing of a Singer/Songwriter, and the result was one of the best albums of the 90’s.

Listen: Today

Nas | Illmatic
14) Nas | Illmatic (1994) – Nasir Jones’ debut traces his rise as a rap prodigy in the Queensbridge section of Queens, NY and lends credence to the idea that rap is a document of the streets. The album builds up to its final song, ‘It Ain’t Hard To Tell’, when Nas releases the pressure over an extended Michael Jackson sample, and basks in the glow of his own verbal skills. Illmatic is the Martin Scorcese film of hip-hop albums – it appraises the mean streets with an honest eye, but captures the hard beauty that hangs in the rough and tumble alleyways of NYC.

Listen: It Ain’t Hard To Tell

Sublime | Sublime
13) Sublime | Sublime (1996) – Sublime frontman Bradley Nowell could rap with the best MCs, scream hardcore, sing in a soul-tinged rasp, and lay down some serious reggae. His freakish talent is all over Sublime, an album that bobs and weaves from punk to ska to rap and back, traces the branches of Nowell’s messed up life, and sounds joyously obnoxious the whole way. Nowell died from a heroin overdose in May of 1996, at age 26 – just before this star-making turn was released.

Listen: What I Got

Beck | Mutations
12) Beck | Mutations (1998) – Odelay would be the pick for many, and it’s a fine album, but this is the one that I keep coming back to. Mutations created a mood that Beck hasn’t reached since – boredom, sadness, and wonder, blended over a bed of psychedelic sounds, electronic whizzes and whirs, and simple acoustic guitar. From ‘Cold Brains’ to ‘Lazy Flies’ to ‘Dead Melodies’ the song titles themselves speak to the ennui within, but this music sounds better with each passing year.

Listen: Nobody’s Fault But My Own

Los Lobos | Kiko
11) Los Lobos | Kiko (1992) – Labeling this a ‘roots-rock album’ is like calling Diego Rivera’s art a mural – it’s true enough, but only hints at the depth of the artistic palette that’s involved. From South African Mbaqanga to New Orleans marches to angelic harp and beyond, the varying sounds and styles included here make this a veritable concept album about rural music. But Kiko plays like a latino version of Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life – its reach is ambitious but its ruminations on life fit together into a satisfying, cohesive whole. The music here has aged extremely well, and its melancholy air is mixed with enough loose joy to make it an album worth discovering over and over again.

Listen: Kiko And The Lavender Moon

DJ Shadow | Endtroducing...
10) DJ Shadow | Endtroducing… (1996) – Created from samples culled from hundreds of forgotten albums that Shadow found in the basement of a Davis, CA record store, Endtroducing… is like no other album made before or since. The original release of this album had a sticker on the shrink rap that compared Josh Davis (aka DJ Shadow) to Jimmy Page, and my first reaction that was a big fat BULLSHIT. I spun this album a time or two, and then put it away to gather dust. But a funny thing happened on the way to the vinyl slaughterhouse: I watched the documentary Scratch, and gained a new appreciation for where this was coming from, and each subsequent spin revealed a little more of its brilliance, until it’s become an album I can’t imagine living without. Like Star Trek and Star Wars, Entroducing… charts the waters of a cooler parallel universe, one where beats reign supreme, and no album stays forgotten.

Listen: Building Steam With A Grain Of Salt

Pearl Jam | Ten
9) Pearl Jam | Ten (1991) – During the course of researching this list, I was astounded to find plenty of Best Of The 90’s lists that dismissed Pearl Jam’s Ten out of hand, claiming it unworthy of discussion. I understand some of the reservations with this album – Eddie Vedder’s over-emotive vocal style here tends to grate after a few songs, and many of the tracks, including ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Black’ feel almost comically serious. But this album also has plenty of great moments, including the anthemic ‘Alive’ and hard grooving ‘Even Flow’. Like Little Richard, Sgt Pepper, and Led Zeppelin, Pearl Jam so perfectly captured the essence of an era on their debut album, that even at its corniest, it’s still undeniably worthwhile.

Listen: Alive

Jeff Buckley | Grace
8) Jeff Buckley | Grace (1994) – On Grace, Jeff Buckley sings like a fallen angel, drawing notes out to excruciatingly fantastic lengths and ranging between highs and lows in the blink of an eye. Each track cuts to the quick about love lost (including the definitive reading of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’) and the entire album is nothing less than the sound of a human heart falling to pieces, one fragile, intricate piece at a time. “This is our last embrace. Must I dream and always see your face?” he sings, like a man who knows bloody goodbyes.

Buckley drowned in the Mississippi River the day before he was due to begin recording his second album. His untimely death at age 30 left us with only Grace, and ensured that his legacy would forever be tied to this one majestic, breathtaking, and tear-stained album.

Listen: Hallelujah

The Black Crowes | The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion
7) The Black Crowes | The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion (1992) – The cover of The Black Crowes’ second album features the band in an auto junkyard, among twisted heaps of metal, and that’s a pretty astute metaphor for the state of Southern Rock at the outset of the 90’s. Unless .38 Special was your cup of tea, you had to go back nearly 20 years to Lynyrd Skynyrd to find a true Southern Rock band at the time the Crowes blasted onto the scene. Their debut went multi-platinum, but The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion is their masterpiece, featuring ragged rockers, smokey blues rock, world weary ballads, and a sweet Bob Marley cover. It’s the sound of a band exhausted from both the pursuit of stardom and single-handedly resuscitating a long dead genre.

Listen: Remedy

Bob Dylan | Time Out Of Mind
6) Bob Dylan | Time Out Of Mind (1997) – This one felt like Moses coming down from the mountain. Dylan is and will always be artistically relevant to anyone who’s serious about music, but until Time Out Of Mind, he hadn’t released an album of new material for his second generation of fans. Dylan sounds every bit the dusty prophet here, riding in from the desert on songs like the indifferent ‘Love Sick’ (later used in a Victoria’s Secret ad) and the forlorn ‘Standing In The Doorway’ – songs that were as good as anything he’d done in his previous artistic lives, and sounded better than any Dylan fan could possibly have expected in 1997. This album might lack the wit and fire of Highway 61 Revisited or the pure autobiographical power of Blood On The Tracks, but it was a staggering artistic statement from a musician who continues to evolve and confound his critics and fans alike.

Listen: Love Sick

Soundgarden | Superunknown
5) Soundgarden | Superunknown (1994) – One of the great albums of the 90’s, Superunknown is a sonic masterpiece that transcended the toe-tag ‘grunge’ and heralded the arrival of Soundgarden as a serious musical force. Here they married the sludge of Black Sabbath to the craftsmanship of The Beatles, creating an album that topped the charts, sold more than 3 million copies, and earned the group a pair of Grammys. Few could have guessed that they would release only one more album (1996’s Down On The Upside) and then pack it in, just as they were achieving greatness.

Many bands have used the inner combustion of competing artistic ideas to create beautiful music, and the Lennon/McCartney roles were played here by lead singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil. Cornell is an avowed Beatles and Jeff Buckley fan, while Thayil prefers the heavier sounds of Sabbath and their metal offspring. Much of Soundgarden’s earlier music is so dominated by the pulverizing, heavy riffs from Thayil’s guitar that ‘Slaves And Bulldozers’ could have been the name of almost every one of their songs. A tune like ‘Black Hole Sun’ – drenched as it is in psychedelic signifiers – simply wouldn’t have had a place on any of their first three albums. But with Superunknown, the group figured out how to balance their differing musical visions, before the friction finally tore them apart.

Listen: Black Hole Sun

Nirvana | Nevermind
4) Nirvana | Nevermind (1991) – For better or worse, Nevermind made alternative rock a viable commercial commodity. But the reason this album rates so high is down to the music. Forget ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – although it remains a wickedly effective anthem for Gen X – the rest of the songs here shine like intricately cut jewels. ‘Come As You Are’, ‘In Bloom’ and ‘Something In The Way’ were dark and deeply indebted to punk, but these were well-written, finely-honed tunes that betrayed Kurt Cobain’s love of The Beatles in general and John Lennon in particular. Cobain’s songwriting chops have been buried beneath an avalanche of hype and myth, but his songs connected to a generation of fans not because of the concomitant headlines, but because they were honest – and sometimes painful and loud – examinations of a soul at odds with itself. Like its namesake, the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, the true brilliance of Nirvana’s second album remains obscured behind a barrage of adjectives.

Listen: Come As You Are

U2 | Achtung Baby
3) U2 | Achtung Baby (1991) – With the release of the 1987 blockbuster The Joshua Tree, U2 became international superstars of the first order. That album found its groove in the highways and bi-ways of America, but with their 1991 follow up (forget Rattle & Hum, it was essentially Joshua Tree 2.0) Achtung Baby, the group left America far behind and made an album that was rooted in Middle Eastern mysticism and filled with mediations on love gone wrong. The Edge’s guitar still rings out, but here it’s joined with electronic beats and sludgy effects.

But the key difference is lead singer Bono, who had matured from a two-tone, new wave belter on Boy and War to a supple, nuanced singer who caressed his vocals like a long lost lover. He has referred to this album as “”four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” but by reinventing their sound U2 only enhanced their standing in the world of music. Achtung Baby spent just one week at the top of the Billboard charts, but it contained five hit singles and went on to sell more than 18,000,000 copies. It was also the last time U2 reached the top of the mountain artistically.

Listen: Mysterious Ways

Johnny Cash | American Recordings
2) Johnny Cash | American Recordings (1994) – Before this album, Johnny Cash was a has-been, a man from another era who hadn’t had a record contract in years. But producer Rick Rubin had a plan for Cash, and the stark simplicity of Rubin’s production – just Cash, a guitar, and a mic – was brilliant, and miraculously restored Cash to his rightful place as one of the most powerful singers in music. American Recordings contains a variety of material. Cash re-imagines two songs he’d recorded in the 60’s, including a haunting ‘Delia’s Gone’ that blows the doors off his original. It had a few well-chosen covers, including Nick Lowe’s ‘The Beast In Me’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’. And he nailed a couple of songs written specifically for him – Glenn Danzig’s ‘Thirteen’ and Tom Waits’ ‘Down There By The Train’. Cash was alternately a killer, a cowboy, a drunk, a preacher, a wife-beater, a comedian. Throughout the album he used his granite voice to make each song his own – a spellbinding performance that earned him a new generation of fans.

Listen: Delia’s Gone

Radiohead | OK Computer
1) Radiohead | OK Computer (1997) – In the mid-90’s, aliens touched down near Oxford, England, and – displeased with the ascendence of grunge music – brainwashed the band Radiohead so that within a few years the group would recreate the symphonies of the universe, as channeled through the motion and humdrum of life on earth.

How else to explain OK Computer? This 1997 album was so out of its time and ahead of the curve that it was often referred to as the Dark Side Of The Moon for the 90’s, and in its haunting exploration of the human condition, that’s exactly what it was. But comparing Radiohead to anyone – even Pink Floyd – is a disservice to a band that embraced the possibilities of electronic, computer-enhanced sounds at a time when every other band on the planet was trying to sound like Black Sabbath Jr.

Symphonic and elegant yet paranoid and claustrophobic, the tunes on OK Computer interlock to form a picture of a world at odds with itself and the technology driving it. Radiohead understood what Aldous Huxley was getting at when he wrote that civilization is sterilization, and the music here sees the cold edge of reason triumph over emotion time and again. ‘The Tourist’ sonically recreates the feeling of seconds-lasting-minutes that occurs just before an automobile crash, and serves as the 21st century answer to The Beatles’ ‘A Day In The Life’. ‘Karma Police’ burrows deep inside the beauty of a world gone mad at itself. ‘Paranoid Android’ updates a British nursery rhyme, and sounds like the alienation that comes with too much technology and not enough time.

Thom Yorke sings throughout like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, his falsetto stretching a reedy, membrane-thin wall between sanity and madness. His vocals are generally buried beneath the murk and burble of electronic tape-loop noise and Jonny Greenwood’s itchy guitars. The compositions come off as a mad grafting of Kraftwerk and The Beatles, as the brilliance of the arrangements vie against the detached mood of the lyrics and music.

In the same way that Nirvana’s Nevermind changed music in the first half of the 1990’s, OK Computer had an instant and noticeable influence on the way albums were constructed – an influence that continues to the present. And somewhere far, far away, the aliens are extremely pleased…

Listen: Karma Police


25 (or so) more that merit a spin…

A Tribe Called Quest | The Low End Theory
Rage Against The Machine | Evil Empire
Ice Cube | The Predator
Steve Earle | El Corazon
Primus | Sailing The Seas Of Cheese
Queens Of The Stone Age | Queens Of The Stone Age
Beta Band | The 3 EPs
Red Hot Chili Peppers | Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Tool | Undertow
Temple Of The Dog | Temple Of The Dog
Snoop Doggy Dogg | Doggystyle
Alice In Chains | Dirt
Various Artists | Singles Soundtrack
Public Enemy | Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black
G. Love & Special Sauce | G. Love & Special Sauce
Wilco | Summer Teeth
Liz Phair | Exile In Guyville
Neutral Milk Hotel | In The Aeroplane Over The Sea
Outkast | Aquemini
Jane’s Addiction | Ritual de lo Habitulo
Dr. Dre | The Chronic
Metallica | Metallica
Slint | Tweez
Radiohead | The Bends
Beck | Odelay
Black Crowes | Amorica
Massive Attack | Blue Lines
Soundgarden | Badmotorfinger

Doubleshot Tuesday: Apple/Temple Of The Dog

16 June 2009

[Today: The Archduke of grunge…]

Mother Love Bone | Apple
Temple Of The Dog | Temple Of The Dog

The 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand Karl Ludwig Joseph, heir to the Austrian throne, was a seemingly minor event that ended up leading to World War I. Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood was rock-n-roll’s version of Archduke Ferdinand. His heroin overdose on March 19th, 1990 didn’t cause even a slight ripple in the national music press, but it was the singular event that led to the popular explosion of grunge.

Wood’s roommate was Soundgarden lead singer Chris Cornell, who began writing songs dedicated to his deceased friend as part of his grieving process. When he began recording those songs, he recruited ex-Mother Love Bone guitarists Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard to play with him, along with a singer and guitarist – Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready – that Ament and Gossard had started playing with in the wake of Wood’s death. Cornell also included Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron, who currently sits behind the kit for Pearl Jam, the group that Ament, Gossard, McCready and Vedder formed shortly after they played on Temple Of The Dog.

Vedder’s husky voice and daring stage antics helped bring grunge to an international audience, and it’s impossible to see the Seattle scene going nuclear without his presence. But if Andrew Wood hadn’t died in the spring of 1990, Ament and Gossard wouldn’t have been looking for a new lead singer, and Eddie Vedder might still be catching waves on his surf board in San Diego and working at the local Kinko’s. By all accounts Wood was a magnetic lead singer and engaging live performer, but Mother Love Bone’s version of hard rock leaned towards the hair metal of the 80’s, with a heaping helping of Glam Rock thrown in for good measure. In other words, it sounded little like the punchy, intense music that came to be known as grunge, and an awful lot like the 80’s hair metal that grunge was constantly contrasted with.

Temple Of The Dog however, was a harbinger of what was coming from Seattle. It preceded Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger, and its best moments – including ‘Reach Down’ and ‘Pushin’ Forward Back’ – are as good as anything from those more celebrated albums. Cornell’s grief is painted all over lines like “I never wanted to write these words down for you/With the pages of phrases of the things we’ll never do” and it’s impossible to miss the sadness and sense of loss that comes from this album’s foundation in death. But if you listen close, you can hear the birth of something big as well.

Listen: Crown Of Thorns [Mother Love Bone]

Listen: Pushin’ Forward Back [Temple Of The Dog]

Listen: Stardog Champion [Mother Love Bone]

Listen: Reach Down [Temple Of The Dog]

Happy 20th Sub Pop!

11 July 2008

Birthday wishes are in order for the venerable indie label Sub Pop. Formed by Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt on July 11th, 1988 (duh), Sub Pop came to prominence with the rise of grunge in the early 90’s. And the ties to grunge run deep in the company: Soundgarden guitarist Kim Thayil was actually responsible for introducing Poneman and Pavitt, and the label released Nirvana’s first full length album, as well as Mudhoney’s debut.

And while it’s tempting to say “thanks for the grunge” and move on, a closer look at the label’s catalogue reveals an eclectic offering of fine bands. Here’s a gallery of a half dozen of our favorite Sub Pop releases (and by the way, thanks for the grunge!):

Nirvana - Bleach
Nirvana | Bleach

Iron & Wine - Album
Iron & Wine | The Shepherd’s Dog

Soundgarden | Screaming Life/Fopp

Flight Of The Conchords | Flight Of The Conchords

Radio Birdman | The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)

Sleater-Kinney | The Woods

[The Fleet Foxes album – also on Sub Pop – is supposed to be amazing, but we haven’t heard it yet. However, it’s worth mentioning because it has received so many glowing recommendations]

Masterpiece: Superunknown

4 March 2008

[Today: Soundgarden’s fourth album is one of the best of the 90’s…]


One of the great albums of the 90’s, Superunknown is a sonic masterpiece that transcended the toe-tag ‘grunge’ and heralded the arrival of Soundgarden as a serious musical force. Here they married the sludge of Black Sabbath to the craftsmanship of The Beatles, creating an album that topped the charts, sold more than 3 million copies, and earned the group a pair of Grammys. Few could have guessed that they would release only one more album (1996’s Down On The Upside) and then pack it in, just as they were achieving greatness.

Many bands have used the inner combustion of competing artistic ideas to create beautiful music, and the Lennon/McCartney roles were played here by lead singer Chris Cornell and guitarist Kim Thayil. Cornell is an avowed Beatles and Jeff Buckley fan, while Thayil prefers the heavier sounds of Sabbath and their metal offspring. Much of Soundgarden’s earlier music is so dominated by the pulverizing, heavy riffs from Thayil’s guitar that ‘Slaves And Bulldozers’ could have been the name of almost every one of their songs. A tune like ‘Black Hole Sun’ – drenched as it is in psychedelic signifiers – simply wouldn’t have had a place on any of their first three albums. But with Superunknown, the group figured out how to balance their differing musical visions, before the friction finally tore them apart.

One of my personal all-time favorites, Superunknown is inextricably linked to my 20’s, when I lived in an amazing apartment on Nob Hill in San Francisco. Side four of the clear vinyl double-LP was played countless thousands of times in that apartment, and it sounded great on every single spin. Along with Kurt Cobain’s death, the sudden demise of Soundgarden was one of the most surprising and sad musical developments of my adult life. When I think of Chris Cornell covering Michael Jackson songs and making albums that sound like a bad Jeff Buckley impersonator, while Kim Thayill sits somewhere idling the time away with a dusty guitar in his hands, it makes me want to curl up in the fetal position and cry myself to sleep.

Listen: Black Hole Sun


Past Masters…

Led Zeppelin * Physical Graffiti [16 APR 07]

The Beatles * Abbey Road [24 JUL 07]

In A Metal Mood: A Dozen Albums That Will Melt Your Face

15 October 2007

It’s Sunday night, just after midnight, which seems like the perfect time to run down a dozen albums that rock hard. By no means definitive, and with respects to Umlaut, here’s a short list of albums that make me sprout horns:

Slayer * Diabolus In Musica [1998] Many prefer Reign In Blood, but Diabolus… gets the nod here. After a pretty sludgy couple of minutes, this turns into a brutal bludgeoning that doesn’t let up for four delicious, blood-spattered sides of vinyl.

Metallica * Ride The Lightning [1984] This makes the list on the strength of ‘Trapped Under Ice’ – a four-minute epic that recreates the claustrophobic hell of drowning under a solid sheet of ice. On a personal side note, I had a bad college roommate who liked to crank this song up while driving recklessly through Eugene after several drinks – which for some reason racheted up the intensity of the song for me. It’s an album that reminds me of death on several levels…

Black Sabbath * Sabbath Bloody Sabbath [1973] Ozzy and the lads generally get a bad rap about their dark lyrics, but on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath they truly embraced the dark side. From the artwork – depicting a couple awash in a bed full of blood – to Tommy Iommi’s more-sinister-than-usual riffs, this is a dark vision by a band higher on much more than just life.

Judas Priest * British Steel [1980] Not only does it sport one of the most iconic sleeve designs in the history of music (it was used in an Absolut campaign a few years back), but the songs hold up as well. ‘Breaking The Law’ was practically Beavis & Butthead’s mission statement, and there are plenty of other gems here, including ‘Rapid Fire’ and ‘Metal Gods’.

Motorhead * Ace Of Spades [1980] Everything louder than everyone else, indeed. Motorhead is the aural equivalent of being cornered in a dark alley by an bloodthirsty gang of psycho bikers. While a lot of metal has a sense of pretension and theater about it, one listen to the title track of this album ensures you’ll understand that these guys are not screwing around.

Soundgarden * Badmotorfinger [1991] While Nirvana often gets the credit for blowing the lid off of hair metal, this album was the true death knell for that sub-genre. It’s hard to overstate how suprisingly delightful it was to find a hard rock album that didn’t feature a single ballad! It’s also worth noting that the bonus ep that was included with this album for a time is worth seeking out – if only for their classic re-reading of Black Sabbath’s ‘Into The Void’.

Rammstein * Sehnsucht [1997] I saw these guys at the dearly departed Maritime Hall while they were supporting this album, and that show featured more fire and pyrotechnics than all the other shows I’d seen put together. I was in the back of the Maritime (near the bar) and the blasts of heat from the stage felt like they were singeing my eyebrows. Perhaps it is over the top German metal-opera, but it’s good schtuff.

Tool * Lateralus [2001] Released four months before the 2001 World Trade Center bombings, this album played out like a prophetic – if somewhat muddled – take on that catacalysmic event. With song lyrics about cornerstones giving way (‘The Grudge’), burn victims (‘The Patient’), death (‘Parablola’), and government secrets (‘Fiapp De Oiad’), it’s a truly unsettling listen for anyone who still remembers that day well.

Front 242 * Tyranny (For You) [1991] Riddled with menace and unbridled anger, Tyranny (For You) has the backbone of a hyperkinetic electronica album, but its volume, pace, and intent-for-harm clearly mark this as a hardcore metal album of the first order.

Body Count * Cop Killer [1992] The controversy-baiting lyrics of the title track notwithstanding, this is relentless metal wrapped in the skin of a gangsta rap album. Lead guitarist Ernie C. shreds throughout, and Ice T rants like a hip-hop Henry Rollins. Those who would argue that this isn’t metal are merely color blind.

Motley Crue * Shout At The Devil [1983] Scribe Chuck Klosterman describes Shout At The Devil as the greatest concept album of all-time, and claims that it “took on a conceptual quality that Yes would have castrated themselves to achieve.” I’m not entirely sure about that, but the songs here prove that before they became a parody of themselves in the late 80’s, Motley Crue could rock with the best of them.

White Zombie * Supersexy Swingin’ Sounds [1996] This collection gathers remixes from White Zombie’s first two albums, and in every case the songs here are faster, louder, and more sinister than the original versions. I was listening to this album in the office one day way back when, and a female producer happened to walk by and overhear some of these tunes. She was so put off by the experience that she claimed she needed to take a shower to remove the aural grime from her psyche. Now that’s my kind of album…


Here’s another metal list.