China: 20 Years of Either/Or


Elliott Smith – Either/Or

Released February 25th, 1997 on Kill Rock Stars Records

BestEverAlbums:  #149

RYM:  #106

Kurt Cobain may have been louder and flashier, but Elliott Smith really was the quintessential Nineties rock star.  Haunted, brooding, and darkly melodic, he epitomized the “tortured artist” aesthetic that was popular during the first half of the decade.  Raised in an abusive environment in Texas, he moved to Portland, Oregon and channeled his demons into drugs, alcohol, and music.  His original band, Heatmiser, wasn’t anything particularly special but his solo releases – 1994’s Roman Candle and 1995’s self-titled LP – captured the imagination of listeners much more.  Those solo releases had little to do with what Heatmiser was doing, and in the fall of 1996, shortly before their last album was released, they broke up (fun fact: bassist Sam Coomes would go on to be the frontman for Quasi).  Smith’s next release would eclipse both his former band and everything he had recorded up until that point.


Either/Or was first an attempt by Smith to vary the moods on an album.  Elliott Smith had been an album that was largely the same from beginning to end:  acoustic confessionals about drugs and depression.  Either/Or has some of those, of course:  “Speed Trials”, “Between The Bars”, and “No Name No. 5” are evidence of that.  Songs like “Alameda”, “Ballad Of Big Nothing”, and “Rose Parade”, though, are evidence of something bigger:  songs by a guy who proved on this album that he could craft big hooks, emotionally impactful melodies, and arrangements that were built to last.  That last item is especially important:  Either/Or doesn’t sound like 1997 – there’s no pandering to teen pop, or ska, or post-grunge trends.  It could have been released last year, or ten years ago, or today.  It’s songs and it’s themes are artistically timeless, even more so now that the waves of the Great American Heroin Addiction have crashed over the shores of seemingly every state in the Union.


Everything that came after – Gus Van Sant’s love of the album, Good Will Hunting, “Miss Misery”, Smith’s two major label albums, and his mysterious death – would cement his legend.  Either/Or is the moment that Emily St. John Mandel describes in Station Eleven:  a moment that, ever after, would divide Smith’s life into “Before” and “After”.  Before Either/Or, he was an up-and-coming songwriter with an acoustic guitar and a monkey on his back.  After, he was a bona fide rock star with a following and highly-placed friends.  Neither would prevent him from slipping a little further into addiction and depression – or from dying in Los Angeles with twin stab wounds to the chest, a death still shrouded to this day in suspicion and mystery.


China: 20 Years of Marcy Playground


Marcy Playground – Marcy Playground

Released February 25th, 1997 on Capitol Records

One of these days I plan on doing a listicle called “Ten Albums From The 90s That Aren’t As Bad As You Remember” and #1 on that list is Marcy Playground.  Also, Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase and Live’s Throwing Copper, but that’s beside the point.  Marcy Playground is one of the most criminally overlooked album of the Nineties, but at the same time it’s completely understandable as to why that occurred.  The band’s first single, “Sex And Candy” was…well, you know it.  Don’t pretend like you don’t.  You’ve sung along to it, and I don’t particularly care how old “you” are.  You like sex, and you like candy, and you like “Sex And Candy”.  Unfortunately, it was 1997, and one hit wonders were par for the course for alternative rock by then.  Remember Seven Mary Three?  The Nixons?  Chumbawumba?  Semisonic?  Marcy Playground is counted in those ranks, because “Sex And Candy” was huge, the other singles from the album didn’t make much of a dent in the radio, and the follow-up, 1999’s Shapeshifter, was listened to by approximately seven people worldwide.


So why are we marking the anniversary?  It’s because Marcy Playground is something of a lost gem.  It is a much better album than it has a right to be, and that all comes down to John Wozniak’s winsome songs that feature very dark shadows lurking in the corners.  “Poppies” almost feels educational, with lyrics about the British opium trade with China, until you realize that the fate being sealed that he’s talking about is heroin.  Heroin also features, implied or explicit, in “Ancient Walls Of Flowers”, “The Vampires Of New York”, and “Opium”.  “Gone Crazy”, in context of the other songs, feels somewhat sinister, and “One More Suicide” is pretty much what it says on the tin.  “Saint Joe On The School Bus” is about getting bullied mercilessly, and “The Shadow Of Seattle” posits a rainy war on art.  The moments of levy stick out all the more for the darkness that shrouds the indie-pop arrangements:  “Sherry Fraser” is about old love, “A Cloak Of Elvenkind” is a peaceful little song about Dungeons and Dragons and parental disapproval, and the ubiquitous “Sex And Candy” is a jumble of vaguely sexy non-sentences, capped with a hook that is an inside joke about Wozniak having sex with his girlfriend in her dorm room.  The arrangements are tight, the guitars have just the right shade of grunge crunch without being histrionic and overbearing, and the hooks are goddamn barbed.


As I said before, the band would go on to do pretty much nothing in terms of mainstream exposure, although they keep releasing albums for a fanbase that must exist somewhere.  Right?  There are people out there that listen to Marcy Playground albums?  Wozniak isn’t just releasing these albums into the void for no one to listen to, like I do?  Who knows.  Marcy Playground stands as their legacy, though, an album that will continue to be remembered even if it’s just because “Sex And Candy” is such an iconic Nineties song.  There are worse positions for a band to be in.

Time Sinks, Obscure Metal Acts, and Crusader Kings II: I Nab A Guest Spot On Literate Gamer


Visit the above link.  Such is the path to madness You’ll find an excellent podcast episode of Literate Gamer featuring yours truly.  Crusader Kings II!  Was there ever a more fascinating way to avoid all of your responsibilities?  There most certainly was not.


Pearl: 30 Years of Abigail


King Diamond – Abigail

Released February 24th, 1987 on Roadrunner Records

Man, Mercyful Fate.  For an up-and-coming metalhead like I was in 1996-1997, there was nothing quite like discovering them.  My first exposure was either through Metallica’s Garage Inc. (where the band covered five Mercyful Fate songs) or through an old Metal Blade compilation we used to blast while playing euchre.  Either way, they were a quick favourite of mine, and why not?  They had great riffs, their imagery was over-the-top, and those vocals!  Kim Bendix Peterson, with his operatic range, seemed to summon up long-dead ghosts every time he opened his mouth.  I was a little defeated when I learned that the band had only recorded two albums before breaking up, but re-energized when I found out that the vocalist – the mighty King Diamond – had gone solo and taken the guitarist and bassist from Mercyful Fate with him.


The band’s first album – 1986’s Fatal Portrait – sold well, but Abigail is their first bona fide classic.  For one thing, it’s the band’s first concept album, a trope they would continue through the rest of their releases.  While some of their later stories would get a bit esoteric, Abigail is a classic ghost story, about a couple in the mid-Nineteenth Century who inherit a haunted house and are slowly destroyed by it over the course of the album.  Miriam, the woman who’d moved in, is pregnant with the spirit of the old owner’s stillborn child, Abigail, and the possessed child will wreak untold havoc.  After a series of bad omens, ominous foreboding, and ghostly encounters, all hell breaks loose.  It is, in short, metal as fuck.


Said metalness is borne out by the music the narration is carried on.  The band takes the basic sound of Mercyful Fate and expands on it.  Heavy guitar riffs are rendered heavier by space, reverb, and better production.  The drums punch through the mix in precisely the right fashion, and newcomer Andy LaRocque’s guitar work glows in the dark, like uranium fireflies in the darkest part of the forest.  The focus is, naturally, on King Diamond’s soaring voice, and despite what my Cannibal Corpse-loving guitar teacher once thought, there’s really no finer vehicle for ghostly destruction than his soured-opera-gone-Satanic delivery.  The fact that such a chilling, disturbing story can be paired with such a great package of post-thrash metal is exactly why King Diamond has continued to endure over three decades.

Ruby: 40 Years of Cheap Trick


Cheap Trick – Cheap Trick

Released February, 1977 on Epic Records

Sometime in February of 1977, one of the more interesting journeys in rock ‘n’ roll began.  Cheap Trick, a power pop band from Rockford, Illinois, released a self-titled debut with a black-and-white cover; unassuming as hell, and yet as vital as anything else released during that fabled year.  The band would go on to get big in Japan, want you to want them, and flame out in the Eighties on a power ballad, only to achieve a weird kind of undead half-life from the mid-Nineties onward.  Cheap Trick is where that starts, however, and their lasting power is directly evident from the start.


First of all, power pop is sort of a problematic term for them.  It’s a term used to dance around punk rock without having to hold your nose about it.  Punk rock is indelibly coded as requiring a certain look:  spiked hair, ripped clothing, blatantly anti-social imagery.  Also a necessary factor:  a certain speed of song, a certain tone of guitar, a certain snarled English accent.  Thanks Malcolm McLaren.  Thanks Rancid.  Thanks Exploited (sincerely).  Power pop, then, is what you call a punk band that doesn’t look like UK hardcore circa 1981.  You’ve got that loud guitar and that edgy lyrical outlook, but you don’t pound away at three chords and you might not be from Leeds.  Think of Elvis Costello, Blondie, The Cars, and so on:  they were, in 1977 (or a year later for the Cars), just as cutting-edge and pointed as the stuff typically labelled “punk rock”.  With regard to the above definition, however, how can you call Blondie “punk rock”?  It’s half disco ferchrissakes.


This is a roundabout way of saying that Cheap Trick is just as punk rock as the Sex Pistols and the Clash.  In that strangely portentous year (birthing punk rock and hip hop in the same squalid atmosphere), it is highly reflective of the cynical, jaded themes being generated by Western culture as a whole.  “ELO Kiddies” is pure teenage degeneracy, delivered dripping with menace.  “Daddy Should Have Stayed In High School” shows Matthew McConaughey’s character in Dazed And Confused to be a pure creep.  “Taxman, Mr. Thief” is anti-government; “Oh Candy” deals with the suicide of a close friend of the band.  “He’s A Whore” turns Robin Zander into a gigolo; “The Ballad Of TV Violence (I’m Not The Only Boy)” turns him into Richard Speck.  It’s not all edgy material and heavy guitar, of course; tracks like “Cry, Cry” and “Speak Now Or Forever Hold Your Peace” manage to get by with just the heavy guitar. The only reason that this album isn’t considered a punk rock classic is because Robin Zander sang a little too classic rock and the band’s lover of checker design and five-necked guitars made them seem perhaps a bit too nerdy and overindulgent.  Plus, Bun E. Carlos looks like an insurance salesman and Rick Nielsen goes out of his way to be as utterly corny as possible every given moment of the day.  Still, music is about music at the end of the day, regardless of how one’s perception of the makers colours and shapes the music for the listener.


Cheap Trick would be the start of an impressive five-album run that took them to 1979 and include the best live album ever recorded, At Budokan.  This debut is on the whole edgier than their later recordings, although of course “Auf Wiedersehen” would outsnarl anything here or elsewhere.  It’s a perfect match in tone, however, for 1977, a year that in retrospect seems as though it was dominated by menace and a sense that, under the modern sheen of the contemporary capitalist world-economy, there was serious turmoil bubbling under.


Ruby: 40 Years of Damned Damned Damned


The Damned – Damned Damned Damned

Released February 18th, 1977 on Stiff Records

The Damned beat the Sex Pistols to punk rock by mere months.  Popular recognition goes to Johnny Rotten and Co. because of the visual aspect:  the Sex Pistols looked like something you would decry as “punk rock” in the tabloid newspapers while the legislature was issuing proclamations banning them.  The Damned just looked like smart-ass kids, theatre students who were really into Alice Cooper and the Rolling Stones.  They avoided Clash-like posturing and politics as well, preferring to sing about getting laid and being degenerate.  Regardless, their lead single “New Rose” established the scene, and the success of that single brought them into the studio to record their album.  Damned Damned Damned feels like a defining document, even though it never gets treated as such.  “Neat Neat Neat” and “I Fall” set the pace for every band that came after, though; the compact, gut-punch guitar work of Brian James makes the genre’s aggressiveness known right away, and his buzzsaw playing drew contemporary comparisons to Pete Townshend.  The drummer, Rat Scabies, is of note as well, with an early look into the tightly controlled pounding he would become known for.  This is especially true of the riveting intro to “New Rose”, which batters down all opposition in favour of pure rock.  “Fan Club” and “Feel The Pain” touch on the aforementioned Alice Cooper influence, and also presage the band’s eventual turn toward gothic rock.  “Born To Kill” is the opening salvo in what punk rock would sound like within five years.  The Sex Pistols may have won the fashion show, but The Damned defined the sound in a visceral way.


China: 20 Years of City


Strapping Young Lad – City

Released February 11th, 1997 on Century Media

Devin Townsend is fully aware of how completely ridiculous many of the tropes in metal are.  Think about it for a second.  They are.  There’s a reason that the genre is most popular among 14 year old boys – it’s because those are the people most willing to swallow absurdity in the face of pure, naked aggression (see also Trump supporters).  Townsend knows how ridiculous the tropes are because he lived them; before forming Strapping Young Lad, the Vancouver musician was best known for providing the vocals to Steve Vai’s uneven 1993 album Sex And Religion.  His experience with record labels and the music business led him to his awakening:  metal is absurd, the business is absurd, so you may as well have some fun with it.  A little burned out and feeling like a “musical whore” for working his muse at the command of other people, he recorded Heavy As A Heavy Thing, an album lost on it’s contemporary listeners, even in 1995.  People sat up and took notice when City came out, however, and it marks the beginning of the metal community’s embrace of Strapping Young Lad and their balls-out, “twist-the-dial-back-and-forth-until-it-snaps” version of extreme metal.


City is a solid trash metal album buried carefully in a really stellar industrial noise album.  For every moment of straight-ahead pummeling (like the beginning of “Home Nucleonics”, or the massive breakdown in “AAA”) there are layers of digital textures and those Townsend vocals that sound like they were lifted whole and breathing off of dank, bloody German industrial records.  The influence isn’t particularly surprising – Vancouver is, after all, the home of Skinny Puppy, Frontline Assembly, and a bajillion other industrial acts – but Townsend’s mixing of it with his obvious mastery of metal forms is what puts City over the edge into being a bona-fide classic.


Ruby: 40 Years of Marquee Moon


Television – Marquee Moon

Released February 8th, 1977 on Elektra Records

BestEverAlbums:  #47

RYM:  #28

Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell met in boarding school.  Later, they moved to New York City, chasing poetry.  Then, because it was NYC in the 1970s (or, rather, NYC at any time) they formed bands – first Neon Boys, and then in 1973, Television.


The story of Television is the story of a lot of seminal punk acts from the late 1970s on the Lower East Side, only they were there first.  Their manager convinced Hilly Kristal, owner of the legendary CBGB club, to give them a gig in 1974; within two years the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and a zillion other acts would make their name playing there, but Television built that stage (literally).  From 1975 onward they had a regular gig at CBGB’s, and in early 1977 they released the founding document of the era, Marquee Moon.  It would be released without Richard Hell, however; Verlaine had gotten sick of Richard’s continual need to be the center of attention on stage (and, for the mostly-sober Verlaine, probably Richard Hell’s prodigious heroin usage).  Hell would go on to inspire Malcolm McLaren (and thereby the entire “punk fashion” thing) as well as involvement with two other albums we’ll be celebrating this year.  Television would become the playground of Tom Verlaine and the band’s other guitarist, Richard Lloyd.


As a “founding document” for punk rock, Marquee Moon can seem a little strange.  It eschews a few things that people take for granted as being part of the basic construction set for punk.  There are none of the “wall of sound” power chords that the Ramones and Sex Pistols were built on; there aren’t even the ragged open chords that The Clash made their own.  Blondie perverted disco, Talking Heads appropriated funk and African rhythms, but Television built themselves on entwined guitar melodies, twisted leads, and a bizarre sense of trained music theory.  A lot of Marquee Moon could be described as “prog-garage” – nicotine stained, recorded lo-fi, but very obviously put together by people who knew their instruments well and knew how to wring disturbed passion out of them to a great extent.  Contrast that with Sid Vicious, who didn’t have the first idea how to play even a bass guitar.  Secondly, the lyrics were obscured, comprised of snippets of poetry, impressionist prose, and a balance between urban and rural sensibilities that mixed insider Manhattan references with boats, oceans, and caves.  Contrast that to the straightforward “I’m so bored of the USA” of the Clash, or even the “SCREAMING BLOODY FUCKING MESS” of the Sex Pistols, and you start to wonder what Verlaine and Television have in common with the rest of their scene.  The truth is that they share a time and a place, and that’s about it.  Marquee Moon, in terms of pure musicianship, a cut above the rest.


One consequence of this has been that Marquee Moon has been been relegated to an also-ran status, a remembrance that is more obscure than luminaries like the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones.  The album sold poorly at the time (only 80,000 copies) and the band only recorded one follow-up before disbanding.  While critics have always held it in high esteem, it wasn’t until The Strokes reintroduced the world to NYC punk in 2001 that people seemed to really start discussing the band in a wider sense.  The internet may have helped with this as well; certainly very few pre-internet publications would have ranked it to a level that the users of Rate Your Music have (#28 on the all-time list).  Either way, The Strokes’ love of Television’s guitar leads gave Marquee Moon new life, and deservedly so.  It’s influence was felt more subtly before then anyway:  The Edge considers them an influence, as does Joey Santiago (The Pixies), John Fruisciante (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stephen Morris (Joy Division), and Will Sergeant (Echo & The Bunnymen).  Chances are you’ve heard something that originally derived from a line on Marquee Moon, you’ve just never realized it before – unless you’re a Strokes fan, and then it’s been beaten into your head from day one.


China: 20 Years of Ixnay On The Hombre


The Offspring – Ixnay On The Hombre

Released February 4th, 1997 on Columbia Records

Ixnay On The Hombre is hilarious largely because it’s the only instance I can name of a punk rock band accidentally selling out.  Having blown up modern rock radio with 1994’s Smash, the major label sharks were absolutely circling, but Dexter Holland and The Offspring were having none of it.  They were resolutely committed to staying on Epitaph Records, not being mainstream poster boys for punk rock, and churning out more albums.  Unfortunately for them, Epitaph was/is owned by The Legendary Sellout, Brett Gurewitz.


After Smash became a surprise runaway success, Gurewitz was looking to sell out to a major label for some cash.  To hear Holland tell the story, Gurewitz met with literally everyone in his quest to sell punk to the corporate stooges.  Gurewitz approached the Offspring three times asking if they wanted their contract sold to a major label; each time the band refused.  Eventually Gurewitz just sold the contract to Columbia anyway, because money reigns over punk rock.  Later in the year he would check himself into rehab for heroin addiction.  Make of that what you will.


So, The Offspring were on a major label, unwilling to return to Epitaph because of Gurewitz and possessed of major label money all of a sudden.  What’s a California pop-punk band to do?  They recorded a poppier version of Smash and labelled it “Fuck The Man” in Pig Latin.  For some reason Jello Biafra is on the “Disclaimer” at the beginning of the record, even though there’s some compelling reasons to shy away from a purist label of “punk” for Ixnay.  “Gone Away”, “I Choose”, and “Don’t Pick It Up” are all purely radio songs:  a ballad stuck halfway between skate punk and grunge, a blatant skater hook, and a ska song were all guaranteed radio play in 1997.  Still, there are some definite moments that point to the band that recorded Ignition and Smash:  “The Meaning Of Life” and “Mota” blaze along at a clip, “Cool To Hate” satirizes nihilist punk kids in the middle of a nihilist punk song, and “All I Want” fits a scorched earth into just under two minutes.  Also of note is “Change The World”, which seems to be written precisely at Brett Gurewitz.


What’s also interesting is the sense that some of the songs are replicated one album later with an extra dose of major label pop sheen pasted over them.  “Way Down The Line” is pretty much the same song as “The Kids Aren’t Alright”:  “This kid sucks and this kid sucks and this kid had a kid and sucks, LIFE SUCKS!”  Take away the slight groove of “I Choose” and the basic pattern for “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)” emerges.  The ska-pop tone of “Don’t Pick It Up”  comes through the wash as the borderline-asshole snark of “Why Don’t You Get A Job?”  The band was trying to figure out a way to keep true to their sound here, but they would tread water and eventually just embrace their role as that California pop band that was sorta punk but not really.


Ruby: 40 Years of Rumours


Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Released February 4th, 1977 on Warner Bros. Records

BestEverAlbums:  #32

RYM:  #212

Rumours is the sound of a band turning internecine warfare into pure pop gold. It’s also the culmination of one of the more interesting careers in rock ‘n’ roll history.


Way back in the mid-1960s, Eric Clapton left  John Mayall & the Bluesbreakers, and he was replaced by Peter Green, who was one hell of a blues guitarist.  After some lineup shuffles, the Bluesbreakers would be John Mayall, Peter Green, bassist John McVie, and drummer Mick Fleetwood.  After Green left the band in mid-1967, he and Fleetwood formed a band with slide guitarist Jeremy Spencer and named it after an instrumental the Bluesbreakers had recorded, “Fleetwood Mac”.  Once John McVie joined they recorded an album, Fleetwood Mac, and it achieved quite a bit of success in their native Britain.  By 1969, however, Green was developing symptoms of schizophrenia and he would end up leaving the group; in 1971 Spencer would disappear on tour and turn up living with the infamous California cult Children Of God. John McVie’s wife Christine joined the band as keyboardist and vocalist, and a number of other musicians were tried out in the early 1970s.  Around 1974-75 the group of Fleetwood and the McVies merged with a group calling themselves Buckingham Nicks, consisting of Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks.  This iteration of Fleetwood Mac was not a blues group; 1975’s Fleetwood Mac was very much a  pop record, a complete 180 from 1968’s Fleetwood Mac.


By 1977, though, the group was tearing itself apart.  The McVies broke up, and remained only on speaking terms while in the studio discussing music.  Buckingham and Nicks were in a convulsive on-again-off-again relationship that only ever seemed to mend itself when they were writing songs together.  Mick Fleetwood found out that his wife and his best friend were having an affair behind his back.  To deal with all of this heartache and bitterness and recrimination, the band did an astounding amount of drugs, even by the standards of the late Seventies.  Studio sessions would begin around 7 in the evening and around 2 AM, when the band was finally so coked-out that they could only pick up instruments and play, they would begin to actually record.  Albums recorded in this fashion tend to be somewhat hit and miss.  Station To Station and Hotel California were both recorded in the midst of blizzards, so to speak, but then again so were Vol. 4 and Be Here Now.  Rumours falls squarely in the first category and in a very real sense defines it.  There is no reason that an album recorded through a lens of residual anger and strong stimulants should sound so goddamn breezy, but here we are.  It is the purest expression of Seventies AM pop ever committed to tape, and as such it is little wonder that virtually every single track on the album has ended up enshrined forever on the radio to a greater or lesser degree.


Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller, when the entire album is scratched into your soul how do you pick out any particular tracks as being superior to the others?  Which is the best?  Is it the finger-popping Cali-country melody of “Second Hand News”?  Is it the moody Nicks compositions, “Dreams”, “I Don’t Want To Know”, or the harrowing “Gold Dust Woman”?  Is it the hopeful freedom of Christine McVie’s “Don’t Stop” or “You Make Loving Fun”, or perhaps the sorrowful state of her relationship with her ex-husband, encapsulated on “Oh, Daddy”?  Is it the come-together moment of the entire group on “The Chain”, a song that seems to air all of their grievances at once in a moment of partial exorcism?  Picking is impossible, and the 39 minute runtime seems all too short to have appreciated the entirety; whenever I listen to Rumours, I find myself needing to listen to it twice just to appreciate all the subtleties the group worked into the songs.  Chuck Klosterman might not think there’s any approach to greatness in these songs, but I don’t think that Klosterman has ever listened to them on a fragrant summer night when the wind is in your hair and the girl beside you is holding your hand in just the right fashion.