Monday, February 18, 2019

100 Albums: "Nevermind" by Nirvana

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Nirvana
Title: Nevermind
Released: 1991
Genre: It's the template for grunge


To this day, I instinctively try to type "never mind" as a single world.

This is the album that killed hair metal. Perhaps as a reaction to the New Wave and party music of the 80s, the music of the early 90s all took itself very seriously. It was also the era of gangsta rap, after all. Gen-X-ers were the new youth culture and they were angsty and ironic this record in particular spoke to them. It was rough and raw but somehow also pop-friendly and glossy. It was angry but also fun--it was basically punk music, but it was slower and grooved a little. The lyrics were vague and weird and didn't seem to be about anything, but they were also poetic and beautiful in their own way. (And then you actually find out what songs like Polly are about and it sort of blows your mind.)

It has just so many good, enduring songs on it. The singles Smells Like Teen Spirit, Come As You Are, Polly, Lithium, and In Bloom get radio play to this day. Late-album fare like Drain You, Something In The Way, and On A Plain still hold up incredibly well and would get a revival on the bands MTV Unplugged In New York album. Stay Away showed up on the DCG rarities compilation under its original title Pay To Play (This an album that has no reason to exist, but it does exist, and it even had a single: Counting Crows' Einstein On The Beach (For An Eggman).) The hidden track Endless, Nameless gained notoriety for how batshit insane it was that someone would record 7 minutes of instrument-destruction like that, let alone include it on an album. Even the filler tracks, Breed and Territorial Pissings, are catchy.

I'm also a big fan of (the only song I haven't named yet) Lounge Act, largely because it's a nice little showcase for bassist Krist Novoselic. Drummer Dave Grohl and singer/songerwiter/guitarist Kurt Cobain are--rightly--heralded for their talents and contributions, but Novoselic is a bit of an unsung hero. His bass work was never flashy, but in a genre where bassists are assumed to be playing straight root 8th notes, he was always finding something interesting and functional to do. Years of playing with Cobain had knitted them into a tight unit, and I think it's a little under-appreciated how integral he was to Nirvana's sound. This song lets him show off a little.

Further Listening: Cobain's suicide in 1994 cut short Nirvana's career. In a way, that meant that they never had a chance to get stale or tired, and it paved the way for Dave Grohl's decades-long success with Foo Fighters, but it also means the Nirvana catalog is limited to three proper studio albums and a B-sides collection. Their indie debut Bleach, is rough and features a different line-up. Incesticide, the B-sides album, is similarly difficult to listen to, although it did give us Sliver and Aneurysm, which are fun. Their final studio album was In Utero, an intentional step away from the pop sheen of Nevermind. It's less accessible, but still has some amazing tracks on it and a healthy dose of irony, as evidenced in titles like Milk It and Radio-Friendly Unit Shifter. MTV Unplugged In New York is a concert album, and almost half of it is covers of other artists: the Vasolines, Lead Belly, and David Bowie, and then three Meat Puppets songs that feature Curt and Chris Kirkwood of Meat Puppets. It's an odd duck of an Unplugged record, but still quite excellent. I never did get into their other live album, From The Muddy Banks Of The Wishkah. Their hidden track from the No Alternative compilation is worth seeking out, titled variously Sappy, Happy, or Verse Chorus Verse. Finally, there's the song You Know You're Right, which was the last song the band recorded while working on a fourth album that remained unreleased until 2002 because of legal disputes between the surviving band members and Cobain's widow Courtney Love.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

100 Albums: "Hamilton" Original Broadway Cast Recording

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Various, but mostly Lin-Manuel Miranda
Title: Hamilton: An American Musical
Released: 2015
Genre: Hip-Hop Broadway Musical



Yes, it's as good as you've heard, even if you don't listen to rap. I, too, was daunted by the prospect of listening to an over two-hour soundtrack to a hip-hop musical when I don't listen to a lot of hip-hop in the first place (not hip-hop in English, at any rate). And I started it with the assumption that I would give up as soon as I got bored. And I not only finished it, I went back to re-listen to some of the stand-out tracks. The broadway juggernaut is based on Ron Chernow's biography of Alexander Hamilton that lyricst/star/composer Lin-Manuel Miranda was reading on a beach in Hawaii, I presume while he was working on Moana. The musical covers the entire career of Hamilton (his early life is summed up in the first song) as told through the eyes of Aaron Burr, his rival who would eventually kill him in a duel. According to Miranda, Hamilton's life seemed especially well-suited to rap, a music that is associated primarily with black Americans. He was born into squalor and got out of it through his writing--which is essentially the hip-hop narrative. He was derided by his peers as an other, referred to at times as "immigrant" or "creole bastard." He and his friends were abolitionists. At one point the character of John Laurens raps about leading "the first black battalion," which sounds like an embellishment, but in historical fact that is legitimately what Laurens wanted to do.

The arrangements are relatively spare to give extra room to the vocalists, but there are some lovely little musical touches. My favorite is a sample of a horse neighing in Right Hand Man that's been cut up to sound like a record scratch. If you haven't heard any of it, the ratio of rapping to singing is probably a lot lower than what you're expecting (this is true of a lot of modern hip-hop as well). But something that I hadn't thought about at the time that's blindingly obvious now is that rap is extremely well-suited to a stage musical: it's energetic, it's danceable, it delivers lyrics (that is, story) quickly, it blends into basically any other music genre, it celebrates wordplay, and it's old enough to have a fairly rich history and array of sub-genres to tap into. Hamilton makes overt references to The Beastie Boys, Notorious B.I.G., and Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. Oftentimes, differences in delivery are used to demonstrate character growth. Lafayette's first raps involve him stumbling over English pronunciations, but by the end of Act I, he delivers--in a French accent--literally the fastest lyrics in broadway history. Similarly, when Thomas Jefferson shows up in Act II, he's singing a jazz number. His early raps are awkward and forced, but over the course of the act, as he's become a more proficient politician, his raps become smoother and more complex. Not coincidentally, both characters are played by the same actor, Daveed Diggs on the soundtrack, who originated the role.

And it all works because Miranda is a hell of a storyteller. The first big set-piece of the show is My Shot, which centers on the refrain of "I will not throw away my shot"--a thematic element that will resonate throughout the show as a motivating factor for Alexander. It's no surprise that Burr is going to kill Hamilton; Burr says as much in the very first song. What's not as well known, and indeed what the entire show slowly points you towards, is that Hamilton died because he missed Burr on purpose, a practice known as "throwing away shot," and providing justification for what might have compelled him to make that decision. And over the course of two-and-a-half-ish hours (plus intermission), you get to see cabinet debates performed as rap battles, the nightmarish logistics of actually putting on a revolution with very little money, political backstabbery, and some business in Act II that will absolutely break your heart wide open.

It really is as good as you've heard.

Further listening: My Shot is emblematic of the show, but if you want a more thorough sampling, check out Alexander Hamilton, The Schuyler Sisters, You'll Be Back, Wait For It, Yorktown (History Has Its Eyes On You), Cabinet Battle #1, and The Room Where It Happens. Or you can just listen to the whole thing on YouTube.

Monday, February 11, 2019

100 Albums: "MTV Unplugged" by Alice In Chains

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Alice In Chains
Title: MTV Unplugged
Released: 1996
Genre: Acoustic Metal/Grunge


Alice In Chains had pretty much run their course when they put on this concert. They hadn't performed in 2 and a half years. 1995 had seen the release of Alice In Chains, but they didn't do anything else that year. They'd broken up for six months and been plagued by singer Layne Staley's heroin habit. This performance was recorded in April of 1996. They would put on their last performance with Staley in July of that year, after which he would disappear into his addiction and eventually die of an overdose in 2002. Writer and co-singer Jerry Cantrell would start a successful solo career, and the band would reform with new singer William DuVall in 2006.

I love Alice In Chains, and part of what I love about this album is that it is part greatest hits collection, part heavy metal deconstruction, and part swan song for Layne Staley. Their sound was defined by the way Staley's nasal vocals were layered over top of each other and against Cantrell's throaty baritone. Hearing these songs rendered acoustically takes away the buzzing vocals and crunching guitars and strips the songs down to their core melodic elements and simple Staley/Cantrell harmonies. Songs like Over Now, Down In A Hole, and Rooster really benefit from this rendering.

The performance is rough, but there's an honesty to it that I find compelling. They goof off and make mistakes. It's not captured on the album, but if you watch the DVD of the concert, they stop Sludge Factory and start it over because Staley flubs a lyric. The vocals on the chorus of Heaven Beside You sound out of key, and the guitar solo just doesn't land right. And then there are the little improvisational moments, like Cantrell riffing before they play their last song. Metallica were in the audience and had just cut their hair short, so the band poked fun at them. Bassist Mike Inez played a few bars of Enter Sandman which Staley introduced as an L.L. Cool J. song. It's a weird joke and not really funny, but it's also a very honest moment between friends having a laugh.

Further Listening: Jar Of Flies is the studio almost-an-album where they messed around with writing almost exclusively on acoustic guitars, and it produced two incredible songs: I Stay Away and No Excuses. Their self-titled album has studio versions of Heaven Beside You and Over Now and is a pretty solid album in its own right. Dirt is kind of scattershot, but it has more good songs than bad and several of their biggest hits.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

100 Albums Supplemental: Christian Rock

10 posts down. 90 to go. Whew!

So, in the last post, I talked about how I'd listened to a lot of Christian music as a kid and how--since I'm not really religious anymore--it doesn't resonate with me in the same way and can in fact be uncomfortable for me to listen to. But the late 90s was an interesting time for Christian music and I think it's worth talking about even though most of the albums aren't in any danger of making my top 100 (caveat: there are two more Christian rock acts that did make the top 100, so if something seems missing here, there's a reason for that).

So without further ado, some albums I used to love and really can't bring myself to listen to anymore.

dc Talk - Jesus Freak

Originally a rap trio whose closest sonic contemporary was probably Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, dc Talk's best known song up this point was Jesus Is Still Alright which heavily sampled The Doobie Brothers. They had drifted from euro-dance rap into the more sample-driven East Coast style but always with a bright pop family-friendly sheen over it. And then they went and recorded an alternative record and I'll be damned (literally, I suppose) if it wasn't the best thing any of us had ever heard. As a marketing strategy, they'd sent out CD singles with CD-ROM content to youth groups. And it really changed the game because it was first and foremost good, interesting music and it spearheaded something of a revitalization movement within Christian Contemporary Music. Part of what made is so compelling was the way it hybridized of alt-rock and hip-hop sensibilities to make something new. It used rock music structures, but the singers traded off vocals within a song and backed/hyped each other up like the Beastie Boys. The record, meanwhile, was structured more like a 90s rap record with skits and interludes. And it was just fun music. There was the juggernaut of a title track of course, but other favorites included Day By Day and In The Light.

How does it hold up? For me, not very well. There was in-fighting within the Christian Contemporary Music community (no, really) about whether a band could really call itself Christian if most of their songs weren't about Jesus, and dc Talk definitely fit into the message-heavy camp. In fact, they had a few songs that criticized other artists (without directly naming them, of course) for being message-light. This was something I loved about it as a kid and part of what makes it harder to listen to now. As I mentioned in the Sixpence None The Richer post, I'm 100% fine with Christianity as a perspective, but I don't enjoy being thumped over the head with messages I don't agree with. And it doesn't help that the lyrics were a little... blah. Not bad, but... "spiritual baby-food" was a phrase that got thrown around a bit. Some of the mellower tracks that had a bit more maturity actually hold up pretty well as far as I'm concerned, thinking specifically of Between You And Me and Mind's Eye. They're still preachy, but at least they feel like they have something to say.

Jars Of Clay - Jars Of Clay

This was band that inspired the term "alternacoustic" after a crossover mainstream hit with the song Flood. It stood out because of the peculiar arrangement of the songs: acoustic guitars over machine drums with a thick slather of orchestration. The album felt like it hadn't been written and performed so much as frankensteined together from parts of a dozen different recording sessions and demos (this is not a dig, by the way, there are some great franken-records out there). Flood was the breakout hit, but unfortunately it didn't sound like anything else on the record, so a lot of people picked it up and felt cheated. The rest of us slowly fell in love with it, though, mellow broodishness and all. As the band continued to put out albums, they got more and more, well... boring. Much Afraid was pretty decent, but you could already hear them moving away from the acoustic-guitars-plus model into a more contemporary rock-band sound, and the drums got better-but-not-quite-good, so they no longer sounded stylized, just fake. I'm convinced that their self-titled debut was a happy accident of sorts.

How does it hold up? Okay-ish. Worlds Apart is still pretty excellent. Flood mostly feels very dated, and I think enough time has passed for us to admit that it was never quite as good as we thought it was. I still like Art In Me, but previous favorites like Love Song For A Savior and Like A Child don't sit well. Also, the last track is almost thirty minutes long because it's weighed down with hidden-track nonsense that's just part of the recording session from Blind and is not interesting AT ALL.

Audio Adrenaline - Don't Censor Me

College rock with some virtuoso guitar and bass work. A youth minister once told me that in college it was what they would have called "fag rock", so make of that what you will. The breakout song was Big House, but We're A Band was a great late-album jam and I adored Scum Sweetheart, which was a strange and kind of bluesy closer. I saw them in concert supporting this, and they played a rock version of If You're Happy And You Know It that was just as much silly fun as you can imagine.

How does it hold up? Poorly. Mostly because the lyrics are awful. They were never great, but I think Audio A got graded on a curve because they were message-forward. These days I find it almost unlistenable, and the "don't censor me" mantra of the title track honestly feels toxic in the modern culture-war context.

Newsboys - Going Public

Finally some decent lyricists. They got a little silly on their follow-up Take Me To Your Leader, which was I think their most popular album, but I always thought Going Public was the better record. It's a bit more raw and less self-deprecating, feels more like a rock record, before they were writing silly (if clever) songs about breakfast cereal.

How does it hold up? It was always a little rough around the edges, so I never turned against it so much as I just sort of forgot about it. The standout song, Shine, hasn't aged well at all, and not just because its hook sounds like it was stolen from Hot Chocolate's You Sexy Thing. There's a line in there about making "a vegetarian barbecue hamster" that was really funny when I was young WASP but it less so now that I have a diversified friend group.

Michael W. Smith - i 2 (EYE)

I... um... Look, it came out when I was eight years old. When I was, I dunno, eleven or twelve my youth choir went on "tour" with a show that was mostly stuff from Go West Young Man but included Secret Ambition from this album, and it's an awesome song if you're twelve and in a youth group in the early 90s. I also really dug Hand Of Providence and All You're Missing Is A Heartache, which had an earnestness to it that I found compelling. It was the first Michael W. Smith album to go platinum and had a bit more of a "serious artist" vibe than previous records, like his second album Michael W. Smith 2 whose cover was a picture of him climbing on the argyle pattern of his sweater. Throughout his early career he seemed to have been styled as a Christian George Michael, which feels terribly, terribly wrong-headed now.

How does it hold up? About as well as anything that came out in 1988.

Monday, February 4, 2019

100 Albums: "This Beautiful Mess" by Sixpence None The Richer

Kurt is going through his favorite records. Read the explainer or view the master list.

Artist: Sixpence None The Richer
Title: This Beautiful Mess
Released: 1995
Genre: Christian alt-rock


Yes, that Sixpence None The Richer, but at the same time, no, not that Sixpence None The Richer. Before they were the treacly pop band who sang Kiss Me and covered Crowded House and The La's, they were an alt-rock band with a different line-up on an independent label that specialized mostly in Christian heavy metal. All of this to say, don't just this record by Kiss Me.

A lot of the music I listened to during my formative years was from Christian bands, and for various reasons many of those albums that I once loved dearly are now difficult for me to listen to. This Beautiful Mess is an exception. That's because for this record, religion isn't a message so much as a perspective from which to explore themes of love, death, mistakes, sex, doubt, addiction, anxiety... you know, grown-up stuff. But it's never about judging, just about experiencing the mess of life and finding the beauty in the dissonance.

The music is guitar-forward--the obvious influences are the Cure and U2--but the real secret weapon here is Leigh Nash's amazing voice. It's beautifully textured and she sings with yearning and passion. The opener Angeltread is the hardest-rocking and possibly also the least interesting. The real gems are Love, Salvation, The Fear Of Death (embedded above), Within A Room Somewhere, and Circle Of Error, but there's not a bad track on it.

Further Listening: After this album, two of the members quit, and Sixpence transformed into the Kiss Me band, which also started them on the road to mainstream success. Their previous album, also their debut, Fatherless And The Widow, is almost un-listenable. They have an EP called Tickets For A Prayer Wheel that includes an extended demo of Within A Room Somewhere, and while the EP is only okay, the indulgent guitar solo outro on that demo is pretty remarkable.