12.18.2008

Waxed: Drive-By Truckers' The Dirty South


As a friend of mine recently said, "Drive-By Truckers, where have you been all my life?" Such is expected, though, when one first hears the opening stomp of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," the opening track from the Trucker's classic album The Dirty South. Except it doesn't stop there - that's just the hook to draw you in.

In 2004-2005 (memory is a little hazy as to the exact date), when I was engrossed in the wonderful Alt-Country (whatever that is) magazine No Depression, I kept hearing about this band called the Drive-By Truckers. I think I read a live concert review of one of the band's shows, or maybe a record review. I wanted to check it out, but didn't really want to make a blind purchase at the time - as all my friends can attest to, if I don't want to listen to something new, it ain't gonna happen. So, I did the next best thing to taking a chance on it - I convinced a friend to buy it.

There in the parking lot of the Shelbyville Wal-Mart, my friend (and, oddly and presciently enough, pastor) Andy popped the CD into his DiscMan (with the whole jury-rigged tape device to listen to CDs) and the opening notes of "Where The Devil Don't Stay" kicked up. Then the slide guitar hit. And then... by the end of the second track, "Tornadoes," I knew I had made a mistake. I should've bought that CD, not Andrew. I didn't let the mistake linger. I had my own copy of the record within a week. Such is the nature of The Dirty South.

Full of "y'alls" and out of tune and sometimes tuneless vocals, some out of tune instruments, with bad grammer, and fairly schizophrenic - except for the overall arching darkness that shrouds the record - The Dirty South is not a summer drive record, or a pleasant, warm winter listen. No, it is Southern Gothic Darkness personified by a band of vagrants tough enough to turn goat piss into gasoline, and just as caustic. Imagine, if you can, the best southern rock band meeting the tunesmith abilities of the great '70's songwriters. Kind of like a plane wreck/motorcycle accident between Skynyrd and the Allmans, but only if Billy Joel and Elton John were on the plane and James Taylor was on the back of the bike... and Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee, and The Man In Black were all standing on the crossroads of the devil, right there where the accident happened.

You can attribute that notion to the strength of not one, not two, but three ace songwriters/singers/guitarists/multi-instrumentalists - Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley, the founders of the band, and relative newcomer Jason Isbell. Isbell made his debut on the band's previous album, Decoration Day, and made his departure on the album preceeding this one, A Blessing And A Curse. I am sure there are many who would argue the point with me, but this is the period of the band that I like to refer to as "Classic Truckers."

It is precisely because of that bevy of songwriting talent that this is my favorite DBT's album. While the Truckers have always been Patterson Hood's primary vehicle, the addition of Isbell and the emergence of Cooley makes this record one tough cookie, with nary a bad song or even a well-meaning dud in sight. In fact, I could probably write an entry on each song - it's that damn good. As I don't have that kind of time or patience, and likely as you probably aren't that interested, I'll stick to just one long-ass review, and the best of the best songs on the album.

"The only blood that's any cleaner/ is the blood that's blue or greener/ without either you just get meaner/ and the blood you gave gives you away." This stanza ends the last verse of "Where The Devil Don't Stay," an opening salvo of a song that both long-time Trucker fans and newcomers should instantly love. Cooley's voice and lyrics rip through this swamp-stomp of a rocker, with Isbell's slide guitar eating up line after nasty line, propelling this dark prohibition story from the soul to the grave to Hell itself. There is no quite easy way to describe this song. It was the first I ever heard, and to be honest, it took a long time to adjust to the fact that not every song the DBT's write and play sounds like this. There's not anything like this tune. It screams, kicks, hollers, pulls, tugs, fights for every inch, and pulls you down with it, laughing as you choke on the duality of the hard life of the south.

Still, even after such a dramatic opener, nothing quite prepares you for the beauty, grace, and power of "Tornadoes," Hood's first track on the album. Chorusy acoustic guitars, echoing piano chords, reverb-drench slide guitar, and Hood's "lower-register" voice all adding atmosphere that builds until the bridge. You might think this is where all hell breaks loose, but you'd be wrong. For those who have ever been in a tornado, you'll always remember that eerie half-silence, half buzz that comes right before it hits. Somehow, the DBT's manage to capture that sound on record perfectly. Buzzing piano, eerie guitar, distant vocals ("pieces of that truckstop littered the highway, I've been told/ and I hear that missing trucker ended up in Kansas/ or maybe it was Oz) ... it's perfect, absolutely strange and enough to make your hair stand up. "I can still remember the sound of their applause in the rain," Hood sings as his band plays an outdoor concert in their hometown. "As it echoed through them storm clouds, I swear it sounded like a train."

The expert story telling continues on Isbell's first tune on the album, "The Day John Henry Died," and goes on through Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon" and Cooley's "Carl Perkins' Cadillac," the band navigating hard southern rock and low-key swampy dirge with equal grace and power. "The Sands of Iwo Jima" finds Hood spinning yet another spellbinding tale of the south, this one about a family man war veteran, who could afford a new car but always drove what was available, and still believed in God and Country, because "things was just that way." The off-kilter banjo and churning guitars lend this back porch tale a serene, reverent beauty, and it's the type of tale that Hood tells best.



Jason Isbell follows up Hood's acoustic tale with one of his own, the lullaby-like "Danko/Manuel." The gently loping drums and softly played acoustic guitar complement Isbell's tired drawl as he sings, "I ain't living like I should." The repetiveness of the song is one of its best assets, drawing you in and holding you while it tells its tale, like being held by a grandmother in a rocking chair. The subtle electric guitars and gentle horns punch up the chorus just enough. "First they make you out to be/ the only pirate on the sea/ they say Danko would've sound just like me/ is that the man I wanna be?" Isbell sings with quiet passion, and continues to draw you down into the dark southern soul of this record. Even the solo section, with it's twangy steels, echoy electrics and chiming keyboards, adds to this twisted lullaby. "Can you hear that singing, sounds like gold/ maybe I can hear poor Richard from the grave/ singing where to reap and where to sow/ when you've found another home you have to leave/ something else you can't believe."

Hood speak-sings his way through "The Boys From Alabama," a late blooming rocker that ups the ante as the Truckers introduce a small tryptich of songs concerning Alabama Sheriff Buford Pusser and his efforts to clean up a dry county. Cooley steals the show here, though, with "Cottonseed," a deceptively simple, calm song with lyrics as deep as a mile wide ditch and as dark as the stories preachers use to scare children straight. Told from the perspective of a criminal that the system just can't beat and keep locked away, Cooley sings "They say every sin is deadly but I believe they may be wrong/ I'm guilty of all seven and I don't feel too bad at all." The impact of this song can't be measured without listening to it. A scathing reprisal of law and church and champions the criminal's way. "I used to have a wad of hundred dollar bills in the back pocket of my suit/I had a .45 underneath my coat and another one in my boat/ I drove a big ol' Cadillac, bought a new one anytime I pleased/ and I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed." This is real true blue outlaw stuff, the kinds dark western legends and ancient religious tales are made from. Hood follows it up with the powerful "The Buford Stick," a song whose grindy guitars kick the band into full ass-kicking mode.

"Daddy's Cup" is Cooley's tale of racing, in a southern man's blood, and is followed by "Never Gonna Change," a rocker by Isbell that feels like a straight kick to the gut for anyone putting the southern man down, and "Lookout Mountain," which contains the most monster guitar riff on the album, sounding like some kind of monstrous combo of Metallica, pure electric blues, and Skynyrd. It also features some of the tastiest guitar licks on an album full of them.

But it's Jason Isbell's "Goddamn Lonely Love" that closes the album, and closes it so well. The lyrics, melody, and damn-near everything else about the song aches with broken beauty, from the warbling intro to the last notes. "I've got green and I've got blues/ and every day there's a little less different between the two," Isbell sings. "I belly up and disappear/ well I ain't really drowning 'cause I see the beach from here." He continues, " I could take a Greyhound home/ and when I got there it'd be gone/ along with everything a home is made up of/ so I'll take two of what you're having/ and I'll take all of what you got/ to kill this goddamn lonely, goddamn lonely love." This sad lament is somehow classic Truckers, and Classic Country all at once. It's visceral, dark, and hard, while being so descriptive you can feel the words as much as see them. Passionate sex is followed by bad regrets and hard drinking. It's a tale of loss and brokeness anyone can relate to, and Isbell delivers it with such passion and gravity that you'll likely be left with a bit of a broken heart yourself.



While I haven't explore later era Truckers as much as I should, and haven't touched early releases like Pizza Deliverance, I think I can still say that, so far, The Dirty South stands as an incredible band's best album. And, at the risk of starting arguments, I wonder if the band will ever get this level of greatness back with Jason Isbell. By now you've probably figured I am an Isbell fan, and you'd be correct. I was and am enthralled with his first solo album, Sirens Of The Ditch, an eclectic rock tour-de-force with nary a bad tune to be found. Still, the promise of Hood, Cooley and Isbell together is what made The Dirty South so amazing, so deep and so dark and visceral and emotional.

For the uninitiated, do yourself a favor, and stop by your favorite local record store and pick up a copy of The Dirty South, and drown your worries in the dark and lonely tales of the broken South. Just be sure thank me later, and don't forget who your friends really are.

12.16.2008

Waxed: Ryan Adams + The Cardinals' Cardinology


Every once in a while, you'll come across an album that grabs you - not completely, but just enough to tug on you, bring you back, and keep you coming back until it grows on you. These are the albums you learn to love - not immediate successes per se, but the type of albums you want with you on a cold lonely night or a sunny summer drive with the top down.

When your name is Ryan Adams, you aren't afforded much leeway. Your albums are expected to showers, not growers, so to speak. Your career has been littered with hits and misses. Some folks call you a genius, some an idiot, and most a copy-cat artist, a musical con man. With each album you put out, you confuse and delight and annoy and exalt, all at once and all the time. But, for those of us who love you (yes, I love me some Ryan Adams), we love you precisely because you're a nut job, a delightful temper-tantrum tornado that spins out blissfully sounding melodies and heart-wrenching lyrics as often as you spew foul-mouth tirades and (not quite so often) ordinary sounding tunes that are too basic to be memorable.

Cardinology, Adams' latest effort with his superb backing band the Cardinals, is a grower, not a shower. The record does start with an attention grabber, with the hard acoustic riff of "Born into a Light" reaching right out of the speakers and pulling the listener's ear close, and harkening to a return of the excellent sound Adams and crew mined on Cold Roses. But be careful - the song and all it's wonderful steel guitar, driving acoustics, and lazy-casual vocals goes by fast, maybe too fast. "We were born into a light," Adams sings, and this birth is a quick one.

"Go Easy" is pleasant enough, but every time I hear it, I expect to hear "Halloweenhead" from Adams' last record, Easy Tiger. Something about the chords reminds me of that latter song, but the tune is quite listenable regardless of what it calls to mind (again, for a reason I can't explain, the song also reminds of the Eagles, and part of me hopes that they would cover it. Such hopes are baseless and retarded, but hey, it's fun to dream). The song ends with Adams singing, "you gotta go, you gotta go now" repeatedly, and ends almost as quickly as the first track. In fact, the first four songs, and six of the album's twelve, clock in under three minutes.

"Fix It" slides in and continues the Cold Roses vibe, but with a distinct Neil Young feel, complete with ragged chopping guitar and slightly accusatory, revealing lyrics. The albums first real departure from the collective vibe comes next in "Magick," which is... simply bad-ass. Any song about a record just gets my blood going. The Cardinals doing a phenominal job of capturing the nasty sound of Rock N Roll-era Adams. Lyrically, Adams follows suit: "Everything you touch burns, scorched earth," sounds like a perfect line from that garage rock record.

I originally thought that "Cobwebs" was the song that held this release back from being a Shower - the song at first sounds a bit too bland. Even though it reminds me a my favorite Adams album - Love Is Hell - it just seemed... amateur. For Ryan Adams, anyway. But the song is sticky, and gets better with time, especially when you give it a spin listening to headphones. It's not perfect - Adams wailing at the end of the track doesn't really do anything positive for me, and kind of makes me long for the beginning of the song - but it is full of little ear candy, a guitar or steel guitar lick hidden here and there for your listening pleasure.

"Let Us Down Easy" is quintessential Adams and The Cardinals, if such a thing exists, all laziness and melody and a few stretches that keep it from being too samey. But "Crossed Out Name" really jumps out, starting with just Ryan's voice and a dual chugging acoustic guitars. "When I close my eyes, I feel like a page with a crossed out name," he sings, as piano chords fall in. "I wish I could tell you just how I am hurt," and the hits keep on coming. This song is fantastic - all mood and melody, heart on sleeve, scalpel in one hand and guitar pic in the other. It's an instant Adams classic.

The Cold Roses feel continues (which I consider a good thing) on "Natural Ghost," which features a great groove. It's also not the first song where Adams' voice brings to mind Willie Nelson, certainly in tone if not in phrasing (Willie is the coolest jazz cat around who isn't really a jazz cat, after all, and his odd ways of lyrical phrasing are totally unique and pretty hard to cop. the southern wispy drawl, however, lends itself well here to borrowing). The band then settles gently into the groovy "Sink Ships." You might wonder if Ryan is really saying anything here, other than his usual territory of love and growing up and living as a musical genius and misunderstood poet (because, you know, that is so hard), and to be honest, I am not sure he is. Lyrically, the album sounds pleasant without being too confrontational or too thought-provoking - there's enough buzz phrases ("the war is over") to keep it interesting, and the occasional triumph like "Crossed Out Name," but for the most part this is standard fare. And that isn't always a bad thing, especially when it leaves plenty of room for the amazing musicianship of the Cardinals, which is a very good thing.

"Evergreen lopes around at a nice, lazy country-jazz pace, with echoy steel guitar and a few flourishes of honky tonk piano. The easy vibe continues on "Like Yesterday," which gets awfully close to swarmy tripe '70's pop, closer than Adams has come before, as he continues to push his vocals into flowery falsetto ranges - not his best work, for sure. But the song isn't so bad as to bring the album down.

Cardinology ends with the pretty "Stop," a song that starts with just Ryan, singing and playing piano. It sounds all wounded and vulnerable - the way the best Ryan Adams song do. When the cymbals slowly chiming in and the pianos slow, we get typical Adams' lyrics: "Slow down/ you don't have to talk/ lie down/ breathe/ stop/ slow down/ it's not your fault," and what seems pretty simple and basic usually ends up endearing in Adams' hands. Strings creep in and almost overwhelm the last verse and chorus. Is it pretensious? Of course, it's Ryan Adams, but as a whole, Cardinology avoids some of the worst trappings that Adams falls into while staying neatly nestled into the things he does best - namely, solid tunecraft with a little emotional vulnerability and very hummable hooks.

Cardinology probably isn't going to win Ryan Adams any new fans, and it might only give his old ones enough of a taste of his best work to satisfy them for only so long, but it isn't a bad record. I'm not sure it meets the grand expectations that come with any Adams release, but it's a likeable, pleasant listen, with a few grabbers, a few toe-tappers, and a dud or two. And really, that's ok. It's ok to be a grower, not a shower. After all, so many of us can relate.

Waxed: Hayes Carll's Trouble In Mind


Thank God for Hayes Carll.

From the opening violin run of “Drunken Poet’s Dream” to the last notes of the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year, “She Left Me For Jesus,” Hayes Carll’s new album Trouble In Mind is a refreshing gust of familiar wind in a current culture of tired retreads, pop country, and fly-by-night television reality show stars.

Carll keeps his tongue planted firmly in cheek on most of Trouble In Mind, his third album and first for Lost Highway. And while the record brings to mind obvious influences (Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, et al), Carll manages to make his songs his own – as well as a few covers, too.

While it was hard to miss “She Left Me For Jesus,” it’s the song that opens the album, “Drunken Poet’s Dream,” that may be the best treat. Amidst traditional country instrumentation and Nashville swing, Carll delivers the kind of wry wit that Texas singer-songwriters are known for. The expert musicianship of producer/instrumentalist Brad Jones and the assorted veteran players compliments Carll’s Texas drawl and well-crafted lyrics so well that nothing ever detracts from the whole, and on the first track, that allows Hayes devilish story to unfold with earnest humor and infections, catching energy. When he sings, “I’ve got a woman she’s wild as Rome/ She likes to lay naked and be gazed upon,” you can’t help but listen, watch in your mind’s eye, and smile. This is a return to the carousing country music your parents warned you about, far from the sugary-sweetness of Nashville’s pop music machine.

Carll wrote or co-wrote 12 of the 14 tracks on the album, and on first listen you’ll have to try hard to not grasp his natural talent for songwriting. Though Carll visits familiar themes like love lost and solace in good (or bad) liquor, he delivers lyrics with fresh new twists that keep the listener tuned in to hear what is coming next, be it heartbreak or humor.

Hayes picks excellent covers for Trouble, too; “Bad Liver And A Broken Heart” rocks like the best country rock, sounding like The Eagles, The Stones, and, well, Hayes Carll, all at once. You wouldn’t expect it to be a song penned by Scott Nolan if you weren’t familiar with that songwriter’s work, Carll so expertly makes it his own. It takes guts to cover Tom Waits, and much more than that to do that artist’s songs justice, but Carll and his wonderful backing band do just that on Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.”

This record stands as a testament to real Country music, real Rock and Roll… real American music. Much of that comes from the well-documented dues Carll paid playing and living hard for his music. Nowhere is that more apparently and more pleasantly portrayed, than in “I Got A Gig.” The autobiographical tune is filled with Carll’s enjoyable wit and humor, but also with a real grit that lends it the weight of truth. Once again, the expert cast of musicians makes the tune sound like old friends who’ve been on the road forever, playing their version of the blues behind old chicken wire.

The best thing about Trouble is how damned good it is – there’s nary a miscue to be found. This is music for music lovers, the kind of record that makes its way to your car stereo, home theater, or trusty iPod, and stays there for a while. It’s a record that sounds lived in, and is meant to be lived in.

Of course, I’d be remiss to not mention the reason you might have heard of Hayes Carll to begin with – “She Left Me For Jesus.”

To be honest, the first time I heard the song, I got a kick out of it but it didn’t really stick with me until I bought the record and discovered the rest of the excellent tunes (I am an admitted newcomer to Hayes Carll) and, more importantly, Hayes’ impeccable wit and knack with a song. What sounded like fun kitsch became so much more, simply because so many examples of Hayes humor and intelligent word craft are scattered throughout Trouble In Mind.

It’s a great song to end a great record, and truth be told, the lyrics are a perfect wink-wink that true music fans should get (and apparently did, as evident by the AMA’s Song of the Year award). “She’s givin’ up whiskey and taken up wine/ She prays for his troubles and forgot about mine,” Carll sings, “I’m a gonna get even, I can’t handle the shame/ Why the last time we made love, she even called out his name.”

The song moves through the story of lost love in the verses to the punch line choruses with equal aplomb, Hayes joyfully singing with mock sadness. “She left me for Jesus, and that just ain’t fair/ She says that he’s perfect, how could I compare/ She says I should find him, and I’ll know peace at last/ But if I ever find Jesus, I’m kickin’ his ass.” The song even ends with the Amen cadence, so commonly heard at the end of church hymns, but with the lyric sheet delivering yet one more sly wink, as Hayes and singing out, “Ahhh, man.” It’s one last perfect step, a look both forward and back, to close this excellent record.

As they say, though, the proof is in the puddin’, but you’d be hard pressed to find a better Americana record this year than Hayes Carll’s Trouble In Mind. Give it a listen, and I am sure you’ll be singing along with these hell raising tunes in no time.

12.04.2008

Under The Knife: Do You See The Way That Tree Bends?

Long time, no post... I know. I'm workin' on it all, so get off my back. Without further delay:

From the first opening notes, the chiming melody played on an electric guitar, there is a hint that "Present Tense" is going to be a very special song.

Before it, there weren't many songs in the Pearl Jam catalog that started with just one spare and lonely electric guitar, and one vocal melody. Two tracks, two sounds, alone in a room, communicating.

The song is so different from everything before it, just like the album it comes from, 1996's No Code. A break from the stylistic mode of '90's grunge and alternative rock that Pearl Jam helped create, No Code is a stunning departure for a band who, had they chosen to play the part scripted them, would be on top of the world. As it were, though, Eddie Vedder and company decided to pull back - sticking to their no vidoes policy, thus shunning MTV's massive publicity machine. They also became less and less accessible to the media, pretty much shutting out the press entirely. No marketing campaigns. No interviews. No videos. Just music.

Because of the intense celebrity media attention they received at the outset of the alternative revolution, which became even more intense when Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Pearl Jam became increasingly introspective with thier music, as well. Some would call them anit-social, and hellbent on committing career suicide. No one knew then what we know now - that they are the elder statesmen of rock, less a grunge or alternative band and more just an incredibly good and sincere rock band. The missing link between the massive media explosion after Ten and the current lean classic rock machine and stadium-dominating tour-happy Jam we see now, then, is undoubtedly No Code.

As you may have guessed, I could go on and on about the music contained on this album. It is such a wonderful collective piece of music, and is essential to the band's lengthy and decorated career, not only for being perceived as a giant letdown to record lables and media pundits (and for some fans), but also for stretching the band into new and uncharted realms (for them and their music), stretches that would ultimately to some of their later experimentation and some of their strongest songwriting ever. The good thing about No Code is that all the experiments work, and in and of themselves are incredible gifts of song.

And for me, the greatest of these is the song "Present Tense."

"Do you see the way that tree bends? Does it inspire? Leaning out to catch the suns rays... a lesson to be applied." Eddie starts by asking these simple questions and offering this wonderful, achingly honest observation - after a half decade of pressure and trying to flee fame, maybe it was better to be positive, thankful, better to reach out, be inspired? He ends the first verse, with Mike McCready's chiming, mellow, ethereal guitar stretching out behind the vocals, with another question. "Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?"

To a casual fan, this could just be an introspective mantra, and it is, but it's also so much more. This is a band wrestling with thier demons, their mercurial lead singer giving voice to frustration, disappointment, disillusionment. "You can spend your time alone, redigesting past regrets," Vedder sings in the chorus. "Or you can come to terms and realize you're the only one who cannot forgive yourself." The words are so effortless, so penetrating, both so personal and yet so universal. "Makes much more sense to live in the present tense."

I won't let, the song itself has been like a prayer for me, from the day I heard up until now, and I am sure, going forward. The words always seem to penetrating whatever I am going through. They are always meaningful, always relevant.

We're treated to a little more instrumentation in the second verse, as it builds with a beautiful acoustic guitar accompanyment. The words, again, are intoxicating in their beauty. The song sounds so much more like a conversation between close friends than just... lyrics.

" Have you ideas on how this life ends? Checked your hands and studied the lines. Have you the belief that the road ahead, ascends off into the light? Seems that needlessly it's getting harder too find an approach and a way to live. Are we getting something out of this all-encompassing trip?" This builds to another sparse chorus, this one more forceful, as drums creep in cymbal washes and the chiming guitar carries throughout the rest of the chorus. It's emotive and emotional. It just has the je ne sais quois. And that's all before...

The jam. One thing Pearl Jam has always done - Stone and Jeff were doing it back in their Mother Love Bone days, actually - is write incredible bridges and musical interludes. Often these are purely instrumental, and some close some of the best songs the band has written. "Present Tense" gets this magic-bridge treatment, and to wonderous effect. Out of the chorus, the band launches into one of their trademark grooves - heavy on the classic rock funk of the '70's. Vedder adds some chanting, but in this case it adds to the real treat - a monster jam thrown down by Jeff, Stone, Mike and the drummer Jack Irons. They ride a simple chord like a wave, and then let it crest, becoming bigger and bigger until it breaks.

The song ends like a wave breaking, crashing down into something beautiful, as the chiming guitar from the very first notes of the song returns, bringing with it its sweet melody. This time bass, drums, and another chiming guitar adding a strong, sweeping arppegiated counter-melody come along for the ride. Together the instruments lock up and ride the gentle drift back to shore, slowly fading out.

If that sounds a little melodramatic, as a description of a song, well, trust me, it isn't. The song is damn-near perfect, emotional and sweeping, epic by less-is-more, soaring in the way the Pearl Jam make a song do so well. Those familiar with the lost treasure "Hard To Imagine" might instantly see the connection between these two songs. Where "Hard To Imagine" wouldn't fit the stylistic tone of early Pearl Jam on Vs., here the band has created an album where "Perfect Tense" is the perfect fit, and an excellent way to sum up the entire No Code experience. For an album that was so named because it was "full of code," said Vedder, this song stands as a striking example to the tongues the band was speaking in, and the full effect they could have on a listener who really listened, who got involved with the music. The experience of hearing this song live only makes it that much sweeter. All the power and epic-quality of the tune is magnified in the live setting, McCready's excellent fret work and Vedder's soaring vocals taking the song, and fans, to another realm entirely.

And while No Code, and "Present Tense," may not make many critics "best of" lists, you'll find many a hardcore Pearl Jam fan that points to this album as the band's true Rosetta Stone. It holds the keys to understand their personalities, their struggles, their failures and their victories, their weaknesses and their strenghts, and most important of all, their humanity.

10.14.2008

Miller High Lite: It's a conspiracy by the Man?

Recently in a poll conducted by VIBE magazine, Eminem was voted the Best Rapper Alive beating out the likes of Jay-Z, Mos Def, and everyone who just got recognized on the Hip Hop Honors. Em not only won, but by a 61%-39% margin. It wasn't even close. Everything I read about it sounded as if people were stunned that this was the case. Not only that, but it really seemed to be racially motivated amazement. This poses a strange conundrum...can a white boy really hold this title?

The roots of rap music, or hip hop depending on what you want to call it, date pretty far back. Whether you're talking about the oral histories passed down from African tribe to tribe, or the social commentaries rhythmically spoken over back beats in the early 70s, hip hop has been predominately a way for African Americans to express themselves, pass down tradition, and empower their listeners and peers to make a difference. Groups like Public Enemy and KRS One called out to make changes in their communities and in the country as a whole. They spoke of the abilities everyone had to make a difference. It was also a way for these musicians to speak of the hardships that they faced growin up in a society that looked down upon them.

In the 80s a new message began to immerge. It was one of sex, violence, and drugs. The genre known as "Gangsta Rap" was born. Artists like NWA wrote about gang violence, abusing alcohol, and treating women as objects. Artists like 2 Live Crew took the later even further and rhymed almost entirely about promiscuity and sexual deviance. The messages had changed from empowerment to excess and glorifying a life of illegality.

The 90s than ushered in a time of straight decadence. Violence was replaced with money, money, and more money. It was all about living a lifestyle. More cars, more money, and more women. The one with the most toys ruled the roost. The issues discussed in the 70s and 80s were still around, just not nearly as visible in the forefront of the genre. Rap music changed and morphed and grew just like any other style.

So then, where does the white man fit into this music born of social exile and struggle. Historically the white man has always stolen from so-called "black music" to make themselves stars. Rock-n-Roll was amped up blues. The whole Elvis thing is an entire post of it's own, but it's a great example of that. The things is though, we're not stealing the music and making something different persay, we're just making the same kind of music. So the real question is, is it a mockery of what made Hip Hop so special to have white boys doing it?

Now over time there has definitely been attempts at rap music by white boys that have left much to be desired. The whole Vanilla Ice debacle really put a stain on the possibilities of white rappers. He was such a farce and really made it look like we were mocking the struggles of those who had paved the way for Hip Hop. There have been highlights though over the years that began to show a unity of races and a general acceptance of white man's involvement. Enter the "cross-over". The two biggest cross-overs being of course Anthrax/Public Enemy and Aerosmith/Run DMC. These musical ballets showed the correlation of Rock music and Rap music and showed the two could exist harmoniously together. The other big step into this realm was The Beasti Boys. Three jewish, white kids from New York who took their punk roots and slowly turned them into one of the biggest and most respected hip hop careers of all time. They set precedences for sampling with Paul's Boutique and just generally made some of the most inventive music to hit the scene.

So now what? Guys like Beastie Boys and House of Pain came along and said hey, we can do this too. The genre said, yes, you can. Now the door was open. Well, one of the things that happened was an eruption of what has generally referred to as Rip Rock, for lack of a better term. This is what artists like Limp Bizkit, Korn, 311, and Rage Against The Machine kind of fell into. It was again the mix of rock music with lyrics rapped over it. But yet again, this is a topic for a different post. The other thing that happened though was one of the most respected producers and MCs of our time, Dr. Dre, stumbled across this little white kid from Detroit by the name of Marshal. He fell in love and put his reputation on the line by saying this kid is the next big thing.

Was Em really that different from those who came before him though? Born into poverty, abused by his mother and his peers, struggled with drugs, and struggled with relationships. He found something he loved in Hip Hop and used it to release all his angst and emotions and did so with much more intellect and speed than a lot of those making millions doing the same thing. He was innovative and still is. He has an industry hard hitter in Dre behind him. He has his group D12 to give him street cred. And to top it all off he still has baby-mama drama. All of these things aside, he's one of the top-selling artists of over the last 10 years in any genre. He has a succesful clothing line. And he's done what no one else has done before him and that's make a legitimate name for white rappers. You simply can't deny him his place in the history of Hip Hop.

But is he the "Best Alive"? I don't know, I couldn't say. But could he be? Why not? Does him being white really make that much of a difference? It shouldn't.

10.09.2008

Waxed: Marah's If You Didn't Laugh You'd Cry


A few years back, I got myself into this interesting little relationship with a girl from Pittsburgh that ended up being not so little. One of the best things about this tryst was her passion for music. Even though we didn’t have the exact same tastes, her passion for music was the closest I have ever seen anyone come to my own.

It was a good deal for building a relationship. We made each other mixtapes like crazy, and it became a big game to find something new, special, and mind-blowing to show to the other person. Released on October 18th, 2005, Marah’s If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry was one such album I discovered on this quest for finding the perfect songs to share with my lover.

I reviewed it in February 2006 on my Xanga blog, now just a repository of old memories. We had just seen the band in concert, and the two of us were incredibly blown away. It was in this really quiet, small townie bar in Columbus, Ohio. Fuck if it wasn’t the loudest show I have ever been to, maybe outside of Sunny Day Real Estate. I always felt bad about this show; confession: we sat in chairs for most of the show. By we, I mean most of the entire audience, us included. The bad grew visibly annoyed throughout the set until, towards the end of their performance, they broke down, and pretty much walked off the stage and started pulling people up, motioning along the small bar floor for us all to stand. We obliged (we being her and I) and a few more people did as well, and they returned and finished their set. It’s a sad story to relate – my gal and I had been walking all day, and that’s our best excuse – because they seriously rocked hard. I mean, HARD.

Anyway, I reviewed If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry in February 2006, and compared it to some of the greatest rock and roll albums ever: Exile On Main Street, The White Album, and Highway 61 Revisited. Here, damn near two and half years later and three years after its release, I can say with some meager authority that this blog and my history as a rock and roll, uh, historian, that this album deserves to be placed alongside those bastions of the rock pantheon. It’s an old dinosaur of an album, in all of the best ways.

The album has this little theme running through it – a little musical interlude that opens and “closes” the album (that is, besides the hidden track that really closes the album). It also blossoms into it’s own song, “Sooner or Later,” which is what I call the theme – the “Sooner or Later theme,” which I will now paraphrase from now on out at the “SoLt.” It is one of the most catchy pieces of music you’ll ever hear, and it is even sweeter in its song form.

There has always been something about this album that resonates with me. This is a heart album, a chest album – full of emotion and feeling. It is, for me, forever linked to that period of my life, that of the interesting little relationship that wasn’t so little. Maybe that’s why I put it on such a high pedestal. Honestly, I have played the album for several other people, including people who I think know their way around music, and I am always astonished when they don’t proclaim it the best fucking thing they’ve heard in years (or even months or weeks). I view it as nothing short of spectacular.

“So What if We’re Outta Tune (W/The Rest of the World)” was one of those tunes that made it on one of those mix CDs. With lines like, “ooh, lover, I only sing for you,” I found it wonderfully romantic. And, it is. It’s one of those “we’re all alone but we’re together” type of songs. Musically, it pairs a sweet finger-picked guitar with a gentle banjo, and adds little flourishes here and there, like finger snaps and swelling background vocals.

But I digress. The album kicks off with the “SoLt,” then kicks into high gear with “The Closer.” Yes, I do consider it pure genius to name the opening song on your album “The Closer,” but this track is more than just a name. And yes, I do mean kicks into high gear. Frantic guitar and drums meet spit-fire vocals and silly nonsensical lyrics. You immediately are infected with… fun. “Barbeque chips like me, I spot the jelly inside your Crispy Crème!” and “Put a Mississippi pickle in your Brooklyn Buns for free, says me!” are just some of the fun lyrics in the song, which also includes a phone call conversation, between David Bielanko and someone – does it matter who it is? This song is simply infectious, and rocks hard.

The feeling of fun continues on “The Hustle,” the second track. It continues the loud, brash, bar-band assault of the opener, ending in an angular, melodic slash-n-burn guitar solo that – no joke – turns into a disco rave up. As the bass pounds out the 2 a.m. plus dance beats, the guitar continues its caterwaul and crawls to a jolting thump. The song also illustrates David’s street-wise poet lyrics. “I heard a rumor that time, is really just a light in a box in your mind,” he sings, and I’m not sure what the means, but damn I want it. His alternately sung/spit/shouted vocal delivery carries each tune, even as the music gets catchier and catchier. His voice is the thread that sews it all up, though the music contributions of Serge Bielanko (Dave’s brother, who also plays guitar, sings, writes, and plays multiple other instruments), guitarist Adam Garbinski, drummer Dave Peterson, and bass-man/keyboardist Kirk Henderson can not be understated.

The album really begins to represent itself, though, on the third track, “City of Dreams.” Not much on this album brings to mind summer. It, to me, is a squarely fall/winter album. Again, this perception may be wrapped up in my own wintry biography surrounding the album, but objectivity be damned; this is a winter album. “City of Dreams” is light, almost jaunty, and uplifting. It always reminds me of walking in Columbus, with my girl, bundled up and holding hands, walking from downtown into the section nearby the university. Perhaps that’s why the wintery feel of this album begins with this song. “City of dreams, you don’t know what it means… to only dream about it, I know, I know…” It may not mean much at first, but this song, like so many on this album, pulls at the heartstrings, and again, as elsewhere, the interplay of the music, vocals, and lyrics on “City of Dreams” is perfectly complimentary.

It doesn’t end there, that wintery feel, but it goes on the back-burner for another barn-burner of a song: “Fat Boy.” This song is akin to the first two. Reckless fun and silliness ensue, along with some tasty slide guitar and hand claps. There sound’s like there’s some harmonica going to town in there, too. It feels like you’ve stumbled into the greatest bar party ever. Opening with a request to cut the current noise the band is making and a 1-2-3 count-off, and ending with a wonderful rave-up, crash-landing-type ending, the song fits neatly within the fun and joyous spirit of the album. Which may be better described as musical salvation. Some music makes you happy, some sad, some sorrowful and depressed, and others angry. This album, as a whole, is the kind of save-your-soul rock and roll that bands only dream about writing and playing. The emotions contained are myriad, but overall the hopeful feel of the entire album lends it this messianic quality.

The listener is next greeted with “Sooner or Later,” big brother to the “SoLt,” an another acoustic song. “Don’t expect much these days buddy, a couple of beers and life is so funny,” singer Dave Bielanko sings. “You’ll be coming back sooner or later, and we’ll be waiting for you.” The stick drumming, slide guitar, hoots and hollers throughout the tune add to its already considerable charm. It sounds like something that old friends and bandmates would play on a tour bus late at night, or at someone’s place after the show – the places where drunken fun and honest music just ooze out. It is also roots music at its finest. Marah is one of those all-American bands, whose music encompasses a wide variety of influences and tends to get labeled as Americana or Roots Rock or even Alternative Country.

That brings us back to “So What If We’re Outta Tune,” where something magical happens. When compact discs were invented, someone figured out you could put sound on the album in negative seconds. The trend tended to die off quickly I though. But Marah resurrects it here, before this song, to embedded a pump/church organ piece that introduces “So What…” quite well. Again, not enough can be said about this song. It serves as the middle of the album, and as the centerpiece as well. That feeling of being hard-up, but at least you have your sweetheart, and the continued feeling of it being a lonely, cold song, vividly bring to mind winter.

“The Demon of White Sadness” begins with another one of those “hidden track,” negative seconds pieces – this time a harmony-vocal chorus piece. It’s striking and a great addition to the most lyrically tough songs on the album. The “demon” sounds like a drug dealer at first, and maybe later the drugs themselves. The song lends Dave’s lyrics a wonderful romanticism that can only be understood by those having either been addicted to a drug themselves, or to the family of those who have been through it. The music, while not acoustic, still has that wistful winter sound, and that’s part of what lends the song its romantic vibe. Great piano throughout the track, too.

Serge makes his singing debut on the album with “The Dishwasher’s Dream.” “Dream” is squarely in the Dylan singer-songwriter tradition, with chugging, driving acoustic guitars, rollicking piano, brushed drums and harmonica, and lyrics that tell a story about, well, a dishwasher and a nightmare he and his lover share. “I recall to a time when hope was our friend, instead of this bitch that we hate,” Serge sings as the Dishwasher, speaking to his love. The song is quite descriptive. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it, crossing the border from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, in the middle of a snow-storm, as I drove out to see my baby. Again, the personal connect to winter exists for me because of all the little anecdotal stories that I remember when listening to If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, but the current of sad hope that this album floats on is too close to comfort to not feel like the cycle of death and rebirth that takes hold in winter.

“We should not be living this life like this,” Dave bellows in “Poor People,” another street-poet story, an increasingly poignant one. The current economic crisis makes this song ring truer than ever before. The bad ass music – a return to the jovial bar band noise of earlier tunes on the album – picks you up and begins the comfortable, cycle towards then end of this magnificent album, the lead guitar licks becoming cyclical themselves. The little jam at the end of the song adds to the friendly, in-on-the-secret-of-the-best-barband-in-town-sound of the whole record.

If you needed any more proof that this is a winter album, the largest nail in that coffin comes in the next tract, “Walt Whitman Bridge,” a personal favorite track that always picks me up. Despite the hard luck situation of the song’s protagonist, there’s a sincere hope when Dave sings, “Far away from these winter streets, on a cloudless day, your memory blows away from me.” Talk of coffee and cigarettes are just some of the graphic detail of life for the down-and-out character. The band magnificent weaves a tapestry around Dave’s voice and acoustic guitar, with piano, steel guitar, and cascading electric guitar adding substance to another perfect storytelling song. This is a song you should really listen to, over and over, to soak up every little nuance, because they are all perfect and perfectly wonderful.

Now, if you needed even more proof that this is a winter album, AND a story-tellers album, “The Apartment” should put all the women and children to bed for you. Case closed. A road song that could only be written by a musician on tour, missing his lover, “The Apartment” is heartbreaking in its sadness and amazing warm in its heartfelt love. Not to mention those bad ass mariachi horns! “I hear your name in the pumping of gas,” Serge sings (this being his second, and last, lead vocal spot on the album). “Tonight I just want to come back to our apartment in the city.” More of the rootsy instrumentation makes this tune shine. If you’re not a fan of this band by the end of this album, you must be a musical idiot, because there aren’t many bands left, American or otherwise, who can cover so much musical and emotional territory as this band.

The album ends with “The End,” appropriately, which at first seems like it’s just a return to the “SoLt.” That in and of itself would’ve been a fine end to this amazing album, but it isn’t the end. A few seconds after it fades out, the closing song creeps in, pumping guitar and volume swells. The lyrics are my favorite from the album… hell, the whole song is my favorite thing about this album. It combines everything perfectly. This song will get you all worked up. “Maybe its this time, when we’ll make somebody smile,” and “Ever since I saw your face, I have been a star in space, shining down on your street.” It’s so perfect… the brilliant lead guitar work, the harmony vocals, the driving rhythm section. Fuck. This band breaks my heart. And it breaks my heart that you aren’t listening to them. So go buy this album – right now. Put it on, in your car or at home with a glass of red wine or a nice heavy beer, smoke a cigarette, and relive every great romantic and meaningful moment of your life.

Yeah, they’re kind of like that.

PS – if you need more proof, damnit, go read Heather’s excellent post about these guys, over on the I Am Fuel, You Are Friends music blog. She’s smart and knows her shit (aside from the occasional Wilco hiccup, but I will forgive that because, you know, the blatant Pearl Jam worship) and has lead me to so much wonderful music in the past few years. If I can’t set you straight on Marah with a 2,500 word count review of If You Didn’t Laugh, You’d Cry, well, maybe you’ll listen to her.

Marah post from January 2006

I Am Fuel, You Are Friends general site

10.03.2008

Waxed: Say Anything's ... Is A Real Boy

“Eat… sleep, fuck, and flee… in four words, that’s me.”

These lines, which come courtesy of Say Anything songwriter/mad ringleader Max Bemis, have pretty much been lodged in my brain since the moment I heard them. They seem to perfectly capture the “generation millennium” attitude towards relationships, and life in general.

These lines are preceded by this missive: “Shit! Nothing makes sense, so I won’t think about it. I’ll go with the ignorance.” Insert the “eat, sleep, fuck and flee” line here, and wrap it up with: “I am full of indifference.” There is a stanza custom made for a generation of fuck-and-fleers, a spoiled generation raised with anything – information, communication, money, cell phones, video games, drugs and alcohol - they ever wanted at the tips of their fingers. I know, because I am one of them (born 1980, graduated high school in ’99, college in 2003).

I still remember the first time I heard Say Anything’s …Is A Real Boy, in my buddy Rob’s car. Listening to anything in the car with Rob is an exercise in patience that ends in futility. Rob constantly changes songs, and CDs (and later iPod tracks – one of the reasons I hate iPods, they make it too easy to NOT listen). If you make it completely through one whole tune, with no skipping ahead to a guitar solo, rewinding to hear some Iron Maiden-esque scream, or skipping ahead to a complete new song or album, you’d consider yourself lucky.

As such, with my first exposure to Say Anything coming in this way… all I heard was “fuck” and “shit” and a lot of bad words. Now, I can swear like a sailor, and sometimes (often?) do – but I’ve always held that music shouldn’t need to be vulgar to make a point. A little here and there for color is wonderful, but when every other word is something you’d get your mouth washed out with soap for saying, it’s a little out of hand. And, based on my lightening quick, skip ahead/behind, RVC introduction to Say Anything, I dismissed Max Bemis as just another whiny emo punk who needed a mouth full of Dawn liquid dish detergent.

And then I heard it again, a few years later. And I heard the line, “Eat… sleep, fuck and flee… in four words that’s me.” And I was hooked.

If I may be a little metaphysically critical of my writing here, one of the weaknesses that I have noticed in my latest writings on music has been a tendency to not explore as deeply the lyrics of the music I am reviewing. I thought of this last night, as I listened to the album I (sort of) reviewed yesterday. When I thought, “hey, I’d like to focus a review on lyrics; what would be a good album to review based on lyics?,” I quickly came up with Say Anything’s debut.

And the record begins with a song of rebellion.

Say Anything – which, at the point of this recording, is really just Bemis playing most everything, and a friend on drums – kick things off with the heavy, punky “Belt.” The song spans quite a few genres, musically speaking. But it’s the cathartic chorus that really jumps out and grabs you, with the shouted, “Hey, this is something I have to do for myself!” The song IS a song of rebellion. “I ignored the sheep and shepherds on the way,” Bemis snarls/speaks. His sarcastic, spitting delivery propels the song through inventive verses and chorus until the song’s coda, “what’s say you and all your friends step up to my friends in the alley tonight?”

The inventive music – an amalgam of so many styles, from punk to 50’s surf rock, continues to impress on “Woe,” but again the lyrics stand out. “All the words in my mouth, that the scene deemed unworthy of letting out, banded together to form a makeshift militia and burrowed bloodily through my tongue and my teeth.” You get the distinct impression that Max Bemis is one VERY damaged individual – picked on, picked at, angry and ready to explode.

One of the best things about the musical mood swings of Say Anything is the flat-out bad-ass rock that accompanies lyrics that beg you to sing along. If you’re not screaming along to every chorus and coda, then you’ve never felt down and out, left out, heart-broken, depressed of left behind. This is music to go to emotional and sexual war to.

You can pull great, dagger-like one liners from any song on this album. “The Writhing South” provides us this gem: “Across the room, across the room, I hope to watch you writhe again.” Bemis seems like the type of guy who wants to get laid, needs to get laid, gets laid, and hates the girls he has sex with. Hate isn’t even the best word. Loathe is more appropriate. But, in a refreshing twist from the “woe is me” self loathing of most modern “emo” bands, Bemis’ loathing is pointed at others – sexual conquests, sexual rejects, authority figures, fake scenesters, et al.

It’s also readily apparent, from the end of “The Writhing South” and into the mock ‘50’s beginning of “Alive with the Glory of Love,” that Bemis doesn’t take himself too seriously. In fact, it is so apparent that he does has a sense of humor that sometimes it is hard to separate what is a scathing attack on something or someone from a tongue-in-cheek joke. However, you might be having so much fun reveling in it all that you won’t give a fuck.

“Alive…” shows off the band’s considerable chops, and Bemis’ melodies really jump out. It should be noted that the guitar playing on this album is fucking incredible. The whole of the music, actually, is quite striking. If you’ve only heard of or seen Say Anything at your local Hot Topic or from trendy teens wearing trendy teen t-shirts, then you’ve missed out on the genius of Say Anything: that they managed to infect the modern music post-emo scene with music that only barely resembles the flavor-of-the-day nature of that scene. I guarantee that 90% of the bands that the Hot Topic kids worship can’t play half as good as Bemis, or write music as driving, catchy, and intoxicating as this.

My favorite song on the record has been, since I bought it and first heard this song, “Yellow Cat (Slash) Red Cat.” “The feline war” is on in this one, as Bemis spins a tale that is strange but so relatable. The protagonist is who he is – observer, toiling away. “These are my days, this is how they stay,” he says. “I watch this guy dude each night, same table,” Bemis rattles on. “He feeds me quotes, that lonely goat… I will not stop him when he rambles, I’m becoming one myself.” The twisted tale doesn’t just end there – between friends needing sex for healing and getting high, we get this scathing review of life: “As I look back at countless crossroads and the middle where I stay, right up the beaten path to boredom where the fakest fucks get laid by the faux-finest finds; It’s been that way and god damn you, how you stay with every scrummy crummy hour of the scrummy, crummy day.”

“The Futile” arrives and delivers our favorite observation on modern relationships, full of fucking and fleeing and whining and growing old and, of course, how futile it all is. “Spidersong” takes a predatory twist on the modern dating scene, making it seem like sex is so wanted and apparently so close, only to reveal that our hero is “too stoned to leave my bed. I’ll write this song to win your kiss but stay asleep instead.”

This album is nothing if not desperate. Song after song peals away layers of self-consciousness, fear of death, desire for lustful sex, fear of rejection, and more. It doesn’t approach this with as much self-loathing as you’d think, though, as I said earlier. At times, there’s an air of casual, “this is the way it is” acceptance. At other times, it’s fueled by anger and lust. The lyrics also share more with the lyrics of grunge-era rock and roll, filled with stories of struggle but of little to no surrender. And, when there is surrender, you get the sense it was done in order to hurt someone else.

Let me put it another way: …Is A Real Boy is the ultimate hate-fuck album.

Don’t believe me? Take one listen to “Every Man has a Molly.” It is fucking brilliant. It’s the sound of an ended relationship – all in your head, the way things get twisted, the way you hurt yourself thinking. “Molly Connolly just broke up with me over the revealing nature of the songs,” Bemis sings. “I can’t stop thinking about what she did wrong to me,” the song gleefully exclaims in the end. “I can’t figure out just what I did wrong. I’ll kill myself thinking about the things that you did to me.”

It is disturbed, but sometimes so gleefully disturbed that you don’t know whether to sing along and dance, or cry and shut it off. Thankfully, the music becomes so infectious that you forget that the lyrics of “Slowly, Through a Vector” are so graphic that they’re distasteful. You soon will also be singing “I watch them cut, I watch them touch.”

This is unrelenting, stream-of-conscious, not fit for the psychologist’s couch but fit for late night conversations with your fucked up friends, nuclear holocaust kind of warfare. The more you listen to the lyrics and embedded yourself in the music and the album as a whole, you realize that you invested not in a good time or good tunes, but in some kind of musical therapy. This is the type of album you don’t want your parents to find or hear. Your Christian friends would piss down their leg, curse you as Satan, and run away after hearing many of these songs. And me… I love it all. The violence, the scars, the loathing, the cathartic release.

“I Want to Know Your Plans” turns in one of the albums softest spots. It is an effecting ballad that reassures you that this mad genius Bemis has a heart, even if it so far has been twisted and black. This song is hopeful, and comes as a breath of fresh air, a moment’s respite right before Bemis loads up his last bullet and pulls the trigger.

In the album’s closing track, “Admit It!!!,” Bemis points the finger at his listeners. Where before he leads his minions through their pains and trials and tribulations, here he asks, “what do you have to say for yourself?” He spits barb after barb at the trendiness of the hipster culture, the emo culture, even his own band and “celebrated.” He takes aim at the geeks that bitch about jocks and make fun of so-called normal people. He unleashes on his primary audience, then rips out a manifesto, before cranking up a sarcastic, damning self-critique. He returns to his declaration of pride in his accomplishments, and leads us through more musical sweetness, and leaves us with one last missive. “When I’m dead, I’ll rest, I’ll rest!”

And like that, the album ends with a song of rebellion, with nothing but ashes left in its wake. It’s a damn fine way to go out, and one helluva ride along the way.

10.02.2008

The Rising Tide


Editor's Note: Not so much an album review as a biographical story. Still bad ass, though, so read away...

Sunny Day Real Estate is responsible for me forming my first real band.

It was a cool morning in October (October 24, 2000, to be exact), three friends (Rob, Wes, and Cory) loaded into one of our cars and began the decently-distant trek to the Midwestern Mecca of underage rock and roll: Bogarts in Cincinnati.

In Indiana, you can’t get into any clubs or bars until you are of legal drinking age, but in Ohio, you could get into clubs if you were 18 or older. Bogarts became the place to go to see your favorite bands play. When we heard Sunny Day Real Estate was coming through Cinci, we bought tickets and planned a trip around the Tuesday night show. I remember having an exam the next day, and I knew it would be a long day. Still, the temptation of seeing the legendary SDRE was far too great to pass this up.

I started going to school at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, in the fall of 1999. After arriving on campus, I became involved with two organizations that would both heavily impact my musical journey and overall life: WIUS 1570 AM, the campus radio station, and Campus Crusade for Christ, a Christian fellowship organization. I soon was a deejay at WIUS, and a guitar-player in the praise band at IUCCC.

By my senior year, I would not be involved with either org – 19 credit hours a semester was a reason, disillusionment with my judgmental “brothers and sisters” would be another, and missing the deadline to be on the airwaves yet another – but for the first three years of college, both organizations played a central role in much of what I did on and off campus.

I met Wes and Cory through Rob. Cory was from Rob’s hometown. Wes was the singer in the praise band at IUCCC, and Rob was the fellow who brought me, along with my future ex-fiance, to IUCCC. Rob lived on the same floor as I did in our dorm (Wright Quad – holla, rowdy Rollins!). Soon after my first visit to IUCCC, I got involved with the band, and so began playing music with Wes.

At the same time, I was spending one day a week spinning records on WIUS. I started off with a terrible time slot – 4 to 6 in the morning – that I would love to have back. It was amazing. Later, I was able to get an afternoon time slot. Rob would frequently join me on these winter trips all the across campus to get to the studio, and, frozen, we invaded the airwaves with our brand of rock and roll. Slowly, though, we picked through records that looked interesting or that we have heard about it, and we found more and more interesting music.

Bloomington is a virtual paradise for music lovers – of all kinds. Classical and Jazz have legs there, great legs, thanks to the school of music and the myriad venues available to perform and listen to those types of music. But, there is also a seedy underbelly to Bloomington – a whole slew of record stores, venues, bands, artists, and radio stations that deal in Indie Rock and underground music. This is indie rock as independent rock – small record labels, unheard of bands, local talent, etc. – not the label used to describe a certain style of music, though those kind of bands certainly were around back then.

In this musical paradise, I discovered a slowly-growing form of music that came to be known as “emo.” Now, before you throw up, use profanity, piss on your computer, or take some other drastic action just because of the mere mention of that term, please realize that back then, that term wasn’t loaded like it is today. It described a form of music that sounds nothing like the music, bands, people and culture it is used to describe today.

There are usually two bands that are credited with the creation of the old-term kind of “emo” as a genre of music: Rites of Spring and Sunny Day Real Estate.

Sitting in the studios at WIUS, a discovered an odd-looking CD, something with fantastic artwork, including some odd orange-red sunburst thing on black matte background, and full of strange images and neatly scribed lyrics. It was the album How It Feels To Be Something On, by Sunny Day Real Estate. We had this rating system at WIUS, where a song got one to four stars, based on how “good” it was in the eyes/ears of the reviewer, with four being the best. The first song on the record, “Pillars,” had been rated a four. I played that song, and instantly fell in love with the band.

After that first play, SDRE became a staple of my radio shows, with “Pillars,” “How It Feels To Be Something On,” “Every Shining Time You Arrive,” “8,” “In Circles,” “Seven,” and more all becoming favorite tracks. SDRE served as a bridge into several other bands and albums. But nothing really ever came close to matching their sound: churning guitars and chiming melodies, whisper-to-scream-to-angelic vocals, elliptical and poetic lyrics, pounding poly-rhythms. They were (and still are) unlike any other band I had ever heard. They were singular, and singularly amazing.

So when the new album The Rising Tide came out, we all bought it. When the tour was announced and tickets went on sale, we got tickets to the show in Cinci. And we stood three rows of people back from the loudest concert I have ever been to. The volume isn’t even describable… and yet the sound cut through, too. You could hear each instrument, could here the vocals cut through the mix.

The band’s history is well-documented. The break-ups, the line-up shifts, the early singles, the no-shows-in-California stance. Their music grew, changed. What started like a hurricane became tempered with time, but no less forceful, powerful, emotional, and passionate.

With every album, Sunny Day’s passionate fans would both decry and uphold the albums. Each album has its supporters and detractors. It is telling that their albums have been so different, certainly if one compares the last one with the first one. Still, most fans embraced every incarnation of the band and its majestic sound.

Even with this, though, the last album, The Rising Tide, was seen by some as a sell-out, with softer songs, less anger, and the appearance of synthesizers on my songs. It became a point to question what was going on with this album. It was the album that most fans pointed to as their least favorite, at least at first (check out concert reviews from 2000 – fans are still questioning the album and its impact then, proof that it wasn’t seen as an immediate success). This line of thinking was, in a word, wrong.

The first song off of The Rising Tide was quintessential Sunny Day. “Killed By An Angel” had propulsive driving, crashing guitars, and Jeremy Enigk’s trademark vocals. It was merely the first shot of a one-two punch that would open an album that would be the most lush, majestic, and opulent one would create. “One,” the second track, would continue the aggressive nature of the first song, albeit in a more major-key way. Still, the presence of “major 7” chords, long another trademark staple of the Sunny Day sound, were present everywhere on this track.

“Rain Song” was the first quiet, more pop-oriented song. At first listen, it does sound quite distant from this band’s normally loud, thunderous songwriting, but it did fit nicely with what Enigk had done on his first solo album, Return of the Frog King. Still, the song showed a depth of songwriting, a step further from some of the ballads on How It Feels…, and it would serve as a brief interlude between the first two blistering tracks and the next two.

“Disappear” took a disjointed, Eastern-sounding scale riff and built on it a song that ebbed, flowed, built into a tidal wave and broke into a melodic fury that the band rode out for the rest of the song. “Snide” was a song drenched in synths, but one that still exhibited the stomp and thunder of typical old SDRE songs.

“The Ocean,” though, sounds to me like the band’s biggest – and best – leap forward. Here, cascading drums meet melodies that roll and tumble, evoking the song’s namesake. The song again showed a depth in songwriting that wasn’t present on the band’s first albums, one that they had cultivated from How It Feels… to charming effect. Keyboards and strings added much to the album’s overall sound, and are quite evident here.

On The Rising Tide, Sunny Day Real Estate were at their most Led Zeppelin. They combined their previously heavy, raging efforts with both a more acoustic sound and an ear towards the music of other cultures. Like “Disappear,” the song “Fool In The Photograph” sounded distinctly Eastern at times, and even U2-ish in the bridge, marrying melody with atmosphere.

“Tearing In My Heart” continued this album’s use of effecting ballads, which is truly a wonderful thing given how gifted a singer Enigk is. While the entire album showcases drummer William Goldsmith’s percussive genius and guitarist Dan Hoerner’s way with riffs that sound at once both heavy and harmonic, Jeremy Enigk’s voice is the show-stopper here.

“Television” was also another somewhat pop-oriented song, but much more U2- and Police-influenced, and still yet propulsive and driving in the best senses. The lyrics compare sex and love in a dream-like nature that reminds the protagonist of television. To this day, the song remains a perfect metaphor, for such things – the dreamlike nature of deep love and lust, especially over something that you can only touch those dreams. The song builds to an inspired crescendo, and again, here synths add to the climax of this powerful band.

The album ends as strongly as it begins, with arguably the two best tracks. It is as if the band managed to wrap everything about the first nine songs into the last two – each one exhibits traits from the others – the band’s way with melodies that absolutely soar, the uplifting nature of the lyrics across the entire album, the masterful use of percussion, strings and keyboards to color every corner, the anthemic, chiming guitars, the Eastern influences, and that sweet angelic voice that can become so unhinged, so quickly.

“Faces In Disguise” is another building-block track, one that stacks melodies and counter-melodies atop one another, layering its way to an explosive climax with Enigk’s soaring voice as ringleader. As throughout the album, the lyrics remain confessional and conversational, in a personal way. The song approaches a weight and depth that would be even more powerful when played live. It demonstrated the clear, dense sound the band explored from start to finish on this album.

The album wouldn’t be complete without the title track that ends it, though. Here, every sweet detailed trick that was used to color all the songs before is used to great effect, to create a swirling, cathartic blast of joyous noise. Notes clash and crash off each other while Enigk’s vocal lines float effortlessly over the music. “The Rising Tide” is also one of the album’s most dynamic songs, trading in the loud, anthemic quality of the verses for simple piano-and-voice choruses – backwards from the way most songs are arranged. The song is a masterful assassin, throwing killing blows time after time, repeatedly drawing the listener into its world.

The tidal motives throughout the album, as well as the dream references, serve as a wonderful metaphor on how to describe the work. It sounds like an accomplished band setting out to make something that stands on its own, and the band’s experience, the quality of the production, and the masterful songs make the album sound timeless.

It would be a fitting swan song, leaving joy and disappointment, too, that something this grand could be accomplished. Best of all, it sounds nothing like what “emo” sounds like today.

It was to be the soundtrack to fall semester 2000 at Indiana University for me and many of my friends. We all became enchanted with it. And so when Wes, Cory, Rob and I loaded into that car to drive to Cincinnati, we were traveling with baited breath, waiting to final hear and see what this band could do in concert.

The concert was amazing. Just as dynamic live as they were in the studio, the band tore through classic songs and new ones alike with aplomb, joy, and verve. The audience gleefully played along, and the night felt more like a celebration than a concert. It was the church of rock and roll, but of a positive, uplifting sort.

The band played so many good songs, many of the aforementioned of my favorites, some I hadn’t paid much attention to before but now found exciting. And the band seemed to have so much fun playing. Each of us at that show was in the midst of a religious experience – every review I read of the show all pointed to this, how powerful the band was live. It must have also been gratifying to the band that some of the most powerful songs of the night, the real show-stealers, were the ones from the new album. If “Faces In Disguise” and “The Rising Tide” were majestic on the album, they were even more so live. “Disappear” became menacing, “One” was a total affirmation with the entire sound crying “everything and everyone, and in the end we all are one, truth will not be denied.”

Hours later, we made our way home. We walked back to the car in nearly stunned silence. The experience was so breathtaking that it was hard to find the words. Then… we began to talk.

Rob was the odd man out – he didn’t play an instrument or sing, but was our biggest fan and supporter. There, on the ride home, Cory and Wes and I decided to form a band. We would return to IU and recruit a drummer, Frank, and a bassist, Nate. Wes would sing, and Cory and I would play guitar. And we sucked at first, as all bands do.

But there was something amazing about the way we came together. We tried to replicate that majestic sound, that anthemic sound, and of course failed, but we also grew. In a few years, with graduation upon us, and our drummer (who, like Sunny Day’s, was an important, integral part of our sound) moved away, and we became Spinal Tap when it came to bass players, we hung up our rock and roll spurs. The band, called Endolori (which was a French word meaning “sore or tender” – an appropriate emo name then and now), called it quits.

And that was the end of the story.

Until Frank returned from whatever wooded purgatory he had banished his hippie-self to, and made a phone call. Before long, we were practicing in his basement, him and I, and, before long, Wes and Cory were on board again as well. Our friend Chris played bass before he had to move away due to marriage and work. Another friend Mike picked up the reigns of the bassist duties and… Yesterday The Siren was born.

Nowadays, Yesterday The Siren is defunct, but I am proud of what we did for the few years we were together. Wes, Cory and I took upon the seeds that were planted on that fateful October night, and we grew what we could. We never achieved anything I would call majestic, but we damn sure did write a few anthems. And played with as much passion as we saw that night, with joyous and reckless abandon.

If it weren’t for Sunny Day Real Estate, I don’t know if I would’ve ever been motivated enough to really form a band, and to really work at it and push my friends to be the best we could be. By the time Yesterday The Siren rolled around, hard work was our middle name – we all put in as much as we could afford to, with families, work, and other considerations taking our time. We still made rock and roll of an anthemic spirit, the spirit of one of the greatest bands to ever grace the stage.

So, reflecting on that moment almost eight years ago, I am so thankful I had the opportunity to go. And so thankful that music could mean that much to people – to the men in Sunny Day, to my friends that went with me, to the crowd, to the guys in the bands I have played in since.

We were riding the rising tide. And I’ve been riding it ever since.

(all photos credit: deathmuppets@cs.com --- retrieved from "In The Blue" SDRE fan site)

9.18.2008

Waxed: The Appleseed Cast's Low Level Owl: Volume 1 and Low Level Owl: Volume 2

There’s a brief moment, amidst all the swirling sounds, keyboard collages and chiming guitars all, where the gentle rustle of the wind blowing leaves comes through your speakers, and only one word can describe it: bliss.

But, bliss best describes The Appleseed Cast’s magnum opus, Low Level Owl (volumes 1 and 2 – which we will from now after refer to as Owl 1 and Owl 2). Back in those college years, when I had not yet become half of the music aficionado that I am today. A friend and fellow musician turned me on to Owl 1. We went to the record store (TD’s CDs and LPs, for those of you Bloomingtonian residents), and there dug around until we found it.

“There’s a volume two?,” I asked. My friend Frank just nodded his head. “Even better than the first one,” he said.

It only took me another five to six years to test out that theory, but Frank may have been right. Regardless, the best way to experience Owl 1 and Owl 2 is to listen to them back to back – as they were intended.

The Appleseed Cast had been an “emo” band, one of the many similar sounding bands on the Deep Elm record label. Not that this was a band thing – Deep Elm at the time had a rich, talented roster of bands, and was well-known in indie circles. Still, the leap from The End of the Ring Wars to Low Level Owl: Volume I is drastic – and a great step in a new, fantastic direction.

From the opening notes of “The Waking of Pertelotte” though “View of a Burning City” and “View of a Burning City (reprise),” which end Owl 1 and begin Owl 2, respectively, and on until the last track of Owl 2, “Confession,” you are on a seamless aural ride.

Some might consider it a stretch, but really, Radiohead never did anything this good. The Appleseed Cast was labeled as “America’s closest thing to Radiohead” after these albums dropped in August and October of 2001, but the comparison is unjust in many ways. To me, these albums sound like what Roger Waters, David Gilmour, and the whole Pink Floyd gang would’ve made, had they grown up and came of age in the late ‘90’s. In terms of sheer depth, timbre, and feel, Low Level Owl has much more in common with Dark Side of the Moon than O.K. Computer.

In the land of post-rock (a label the Cast has again been pigeonholed into) and post-emo, these two records stand alone, on their own merits. There may be better bands, and better albums, in post-rock, underground indie rock, psychadelia, and instrumental rock, but the way these two albums flow together, and take the listener on an inner journey, can’t seem to possibly be topped, except maybe by Sigur Ros, and then… it’s a coin flip.

There are vocals on many of the tracks, but you may not know what they are exactly unless you sit down with the album booklet and read through them as you listen. That’s not a half-bad idea, either, if you want to know what’s being said, but it might be even better to just turn off the lights, lay back on your bed, or hell, even your living room floor, and just listen.

When “The Waking of Pertelotte” turns into “On Reflection,” you know you have arrived at a sweet musical experience. The snapping, echoing snare hits and the bubbly guitar arpeggios are like dessert. And that’s just the beginning.

The completely masterful soundscapes that this band create over the course of two albums could draw comparisons to Mogwai, Pelican, Sigur Ros, and Explosions in the Sky. What sets them apart is the way the albums fit together, song after song leading into the next experiment.

Small tracks like “A Tree for Trails” link up songs like “Convict” and “Signal” (both of which are among the best tracks on the albums, especially “Signal”). When “Sunset Drama King” repeats musical and lyrical melody lines other songs, it reminds you how pleasant this experience has been, and at well over an hour into the journey, it may be the first time you’re reminded of just how seamless these albums are.

Certain listeners may find the songs to be too repetitive, too samey for their tastes. While generally I like a lot of variety in my music, it really doesn’t stand out that much for me with Owl 1 and Owl 2. In fact, there are many, many peaks and valleys in the music presented here. Even though they do all sound of the same mood and the same mold, the listening experience in total is so unique and fresh-sounding as to not notice, or rather to be bothered by, the explicit continuity between songs and albums.

Even as the album winds down, with “The Argument” again recalling an earlier song, the tiredness of that track feels so natural as to seem, well, just plain right. It makes the perfect beginning of the end, just before “Reaction,” with feedback-laden guitars washing noise around the melodies of songs long since come and gone.

The brief moment of space – of no sound – just before “Reaction” immediately draws your attention to it. It literally breaks the hypnotic spell the album has put over your. The break announces the end, and brings with it another magnificent song, this one with the lyrics a little more upfront. It still matches the overall tone of the album, but almost sounds as if you’ve come out from a tunnel, or as if you had been listening underwater, and now your head has crested the surface, and your gasping for air.

Who knows and who cares if you have been drowning all this time. “Confession” begins its slow, winding drive towards home, towards the end, and you can here the drip of water in the sink, the sound of it hitting the beach, the gulls taking flight, the sounds of the strangeness of the real world creeping back in.

Do yourself a favor. Go to the local record store, buy Low Level Owl: Volume 1 and Low Level Owl: Volume 2. If you burn them on your iPod, that’s ok, but do yourself this one favor – promise yourself to listen to them, back to back, twice: once with headphones, and once without, with the volume turned up and the walls shaking. If you’re the type of personal who likes musical journeys, you won’t regret it.

9.15.2008

Miller High Lite: Lips of An Angel...Vagina of the Devil

The other day Dusty and I were talking about Hinder and particularly their number one, chart topping, radio blanketing, super smash hit, Lips of An Angel...and why I hate it. Obvious reasons would be radio over-saturation, douche bag band members, and outright cock-rockery. Let's look past that for a moment and get to the real heart of the problem. One that plagues many top 40 radio staples...I say plague as if it's the song that suffers and not us...and makes every sucker singing along that much more of a mindless host for the Viacom parasite. I speak of *fanfare*...lyrical content.

We all know that the key to a great pop song is the hook. People want to sing along, they want something they can get into right away and feel like they know the words already after a minute and a half of the song. If there's anything that pop music has proven is that it doesn't actually matter what those words are. Forget for a moment that this is a anger spewing diatribe of hate and think about that. Regardless of what the words are, we remember that tune. We hum it in our heads, sort of half mumble it under our breath, whistle it was we walk our dogs, and often times even get the words wrong. So remember all you aspiring artists out there...if you want to make it in "the biz", write a catchy tune. You can write the words later...or never at all (read: Scatman).

Let's face it, there's only one Bob Dylan, there's only one Neil Young, there's only one Tom Waits....you are not them. If you want to make it as a musician you may just have to give up those dreams of being this profound, ground breaking voice of a generation *gasp!*. I'm not saying give up your artistic integrity and sell out, I'm just saying give a little. You're not going anywhere being a pompous, pretentious a-hole. Write a few songs people can get into, that they can relate to, and then fill the rest of your album with your heartbreak and views on politics and the economy and how much you hate the president.

Now to the real perpetrator. Maybe more than the horrible lyrics and underlying theme of the song, it's the mob of young women in every bar, and every cheerleading practice, and every sleepover that belt out every god awful word that I despise. Hordes of girls love this song, love it. And why? Because he misses this girl? This is where the whole thing really gets to me. No one takes the time to really listen to the whole song. The song is about a guy who's with a girl and gets a late night phone call from his ex. She's upset and tells him she misses him and he precedes to tell her the same. They can't be too loud because his current girl is in the next room and it could start a fight between her and her current man. Every girl thinks it's so sweet that he misses this girl and he has all these great things to say about her. News flash! - You are not the girl on the phone...you are the girl in the other room. And even if you're not...do you really want to be with this guy that can't make up his mind and really just wants to get back with you for a few steamy gropefests in the dressing room at the mall, only to have him call the other girl two weeks later and sing the same damn song to her, telling her how much he misses her "lips of an angel"? Not to mention you have a significant other as well. Soooo, you want to cheat on him...and be with a guy who will cheat on his girlfriend? Sounds like a formula for life-long happiness. "girl you make it hard to be faithful"

Alright, let's calm down...we'll move on and let you mull that over later.

Let's look at some other classic examples of pop songs that people tend to belt out without really thinking about what they're singing. We'll start with an easy obvious one:

Every Breath You Take - The Police
Before Puffy got a hold of it and numbed the minds of an entire generation it was hit single by good old Sting. The song is, at the core, a song about a stalker. The character in the song is stalking this woman..."oh can't you see...you belong to me" Creepy when you think about it...so think about it. It's not some great love song about longing and desire. It's super-creepers.

867-5309 (Jenny) - Tommy Tutone
No one will ever, ever, ever, ever forget this phone number. One of the biggest pop tunes of our time and it's a phone number. It's just that easy kids.
(see also: 25 or 6 to 4 - Chicago)

Ironic - Alanis Morrisette
Not a goddam thing in the song is ironic...wait...isn't that ironic?

Like A Virgin - Madonna
Just do yourself and favor and rent Reservoir Dogs...nuff said

Crash - Dave Matthews Band
Not only is this song about (unprotected) sex, but a little S and M action, a little voyeurism, and some nocturnal emissions. How many little college freshmen, drinking their Natty Light, playing Corn Hole do you think even know what voyeurism or nocturnal emission means? Trust me, go read the lyrics and see what I mean, too many examples to list.
(see also: Sweet Dreams - Eurythmics)

Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm - Crash Test Dummies
They took all the hard work out and just made the chorus humming. Of course with as low as Brad Robert's voice gets half the time, he could be saying something and it just sounds like a bass hum.
(see also: MmmBop - Hanson)

There are so many more and I won't sit here and list them all. You're all smart kids, next time you find yourself singing along to whatever's on the radio, on the TV, secretly hidden on your iPod, or just stuck in your head from 10 years ago...pay attention. Trust me, we're all guilty, so until next time....
All I want to do is *bang* *bang* *bang* *bang*
and a *click* *ching*
take all your money

REMY

9.05.2008

Personal Reactions to Waxed: Vitalogy

In cleaning up the article I wrote about Vitalogy and Pearl Jam, from 3 years ago, I learned a few things and had a few interesting thoughts I think I should share.

First and foremost: that is terrible writing. But, it was written in two parts on a weblog that I had to be careful on - didn't want to offend any friends, didn't want anyone to know anything I didn't want them to know, but I am a bit of a storyteller, a bit long-winded, and I like to wear my heart on my sleeve.

While the review was reaction to that aforementioned Bill Simmons article on ESPN.com's Page 2, it wasn't my first reaction to it. Prior to that, I wrote a deeply personal account of why I loved Vitalogy so much - because it was, in effect, the soundtrack to my first heartbreak.

Looking back on that blog entry fills me with joy, happiness, sadness, and energy. That fall was an interesting time in my life. I didn't know it yet, but I was about to go on another rollercoaster ride of a relationship, one filled with love, passion, sex, lust, and discovery, and later filled with sadness, hurt, loss, mistrust, and missed opportunities. It's as if I can draw a line from that first big heartbreak to the next, and the next, and the next.

Thing is, there is always a soundtrack - to the heartbreak, and to the love in between and afterwards. Some of those soundtracks haven't stood the test of time - the albums that got me through the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 aren't bad, but are hardly classics, either. None of the "heartbreak" albums, then, stand up to the test of time, and the internal test of importance and meaning, as Vitalogy does, still today.

The complete, wreckless nature of its sounds, the fury of its lyrics and vocals, to this day fill me with so many emotions, but most of all, energy and hope.

While creating it's own bleak and dark imagery, the album's hope cracks through, like a lighthouse on the shore, a lantern in the dark woods.

While times have changed, my tastes of changed, and I've grown up and grown out of many things, one of the things that remains constant is the emotional impact music has on my life, and in particular how important Vitalogy was to a 15 year old heartbroken kid, a 22 year old heartbroken young adult, and a 26 year old heartbroken young man.

Vitalogy is the lighthouse of hope, visible from where ever you are in the dark waters.

That, Bill Simmons, is why it is the defining album of the 1990's. And why it remains one of my favorite albums ever to this day.

Waxed: Pearl Jam's Vitalogy

(Editor’s Note: I wrote this article in September of 2005. I have edited it for posterity, to fix a few mistakes, and other editorial type of things. The spirit, overall feel, and mindset of the piece remains the same. The piece was actually written in response to an article written by Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman, where Simmons took the position that Vitalogy sucked, and Klosterman vehemently disagreed. It should be noted that both Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman are favorite writers of mine, and each in their own way are a huge influence on my pop culture meanderings. Here, then, is my response to Simmons claiming that Vitalogy was a mailed in effort, the “Spin The Black Circle” was a terrible song, that Pearl Jam had missed its mark. Obviously, in my opinion, this was the only album they could’ve made, and it quite possibly saved the band, the whole ‘90’s alternative-rock movement, and thousands of lost teens, 20- and 30-somethings that the music of Seattle spoke to.)


Yes. I did actually graduate from college, from one of the best public journalism schools in the nation, with a magazine writing concentration to boot. I was born to write. And yes, in all fairness, I should reveal my deeply ingrained opinion that Pearl Jam is my favorite rock and roll band, and possibly will be the greatest rock and roll band of all time, first. But - Bill wants real journalism. So, I claim: Vitalogy is the defining album of the '90's.

Set the stage in the late '80's: a small handful of good pop metal bands - Guns 'N' Roses, and... um... Guns 'N' Roses - and way too many craptastic pop metal bands - Warrant, Trixster, L.A. Guns, Kix, etc. - were dominanting rock and roll and pop charts. Most bands moved to Los Angeles to make it or break it in the big bad music biz.

Enter a sleepy little town in Washington state. A dreary, rainy place known for coffee. Seattle. And in this city? The Melvins. Soundgarden. Green River. Mother Love Bone. Mudhoney. And yes, Bill, I know that Green River splintered off into MLB and MH - but did you know that GR's drummer went back to school to be a lawyer? NO?!? Yes. Mother Love Bone. And... the first Seattle drug casuality, Andrew Wood.

Lucky for us, Cameron Crowe was hanging with wife Nancy Wilson in the rain-soaked north and got to witness the aftermath of Wood's overdose. Including the musicians. Who, lucky for us, decided it was time for a tribute a short time later. Chris Cornell and Matt Cameron from Soundgarden got together with Jeff Ament and Stone Gossard from MLBone, and Mike McCready jumped on board, and then, Eddie Vedder appears from nowhere (well, from friend and current Red Hot Chili Pepper drummer Jack Irons) and... Temple of the Dog is born. Pain, love, memories, rejoicing. ROCK.

Vedder was auditioning for Jeff and Stone's new project. Mike had joined. Jack was recruited as a drummer, but didn't want to leave the Peppers (though he shortly would, when then Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose months later). Jack did hook up the three with Vedder, they found a drummer and what resulted was an album called Ten. ROCK.

Soon, Pearl Jam was born... and soon, they joined a then-unknown band from their hometown named Nirvana, and the two bands joined the Smashing Pumpkins on a tour. And then... all hell broke loose. Nirvana and Pearl Jam simultaneously became the two biggest bands in the world, long before anyone outside of college towns knew who U2 was.

Nevermind and Ten went head to head on the rock charts, and bedrooms everywhere were plastered with posters celebrating the bands. Vs., Pearl Jam's second offering, sold 1.1 million copies in it's debut week - shattering the record, then held by Garth Brooks' album Ropin' The Wind. Nirvana released the then-critically dogged, unbelievably harsh, and undeniably cool and rockin' In Utero. More rock chart wars. Wars in the press. Words and music, money, fame, teenage wasteland. It's only teenage wasteland.

Then... in the midst of the "alternative revolution," in the midst of Time magazine covers and Rolling Stone interviews and rampant drug use and skyrocketing superstardom... Kurt Cobain took his life.

Suddenly, now there was but one. Pearl Jam was the biggest band in the world – the last band standing as the voice of a generation, the voice of millions. Fighting Ticketmaster over high ticket prices - the band took a substantial cut in personal profit - and struggling with their own demons, both private and personal... suddenly, there was only one.

They stop making videos (actually... they did that around Vs. release). They shirk from the public eye. They stop touring. They return to Seattle, hide in the recording studio... and make an album some people have suggested is the '90's equivalent of the Beatles' White Album. The last remaining "voice of a generation" was about to scream a rallying call, a deafening blast of hope, pain, and survival for all of '90's teenage wasteland:

lives opened and trashed..."look ma, watch me crash"...
no time to question...why'd nothing last...
grasp and hold on...we're dyin' fast!
soon be over...and i will relent!!!

The shotgun blast heard 'round the world rang quite loud in Seattle, throughout a community of musicians whose struggles with fame, drugs, and more were suddenly brought to the forefront of American culture. One of the two major people in the community, Kurt Cobain, had committed suicide. One "voice of our generation" was dead, unable to handle the pressures of his super-stardom. The other remaining voice, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, suddenly became the most famous Seattle voice... no more battles between bands. Worse... how would He Answer? How would the band ever answer?

Maybe you don't think of these things when you play an album - the history surrounding it, the personalities contained within, the meaning behind each and every song on a record. Nonetheless, they play a role. And here, laid bare in the music, was the soul of a band, damaged, bloodied, but not beaten. Vitalogy was Pearl Jam's answer to being the biggest band in the world and the voice of millions of lost twenty-somethings and teenagers.

The funky faux-jazz that starts the record quickly fades into the blistering opening track, "Last Exit." "Lives opened and trashed... look, ma, watch me crash… no time to question why'd nothing last... we're dying fast..." The lyrics were so direct - this would be a fight for survival. Even the music - in an off-kilter beat, 5/4 - would seem driving, maddening, but be propelled to succeed, to overcome. How would the battle for young souls be won, especially when one of their heroes lay dead by his own hands?

"Spin the Black Circle" would answer: music. The black circle - a record - would spin out tunes, and the music and words would comfort. What Bill Simmons thinks is a silly, throwaway song is really just instructions that answer the "Survive!" rallying cry of "Last Exit." Survive! How? Listen! It was an ode to vinyl, an ode to plastic spitting out melody and harmony... and spinning in bliss. It was also light-hearted - a way of saying "we'll be o.k."

But that wouldn't last for long. "Restless soul, enjoy your youth," rang out the opening words of track three, "Not For You," a blistering take on what musicians were being used for - their fame would sell records, sell clothes, sell MTV awards shows. "There is something sacred about youth, and the song is about how youth is being sold and exploited," Vedder had said of the song. "I think I felt like I had become part of that too." "This is not for you... fuck you!" Eddie would scream, while the band pounded out an instantly memorable beat. You can see Stone grooving in a corner in a studio, while Mike shreds an electric 12-string, wringing every emotion he could get out of wood and steel.

"Take my time - not my life," would be the message in "Tremor Christ," a song about a relationship gone bad. Was "she" just another girl, or... was "she" the record buying public? Was "she" the mass media machine using the "Alternative Revolution" to sell torn up jeans and flannel shirts for $74.99 a piece at The Gap? Whatever "she" was, it was obvious that the protagonist was hurt - "wounded was the organ he left all bloodied on the shore." And while she drowns "in his wake," the smallest oceans still got the big, big waves. A sea-sick dirge of a song, it remains one of Pearl Jam's most visceral tracks - and a testament to all bands that think "heavy" means "loud and detuned." The song feels like the weight of the human condition... and by track four on the album, you wonder... will we survive, after all?

"Nothingman" was a song that had been around a while, according to the band. A story of love and loss... and the feelings of loneliness and nothingness when something so sacred is let go, and can't be taken back. The quiet, introspective ballad was the first musical relief on the album - and lyrically, it seems lost and hurting. Like a dog licking a wounded paw. And you still wondered... will... we...

"Don't mean to push, but i'm being shoved! Ohh, i'm just like you, think we've had enough!" Vedder and the band blaze through "The Whipping" - the previous lull being just that, a brief respite for the ears, and a rest for the mind (at the expense of the heart). "Whipping" pulls no punches - the original lyrics are written on a petition for the Clinton administration to investigate a recent rise in bombings at abortion clinics. It went for the jugular, literally leaving the listener reeling. The song even won an award at the MTV Music Awards, to which Vedder said, "This award, it really doesn't mean a thing."

"p-r-i-v-a-c-y is priceless to me" was the only lyric in the next song, "Pry, To."

The booklet for the next song featured an x-ray of teeth - instead of a lyric sheet. "It is about a relationship but not between two people. It's more one person's relationship with a million people. In fact, that song's almost a little too obvious for me. That's why instead of a lyric sheet we put in an X-ray of my teeth from last January and they are all in very bad shape, which was analogous to my head at the time." Vedder and the band struck pay-dirt though - the song is arguably one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time. "Corduroy" was born - and a million PJ fans would never be the same.

"Bugs" would showcase an accordian, in a carnival-type insane waltz. The bugs in the head were obviously the reporters constantly hounding the band. Such a very weird song - a song of fear of what would happen if the band let down its guard.

"Satan's Bed" would roar to life after a few whipcracks, before the lyrics would once again deride fame and fortune. Vedder screams, "Already... in love!" and the band drives home yet another rocker. For a band seemingly known for their ballads, Pearl Jam spent most of Vitalogy raising hell and not giving a damn who got in the way. This song could easily be the "Paris Hilton Anti-Anthem."

"Betterman" was another song about a messed up relationship. A song from one of Eddie's old bands, it would rocket up the charts and dominate rock radio. It would be parodied when PJ cancelled shows later due to illness - "can't find the Vedderman." A song of abuse and hopelessness - that ignorant fans the world round would propose to - until the band let them all in on the secret, and tell 'em to read the lyrics...

"Aye Davanita" would provide another small respite - in the form of a band jam session, complete with chanting and wondering basslines - courtesy of Jeff, whose bass work is stellar throughout the album. Again, the respite would be brief - for the album's darkest tune would follow next.

vacate is the word...vengeance has no place on me or her
cannot find the comfort in this world
artificial tear...vessel stabbed...next up, volunteers
vulnerable, wisdom can't adhere...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on...
but there's a trapdoor in the sun...immortality...
as privileged as a whore...victims in demand for public show
swept out through the cracks beneath the door
holier than thou, how?
surrendered...executed anyhow
scrawl dissolved, cigar box on the floor...
a truant finds home...and a wish to hold on too...
he saw the trapdoor in the sun...
immortality...
i cannot stop the thought...i'm running in the dark...
coming up a which way sign...all good truants must decide...
oh, stripped and sold, mom...auctioned forearm...
and whiskers in the sink...
truants move on...cannot stay long
some die just to live...ohh...

"Immortality" was the tale of the other voice of the generation - the one that couldn't stay long, and felt like he had to die, just to live. Featuring a lazy melody, a beautiful 12-string acoustic guitar solo from Mike, and what would become a Pearl Jam trademark, the full band jam at the end of the song... "Immortality," became an instant classic. Of the many songs on the album that are quintessential Pearl Jam, and required listening alt-rock, this tune would stand alongside of "Corduroy" as one of the best and most honest songs the band would ever write. The lyrics try to hide but become so transparent - with the "cigar box on the floor" being where Cobain had left it, moments before he took his life.

"Immortality" was the answer to the question - and the answer was that Vedder and Pearl Jam were just as confused and heart-broken as everyone else. The final jam would be the hope at the end of the tunnel, as the music itself seemed to celebrate life and survival and goodness and hope. The times had changed... but we would survive, not the same, but not finished or done in, by any means. There was hope.

"Hey foxymophandlemama, that's me!" would end the album. Again considered a strange, wasted experimental throw away like "Bugs," it was more like Pearl Jam's version of the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" - a song deep within the scariest, lost places of the mind. A look at the lyric sheet is disturbing... and perfectly captures the disturbing nature of the entire album. The album ends as lost as it began...

Vitalogy was a testament to the will to move on, to survive - made by a band that was itself dying. After the release of the album, Pearl Jam would go on full retreat, away from the public consciousness. They gave their answer - which was, don't look to rock stars for answers, 'cause we're just as messed up as you are. But here... have hope, live on, and rock out for the hell of it. "Ain't it s'posed to be just fun?"

At this point, in this time, when crisis had struck... well, no. Life is hard. But you've got to live it.

Pearl Jam knew that better than anyone. They would persevere, just as the hints they left for their listeners would encourage them to persevere as well. Vitalogy is the pillar of that “being lost but fighting on” mentality. It answered little, questioned much, but most importantly, blazed a trail of hope and strength for those who dared to wonder what life was all about and what it was worth.