Monday, October 25, 2010

1990: "My Little Problem", The Replacements

I already had to break out the Windows Movie Maker on account of not being able to find a single Youtube video of the Silos, so I figured I'd kill two birds and get around to that homebrewed Replacements video like I earlier promised. It's still astounding to me that "My Little Problem" hasn't been handed down as one of the six or eight best Paul Westerberg songs ever, but considering it heralds from the hands down worst of the non-punk Replacements records perhaps it's no surprise (ie. Sorry Ma Forgot to Take Out the Trash is worse but that's like comparing Meat Puppets to Huevos).

Originally intended as Westerberg's solo debut, All Shook Down has a smattering of the Replacements here and there functioning as session musicians, but rarely in the same place. "My Little Problem" was buried toward the end of the track sequencing but, again, I don't see how anyone can listen to the full album and not cherry pick this song as its brightest moment. A duet with Concrete Blonde's Johnette Napolitano, whose fierce singing makes the likes of Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett both look like shoegazers by comparison, "Problem" rides a clean, driving riff hearkening back to mid-80s LA (no, not hair band LA, LA LA). A fitting end to the Replacements legacy, even if the rest of the album did its best to sandbag that effort.

SPOTLIGHT: Decline of Hair Metal pre-"Nevermind"

There's a common narrative that has long since spilled over from academic / journalist circles into public discourse: in 1991, hair metal bands like Poison, Motley Crue, Winger, etc still ruled over the kingdom of pop music, their reign unchallenged and seemingly bulletproof until Nirvana came along in September of that year and banished the hairspray and Spandex brigade to the hinterlands, never to be heard from again.

Well, I'm not here to argue the idea that Nevermind changed the popular music landscape - that it certainly did - but there is a decided bit of myth making to the other end of the argument that it's high time was exposed, that being the idea that hair metal was still in a sanguine state at the time. On the contrary, as we'll see below, hair metal peaked around 1987-88 and by two years later was already a shadow of its former self.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

1990: "F*!#in' Up", Neil Young & Crazy Horse

The alt-country movement (I've always been disappointed that "insurgent country" didn't stick) was nothing if not a reevaluation of 70s country rock filtered through punk's ragged energy and insistent authenticity, and on those terms you'd think someone like Neil Young would have made a stellar figurehead: literate yet vocally lower class, willfully defiant of prepackaged record label bullshit, immersed in fat-of-the-land, rural Americana though unafraid of offering a fringe dweller's revisionist take on it... Young seemed custom built to carry this grassroots subgenre on his back.

Except Neil Young has never been a "movement" kind of guy, and as bands like Uncle Tupelo, the Silos, Blood Oranges, Freakwater, etc were pioneering an indie take on American roots music at the dawn of the 90s, Young just so happened to be in the midst of a hard rocking renaissance after spending most of the 80s sans Crazy Horse, his longtime backing band. So, like it or not, Neil Young was about to be nominated the unofficial godfather of the nascent grunge scene instead, a genre which had been around for a few years by that point but - in 1990 - was only just sloughing off the shackling hardcore and noise rock influences, and thus finally coalescing into a sustainable form of rock & roll.

Young would go on to collaborate on a decidedly non-commercial album with Pearl Jam (which is arguably the pivot that set the latter band off on their "difficult" phase) and be name checked in Kurt Cobain's suicide note, a nod that Young himself would return with "Sleeps With Angels", his ode to grunge's fallen godhead.

In 1990, however, Young was concentrating on recapturing the old magic after basically sucking for the majority of the 80s. That year's Ragged Glory was only the second album Young had recorded with Crazy Horse since 1981, and that had little to do with any falling out or creative differences, it was just that Neil was off experimenting during the Reagan Era with different styles that were not Crazy Horse's forte... or Neil's either, for that matter (contrast the split with Crazy Horse with, say, Tom Petty's solo Full Moon Fever from the year prior, which by all accounts should have been a fucking Heartbreakers album).

1987's Life - Young's most recent collaboration with Crazy Horse at the time - may not have been an embarrassment but it was hardly loved by anyone either. Since then, however, he'd made a pretty compelling comeback bid with the bluesy This Note's For You (which actually featured several unbilled Crazy Horse members as session musicians) and 1989's Freedom. The latter in particular is generally regarded as square one in Young's late period reemergence as an artistic force, and featured his first significant "hit" in years, "Keep On Rocking in the Free World".

"F*!#in' Up" not only has a set of lyrics that would do his Seattle acolytes proud, but the central guitar riff has a filthy insistence to it as if it were custom built for a band like Pearl Jam to cover in their live act... which they have, along with "Keep On Rocking in the Free World", time and time again. The fact that Eddie Vedder's crew choose these particular Neil Young songs to pay tribute to is no accident... they were contemporary with the members of Pearl Jam' beginning their music careers and, as such, were no doubt tremendously influential. As with anyone of Neil Young's proficiency, the man has continued to have his peaks and valleys artistically over the ensuing two decades; but then, so has Pearl Jam, the last of the true grunge bands, and they're not exactly shitting out three albums every two years either.

1990: "Shady Grove", Blood Oranges

Another early entry in the alt-country sweepstakes, Blood Oranges were a band that had their hearts in the right places but were maybe a bit too polished and loyal to the dying roots rock scene. Never remotely popular in their time, even today the Oranges are rarely mentioned outside of Americana crate digging circles. Still a fine band in their own right, but if you've already done Uncle Tupelo to death and want more stripped down alt country of similar authenticity, you're better off ditching the slick veneers of the Silos and Blood Oranges and going with either the Jayhawks or Freakwater, neither of which had albums out in 1990 to fit in with present coverage. They both beat Uncle Tupelo to vinyl, though.

1990: "Commodore Peter", The Silos

While No Depression is generally regarded as the first real Americana album, there were a number of earlier progenitors that would retroactively need to be slapped with the alt-country tag after the fact, one of the more notable being the Silos. However, you can listen to a lot of these early Americana acts like the Silos and hear instantly why Uncle Tupelo are considered so trail blazing while few of their contemporaries are. It's not that the Silos or groups like them are necessarily generic or uninspired, it's that you can still distinctly hear the relics of the hugely popular roots rock movement that peaked and crashed only a few years prior in the mid-80s, usually to the point that the roots rock elements are predominant, and any stab at the folk or country blues traditions is almost incidental.

So the genius of Uncle Tupelo had as much to do with taking 40 grit sandpaper to the era's polished production values as it did their choice in material. It's well within imaginable realms to ponder Jeff Tweedy singing a song like "Commodore Peter", but what separates his band from one like the Silos is that the latter still hew closely to the rootsy jangle pop sound of the 80s, while you couldn't really see Uncle Tupelo fucking with arpeggiated chords. To Tweedy and Jay Farrar the Silos probably sounded a lot closer to REM than anything Uncle Tupelo was going for.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ALBUM SPOTLIGHT: "No Depression", Uncle Tupelo

The importance of Uncle Tupelo is impossible to overstate. Did they invent what they became known for? Oh, sweet love of God, no. The mixing of punk rock swagger with traditional country and rural folk elements had become common enough (particularly in the LA music scene) that the term "cowpunk" was already common parlance by the mid-80s. And, especially early on, there were definitely cornerstones of the Tupelo sound that owed nearly everything to the by then stale cowpunk scene:

"Before I Break"

But in our haste to reach for antecedents let's not undersell the more exploratory side of the band's legacy, which came when they turned the volume down and got introspective. At that point they tended to jettison punk rock altogether and became something more akin to Neil Young acolytes:

"Life Worth Livin'"

Eventually Uncle Tupelo - Jay Farrar, Jeff Tweedy and drummer Mike Heidorn - would outgrow these formative influences and forge something unique, something elemental, out of that decidedly un-chic foundation, but when No Depression was unleashed on the public in 1990 the trio was still in full on deconstruction mode, stripping cowpunk and Neil Young's patented proto-grunge down to the frame, dowsing it with half full cans of mismatched primer and taking it for a fast ride down the country lanes of Southwestern Illinois. It was that alchemy which would prove prophetic and vastly influential.

"Whiskey Bottle"

Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention that the title cut from Uncle Tupelo's debut, itself a cover of an old Carter Family song, became the moniker of the magazine No Depression, a bi-monthly publication first appearing in 1995 that arguably did more to define the nascent musical genre "Americana", as well as consolidate it into an actual "scene", than any other band or entity on the planet.

"No Depression"

Monday, October 18, 2010

1990: "Independence Day", Vic Chesnutt

One of the key artists bridging the gap between the jangle pop / post-punk scene of the 80s in Athens, GA and the later country-rock / Americana predominance in that same city, Vic Chesnutt established himself as an articulate outsider early on. Produced by fellow Athens alum Michael Stipe, Little constituted a low key bid at folky Americana the same year Uncle Tupelo was taking credit for establishing the sub-genre across the country in Illinois. Few of his contemporaries could match Chesnutt for sheer literacy, but a reedy voice and insistence on hewing close to acoustic roots music found the man a footnote next to his more "rockist" Americana peers. On Christmas Day, 2009, Chesnutt succumbed to an overdose of muscle relaxants, prescription drugs having been a mainstay of his entire adult life after a car accident left him paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 18.

1990: "Ghost Highway", Mazzy Star

When Opal splintered in the midst of a tour for their 1987 opus Happy Nightmare Baby, guitarist David Roback replaced vocalist Kendra Smith with Hope Sandoval and briefly continued the Opal brand, penning a handful of new songs for a second Opal full length to be titled Ghost Highway. By 1989 he had renamed the band Mazzy Star and the following year that band debuted with She Hangs Brightly. Building on his Paisley Underground roots by incorporating various Americana elements - blues, folk, country - into the Paisley bouillabaisse of psychedelia, dream pop and 60s rock, Mazzy Star took a few years before finding their feet with the hit 1994 single, "Fade Into You" (itself charting only a year or so after its parent album dropped), but in retrospect She Hangs Brightly is hardly a furtive creative effort. The song "Ghost Highway" sounds driven and self assured while setting the template for the band's metamorphosis from the Paisley overtones of Opal into the rootsier strains of Mazzy Star.

BONUS: Opal playing "Ghost Highway" live in 1988.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

1990: "Kaleidoscope" / "Eleanor Everything", The Boo Radleys

Ostensibly an element of the shoegaze genre at the dawn of their career, the Boo Radleys took several years and a number of albums before shedding the schizophrenia of their influences and settling into a focused yet diverse sound.

"Kaleidoscope" reveals the band struggling somewhat clumsily with the washed out psychedelia of shoegaze, furtive attempts at melody not entirely jibing with the sonic density required of the genre:

"Eleanor Everything" is a much better representation of the Britpop influences which would eventually dominate the band's repertoire, beginning with 1993's brashly titled Giant Steps:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

1990: "Seeing Things", The Black Crowes

You already know the hits... to death, probably. Released in January 1990, Shake Your Moneymaker was one of the first monster albums of the new decade. No fewer than four of the album's ten songs have established themselves as quintessential hard rock classics, and twenty years later it's hard to find a bar jukebox in the U.S. that doesn't play "She Talks to Angels" every 10 or 15 songs.

"Seeing Things" was also a minor single (one of the few for which no music video was made) but is largely unfamiliar to the casual Crowes fan. It's fairly formulaic by the band's standards, and the gospel overtones invite open comparison to the superior "She Talks to Angels", but it's a catchy enough cut that, had it been released on one of their later albums when hit songs were in short supply, it likely would have been handed down as one of their more popular tunes. As it is, "Seeing Things" sits proudly perched atop the second tier of Crowes material.

1990: "Fly Me Courageous", Drivin' N' Cryin'

There were any number of bands toiling away making sloppy, inaccessible roots rock throughout the 80s, and by the dawn of the new decade - with metal-tinged arena rock all the rage - many of those who had failed to gain recognition on their own terms decided to give the more commercial route a shot instead of just packing it in altogether.

As one might expect, most of these bands made a mockery out of themselves and quickly faded into the obscurity they seemed destined for all along. One of the more promising success stories was Kevn Kinney's Drivin' N' Cryin'. The band hailed from Atlanta, GA, just a stone's throw from the 80s college rock hotbed of Athens. By 1990, northern Georgia wasn't quite the A&R recon zone that it used to be, and - likely emboldened by the mainstream success of fellow Atlantans the Black Crowes - Kinney and cohorts hooked up with producer Geoff Workman and refashioned their scuzzy southern rock into a slick AOR formula.

The results were a rare home run in the "sell out" sweepstakes: Fly Me Courageous became a brief crossover hit when the album dropped on Jan. 8, 1991, almost a full year to the day after the Black Crowes debuted with their own Shake Your Moneymaker [the "Fly Me Courageous" single was serviced to radio a few weeks before the album proper came out, which is why it makes the cut for 1990]. Unfortunately for the band, the increasingly slick, vapid strains of hair metal and AOR were rapidly turning listeners off in droves, and by the time Smoke was released two years later it seemed largely anachronistic in what by then was the heyday of grunge.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

1990: "I Know Your Little Secret", The Afghan Whigs

The first band signed to Sub Pop outside the Pacific Northwest, Greg Dulli's Afghan Whigs leveraged their Midwestern roots and Replacements influences into a swelling nest egg of indie rock cred, surfacing at the dawn of the 90s with their Sub Pop debut (and second album overall), Up In It. These days, the record is probably name checked more often than listened to (much like the early, punk driven Lemonheads efforts) but it's an important touchstone in the band's artistic development nonetheless. Though not quite shedding their sloppy punk roots altogether - see "Retard" and "Amphetamines and Coffee" - Up In It represented the Whigs' first real stab at actual songwriting, and it didn't hurt that this upstart band from Cincinnati manifested a loose sonic solidarity with the coalescing grunge movement.